No Soundness in My Flesh

O YHWH, rebuke me not in thy wrath / Neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure (Psalm 38:1).

Illness exposes our weakness and fragility in ways we would rather deny or forget. We would rather figure out reasons why we surely would not be called upon to thus suffer and explain the illnesses of others as somehow based upon their particular plight or as the consequences of their behavior. Far more seem ready to provide some kind of ready-made cure than to sit in lament with the one enduring illness.

At some point in his life David experienced great distress from some kind of illness, or gave voice to the people of God to express great distress from illness before God, in Psalm 38:1-22. The psalm is reckoned as one “to bring to remembrance,” begging God to pay attention and to deliver. David called on YHWH to not rebuke him in His wrath or to chasten him in His displeasure (Psalm 38:1). David acutely felt affliction, and he deemed it as having come from God; in his flesh there was no soundness or health in his bones because of his sin (Psalm 38:2-3). His sins were many and too heavy a burden for him; he has infected wounds on account of his foolishness (Psalm 38:5). David felt numb in the crushing weight he experienced, crying out with moaning in heart (Psalm 38:6-8). David appealed to God who understood his heart and heard his groaning: his strength was failing, and even though his adversaries plotted against him and friends and family avoided him, he was as a deaf or mute man, incapable of making a defense (Psalm 38:9-14). David waited for YHWH, expecting a response: he prayed for deliverance lest his enemies gloat over him and taunt him (Psalm 38:15-16). David felt great pain and was concerned he was about to stumble, thus he confessed his sin (Psalm 38:17-18). David begged for God not to abandon him or remain far from him, but desired the Lord to hurry to help and deliver him (Psalm 38:20-22).

It would not be wise for us to attempt to ascertain exactly when or how David experienced this affliction so as to identify what sins David might have committed to lead to his condition. No such information is revealed; even if it had, we must always remember that David never spoke only for himself in the psalms, but wrote to give voice to the people of God to bring their distress, concerns, and praise before Him. We can imagine many Israelites having reason to come to the Temple and proclaim Psalm 38:1-22, or most of it, before YHWH: afflicted terribly with some disease, looking for deliverance and healing from God, and thus humbling themselves in lament and confession of sin so nothing would come between them and God.

David strongly considered illness the consequence for sin and iniquity. He had good reason to do so. David numbered Israel and saw God’s plague cut down thousands of his people in response (2 Samuel 24:1-17). In the Law Israel was promised they would be protected from sickness and would not suffer the plagues YHWH imposed upon Egypt if they remained faithful to the covenant (Deuteronomy 7:15); the curse which would come for disobeying the covenant included sickness (Leviticus 26:16). In judgment YHWH sent plague against Israel, but they would not listen (Amos 4:10); plague would be among the means by which YHWH judged Jerusalem and Judah (Ezekiel 5:12). To this end Jesus’ disciples simply conveyed the normal assumptions and expectations of Israelites during the Second Temple when they asked Jesus whether it had been the man himself or his parents who had sinned, leading to his blindness (John 9:2).

Such a perspective about illness does not sit well with us today. We are uncomfortable with those who to this day make the naïve proclamation that health displays the favor of God and illness God’s disfavor, and for good reason. Plenty of wicked people maintain good health throughout their lives; many righteous people have suffered terribly from sickness and illness. According to Jesus neither the man born blind himself nor his parents so sinned as to lead to his condition: his blindness was given as the means by which God’s actions would be revealed to the world (John 9:3). Illness might come about from a host of reasons not directly connected with any given transgression by its sufferer: environmental conditions, a pandemic, a result of stress or trauma, and so on. Few sights prove as devastating and heart wrenching as seeing small children undergoing treatment for cancer or other major illnesses: they suffer greatly and yet have not personally participated in any sin or transgression.

Yet perhaps modern Westerners have proven a little too eager to disassociate illness from sin. Illness is part of the corruption of the creation introduced with sin (cf. Romans 5:12-21, 8:18-23). We have no quarrel with germ theory; we appreciate the benefits of modern epidemiology and the greater quality of life made possible by the elimination or significant reduction of many diseases. And yet, as we live in a more sanitized culture, we see the development of autoimmune conditions and “superbugs” which are becoming antibiotic resistant. As long as we live in the broken, corrupted creation of the present, illness will be with us in some way or form.

Christians do well to take another look at Psalm 38:1-22 as they consider illness, themselves, and others. We might be far removed from David’s worldview, and that might be at least partly to our own harm. We tend not to think much of illness until we suffer it ourselves or hear about the suffering of others. When we are confronted with the prospect of illness, we have a tendency to respond in shock, anger, and bitterness; we rarely look to ourselves the way David did.

Yet perhaps the greater warning from Psalm 38:1-22 ought to come to those who do not presently suffer as much from illness. After all, why is it that so many people are invested in attempting to ascertain what sin it might have been that led to an illness? Why do so many seek out the right behavior, supplement, or oil and regard them as having almost magical powers? We humans desperately look for reasons to explain why “they” are ill to reassure ourselves that “we” will not succumb. Jesus addressed a similar challenge in Luke 13:1-5 when informed of recent news about how Pilate mingled the blood of some people with their sacrifices, with the intent to understand that such people must have sinned in some way so as to bring that fate upon them: He declared that they were no more or less sinful than anyone else, and if His audience did not repent, they would likewise perish.

So much of what we do in the face of illness is a reflection of our deep anxiety about the prospect of suffering and/or death. We do not like the cold, hard reality: we are all sinners and all have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and we may suffer from illness no matter how healthily we live, eat, or behave. We may go through our lives without enduring many difficult or challenging illnesses; our lives might prove to be a never ending parade of various illnesses or marked by a chronic condition. No one automatically deserves health or illness; if we escape, we may be fortunate, but if we suffer, it is part of the corruption of the creation, and it is our lot.

In all such things we do well to return to the words God has given us to speak to Him. David is giving us a voice to beg God for forgiveness of our sins and to acknowledge that our illness is a result of sin, even if it is not the result of any individual specific sin we may have committed in Psalm 38:1-22. David understood the most important thing in the face of illness is to maintain relational unity with God and to clear out any sin, foolishness, or difficulty which might get in the way of that relationship. Note well that David never associated his illness with any specific sin: his illness reminded him that he did have sin and transgression, and did not want to have to stand before God in His fierce anger. Neither should we.

In the “new heavens” and the “new earth” John envisioned no more death, and no more pain, crying, or mourning anymore; in such a place illness can have no place (Revelation 21:4). We eagerly await that day. Until then, we do well to turn to God and put our trust in Him whether in sickness or in health, and seek healing from Him in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The End of Their World

“And when I shall extinguish thee, I will cover the heavens, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land,” saith the Lord YHWH (Ezekiel 32:7-8).

You either flock to “apocalyptic” passages of Scripture or prove at least a little apprehensive about them. They look weird. Hollywood could take notes on what is portrayed.

Many are convinced no such passage has been yet fulfilled since we have not seen such cosmic signs in the sky. Yet maintaining such an expectation unnecessarily literalizes prophetic imagery, creates impossible expectations, and misses out on the prophet’s main lesson. People read apocalyptic passages and expect the end of the world; the prophet is warning the people regarding the end of their world.

Ezekiel’s message regarding Egypt in Ezekiel 32:7-8 can help us better understand the nature of such “apocalyptic” prophecies. From 587 until 585 Ezekiel received a series of messages against Pharaoh and the Egyptians; one such message came in 570 and represents the final prophecy given by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 29:1-32:32). Ezekiel’s prophecy against Egypt remained consistent throughout: YHWH would send the king of Babylon and his army against Pharaoh and his host, Pharaoh would be humiliated, the people would suffer exile, and Egypt would no longer rise as a kingdom among the nations. Ezekiel 32:7-8 is given in this context; in Ezekiel 32:11, he explicitly associated this “apocalyptic” message with the promise of the arrival of the king of Babylon against Egypt.

This “apocalypse,” therefore, was expected quite soon. Nebuchadnezzar did send a Chaldean Babylonian army against Egypt in 567 to help deposed Pharaoh Wahibre (Apries) regain his throne against the upstart Ahmose II (Amasis). The invasion proved unsuccessful. The Egyptians would not experience an exile in the way Ezekiel originally promised, but the “apocalypse” would come upon their land: Ahmose’s son Psamtik III would be defeated by Cambyses king of Persia in 525, deposed, and exiled to Susa. Egypt would be incorporated into the Persian Empire, and beyond a brief stint of home rule in the 4th century BCE, would continue to serve as a pawn for successive empires until 1953 of our own era.

For us today such a conclusion might seem underwhelming, and not much of a fulfillment. It does not seem sufficiently dramatic to us. Yet consider the situation from Ezekiel’s own perspective. When he was born around 622 BCE the world around him remained as it had been for the better part of 500 years: sure, the kingdoms of Israel and Aram had fallen to the Assyrians, but the Assyrians still ruled, Babylon laid in wait, Jerusalem stood, and Egypt remained as it had been for millennia. A visitor from a few centuries earlier would have recognized that world. By the time Ezekiel received these messages from YHWH, Assyria had fallen, no longer a going concern; Chaldean Babylon was now ascendant; Jerusalem had been destroyed. Within another century Persia, in Ezekiel’s day one among many peoples subject to the Medes, would conquer the known world, eliminating both Babylon and Egypt as independent nations. This was a completely new world; nothing like it had ever been seen. Surely the collapse of the Late Bronze Age kingdoms proved more catastrophic, and yet even then Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt remained. Babylon had been founded in 2300 BCE; Assyria, 2500; Egypt, 3100. Within one century all would fall, never to rise again. All of them had in their own way oppressed Israel the people of God; all of them were denounced by the prophets; all thus endured the Day of YHWH.

Therefore, even though by our standards we might find it hard to accept these “apocalyptic” prophecies met their fulfillment, the historical evidence makes it difficult to argue otherwise. Assyria was at the apex of its power under Ashurbanipal who died in 631 BCE; who could imagine it would be destroyed 20 years later? Josiah of Judah oversaw a renaissance in Judah; within 25 years of his death Jerusalem and its Temple would be destroyed, and the Davidic Kingdom of Judah would never rise again. Nebuchadnezzar presided in Babylon as king of the world; within 25 years it would all become the possession of a king and a nation which was not even an independent force when he died. Ahmose II and his fellow pharaohs of the Twenty-Sixth dynasty presumed to restore the glory of Egypt and imitated Old Kingdom art; yet Egypt in their day would become subject to distant foreigners, and would remain so for about as long as it had enjoyed independence. All of these collapses happened suddenly. The world had not ended; but their world was gone, never to return.

If we understand the gravity of the events which took place between 625 and 525 BCE, we would recognize how imagery like the sun, moon, and stars turning dark is more than appropriate. Everything the people of the nations had taken for granted for centuries, if not millennia, was suddenly overturned. For anyone who was invested in the status quo which had developed in the first half of the first millennium BCE the events proved to be an unmitigated disaster.

No one would come out the same. Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and the small surrounding nations would undergo Hellenization after the conquest of Alexander the Great, syncretizing their cultural and religious ideologies with those of the Greeks. Some Judahites would return from Babylonian exile, yet they would not return to the syncretized ways of their ancestors; Second Temple Judaism would prove as uniquely distinct from the practices of the days of the Solomonic Temple as it would from the Judaism which developed after the second Temple was destroyed.

Such is how it goes with “apocalypses.” The world does not end, but the world will never be the same again. A world has come to an end.

As Christians we confess Jesus as Lord of lords and King of kings; we recognize the nations of the world are empowered by God but enslave themselves to the powers and principalities over this present darkness (Romans 13:1, Ephesians 6:12, Revelation 13:1-18, 19:16). We look forward to the day on which the Lord Jesus will return and fully defeat death, the final enemy, and receive unto Himself all of every nation who serves Him, and to share in eternity in the resurrection of life (1 Corinthians 15:20-58, Revelation 20:11-22:6). In the meantime we have every confidence that the nations and their fates remain in the hands of God just as they did in the days of the prophets; the fact John can see judgments on Rome in terms of the judgments against the nations according to the prophets provides such testimony.

To this end we might well experience “apocalypses” as we await the ultimate Apocalypse, the final appearance of Jesus, the Son of Man and Risen Lord. These “apocalypses” are not the end of the world, but they will represent the end of a world. They might be personal in nature; they might afflict a particular group of people; they may afflict a nation or the entire world. In these times things people took for granted and assumed to be predictable become so no longer. What used to be “normal” becomes impossible. Life might well go on for many, but it will not look like it did before.

God has never promised to remove us from such forms of distress, but He has left us the same promise He has always left His people in difficult times. He will strengthen and sustain us through whatever we must endure, but only if we turn to Him and cling to Him as our refuge and strength. Ultimately we have no basis in confidence and reliance on any thing in this creation, and “apocalypses” remind us of this: they all fade and fall apart (1 Peter 1:23-25). At the same time, nothing in the creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:31-39): no force can tear us away from God. In Christ we can endure anything as long as we maintain our faith and trust in Him come what may.

No one ever asked to live through an “apocalypse.” No one wants to experience a day and time in which metaphors of cosmic dislocation seem just about right or perhaps even a little understated. And yet according to God’s sovereign purposes such times come upon mankind. They end a world; but they have not yet ended the world. They have often allowed for transformation and new life to grow. Whether we live in times of comfort or distress, stability or “apocalypse,” we do well to maintain our confidence in God in Christ, and not in anything He has made, and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Mystery

Whereby, when ye read, ye can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ; which in other generations was not made known unto the sons of men, as it hath now been revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to wit, that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs, and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Ephesians 3:4-6).

A lot of people enjoy a good mystery.

When most people today think of a “mystery,” they tend to think of some sort of problem or conundrum to solve. Books and television programs in the “mystery” genre involve complex stories which some enterprising detective or group of people must sort out in order to find the truth; Sherlock Holmes is the paragon of this kind of “mystery.” For years one of the most popular shows on television was Unsolved Mysteries, featuring stories about everything from ghosts to fraud, murder to lost treasures, and all with the conceit that maybe you, the viewer, had the piece of evidence needed to solve the mystery.

We can understand, therefore, why many people come to the Bible, read about the “mystery of Christ,” and conclude that it, too, is a problem or conundrum for us to solve, and seek to go about trying to figure out how to make sense of it all using reason, deductive logic, and exploration. In the Bible, however, a “mystery” is something of a very different nature.

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul has been setting forth the overwhelming and humbling blessings and power which God has displayed toward us through Jesus in the Spirit (Ephesians 1:1-2:22). He had previously declared that God had made known the mystery of His will to Christians (Ephesians 1:9), and he decided it was important to take a moment to explain this mystery in more detail (Ephesians 3:1-3). In Ephesians 3:4-6 Paul came out with it: the mystery of Christ is that Gentiles are fellow-heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers in the promise of Jesus in the Gospel. This is a mystery which was not made known to people in previous generations, but now has been revealed to the apostles and prophets in the Spirit.

The substance of the mystery may seem dull and obvious to us; such is the case only because we have learned to take it for granted. It was not at all obvious, dull, or evident to anyone in the first century. Welcoming Gentiles as joint participants in Jesus while still Gentile caused great controversy among many of the Jewish Christians, and many Jewish Christians refused to accept it as true, and strove diligently to convince Gentile Christians to submit to circumcision and the Law of Moses (cf. Acts 15:1-29, Galatians 1:6-5:16).

For that matter, it was not even immediately apparent or obvious to the apostles and prophets of Christianity in the first century that the message of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return should be proclaimed among the nations as it was in Israel. It required an angel visiting Cornelius, a vision from the Lord Jesus to Simon Peter, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his associates to convince Peter and the Jewish Christians with him that God intended for the Gentiles to receive the repentance that leads to life, and that only after the Gospel had been proclaimed to the Israelites for a time (Acts 10:1-11:18). The deliberations of the council in Jerusalem required Peter’s witness regarding these previous events, the report of Paul and Barnabas regarding the powerful signs and miracles God wrought in Christ among the Gentiles of Asia Minor, and the interpretation of the prophetic message by James the Lord’s brother to secure the agreement among all that indeed, the Gentiles were to be accepted and welcomed as Gentiles, and they did not have to submit to the customs of the Law of Moses to enter God’s covenant in Christ (Acts 15:1-29).

Paul’s whole point in Ephesians 3:4-6 is how nobody figured out the Gospel on their own. We have yet to find any evidence within Second Temple Judaism of the expectation of a Messiah to arise in Israel, growing up in Galilee, serving and doing good, dying on a cross, being raised on the third day, and ascending to receive an eternal dominion from God to fulfill all of what God had promised, let alone that the message of said Messiah would also be proclaimed among the Gentiles to allow Jewish and Gentile people to become reconciled into one body in God in the Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:1-22). Not only did no one think it would happen this way, no one would have wanted it to happen this way. This was not the deliverance for which Israel sought; this was not the way of redemption which those among the nations imagined.

The impoverishment of the modern mind is evident in the claim of many scholars that Christianity is the innovation of the earliest followers of Jesus, as if somehow the despondent disciples of Jesus suddenly came up with this whole narrative about resurrection, ascension, and proclamation to all the nations on their own. Such is a fabulous tale, without any kind of warrant from anything that came before, and indeed requires more faith to believe than to accept the story as written!

The “mystery” of the New Testament and the “mysteries” of books and television shows all do share a common origin: they are things that are veiled. Yet the means of unveiling could hardly be more different. In the world, mysteries are unveiled through human discovery, reason, logic, and exploration; in Christ, mysteries are unveiled when God reveals their substance to His servants.

As Christians we have much for which to be thankful regarding the mystery of Christ. Most of us today come from the nations, and not Israel according to the flesh, and our ability to have access to God and stand before Him is entirely dependent on not only what God has done in Jesus but also in the revelation that God’s work in Christ was equally effective for us among the nations if we would put our trust in Him (Ephesians 2:11-3:13).

Yet this mystery of God in Christ is instructive for us, and it is a lesson we must learn and proclaim today: we humans will never figure out God’s mysteries on our own without Him making them known through His apostles and prophets. This message was set forth and proclaimed in the first century; it has been revealed once for all (1 Corinthians 13:8-10, Jude 1:3). Whatever is difficult to understand will remain difficult to understand until the Lord’s return. Whatever has been left without a lot of detail will remain without a lot of detail. Whatever questions were left unanswered will remain unanswered. As humans we can learn about what God has made known through the apostles and prophets; we can use reason and logic, paired with humility, faith, and prayer for strength, to come to a better understanding of what God has made known through the apostles and prophets regarding the Gospel. We can even learn more about the historical and cultural contexts of the Scriptures so as to provide more depth and color to why God spoke as He did, but that never means that we could add to what God has already made known.

Ever since the Lord arose from the dead there have been many who have claimed to have obtained special knowledge, either through esoteric interpretations of Biblical texts, cunning schemes involving human innovation and worldly wisdom, or the belief in some kind of conspiracy which has hindered people from knowing the truth. All such people treat the mystery of God in Christ as a problem or conundrum to be solved, when in fact the mystery of God in Christ is something God has made known through His apostles and prophets. If God wanted something to be made known, He would have clearly made it known through His apostles and prophets. If there is something which God has not made known through His apostles and prophets, it is something which is not for us to know. Perhaps it is beyond our capacity of knowledge; perhaps it serves no good purpose.

God’s power is made evident in His work of liberating everyone from the forces of sin and death through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return; this is not a story people would make up on their own, but something God has made known through His apostles and prophets. God’s mysteries are not for us to solve; it is for us to trust in God’s goodness, power, and love so that we can humbly learn and accept what He has made known, and let be all that remains the secret things of God. God has made provision for all people to become one in Jesus through the Spirit; may we participate in God’s work in Christ and take hold of that which is truly life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Persecution or Obedience

“Remember the word that I said unto you, ‘A servant is not greater than his lord.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:20).

Whenever you see a passage of Scripture providing great comfort and encouragement, look out; someone is going through trial, suffering, or persecution, or will be doing so shortly. And so it is for Jesus and His disciples.

Most of the last “half” of John’s Gospel is dedicated to Jesus’ final discourse with the eleven disciples: the discourse covers John 13:31-17:26, with the last supper before it (John 13:1-30) and His betrayal, trial, death, and resurrection covered over the last four chapters (John 18:1-21:25). This discourse has no real parallel in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; its prominent place and detail exist for a reason. These are the final words Jesus will speak to His disciples before His death and resurrection. This is His final chance to speak a word of encouragement and exhortation to them, and He took full advantage of the opportunity.

Jesus explained the reason for His departure and assured and comforted the disciples with the promise of the Comforter and the ability to ask of God (John 13:31-15:17). This comfort and assurance would prove necessary, for within a matter of hours the disciples would see Jesus led away in betrayal; He would be humiliated in a show trial; He would endure derision, scourging, and crucifixion, the most agonizing form of execution imaginable (John 18:1-19:30). The disciples would be scattered and left to sort out just what happened.

Such is what would happen to their Lord; and, as Jesus had told them, a servant is not greater than his lord (John 15:20; cf. John 13:16). Such was not intended to be a news flash; the disciples were perfectly aware that servants are not greater than their lord. Jesus did not speak of hierarchies; He spoke of associations and connections. The disciples of Jesus should not expect to receive better treatment than Jesus. And they would see how their people and the world would treat Jesus, and that would give plenty of room for concern and fear at a time when Jesus would no longer be with them.

And so Jesus gave them warning in advance. Those who would persecute Jesus would persecute His disciples as well (John 15:20), and it would come to pass. The disciples would be hauled before the same Sanhedrin which condemned Jesus (Acts 5:17-42); many would suffer humiliation, violence, and ultimately death from Jewish and Gentile authorities alike (e.g. Acts 7:54-60, 12:1-5). This was not exactly the fate they would have thought they signed up for when beginning to follow Jesus as the Christ; they were more likely expecting prime seats and power in Jesus’ new government. Yet Jesus was not the Christ they, or the Israelites, were really expecting; nevertheless, He was the Christ sent from God, and the Messiah Israel, and the whole world, truly needed.

The Apostles would be first in line to proclaim what God had accomplished in Jesus, and those who did or would have listened to Jesus would listen to them (John 15:20). After Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, His Kingdom movement numbered around 120 (cf. Acts 1:15); at this point, no one would consider this mission to be much of a success. Yet, within days, 120 would become over 3,000; within a few years, tens of thousands of Israelites had come to believe the Gospel of Jesus proclaimed by the Apostles and submitted to the doctrines taught by the Apostles (cf. Acts 2:41-9:31). The Gospel would then be proclaimed, and believed upon, by people of the nations around the Roman world, ultimately overcoming the mighty Roman Empire. The preaching of the Apostles set off a movement which would turn the world upside down, but a servant is not greater than his lord. All of it was only made possible because Jesus is Lord and Christ (Matthew 28:18-20).

Christians today did not follow Jesus as He lived in Galilee and Judea, yet we have put our confidence and our hope in Jesus as our Lord (Acts 2:36). If Jesus is our Lord, and we are His servants, then we also are not greater than our Lord. Powerful forces conspired to marginalize Jesus, and failing that, humiliated and killed Him. If they did so to Jesus, they will do the same to us. Through tribulation Christians enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22); if we are truly godly in Christ Jesus, we will encounter persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). We must always be prepared to endure persecution for confessing the name of Jesus and embodying His life and truth. We must also be prepared to embody Jesus in that persecution: not in immaturity wondering how it could be, lash out in anger or fear, or put our hope and confidence in some kind of strongman to wrestle back some cultural supremacy, but to absorb the humiliation, suffering, and pain without responding in kind, entrusting ourselves to a faithful Creator and doing good, just as our Lord did (1 Peter 2:18-25, 4:19). We can only hope to be glorified like Jesus if we have suffered like Jesus; the way to Zion is through Calvary, and we have no reason to believe God will build us a bypass around Calvary to get to Zion.

While we must always be prepared to endure persecution, we cannot treat everyone with whom we come into contact as if they are going to be a persecutor. Not everything called persecution is actually persecution; not all disagreement and resistance is automatically persecution. Some will persecute; others will hear. How can those who would hear listen if we have assumed they would be persecutors and treated them accordingly? Jesus knew what the persecutors would do to Him, and yet He still preached and served among the Israelites, seeking to save whoever would come to Him (cf. Luke 19:10). Those who would follow Him must embody the same attitude: persecutors may come. Yet others would hear, if only someone would tell them.

Jesus worked not only to assure and comfort His disciples in His final discourse, but also to prepare them for their commission as Apostles. We are not the Apostles, but we have been commissioned to bear witness to the testimony of the Apostles regarding Jesus (2 Timothy 2:2). Those who would persecute Jesus and the Apostles will most likely persecute us, and we must be prepared for that. Yet those who would keep Jesus’ word, and the word of the Apostles, will most likely hear us and keep the word of God which is proclaimed to them. May we seek to embody faithfulness to Jesus whether before those who would persecute us or those who would obey Jesus, bear witness to Jesus, and obtain the victory in Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Anthems

Oh give thanks unto YHWH; for he is good / For his lovingkindness endureth for ever (Psalm 136:1).

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Behold, the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key: made the United States national anthem. For many it is a stirring song of potential and hope. Admit it: when you read it, the tune played in your head.

Now let us use our imaginations: 3,000 years have passed by. Over time people have forgotten the nature of tunes and music of our times, and controversy exists over what exactly the musical notation found on many old documents means. And yet the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner have been preserved, as has the story of the song’s origin: Francis Scott Key was imprisoned by the British in 1813 and composed it while watching the shelling of Fort McHenry near Baltimore after Washington, D.C. had already been burned to the ground.

Try to again read the lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner as just text on a page, without playing the tune in your head, just like our imagined students of the past 3,000 years from now might have to do. A natural reaction might be: what kind of national anthem is that? A dangerous war; bombs bursting in the air; rockets flying around; and oh, by the way, does the United States flag still fly over America? It almost sounds like an existential crisis, which the War of 1812 really was for a time. How would you explain the feeling of perseverance and confidence in the future we have associated with the song without making reference to how the song is sung and how the tune communicates those feelings? It would be very difficult indeed to communicate what The Star-Spangled Banner means to Americans by just looking at its lyrics on a page.

A similar difficulty is very real for us today when it comes to the Psalms. We have the lyrics to the Psalms; some words have been preserved which provide some kind of musical direction, although their exact meaning and nature are in dispute. We know that many were set to tunes which had names and were known to its original audience, but the sound of those tunes has been lost for generations. All we have now are words on a page.

Psalm 136:1-26 might prove exasperating to a reader: it is a call and response psalm, and the response is always the same: literally, “for His hesed to forever,” with hesed meaning “covenant loyalty” and often translated as “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love,” and a verb added for understanding (“endures,” “is”). The call exhorts Israel to give thanks to YHWH as God of gods and Lord of lords (Psalm 136:1-3); declares YHWH as the Creator of all things (Psalm 136:4-9); reminds Israel how God delivered them from Egypt, through the Wilderness, and gave them victory so as to conquer the land (Psalm 136:10-22); assures them how YHWH will remember them in their low estate, will deliver them from their enemies, and cause them to prosper in the land (Psalm 136:23-25); and ends as it began, a call to give thanks to YHWH (Psalm 136:26; cf. Psalm 136:1). The modern reader may see such a psalm, read over it quickly, perhaps even skipping over the repetitive response, and move on without much thought.

Yet what would Psalm 136:1-26 represent for Israel? It looks very much like an anthem, something for them akin to our The Star-Spangled Banner. It is a song of praise and thanksgiving to God for all He has done for Israel, providing a continual reminder of how God’s covenant loyalty has delivered Israel thus far. God has the power above all powers; God is the Creator; God has rescued Israel and sustained Israel. Whether in the days of David, Josiah, Zechariah, or Jesus, Psalm 136:1-26 would remind Israel who they are and their complete dependence on God for all things.

We can only imagine what the tune might have been or how the call and response would have sounded like in ancient Israel. It is possible that it was sung or chanted like a funeral dirge, but that seems unlikely. Perhaps the volume escalated in a crescendo, becoming quite the raucous sound by the end. But we can be sure that it would have been powerful and meaningful for Israel, just like The Star-Spangled Banner is for Americans.

As we read and meditate upon the Psalms, we must never forget how lively and powerful they were for Israel. They deserve better than a quick skimming and moving on. There is deep faith, life, and hope in the Psalms for the people of God, and they remain a deep reservoir for us as we go through the joys and difficulties in life. May we also give thanks to God, for His covenant loyalty endures forever in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Prophetic History

Yet YHWH testified unto Israel, and unto Judah, by every prophet, and every seer, saying, “Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”
Notwithstanding, they would not hear, but hardened their neck, like to the neck of their fathers, who believed not in YHWH their God (2 Kings 17:13-14).

It is said that history is written by the winners. Such is true also of Israel, but for very different reasons.

Some presume that the story of history can be narrated fully and objectively. Such is a fool’s errand; no historical narrative can be comprehensive. History is only ever written for a purpose: whatever story is told has a reason behind it. Perhaps that reason is to set forth the basic timeline of events for a given nation, person, etc; perhaps the story is told with a particular focus, slant, or even bias. Some details will be left out; some details will be emphasized. The later reader may be frustrated by these decisions, wanting to know what has been left unsaid and skeptical regarding that which has been emphasized. And yet, since all retelling of history has a purpose, we do well to understand what the purpose of any specific historical narrative is and reflect upon why it was considered important.

All of this proves especially true with the story of Israel in the days of the kings. 1 and 2 Kings do not read like your average historical narrative about a nation. Some of Israel’s glorious achievements are recounted, but the text mostly focuses on the relative faithfulness (or lack thereof) of the kings to YHWH, certain events which took place during those reigns, especially as they relate to the prophets and the kings. We learn next to nothing regarding some kings; for other kings we have their activities laid out in great detail. The narrative throughout is clearly biased. What are we to make of it?

The Kings author was not shy or secretive about his motivations. Having recounted the fall of the northern Kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians in 722 BCE, he broke into the narrative with an extended explanation of precisely why Israel, and later Judah, would fall and be exiled (2 Kings 17:7-23). He indicted them for their faithlessness toward YHWH, their idolatry, and their conformity to the other nations. And he made sure everyone knew that Israel under the kings knew better: YHWH had warned them about the consequences of their behaviors through the prophets, and encouraged them to repent and follow YHWH’s commandments, but they did not listen (2 Kings 17:13-14).

This is not your ordinary historical narrative! Not one king comes out as the ideal, shining hero: the Samuel author recounts David’s transgression with Bathsheba and Uriah and its fallout (2 Samuel 11:1-20:26); Solomon’s idolatry on account of his wives is made plain (1 Kings 11:1-8); the failings of the rest of the otherwise faithful kings are not hidden. These are not the boastful proclamations of the kind written for Ramses II, or Sennacherib, or Cyrus; this history of Israel did celebrate their empire in the days of David and Solomon, yet maintained its focus on the transgressions of the nation. Why?

In the Hebrew Bible 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings are part of the nevi’im, the prophets; they are considered the “former” or “historical” prophets. It was therefore never their intention to write the “normal” or “great man” version of Israelite history: for this they referred the reader to the Acts of Solomon and the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and Judah, works now lost (e.g. 1 Kings 11:41, 14:19, 14:29). Instead, the history they wrote is a prophetic history: telling the story of the kings of Israel and Judah as a warning for the people of God in and after the exile to not follow in the same pattern of disobedience.

We can know this because the final form of 1 and 2 Kings was composed in the days of the exile: they most likely used documentation from the chronicles mentioned above, and YHWH directed them to write the story as they wrote it. 1 and 2 Kings are their own form of lament: in them the transgressions of the fathers are explicitly identified and not justified; the book was written to leave no doubt in the mind of the reader as to why Israel was cast off. All socio-political explanations, of which many can be adduced, ultimately fall short for Israel: yes, they suffered the fate of the other nations, but only because they had abandoned their unique heritage in YHWH and had become just like all the other nations. And YHWH handed them over to their desires.

This story would sustain Israel in faith through very difficult and trying times ahead. The Israelites would only briefly maintain independent rule over their land and would suffer existential threats in persecution. Yet they did not commit idolatry as their fathers did; they had learned the prophetic lesson from their history. They did not yearn for past days or made the past out to be rosy and wonderful; they owned up to the sins of their fathers. Whereas all of the members of other nations would get swept up in Hellenization and abandon their distinctiveness, a remnant of the Jewish people stubbornly maintained confidence in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of their forefathers and endured. Ultimately, the proclamation of YHWH’s great work in Jesus of Nazareth would overtake the Roman Empire and many parts of Mesopotamia; the descendants of the oppressors would end up calling on the name of the God of Israel. Egypt faded; Assyria was destroyed; Babylon was laid low; Persia was overrun; the Macedonians came and went; Rome would collapse; the people of God endured.

In this way the history of Israel was written by the victors: not the people who won the battles or political victories, but those who would perpetuate strong faith in YHWH and His covenant promises to Israel. To “win” meant to preserve the faith; to preserve the faith demanded an honest accounting of how the fathers failed and were cut off by YHWH, and how to serve YHWH faithfully so as to obtain the promised restoration.

The people of God to this day do well to learn from the prophetic history of the kings of Israel. Historical narratives abound which seek to glorify a given philosophy, ideology, nation-state, or some other ideal. These narratives prove very tempting to follow. Yet all such things are inherently flawed; they are creatures of the world, and they go the way of the world (Colossians 2:8-9, 1 John 2:15-17). If the people of God will obtain the victory in Christ, they can only do so by preserving the faith (Jude 1:3, Revelation 12:11); to preserve the faith demands honoring the faithfulness of those who have come before us along with an honest accounting of how we and those before us have failed to uphold the standard of Christ. We must pattern our lives according to the faithful examples of Jesus, the Apostles, and those who have believed on their Word ever since; we must take note of the ways in which those who came before us went in the ways of Israel, hardening their heart, rebelling in various ways, and patterning themselves after the nations, lest we share in the same condemnation.

History can be told in all sorts of ways; when it is all said and done, the only story which will matter is the story of God reconciling all things to Himself in Jesus, and those who trusted in Him and obtained the resurrection of life. May we prove faithful to God in how we understand the story of the people of God throughout time, trust in the Lord, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Unity of the Spirit

Giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

God accomplished amazing and stupendous things in order to create and cultivate the Church of His Son Jesus Christ. What will we do with it?

In Ephesians 2:11-3:13 Paul had highly stressed the place of the church in God’s divine economy. In the composition of the church is found the testimony of the manifold witness of God according to the eternal plan purposed in Jesus (Ephesians 3:10-11). The church is the temple of God and His household (Ephesians 2:19-22). And so, after Paul established the importance of walking worthily of the calling in Jesus (Ephesians 4:1), he then emphasized the importance of working together as the church to build it up (Ephesians 4:3-16). If we would work together as the church to build it up, we must give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

“Giving diligence” is the Greek spoudazontes, meaning to make haste, exert oneself, give diligence (Thayer’s Lexicon). A more verbal form of the same word is found in 2 Timothy 2:15 in the exhortation to be diligent to present ourselves as approved to God, workmen without needing to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. Many have made much of the King James Version’s use of “study” to translate spoudason in 2 Timothy 2:15, although in the 17th century it meant something more like “give diligence” than the modern “bookish” meaning of study. Thus Christians are as much to “study” to keep the unity of the Spirit as they are to “study” to present themselves as approved by handling the word of truth rightly. The same Apostle makes both exhortations; there is no basis on which to consider one as greater or superior to the other. There is no justification to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit at the expense of the word of truth: unity in the Spirit is grounded in the truth of what God has accomplished in Jesus, and there can be no unity when the truth of the faith is compromised (Romans 16:18-19, 1 Timothy 4:1, 6:3-10). And yet there is also no justification to be diligent to be unashamed workmen who rightly handle the word of truth at the expense of unity in the Spirit: the “word of truth” in Ephesians 2:11-3:13 declares God’s work in reconciling to Himself and to each other all who would trust in Jesus, and Paul will go on to declare the “word of truth” of the inherent unity of the body and the faith in Ephesians 4:4-6, and so any undermining of Christian unity in the Spirit is undermining the word of truth itself!

Christians are to give diligence to “keep” the unity of the Spirit. “To keep” is the Greek terein, meaning to attend to carefully, guard, keep, preserve (Thayer’s Lexicon). Christians are not the architects of unity in the faith; it is not for us to establish it, impose it, or somehow create it. On our own we hated and were hated in turn, living in the lusts of our flesh as children of wrath (Ephesians 2:2, Titus 3:3). It required Jesus’ death on the cross to kill the hostility and to provide the redemption and reconciliation we did not deserve nor could do anything to earn or merit (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:11-15). When we believe in Jesus, confess that faith in Him, repent of our sins, and are immersed in water in Jesus’ name, we are in a spiritual sense immersed into the one Spirit into the one body (1 Corinthians 12:13). God has established the unity of Christians in Jesus; God has made us all one man in Jesus through His Spirit (cf. Romans 12:3-8); we therefore cannot create or fabricate that unity. Instead, we must guard diligently the unity we already have. Tribalistic divisions, factions, and wars testify to the enduring power of hostility and hatred to this day; as Christians we are always tempted to compromise with the world, to take up the banner or the flag of various causes, peoples, and nations, and conduct ourselves in such a way as to endanger the unity of the Spirit. Our zeal is far too often misdirected, focused on the chastisement of the people of God, often majoring on the minors, rather than a critique of self and an outward push into the world to proclaim the Gospel of the Christ. Unity in the Spirit is not a default state or what we find natural; only through diligent effort will we keep the unity of the Spirit.

The unity of the Spirit is to be kept in the bond of peace. “Bond” is the Greek sundesmo, that which binds together, like a ligament in the human body (as used in Colossians 2:19), or a bundle (Thayer’s Lexicon). As ligaments connect muscles in the human body, so peace is what connects Christians in the unity of the Spirit. That peace is not the mere absence of hostility, but the elimination thereof: Jesus killed the hostility between God and man and man with man on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). True unity can only be nourished and sustain where there is true peace. As long as there is hostility and enmity there will be tension and hostility. If we would be diligent to maintain the unity of the Spirit, we must maintain the bond of peace. If we would maintain the bond of peace, we must strive for that which makes for peace.

How do we strive to make for peace? Paul has already listed the characteristics which lead to such peace in Ephesians 4:2: maintaining humility and meekness, manifesting patience, showing tolerance for one another in love. A similar “recipe” is found in Philippians 2:1-4. When we speak of unity we all too often speak of doctrinal uniformity; while agreement on doctrine is crucial to joint participation in the faith, evident from 1 Corinthians 1:11, doctrinal agreement is not sufficient to establish unity in and of itself. We must agree on the truth of God in Christ, but then we must act like it. We must demonstrate humility, recognizing that all of us are redeemed sinners, prone to mistakes, of equal standing and value before God, and to adjust our opinions and ideas about ourselves and others accordingly. We must be meek, maintaining the strength of conviction and faith, but keeping it under control, exercising it judiciously and with love so as to build up. We must be patient with one another: “long suffering” is the literal meaning of Greek makrothumia, and that is precisely what patience demands. Brethren can be insufferable at times; such is true of you and me as well. We are all different people with different backgrounds and ideas: we can consider that difference as a source of conflict, strife, and difficulty, and try to eliminate it, or we can learn to appreciate the differences which exist among us, focusing on how God is glorified when different people come together as one in faith in Jesus, and thus show tolerance for each other despite each other’s quirks, flaws, and challenges.

We have come to understand the power which exists in the unity of a family. It should be no different for the household of God! God has broken down the walls of hostility in Christ so we can all share in the same faith and obtain the same salvation; should we not now strive to keep and guard this precious unity in the Spirit which was obtained at such terrible cost, and embody God’s purposes for His creation before all those who would resist them? May we keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace to the glory of God in Christ, and share in relational unity for eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Who Is My Neighbor?

But he, desiring to justify himself, said unto Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

The Washington Post published an article entitled “Judgment Days” by Stephanie McCrummen on July 21, 2018. In it Ms. McCrummen interviewed many members of First Baptist Church in Luverne, Alabama, regarding their support of Donald Trump and their convictions as those who profess the Lord Jesus Christ. Within one of these interviews, ostensibly without provocation, one such member, Sheila Butler affirmed her confidence in America as a Christian nation and declared that “love thy neighbor as thyself,” quoted by Jesus as part of the foundation of the law and prophets in Matthew 22:39-40, meant “love thy American neighbor.” The “least of these my brethren” of Matthew 25:31-46 are Americans, according to Sheila Butler (“God, Trump, and the meaning of morality”; accessed 07/25/2018).

We might wonder what Jesus would say to Sheila Butler about her beliefs about His words. In this situation we need not wonder; Jesus Himself encountered an Israelite who felt the same way about Israel.

This Israelite shared a lot in common with Sheila Butler. He believed fervently in the God of Israel; he was proud to be part of his nation and ethnicity, and thought it was special to God. He asked Jesus the right question, one Sheila Butler may have asked before as well: what shall I do to inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25)? When Jesus asked this Israelite what he thought of the answer based on the Law, his response was of great value, one with which Sheila Butler would no doubt agree: you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:26; cf. Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus also agreed with the answer, and told him to do so and he would live (Luke 10:26).

But the conversation did not end there. This Israelite, a lawyer by trade, wanted to justify himself, to demonstrate how he was in the right in his present circumstance with his present attitudes. And so he asked Jesus: who is my neighbor (Luke 10:29)?

The Israelite assumed and acted as if his neighbor were his fellow Israelite. One could make an argument for this based in the Law and its treatment of Israelites versus the nations; it would certainly be taken as the standard practice of the day, since Israelites wanted as little involvement as possible with “Gentiles,” people of the nations; “Gentiles” was seen a pejorative term, equivalent to sinner and unclean (cf. Matthew 18:17, Acts 10:28). The Israelite would have had little reason to envision his neighbors in a universal sense; everything in his upbringing and culture privileged his fellow Israelites. This is likely true of Sheila Butler as well.

Jesus immediately perceived the two issues behind the question, and spoke to the real issues in a parable (Luke 10:30-36). Jesus spoke of an unfortunate Israelite who fell among robbers and left for dead. Exemplary members of his people, a priest and a Levite, perceive his condition, but not wanting to become unclean they passed him by.

Then someone came by who was not one of his people: a Samaritan. For Israelites, Samaritans were half-breeds, people who claimed a relationship with YHWH as their God of covenant who actually derived from the nations the Assyrians introduced into the land of Israel: when they were not active opponents of the Israelites of Judah, they remained a perpetual reminder of the exile and humiliation of Israel (cf. 2 Kings 17:24-41). John put it mildly when he said Jews have no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9).

The Samaritan would have known all of this; he would have also perceived the injured man to be an Israelite. And yet the Samaritan was moved with compassion toward the injured Israelite, bound up his wounds, poured oil on them, and brought him to lodging, giving the money he had and pledging a bit more if necessary.

And then, Jesus’ question: among the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, who proved to be the neighbor to the Israelite who fell among the robbers (Luke 10:36)?

There was no escape. The Israelite lawyer, no doubt, did not like the answer, but it was the only answer which could be given. He could not bring himself to say “the Samaritan”; instead, he says, “the one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:37). Jesus told him to go and do likewise (Luke 10:37).

The Israelite’s rationalizing question suffered from two flaws: not only was it an attempt to be restrictive of a broader command of God, it betrayed a person more interested in drawing lines than fulfilling the command. Jesus chose the characters of His story deliberately: priests and Levites were to minister to the Israelites and should have known the Law and its expectations, and yet they did nothing, more concerned about their personal cleanliness than the welfare of a fellow member of the people of God, prioritizing the cleanliness code over displaying love and mercy. Today we speak highly of “good Samaritans”; to Israel, there was no good Samaritan, and to see a half-breed prove more righteous than priests and Levites would stick in the Israelite craw.

The modern version of the story tells itself. A good Christian family, broken down on the side of the road, is assaulted by a motorcycle gang and left for dead. A deacon of a local Evangelical church drives by, sees them, but has to get his family to church on time; a pastor and his family drives by as well and likewise keeps going. An undocumented El Salvadoran immigrant drives by and sees the family in a terrible condition. He has compassion on the family, stops, and gives aid and assistance.

We also do well to notice how Jesus framed the indicting question: who proved to be neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers? He did not ask who his neighbor was; by common agreement, the priest and Levite were both neighbors by virtue of being fellow Israelites in close geographic proximity. Jesus is not interested in that. He is interested instead in who proves to be the neighbor: who loved his fellow man as himself?

It was the Samaritan. In our modern update, it is the undocumented El Salvadoran immigrant. It is not about what we profess. It is about how we act and what we demonstrate by our behaviors.

It would be easy to heap up scorn on Sheila Butler; such would be misguided. Her greatest fault is in speaking explicitly what is most often maintained implicitly, with coded language and an attempted bifurcation between certain political ideologies and spiritual realities. In terms of these issues at least Sheila Butler maintains a civic religion, an explicitly American faith, presuming America as a Christian nation with Americans as a privileged and chosen people. We could chastise Sheila Butler for this, but we do better to recognize that Sheila Butler believes these things because she was taught these things: perhaps not always explicitly, but certainly implicitly. People are far better at teasing out the implications of the things that are taught than we would like to admit. She, after all, did not come up with all of this out of nowhere.

Christianity was never meant to be a civic religion; Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings, reigning over a transcendent Kingdom over all nation-states, and the exclusive property of none of them (Colossians 1:13, Philippians 3:20-21, Revelation 19:15-16). God loves undocumented people as much as American citizens. We are to prove to be neighbors to anyone and everyone: we must give precedence to fellow Christians, yet must do good to all (Galatians 6:10).

Yet we are all liable to the same error of the Israelite lawyer and Sheila Butler: taking a commandment of God and adding qualifiers to it which He did not establish and did not imagine. YHWH said for Israelites to love their neighbors as themselves, and it did have implication for the foreigner and sojourner in their midst; the Israelite lawyer had no justification to limit the command to fellow Israelites. In teaching this Israelite lawyer Jesus made it plain to His people they must prove to be neighbors to anyone and everyone (Luke 10:30-37); Sheila Butler, and those who taught her, have no justification to limit “neighbor” to their fellow Americans.

Jesus pronounced many commands people prove more than willing and able to circumscribe in ways which did not enter His mind or imagination. These are difficult commands, explicitly countercultural: turn the other cheek. Leave vengeance to God. Do good to everyone. Love everyone. Give without expecting to receive in return. Suffer without responding in kind (cf. Matthew 5:20-58, Luke 6:27-42; cf. Romans 12:17-21, 1 Peter 2:18-25).

Our culture and upbringing will give us reason to think it extreme to believe Jesus meant such things without qualification. Plenty of preachers and teachers will prove all too willing to provide those qualifications and to make fine distinctions, all of which are designed to justify themselves. People like to hear it; they like to have their consciences thus assuaged.

It is just as wrong to add to the Word of God as it is to take away from it. It is not for us to qualify or limit the commandments God has given in Jesus; it is given for us to accomplish them. May we all prove to be neighbors to our fellow man of any and all nationalities, and seek to embody all of the commands of the Lord Jesus, however counter-cultural and counter-intuitive, so that we may glorify Him and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Shepherd

YHWH is my shepherd / I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

Psalm 23:1-6 is by far the most famous Psalm in the Bible, and it may even be the most well-known and beloved passage in all of Scripture. You have likely heard it read at almost every funeral service you have ever attended. But what’s it all about?

David meditated on his relationship with God in Psalm 23:1-6. As a young man he lived as a shepherd, and thoroughly understood that responsibility (cf. 1 Samuel 17:34-36). Thus it was not difficult for David to speak of YHWH as his shepherd (Psalm 23:1).

David set forth what it meant for YHWH to be his shepherd: YHWH would provide what he needed (Psalm 23:1). As a shepherd finds green pastures, calm streams, and good paths for the sheep for their sustenance and development, so YHWH has provided prosperity, peace, and the way of righteousness for David, restoring his soul (Psalm 23:2-3).

Yet the world is a dangerous place, full of evil; the image of the day of difficulty in the world as the “valley of the shadow of death” is haunting yet compelling (Psalm 23:4). David has confidence to persevere on account of YHWH’s presence. David received comfort from YHWH’s rod and staff: a shepherd would have kept a rod or staff, often bent with a hook to form the “crooked staff,” in order to support himself while walking and to provide guidance for the sheep. The presence of the rod/staff indicates the presence of YHWH and discipline to follow the good, right, and healthy way.

David found himself often beset by enemies, and yet YHWH had prospered his way; he praises God for having prepared him a table before his enemies (Psalm 23:5). God had anointed David’s head with oil and his cup overflowed: while David was anointed by Samuel at YHWH’s behest to be made king in 1 Samuel 16:13, both images here refer more to abundant prosperity from God’s hands (“anointed” is literally “to make fat” in the Hebrew; cf. Amos 6:6, Matthew 6:17). YHWH has provided abundantly for David.

YHWH has taken care of David and continues to provide for him; David thus fully expected YHWH to continue to manifest goodness and covenant loyalty toward him for the rest of his life (Psalm 23:6). David’s great hope involved dwelling in YHWH’s house forever, always enjoying His presence.

David did not write Psalm 23:1-6 merely for himself; YHWH inspired him to write to give voice to the people of God throughout time. Countless generations have taken comfort and strength from Psalm 23:1-6, and for good reason. Many have also walked in the valley of the shadow of death. Who would not want abundant prosperity? People like the idea of green pastures and still waters.

We can therefore understand why Psalm 23:1-6 gets appropriated for funerals and other moments of difficulty, and yet the entire psalm is animated by its very first phrase: YHWH is my shepherd. Everything else follows from it, indeed, but also depends upon it.

For YHWH to be my shepherd, however, I must be His sheep (Psalm 23:1). While the image of YHWH as shepherd might have come easily to David, having been a shepherd himself, the implications of the truth of such an image still requires a person to swallow a lot of pride and to exhibit humility. Comparing a person to a sheep is not flattering, then or now: sheep, quite frankly, are dumb. They must be led everywhere they go. Without a leader they wander aimlessly or stay paralyzed in one place. They are defenseless and prove easy prey for wolves and other predators. They are easily scared.

We humans easily fall prey to the pride of life, presuming a level of independence in understanding. We like to think we know how things work, can see through conceits and deceit, and have a good handle on knowing what we should do and how we should go. And yet we all make quite a mess of our lives on our own; whether we want to admit it or not, we are often powerfully motivated by fear, insecurity, and doubt, and prove self-deceived far more often than we would like to believe. In the grand scheme of things, yes, we are like sheep.

Thus, we do well to swallow our pride and to understand ourselves to be as sheep, and to look to YHWH as our Shepherd. We therefore must prove willing to follow Him and the paths He has established for us, even and perhaps especially when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death. We need to recognize our complete and utter dependence on God for all good things and confess our continual struggle to appreciate them and fully trust in Him. David’s final desire must also be our own: to dwell in the house of YHWH forever.

Psalm 23:1-6 is immensely comforting, but it can only be so for those who submit to YHWH as His sheep. God will lead His sheep to good pasture, still waters, and tables of prosperity. Yet His sheep must endure the valley of the shadow of death and perhaps great trial; they must depend upon YHWH their Shepherd for all things and not presume to have gained anything through the unaided work of their own hands. May we all trust in God in Christ and follow Him, the Good Shepherd, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Nephilim

The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them: the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown (Genesis 6:4).

It seemed that everyone in the ancient world looked back to the heroes of their past for inspiration and direction. The Egyptians considered the gods Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Horus to have once ruled the land, and every generation would recreate the story. Assyrians and Babylonians looked back to Gilgamesh, Sargon, and other great kings of the past. Homer and others told the stories of what the Greeks deemed the Golden Age, the age of the heroes, Hercules, Jason, Theseus, Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Ajax, and the rest. Roman orators constantly appealed to their countrymen to return to the days of humble civic virtue embodied by Cincinnatus and others.

All of these cultures and societies venerated and highly esteemed their heroes and ancestors, often considering them worthy of emulation. For most the code of conduct by which the heroes of the past lived persevered without question or doubt. When the contemporary world could not sustain the contradictions and difficulties of living by a mythic standard (which the ancient “heroes” themselves no doubt failed to embody!), it would prove to men and women of old just how far civilization and culture had fallen from those glorious days in the past.

Ancient Israelites were well-acquainted with these stories from these other cultures. The Genesis author spoke of the mighty men of old, men of renown; he spoke of them as the Nephilim (Genesis 6:4).

Few things provoke as much contention and disputation as the Nephilim. The Nephilim were the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men,” interpreted either as certain angels who consorted with women or the descendants of Seth who comingled with the daughters of Cain. The Nephilim lived before the Flood and also afterward. In Numbers 13:33 the Israelite spies of the fifteenth century BCE testified to the existence of the Anakim in the land of Canaan, described as the descendants of the Nephilim. The Anakim all those years later were still reckoned as giants; they would be exterminated from the land of Israel in the days of Joshua (Joshua 11:21-22), and only a few remained in what would become the land of the Philistines, which might explain the height of Goliath four centuries later (1 Samuel 17:4-7).

We could endlessly speculate regarding the nature of the Nephilim and what made them the “mighty men of renown,” but to no avail, for we know nothing else about them from Scripture beyond what has been described above. Whoever they were, and whatever the nature of their power, the Genesis author’s ambivalence toward them is evident: the conjoining of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” led God to limit human life to 120 years, and they flourished in the days when the heart of man was only evil continually (Genesis 6:3, 5).

Much has been made of the parallels between Genesis and Mesopotamian narratives such as Enuma Elish and The Epic of Gilgamesh, generally attempting to diminish what is written in Genesis as a second-rate adaptation of these older stories. Yes, these stories all relate to the distant past and prove parallel, flowing from some sort of shared remembrance. Yet the Genesis author is very consciously standing against the Mesopotamian traditions in many ways; and very much so in terms of the understanding of the “heroic past.”

The Genesis author does not deny the existence of these men in the past who are hailed as “heroes” and “men of renown.” Instead, he contextualizes their situation: they did mighty things because of their origins. Their mighty deeds did not redeem them, however; their origin was not good. It should not have happened. They stand apart from the generations of men and women who followed. Their story is not one to emulate; it is a warning to heed.

What we see with the Nephilim remains consistent throughout the Hebrew Bible. The prophetic retelling of Israel’s story is a warning for future generations to avoid the idolatry and rebellion which led to judgment and exile. The faith of many men and women are held up as exemplary, yet all manifest significant character flaws which cause great distress and grief. The only unalloyed “hero” in the Hebrew Bible is YHWH.

Today Christians live in societies profoundly shaped or influenced by the cultures mentioned above; we may not honor their heroes, but the impulse to find men of some renown and to esteem them as larger than life remains. What the Greeks did to the Mycenaean warriors of the late Bronze Age Americans tend to do with their “Founding Fathers” and other exemplary leaders of the past: their virtues are extolled and magnified beyond historical reality, their vices diminished, and a divine hand is reckoned to have guided them in ways they may not have even understood. Many wish to return to the virtues of a former age and in the process turn the past into a myth, magnifying what may have been good while suppressing what was less than pleasant. Everyone seems convinced today is worse than yesterday.

Christians must look upon such narratives with a skeptical eye, understanding their own past as the Genesis author understood humanity’s shared past. Yes, there were men of renown; yet many of them may not have come from a good place, and even the most exemplary manifested tragic flaws. One man’s “golden age” is another man’s age of decrepitude and decadence. The only unalloyed hero in history is Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God, the embodiment of the Godhead (Colossians 1:15, 2:9). The things He said and did which have earned Him renown stand in strong contrast against what most “heroes” do in order to gain fame and prominence.

It is good to aspire to virtue in character; despite what the modern world may imagine, it is good to be part of a story involving a people in which one finds his or her place. As Christians, however, we will not be able to find the most compelling such story and find such virtues in any individual society; we find them embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, and ought to seek to be part of the eternal purpose God has purposed in Him. May we follow Jesus the Christ and not the hero narratives of our culture and find salvation in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry