Telling History

And in the thirty and eighth year of Asa king of Judah began Ahab the son of Omri to reign over Israel: and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty and two years. And Ahab the son of Omri did that which was evil in the sight of YHWH above all that were before him (1 Kings 16:29-30).

Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. Twenty and five years old was he when he began to reign; and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem: and his mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. And he did that which was right in the eyes of YHWH, according to all that David his father had done (2 Kings 18:1-3).

What is history?

Most people understand history as “what happened in the past.” We all endured history class while in school; we learned about the rise and fall of successive world empires. We therefore ascertained very quickly that history seemed to be the story of those who gained the most power or made new things or developed this or that. The more prominent and successful a culture, defined by its consolidation of power, wealth, and influence, the more likely we would learn about them.

But what happens when we approach the Scriptures? What history does it tell?

We can compare and contrast the stories of two kings, Ahab and Hezekiah, in terms of how they are presented in Scripture and how they would be presented in a standard historical account.

The portrayal of Ahab king of Israel in Scripture is less than pleasant. He was strongly influenced by his wife Jezebel; he elevated service to Baal in Israel; Elijah the prophet strongly opposed him. The Biblical assessment of Ahab is seen sharply in 1 Kings 16:29-30, as children are taught in Bible classes to this day: he was the most wicked of the kings of Israel.

Yet, if seen in a socio-political perspective, things never seem better for Israel than in Ahab’s day. Ahab maintained control over Moab; he made an alliance with Jehoshaphat king of Judah; his marriage is an indication of a strong alliance with the Phoenicians. He seemed to preside over one of the most prosperous and stable periods in the history of the northern Kingdom. From Assyrian chronicles we learn that Ahab along with other allied kings fought against the Assyrian Shalmaneser III in the Battle of Qarqar and seemed to fight him to a draw; who else among the kings of Israel could make such a claim?

Hezekiah king of Judah is portrayed in Scripture starkly different terms. He attempts to reform the worship and service of Judah toward greater faithfulness to YHWH; he is spoken of in terms of his father David, as seen in 2 Kings 18:1-3. After David only Hezekiah and Josiah are spoken of in glowing terms as kings in Judah in the Scriptures.

And yet Hezekiah’s reign, in socio-political terms, was a complete disaster. He rebelled against the Assyrians and faced the full wrath of the Assyrian war machine. All of Hezekiah’s major cities were destroyed save Jerusalem, which itself was besieged and spared only by divine intervention. Judah’s condition was described well by Isaiah in Isaiah 1:2-9: Judah barely escaped total annihilation, and should not glory in its close call.

We should certainly be able to see why so many modern historians view the Scriptures with cynicism and skepticism: they do not exactly tell the story the way the historians have told stories. We who seek to follow God would do well to consider, however, whether the problem is with the Scriptures or with the way the historians would like to tell the story.

The historical narrative of 1 and 2 Kings is often claimed to be a heavily biased source writing during Israel’s exile. Without a doubt the final author is writing during the exile (cf. 2 Kings 25:27-30); he most assuredly uses court or other records more contemporary of the events described. And yes, he is heavily biased; we should expect nothing less. He has a particular message to tell, and a very particular reason for it.

We today tend to speak of 1 and 2 Kings as part of the “historical books.” The Jews considered 1 and 2 Kings part of the Nevi’im, “the Prophets.” Most of the books we consider to be “historical” they believed to have been written by the “former prophets” (Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings). To the Israelites the way their story was told was itself inspired, the proper way to tell what happened in past days.

They certainly could have told their story in a way a bit more amenable to the expectations of historians; many in Israel in fact told themselves that story. Israel had its heyday in past days; Assyria and Babylon proved too strong, and so Israel was overrun. What did Israel get for attempting to follow YHWH? Hezekiah reforms the worship and the Assyrians overrun the land; Josiah would do a similar act and his death would precipitate the chain of events leading to Judah’s doom. In fact, probably more Jewish people would have agreed with their fellow exiles in Egypt who were offering to the “Queen of Heaven,” believing that things were better when they committed idolatry, than those who were moved to repentance and followed YHWH exclusively (cf. Jeremiah 44:15-18). In the story of history, after all, empires rise and fall. Israel rose and fell. So be it.

But that story, even though it seemed to make sense of some of the historical facts, only led to assimilation, first with the Babylonians and then later with the Greeks and Romans. Such people were carried away by whoever had power. But those who stubbornly held to the story of Israel as told by the former prophets put the story together persevered, and they persevered because they continued to tell the story the way God intended. Great socio-political standing and influence meant nothing if it were not accompanied by faithfulness to God; a dire socio-political situation could be overcome if the people proved faithful to God. The former prophets showed far less concern about the socio-economic implications of royal decisions than the spiritual ones. The story of Israel was told to highlight the people’s faithlessness to warn future generations to not follow in the same pattern of disobedience (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12).

We can learn much from the example of the historical prophets. History is never merely “what happened in the past.” No historian can tell the story of what happened in the past without providing an interpretation and a purpose to those events. They are all understood not only in terms of their believed conclusion but also in terms of the person telling the story. Even when a historical narrative is presented in an entirely factual way, plenty of other facts are left out, not out of denial, but because they do not fit the story being told.

We should not despair; we need not fall into the abyss of full-throated postmodernism, denying our ability to know anything about the past. But we must also be disabused of any notion that history is simply a set of objectively true facts about what people did in the past. History is a great natural resource which we mine in order to tell the story of who we are, from where we have come, and to learn lessons from our ancestors for good or ill. The way we decide to tell that story is as important as the facts which may comprise it.

We have inspired records of the history of Israel and the days of Jesus and the Apostles; we know how God intends for us to understand those stories. We can gain much from that perspective. We may not have an inspired story of the present, but God’s Word remains true: nations will rise and fall, people will acclaim those who gain power, wealth, and influence, but God remains far more concerned with whether people serve the King of kings and Lord of lords or not, and whether people continue to hold firm to the story which He has told in the pages of Scripture. May we tell history in a way that glorifies God and honors His purposes!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Swift to Hear

Ye know this, my beloved brethren. But let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath (James 1:19).

When God made mankind He formed two ears and one mouth. Few are those who use them in such proportion.

James, the brother of the Lord, sought to exhort Christians to faithful and proper conduct in Christ in his letter. As part of these exhortations he encouraged them to be quick to hear but slow to speak and slow to anger (James 1:19); he continued by reminding Christians that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20).

There is no real mystery in James’ exhortation. Most people know they should listen more and talk less. A good number of those who do not understand this prove difficult to tolerate and are most likely masking some kind of insecurity or another. We do not want to be “that guy.” Yet it proves all too easy to become “that guy.”

We do well to return to James’ exhortation over and over again in every aspect of our lives, for his message is true wisdom. Too many of us have a strong tendency to speak first and think and ask questions later. How many times have we put our feet in our mouths because we spoke rashly and did not really listen to what others had to say? How many embarrassing or sinful situations could we have avoided if we had stopped long enough to listen so as to be able to speak more effectively and properly regarding the situation?

Why do we do such things? Whether we want to admit it or not, we prove swift to speak and slow to hear because we think quite highly of ourselves, our understanding, and our perspective. We believe we already have enough information to make a judgment. We believe that we already have the standing to say what we are saying. We are sure that we are right and the other person, to some degree or another, is deluded or misinformed.

We therefore must manifest humility if we would be swift to hear. To listen is to recognize the need to give a hearing to the other person; in so doing we might find out that we were not as right or as accurate as we first imagined. For good reason God expects everything to be demonstrated by the mouth of two or three witnesses, not merely one (Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15, 2 Corinthians 13:1); one who pleads his case seems right until his neighbor comes and searches him out (Proverbs 18:17). In reality we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); not one of us can presume the privilege of being absolutely right and having the exactly right view on things. We all labor under various pretensions, delusions, and misapprehensions. Humility demands that we recognize those limitations and therefore to give others the right to be heard.

Love demands that we be swift to hear. Love does not vaunt itself; it is not puffed up; it does not behave unseemly; it does not seek its own; it does all these things as much as it does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:4-6). Truth has no need to fear investigation, probing, and exploration; if we truly are in the right, listening should not cause us angst or apprehension. To be swift to hear demonstrates a level of care, concern, and consideration not often seen in the world anymore. People appreciate when they feel as if they have been heard, even if that hearing does not lead to complete agreement. Rarely do people feel loved after they have been railroaded and told things without any chance to speak themselves, no matter how accurate the spoken information might be.

When we are swift to hear we are in a better position to understand, and thus be able to speak to, the issue behind the issue. Very few issues in life are clear-cut and entirely above board; most disagreements and difficulties involve unspoken fears and apprehensions as well as different implicit biases and assumptions about the way things are. If we truly seek to communicate so as to be understood and to guide people toward transformation in Jesus, we need to speak to the real issue and not merely the surface issues, as Jesus manifested well in His conversations and discussions during His time on earth.

These principles prove true in all sorts of conversations and relationships. Woe to the husband who so focuses on the substance of his wife’s complaints that he does not hear the anxiety and concerns of her heart. Children are often poorly equipped to express their deepest feelings, fears, and needs, and often act out to make their cry of help; are we quick to hear the difficulty or do we just get angry at the misbehavior? American culture and society seems hopelessly divided because each side wants to speak more than to hear, to condemn the other more than to understand the fears and apprehensions motivating the behaviors. And how can we preach the Gospel to someone whom we refuse to hear? We may have the right message, and they may be operating under all sorts of delusions, but how can we know exactly what they need to hear and how to encourage them until we first hear them and thus perceive their challenges? On what basis have we earned any standing in their lives so as to speak the Gospel message if we have not first proven swift to hear them and show them that love, respect, and humility which interpersonal communication demands?

Swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger is a very hard road for most people; it proves all too easy to “forget” in the heat of the moment and act in the opposite way. We do well to gather ourselves, take a deep breath, make a quick prayer, and deliberately attempt to listen and hear as we have opportunity. We will discover that we are better heard when we first prove willing to hear; our words prove more effective when we give ourselves the opportunity to choose them well by first hearing what the situation demands. May we be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, using our ears and mouths in the proper proportion, and all to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Transcendent Kingdom

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36).

Few of Jesus’ declarations have reverberated over time as His confession of the nature of His Kingdom in John 18:36. Few have also proven as contentious.

Jesus had been betrayed by Judas into the hands of the religious authorities; they had already condemned Him to death as a blasphemer (John 18:1-27). Since they had no authority granted to execute Jesus, they brought Him before Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea, to issue the final condemnation (John 18:28-32). Pilate asked Jesus if He indeed was the King of the Jews based on what had been said of Him by the religious authorities (John 18:32-35). Jesus declared that His Kingdom was not of this world: His servants were not fighting to foment insurrection or rebellion so as to rescue Him, and such was sufficient evidence to show His Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Jesus would go on to identify Himself as a King according to what Pilate himself had said; Pilate found no crime or guilt in Him (John 18:37-38).

But what is Jesus really attempting to say to Pilate by this declaration? As is unfortunately the norm in Christianity, people have often gone to extremes. Some fervently expect Jesus to one day make the Kingdom be of this world, and so they emphasize the idea that His Kingdom is not “now” from here, presuming that at some point in the future that will change. Others so emphasize “not of this world” so that it becomes “entirely of another world,” as if His Kingdom has nothing at all to do with this world.

In the contextual moment Jesus is attempting to “clear the air” about Him and His intentions. From the first century until now it has been all too easy to misunderstand Jesus’ purposes in His Kingdom and to conceptualize the Kingdom entirely in earthly terms. The Jews wanted to make Jesus their king; He escaped from them, for His Kingdom was not to be what they desired it to be (John 6:15). Christians were easily accused of sedition against Rome, declaring that Jesus was King, not Caesar (Acts 17:6-7); so both Paul and Peter strongly urge Christians to remain subject to all earthly authorities lest anyone get the wrong idea (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Thus, when Pilate heard that Jesus is being called the “King of the Jews,” he perceived Jesus to be a threat to the stability of Roman rule over Judea, because he is aware of the Jewish expectation that their God would send their Messiah who they imagined would liberate them from foreign pagan oppression and would re-establish a Jewish Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. And so Jesus clarified before Pilate that His Kingdom is not of this world; it would not be an earthly kingdom vying for territory with a man on a throne in a capital. If it were, His servants would be fighting to make that happen.

Such should be a strong warning to any who would imagine that Jesus’ only concern is one of timing and not substance. Jesus is not saying, “my Kingdom is not now of this world, but it will be at some undetermined point in the future”; the work God was accomplishing in Jesus powerfully demonstrated the error in Jewish expectations. Jesus was the King of the Jews, not just a more improved version of David, but as the One like a Son of Man who would soon be given an eternal dominion from the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:13-14). The Kingdom He would inaugurate would strike in pieces all of the kingdoms who had come before (Daniel 2:43-45). God would give Jesus all authority in heaven and on earth, over all the powers, not merely over some acres of ground on earth (Matthew 28:18, Colossians 1:15-20). Jesus’ Kingdom is too much of a present reality and far too profound to restrict it to a future earthly hope (Colossians 1:12-20, Revelation 1:9).

Yet it is not as if Jesus’ Kingdom has nothing to do with this world. Neither Pilate nor later Roman authorities were entirely wrong to raise an eyebrow at the claims made by Jesus and His later followers. If Jesus is Lord and Savior, then Caesar is not the ultimate authority. Christian claims of God giving authority to whom He will and of Jesus being over all the kings of the earth stand at variance with Caesar’s claims about himself. Even if Christians seek to honor and obey earthly authorities in all things, their loyalties and ultimate commitment lie in God in Christ and His Kingdom, not in Rome (Philippians 1:27, 3:20-21). Jesus’ Kingdom was not envisioned as an alien force; He reigns from heaven indeed but reigns over both heaven and earth, and all peoples and nations are subject to Him (Philippians 3:20-21, Revelation 5:12-14, 7:9-17). Just as Christians ought not imagine that Jesus’ Kingdom is merely awaiting its earthly manifestation, so they ought not imagine that the concerns of the Kingdom have nothing at all to do with the present world.

Jesus’ Kingdom is neither earthly nor otherworldly; it is transcendent. Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings; His Kingdom reigns above all other principalities and powers (Colossians 1:15-20, 2:11-17, Revelation 19:16). Jesus’ Kingdom absolutely crushed and shattered the empires of the world through God’s judgments upon them and the work of Christians within them proclaiming the Gospel and glorifying God. The Gospel of Jesus and His Kingdom undermines every tyrant and despotic tendency in government, for fear, shame, suffering, and death, the coercive tools of government, are made devoid of power in the life of the one who trusts in the crucified and risen Jesus (Matthew 10:28). Jesus will return one day and will raise our bodies to be like Himself (Philippians 3:20-21); this energizes all believers in Him to uphold the values of the Kingdom no matter what man may try to do to us. The flower of the glory of empire will fade and die; the word of God, the Gospel, will endure forever, as will those who faithfully participate in the Kingdom of God to the end (1 Corinthians 15:51-58, 1 Peter 1:23-25).

Christians live in the world and do well to honor and obey earthly authorities. Yet we must demonstrate that our true affections and loyalty lie in the transcendent Kingdom of God in Christ. We must live as if we truly do eschew the extremes in understanding about the Kingdom. We must not foolishly believe, as so many do, that Jesus’ Kingdom will be established as an earthly Kingdom some day, or that through our efforts we can establish His Kingdom on earth. The Lord Himself considered such things as a fool’s errand; if He did not do so, who are we as His followers to imagine we can succeed where He “failed”? Thus we have no right to imagine that God’s Kingdom is manifest in any given country or any political platform or ideology therein; we likewise have no right to imagine that we will succeed in bringing the Kingdom to earth through benevolent action. At the same time, the Kingdom does have a word to speak to rulers and citizens and how we should live; we must not foolishly believe that Christians are to be so alien as to have nothing to say or do with those who live in the world. We are not given the right to “monasticize” ourselves, withdrawing from society entirely and/or put most of our efforts into creating some sort of Christian subculture. We must serve God in His Kingdom in the world, knowing that all of the kingdoms of the world will ultimately become the Kingdom of our Lord and Christ (Revelation 11:15), and that His transcendent Kingdom, while not of this world, powerfully reigns over it. May we serve the Lord Jesus in His Kingdom to His eternal glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Foundations

If the foundations be destroyed / What can the righteous do? (Psalm 11:3)

What are we supposed to do if we feel the ground is being pulled out from under us? Such is the meditation on David’s heart in Psalm 11:1-7.

Someone is setting the situation before David, perhaps a well meaning friend: go and flee for safety (Psalm 11:1c). Such is necessary because the wicked lie in wait to attack the righteous, to overthrow all that is good and to persist in their behaviors (Psalm 11:2); if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do (Psalm 11:3)?

Yet David already has made his decision; YHWH is his refuge (Psalm 11:1b). YHWH is in His holy temple and on His throne in heaven (Psalm 11:4). He examines all men; He tests the righteous; He hates those who live wickedly and love violence (Psalm 11:5). YHWH lays snares for the wicked; the awful consequences of a negative judgment will be theirs, for YHWH is righteous, loves righteousness, and promises that those who live uprightly will see His face (Psalm 11:6-7).

David makes no effort to deny the challenges of the situation which are presented before him. He does not deny that the wicked are devising plans against him; he does not deny that the foundations are being destroyed. Nor does David put much confidence in his culture, even the culture of the people of God, to reform itself; if the foundations are destroyed, he does not tell the people of God to petition their legislature to “fix” them or to begin a major societal campaign to rebuild the foundations. His confidence is not in men whom he knows well will do whatever it takes to obtain and press their advantage (Psalms 36:1-4, 37:7, 12-16, 94:3-7). Instead, David trusts in YHWH as holy, righteous, and ruling from heaven. YHWH will judge. It may not be today, it might not be tomorrow, and it most assuredly will not look like anything we would imagine, but that judgment will come. If nothing else, in the hereafter, the wicked and those who love violence will endure the penalty for their decisions.

The difficulty set before David was not unique to his time and place. The people of God are constantly confronted with the same challenge. The wicked are active and they find ways of getting the powers of the world to bend to their will. Foundational laws, customs, and norms may no longer be honored, and rampant immorality increases. What should the righteous do?

The grass withers and the flower fades (Isaiah 40:6-9). Isaiah has little concern about botany; he speaks about the nations of mankind. Regimes come and go; one generation’s crusade becomes the black eye of the next. Some generations get a front row seat to see the unraveling of the results of their labor; others are in the grave before their work is mostly undone. Such is why David puts no confidence in any attempt to reform society; he knows it is a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, this fleeting temporality goes both ways: the designs of the wicked are often undone before their very eyes. Purveyors of immorality get their comeuppance. They may have it done to them as they had done unto others; they also may see all their wickedness unraveled before their eyes. YHWH’s judgments are often sublime.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of YHWH endures forever (1 Peter 1:23-25). When the foundations are destroyed, the righteous should take refuge in YHWH. Even when the foundations might seem strong, the righteous must still trust and take refuge in YHWH. YHWH is in His holy temple; YHWH sits on His throne. He has the power to save, not society (Romans 1:16); He maintains all authority and power, not the governments who are so often manipulated by the wicked to the latter’s advantage (1 Peter 3:21-22).

As Christians we are tempted to heed the advice given to David; we are tempted to “circle the wagons,” or attempt to “flee to the mountains,” and try to set up an alternative society or subculture. Yet we do well to consider David’s question: if YHWH truly is our refuge, why would we flee? Is YHWH not able to uphold us or sustain us in the face of wickedness and those who love violence? If we would be righteous, we must recognize that we will be tested and tried (Psalm 11:5): will we continue to trust in God or will we capitulate to the world, either by conforming to its norms or by escaping? If we would be the light of the world, we must recognize how exposed we will stand before the world, the wicked, and those who love violence (Matthew 5:13-16). Are we willing to trust in God so that we can endure those trials and thus reflect Christ to the world?

David was not delusional; he recognized the danger posed by the wicked and those who love violence. But he maintained greater confidence in YHWH as the God of righteousness who loves the righteous and hates the wicked. He made YHWH his refuge; he did not seek to build his own. He knew YHWH would judge the wicked and condemn them; YHWH would vindicate his trust. Will we share in David’s trust? Will we prove willing to make YHWH our refuge and to trust in Him and His power when the foundations are strong or shaken? May we follow the way of God in Christ, trusting in His power and authority, and represent Christ to a lost and dying world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Placed in God’s Garden

And YHWH God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed (Genesis 2:8).

When we think of the Garden of Eden, we tend to do so in terms of paradise lost: man sinned and was forced out (Genesis 3:1-22). Yet we can gain lessons about man’s relationship toward God based on what God sought to accomplish in Eden.

Genesis 2:4-25 provides greater detail regarding the creation of man and woman as mentioned in Genesis 1:26-30. Much is made of Genesis 2:4-25 as a “competing” account of creation; the Genesis author has no such idea in mind, but presents to further explain man’s creation. We make much of God making man from the dust of the ground and breathing into him the breath of life (Hebrew neshama, Greek psyche; Genesis 2:7), and for good reason: such explains how man is both earthly and divine, energized dust. Thus man returns to the dust from which he came (Genesis 3:19); the breath of life in him is a gift and is not to be treated flippantly. Yet what does God then do with the man? YHWH planted a garden, made every tree with fruit good to eat grow there, and He put the man into that garden where he was to work it and keep it (Genesis 2:8-15). God does not just drop the man anywhere in the creation. He places the man in His garden.

“Eden” seems to connote delight and pleasure, as can be seen in the related Hebrew word found in Genesis 18:12, 2 Samuel 1:24, Psalm 36:8, and Jeremiah 51:34; not for nothing does the Greek translator of the Septuagint translate “garden” with paradeison, “paradise,” in Genesis 2:8. The Greek term itself derives from a Persian word describing a “walled enclosure”; a “royal park” is really in view, a well-planned, well-maintained garden, not terribly unlike the gardens of palaces, manors, and estates still visible in Europe, even if reflecting different tastes. Thus Eden was never really “raw nature”; it was a divinely created and organized garden estate, featuring aesthetically pleasing plants, plants good for food, and most likely embodying divine creativity and organization throughout.

A garden, by its very nature, is artificial; if left untended it will become overgrown and lose the properties which distinguish a garden from a forest or other form of natural environment. Man, therefore, was to work and keep God’s garden. Man is made to work; the ultimate futility of the endeavor is the curse of the fall, not the desire for the endeavor itself (Genesis 3:17-18; cf. Ecclesiastes 1:2-11). But man is not made to work in a vacuum: he is made to work and keep God’s garden. Man does not make the garden; man does not innovate in the garden; man is placed in God’s garden to keep it, to enjoy it, and to relish the sublime beauty and truth established in how God has composed that garden.

Since the fall man has been removed from that garden and has lost his innocence; from Eden man will end up at Babel, using his creative energies to make monuments to his own greatness (Genesis 11:1-8). Not much has changed since. Man was made to explore God’s garden and world in wonderment; we have perverted that impulse into a desire to become the masters of the universe. When we “discover” something, we presume some sort of ownership or control over it. In the grand scheme of things such claims seem petty, as a child’s game. It reminds us of the claims of certain Europeans having “discovered” America and other places; the Native Americans of the time were unaware that their lands needed “discovering,” and were quite aware of its existence for millennia without any Europeans around. Likewise, when humans learn about things, they are not really new; they have always existed, testifying to God’s majesty and power (Romans 1:19-21). We could learn about such things and give glory to God; instead, we tend to try to take them back to the Babels which we have built and use them to magnify ourselves. The results are less than aesthetically pleasing.

And yet, ever since the fall, God has called humanity back into restored relationship with Him. We now have opportunity to return to God and seek His purposes through His Son Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1-11). In Jesus we have the hope to return to paradise, to recover what was lost in the fall (Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 12:4, Revelation 2:7, 22:1-6). We yearn for full restoration and to bask in the glory of God’s presence without hindrance for eternity (Romans 8:18-25, Revelation 21:1-27). We want to go back to the Garden.

While we do await that full restoration, we are also told that we are a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). God “undoes” the curse of Babel on the day of Pentecost when the assembled Jewish people hear in their own languages the mighty works of God (Acts 2:11). In our lives as Christians we are again invited to participate in the work of glorifying God in His Kingdom, to do His work for His purposes (1 Corinthians 15:58, 2 Corinthians 9:8, Philippians 2:13, Colossians 1:10). Thus, in a real way, Christians are invited to “keep God’s garden” by working in His vineyard, the Kingdom (Matthew 21:33-44).

In many ways God invites us into His garden to enjoy its delights and to work and maintain it. The whole creation is, in a real sense, God’s garden. Through science and technology we learn much about God’s creation; we should not presume to be able to master and manipulate it fully to our own ends, to bring it back into our philosophical boxes to serve our ends, but should glorify God in wonderment for what He has made and how (cf. Psalm 8:1-9). God has given us of His Word (Hebrews 1:1-3, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). We ought to spend time in that Word, diligently applying ourselves to learn it and to accomplish its purposes in our lives (2 Timothy 2:15). Yet, just as Adam could never truly innovate in or master Eden, so we should never presume that we can discover something new through our investigation or mining of the Word, or imagine that we can take God’s Word to our Babel of philosophical ideologies and structures and in that way improve on it or understand it better than all who have come before us (cf. Colossians 2:8). We will never master the Word; we submit to God through the message of the Word and find ourselves mastered by it (Hebrews 4:12). The Word is to be one of God’s gardens of delight for us, a place in which we may find constant surprise which is to lead to confidence in God, adoration of His beauty, and praising and glorifying His name. God has given us important people and relationships in our lives; man was not made to be alone, for God Himself is not alone, but one in relational unity (Genesis 2:18, John 17:21-23). Those people in our lives are not there to be mastered or manipulated; instead, we are to enjoy their presence, seek to encourage them and help build them up, and glorify God for their presence. Every time we are tempted to make a Babel of something which God has made we do well to instead frame it as part of God’s garden, something on which we cannot improve, but something which we can cherish, enjoy, and learn about, all to the glory of God.

God has made us; in Him we live and move and have our being; we are made to seek Him (Acts 17:26-28). It is not for us to master, manipulate, and presume that we can make better than what God has already made. Instead, since the beginning, it has been for us to enjoy with wonderment God’s garden, to work in God’s creation and maintain things, and to give God all the glory. May we seek alignment with God’s purposes, renounce our impulse for mastery and control, submit to the Lord Jesus, and work in His Kingdom to His glory for all eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Worldly Wisdom

This wisdom is not a wisdom that cometh down from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where jealousy and faction are, there is confusion and every vile deed (James 3:15-16).

James, the Lord’s brother, wrote to exhort his fellow Jewish Christians in the Diaspora regarding their conduct in Christ. Having encouraged them to avoid showing partiality (James 2:1-13), to manifest their faith in their works (James 2:14-26), and to give heed to how they speak and avoid hypocrisy in so doing (James 3:1-12), he then challenged the “wise” among them to demonstrate their wisdom through their lives full of good deeds (James 3:13). Wisdom “from above,” from God, is pure, peaceable, open to reason, full of mercy and good works, and is without partiality and hypocrisy; those who are wise make peace and in so doing sow unto a harvest of righteousness (James 3:17-18). But those who have zelos (jealousy or envy) and eritheia (strife, selfish ambition) in their hearts are not truly wise, and they should not glory and lie against the truth (James 3:14). Such people are motivated by a different kind of “wisdom,” that which is of the earth, of this life, and demonic; such wisdom leads to confusion and wickedness (James 3:15-16).

How can there be two different types of wisdom? Is not wisdom automatically good? By no means; wisdom is simply knowledge that “works.” Wisdom can be good; it can be evil. We may want to believe whatever wisdom that “work” must come from God, but it does not take much investigation to recognize just how terribly correct James is about the different sources of wisdom. In the experience of mankind, “might makes right” or “the ends justify the means” certainly seems to “work”: those with power tend to make the rules to benefit them and marginalize others, and not a few terrible deeds have been justified because of the perceived benefits of the outcome. In fact, most of what passes as wisdom about “getting ahead” in life all derives from the two base impulses identified by James: jealousy/envy and selfish ambition. While we may be able to find some morally exemplary persons among the wealthy and the elite, most of them have obtained their wealth because they were driven by jealousy and selfish ambition. It seems almost axiomatic that every ruler, those who actually rule and those who strongly desire to do so, are almost nakedly ambitious in life. Most give lip service to the moral superiority of love and humility, but when it starts hitting the power base or the pocketbook, it is all about fear and winning.

It is crucial for Christians to recognize the contrast between the wisdom from above and “worldly” wisdom, to not confuse the two, and in every respect to purge ourselves of “worldly” wisdom and pattern our lives on the wisdom from above. Christians are easily tempted to use a bit of the Devil’s ways against him; after all, they “work,” and if they “work,” then what would be the problem? James never denied the efficacy of “worldly wisdom”; instead, he pointed to its ultimate fruit. Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and vile practices (James 3:16). If there is jealousy and selfish ambition in the home, there will be fights, distress, stress, and the children will not be able to be fully raised in the Lord’s discipline and admonition and will have much to overcome as adults. If there is jealousy and selfish ambition in the church, there will be strife, divisions, and all kinds of ungodliness, hurting Christians and giving the Gentiles reason to blaspheme (e.g. 3 John 1:9-10). Our culture, society, and nation are under the control of the god of this world; we should not be surprised to see such terrible partisan bickering and division since there is so much jealousy and selfish ambition (2 Corinthians 4:4). We can understand how all of these situations come about, yet we recognize that none of them are really good or truly healthy.

For good reason did our Lord and Master draw a very strong and solid line between the “ways of the Gentiles” and the way it should be among His people in Matthew 20:25-28: the Gentiles live by the earthly, this life, demonic wisdom of this world. It should not be so among us. Christians must live by the pure, peaceable, reasonable wisdom from above, from God, full of good works and mercy, without partiality and hypocrisy. We will be tempted to use the world’s ways of doing things; after all, they “work,” and we do not want to be fully left behind. We will be tempted to use Satan’s tactics to tell people about Jesus, using manipulation, coercion, judgmentalism, or bait-and-switch tactics; such is not pure and peaceable, but derives from jealousy and selfish ambition, and is condemned. Many wish to judge the effectiveness of the Lord’s people in their efforts based on the metrics of the business world; we do well to remember that the business world is motivated entirely by jealousy and selfish ambition, and be very wary of whatever “wisdom” someone wants to derive from it. Whenever God’s people get involved in the economic and political world, they enter a realm dominated by jealousy and selfish ambition; if they are not careful, God’s people may end up finding themselves commending the unjustifiable and approving the unconscionable so as to obtain power or standing, compromising all that is good and lovely on account of fear and/or a will to power.

We do well to remember that God did not save us through economic prosperity or through the power games of the political realm; God has saved us through His Son Jesus who lived, suffered, died, and whom God raised from the dead because He proved willing to bear the shame and the scorn and proved obedient to the point of death (Philippians 2:5-11). We must have the mind of Christ, the wisdom from above; we must love where there is fear, we must remain humble where there is arrogance, we must show mercy where there is judgmentalism, we must remain content where there is jealousy, and we must seek the best interest of the other where there is selfish ambition. This world’s wisdom has not brought lasting peace; it is incapable of doing so. Christians, however, have access to peace toward God through Jesus who Himself killed the hostility by suffering on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). Peace does not come through any form of the wisdom of this world; it does not come through fear or projections of strength; it comes from humility, purity, a willingness to show no partiality, and righteous living under the Messiah. If we really believe Jesus is who He says He is, then we shall willingly give up our jealousy and envy, finding contentment in Him, and renounce all selfish ambition, and live for Him (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 2:20, Philippians 4:10-13, 1 Timothy 6:5-10).

We live in a world saturated with demonic earthly wisdom. We must recognize it for what it is, but as Christians we must not capitulate before it. We cannot advance the Lord’s purposes with the Devil’s wisdom; we cannot will ourselves to power through the wisdom of demons, but must in every respect become the slave of Jesus so His reign can be seen through us. May we seek to purge ourselves of all jealousy and selfish ambition, the wisdom of this world, and find contentment and true life and identity in Jesus the Christ, and obtain the resurrection in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Responding to “Hot Takes”

Now there were some present at that very season who told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
And [Jesus] answered and said unto them, “Think ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they have suffered these things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them, think ye that they were offenders above all the men that dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

These days it feels as if we are being consumed by the “hot take.”

Between 24/7 cable news stations and the Internet we feel awash with information and news. Information about events is distributed in real time; confusion often spreads before anyone can make any sense of what is transpiring. Since so many have access to both information and the means by which to respond to it, we are often made to feel as if we must respond so that people know we are aware and where we may stand on any given issue. So much seems to happen, and we get overwhelmed very quickly. We yearn for a more wise and reflective view of current events. And yet, most of the time, whatever might be the big news story today is often forgotten about by tomorrow. We are chasing the next big story; those who have to suffer the consequences of the last big story have to sort their lives out as everyone else has moved on.

We might imagine that such things are new to us in our hyper-connected digital age, but “hot takes” and responses to them are as old as humanity. Jesus Himself was confronted with a “hot take” in Luke 13:1, a fresh Roman outrage against the Jewish people: Pilate, procurator of Judea, evidently ordered some Galilean Jewish people to be slaughtered, and their blood mingled with that of the sacrifices offered on their behalf. The Jewish people already did not like Roman rule and felt that the Romans, like the Greeks before them, would attempt to suppress their ability to practice their faith without hindrance. And here is the Roman procurator killing Jewish people offering sacrifices! Was the time not coming when YHWH would deliver His people from these oppressive pagans? Was it not being claimed that Jesus was the Messiah of God? What would He have to say about such things? Surely He would take the opportunity to condemn the Romans for what they had done. Surely He would identify with His people against those who oppressed them!

Yet Jesus is not taken in by the “hot take.” It is not as if He is unaware of what happened, nor is He unaware of His audience’s expectation. In fact, He referenced another recent “hot take,” news involving the death of eighteen people when a tower fell on them in Siloam (Luke 13:4). He does not take the opportunity to condemn the Romans; instead, He spoke to the very basic and primal response to such “hot takes” and news. He asked if these people who have suffered in this way, be it from Pilate’s men or from a terrible accident, were any worse sinners than others. He wanted to make it clear that unless those to whom He spoke repented, they would likewise perish (Luke 13:2-5).

What does that have to do with these events? While we often speak of the Jewish people who live in the time of Christ in different ways than those who lived in Old Testament times, they are all being shaped by often consistent cultural expectations. One such expectation, seen frequently in wisdom literature, is that people get what they deserve. The righteous and industrious are wealthy and blessed; the wicked and lazy are poor and suffer indignity. Sometimes this happens; as we can see in Job and Ecclesiastes, however, sometimes the wicked obtain wealth, and the righteous suffer indignities. Even so, it seems that the Jewish people easily defaulted to the view that people get what they deserve: thus, it must have been that God willed for those Galileans to be killed because they were sinners, and God allowed that tower to fall on those eighteen because they were sinful. It also provides a nice comfortable cushion and barrier between the observer and the observed: since these things did not happen to me, but it happened to them, I must be in a better situation than they are. They must have been worse off; they must have deserved it; I do not, and therefore I will not have to suffer such indignity.

Jesus knew they thought these things, and so Jesus corrected them. In so doing Jesus opened up the very terrifying prospect to them that is all too real: bad things happen to people, and many times it has nothing to do with the type of person they are. Sometimes the righteous suffer and die; sometimes the wicked prosper. People become victims of random violence, the oppression of the state, or calamitous events. It was easier to believe, and hope, that such things happen to other people, and not to “us,” because we do not deserve it, and thus somehow they do. No, Jesus says; they are no worse than you. They did not deserve to have such things happen to them. They suffered tragically; nothing stops us from suffering as tragically.

It has always been almost comically easy to learn of “hot takes” and news about other people and remain entirely disconnected. Such terrible things happen over there to people like them. Such things would not happen here or to people like us. We have to find some reason to explain why they must suffer so and yet we should not; it is very comforting that way. And yet Jesus still says no. They are no worse than us. They did not deserve to have such things happen to them. They suffered tragically, and we could as well. We may live our lives watching bad things happen to “them,” and think it will never happen to us, until that day when “we” become “them.”

Thus we do well to learn Jesus’ lesson: we do better to identify with those who suffer than to try to find internal reasons to keep them at arm’s length. We are not guaranteed to go through life without suffering tragedy or becoming the next “hot take.” What happens to the other today may happen to us tomorrow. Our trust must not be in our righteousness or good fortune but in God in Christ. May we all change our hearts and minds to align our will to God’s so they we may not perish but obtain eternal life in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Refuge

I love thee, O YHWH, my strength.
YHWH is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer / My God, my rock, in whom I will take refuge / My shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower.
I will call upon YHWH, who is worthy to be praised / So shall I be saved from mine enemies (Psalm 18:1-3).

It is easy to feel that repetition of themes can be boring. Why say the same thing over and over again in slightly different ways? Nevertheless, there is wisdom in setting aside such a question so as to get to the heart of the matter: why would it be necessary to emphasize a given theme over and over again? Perhaps we have much to learn from it.

The Psalms are saturated with primary themes. YHWH is our Creator; YHWH shows covenant loyalty (Hebrew hesed, translated “steadfast love” and “lovingkindness”) to Israel; and, as in Psalm 18:1-3, YHWH is Israel’s refuge, worthy of praise, Deliverer from enemies. These premises are brought up time and time again in song after song, prayer after prayer.

They do not represent repetition for repetition’s sake. Instead, the Psalmist never wants these themes to depart from our subconscious. In their constant repetition we begin to recognize that YHWH is our Creator, shows covenant loyalty, and should serve as our refuge almost reflexively. In that repetition these themes reform and re-shape our thoughts, our perspectives, and thus our feelings and actions, as God had intended from the beginning.

The superscription of Psalm 18 declares how David wrote it after God delivered him from his enemies, including Saul. It would be easy for David to have despaired of his life in 1 Samuel 19:1-26:25: Saul pursued him viciously, and he still had to deal with Israel’s historic enemies, not least the Philistines. David would eventually seemingly go over to the Philistines, took refuge in Ziklag, and appeared to be a model vassal while in reality destroying Israelite enemies who were Philistine allies (1 Samuel 27:1-30:31). According to human logic and worldly standards the situation was dire and nearly impossible. If David would have trusted in his own strength all would have been lost.

Yet, as he proclaimed in Psalm 18:1-3, he did not trust in himself, nor his arms, nor his men, but in YHWH. He loved YHWH (Psalm 18:1). YHWH was his rock, fortress, deliverer, refuge, shield, horn of salvation, and high tower, all potent metaphors for permanence, strength, and defense (Psalm 18:2). David will call upon YHWH and put his trust in Him; YHWH is worthy of praise; only in YHWH will David find rescue from his enemies around him (Psalm 18:3). David would continue on praising God for his rescue and deliverance (Psalm 18:4-49). David was not at all confused about the means by which he succeeded and prospered despite all odds. It was not about him; YHWH rescued him and delivered him. Therefore, David would continually call on YHWH for aid and refuge.

Throughout its history Israel would be tempted to look for strength and refuge in other places. At times they would trust their armed forces; at times they trusted in neighboring allies. Their armed forces would fail and their allies would disappoint; they would go into exile, sometimes with their allies, sometimes with their allies suffering humiliation soon afterward. Israel would pay a terrible price to continually re-learn the lesson David absorbed and to which he gave voice in Psalm 18:1-3.

Yet in distress and trial, and especially under foreign oppression, Israel did seek refuge in YHWH. His rescue and deliverance was not always dramatic or instantaneous, but somehow the Jewish people persevered despite existential crises in the days of the Persians and Macedonians.

We Christians are no less tempted than Israel to look for strength and refuge in other places than in God. We are tempted to look to government or political figures or culture; we are tempted to rely on the prosperity we have gained; we are tempted to follow in our own paths and fulfill what we imagine to be our individual destinies. We are tempted to look at God the way people in culture often do, as the last minute emergency 911, the One to whom we turn after we have exhausted every other avenue.

Sometimes these places of strength and refuge seem to hold up. Yet we should not be deceived; none of them can save or rescue. The government, political figures, and culture will fail and perhaps even turn on us. All of our prosperity can be wiped out by terrible circumstances. We can persevere in our own strength for a time, but it will fail us as well. If these things are our strength and refuge we will grow cynical, despondent, and distressed, for according to human logic and worldly wisdom their chances of providing resounding success are slim to none. We will be afraid, exposed, and we will find only profound disappointment.

We do well to learn David’s lessons before circumstances force them upon us as they did Israel. No army or government will be able to provide refuge and to be a strong tower as YHWH is. No ideology or worldview can be a horn of salvation as YHWH is. No earthly prosperity or self-help philosophy will be able to serve as our shield as YHWH does. To build upon any of these is to build on sand; we do well to seek the Rock. We must love YHWH. We must find our strength and refuge in Him, for His purposes alone will endure for eternity.

It may take many repetitions and constant meditation, but we must absorb the lesson of Psalm 18:1-3 in a profound and deep way. Only YHWH can be our Rock, shield, and refuge. All others will fail and disappoint. Only in YHWH can we find joy and hope, for only YHWH can rescue and deliver. May we call upon YHWH who is worthy to be praised, and through His Son Jesus Christ be rescued and delivered from sin and death!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Discomfited Theology

And Naaman said, “If not, yet, I pray thee, let there be given to thy servant two mules’ burden of earth; for thy servant will henceforth offer neither burnt-offering nor sacrifice unto other gods, but unto YHWH. In this thing YHWH pardon thy servant: when my master goeth into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leaneth on my hand, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, YHWH pardon thy servant in this thing.”
And he said unto him, “Go in peace.”
So he departed from him a little way (2 Kings 5:17-19).

Biblical narratives discomfit easy, comfortable theology.

2 Kings 5:1-19 relates the story of the cleansing of Naaman the Aramean. The Arameans are “frenemies” of the northern Kingdom of Israel, often forming an alliance when threatened by Assyria to the north or if they want to take advantage of Judah to the south (cf. Isaiah 7:1-7), but more often an enemy, more likely to overcome the Israelites than to be defeated by them (e.g. 2 Kings 8:11-15, 10:32-33). Naaman was a distinguished and honorable captain of the Aramean army; YHWH had given him victory, perhaps even over Israel; yet he was a leper (2 Kings 5:1). A captured Israelite servant girl informed Naaman’s wife about the prophet in Samaria who could heal Naaman’s leprosy (2 Kings 5:2-4); Naaman was dispatched to Israel, eventually was sent to Elisha the man of God, and Naaman was healed of his leprosy by dipping seven times in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5:5-14). Naaman recognized that there was no god but the God of Israel; he wished to receive Israelite earth which he could ostensibly take back to his residence, and build upon it an altar so as to offer sacrifice to YHWH (2 Kings 5:15-17). Naaman then asked Elisha for pardon in one matter: when he goes into the house of Rimmon, the idol god of Aram, with his master the king of Aram, and prostrates himself there, he wished to be pardoned for doing so (2 Kings 5:18). Elisha told him to “go in peace”; he departed with the earth he requested (2 Kings 5:19).

Yet wait a moment! Did not YHWH tell Israel to put no other gods before Him, to prostrate before them and to serve them (Exodus 20:3-5)? Should Naaman not bring his sacrifices and offerings down to Jerusalem to the place where YHWH made His name to dwell (Deuteronomy 12:11)? If Naaman is so aware that there is no God but the God of Israel, should he not take that stand in Aram?

God’s working tends to be more complicated than we would like to admit. Yes, YHWH commanded Israel not to put other gods before Him; Israel and Judah would be cast into exile for not abiding by this commandment (2 Kings 17:7-23, 2 Chronicles 36:15-16). Yes, YHWH commanded that Israelites should bring their sacrifices to Jerusalem. But Naaman is not an Israelite; even while leprous and thus unclean, YHWH gave him victory, according to the author of 2 Kings. YHWH may well have given Naaman victory over Israel itself! If nothing else, YHWH allowed Naaman to advance in the Aramean army; it may be well be that YHWH elevated Naaman to his position because of his character, to provide him the opportunity not only for cleansing, but more importantly, to come to an understanding of His unique power in the universe.

In a similar way we can understand Naaman’s request for pardon. He is an Aramean, not an Israelite; in his station he is expected to show at least the pretense of honoring the god of Aram. We do well to note just how extraordinary this situation proves to be: while Israelites are falling over themselves to serve the Baals, this Aramean comes to the understanding that Israel should have maintained for 600 years! He may prostrate before and serve Rimmon in pretense, but Israel may be serving him substantively!

Naaman, a Gentile, wished to serve YHWH, God of Israel, as the only God; he wanted earth and to offer sacrifice to YHWH; he had to put on a pretense of serving Rimmon to satisfy his master. Whatever we may wish to think about these matters, Elisha, the prophet, the man of God, told him to “go in peace.” If Elisha, a mighty prophet of God, commends and pardons Naaman in this way, who are we to disagree? When Jesus, our Lord and Savior, commends Naaman (Luke 4:27), who are we to condemn?

What are we to make of Naaman’s faith and pardon? Some, wishing to defend their construct of theology at all costs, wish to cast aspersions on the narrative and any consequences that may be drawn from it. Others, looking to overthrow constructs at all costs, make much of such narratives and draw many consequences from it. Neither is a wise way forward. Naaman is extraordinary in every sense of the term; what God may allow for him in his situation is not what is expected out of the people of God who received Torah and will be held liable to it. Nevertheless, God is extraordinary, and does extraordinary things, and it is not for us His creation to force Him into tight theological boxes of our convenience. Any god that fits into a box is not the Creator God; what we know of Him is thanks to His revelation to us regarding Himself (Hebrews 1:1-3). We can be sure that there is far more that is true about Him than He has or could reveal to us (Isaiah 55:8-9). What seems contradictory to us in our perspective may not be at all from a higher perspective. God understands what He is doing; we are invited to get a glimpse into some of His work, but must never pretend that what He has revealed provides a fully comprehensible and accurate view of things.

Our basic impulse, as humans, is to know; once we know, then we can trust. With God we must trust in order to know; He has proven faithful, and we are to put our trust in Him so that we can have true wisdom and insight (Job 28:28, Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10, 15:33). Every so often we will get a glimpse of something that does not seem right or that fits existing categories. In those moments, will we despair in our discomfited theology, or will we be spurred on to greater trust in our great and magnificent God who is above all else?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wildfire!

So the tongue also is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire! And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell (James 3:5-6).

Those who live in the eastern part of North America can be forgiven for wondering why wildfire might be a great concern; most of the time the east is green and lush. In the West, however, wildfire is an almost ever-present danger. The land is frequently dry. It does not take much to start a wildfire that burns tens of thousands of acres: an unattended campfire. A car accident. Lightning. Wildfires are very dangerous indeed!

James, the brother of the Lord, understood the power of fire and how a great conflagration could start with a small catalyst. Parts of the Levant are not unlike the American West in that way. He speaks of fire in order to help his beloved fellow Christians to understand the great danger behind another element which can start great conflagrations with the smallest of catalysts: the human tongue.

James had begun by warning Christians about not having too many become teachers on account of the stricter judgment teachers will face (James 3:1); he continued by pointing out that the one who does not stumble in word is able to control the body (James 3:2). He explored that illustration further, speaking of how horses are controlled by a small bridle in the mouth, and also introduced the notion of how a large ship is directed by a small rudder (James 3:3-4). He then speaks of the power of the tongue despite its small size (James 3:5-6); he would go on to recognize that while humans have tamed all animals the tongue cannot be tamed, and pointed out that we bless God and curse man with the same mouth, and that such things should not be (James 3:7-12). James therefore has a strong concern with the dangers that come from the use of the tongue.

James does not mince words about the dangers involved. The tongue is small, but boasts greatly. Of all the members of the body it is the tongue that can defile the whole, can set the world on fire, as it itself is set on fire by hell; such is the only use of Gehenna outside of Jesus’ use of the term in the Gospels.

We today know all too well about the dangers of the tongue. We have seen many people whose lives and careers were ruined because of an ill-timed remark or the wide sharing of a thoughtless remark. One is reminded of the story of Justine Sacco, who before departing for Africa made a foolish joke regarding not getting AIDS in Africa because she was white on Twitter. During the flight her tweet was shared many times; when she landed she was informed of the outrage her tweet had instigated and that she had been fired. The Internet proved merciless to Ms. Sacco; people would be foolish for judging her and her character based only on one decontextualized statement. Nevertheless, her example illustrates just how important it is for us to give consideration to what we say.

The danger of the tongue comes from many different sources. It may be, as in the case above, with a poor joke that may reveal more about our thought processes than we would like to admit. It may be the insult or cutting remark uttered in anger; you can claim that you did not really mean it, and ask for forgiveness, and even receive it, but the scars from those words will always remain. It may be gossip spoken and spread, ultimately reaching its subject. As they begin the words may seem very small and insignificant, and perhaps on their own they would be. And yet such messages can take a life of their own; ask any politician whose not well thought out comment would ultimately dog him throughout the campaign and cost him the election.

We do well to recognize how our tongues are always a potential wildfire within us. There are some times and certain contexts in which a foolish or thoughtless word may not cause too much difficulty or distress, as a spark that falls after a wet period in the forest. On the other hand, there are plenty of times and situations in which the ground is dry and the plants desiccated, ready to burn long and hot with only the smallest of sparks; the wrong word in the wrong situation and your life as you know it can be destroyed, your soul in danger of hellfire, and you are left wishing you could just take those words back.

Unfortunately, you can never take back your words. But you and I and all of us in Christ can resolve to not say them in the first place. In many ways wildfire control is dependent on humans using fire properly, and the same goes with our tongues. We must use the tongue to glorify God and bless man made in His image. We must give thought to how we speak for and about others so as to build up and not gossip, slander, or tear down. Foolish jesting is not worth our reputation and standing. May we all seek to control the wildfire in our mouths and seek to restrain our tongues!

Ethan R. Longhenry