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

Laodicea

“I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich; and white garments, that thou mayest clothe thyself, and that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest; and eyesalve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see” (Revelation 3:18).

The Christians in Laodicea thought they had everything. In fact, they had nothing.

God had given Jesus a vision to give to John on Patmos; it began with messages directed to the seven churches of Asia, of which Laodicea was the seventh (Revelation 1:1-3:13). Jesus had at least something good to say about the previous six churches; He has nothing good to say about Laodicea.

Laodicea was a prominent city of Asia in the Lycus River valley. Many of the things which made the city famous are spoken of in some way by Jesus: the water which came into town from hot springs outside of the city would be lukewarm by the time it arrived. The city was known for its garment manufacturing, a great medical school and a local powder used as an eyesalve, and for its great wealth, placed on important trade routes. When the city was leveled by earthquake in the 60s it did not obtain Imperial assistance to rebuild; it used its own resources. A lot of people would have considered Laodicea a great place to live; no doubt many would be tempted to hold the church and its members in high esteem. They believed in Jesus; they partook of the wealth of which the city had become famous.

And yet that wealth had blinded, paralyzed, and deformed the Christians of Laodicea spiritually. Jesus indicted them as lukewarm, being neither cold nor hot (Revelation 3:15-16): they provided neither warmth in cold nor refreshment in heat, but wavered in the middle, leading to instant revulsion. How did they manifest lukewarmness? They said to themselves they were rich and thus had need of nothing. Jesus told them they, in truth, were wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked (Revelation 3:17). Jesus brought home the message in a most devastating way: the Christians who had a lot of gold needed to buy from Jesus gold refined by fire; Christians who enjoyed a thriving garment industry needed white garments from Jesus with which to clothe themselves; Christians who had easy access to the best eyesalve of the day needed Jesus’ eyesalve so they could see (Revelation 3:18). Jesus said such things because of His love for them: He reproves and chastens those whom He loves, and so the Laodiceans ought to prove zealous and repent (Revelation 3:19).

What had gone so wrong for the Christians in Laodicea? How could they have reached the point where Jesus could say nothing positive about them? How could they have been so deceived and deluded? By the moment Jesus wrote to them, the Laodicean Christians had become as “thorny” soil, deceived by their wealth (Matthew 13:22/Mark 4:19/Luke 8:14).

Riches and wealth prove alluring for all sorts of understandable but ultimately unprofitable reasons. With wealth we are able to provide for ourselves and others, yes, but we also start putting our confidence in looking toward the future in that wealth. We feel self-sufficient and in charge if we have wealth. Other people start treating us as more valuable and honorable because of that wealth. Soon we might find ourselves seeking to preserve and grow our wealth for the sake of maintaining it. Some people are able to grow wealth without actively harming or oppressing others; far too often, however, wealth is gained by one at the expense of others. With wealth comes decadence in its many forms: often no appetite is left for seeking justice, advocating for those less fortunate, or zeal for a cause, lest these pursuits somehow jeopardize our wealth and standing. We want to please all people; we want to avoid suffering at any cost. With wealth we become fat and happy.

On a spiritual level wealth proves a disaster. God is the Source of all blessings and gifts; without what God has given, there could be no wealth (James 1:17). One’s wealth all too easily displaces God from the center of one’s life; the wealthy tend to serve Mammon more than God (Matthew 6:24). Maintaining wealth works against all of the demands of believers in Christ Jesus toward dependence on God, humility in disposition, zeal in righteousness and justice, and willingness to suffer affliction so as to grow in faith (cf. Ephesians 4:1-5:21, Colossians 3:1-17). Furthermore, even if there are spiritual warning signs to be seen, the great discomfort which would be caused by recognizing the dangers leads to strong resistance to think of them as problematic. In this way the Laodicean Christians presumed themselves rich and sufficient but proved spiritually wretched, poor, and blind.

Thus Jesus counseled them to suffer, buying gold from Him as refined by fire (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-7); they were to again turn to Him in repentance for cleansing, receiving white garments to cover their nakedness and shame; they were to prove willing to open their eyes to see their true condition before God in Christ, anointed with eyesalve so as to see (Revelation 3:18). Only through suffering would they learn true humility and faith; only by repenting could they find a way to trust in God in Jesus; all these things could only take place if they proved willing to see their true condition. And so it continues to be with the wealthy.

Jesus’ message to the church in Laodicea should be heard as a clarion call to repentance for Christians today. In the Western world all of us, even if poor by modern standards, maintain far more wealth than was present in the ancient Roman world, and enjoy far greater security, comfort, and health than even the wealthiest Romans. The church in the modern era has all too often fallen into decadence, like Laodicea, presuming itself wealthy and in need of nothing, but truly wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. The state of the church in the Western world speaks for itself.

And so Christians today do well to turn to the Lord Jesus and buy from Him that gold refined by fire, proving willing to suffer for the Cause. In the New Testament the Christians who suffered more in life and in persecution tended to be more spiritually mature than those who did not suffer. The way of Christ offers no bypass around suffering: if we wish to reach Zion, we must go through Calvary. Christians must repent of their trust in material wealth, entitlement programs, or their own ingenuity, but repent and seek clothing from Jesus. We are exposed in nakedness to all sorts of dangers even if we have nice clothing and comfortable homes; only Jesus can cover our nakedness and shame. Christians must prove willing to see their plight and not turn aside from its ugliness. How many will enter perdition because they were deceived by the riches of this world? May we prove willing to suffer for the Lord Jesus, repent of our confidence in riches, and gain the victory in faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Shaking the Dust

“And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, as ye go forth out of that house or that city, shake off the dust of your feet” (Matthew 10:14).

At some point we must come to the realization: people have made up their minds. They will not listen. It’s now on them.

In Matthew 10:1-42 Jesus commissioned the twelve disciples to go out and proclaim the Gospel; this event is called the “limited commission” since it lasted for a specific period of time while the disciples remained under Jesus’ tutelage (cf. Mark 6:7-13, Luke 9:1-6). The disciples were to go to the villages and towns of Israel and proclaiming the imminent coming of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 10:5-7); they were to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the unclean, cast out demons, and give freely as they had received (Matthew 10:8). They were not to bring any provisions with them, but instead rely upon the goodwill and hospitality of a house in each village or town they visited; they should pronounce peace upon houses in which they were received favorably, but to hold their peace if received unfavorably (Matthew 10:9-13). If they came upon a village or town in which no one would receive them, or hear their message, they were to shake the dust off of their feet as they left the town; on the day of judgment it would prove more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town (Matthew 10:14-15; cf. Genesis 18:17-19:29)!

Jesus’ call to shake the dust off of their feet proved quite memorable; it remains a feature of the narrative in all three synoptic Gospels (Mark 6:11, Luke 9:5). To shake the dust off the feet is a ritualized act of judgment denoting the separation of all association between the person and that location. They wanted nothing to do with the message; the disciple now has nothing to do with their place. They now stand liable for judgment for not heeding the Gospel message; the disciple wants no share in that judgment, and so removes any trace of connection by removing the dust from his feet. Sodom and Gomorrah had long become proverbial in Israel as a bastion of wickedness and a model of God’s judgment (cf. Isaiah 1:9-10); for any village or town of Israel to be liable to a fate worse than Sodom or Gomorrah was shocking and startling. Jesus meant for His warning in Matthew 10:15 to shock; sure, Sodom and Gomorrah were sinful places, but they never heard the Gospel of the Kingdom, so how much worse off will be those who could have enjoyed all the benefits of the Kingdom but turned aside from it on account of their rebellion against God’s purposes in Christ (cf. 2 Peter 2:20-22)?

Jesus’ followers took His exhortation to shake the dust off of their feet seriously, and well beyond the “limited commission” of Matthew 10:1-42; when the Jewish people of Antioch of Pisidia rejected Paul and his associates, they shook the dust off of their feet and went to Iconium (Acts 13:51). They performed this ritualistic action even though some among the Antiochenes in Pisidia heard the Gospel and accepted it (Acts 13:48, 52).

These days few Christians go about as itinerant proclaimers of the Gospel; few, therefore, would find themselves needing to literally, concretely shake the dust off of their feet. And yet all Christians ought to be proclaiming the Gospel in their own lives to their family members, friends, associates, and others (Matthew 28:18-20); no doubt they will come across people who will reject the message no matter how well presented or embodied (cf. Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23). Thus, even if Christians do not literally remove dirt from feet anymore, they most likely will have opportunity to proverbially knock the dust off of their feet and resign people to the judgment awaiting them.

Many people today might consider this harsh and unloving: how can we just resign people to their doom? If Christians showed absolutely no care or concern for such people, or despised them, then they would indeed by harsh and unloving. But Christians “shake the dust off of their feet” only after they have proclaimed the Gospel message and it was denied or rejected. The Christian has manifested enough love for the person to share with them this good news.

If anything, Christians must learn that the time does come to “shake the dust off the feet” and to move on, so to speak, to the next village. We would understand this if we had a little more distance, very much like the kind of itinerant preaching performed by the disciples and the Apostles. Yet we often seek to convert those to whom we are close and whom we love deeply. We deeply desire their salvation; we do not want to imagine they will be condemned. We are easily tricked into thinking that constant exhortation will move the needle and encourage them to convert.

Yet no one has ever been nagged into the Kingdom of Heaven. To constantly preach to people who have made it clear they do not want to hear speaks toward the insecurities and fears of the preacher, and his or her unwillingness to step back and respect the decision which has clearly been made. We do well to remember that we are to love others as God has loved us in Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:2); God has provided the means of salvation in Christ, and has done everything He can to save us, but does not coerce or compel us into accepting it; we must come to Him in faith, not under compulsion, but willingly. Love does not seek its own (1 Corinthians 13:5).

As God has loved us and therefore allowed us to go our own ways, even to our own harm, so we must love others and allow them to go in their own ways even to their own harm. To shake off the feet does not mean to become indifferent or hostile to people; we must still love them and do good for them as we have opportunity (Galatians 6:10, 1 Peter 4:19). Shaking off the feet is the way we demonstrate our respect for their decision: they have not really rejected us, but the Gospel, and God will hold them accountable for that. We have done what we could. The situation is sad and lamentable, and we wish it were not so; but God does not compel or coerce, and therefore neither do we. As long as people have life they have an opportunity to repent and change, and it might well be that they remember how you had told them of Jesus, and may come to you again to hear the message anew and afresh. If not, the day of judgment will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than it will be for them.

Proclamation of the Gospel is not about us; it is about what God has done in Jesus and the importance for everyone to know about it. Not everyone will accept it; perhaps we could have presented it in a more winsome way, or could have better manifest its message in our lives, but ultimately God will hold each person accountable for what they did with the message. Those who reject the Gospel, regardless of motivation, will be liable to terrible judgment. God would have them to be saved, and wants us to communicate that message; once the message is communicated, it is no longer on us. If it is rejected, we move on. May we prove willing to shake the dust off of our feet when necessary while doing good to all people as we have opportunity, and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Blessing of Children

Lo, children are a heritage of YHWH / and the fruit of the womb is his reward (Psalm 127:3).

Children are a blessing. We may need a constant reminder of that, especially when they are young, but it remains true.

Psalm 127:1-5 stands among the “psalms of ascent” (Psalms 121:1-134:3); they were sung as Israelites would ascend to Jerusalem and the Temple to present themselves before YHWH during the festivals and feast days as commanded (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). Psalm 127 is the only psalm of ascent attributed to Solomon; he meditated upon YHWH’s provisions for His people. If YHWH has not built a house or kept a city, its builders and watchmen labor in vain (Psalm 127:1); it proved vain to get up early, stay up late, and overwork in worry, for YHWH gives sleep to those whom He loves (Psalm 127:2). Solomon then turned to speak of children: they are a heritage and a reward from YHWH (Psalm 127:3). Children are compared to arrows in the hand of a mighty man (Psalm 127:4); the man who has a quiver full of them is blessed, and will not be put to shame when he or they speak with his/their enemies in the gate (Psalm 127:5).

In context children are reckoned as part of YHWH’s provision of security for His people. Who would want to resist a mighty man with many arrows? A man with few allies may be easily manipulated or bullied by his enemies in the handling of civic affairs in the gate of the town (cf. Job 5:4); if the man has many children who stand up for him, his enemies will find it harder to challenge him. Whole families would have ascended to Jerusalem for the feasts and festivals; such a psalm would reinforce confidence in YHWH for security and protection, and commendation of the value of children in growing a prosperous household.

The covenant between YHWH and Israel was very much a this-worldly covenant: it does speak to certain spiritual things and realities, but the conception of its obligations, blessings, and curses is very much of the physical realm (cf. Leviticus 26:1-46). An Israelite would therefore recognize himself as blessed by YHWH if he maintained his ancestral property and lived to see his grandchildren or even great-grandchildren (e.g. Genesis 50:22-23). An Israelite would reckon himself as cursed by YHWH if his ancestral property was overrun by others, especially non-Israelites, and if he died either childless or if his children died in his lifetime (e.g. Ruth 1:1-5). Hope for the future, therefore, was invested in children: children who would grow up, inherit the land, and provide for his parents in their old age (the meaning of “honor your father and mother”; cf. Matthew 15:4-6). Children, therefore, proved quite important as a hope for a continued share in Israel and as some security against future distress.

Today we live in a very different world than ancient Israel. The individual and his or her fulfillment is exalted above almost every other conception of what is good. People have children if and when they want to have children; if they do not want children, they have many means by which to hinder procreation. Parents are expected to sacrifice for their children, but children are not expected to provide for their parents; that is the job of investment accounts, Social Security, and nursing homes. For these reasons, and others, many in culture have concluded that having children is a lot of work and not a lot of return on investment; therefore, many are not having children at all.

It is nearly impossible to explain the value and benefits of having children to anyone who has made individual, personal fulfillment the highest goal in life: by their very nature children demand a lot of resources and personal sacrifice. Children teach us a lot about ourselves and our role in the world, but at a high cost to ourselves. Not a few in the past have felt the obligation to “pay forward” the energy and investment their parents poured into them; such an “obligation” is not felt as acutely anymore. Perhaps only biological impulse is left to persuade many people to have children, and even then, not for all.

Children, therefore, are no longer considered blessings in society; they are envisioned primarily as dependents, ravenous consumers of time and energy. Our culture thus indicts itself as a culture of death, one doomed to obsolescence; a culture without children is a culture without much of a future.

Christians must affirm the value of children. Yes, it is true that our hope is in the resurrection, and not in propagation of children (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1-40); yet, in Christ, we recognize that we are all children of our heavenly Father, whom He created as His offspring to enjoy in relationship (John 17:20-23, Acts 17:28, Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:19). God shared love within Himself, and He was therefore moved to create the universe, placing within it man made in His image; God has worked to reconcile mankind to itself, suffering greatly in the process, in love, grace, and mercy extended to His children (Ephesians 2:1-18, 1 John 4:7-11). If God were first and foremost all about His “personal fulfillment,” then we would be condemned, lost in our sins.

Children are to honor their parents (Ephesians 6:1-2); a Christian who does not provide for his or her parents if they need it in their old age has abandoned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8, 16). Yet parents have children to share in life with them, to build and grow relationships with them, and to enjoy the fruit of a good life: grandchildren. Yes, children will be the source of pain and suffering as well as joy; such is the way life goes under the sun.

Ultimately nothing proves as humbling as having children, but few things prove as astonishing and powerful. In parenthood we get to experience life differently; we learn responsibility, love, care, humility, and glad suffering on behalf of another, and in a small way embody the love of God toward mankind. The problem is not with children; the problem is in how we ascertain blessings, our attachment to the fleeting idol of personal fulfillment, and the ultimate futility of the narcissistic, self-absorbed life.

God did not make us to be islands unto ourselves. God did not make us as radical individuals. God did not make us to strive for personal fulfillment above all. God made us to seek relationship with Him and one another. God made us to learn what it means to live by experiencing life as a child, as a young adult, and then as parents. May we affirm children as blessings, both in what we enjoy about them as well as in the humility and perspective we gain through them, and trust in God for protection and salvation!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Molech

And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin (Jeremiah 32:35).

Shame is baked into the name; the horror and the agony endure.

Among YHWH’s greatest concern for His people Israel involved the assimilation of the practices of the Canaanites and other nations whom YHWH would drive out before them. Israel was commanded time and time again to not serve the gods of the Canaanites and their related nations; unfortunately, for generations, Israel would not listen. Of all the idolatrous cults of the Canaanites, none proved as pernicious and wicked as the cult of a god which was known in terms of the Semitic root mlk: Melek / Milcom / Melquart. Later Jewish scribes, embarrassed and ashamed at the deeds of their ancestors, used the consonants mlk but inserted the vowels from the Hebrew boshet, “shameful thing”; thus we know “Melek” as Molech (also Moloch).

Melek is the Hebrew word for “king”; Melek as a god was known as the “Great King.” The cult of Melek was strongly associated with the cult of Baal, as can be seen in Jeremiah’s denunciation in Jeremiah 32:35; among the Ammonites Melek was known as Milcom (Malkam; 1 Kings 11:5, 33, 2 Kings 23:13; cf. 1 Kings 11:7); the Tyrians spoke of him as Melek-Qart, “King of the City,” which would become shortened to Melqart, and remain an important deity for both Tyre and its colony Carthage for generations. We do not know much about Melek; some scholars have even suggested we should understand mlk as a type of sacrifice more than a deity. Whether a god in and of himself, or just a sacrifice to the gods, the awful and terrible fact remains: Canaanites, and Israelites, would make their children pass through the fire to mlk/Melek.

The condemnation of offering children to Melek is found in many places in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5, 2 Kings 23:10, Jeremiah 7:31, 32:35). It gave comfort to many to suggest the prophets spoke in hyperbole; that children really were not offered to Melek; who could do such an abominable thing? But Greek and Roman authors spoke of child sacrifices in Carthage, and we have found remains of such sacrifices as well as inscriptions which speak of such sacrifices including the word mlk. It is horrifying; it is terrible; but, by all accounts, it actually happened. People sacrificed their beloved children to Melek.

What would motivate people to do such a terrible and awful thing? We read of its condemnation; we are not explicitly told why people would do so. Nevertheless, we can imagine some possible reasons. For generations the Canaanites had served Melek and offered their children to him, either to placate him or to gain his favor. Perhaps they believed Melek would allow them to maintain some rule or power; perhaps they hoped Melek would give them strength over their enemies, something akin to Mesha’s sacrifice of his son to Chemosh which seemed to change the calculus of the battle for Moab according to 2 Kings 3:27.

We have no reason to believe the Israelites, or the Canaanites for that matter, held their children in derision or contempt. By all accounts, they loved their children like we love ours. Yet they felt obligated to offer some of their children to Melek. It had to be done, after all, to preserve their nation. That was just the way it was in the land of Canaan. The Israelites saw it, and accepted that logic. It had to be done. Melek needed to be satiated. Beloved children would die.

Such sacrifices would go on for years; no doubt many were convinced that it worked somehow. But they “worked” until they didn’t: the Assyrians overpowered the Canaanite states, followed by the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Macedonians, and they did not offer their children to Melek. Carthaginian offerings to Melqart did not grant them victory over the Romans.

The Israelites who returned from their exile had learned their lesson. “Melek” became Molech; the place where children were offered, once considered holy to Melek, was now seen as defiled and haunted. Jeremiah prophetically had pronounced the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, where people of Judah sacrificed their children to Melek, as the Valley of Slaughter (Jeremiah 7:31-32, 19:6-15); Israelites after the exile filled the Valley of Hinnom with garbage and burned it there; its awfulness inspired the word for hell in the New Testament, Gehenna (cf. Matthew 5:22, 29-30, 10:28).

We are rightly horrified at the prospect of slaughtering children to Molech. We cannot imagine that we would do anything of the sort. Yet we must be careful lest we overly demonize our ancestors in the faith; we might miss how we have made our own forms of Molech, and prove blind to what may condemn us in the end.

We could perhaps discover many forms of Molech in the modern world (confidence in military intervention in other places, corruption of children through abuse or instruction in deviant forms of sexuality, treatment of the poor, marginalized, and the oppressed, etc.), but in the Western world we should grapple with the prospect that we have made freedom a type of Molech in many ways. Every year scores of children are slaughtered in the womb in the name of a woman’s choice regarding her body. Some of the stories are tragic (women coerced into abortion by relatives, either her own or those of the father); others are horrifying in their callousness (women who think nothing of getting an abortion in order to demonstrate their rights). And yet, for those who advocate for women to maintain the right to abort in the name of choice/freedom, such is the necessary sacrifice for the cause. Those children have to die, after all, to preserve reproductive freedom. That is just the way it is done in the Western world. Likewise, every year scores of children and other innocent people are slaughtered with people with guns. Some of the stories are tragic (children coming upon a family member’s gun and accidentally killing someone); others are horrifying in their callousness (mass shooters, especially mass shooters in schools). And yet, for those who advocate an absolute right to maintain whatever arsenal a citizen might desire in the name of choice/freedom, such is the necessary sacrifice for the cause. Those children have to die, after all, to preserve our Second Amendment freedoms. That is just the way it is done in America.

No doubt people today believe their sacrifices to the Molech of freedom are convinced that it is working somehow. It might “work” until it doesn’t. And then it will be our descendants who might well look in horror and astonishment at us for what we justified and did, just as we look at our ancestors in our nation and in the faith in horror and astonishment for what they justified and did.

Israel was wrong from the beginning; Melek did not exist. YHWH, and YHWH alone, would give Israel blessings and victory and strength; setbacks, defeat, and weakness were due to an unwillingness to put that trust in YHWH. Molech’s danger remains, not because Molech exists, but because we are deceived into setting up Molechs and serving them, feeling powerless to do otherwise, while at the same time we give Molech the power over us. We prove willing to put fealty to a principle or an idea over natural care and compassion for people. We become afraid at the prospect of various dangers, and thus prove willing to justify all kinds of awful and terrible behavior so as to maintain the veneer of safety and comfort. We might look to legislation to fix things, but legislation can only try to enforce certain norms of behavior; it does not fix the underlying cultural trends which would justify or commend those behaviors in the first place. If we will stop serving “Molech,” we must repent, and no longer put our confidence in the ways of the world imprisoned by the principalities and powers, but to trust in the God who made us and in His Son who triumphed over the powers and principalities in His death and resurrection. It may lead to our alienation, persecution, and suffering; our vindication will come from God. May we serve the One True God and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry