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

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 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

Left Your First Love

“But I have this against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love. Remember therefore whence thou art fallen, and repent and do the first works; or else I come to thee, and will move thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent” (Revelation 2:4-5).

Many would have reckoned the church in Ephesus to be sound.

On a Lord’s day while in exile on Patmos John received a vision of the Lord as one like a Son of Man and the Ancient of Days (Revelation 1:9-20). John was commissioned to write what he saw and send it to the seven churches of Asia; before the vision would proceed Jesus, in the Spirit, would communicate specific messages to each of those seven churches (Revelation 2:1-3:22). Ephesus, the main city of Asia, would be the first destination; therefore, Ephesus was addressed first.

Jesus had many good things to say about the church in Ephesus: the Christians there had worked hard. They had maintained patience in general but did not endure evil men; they had put so-called apostles to the test and found them to be false; they hated the works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus also hated (Revelation 2:2-3, 6). The Christians in Ephesus had manifestly taken Paul’s warning to heart: they were on the lookout for the wolves that would not spare the flock; they stood firm for the truth and resisted all those who taught doctrines contrary to it (cf. Acts 20:29-31). The church in Ephesus was strong for the truth.

But Jesus had something against the church in Ephesus: they left their first love (Revelation 2:4). Jesus summoned them to repentance, to remember where they had fallen, and to do the works they had done before, or else He would come and remove their candlestick/lampstand from its place (Revelation 2:5)!

The Ephesian Christians were battle hardened, but they also proved battle weary. The passion and zeal which had marked their lives when they first heard the Gospel had cooled. They did not abandon the truth; they did not deny the Lord; but the love, the fire, the passion, and the zeal were no longer really there.

And so Jesus called upon them to “backslide,” to change their hearts and minds and to reignite the passion and zeal they once relished. The consequences for not doing so were strong: Jesus would remove their candlestick, their presence before Him.

Jesus went on to write to many other churches regarding situations which most of us would deem far more dire than what transpired in Ephesus: Christians practicing sexual immorality, idolatry, or so wealthy they thought they had need of nothing from the Lord (Revelation 2:8-3:22). And yet, even in the midst of all of those difficulties, it is only the church in Ephesus which is explicitly warned about the removal of their candlestick.

How could that be? It is not as if sexual immorality or idolatry can be justified; God would judge and condemn all who would persist in immorality, and Jesus warned explicitly as much (e.g. Revelation 2:22-23). And yet in those churches some lived faithfully before God; thus, their candlestick would remain. Why would the Ephesians be in such danger? Such is the power, and importance, of love.

God is love (1 John 4:8); His love has motivated His creation of the universe and His disposition toward it. Jesus embodied the love of God for humanity, dying on the cross for our sins (John 3:16, 14:6, 1 John 4:7-11). The foundational command of Christianity is to love one another as God has loved us (John 13:35, 1 John 4:7-21). Thus, it is no hyperbole when Paul said that if he knew all the mysteries and had all knowledge but did not have love, he was nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2).

True sacrificial love is the fuel of any healthy relationship; husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). The marriage relationship in which love has gone cold is in danger of fraying and being destroyed; the only solution is for each person in the marriage to repent and renew the fires of love. Thus it is within the church: any Christian whose love for the Lord and/or His people has gone cold is in danger of falling away from the Lord and being cut off from His body; the only solution is to repent and renew the fire.

Jesus knew of the faith of the Ephesian Christians; but He could do nothing with them as long as their love remained cold; He could do more with lukewarm Laodicea than He could with loveless Ephesus! We hope and pray they renewed their passion for the Lord’s purposes and remained in good standing in His presence for some time.

While Jesus speaks in the Spirit to seven real and specific churches in Asia, we should not imagine the messages are restricted to those specific seven churches. In many respects the seven churches of Asia are paradigmatic churches; over time many other local congregations will manifest many of the same characteristics.

This is especially true in terms of Ephesus, and it is a danger we do well to consider. It is easy for Christians to make Christianity all about the truth: the acceptance of the truth, adherence to the truth, and chastisement for any variation from the truth. In such an absolutist perspective the only thing that becomes important is where people stand in relation to truth. It is all about obedience to the truth. “Sound churches” hold to a firm doctrinal stance; everyone else is apostate.

Christianity is about Jesus, who is the truth (John 14:6); we must obey the truth of the Gospel (Romans 1:5). We must be on guard against the dangers of false teaching (1 Timothy 4:1). But Christianity, in the end, is about speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:16); the church in Ephesus is our warning sign that a church can make a firm stand for the truth and yet still apostatize because they have abandoned the love of God in Christ.

Truth, therefore, is necessary, but not sufficient in and of itself. It never has been and never will be. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, because He is the embodiment of the God who is love (John 3:16, 14:6, 1 John 4:8). Health in a local congregation can never be defined merely by doctrinal positions; Ephesus would pass that test, but was about to be removed from its place before Jesus! There is more hope for a church with misdirected passion than one who accepts the truth but has no zeal for the Lord’s purposes; it is much easier to channel passion properly than to revive cold hearts.

Thus, even though many would have reckoned the church in Ephesus to be sound, it was on the verge of apostasy. The church in Ephesus had the truth, but they did not have love, and so they were nothing. Faithfulness in the truth only has benefit if it is motivated by deep love and passion for God and His purpose. May we stand firm in the truth of God, zealous for His purposes, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Lord’s Prayer (1)

After this manner therefore pray ye:
Our Father who art in heaven / Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (Matthew 6:9-13).

The Lord’s prayer is extremely familiar to many people, profoundly simple in presentation, yet profoundly compelling in its substance.

Jesus, in the middle of what has been popularly deemed the Sermon on the Mount, condemned those forms of Israelite “religious” behavior, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, which is done to be seen by men; such people have received their reward, but it does not come from His Father (Matthew 6:1-17). In terms of prayer Jesus warned against both praying so as to be seen as holy by others and using vain repetitions presuming to be heard by uttering many words, the latter of which was a common practice among the Gentiles (Matthew 6:5-8). Jesus commended praying in secret, encouraging people to remember that God knows what they need before they ask Him (Matthew 6:6, 8). He then provided what has become known as the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 as a model prayer.

Jesus offered His prayer as a model prayer: He encouraged His disciples to pray “like” this, not necessarily this precisely (Matthew 6:9). There is no transgression in praying the Lord’s prayer as written or as liturgically set forth (as we will discuss below); but it is not required to pray the exact words of the Lord’s prayer. In many respects Jesus provided the types of things for which we are to pray as much as actual words to pray.

Jesus began His prayer by addressing the Father in heaven and the holiness of His name (Matthew 6:9). Jesus encouraged direct petition and appeal to God in the name, or by the authority, of Jesus Himself (John 16:23-24). He is our “Father in heaven,” not an earthly father, although the parallel account of the Lord’s prayer in Luke 11:2 makes no reference to heaven. To “hallow” is to make or declare something as holy; Christians do well to proclaim God’s name as holy, and to show appropriate reverence before Him (cf. 1 Peter 1:15-17). Prayer demands a balancing act: God would have us speak with Him as our Father, and thus in great intimacy in relationship, but also as the Holy One worthy of honor and reverence, thus not glibly or casually. To emphasize God’s holiness so that people are afraid to even address God in prayer warps what ought to be a strong relationship; to emphasize the intimacy in relationship so as to justify speaking or addressing God as if a good buddy disrespects the sanctity of the Name. In prayer we do well to thank God for all His blessings and provisions for us, and ground our expectations from Him in that light (cf. Colossians 3:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Jesus asked for God’s Kingdom to come (Matthew 6:10). Matthew has Jesus speak of the “Kingdom of Heaven” throughout (cf. Matthew 4:17, 23); His words here indicate how “heaven” in such verses is a way of speaking about the God who dwells and reigns from heaven (cf. Mark 1:15, Luke 4:43). A kingdom is that over which a king reigns; the Kingdom of God, therefore, would involve the coming of the reign of God. What would it mean for God’s reign to come? As Jesus continued: that the will of God be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). Jesus would thus have Christians pray for God’s will and reign to be manifest on earth as fully as it is in heaven; as long as evil and sin reign on earth, this prayer proves necessary. Yes, the Kingdom was established in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension (Colossians 1:13, Revelation 5:9-10); and yet it does not take long to recognize that God’s will is not being done on earth as it is in heaven. Christians should pray for more people to hear the Gospel and obey it (Romans 1:16); we should pray for God to strengthen His people to better discern His purposes in Christ and to realize them (Ephesians 3:14-21).

Jesus asked for God to give us our “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). “Daily” translates Greek epiousion; the term connotes the needful thing, being for today. In this way Jesus expects believers to give voice to ask God for the basic needs of life: food, drink, shelter, etc. Far too often people take these things for granted, or might presume that God is too busy or great to be bothered by such trifles. God is the Creator of all; everything we are and have ultimately came from God, and thus we are totally dependent on God for everything (James 1:17). We should ask God to provide for us the things needful for the day, being careful to delineate what proves needful from what proves superfluous.

Jesus exhorted people to pray for forgiveness as they have forgiven others (Matthew 6:12). Jesus spoke literally of debts (Greek opheilema), yet referred to trespass or transgression (cf. Matthew 6:13-15). Asking God for the forgiveness of sin is a crucial element of prayer: we continually fall short of God’s glory, we continually transgress or not do the right even as we grow in holiness and sanctification, and we remain dependent on God’s forgiveness (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). God is faithful to forgive us if we truly and fully confess what we have done wrong and when we have not done what is good and right (1 John 1:9). Yet Jesus has also inserted a bit of a “poison pill” in how He framed forgiveness: to ask God for forgiveness of sin as we have forgiven others may prove problematic for us if we have not proven willing to forgive others of their sins against us. We might end up not really praying for forgiveness at all!

Jesus concluded His prayer with an appeal to not be led into temptation but to be delivered from the Evil One (Matthew 6:13). We should not imagine that Jesus suggested God Himself leads people into temptation: God tempts no one in such ways (James 1:13). The appeal instead is for God to not allow us to be led into temptation, to either intervene Himself for us against the forces of evil or to strengthen us to endure them. The traditional liturgical form of the Lord’s prayer asks to be delivered from evil; the presence of the definite article indicates that it is the Evil One, Satan or the Devil, under discussion, not evil in the abstract. In this way Jesus encourages Christians to pray to resist the temptations of sin and for strength to overcome the forces of evil (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13, Ephesians 6:10-18).

The liturgical form of the Lord’s prayer concludes with “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen,” present in many manuscripts of Matthew, but not in the most ancient authorities. It is right and appropriate to give God such glory, as it is present in many doxologies throughout the New Testament (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21, 1 Timothy 6:16); but here it is a later addition, inserting into the text a doxology which would have been used when the Lord’s prayer was recited as part of the daily office.

Jesus’ words in the Lord’s prayer are few, but they say quite a lot. They provide a paradigm by which we may understand the types of things for which we ought to pray. May we continually pray to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus in ways consistent with the Lord’s prayer, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Good and Pleasant Unity

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is / for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Few joys prove as sweet as harmony in relational unity.

The middle of Book V of the Psalms is dedicated to “psalms of ascent” (Psalms 120:1-134:3). These would be psalms for Israelites to sing as they made the journey up to Jerusalem in general or specifically to the Temple complex on Mount Zion. Most of the psalms of ascent praise YHWH for His greatness and for manifesting Himself among His people on Zion, or represent praises of Zion itself. Yet Psalm 133:1-3, tucked in toward the end of the psalms of ascent, is a meditation on the benefits of unity among brothers.

David proclaimed how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity (Psalm 133:1); he compared its pleasantry to the anointing oil which would run down Aaron’s head, beard, and onto his garments, and the dew of Mount Hermon coming upon Zion (Psalm 133:2-3). In Exodus 30:22-33 YHWH described the oil of anointing and its purpose to Moses; in Leviticus 8:12 Moses actually anoints Aaron as high priest “to sanctify him.” In a semi-arid climate like Israel, mountain dew provides a welcome and relieving form of moisture which allows for plants to grow and flourish; Hermon, in the north, in antiquity maintained snow all year round, and it would have been possible for moist air from Hermon to provide dew on Mount Zion near Jerusalem.

While we may not have chosen these images to illustrate the beauty of relational unity, they remain powerful and profound if we meditate upon them. Through them David asserted the holiness and refreshment which relational unity provides.

Holiness would be on the mind of all those ascending to Jerusalem; the journey would have no doubt been for one of the three annual festivals for which all Israelites were expected to stand before YHWH (Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Weeks/Shauvot/Pentecost, Feast of Booths; Deuteronomy 16:16-17). Aaron was Moses’ brother and an Israelite; he only became the high priest, set apart from the people to God’s service, once the anointing oil was placed upon his head. The anointing oil as envisioned upon Aaron is the moment of dedication and consecration, the powerful ritual of setting Aaron apart for YHWH’s service, a reminder of YHWH’s covenant with Israel and Israel’s relationship with YHWH.

Aaron was consecrated with oil running down his head; in its own way, YHWH refreshed Zion with dew from Hermon falling upon its crest. Dew can be collected and used for drinking; plants take in the dew and provide their fruit. Dew is a little bit of moisture in a dry place; it is a little bit of refreshment in the midst of bitterness; it is a sign of life in the midst of barrenness.

David spoke of unity among brothers (Psalm 133:1). No doubt the primary and first referent is among brothers in the flesh, and by extension within the family. Such an application makes good contextual sense: Israelites did not go up to Jerusalem by themselves; they would travel in family groups (cf. Luke 2:41-45). We can imagine a caravan featuring an extended family of brothers with their parents, wives, and children negotiating the narrow roads up to Jerusalem; even under the best of family circumstances there would have been moments of friction and conflict, let alone if any previous animosity existed between them. The journey would have provided ample time to have it out, reconcile, or perhaps unfortunately lead to greater division or separation. In such an environment Psalm 133:1-3 is an exhortative reminder of the value of family, the benefit of unity within the group, and would hopefully orient the mind of all on the journey to put aside their differences, contextualize their momentary frustrations, and appreciate the benefits of having each other and maintaining unity among one another. Brothers dwelling in unity can support each other, refresh each other, benefit each other; they can more easily prosper, and their enemies will be put to shame. Brothers fighting each other cause great stress, strain, and perhaps impoverishment or even death. Unity is far more pleasant and desirable!

We can draw similar applications within families today; Ephesians 5:22-6:4 sets forth how husbands and wives, parents and children can dwell in unity. In Christ we can also extend the application to the church, since we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19-22).

Unity among Christians is holy and refreshing. Christians are supposed to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3): our unity does not spring from our own striving, but from what God has accomplished in Jesus, making us all into one man (Ephesians 2:11-18). It is a unique and awesome privilege to be made a part of the people of God and invited to share in the relational unity which marks the Godhead (John 17:20-23)! God manifests His plan in Christ in the unity of the church, displaying it before the powers and principalities in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10-11). Meanwhile, the world is full of brokenness, alienation, and division; it has ever been, and ever will be. To see people of different backgrounds, socio-economic standing, and abilities loving one another and working together to glorify God in Christ has immense appeal and power. Relational unity is an oasis of joy in a bitter, barren land.

Unfortunately all too often holiness and unity are held in opposition. In the eyes of many, you can have one or the other, but not both: if you want to be holy, unity is out the window; if you seek unity, holiness and integrity must be compromised. And yet God is both the standard of holiness and relationally unified in Himself (John 17:20-23, 1 Peter 1:15-16). God brings holiness and unity together in Himself and yearns for holiness and unity be brought together in His people. Unity is possible if the people of God would only humble themselves, trust in God, seek one another’s benefit, and not insist on one’s own way (Philippians 2:1-4, Philippians 4:1-3).

Unity is rarely comfortable; unity is hard work. Unity demands that we suffer the inadequacies and weaknesses of others in the recognition that others must suffer our inadequacies and weaknesses. But in unity there is love, acceptance, and strength. When we are truly one with each other we know where we belong and we draw strength from our standing and our connection from others. We do well, therefore, to proclaim Psalm 133:1-3, meditate upon it, and allow it to orient our thinking about the blessings of unity. May we enjoy the pleasurable benefits of unity among brethren, holy and refreshing, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Sword

And behold, one of them that were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and smote the servant of the high priest, and struck off his ear.
Then saith Jesus unto him, “Put up again thy sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:51-52).

The great confrontation had finally come.

The disciples had eagerly awaited the moment when they knew Jesus would inaugurate His Kingdom. They had been promised it would happen in Jerusalem; they had arrived in triumph; and now, finally, Jesus was confronted with the power of the religious authorities and the Romans. Now, they were no doubt certain, Jesus would rise up and defeat the Roman menace.

Peter was ready. He had promised Jesus he would not be offended by Jesus and would even die for Him (Matthew 26:33, 35); at his side was a sword, one of the two swords which Jesus had commended for them not long before (Luke 22:35-38).

And then all of a sudden it was not going according to the plan they had imagined. Judas had betrayed Jesus; the men with him laid hands on Jesus (Matthew 26:50). The disciples wondered: should they attack (Luke 22:49)? But then Peter then did what Peter was good at doing: he acted. Peter unsheathed the sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest; he did so perhaps to protect Jesus, or to begin the battle (Matthew 26:51, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:50, John 18:10).

Yet Jesus would have none of it. He had a cup He had to drink; the Scriptures had to be fulfilled (Matthew 26:54, Luke 22:51, John 18:11). Jesus reasoned with Peter: could He not call upon God who would send twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53)? Peter well knew the story of Israel: one angel struck down an Assyrian army of 185,000 men (1 Kings 19:35); a Roman legion included around 6,000 men, so how much more could an army of 72,000 angels wreak upon the earth? Jesus then healed the servant of the high priest, and was led away to trial, suffering, and execution (Luke 22:51).

But in Matthew’s Gospel, before Jesus speaks of legions of angels and the need to fulfill Scripture, Jesus stopped Peter with a powerful premise: he ought to put his sword away, for all who take the sword shall perish with the sword (Matthew 26:52). This is not just about this night and this moment. This is about the way of the world and the way of Jesus.

The sword is the way of the world. Ever since the fall of man, people have sought to gain advantage over others through coercive and violent force. Jesus and Peter understood the way of the sword very well: they lived under Roman oppression. Jesus was not wrong to point out that power gained with the sword must be maintained by the sword: He was about to experience the full force of the power of the sword at the hands of the religious authorities and the Romans (Matthew 26:55-27:50). The Romans had overcome the Macedonians; the Macedonians had overcome the Babylonians, who had overcome the Assyrians. A day would come when the Romans would finally be overcome themselves. Peter nursed the hope of many Israelites that God would grant them victory over the Romans, but it would involve that same sword, and would just as easily be lost by that sword. Within forty years of Jesus’ death the Israelites would take up the sword in a vain attempt to gain freedom from the pagan oppressor by it; they would die at the hands of Roman swords. Jesus’ warning became prophecy.

Matthew, throughout his Gospel, contrasts the way of the world, the way of the sword, with the way of Christ. The Pharisees and the Jewish establishment understood the Law in carnal terms; the way of the Kingdom of God in Christ demanded greater righteousness (Matthew 5:1-7:27). The Roman rulers lorded their authority over others; it would not be so among those serving in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:25-28). The Israelites would choose the Messiah of their own desire, Jesus Barabbas, an insurrectionist, over the Messiah whom God had sent them: Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 27:17-23). Jesus’ way involved humility, service, suffering, even death (Matthew 16:24-25, 20:25-28). Jesus’ Kingdom would not be inaugurated by His servants wielding the swords against others, as so many other kingdoms had begun; Jesus’ Kingdom would be inaugurated because the sword came for Jesus Himself.

Jesus’ words to Peter ring out to faithful believers in Christ to this day. God has empowered earthly governments to render justice and wield the sword (Romans 13:1-7); they will also all go the way of all kingdoms on the earth. For the most part the people of God attempt to live by peaceful means and seek to advance God’s purposes in ways which glorify Him. But what happens when danger comes upon the people of God? What then?

Peter learned the lesson well. We have no record of Peter ever wielding the sword against another person again, even though his life was endangered on many occasions (cf. Acts 12:1-19). When threatened by the Sanhedrin, he and his fellow Apostles prayed to God for power to continue to boldly proclaim the Gospel (Acts 4:24-30). A few years before the Romans did unto him what they had done unto Jesus, Peter wrote to Christians of Asia Minor, exhorting them to suffer persecution and general evil for having done good, not to revile or repay evil for evil, but bless, because Jesus provided them an example, suffering unjustly but entrusting Himself to God who judges justly (1 Peter 2:18-25, 3:9-16, 4:1-19).

Peter and the Christians of Asia Minor found themselves in far more dangerous circumstances than most of us could even imagine. But they did not resort to violence; Peter vividly remembered what the Lord had told him, and he lived and taught accordingly. One can go far in conversation with words and acts of love and hospitality, but once one turns to the sword and violence, the affair will be decided by violence. In this way those who take the sword shall perish by it. It is not for us to trust in the ways of this world, but to follow the way of God in Christ in His Kingdom, the way of humility, service, and suffering, even, if need be, unto death (1 John 3:16, Revelation 12:11). May we, as Peter, leave the violent coercive force of the world in its sheath, and put our trust in God in Christ and follow Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Time For Lament and Confession

We have sinned with our fathers / we have committed iniquity / we have done wickedly (Psalm 106:6).

Israel understood the importance of a time for lament.

The fourth book of the Psalms began with Moses’ meditation on God’s timetable for the fulfillment of His promises (Psalm 90:1-17); it could be said that the Psalter placed it there as an “answer” to the open questions of Heman and Ethan in Psalms 88 and 89. Most of the fourth book of Psalms praises God; it is quite “theological” for the Psalms (Psalms 91-104). The Psalter closes the fourth book with two parallel psalms primarily about the Exodus and Wilderness wanderings: Psalm 105:1-45 extols YHWH for the mighty signs and wonders He wrought in delivering His people. Psalm 106 seems to begin in a similar vein, praising YHWH for His hesed (steadfast love / covenant loyalty) and mighty deeds for His people (Psalm 106:1-2). The psalmist declares the righteous blessed, and asked YHWH to remember him when YHWH shows favor to His people and gives them prosperity, so he can rejoice and glory with his fellow Israelites (Psalm 106:3-5).

But Psalm 106 is no mere repetition of Psalm 105. The psalmist confesses his sinfulness and the sinfulness of their fathers (Psalm 106:6). A retelling of the events of the Exodus and Wilderness wanderings followed, yet this time emphasizing the people’s disobedience and lack of faith toward YHWH: forgetting His works, desiring meat, making a golden calf, despising the land of the inheritance, yoking themselves to Baal of Peor, and tempting Moses at Meribah (Psalm 106:7-33; cf. Exodus 14:1-Numbers 25:18). The psalmist then confessed Israel’s continued sinfulness when they entered the land: they mixed with the nations, they served other gods, they sacrificed innocent children, and they polluted the land with blood (Psalm 106:34-39; cf. Judges 1:1-2 Kings 25:1). On account of these things YHWH’s anger was kindled, and He gave them into the hands of their enemies who oppressed them; He would deliver them, and yet they would return to rebellion (Psalm 106:40-43).

Yet the psalmist drew encouragement from YHWH’s hesed, remembering His people in their distress, and caused them to be pitied by others (Psalm 106:44-46). The psalmist has confessed the iniquity of his forefathers, identified himself as complicit with them, and ended by calling out to YHWH to be saved, gathered in from all the nations (back to Israel) so they can give thanks to His name and glory in His praise (Psalm 106:47).

In Psalm 105 and Psalm 106 we see a sharp contrast between YHWH’s great love, covenant loyalty, and mighty deeds and Israel’s persistent rebelliousness and sinfulness. The fourth book of the Psalms glorifies and praises YHWH; we can understand why Psalm 105 would be included, but may find Psalm 106 to provide an odd conclusion. Yet, for Israel in exile, the conclusion is appropriate: Israel has learned from its experiences. They have come to understand that the God who did all these mighty deeds for Israel had every right to hand them over to their adversaries; God has not proven untrue to Himself. The psalmist gave voice to Israel to confess the sins of their forefathers, and by extension their own sins, so as to acknowledge their immorality and rebellion in the past, to demonstrate the fruit of repentance, and to beg YHWH for favor so as to obtain full restoration.

It is very easy for us today to find Psalm 106, especially Psalm 106:6, to be a bit unsettling. The author of Psalm 106 is not given but its perspective is consistent with the Exile; therefore, he was not among the generation who perished in the Wilderness, or lived in the days of the judges or early kings. For all we know he may have been born and lived in the days of the Exile, and did not personally participate in any of these sins! Did not Ezekiel establish that people are held accountable only for their own sins, and not the sins of their fathers or children (Ezekiel 18:1-32)?

Ezekiel speaks truth: when we all stand before God on the day of judgment, we will be judged for what we have done in the flesh (Romans 2:5-11, 14:4-12). And yet, from the beginning, Israel understood themselves as fully participating in their own history. Such is why Moses speaks to Israel in the first person plural throughout Deuteronomy 1:1-3:29, even though the people to whom he spoke were not the same individuals who actually experienced the Exodus. YHWH spoke of generational consequences for both righteousness and transgression in Exodus 20:5-6; a person is strongly influenced by their ancestors and cultural environment, a truth being rediscovered in our own day through epigenetic and psychological research. The psalmist of Psalm 106 saw his relationship to Israel and his forefathers very much in the same way: whatever he experiences is directly connected to what his forefathers had done, and therefore he is sharing in its guilt, if nothing else, in terms of its consequences. This psalmist is not alone: Daniel confessed similar sins, identifying himself with his forefathers, in Daniel 9:4-8, and Ezra began his prayer regarding the people’s intermarriages in the same vein in Ezra 9:5-9. Israel lived in a delicate balancing act: yes, each individual would stand or fall before God based on what they had done in the flesh and whether they died in sin or in repentance, even if Israel found that unjust (Ezekiel 18:1-32), but no Israelite lived in a vacuum, shaped by his environment and the inheritance, for good or ill, he received from his ancestors, and in which he or she took part by virtue of living as an Israelite.

As Christians we are invited to look at Israel according to the flesh as our spiritual ancestors; we are to learn from their examples so as to not fall by the same patterns of disobedience (1 Corinthians 10:1-12). But we can also draw strength from more positive examples. Confession and lament are not pleasant or comfortable activities. We may want to claim the positive elements of what we have inherited from our ancestors, but we want to quickly and fully jettison all the uncomfortable and ugly things which were handed down to us. We should indeed want to escape from the iniquity of the past; such is the essence of repentance. But Israel was wise to understand the necessity of sitting in lament, for it is all too easy to suppress the negative parts of our history to the point where it is forgotten, and we presume that we and our forefathers are more righteous than is justifiable. As long as Israel lived in denial about its past and present, Israel persisted in rebellion; Israel only made strides in serving God faithfully when they were willing to confront their sins and the sins of their ancestors, confess them, lament over them, and then appeal to YHWH for His covenant loyalty and favor. So it is for the individual Christian (James 1:22-25); so it is for the people of God individually and collectively (Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-7).

For better and worse we are the descendants of our forefathers according to the flesh and according to the Spirit. We do well to uphold their stands of righteousness and persist in it while lamenting their failures in iniquity and turn away from them. We do well to consider ourselves to see what things we may be thinking, feeling, or doing which may bring shame and reproach among future generations of Christians so as to repent of them and give Gentiles past and present no reason to blaspheme (cf. Romans 2:24, 1 Corinthians 10:12). May we confess our sins, lament our iniquity, repent, and find favor in the sight of God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry