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

Sowing the Wind, Reaping the Whirlwind

For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: he hath no standing grain; the blade shall yield no meal; if so be it yield, strangers shall swallow it up (Hosea 8:7).

Sometimes little things can lead to far more severe consequences. Witness the snowball rolling down the hill, becoming an avalanche.

For years, generations even, the northern Kingdom of Israel perpetuated all sorts of transgressions. They had become commonplace by the days of Hosea and Jeroboam II king of Israel; the cult statues of the golden calves in Dan and Bethel had been entrenched for over one hundred and fifty years (cf. 1 Kings 12:25-33, Hosea 8:4-6). The Israelites had negotiated treaties and alliances with all of their neighbors for that long as well; they had been one of the stronger military powers in the Levant in that period, perhaps lesser than the Arameans, but certainly greater than the Judahites, Moabites, Ammonites, Philistines, and others. There were times of deep idolatry, as with Ahab, Jezebel, and the Baals (1 Kings 16:29-33); yet Jehu son of Nimshi exterminated Baal out of Israel, at least for a time (2 Kings 10:28). Thus, Israelites in the eighth century BCE had lived in ways quite consistent with over five generations of their ancestors. Why should they expect anything to change? Why wouldn’t they continue to serve YHWH as the calves in Dan and Bethel as their fathers had done? Why wouldn’t they be able to continue to preserve their kingdom with a robust military and strategic foreign policy just as they had done for years?

For us today, the answer is obvious: Israel had not yet faced the full, unmitigated fury of the Assyrian menace, and they would prove no match for the Assyrian. We can see that with the benefit of hindsight; we can see how they had sown the wind and thus reaped the whirlwind.

To sow the wind and reap the whirlwind is an interesting phrase; it might well already be proverbial when Hosea uttered it, and it certainly has become proverbial ever since. It is an easily understood agricultural metaphor: the whole premise of farming demands a person reaps more than he originally sowed, else he will not be able to survive. Sowing a little and reaping a lot is great when it comes to food; it is terrifying and horrible when it comes to consequences of transgression. “Wind” often denotes vanity or futility (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:11); Israel sowed the vanity of idolatry and would reap the whirlwind of complete devastation and destruction at the hands of Assyria. That did, indeed, escalate quickly!

Sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind is proverbial for good reason. It is not as if it could only apply to Israel in the eighth century BCE. In the United States we are well aware that the American Revolution, or the Civil War, did not just spontaneously come about; plenty of smaller decisions and practices developed over centuries that “snowballed” into those armed conflicts. People still argue about how World War I began in 1914, and probably always will; yet all agree that the seeds of that conflict had been sown over at least the century beforehand, and in some cases likely far earlier. Regardless, we would be hard pressed to explain or even understand why those specific generations were the ones to endure such horrific tragedies like the Civil War, World War I, or World War II and its effects. What had they done that was that much worse than what their ancestors had done?

The answer provides cold comfort: no, those particular generations were not much better or worse than those who had come before. Instead, they were simply the ones around when it came time to reap the whirlwind. What they endured seemed disproportionate compared to what they themselves had done, but in the grand scheme of things, and viewed historically, it seemed all but inevitable. So it was with Israel; so it was in America and in Europe.

And so it will no doubt be again. In how many ways are people today sowing the wind and they, or perhaps their descendants, will reap the whirlwind? We can consider such things on both the individual and societal levels. A person may begin experimenting with drugs, become abusive, suffer terrible trauma, and make decisions which will negatively affect their offspring, who in turn also make poor decisions which perpetuate, and often deepen, the cycle. Whole groups of people exploit others or the environment, turn away from what makes for healthy societies, and the exploitation and brokenness multiplies as the generations continue until it can be sustained no longer. At some point there must be a reckoning, a suffering of terrifying consequences that may not be the fault of one particular generation but nevertheless remains a just consequence. Such is the way it goes whenever wind is sown; the whirlwind will come, and it will be savage!

Christians do well to learn from the lesson of Israel and the many lessons history would have to offer us. There may be concessions we have made to the world which seem to us as a little thing. They may involve flashpoints in the “culture war”; they may be things we believe everyone takes for granted, things “everyone just does,” “the way things are,” etc., all ways to justify things that might be contrary to the purposes of God and which in fact have only existed for less than two centuries. We get lulled into complacency on account of our narrow time frame and the fact that our ancestors did similar things and did not suffer tragic consequences, at least in this life. But what will happen if the whirlwind comes in our generation? What will we say or do then?

Hosea may have been perceived as a cantankerous lunatic in 752 BCE, but after the whirlwind of 722 it was painfully obvious just how accurate he was (Hosea 14:9). The benefit of hindsight we have regarding the failings of the people of the God before us proves relatively useless to us if we do not apply it in foresight of our current situation. May we seek to ascertain those ways in which we are not really trusting in God but trust in our own strength or in the ways of the world, turn and repent, and be saved in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Body of Christ

Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof (1 Corinthians 12:27).

Christians not only represent the Lord Jesus Christ; they are to understand themselves as His body.

The Christians in Corinth were able to exercise spiritual gifts; it was evident they handled these gifts with great immaturity, using them to show off and to presume a greater level of spirituality than that of others. Paul attempted to explain to them another way: the way of love, the exercise of spiritual gifts to encourage and build up the whole as opposed to the elevation of the individual (1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40). As part of that exhortation Paul sought to focus the Corinthians on their participation in and as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Paul goes well beyond suggesting the metaphor; he elaborates on the connections and applications at length. A body has many individual parts but remains a coherent whole; so with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). The individual parts of the body have different, unique, and important functions, and each is necessary to the well-being of the whole; so it is with the body of Christ, in which God has put every part according to His pleasure (1 Corinthians 12:15-18). Different parts of the body need each other to work most effectively; so it is with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:19-21). In fact, many of the most necessary functions of the body are the most hidden and “modest,” and given greater honor on account of their “humility,” and so the body of Christ is to maintain care and concern for its members, with each suffering and rejoicing along with those who suffer and rejoice, so that no division may exist in the body (1 Corinthians 12:22-25). In short, the human body is sustained because its constituent parts perform their individual roles while supporting the roles of others in an organic unity; it could be said that the parts have care for each other, recognizing the importance of all for proper function, and so it must be in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Paul manifestly used a metaphor to describe the church as a body; we are not physically interconnected with each other. But we should not deprecate what Paul says as “mere metaphor,” as if its metaphorical nature denies its substantive reality: Paul expected the Christians in Corinth to work together as a body, to care for each other as a body, and to give each member the respect and honor in valuation as critical parts functioning to build themselves up as a body. This is not a one-off message, either; Paul elaborated in similar ways in Romans 12:3-8 and Ephesians 4:11-16. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 Paul spoke of the Lord’s Supper as communion, a joint participation in the body and blood of Christ, because we who consume the one bread and cup are the one body of and in Christ. It is possible to literalize Paul’s metaphor to the extreme in damaging ways, but it is hard to overstate the importance and the power of the image: Christians are the body of Christ. They do well to act like it.

Our age is a hyper-individualist one. Everyone seems to glorify and advance the standing of the individual. Western philosophy has led us to the point in which man is the measure of all things, and his or her individual judgment is elevated above all else. Over the past few hundred years we have seen a consistent pattern of advancing the interests of individuals along with a corresponding denigration and thus weakening of communal bonds and norms. “Middle class values,” especially as expressed in America, exalt the individual’s ability to rise above their station and to carve out a more prosperous life for him or herself and the “nuclear family,” yet without concern for the effects of such elevation on a local community, the larger community, or the environment. Political partisans argue about where individual rights, control, and power are to be exercised, but underneath never truly question the assumption. Likewise, for some reason or another everyone decries and laments the loss of community and shared values, yet none prove willing to question or challenge the cult of the individual to a sufficient extent to stem the tide. Some seek to hold on to both at the same time, and yet time and again we see that such is impossible. One can seek the interests of each individual, or one can seek the best interests of a community as a whole; the two at some juncture will always be at odds.

We are thus stuck in a similar predicament to that of the Corinthian Christians: the glorification and advancement of the individual comes at the cost of the betterment of the whole. The Corinthian Christians could use the spiritual gifts God gave them to exalt themselves and advance their selfish purposes, or they could use them humbly to serve one another and build up the body; they could not do both. This challenge was originally laid at the disciples’ feet by Jesus in Matthew 20:25-28: the world is always about glorification and advancement of one’s individual or small tribal interests to the expense of all others, but in the Kingdom of God in Christ this cannot be so. Those who would be in God’s Kingdom in Jesus must seek to serve and better others, as Christ Himself did. They must put the interest of others before their own (Philippians 2:1-4). One cannot seek the welfare of the body of Christ while seeking to exalt and glorify oneself.

Christians therefore must be careful regarding the elevation and exaltation of the individual. It is true that far too often communities have gone aside to the doctrines and spirits of demons, turning into cults or religious institutions which suppressed and did not advance the truth. As individuals we must come to God in Christ for salvation; we have our individual roles and functions in life that are independent of the work of the corporate collective of the people of God (Acts 2:38-41, 1 Timothy 5:16). But we must not miss the overriding emphasis of the New Testament: salvation is only in the body of Christ; God works through His people, but has always worked through His people for the sake of the whole. We may come to Jesus to be saved as individuals, but we cannot find salvation independent of His body; instead, we are to become one with each other as we become one with God in Christ (John 17:20-23)!

As long as the individual is elevated the community will suffer. As long as the individual insists on his own way, he or she is still of the world, and not acting according to Christ. We are members of the body of Christ; we have our individual efforts, but all our efforts are to be unto the benefit and advancement of the purposes of the whole. We must care for each other and value each other. Such is easier said than done; such is often quite messy and complicated in practice. People are hard to love. But that’s what God in Christ is all about: loving people and bringing relational unity where there has been alienation. May we seek to build up the body of Christ above all else, and sublimate our interests to that of the whole so as to glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Darius the Mede

Then [Darius the Mede] commanded, and they brought Daniel, and cast him into the den of lions.
Now the king spake and said unto Daniel, “Thy God whom thou servest continually, he will deliver thee” (Daniel 6:16).

The story in Daniel 6:1-28 is best known as “Daniel and the Lion’s Den.” It could just as easily be called “Darius the Mede and Court Treachery.”

Only in Daniel do we meet Darius the Mede. He features prominently in the final narrative recorded for us in Daniel’s life in Daniel 5:31-6:28; in his first year Daniel perceived the end of the seventy years spoken of by Jeremiah and he also speaks to him words of comfort and protection about the future (Daniel 9:1, 11:1).

Darius the Mede proves to be a source of frustration and vexation for those who correlate the narrative of Daniel with other historical accounts. The author of Daniel presumes Darius the Mede to be a king with authority not only over Babylon but also over other parts of the Empire, and fixes his reign at the point of transition from the Neo-Babylonian Empire to the Achaemenid Persian Empire (ca. 539 BCE; Daniel 5:31-6:5). And yet we have no other sources who attest to such a character. According to other Near Eastern and Greek sources, Nabonidus is the final ruler of Babylon, and he is defeated by Cyrus the Persian, who himself had previously overthrown the Median authority over modern-day Iran. One might imagine that the author of Daniel refers to the Achaemenid emperor Darius I Hystaspes, but he was but an adolescent when these events took place, was Persian and not a Mede, as recognized by other Biblical authors, and only began ruling in 522 BCE (cf. Ezra 6:1-15, Nehemiah 12:22). Some suggest Darius is another name for Astyages the last Median king or perhaps one of his sons, but evidence is lacking. Some would understand Daniel 6:28 to read “Darius, even Cyrus the Persian,” and identify Darius as Cyrus, but we are given no reason why there would be such confusion, and why would the author of Daniel consider him a Mede and a Persian at the same time? Association between Darius the Mede and Ugbaru, Gobyras in Greek, the man made governor of Babylon by Cyrus, may be more compelling. It also remains possible that Darius the Mede existed as a deputy king with great authority for a time who served at Cyrus’ pleasure and is otherwise unknown to history.

But we should not allow the vexation we feel at making sense of Darius the Mede to cause us to miss his compelling story in Daniel 5:31-6:28. The author of Daniel does not share our concerns; the story of Darius the Mede is important for Israel and indeed the people of God in exile.

Darius may be a Mede, a pagan ruler, but he is portrayed sympathetically and as one with great sympathy for Daniel. He stands in strong contrast to the Chaldean kings of Babylon before him: Darius proved humble and held Daniel and his God in great esteem, whereas Nebuchadnezzar had to learn reverence through humiliation (Daniel 2:1-4:37, 6:16); Darius fasted, declined entertainment, and lost sleep over Daniel, while Belshazzar had feasted with the vessels of YHWH’s house (Daniel 5:1-30, 6:18).

Darius the Mede maintained great confidence in Daniel and Daniel’s God: he wanted to rescue Daniel, he trusted that Daniel’s God would rescue him, expressed lamentation, came to the den early in the morning to see if Daniel had survived, took pleasure in Daniel’s vindication, punished Daniel’s enemies, and decreed that all of the Empire should honor and revere the God of Daniel (Daniel 6:14-27). Of all the pagan rulers over Israelites Darius the Mede is portrayed the most sympathetically and as a man of character and virtue. Israel was not going to do much better than Darius the Mede.

But we should not allow this rosy picture distract us from what had transpired: this very Darius the Mede, the one who seemed to love Daniel and was in great distress over him, is the one who signed Daniel’s death warrant. Darius the Mede fixed his seal on the lion’s den (Daniel 6:17). Daniel is brought closest to death by the king who was otherwise the most sympathetically inclined toward him. How could this be?

Daniel was a good man, and thus he made enemies (Daniel 6:3-4). Those who envied his position and power could find nothing against him except on account of the law of his God (Daniel 6:5); they conspired against him and persuaded Darius to make a decree to make it illegal to make a petition to any god or man save himself for thirty days on pains of death by lions (Daniel 6:6-8). Daniel prayed to God anyway as was his custom (Daniel 6:10); the accusation was brought before Darius (Daniel 6:11-13).

We are told that Darius the Mede really wanted to find a way to rescue Daniel (Daniel 6:12), and we have no reason to disbelieve it. But is he not the king? Why could he not have rescued Daniel?

Yes, Darius the Mede could have decided to exempt Daniel from the decree or find some way to invalidate the decree. But decrees were part of the “laws of the Medes and Persians” which could not be broken. If the pretense of inviolability were broken for Daniel’s sake, the entire edifice of authority might collapse.

And so Darius felt as if he had no real choice. Daniel could find no rescue from the laws of the Medes and Persians; he would have to be rescued by his God. Darius no doubt mourned and was in distress over Daniel, but how much of that distress stemmed from guilt? He was the one who had made the decree; he was the one who sentenced Daniel to death. Ultimately, he was alright with that, for the calculation had been made. No exemplary and godly man was worth calling into question the entire edifice of authority. If Daniel were to die it would be tragic; Darius would be devastated; but Darius would remain king, and another would take Daniel’s place, and the Empire could go on as usual.

The author of Daniel wanted the lesson of Darius the Mede to be deeply imprinted in the mind of Israel in exile. As faithful servants of YHWH the Israelites would always be a strange and peculiar people; there would always be opportunity to accuse them based on the law of their God. Even if their pagan ruler were personally a man of character and integrity, and even sympathetic toward them and their plight, if the decision came down to sparing the people of God or maintaining a hold on power and authority, the pagan ruler would always choose the latter. Even in the best of times Israel was only one crisis or one enterprising politician away from getting thrown under the bus; a ruler of integrity might lose a night’s sleep over the death of a man of God, but there was no guarantee that he would lose many more. And if this were true about a sympathetic ruler, what about an indifferent ruler who loved money, like Ahasuerus/Xerxes, who was induced to sentence Israel to extermination by Haman the Agagite (Esther 3:1-15)? And what about an actively hostile and persecuting ruler who could not tolerate Israel’s peculiar identity, like Antiochus IV Epiphanes, one of the greatest existential threats to the nation of Israel in its history?

Christians are well aware of a later pagan ruler over the people of God who decided to sacrifice a righteous man in order to maintain hold of power; such is what Pilate did to Jesus (John 18:28-19:15). The lesson for the people of God in the past remains effective for the people of God today. Christians look to the rulers of this world for rescue in vain, for whenever commitment to the people of God would conflict with the maintenance and expansion of power, power will win, and the people of God will continue to be thrown under the bus. How many times have people of character and integrity been given rule over nations? And yet how many times have they disappointed the aspirations of the people of God? This trend will continue, as it must, until the Lord returns. And if this is true for rulers who might be sympathetic to the people of God, what if they prove indifferent or even hostile to the faith? Peter’s exhortations in 1 Peter 1:3-4:19 prove as relevant as ever.

Darius the Mede is the embodiment of the object lesson of Psalm 146:3: do not put your trust in princes. Darius the Mede was more right than he could have known: there would be no deliverance from the state, for deliverance will only come from God. We do well to have a faith like Daniel’s and trust in God for our vindication in Christ and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry