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

Bathsheba

And David sent and inquired after the woman.
And one said, “Is not this Bath-sheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” (2 Samuel 11:3).

We can only imagine what thoughts would have occupied and consumed her mind.

It was a normal spring day; her husband was off to war again (2 Samuel 11:1). We might imagine she was concerned for his welfare. By all accounts she was following her normal patterns of life; the “time of women” had departed from her, and so she was observing what the Law demanded and bathed for purification on the roof, as she did monthly (2 Samuel 11:2, 4; cf. Leviticus 15:19-24).

Then she received a summons from the King himself. Whether she knew its purpose beforehand is unknown; its purpose would become manifest soon enough. He greatly desired her sexually. What went through her mind is also entirely unknown. She did not turn him away; after all, he was the king. The king gets his way (2 Samuel 11:4).

Bathsheba went home. We do not know how she felt. We can only imagine what may have gone through her mind. At some point very soon after she recognized she was pregnant from the encounter and she made it known to David (2 Samuel 11:5).

Soon after she received the terrible news of the death of her husband in war (2 Samuel 11:26). She lamented over him. We do not know the quality and strength of their relationship, but if Uriah had proven even half as committed and dedicated to Bathsheba as he was to David, this would have been a terrible blow indeed (cf. 2 Samuel 11:6-13). Perhaps Bathsheba just believed that bad things had happened to come all at once. Perhaps she had some inkling or doubt regarding this all being coincidental. We cannot know.

Bathsheba then received another summons from David, this time to come into his house and become his wife (2 Samuel 11:27). We can again only imagine how she felt or what she thought. He was the king. The king gets his way. She entered his house and became his wife. She gave birth to a baby boy. Some people might have had questions. But the entire affair seemed under wraps.

The judgment of YHWH came strongly against David for his behavior (2 Samuel 12:1-14). Bathsheba would be given reason to suffer again: her child was condemned to death for the transgression which took place. We do not know how she felt or what she thought about this. We can only imagine.

Later on her husband would “comfort” her, and she would conceive another son (2 Samuel 12:24). This son would be Solomon. Solomon would now be Bathsheba’s source of strength and comfort; her fate was tied to his, and she made sure that he obtained the right and privilege of kingship which David had promised to him (1 Kings 1:11-38). Bathsheba became the Queen Mother; her livelihood would be sustained for the rest of her life.

At some point she died. We do not know how she felt or what she thought about all she had experienced. We can only imagine.

Bathsheba’s story is narrated by the Samuel author; David’s adultery with her represented the crux of the 2 Samuel narrative, providing the explanation for all of the conflict and strife which would mark David’s house when his children became of age. But we never hear the story, or anything about the narrative, from Bathsheba’s perspective.

Instead, Bathsheba and her place in the story has become a Rorschach test of projection for generations afterward: we learn exactly what people think of male and female sexuality based on how they respond to the precious little which is revealed about her.

For most of that time men have been not a little afraid of the power of female sexuality, and have turned Bathsheba into a temptress. Many have denounced her for bathing on the roof, exposing herself, giving David the opportunity to lust for her. They deride her willingness to answer the summons; they imagine she must have fully consented to the encounter, perhaps even enjoyed the adultery, and cleaned up afterward fastidiously. In some way or another they have made her out to be the whore.

But these days the story of Bathsheba is coming up for reassessment, and the power dynamics involved come into play. Bathsheba is now seen as the victim of rape. Whatever consent she may have provided was not based on real desire for sexual intercourse but fear based on unequal power relations: how could she realistically refuse the king? Throughout the narrative she is acted upon; she is the vessel for the exercise of male lust, and then she is the one who must bear the lion’s share of the grief and suffering.

What shall we say to these things? We must admit where we remain ignorant and will always remain ignorant. We know that Bathsheba did not fully resist David’s advances: we do not know whether she participated enthusiastically or fearfully in subjection to her king and lord. Nevertheless we do know that such was not Bathsheba’s idea: David is the prime actor throughout the narrative. Whatever we say about her experience will be rooted more in speculation than anything revealed in the text: her side of the story is never told.

But what is revealed by the Samuel author exonerates Bathsheba more than it would indict her. From all we have gained about common living practices in Jerusalem at the time, Bathsheba’s bathing on the roof was not out of the ordinary; others would generally not be able to see, but David was able to see because his house was built up higher than the rest. For that matter, 2 Samuel 11:1 provides the damning detail: the time had come for the men to be out fighting, but David had remained back in the palace. David should not have been there to look at Bathsheba; she had no reason to imagine that he was in town! Furthermore, the best evidence suggests that 2 Samuel 11:4 explains the reason for bathing in the first place: she was cleansing herself from the impurity of her menstrual cycle. The Hebrew of the text is admittedly a bit odd sounding, but previous commentators used it as a tool by which to indict Bathsheba, presuming it referred to the post-coital cleansing which would have been demanded by Leviticus 15:18. And yet it is used as an explanatory as to why David was able to lay with her, not describing later behavior (although we have no reason to believe that Bathsheba would not again bathe to remove the ritual impurity).

The strongest evidence, however, comes from 2 Samuel 12:1-14. Nathan, directed by YHWH, indicts David for his behavior. Bathsheba is compared to the beloved ewe lamb of a poor man which was seized by a richer man to provide for a visitor (2 Samuel 12:1-4). David is the one charged with taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite and having Uriah killed; David is the one held responsible for what happened (2 Samuel 12:1-14). At no point in the narrative is Bathsheba herself explicitly condemned as guilty.

Bathsheba was a party in an adulterous affair. Was she bathing on the roof? Yes, according to her custom, attempting to uphold the purity elements of the Law. Even if her bathing had been scandalous, David’s response was unjustified: he could have looked and turned away and enjoyed the many wives YHWH had given him. Perhaps she was more complicit than the text explicitly reveals; if so, YHWH would hold her responsible for her part in the adultery. And yet it remains at least equally possible that Bathsheba was essentially raped, giving of herself only because she was a subject of the king and afraid of the consequences of rejecting him. She would then be deprived of her husband and then find herself in the same trap as before, but now to become the wife of the man who had essentially raped her, because what other option did she have now that she was pregnant with his child?

In the end, we can only imagine what Bathsheba went through. We cannot know what went through her mind. But we have no right to condemn her because of our own apprehensions, fears, and projections. The Samuel author condemns David for his behavior; Bathsheba might well have been more a victim than a whore. The whole episode is a strong warning for us to be careful lest we project our own issues and biases upon contexts to which they are foreign, and casting blame where it may not belong, and mischaracterize those of the past when all the information necessary to fill in the character is not present.

Because, in the end, we can only imagine what Bathsheba felt and what thoughts occupied and consumed her mind.

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

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

The Source of Security

Except YHWH build the house / they labor in vain that build it.
Except YHWH keep the city / the watchman waketh but in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early / to take rest late / to eat the bread of toil;
For so he giveth unto his beloved sleep (Psalm 127:1-2).

From insurance to elaborate building designs, humans continue to seek various sources of security.

Solomon meditated upon the true source of security in Psalm 127:1-5. Psalm 127 is listed among the “songs of ascent,” songs which would be sung as Israelites would make the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem and Mount Zion to the presence of YHWH at a festival. For Solomon, and the Israelites who sang this song as they climbed to stand before YHWH, only YHWH was true security. To build a new house would be vain unless YHWH protected it and provided for it. All the watchmen in the world would prove useless to a city unless YHWH watched over it. Working excessive hours to make a living independent of YHWH’s blessings proved equally vain; YHWH gives reason for those whom He loves to sleep, for they have little need to fear (Psalm 127:1-2).

Solomon will go on to glorify children as the heritage of YHWH, His reward to people (Psalm 127:3). Children are seen as arrows in the hand of a mighty man; a man with many (and ostensibly good) children will not be made ashamed in the gate of a city, the place where the elders would meet and matters were adjudicated (Psalm 127:4-5; cf. Ruth 4:1-12).

It would be easy to consider Psalm 127:3-5 as separate from Psalm 127:1-2, but a connection is there. YHWH provides for His people. He watches over them, protects them, and blesses their endeavors. No endeavor will succeed if it does not come with His blessing. Part of that provision is children who will honor their father and mother in their old age (cf. Matthew 15:4-6). The man who trusts in YHWH and is blessed by Him will have a strong house and descendants; his blessedness will be known to all; he will have no reason to be ashamed among his fellow people.

We can understand why Psalm 127 would prove to be a satisfying song of confidence in YHWH as Israelites went up to stand before Him. Israel is thus reminded that YHWH and YHWH alone is their source of confidence; all feeble human attempts to maintain their own security will fail. You can only hold so much food in barns, and even then an enemy can seize them. Military strength can take you only so far; not a few times a massive force was thoroughly defeated by a smaller one. Foreign policy is a capricious adventure: your ally one day may turn into your foe the next. Other people often prove only as good as their word, and the world has always lacked sufficient people who uphold their word. Israel always needed this reminder; temptations always existed to trust in other presumed sources of security other than God.

Christians today could also use this reminder. Far too often, in the name of worldly wisdom, Christians are tempted to put their trust in anything and everything but God. In the name of worldly wisdom we purchase insurance to mitigate the risks to health, life, and/or property; we invest resources in markets and pay into governmental schemes to provide for life in the present and/or for days of disability or retirement. We are invited to trust in government for security against all foes, domestic and foreign. Many seem to orient their lives around the proposition of risk management.

There is nothing automatically or intrinsically sinful or wrong in buying insurance, investing for retirement, or taking advantage of the social safety net. The Israelites themselves built the houses; walls and watchmen were still needed in the cities of Israel. But we must remember Matthew 6:19-34, Jesus’ message which is not unlike Solomon’s in Psalm 127. It is one thing to use insurance or investments to mitigate risk in a sensible way as one seeks to trust in God and His purposes; it is quite another to fully depend on such insurance or investments, or to orient one’s life around such insurance and investments. In the process we have no right to dismiss God’s intended “retirement program” for His people, providing an opportunity for children to honor their fathers and their mothers (1 Timothy 5:8, 16). As children we should seek to provide for parents in times of need, and to have children ourselves and instruct them in God’s right way (Ephesians 6:1-4).

We almost must take care how we use and consider Psalm 127. Israelites themselves were vexed by the apparent discrepancies between the message of Psalm 127 and its ilk and experienced reality: sometimes the righteous, whom one would imagine YHWH would protect, suffered, and the wicked, which one would imagine YHWH would not bless, nevertheless prospered (cf. Job 21:1-34, Ecclesiastes 8:10-17). It has proven all too easy to take Psalm 127 as prescriptive and to thus judge those who prosper as blessed by YHWH and those who suffer as chastised by YHWH. This might well be the case in some circumstances; it need not be the case in every circumstance.

Can we live in that ambiguity, trusting in God in Christ even though that trust does not guarantee a comfortable middle class existence in this life? Will we give more than mere lip service to Psalm 127:1-2, recognizing that our prosperity might well prove a demonic temptation to trust in the things of this world and not in God the Giver of all good things? Do we trust in YHWH as our real, lasting, and ultimate security, or have we given ourselves over to the pervasive temptation to trust in our possessions, our bank account, our portfolio, our government, our military, or other such things of the world? How much do our children factor into our confidence about our present and future? As we continue in our pilgrimage on this earth we do well to sing this song of ascent as we seek to stand before the throne of God, recognize God is the only true source of security, and seek refuge in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

C-Grade Religion

For I desire goodness, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings (Hosea 6:6).

In school we always had that one class: it featured a subject in which we had little interest, which we perhaps did not understand well, and/or we just did not get into for some reason or another. In that class we would do just enough work to get a passing grade; we would be content with a C as long as we could get out of that course or subject and never have to worry about it again.

This same attitude unfortunately proves pervasive in the world. In so many realms of life people seem more than content to do the least amount possible, to just scrape by, to do just enough to maintain competency or effectiveness but no more. We can consider such things as reflecting C-grade effort: people doing what they do in order to satisfy a requirement, to fulfill a demand, or placate a superior so they can go and do whatever they really want or at least get others off their back.

A C-grade mentality seems to define most of human religion throughout time. It was certainly manifest in Israel. YHWH, through the prophet Hosea, spoke of how He wished to heal His people Israel (Hosea 5:13-6:3). Israel’s and Judah’s love for YHWH was ephemeral, enduring for a moment and then fading away (Hosea 6:4). YHWH wanted goodness, not sacrifice; knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6).

The sacrificial cult in Israel proved a magnet for C-grade religion. Israel understood it needed to offer the sacrifices YHWH expected and to observe the festivals He set forth, and they did so. They were then satisfied: they had done their duty. They performed the bare minimum. YHWH should be content; He should leave them alone to do their thing; He should be there for them when they needed Him.

C-grade religion remains extremely popular to this day. People recognize their need for some religion in life, and so they seek opportunities to satisfy the bare minimum necessary to maintain standing before God. The assembly and its acts prove a magnet for C-grade religion. Not a few believe that as long as they assemble on Sunday morning and perform the five acts, all is well. They have done their duty. They performed the bare minimum. God should be content; He should leave them alone to do their thing; He should be there for them when they need Him.

Hosea displayed the fundamental problem with C-grade religion in Hosea 6:6: it treats YHWH like the pagan gods and thereby fundamentally rejects His true nature and purpose. Israel in Hosea’s day was thoroughly paganized; on account of this YHWH was about to bring the Assyrians upon them in judgment (Hosea 4:1-7:16). They believed YHWH was the God of Israel; they also believed that other gods were the gods of the nations, Baal deserved service, and so forth (cf. Hosea 1:2-3:5). People in the ancient Near Eastern and Classical worlds were not expected to love their gods or pattern their lives after them. The gods were supernatural beings who could be benevolent or malevolent; they were to be placated, satisfied, or appealed to, not emulated or necessarily loved. Pagans were content to offer sacrifices to their gods to placate them so they would be left alone to live their lives; if they experienced some distress they expected to be able to provide an extra sacrifice and appeal to cajole the relevant god into helping them. To love any god, or to expect any of the gods to love you, would be a bridge too far.

Yet YHWH expected to have a far different relationship with Israel. YHWH loved Israel and had entered into an exclusive covenant with her (cf. Hosea 1:1-3:5). YHWH set forth instruction to lead Israel in the right way; Israel was to know her God and manifest His character. Such is why YHWH would rather have had mercy and knowledge of Him over sacrifices and burnt offerings: if Israelites really knew who YHWH was, and acted like Him, they would demonstrate the strength of their covenant relationship. To believe that requisite sacrifices were enough to placate YHWH demonstrated a complete lack of real understanding about YHWH and His desires for Israel; Israel acted as if she wanted to go her own way and have YHWH leave her alone (cf. Hosea 6:7-7:16). YHWH would allow Israel to do so; once YHWH left Israel alone, she could not withstand her enemies, and was overcome.

C-grade religion remains fundamentally pagan in nature. C-grade religion presumes that God is to be placated and satisfied by doing certain things, and so a person should do the bare minimum so God will leave him or her alone to do their thing. C-grade religion really is worldliness masquerading as piety: a person recognizes they have spiritual problems, some kind of spiritual wound, and may sincerely want to do something about it, but they are not willing to fully repent and be conformed to the standards of holiness and righteousness. They want to do just enough to get by and no more. They do not really want to leave the world and its desires; they want to find a way to remain as they are but not feel spiritual guilt or pain.

C-grade religion is a fool’s errand, ignorant of the nature of God and His purposes accomplished in Jesus. God does not desire our assembling and service to be placated; God wants us to know Him and be like Him. God sent His Son, the express image of His character, so we could know who He is and what He is like (John 1:1, 14, 18, 14:6). God loves us and desires for us to love Him (John 3:16, 1 John 4:7-21): we have been separated from God by our sin, corrupted in nature, and God wants us to be reconciled to Him so we can learn to be like Him and thus be one with God as God is one within Himself (John 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-21).

If we have truly come to know God as made known in Jesus, we will have no tolerance for C-grade religion. The God Who Is cannot be merely placated and satisfied so as to give people space to go their own way; the God Who Is manifests unity in relationship and desires to have humans made in His image reconciled back to Him in relationship. To know God in Christ is to recognize the imperative of being holy as God is holy, to love God and others as God has loved us (1 Peter 1:13-22). To know God in Christ is to die to self, to be crucified with Christ, so we can turn away from the futile ways of the world and find life indeed in Jesus (Galatians 2:20, Philippians 3:7-14).

Pagans practiced C-grade religion and were condemned (Romans 1:18-32). Israelites practiced C-grade religion, proved to be as pagans, and suffered the fate of pagans (Hosea 6:6ff). C-grade religion remains pagan to this day; it may be tempting, but its end is death. If we wish to find salvation and wholeness we will have to die to self and live to God; we will have to turn aside from the world and our vain imagination and conform to the image of Christ. We will have to know who God is as manifest in Christ and embody His character. Let us find eternal life in Jesus and conform to His image so we may share in relational unity with God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Story in Jesus’ Genealogy

So all the generations from Abraham unto David are fourteen generations; and from David unto the carrying away to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon unto the Christ fourteen generations (Matthew 1:17).

Matthew began his Gospel with the “book of the generation of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 1:1). For the modern reader this proves to be a burdensome decision; before they learn much of anything about Jesus they are confronted with a host of foreign names. Who are all of these people, and why does Matthew tell us about them before he tells us about Jesus?

One other book in the Bible begins with a genealogy: 1 Chronicles. The Chronicler begins his narrative proper with the death of Saul and the elevation of David as king; nevertheless, by beginning with an extensive genealogy, he associates and connects his narrative with the greater story of God’s people from Adam through Abraham and the twelve sons of Israel (1 Chronicles 1:1-9:44).

The choice of tracing the genealogy also tells us much about Matthew’s purposes. Matthew does not go all the way back to God and Adam, as Luke does; he begins with Abraham, recipient of the promise (Matthew 1:2, Luke 3:38; cf. Genesis 12:1-22:18). Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage through the kings of Judah to David, unlike Luke (Matthew 1:6-11, Luke 3:27-31). For that matter, while Luke begins with Jesus and goes back through time to Adam and God, Matthew ends with Jesus (Matthew 1:2-16, Luke 3:23-38). Thus Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is an Israelite; he highlights Abraham and David and the kings to show how Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of all which was promised to Abraham about the people and David about the kingship; he manifests confidence in Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of David, the culmination of the story of Israel. All of this can be seen in Jesus’ genealogy!

Matthew concludes his “book of the generation of Jesus Christ” by tying it together nicely: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the Exile, and fourteen generations from the Exile to the Christ (Matthew 1:17). It all seems to fit a nice pattern; we might find that impressive and then move on to the rest of the story.

Yet Matthew’s conclusion proves highly suspect to the attuned Western reader. The best evidence would suggest Abraham lived ca. 2000 BCE; David is dated around 1000 BCE; the exile took place in 586 BCE; Jesus was born around 5 BCE. The first set of fourteen generations spread across 1000 years, the second for a bit over 400 years, and the third 500 years? That seems a bit too convenient.

The major challenge, however, is in the midst of the genealogy of the kings. Matthew lists Joram as the father of Uzziah in Matthew 1:8, and yet J(eh)oram is the father of Ahaziah, the father of J(eh)oash, the father of Amaziah, who is the father of Uzziah (also spelled Azariah) in 1 Chronicles 3:11-12! Thus, in reality, it would seem that there are at least seventeen generations between David and the Exile.

How could this be? Are our copies of Matthew inaccurate? Some later manuscripts record the three “missing” kings; in light of Matthew 1:18 it is best to recognize that some later copyist is trying to solve the dilemma we have discovered as opposed to believing that Matthew’s original was distorted. We have every reason to believe that Matthew 1:8, 18 are as Matthew wrote them. Was Matthew’s source inaccurate? It is not inconceivable for Matthew’s copy of 1 Chronicles or whatever other resource he might have used for the king list to have omitted some names, but neither he nor we are dependent on genealogical lists to know about these kings of Judah: their story is told in 2 Kings 8:25-14:22 and 2 Chronicles 22:1-25:28. By all accounts Matthew proved to be a faithful Jew; he would have known about these kings. People might begin to think that Matthew is attempting to suppress some history or just made a mistake. Neither claim would honor the good confidence we have in Matthew’s inspiration.

How could it be that Matthew speaks of fourteen generations when he even knows that there are actually seventeen generations? In all of this we have assumed that Matthew intends for us to take his final numbers literally. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider that assumption.

Throughout Scripture numbers often mean things. They are often given or alluded to in order to convey some sort of spiritual truth. Three is a number which often evokes completeness; the Godhead has three Persons, and thus it makes sense for the history of Israel to be portrayed in a triune format. Each element of the triad points to Jesus in its own way: from Abraham to David features the development of Israel, looking forward to Jesus as the descendant of Abraham; from David to the Exile manifests the failure of Israel to uphold the covenant, looking forward to Jesus as the obedient Son of David; from the Exile to Jesus represents an attempt at faithfulness and survival in the midst of oppressive kingdoms, looking forward to Jesus as the eternal King and Christ. Abraham, David, and the Exile are prominent themes in the rest of Matthew’s Gospel; Jesus embodies and fulfills all such things.

“Fourteen” on its own does not mean much, and yet we have three sets of fourteen; we can re-imagine three sets of fourteen as six times seven. Seven is the number of perfection; God’s full work of creation was seven days (Genesis 1:1-2:3). Israelites worked for six days and rested on the seventh; in the same way they were to cultivate their fields for six years and let it enjoy a Sabbath rest in the seventh (Leviticus 25:1-7). If Jesus’ heritage features six sets of seven, such means that Jesus is the beginning of the seventh seven.

Both seven and the seventh seven are, each in their own way, manifestations of fullness, allowing something new to begin. As the seventh seven, Jesus is bringing the story of Israel to its fullness; everything which has taken place beforehand finds its embodiment and satisfaction in Him (Matthew 5:17-18). As Matthew himself will establish, Jesus will go through His own Egyptian sojourn, temptation in the wilderness, life in the land of Israel, exile in death, and return in resurrection (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23, 4:1-17, 27:32-50, 28:1-20).

In the end, in fulfilling His role as the seventh seven, Jesus facilitates what can take place afterward. After the seventh seven the Jubilee is proclaimed in Israel (Leviticus 25:8-46): all the people of God are redeemed and freed from their debt. In this way Jesus died and was raised in power to redeem and free all those who come to God from their debt of sin (1 Peter 2:18-25). After the seventh day is the eighth day, the first day of the week, providing an opportunity for new creation. In this way Jesus arose from the dead on the first day of the week in the resurrection body, and through whom we can now become a new creation in God, and yearn for the resurrection of life (Matthew 28:1, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21).

Matthew is no fool; Matthew knows his Israelite history; Matthew did not make a mistake in Matthew 1:18. Matthew is telling a story in his genealogy of Jesus, forecasting all we will see in his Gospel. We will see Jesus bear the shame and yet fulfill God’s purposes. We will see Jesus fulfilling the promises given to Abraham. We will see Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of David, obtaining all authority in heaven and on earth. We will see the proclamation of freedom from sin and death through Jesus’ death. We will be able to become the new creation in Christ through His resurrection. Jesus is the embodiment of Israel, the climax of the history of the people of God. May we serve Jesus the Son of David, the Son of God, receive remission of sin in Him, and through Him obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Telling History

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

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

What is history?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Foundations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry