Discomfited Theology

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

Biblical narratives discomfit easy, comfortable theology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Singing in a Strange Land

For there they that led us captive required of us songs / and they that wasted us required of us mirth / “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How shall we sing YHWH’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137:3-4)

The agony is palpable.

The historical books of the Bible tell us the story of the people of God, and generally do so in a rather straightforward fashion. So it is in 2 Kings 25:21, tersely declaring that Judah was exiled out of its land. The shock, the agony, the horror, and the astonishment of the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the exile of its people would find its voice elsewhere in Scripture. Few places prove as compelling as Psalm 137:1-6.

The Psalter communicated much simply by placing Psalm 137 in its current location. Psalms 120-134 are the “songs of ascent,” which we believe were sung as pilgrims would ascend the hill country of Judah to approach Jerusalem and Zion, where YHWH made His name to dwell. Psalm 135 praises YHWH as Creator, the God of Israel who destroyed their enemies, and the One True God, no dumb and mute idol. Psalm 136 is the grand call and response powerfully affirming YHWH as the Creator God of Israel, who has done great things, who delivered Israel from his adversaries, and who continues to provide, for His covenant loyalty/lovingkindness (Hebrew hesed) endures forever.

But then Israel sat by the waters of Babylon, and cried when they remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1). They hung up their musical instruments upon the willows (Psalm 137:2). The victorious Babylonians, pagans vaunting over their defeat of the people of YHWH, demand to hear the songs of Zion (Psalm 137:3). The Psalmist’s question rang out: how could they sing YHWH’s song in a strange, alien, foreign, and pagan land (Psalm 137:4)? The Psalmist would go on to resolve to never forget Jerusalem; he would rather forget his skill and never speak a word again before he would forget Jerusalem or enjoy anything above it (Psalm 137:5-6).

Ferdinand Olivier 001

We can barely begin to imagine the trauma of exile for those in Israel. Everything they knew and believed about themselves had literally been dashed to pieces in front of their eyes. They watched as thousands of their fellow Israelites, fellow people of God, died from famine, plague, and sword. They watched as the pagans ransacked the holy places of YHWH, whom they had believed to have been the God of Israel, who maintained covenant loyalty, and who overcame Israel’s adversaries. They were led to a distant land as the spoils of war, a land of strange tongues and stranger customs. Nothing could ever be the same again. Who would they become? What happened to YHWH’s promise? How had He let this happen to His people? How could they sing the songs of ascent to Zion when no such ascent proved possible? How could they sing YHWH’s song in a foreign land?

Without a doubt exile began as an extremely disorienting experience for Israel. Many would apostatize, believing the lie that might makes right, buying into the Babylonian propaganda. Yet for many the exile would prove the catalyst unto greater faithfulness; YHWH really was not only the God of Israel but the One True God, the God of heaven. He judged His people on account of their continual rejection of His purposes; Israel deserved far worse than it actually received. YHWH would again visit His people and bring them out of exile; He would again choose Jerusalem and Zion; Israel would again sing YHWH’s song in His land (Isaiah 40:1-5, Zechariah 2:10-12).

When Cyrus overthrew the Babylonian monarchy and took over the empire, Israel was allowed to return to its land (Ezra 1:1-4). And yet the exile was not fully over; Israel was still captive to foreign powers. Their long exile would only find its satisfaction in Jesus of Nazareth, YHWH in the flesh, having returned to His people, defeating sin and death through His death and resurrection, in His ascension establishing a dominion which would have no end (Daniel 7:13-14, John 2:14-22, Acts 2:36). Israel, and all mankind, received access to God through Jesus, and could become a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, with all the rights and privileges thereof (Ephesians 2:1-18, Philippians 3:20).

Yet before the people of God can inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, they must also experience exile. As Christians we live as exiles and sojourners in this world (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11); we live in its midst, ought to pray for peace and the salvation of all men, and do what is honorable among all, but we cannot love this world, cannot be friends with it, and cannot live according to its customs (Romans 12:1-2, 17, 1 Timothy 2:1-4, James 4:3-5, 1 John 2:15-17). We will be thought strange and consider the ideas and customs around us as strange (1 Peter 4:3-4); no matter how much we may look for a home and security, we will not find it here.

As with Israel, so with us: exile begins as a very disorienting experience. We also are tempted to apostatize, to believe the lie that might makes right, to buy into the propaganda of our nation and our cultural ideology (Romans 12:2). But our exile is designed to prove the catalyst for greater faithfulness, to prove the genuineness of our faith (1 Peter 1:1, 6-7). It is through the crucible of exile that we learn that God is the One True God, who has made Himself known through His Son, and that the only hope of the world is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is through the crucible of exile that we come to understand that the world is out for its own, does not glorify what God would have glorified, and that whatever we have experienced is far less worse than what we have deserved. It is through the crucible of exile that we learn to anchor ourselves in our great confidence and hope that Jesus will return again to gather His people to Him, that we will rise and forever be with the Lord, and dwell in His presence in the resurrection forever (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, Revelation 21:1-22:6).

It does seem difficult to sing YHWH’s song in a foreign land. Yet we must remember that God has already obtained the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, and we will prove more than conquerors if we remain faithful to Him (Romans 8:37, 1 Corinthians 15:54-58). The day is coming on which we will sing a new song and the song of Moses and the Lamb before the throne (Revelation 5:9-10, 15:3-4); until then, we do well to sing the songs of Zion even in a strange land, glorifying God for what He has accomplished for us through Jesus Christ the Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Seeking Shalom in Exile

And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto YHWH for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace (Jeremiah 29:7).

What had possessed Jeremiah to say such things?

Judah and Judahites were rife with unfounded hopes in the days of Zedekiah king of Judah. They held out hope that somehow a rebellion against Babylon would prove successful; somehow YHWH would deliver them from the hand of Nebuchadnezzar and restore all the persons and possessions which Nebuchadnezzar had taken with him to Babylon (2 Kings 24:11-16, Jeremiah 28:1-5). Some “prophets” among those who had been exiled encouraged those in Babylon to maintain similar hopes (Jeremiah 29:8-9, 15-23).

Jeremiah had received the word of YHWH; he knew better. The end of Judah would come soon; the exile would not last a few months but until after the seventy years of Babylon had been accomplished (Jeremiah 29:10). The exiles were being set up for distress on top of distress, hindering them from establishing some sort of life while in exile. Therefore YHWH directed Jeremiah to send a letter to those exiles, the substance of which is seen in Jeremiah 29:4-23. YHWH encouraged His people in Babylon to perpetuate life: build houses, plant gardens, get married, and have children (Jeremiah 29:5-6). They were to seek the shalom of the city in which they have been exiled, praying to YHWH on its behalf, for in its shalom these exiles will find shalom (Jeremiah 29:7). The letter would go on to explain its purpose, to warn against listening to the false prophets, and to set forth the promise that YHWH would restore them to their land and would do good to them, but only after the years of Babylon had been completed; the doom of the false prophets was also foretold (Jeremiah 29:8-23).

Jeremiah, therefore, wrote so as to provide the exiles with a bit of divine context in order to understand their situation. At the time it was less than appreciated (Jeremiah 29:24-32); after the events of 586 BCE it would prove to be the sustaining lifeline of Judah in exile. YHWH would restore them to their ancestral homeland; YHWH would not abandon them in Babylon. Yet, for the time being, they must be nourished and sustained within Babylon.

Ferdinand Olivier 001

While Israel knew they could not sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land, they could at least make a living in Babylon and prepare their descendants to maintain confidence in YHWH, to prove loyal to His covenant with them and their fathers, and to prepare to return to the land when that day would come (Jeremiah 29:5-6). But the shalom of the city? shalom is the word used three times in Jeremiah 29:7. It is translated as “peace” in the American Standard Version (ASV; also in KJV, NKJV), which is its standard definition. shalom, however, goes beyond the idea of peace as the absence of conflict, representing wholeness and blessing as well; such is why the term is also frequently translated as welfare (so ESV, NASB, RSV, NRSV) or prosperity (so HCSB, NIV). Thus YHWH intended for the exiled Judahites to pray for the city of their sojourning for its overall benefit: an absence of conflict, absolutely, but also its welfare or prosperity, so that all would go well for all of them.

Such is why Jeremiah’s letter would seem so scandalous to the exiles. To seek the shalom of Babylon? shalom for the place and the people who had led Judah captive, who tore down the Temple of YHWH, and who had overpowered the people of God? How could they seek such a thing?

Yet Jeremiah pointed out that the shalom of the city would lead to their own shalom. The Judahites, after all, had just experienced 30 years of significant instability; Judah had seen invasions by Egypt and Babylon, many deportations and plundering, and all of that was before the final convulsive end of the Kingdom of Judah, in which the number exiled most likely paled in comparison to the number who suffered and died from war, plague, famine, and lawlessness (cf. Ezekiel 5:1-17). They needed some shalom. YHWH would provide some shalom for Babylon, not because Babylon deserved it, but on account of His people who now dwelt there. YHWH would bless it for their sake. The people of Judah had no need to fear; the condemnation of Babylon had already been decreed (Jeremiah 29:10, 50:1-51:64). Yet it would happen in stages, and its ultimate end would come without harm to the Israelites who still dwelt in Mesopotamia. YHWH judged His people in His anger, but He never stopped loving or caring for them.

Over six hundred years later Peter would write to the chosen “exiles” of his day, the Christians of modern-day Turkey (1 Peter 1:1, 2:9-10). He encouraged them to abstain from the lusts of the flesh, to maintain righteous conduct among the “natives,” to remain subject to the “native” rulers, for husbands and wives to dwell with each other in appropriate and God-honoring ways, and to seek the good of the “natives” in their midst, even if they are reviled in return (1 Peter 2:11-3:18).

Therefore, while Jeremiah did not write his letter to Christians today, we can learn much from his recommendations for Judah in exile, since we are to understand ourselves as exiles of the Kingdom of Heaven in a modern-day Babylon. We may live in the midst of the people who have or would oppress and persecute us for our confidence in the Lord Jesus. We may wonder how we can sing the songs of Zion in such a foreign land, or how we could “get settled” in such a place.

We do well if we carry on our lives while in exile, to work, marry, and raise up children to know the story of the people of God and to perpetuate it (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:1-15). We do well to seek the shalom of the city in which we reside, to pray to God in Christ for it, so that in its shalom we may have shalom (1 Timothy 2:1-3). Such does not mean God’s judgment will not come against it; the “time of Babylon” will meet its end, and so will that city and its nation-state. Yet we, as sojourners and exiles, know that when those seventy years of life in “Babylon” have come to an end, we will obtain the victory of God in Christ, and will rise triumphantly on the day of resurrection.

The Christian’s hope, therefore, is not in the salvation of the nation-state in which he or she lives. Such a state will fall; its end is decreed; we are to reckon ourselves as sojourners and exiles, citizens of the Kingdom of God, waiting for our ultimate restoration in the resurrection (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 1:1, 2:11). Yet the Christian is to live in that city, work in that city, and pray for its shalom: we cannot imagine that we can simply escape the problems of the city in which we live, but must do good to all of its inhabitants, and pray on its behalf, both for its peace and for the salvation of its inhabitants (1 Timothy 2:1-4, 1 Peter 3:14-18).

If the Judahites exiled to Babylon could find shalom through YHWH there, we can find shalom in the place where we sojourn. The place in which we sojourn should never feel exactly like home; nevertheless, we must seek its shalom as we await the resurrection of life and a permanent home in the presence of God. May we strive to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ in the midst of this world, doing good to all, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of YHWH!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Enemies

Be merciful unto me, O God / for man would swallow me up / All the day long he fighting oppresseth me.
Mine enemies would swallow me up all the day long / For they are many that fight proudly against me.
What time I am afraid / I will put my trust in thee.
In God (I will praise his word) / In God have I put my trust, I will not be afraid / What can flesh do unto me? (Psalm 56:1-4).

No one particularly enjoys having enemies. But they do exist; we are foolish if we think we can navigate through life without them.

Westerners who have lived primarily during the last decade of the 20th century and into the 21st century have enjoyed a period of peace and calm which has been extraordinary in comparison with what came before. Many may find this statement difficult to believe in light of terrorist attacks and the constant specter of jihad; that speaks more to what Westerners expect in life than anything grounded in historical reality.

For the majority of human history everyone was always in some danger of attack by enemies. The Old Testament relates plenty of stories of how people would attack each other’s cities, slaughter the men and their wives, and take unmarried women as war prizes; this was reality in the ancient Near Eastern world. The Classical world was little different; many slaves became as much because they were prisoners of war, and enemy incursions could frequently reach far deeper than might be imagined. The medieval world is infamous for such constant war; the European continent has rarely seen peace in the past 1500 years. When it did for a century from 1815 until 1914, the continent then exploded with unparalleled fury in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. Safety from enemies may exist for a period of time, but it has never been guaranteed, and it can never be perfectly maintained.

We have been lulled into thinking that we can easily and effectively keep our enemies at bay, maintaining them ensconced “over there” so as not to harm us “here.” We also think that we can somehow enact sufficient measures to provide complete protection from assault by our enemies. Some would even like to pretend that our enemies are too weak to really do anything to us; they pay them no mind at all.

The attacks of 9/11 shattered the myth that America was impregnable. Many have struggled to feel safe or protected since; they are easily scared by the prospect of yet another terrorist attack. In the name of doing things to be kept safe we have seen significant curtailment of personal liberty and the creation of a surveillance state which would have made George Orwell blush. We seem perfectly willing to do anything to feel safe from enemy attack.

David’s perspective is important, for David understands what far too many Westerners do not: none are guaranteed complete safety from enemies. Despite all the efforts of the surveillance state, some may successfully plot and attack. Despite all the security protocols, some may become sufficiently inventive and find a way to get through. Even if the authorities break up a lot of terrorist plots before they can be actualized, law enforcement is highly unlikely to keep a 100% active in perpetuity. There is a danger, indeed, but dangers have always existed. Danger is always present. Safety has never really been guaranteed!

David had plenty of enemies; the superscription of Psalm 56 suggests that he wrote the psalm while living among the Philistines to evade Saul (1 Samuel 27:1-2). At this stage in his life, David has almost no safety or security; at this juncture he has been forced to abide with the lesser of the acute dangers to his life. David knows of what he speaks in Psalm 56:1 when he cries out that man would swallow him up.

If David were to hope in arms or physical strength he would be undone. David knows that his true help is not among man, but from God. David seeks God’s mercy; when David is afraid (and he has good reason to be afraid!), he trusts in God (Psalm 56:1-3). Such is David’s great boldness and confidence: in God I have put my trust, so what can people do to me (Psalm 56:4)?

The events of the past couple of decades should be sufficient to disabuse us of the notion that complete safety and security can be obtained through the projection of force locally and abroad. We likewise should be disabused of the notion that the government, the military, or any other human force is able to keep us entirely safe. This is not cause for despair or discouragement; it is merely recognition of limitations. We want to feel safe and secure; our security cannot be in man who would swallow us up, but instead in God who is our hope, our salvation, and our refuge.

Even heavily secular, “de-Christianized” Western countries seem to be brought to prayer when terrorists strike, for all of their military and technological might and prowess still cannot save them. We will not find complete security in body scanning machines, online surveillance, or an all-out attack on a Middle Eastern country. Our hope and trust must be in the God who made us, who seeks to save us in Christ, and who will in Him deliver us from the bondage of sin and death. Only in God can we find true security, knowing that we will gain the victory no matter what may happen to us. Do you want to stop being afraid of man? Then join David and put your trust in God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God Will Provide

And Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.”
So they went both of them together (Genesis 22:8).

How do you answer the impossible question in the midst of a most incomprehensible mission?

Abraham had served God faithfully for many years ever since God called him out of Ur and Haran. God had made many promises to Abraham, and so far had proven faithful: Abraham was blessed, wealthy, and miraculously had a son in his old age (Genesis 12:1-21:34). And then, when his son Isaac had grown up some and he was well over 100 years old, God gave him a command which seemingly came out of nowhere and entirely out of character: God told Abraham to take his son, his only son, the one whom he loved, Isaac, and to offer him as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:1-4).

We can only imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind during that journey. What was God doing? Can I do this? What will Sarah do to me? What will become of God’s promise? And then, as they are going up the mountain, Isaac asks the question. They have everything they need for a sacrifice except the sacrificial victim. Where was the lamb for the burnt offering (Genesis 22:7)?

Abraham og Isak
What would Abraham say? He spoke honestly but not explicitly. He said that God would provide himself the lamb for the burnt offering (Genesis 22:8).

But what did Abraham mean by that statement? For generations people have speculated about how Abraham viewed what was going to take place on Mount Moriah. It is entirely possible that Abraham expected what actually took place, perceiving that God was just testing him and would not actually have him put Isaac to death, and would provide an animal for an offering (Genesis 22:9-14). The Hebrew author understands Abraham’s declaration to his servants as confidence in the resurrection: he was convinced that he and the boy would come back down the mountain even if he had been offered, and the Hebrew author sees the sparing of Isaac as a type of resurrection (Hebrews 11:17-19; Genesis 22:5). Abraham never doubted that Isaac was a gift from God; he could easily have considered Isaac to be the “lamb” for the burnt-offering. Such truly displays Abraham’s faith in God: he recognizes that God gives, and God can take away, and he should still live in subjection to God’s purposes.

In the end Isaac is not killed; God provided a ram, caught in a thicket, and Abraham sacrificed it (Genesis 22:9-13). The Genesis author makes it known that to his day it is said that on the mountain of YHWH it will be provided (Genesis 22:14).

Ultimately, however, Abraham was quite prophetic in his declaration, more than he likely knew. Two thousand years later, on that same mountain (cf. 2 Chronicles 3:1), it would again be provided.

On the morrow [John the Baptist] seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, “Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

Jesus of Nazareth, born a descendant of Abraham, would be Abraham’s promised Seed through whom God would bless all the nations of the earth (Genesis 22:18, Galatians 3:8-18). He would be betrayed, tried, and crucified on a cross in Jerusalem, even though He had done nothing wrong, and no deceit was found in His mouth. His terrible and horrendous death would be explained by His closest associates as the sacrifice for sin, His holy life paying the ransom for those enslaved by sin and death (Acts 3:13-26, 1 Peter 2:18-25). Such was not an accident; it took place according to the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God the Father (Acts 2:23). Through Jesus God did for us what we could not do: atone for our sin (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-5, Ephesians 2:1-18).

Thus Abraham was very right: God would provide Himself the lamb for an offering. That Lamb would come to earth two thousand years later and die on that very mountain for all sin, including those of Abraham and Isaac. God did indeed provide the Lamb for Himself; the demands of justice were met, but love, grace, and mercy have triumphed.

In this way we may get a glimpse of exactly what God was doing when He tested Abraham. Abraham, trusting in God, proved willing to go up the mountain and offer his son. On account of that faith, God promised that through his seed all nations of the earth would be blessed. By Abraham’s own words God would accomplish it: God provided Himself the Lamb, His Son, His only Son, the One whom He loved, Jesus, and Jesus willingly offered Himself as the Lamb of God for the sin of the world so Abraham, Isaac, and all those who share in Abraham’s faith would receive the forgiveness of their sins.

And so it is that on the mountain of YHWH it was provided for all of us to receive the forgiveness of our sins. May we ever thank and praise God that He provided Himself the Lamb for an offering so we can be forgiven of sin and reconciled back to God and serve Him in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sinai and Jerusalem

They then that received his word were baptized: and there were added unto them in that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:41).

Beginnings set the tone for how everything following will proceed. Not for nothing is it said that you only have one chance to make a first impression.

The beginning of the proclamation of the full Gospel of Jesus Christ by the Apostles, the beginning of the church, the manifestation of Jesus’ Kingdom on earth, is set forth in Acts 2:1-48. The Apostles are baptized with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in the assorted languages spoken by the diaspora of Jews who have gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13). Peter proclaims what it is the Jewish people are seeing: the Holy Spirit has fallen on them as a fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32, for Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had seen work miracles and had crucified, was raised from the dead by God, and of this David prophesied in the Psalms and Peter and the Apostles had personally eyewitnessed (Acts 2:14-36). About three thousand Jewish people believed, repented, and were baptized in the name of the Lord, and began devoting themselves together to the Apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer, spending time together in the Temple and from house to house, providing for each other as any had need, having favor with the people, full of joy and purpose, and many others were being added to their number (Acts 2:37-48). An auspicious beginning indeed!

St. Peter Preaching 00

But why on Pentecost? Pentecost was the festival of firstfruits of the wheat harvest, established by YHWH as fifty days after the Passover (the Feast of Weeks or Shauvot; Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:9-11). A festival for firstfruits was by its very nature a celebration; the people would have been subsisting on whatever had remained from previous harvests, and the prospect of new and bountiful food would make them glad. The Feast of Weeks also manifests their confidence in God, for if they gave the firstfruits to Him, they were trusting in Him to give plenty in the rest of the harvest. The Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of Weeks were all in their own way a reminder of being slaves in Egypt delivered from bondage by YHWH (Deuteronomy 16:12). As one of the three festivals in which all men were to appear before YHWH in the Temple, the Feast of Weeks/Pentecost represented a convenient opportunity to proclaim the good news of Jesus of Nazareth to all Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 16:16-17).

Yet Pentecost, in Jewish memory, was not only the Feast of Weeks, an agricultural celebration; according to the oral tradition of Israel it is also the anniversary of the day on which YHWH spoke the Ten Commandments before Israel on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-21).

Thus Pentecost hearkens back to another beginning, the beginning of the covenant between God and Israel as mediated by the Law of Moses. This covenant was established on Mount Sinai; the people were terrified at the thunders, lightning, fire, and the voice of God, and having heard the Ten Commandments, begged for Moses to receive the Law and stand between them and God (Exodus 20:1-21). YHWH then gave Moses the Law and the provisions for the Tabernacle over a forty day period, culminating in receiving the two tables of testimony in stone written by the finger of God (Exodus 20:21-31:18). Meanwhile, the people feared that Moses had met his demise, and persuaded Aaron to make gods for them, and he made a golden calf which they served and before whom they made merry (Exodus 32:1-6). YHWH burned in anger against Israel and sought to strike them down and make of Moses a great nation; Moses talked YHWH down by reminding Him of the promises He had made to their forefathers (Exodus 32:7-14). Moses descended to the base of Mount Sinai, broke the tablets of the testimony, destroyed the golden calf, grinding it into powder, and made Israel to drink it (Exodus 32:15-25). Moses called on those who were on YHWH’s side, and his fellow Levites came to him; he commanded them to strike down their companions and neighbors, and about three thousand of the people fell (Exodus 32:26-28). Moses testified how Israel had committed great sin, and YHWH struck the people further, because of the golden calf they had made (Exodus 32:29-35). YHWH would then command Moses to lead the people away from Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:1); what was supposed to be a sanctified place had been defiled, and what was to be a holy people needed forgiveness. From then on the Levites would be called upon to stand between YHWH and the people, and the Law would be reckoned as a burden that none of the Israelites could properly bear (Exodus 19:6, Numbers 3:12, Acts 15:10). This was a less than auspicious beginning!

In this way Pentecost marks the beginning of two covenants, one in Sinai and the other in Jerusalem. On Sinai great terror came upon the people as they heard the voice of God; they sinned against God there, and about three thousand of them died. In Jerusalem great amazement came upon the people as they heard in their native languages the mighty works of God; they learned about redemption there, and about three thousand of them received salvation and the hope of eternal life. The Law from Sinai would remind them of their faults, failures, and sin; to various degrees Israel sought to live up to what God had decreed, but frequently failed and/or turned aside to other gods. The gift of the Spirit in Jerusalem would provide release from sin, deliverance from bondage, and hope for eternity in the resurrection with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Later on Paul would make a similar contrast in 2 Corinthians 3:6-18: the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life; the old is a ministration of death and condemnation, the new is a ministration of the Spirit and of righteousness. Pentecost provides a great illustration of this principle. When the Law was given, the people turned aside and about three thousand were killed; when the Spirit is given, the people repented and about three thousand found eternal life. The Law set forth right and wrong and in so doing gave life to sin and thus death (Romans 7:5-13); the Spirit set forth deliverance from sin and death through Jesus and the resurrection, and in so doing gives life (Romans 8:1-3).

We do well to praise God that we have not come to a mountain of fear and condemnation, as was Sinai, but to Jerusalem, Mount Zion, wherein life can be found through the Spirit and the message of the good news of Jesus of Nazareth (cf. Hebrews 12:18-24). May we ever live in repentance and hope in the Spirit, serving the Lord Jesus and proclaiming His good news to all nations!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Stronghold

But the salvation of the righteous is of YHWH / He is their stronghold in the time of trouble.
And YHWH helpeth them, and rescueth them / He rescueth them from the wicked, and saveth them / because they have taken refuge in him (Psalm 37:39-40).

When we feel threatened and/or weak, to whom or what do we turn? What do we trust when the situation seems dire and we feel powerless? We do well to go to our Stronghold.

Zin stronghold (4)

In Psalm 37 David sings a wisdom psalm, encouraging faith in YHWH and providing assurance of the demise of the wicked (Psalm 37:1-40). David would not deny that sometimes the righteous are oppressed and downtrodden while the wicked prosper; if he would, Job and the Preacher would have something to say to him. David in fact has seen the wicked in power, seemingly well rooted and planted (Psalm 37:35); and yet, soon after, he existed no longer (Psalm 37:36). The righteous will be exalted in the end (Psalm 37:30-34, 39-40); they must wait, and they will see YHWH’s salvation.

The righteous know that their salvation is of YHWH (Psalm 37:39). Those in the world, and even those opposing them, trust in their own strength, the weapons of this world, or some other power. It would be tempting to try to meet force with force, or use their own forms of force against them. YHWH can deliver, and has delivered, through many means, including armies and nations; nevertheless, the righteous know that YHWH is behind it all, has assuredly brought it all to pass, and it is for them to put their trust in Him and do as He directs them.

YHWH Himself is the stronghold, the One who helps, rescues, and saves the righteous (Psalm 37:39-40). How that deliverance takes place need not be explicitly revealed; to many it may not look much like deliverance, at least in the short term, but God has always ultimately justified all who have put their trust in Him. The full victory may not be accomplished for many years; one may receive vindication in the resurrection more than in this life.

Even so, YHWH saves the righteous because they take refuge in Him (Psalm 37:40). Such is why YHWH is their stronghold; He is the Source of their confidence and hope. They will not turn to worldly wisdom or methods. They will not depend on the forces of the world or the spiritual powers of this present age. Their confidence is not in their stuff, their power, or themselves, but in YHWH; He will see them through whatever trials or tribulations may take place.

It is an easy thing to declare YHWH as one’s stronghold in good times; it is quite another to prove willing to make YHWH one’s stronghold when one really needs a stronghold. Our faith, and our character, are proven in the crucible of trials. When the savage army menaces, to where will we flee? Will we try to defend a fortress of our own making or imagination? Will we try to meet force with force? Or will we seek refuge in God in Christ?

The people of God have always had to suffer the menace of the wicked around them. Danger lurks around every corner. God has called us to trust in all times and in all ways in Him, Him alone, and Him fully. May we establish God as the stronghold of our lives, take refuge in Him, prove to be the righteous, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Refugees

“And a sojourner shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him: for ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).

“And a sojourner shalt thou not oppress: for ye know the heart of a sojourner, seeing ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

You can tell a lot about a group of people by how they treat The Other.

The Israelites have set up camp beneath Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:1-25); YHWH has spoken the Ten Commandments to them (Exodus 20:1-17); and now Moses has gone up to receive more detailed legislation, often called the “Covenant Code,” to provide for Israel (Exodus 20:18-23:33). By this time, ca. 1450 BCE, the people of Israel have lived in lands not belonging to them to any appreciable degree for over 500 years. Around 2000 BCE God called Abram out of Ur and Haran to dwell in Canaan (Genesis 12:1-7). The only land Abraham ever “owned” in Canaan was the cave of Machpelah which he bought so as to bury his wife Sarah and in which he would later be entombed (Genesis 23:1-20, 25:8-10). Isaac and Jacob in turn lived in Canaan among the Canaanites but as sojourners, owning no land (Genesis 26:2-3, 47:9). It was evident that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not really “from” Canaan, made no attempt to hide it, and often reinforced their difference: Abraham did not want Isaac marrying a Canaanite, Rebekah was exasperated by Esau’s Canaanite wives and thus resolved that Jacob would not marry one, and two of Jacob’s sons would exterminate the men of Shechem on account of Shechem’s treatment of their sister Dinah (Genesis 24:3, 27:46-28:9, 34:1-31). The Hebrew author affirms how all these were sojourners seeking something better than the environment in which they lived (Hebrews 11:8-10, 13-16).

The Israelites were more familiar with the previous four hundred and thirty years in which they lived as sojourners in the land of Egypt, at first welcomed as Joseph’s family, and then feared and despised as Canaanites, a “fifth column” in Egypt, and enslaved (Genesis 45:16-20, 47:1-6, Exodus 1:7-12). They lived among people who thought of them as less than nothing, barbaric, inferior, with contemptuous professions and practices (Genesis 43:32, 46:34, Exodus 8:25-26). The Egyptians did not consider YHWH a God worth respecting, at least at first (Exodus 5:2). Thus it could not be reasonably said that the Israelites had an “enjoyable” sojourn, or that their time as a dispossessed people in Egypt was pleasant. Their sojourn represented, to put it mildly, a very uncomfortable experience, and not one which any reasonable person would want to continue to endure.

1867 Edward Poynter - Israel in Egypt

As part of the Law which YHWH gave to Israel on Mount Sinai, while Israel remained a sojourner in a foreign land, YHWH commands them to not oppress sojourners, because they understood the experience of the sojourner (Exodus 22:21, 23:9). Such charity is extraordinary: while ancient Near Eastern cultures, by necessity, enshrined hospitality as an important function for guests, protections for sojourners were not as strong in other law codes as they are in the Law of Moses. Granted, the sojourner has his own responsibilities: he must not have any leaven in his house during the Passover, he must observe the Sabbath and cleanliness regulations, and he must not blaspheme the name of YHWH, for there is one law for both the native Israelite as well as for the sojourner (Exodus 12:19, Leviticus 17:15, 24:16, 22). Yet the integrity of the sojourner is to be respected and maintained.

Very few people want to be sojourners. Throughout history many people have been displaced from their native lands: some gained disfavor because they stood in opposition to the existing rulers or favored rulers who had been defeated; some were part of minority groups suffering under the regime of a majority ruler (or, in some cases, a majority group suffering under the regime of a minority ruler!); others were forced to leave their homeland by an occupying power. Perhaps they felt a bit alien even in their homeland; such feelings would multiply greatly when they would have to live elsewhere. As sojourners they do not truly “fit” into their new land, for they come from a different culture and place. It is understandable why native born people would look at the sojourner with suspicion and hostility as The Other. What does he want? What will he do to me? Can I trust him?

Since Israel understood what it was like to sojourn among people with varying levels of hostility for about 500 years, so now they were to treat sojourners well and not compound their difficulties and sorrows. As Christians today we can learn from this example, for we are to see ourselves as elect exiles, strangers in a foreign land, as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 1:1). We should know what it is like to live uncomfortably in a land that is really not ours, surrounded by people who do not agree with us, and who may well prove willing to cause us harm (1 Peter 2:19-25, 4:1-6).

There are always “good” worldly reasons to fear and be suspicious of The Other. That’s how Egypt felt toward the Israelites in their midst. That’s how the Romans felt about the Jews and especially about the Christians. Their very differences make them seem strange, alien, “not of us,” and thus a potential threat. Yet, as Israel should have understood the refugee experience from their time in Egypt, so we Christians should understand the refugee experience in our own lives as Kingdom citizens in a “foreign country.” If this world truly is not our home, for our allegiance is elsewhere, we should recognize how we are The Other in the eyes of those in the world, own it, and glorify God in how we treat others!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Love Your Enemies

“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy’:
But I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

Jesus had already said many difficult, challenging things. He had only been warming up!

Matthew 5:1-48 recounts the beginning of what is popularly called Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” in which Jesus set forth a protracted discussion of the ethics of the Kingdom. After overthrowing commonly held expectations about who was fortunate, or blessed (Matthew 5:3-12), Jesus established that He came to fulfill, and not abolish the Law, but to enter the Kingdom one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20). In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus further explicated the point with a series of contrasting statements, first establishing “what had been said” in the Law, both in terms of what was explicitly written and how it was understood and practiced in terms of righteousness, but then turning by establishing what “I say unto you,” ultimately a more exacting and rigorous standard. The Law said to not murder; Jesus exhorted His followers to not even hate, pursuing reconciliation (Matthew 5:21-26). The Law said to not commit adultery; Jesus expected people to not even lust in their heart, turning from temptation (Matthew 5:27-30). The Law granted reasons for divorce; Jesus limited them to sexually deviant behavior on the part of the spouse being put away (Matthew 5:31-33). The Law made provision for oaths; Jesus told His followers to not swear at all (Matthew 5:33-37). The Law enshrined the lex talionis as a means of exacting appropriate recompense for injury; Jesus then said to not resist the one who is evil, suffer the loss and indignity, and prove willing to go further (Matthew 5:38-42). This leads to the final contrast as expressed in Matthew 5:43-48.

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

The Law explicitly declared for the Israelites to love their neighbor as themselves in Leviticus 19:18. The Law nowhere explicitly states that Israelites were to “hate their enemy”; this has led many expositors to suggest that this is a Pharisaical addition condemned by Jesus and without merit. So far everything Jesus declared “had been said of old” came directly from the Law or paraphrased an idea that was assuredly in the Law; to turn to a Pharisaical invention without mentioning it would seem strange at this point. “You shall hate your enemy,” especially in terms of loving one’s enemy less, is not an unreasonable interpretation of many elements of the Law of Moses. YHWH explicitly excluded the Ammonites and Moabites from His assembly (Deuteronomy 23:2-3); the Israelites were to entirely eliminate and destroy the seven nations in Canaan (Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 5). After at least four hundred years after the original offense YHWH made sure that Saul struck Amalek for what they had done to the Israelites during their time in the Wilderness (1 Samuel 15:1-7; cf. Exodus 17:8-16). An exploration into the prophetic judgment oracles against neighboring nations, seen in Isaiah 13-24, Jeremiah 46-51, Amos 1-2, Obadiah, and Nahum, among others, makes plain how little love was lost among the Israelites and their neighbors, and how YHWH was going to judge those who had sought evil against Israel. We can also see what the Israelites do when they get a chance to overcome their enemies in Esther 8-9, and it leads to many, many deaths.

We can see “hate your enemy” at work throughout the Gospels in terms of how the Jewish people viewed and treated those of other nations. The lawyer’s attempt to justify himself in Luke 10:29 was not entirely out of turn; Israelites had no problem loving (at least most of) their fellow Israelites but had very little love for those of the nations, particularly Romans. John’s aside in John 4:9 is understated: Jews not only had no dealings with Samaritans but also despised them, and that gives the Parable of the Good Samaritan its power (Luke 10:26-37). Peter reminded Cornelius that it is unlawful for Jews to associate with Gentiles (Acts 10:28), and that was the accusation made against him the moment he returned to Jerusalem (Acts 11:2-3). Jews despised those of the nations, the Gentiles; the Gentiles returned the favor. And, as Peter’s declaration makes clear, Jews found plenty of justification for their position towards the Gentiles in the Law of Moses.

Jesus very deliberately overthrows the whole paradigm in His response in Matthew 5:44. He told His disciples to love and do good to their enemies and pray for their persecutors. Few concepts prove as counterintuitive and contrary to all natural inclination as this; we want to harm those who want to harm us, or at least keep them away. We want nothing good to come upon those who want to do evil to us. It can be physically challenging to even turn the tide so as to do what Jesus says, to do good to those who stand against you and everything you are.

Jesus is aware of that; such is why He appeals to the ultimate Authority. Why should Christians love their enemies, do good to them, and pray for their persecutors? So they can manifest how they are children of their Father in heaven (Matthew 5:45). God sends the sun to shine upon the evil and the good; rain falls on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Not only that, but loving those who love you and greeting only those who are your fellow people is not really that extraordinary, for tax collectors (universally hated and reviled as agents of the oppressors) and (those nasty) Gentiles do the same things. Thus, if you really want to be truly righteous, to have a form of righteousness greater than the average person, you need to be more like your heavenly Father and love even those who do not love you and greet those who would have nothing to do with you.

Jesus then concludes this series of contrasting statements, exemplifying the true nature of righteousness in the Kingdom, by declaring that His followers should be perfect as the Father is perfect. “Perfect” is the Greek teleios, “complete, perfect, brought to its end, mature.” If one exemplifies all these forms of righteousness he would prove mature and brought to the complete end of holiness, just as God is.

So much could be said about Jesus’ exposition in Matthew 5:43-48. Through what Jesus says we can see a level of common grace which God provides to all, something Paul will consider as well in Acts 14:16-17, 17:25-30. Jesus’ appeal to the “natural” love and greeting among even sinners is hard to square with any suggestion that humans, in their sinful depravity, are incapable of any good. There are no end to the arguments about Matthew 5:48 and the attainability of perfection, or whether that is even what Jesus is imagining or expecting, or perhaps is showing that all of this is what would be demanded in its exactitude if one attempts to depend on fulfillment of righteousness as the ground upon which one is able to stand before God (cf. Matthew 5:20).

The most important thing is how Jesus lived what He said in Matthew 5:43-48. Jesus came as the one sinless human in a sinful world; all people had turned aside to their own way; all were weak, ungodly, and sinful to some degree or another, and yet Jesus loved them and died for them (Romans 5:6-11). He prayed for Jerusalem while knowing He would be killed there (Matthew 23:37-39); He prayed for those who executed Him while in the very act (Luke 23:34). He visited Saul of Tarsus while he remained a persecutor, and Saul never forgot the greatness of Jesus’ mercy nor the depth of his own sinfulness (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Paul would become a most forceful expositor of the great power of what Jesus accomplished on the cross: He bore the enmity, He killed the hostility, and now Jew and Gentile were to be brought together into one body (Ephesians 2:11-18).

Jesus had no quarrel with loving one’s neighbor. The difficulty, of course, is that we humans see some people as our neighbor, but not everyone. Jesus points out that to God we are all neighbors; we all receive the beneficence of His abundant provision of the earth. God loves despite our unworthiness; we must love despite others’ unworthiness. God even loved those who actively worked against His purposes; what excuse do we have to do otherwise?

As Christians we are to be continually reminded that the only reason we stand before God is because while we were yet weak, ungodly, and enemies, God reconciled us to Himself through the death of Jesus of Nazareth (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-8). Thus we must love our enemy, just as God did, so that our enemy may become our brother. We must pray for those who persecute us so they may turn from the forces of darkness to which they are subject and join with us in serving the living God (Ephesians 6:12). God loves everyone and wants them to be saved (1 Timothy 4:1-4). If we would be called sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, should we not want the same, and live according to the pattern of our elder Brother Jesus who established the way (1 John 2:3-6)? May we love our enemies and do good to them, pray for those who persecute us, and demonstrate ourselves to be children of our heavenly Father to His glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Ground of Complaint

I will sing of the lovingkindness of YHWH for ever / with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations.
For I have said, “Mercy shall be built up for ever / Thy faithfulness wilt thou establish in the very heavens.”
“I have made a covenant with my chosen / I have sworn unto David my servant:
‘Thy seed will I establish for ever / and build up thy throne to all generations'” (Psalm 89:1-4).

Ethan begins his psalm with great praise and confidence in YHWH. He does not end that way.

Ethan is famous in Scripture for being wise; not as wise as Solomon, of course, but the comparison shows just how highly Ethan was esteemed (1 Kings 4:31). His wisdom is on full display in the only Psalm ascribed to him.

We have every reason to believe Ethan is serious: he proclaims YHWH’s hesed (lovingkindness, covenant loyalty) and His faithfulness to all generations (Psalm 89:1). He builds up mercy and establishes faithfulness in the heavens (Psalm 89:2). Ethan has as similar confidence in YHWH’s promises to David in 2 Samuel 7:11-16: a covenant was made with David and his house, and his kingdom would be established forever (Psalm 89:3-4). So far Ethan has made a clear confession of faith.

Ethan would continue by extolling God’s power in and over His creation (Psalm 89:5-14) and His care and provision for His people, particularly David and his descendants (Psalm 89:15-28). Ethan recognized the warnings about the consequences of disobedience, but also maintains confidence that YHWH would still maintain His covenant and be faithful to David (Psalm 89:30-37).

solomon

But then the psalm takes a sharp and dark turn. Ethan declared that YHWH had cast off, rejected, and been angry with His anointed, demonstrating how YHWH has reversed Himself at every point in terms of His dealings with the offspring of David (Psalm 89:38-45). Ethan wanted to know how long YHWH would be angry with the house of David; Ethan’s life would not be long (Psalm 89:46-47). Where was YHWH’s covenant loyalty which He swore to David (Psalm 89:49)? Such is the question that resounds at the end of the psalm; Ethan concluded by asking the Lord to remember the reproaches which the enemies of the people of God have reproached them and His anointed (Psalm 89:50-51). While Ethan would not dispute Psalm 89:52, it is most likely added by the Psalter as the conclusion of Book III (so also Psalms 41:13, 72:20, 106:48).

Psalm 89 is most assuredly a psalm of lament, and yet it does not follow the standard lament pattern. Most psalms of lament set forth the difficulty, challenge, or complaint, and internally move toward a declaration of confidence and faith in YHWH and His covenant loyalty (e.g. Psalms 3, 22). Yet Psalm 88 and Psalm 89 end without that “resolution” of at least a declaration of faith; they leave us with their cry unanswered. In many ways the Psalter “answers” their concerns in Book IV (Psalms 90-106) by testifying to God’s faithfulness over time. We can “answer” Ethan’s question in terms of Jesus of Nazareth who received the throne of His father David, has reigned for two thousand years, and continues to reign (Luke 1:31-33, Matthew 28:18-20, Revelation 5:9-14).

But Ethan does not know that, or at least he is giving voice to people who do not know that. He knows what God promised David; from 586 BCE until the days of Jesus in the first century CE one could well ask where YHWH’s covenant loyalty to David and his offspring had gone. He perishes long before the promise is fulfilled.

It is important for us moderns to note the ground upon which Ethan makes his complaint. Many people today, after all, have all kinds of questions, challenges, and complaints for God. Yet today people ask, complain, or demand from a place of doubt; they wonder if God is even there, is a figment of their imagination, or fear He is the god of the Deists who no longer really cares what happens within the closed system he started. Ethan, on the other hand, asked, complained, and questioned from a place of faith. Ethan could not make sense of the condition of Judah and the house of David, not on account of any fears about YHWH’s existence, power, or covenant loyalty, but precisely because he believed firmly and strongly in YHWH as the Creator God of Israel who shows covenant loyalty to His people and proves faithful to His promises. If he did not have such faith he would have no reason to expect anything for the house of David: without God as their protector, Israel could never consistently stand against her adversaries. If YHWH did not care for His people at all, there would be no reason to expect anything less than the devastation of the people. The only way Ethan can really ask God these questions and to air his grievances is because he trusts God and what God has said to His people.

There are many reasons why we might think (if we do not prove open, honest, and faithful enough to actually say and ask) about many disconnects between what God has promised and the situation on the ground. We may wonder why the Lord has not yet returned, or why wickedness prospers while righteousness is set at naught, or why we experience trials and tribulations. In such conditions we do well to learn from Ethan; we can only have such complaints if we remain grounded in our belief that there is a God, that He has created us, maintains covenant loyalty, is faithful, and full of mercy. How can we doubt God’s existence while still expecting the kind of life and universe which only God could have created? After all, if God does not exist, or does not care about us, what does “good” or “evil” mean, anyway? Why should we expect “good” to happen to us but not “evil”? Why should anything in life be pleasant, good, positive, and above all, meaningful? By no means! Without God the universe has no purpose or meaning, and neither do we. Good and evil become human categorizations and are unmoored from any standard beyond human conceptions. We can only expect good to happen, for life to have meaning, or that all of this is going somewhere if God is who He says He is in Scripture.

We all live with unanswered questions, at least if we are honest with ourselves. Ethan the Ezrahite wrote an inspired psalm that ends with an unanswered question. Yet Psalm 89 begins with a powerful declaration of faith. We will have unanswered questions; can we sing of God’s lovingkindness, covenant loyalty, and faithfulness to all generations as well, and trust despite, or even because of, the questions, difficulties, and trials of life?

Ethan R. Longhenry