The End of Their World

“And when I shall extinguish thee, I will cover the heavens, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land,” saith the Lord YHWH (Ezekiel 32:7-8).

You either flock to “apocalyptic” passages of Scripture or prove at least a little apprehensive about them. They look weird. Hollywood could take notes on what is portrayed.

Many are convinced no such passage has been yet fulfilled since we have not seen such cosmic signs in the sky. Yet maintaining such an expectation unnecessarily literalizes prophetic imagery, creates impossible expectations, and misses out on the prophet’s main lesson. People read apocalyptic passages and expect the end of the world; the prophet is warning the people regarding the end of their world.

Ezekiel’s message regarding Egypt in Ezekiel 32:7-8 can help us better understand the nature of such “apocalyptic” prophecies. From 587 until 585 Ezekiel received a series of messages against Pharaoh and the Egyptians; one such message came in 570 and represents the final prophecy given by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 29:1-32:32). Ezekiel’s prophecy against Egypt remained consistent throughout: YHWH would send the king of Babylon and his army against Pharaoh and his host, Pharaoh would be humiliated, the people would suffer exile, and Egypt would no longer rise as a kingdom among the nations. Ezekiel 32:7-8 is given in this context; in Ezekiel 32:11, he explicitly associated this “apocalyptic” message with the promise of the arrival of the king of Babylon against Egypt.

This “apocalypse,” therefore, was expected quite soon. Nebuchadnezzar did send a Chaldean Babylonian army against Egypt in 567 to help deposed Pharaoh Wahibre (Apries) regain his throne against the upstart Ahmose II (Amasis). The invasion proved unsuccessful. The Egyptians would not experience an exile in the way Ezekiel originally promised, but the “apocalypse” would come upon their land: Ahmose’s son Psamtik III would be defeated by Cambyses king of Persia in 525, deposed, and exiled to Susa. Egypt would be incorporated into the Persian Empire, and beyond a brief stint of home rule in the 4th century BCE, would continue to serve as a pawn for successive empires until 1953 of our own era.

For us today such a conclusion might seem underwhelming, and not much of a fulfillment. It does not seem sufficiently dramatic to us. Yet consider the situation from Ezekiel’s own perspective. When he was born around 622 BCE the world around him remained as it had been for the better part of 500 years: sure, the kingdoms of Israel and Aram had fallen to the Assyrians, but the Assyrians still ruled, Babylon laid in wait, Jerusalem stood, and Egypt remained as it had been for millennia. A visitor from a few centuries earlier would have recognized that world. By the time Ezekiel received these messages from YHWH, Assyria had fallen, no longer a going concern; Chaldean Babylon was now ascendant; Jerusalem had been destroyed. Within another century Persia, in Ezekiel’s day one among many peoples subject to the Medes, would conquer the known world, eliminating both Babylon and Egypt as independent nations. This was a completely new world; nothing like it had ever been seen. Surely the collapse of the Late Bronze Age kingdoms proved more catastrophic, and yet even then Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt remained. Babylon had been founded in 2300 BCE; Assyria, 2500; Egypt, 3100. Within one century all would fall, never to rise again. All of them had in their own way oppressed Israel the people of God; all of them were denounced by the prophets; all thus endured the Day of YHWH.

Therefore, even though by our standards we might find it hard to accept these “apocalyptic” prophecies met their fulfillment, the historical evidence makes it difficult to argue otherwise. Assyria was at the apex of its power under Ashurbanipal who died in 631 BCE; who could imagine it would be destroyed 20 years later? Josiah of Judah oversaw a renaissance in Judah; within 25 years of his death Jerusalem and its Temple would be destroyed, and the Davidic Kingdom of Judah would never rise again. Nebuchadnezzar presided in Babylon as king of the world; within 25 years it would all become the possession of a king and a nation which was not even an independent force when he died. Ahmose II and his fellow pharaohs of the Twenty-Sixth dynasty presumed to restore the glory of Egypt and imitated Old Kingdom art; yet Egypt in their day would become subject to distant foreigners, and would remain so for about as long as it had enjoyed independence. All of these collapses happened suddenly. The world had not ended; but their world was gone, never to return.

If we understand the gravity of the events which took place between 625 and 525 BCE, we would recognize how imagery like the sun, moon, and stars turning dark is more than appropriate. Everything the people of the nations had taken for granted for centuries, if not millennia, was suddenly overturned. For anyone who was invested in the status quo which had developed in the first half of the first millennium BCE the events proved to be an unmitigated disaster.

No one would come out the same. Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and the small surrounding nations would undergo Hellenization after the conquest of Alexander the Great, syncretizing their cultural and religious ideologies with those of the Greeks. Some Judahites would return from Babylonian exile, yet they would not return to the syncretized ways of their ancestors; Second Temple Judaism would prove as uniquely distinct from the practices of the days of the Solomonic Temple as it would from the Judaism which developed after the second Temple was destroyed.

Such is how it goes with “apocalypses.” The world does not end, but the world will never be the same again. A world has come to an end.

As Christians we confess Jesus as Lord of lords and King of kings; we recognize the nations of the world are empowered by God but enslave themselves to the powers and principalities over this present darkness (Romans 13:1, Ephesians 6:12, Revelation 13:1-18, 19:16). We look forward to the day on which the Lord Jesus will return and fully defeat death, the final enemy, and receive unto Himself all of every nation who serves Him, and to share in eternity in the resurrection of life (1 Corinthians 15:20-58, Revelation 20:11-22:6). In the meantime we have every confidence that the nations and their fates remain in the hands of God just as they did in the days of the prophets; the fact John can see judgments on Rome in terms of the judgments against the nations according to the prophets provides such testimony.

To this end we might well experience “apocalypses” as we await the ultimate Apocalypse, the final appearance of Jesus, the Son of Man and Risen Lord. These “apocalypses” are not the end of the world, but they will represent the end of a world. They might be personal in nature; they might afflict a particular group of people; they may afflict a nation or the entire world. In these times things people took for granted and assumed to be predictable become so no longer. What used to be “normal” becomes impossible. Life might well go on for many, but it will not look like it did before.

God has never promised to remove us from such forms of distress, but He has left us the same promise He has always left His people in difficult times. He will strengthen and sustain us through whatever we must endure, but only if we turn to Him and cling to Him as our refuge and strength. Ultimately we have no basis in confidence and reliance on any thing in this creation, and “apocalypses” remind us of this: they all fade and fall apart (1 Peter 1:23-25). At the same time, nothing in the creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:31-39): no force can tear us away from God. In Christ we can endure anything as long as we maintain our faith and trust in Him come what may.

No one ever asked to live through an “apocalypse.” No one wants to experience a day and time in which metaphors of cosmic dislocation seem just about right or perhaps even a little understated. And yet according to God’s sovereign purposes such times come upon mankind. They end a world; but they have not yet ended the world. They have often allowed for transformation and new life to grow. Whether we live in times of comfort or distress, stability or “apocalypse,” we do well to maintain our confidence in God in Christ, and not in anything He has made, and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Time For Lament and Confession

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

Israel understood the importance of a time for lament.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

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

Refuge

I love thee, O YHWH, my strength.
YHWH is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer / My God, my rock, in whom I will take refuge / My shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower.
I will call upon YHWH, who is worthy to be praised / So shall I be saved from mine enemies (Psalm 18:1-3).

It is easy to feel that repetition of themes can be boring. Why say the same thing over and over again in slightly different ways? Nevertheless, there is wisdom in setting aside such a question so as to get to the heart of the matter: why would it be necessary to emphasize a given theme over and over again? Perhaps we have much to learn from it.

The Psalms are saturated with primary themes. YHWH is our Creator; YHWH shows covenant loyalty (Hebrew hesed, translated “steadfast love” and “lovingkindness”) to Israel; and, as in Psalm 18:1-3, YHWH is Israel’s refuge, worthy of praise, Deliverer from enemies. These premises are brought up time and time again in song after song, prayer after prayer.

They do not represent repetition for repetition’s sake. Instead, the Psalmist never wants these themes to depart from our subconscious. In their constant repetition we begin to recognize that YHWH is our Creator, shows covenant loyalty, and should serve as our refuge almost reflexively. In that repetition these themes reform and re-shape our thoughts, our perspectives, and thus our feelings and actions, as God had intended from the beginning.

The superscription of Psalm 18 declares how David wrote it after God delivered him from his enemies, including Saul. It would be easy for David to have despaired of his life in 1 Samuel 19:1-26:25: Saul pursued him viciously, and he still had to deal with Israel’s historic enemies, not least the Philistines. David would eventually seemingly go over to the Philistines, took refuge in Ziklag, and appeared to be a model vassal while in reality destroying Israelite enemies who were Philistine allies (1 Samuel 27:1-30:31). According to human logic and worldly standards the situation was dire and nearly impossible. If David would have trusted in his own strength all would have been lost.

Yet, as he proclaimed in Psalm 18:1-3, he did not trust in himself, nor his arms, nor his men, but in YHWH. He loved YHWH (Psalm 18:1). YHWH was his rock, fortress, deliverer, refuge, shield, horn of salvation, and high tower, all potent metaphors for permanence, strength, and defense (Psalm 18:2). David will call upon YHWH and put his trust in Him; YHWH is worthy of praise; only in YHWH will David find rescue from his enemies around him (Psalm 18:3). David would continue on praising God for his rescue and deliverance (Psalm 18:4-49). David was not at all confused about the means by which he succeeded and prospered despite all odds. It was not about him; YHWH rescued him and delivered him. Therefore, David would continually call on YHWH for aid and refuge.

Throughout its history Israel would be tempted to look for strength and refuge in other places. At times they would trust their armed forces; at times they trusted in neighboring allies. Their armed forces would fail and their allies would disappoint; they would go into exile, sometimes with their allies, sometimes with their allies suffering humiliation soon afterward. Israel would pay a terrible price to continually re-learn the lesson David absorbed and to which he gave voice in Psalm 18:1-3.

Yet in distress and trial, and especially under foreign oppression, Israel did seek refuge in YHWH. His rescue and deliverance was not always dramatic or instantaneous, but somehow the Jewish people persevered despite existential crises in the days of the Persians and Macedonians.

We Christians are no less tempted than Israel to look for strength and refuge in other places than in God. We are tempted to look to government or political figures or culture; we are tempted to rely on the prosperity we have gained; we are tempted to follow in our own paths and fulfill what we imagine to be our individual destinies. We are tempted to look at God the way people in culture often do, as the last minute emergency 911, the One to whom we turn after we have exhausted every other avenue.

Sometimes these places of strength and refuge seem to hold up. Yet we should not be deceived; none of them can save or rescue. The government, political figures, and culture will fail and perhaps even turn on us. All of our prosperity can be wiped out by terrible circumstances. We can persevere in our own strength for a time, but it will fail us as well. If these things are our strength and refuge we will grow cynical, despondent, and distressed, for according to human logic and worldly wisdom their chances of providing resounding success are slim to none. We will be afraid, exposed, and we will find only profound disappointment.

We do well to learn David’s lessons before circumstances force them upon us as they did Israel. No army or government will be able to provide refuge and to be a strong tower as YHWH is. No ideology or worldview can be a horn of salvation as YHWH is. No earthly prosperity or self-help philosophy will be able to serve as our shield as YHWH does. To build upon any of these is to build on sand; we do well to seek the Rock. We must love YHWH. We must find our strength and refuge in Him, for His purposes alone will endure for eternity.

It may take many repetitions and constant meditation, but we must absorb the lesson of Psalm 18:1-3 in a profound and deep way. Only YHWH can be our Rock, shield, and refuge. All others will fail and disappoint. Only in YHWH can we find joy and hope, for only YHWH can rescue and deliver. May we call upon YHWH who is worthy to be praised, and through His Son Jesus Christ be rescued and delivered from sin and death!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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

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

Denying the Resurrection

So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying was spread abroad among the Jews, and continueth until this day (Matthew 28:15).

Stories attempting to deny the truth often take much more faith to believe in than the truth itself.

As Jesus arose from the dead, the Roman guard had trembled and became as dead men (Matthew 28:4); they later report to the Temple authorities the things which had taken place (Matthew 28:11). The chief priests had no desire to believe them; their power and influence were centered on the Temple, and as good Sadducees, they denied even the potential of the dead to be raised (Matthew 22:23). They did not disbelieve the Roman guard, but instead attempted to suppress the evidence, giving them financial incentives to claim that the disciples came and stole the body while the guard slept (Matthew 28:12-14). Thus they did so; Matthew inserts himself into the narrative to declare that this story had circulated among the Jews for years after, even unto the time he was writing his Gospel (Matthew 28:15).

Giotto di Bondone - No. 37 Scenes from the Life of Christ - 21. Resurrection (detail) - WGA09225

Such is the way it has gone ever since among those who would deny Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For generations many maintain great disincentives from maintaining confidence in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. If Jesus is risen, as Peter would make it clear in Acts 2:14-36, then Jesus is Lord and Christ, the King. If Jesus is King, then Caesar is not as powerful as he would imagine himself to be. If Jesus is King, and His people represent the temple of the living God (1 Corinthians 3:16-18, 6:19-20), then the Temple in Jerusalem has but a short time left, and its authorities are soon to be obsolete. If Jesus is the Christ, the hope of Israel, then His teachings must be true, and all must submit to Him, and not heed the Pharisees, scribes, and other professed teachers of the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). If Jesus is the risen Lord, the one like a Son of Man who received an eternal Kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14, Revelation 1:12-18), then He will bring to nothing the kingdoms of this world, and He is the true and full revelation of the One True God, a light in the darkness to those who persist in idolatry (Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:1-3). Those who benefit from the philosophies of men, idolatry, who exercise authority in governments, and who receive honor and respect as teachers, religious or otherwise, have much to lose and little to gain from the truth of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Throughout time some have maintained their integrity, have conceded their error, and submitted themselves to Jesus as the Risen Lord. We praise God for such good and honest hearts. Unfortunately, far too many have responded to the good news of the resurrection of Jesus like the chief priests did. They have found it easier to make up stories which deny the resurrection, no matter how fanciful or incredible, so that they can persist in living as they had formerly.

Some have claimed that Jesus did not truly die, but only fainted on the cross. They would have us believe that the Romans were not as effective as we might have imagined they were at executing people; that He was pierced in His side but made no movement or provided no indication of life (John 19:33-37); that He was wrapped in linen with many pounds of spices and aloes and remained merely unconscious (John 19:38-40); and then, after all that, to “awake” on the third day in full strength, roll the rock away, and fend off or cause great fear to come upon a whole Roman guard (Matthew 28:1-4). A truly incredible story! It takes far more faith to believe this than to accept the resurrection of the dead.

Some have claimed that the Apostles and others suffered from a mass hallucination. It strains credibility to suggest that more than five hundred people would suffer the same hallucination at the same time (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Beyond this, those who claim to see things in hallucinations persist in them, and yet the Apostles and their associates claimed to see Jesus in the resurrection only over a forty day period, and then no longer (Acts 1:3). Claims of hallucinations cannot make sense of the story as written.

Yet perhaps the most commonly held view is the story circulated by the Roman guards and among the Jews in Matthew 28:13-15: the disciples stole the body of Jesus away while the Roman guard slept. First of all, the Roman army was nothing if not disciplined. Far less serious infractions than sleeping on the job led to decimation; if it were not for the chief priests’ intervention, this entire guard would have no doubt been executed (cf. Acts 12:18-19). The Roman guard would not have been sleeping, and they certainly would not have stayed awake had the disciples come, rolled the rock away, and took the body of Jesus!

Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let us carry out this “story” to its end. Why would the disciples have taken the body? They would have wanted to do so in order to claim that Jesus was risen from the dead. According to the modern point of view, the death of Jesus would have led these disciples to some kind of religious experience or enlightenment so as to begin to claim that Jesus is actually Lord in heaven, that through their own study and observations they were able to re-tell the story of Israel and its hope in the Messiah along the lines of Jesus the crucified but risen Messiah, and this all on their own.

Such is a fabulous tale, and again takes far more faith than to accept the Gospels as written! Who among the disciples expected Jesus to rise again? They did not understand what Jesus meant when He had told them so beforehand (Matthew 16:21-23, 20:17-28). Simon Peter claimed to be ready to die with and for Jesus, ready to establish the Kingdom on earth, and struck a slave to that end (Matthew 26:30-35, 51-54). The disciples scattered when Jesus was arrested (Matthew 26:56); they even doubted when they saw Jesus in the resurrection (Matthew 28:17). Beyond all this it was apparent to everyone that the Apostles, particularly Peter and John, were “unlearned” and “ignorant” men from Galilee (Acts 2:7, 4:13): are these the men who on their own will devise a most compelling and novel re-imagination of God’s purposes of His Messiah?

The greatest testimony to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is His disciples. Before the resurrection they are everything you would expect from proud but uneducated Galilean Jews, fervent in zeal, expecting the Christ to come, defeat the enemies of Israel, and ultimately usher in the day of resurrection, and ready to rule with him in that Kingdom. As Jesus is tried, executed, and raised from the dead, the disciples accept the truth of what is going on, yet still do not understand what it is or what it represents (e.g. Acts 1:6). Yet, after the Holy Spirit falls upon them in Acts 2:1-4, they are transformed into proclaimers of the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, boldly indicting those who crucified Him, standing firm where they had once shrunk back, declaring that God raised this Jesus whom they had crucified from the dead, that He was the Servant of whom Isaiah spoke, He is begotten of God in the resurrection, He has all power and authority and will return one day to judge the living and the dead (Acts 2:17-10:41). The Gospel they preach, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in Jesus of Nazareth, is something no human would imagine from the pastiche of messages given in the Law and the Prophets and yet does embody and fulfill them; so it is that Paul can say that God has revealed the mystery of the Gospel in his time (Ephesians 3:1-6).

The Apostles and the Kingdom of Jesus they worked so hard to affirm only make sense in light of Jesus’ resurrection. Denying the resurrection leads only to stories more fabulous and more incredible than the sober testimony preserved in the New Testament. Ultimately no disincentive against belief in Jesus the Risen Lord is worth condemnation and eternal separation from God (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). We do well to trust the testimony of the Apostles, trust in Jesus the Risen Lord, and seek to live according to His will!

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

Numbering Our Days

The days of our years are threescore years and ten / or even by reason of strength fourscore years
Yet is their pride but labor and sorrow / for it is soon gone, and we fly away.
Who knoweth the power of thine anger / and thy wrath according to the fear that is due unto thee?
So teach us to number our days / that we may get us a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:10-12).

Moses is trying to do a lot more than just to provide us with a baseline about the average lifespan.

Psalm 90 is the only psalm attributed to Moses; it is a tefillah, a prayer or perhaps prayer-hymn, and the Psalter has placed it at the beginning of the fourth book of psalms (Psalms 90-106). Moses praises God as the dwelling place of His people throughout all generations (Psalm 90:1). He speaks of God’s eternal nature, existing before the mountains and the world, everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 90:2). God who created man also sees his end, returning to dust, for to God a thousand years is as a day when it is past or a watch in the night, a time passed in sleep by most and thus barely perceptible (a four hour period; Psalm 90:3-4, cf. 2 Peter 3:8). In comparison humans are like sleep or grass in the field, alive one morning, cut down by evening (Psalm 90:5-6). The people of God are consumed in God’s anger, for their iniquities are set before them and they pass their days under the wrath of the hand of God (Psalm 90:7-9).

Moses then speaks of the “average” human life of seventy to eighty years (Psalm 90:10). The figures are appropriate; life expectancy these days is on average 67 for the world and closer to 80 for industrialized nations. Yes, average life expectancy was much worse during Moses’ days on account of illness, child mortality, and other factors. Medical technology has allowed modern man to increase the average life expectancy but not nearly as much if one focuses primarily on those who have already reached a level of maturity, that is, those who could hear and understand what Moses is saying in Psalm 90. All things being equal and without significant famine, plague, or war, even in Moses’ day 70 to 80 was the average upper limit to a lifespan, and has perhaps increased by a decade or so since.

The Death of Moses (crop)

Moses did not intend to provide some interesting factoid when he speaks of a lifespan of seventy or eighty years; he says their pride is labor and sorrow, it ends soon, and we fly away (Psalm 90:10). Seventy to eighty years is our lifetime, and it may seem like a lot to us; Moses just said that to God a thousand years, 12 or so times an average lifespan, is but four hours or a day (Psalm 90:4). Moses asks who can know the power of God’s anger according to the reverence due Him (Psalm 90:11). Moses gives voice to God’s people to ask God to teach us to number our days so we can obtain wisdom (Psalm 90:12); such is the real goal of this exploration of life and time.

Yet Moses speaks for God’s people in distress and would like for YHWH to return to His people and to show mercy to them, showing them covenant loyalty so they can rejoice and be glad as many days as they have been afflicted (Psalm 90:13-15). God is asked to have His work appear to His servants, His glory on their children, the favor of the Lord upon His people, establishing the work of their hands (Psalm 90:16-17). Thus ends Moses’ prayer.

We could imagine many circumstances in which Moses is speaking from experience. He led the Israelites out of Egypt after they had suffered deep distress for at least eighty years if not longer (Exodus 12:40, Deuteronomy 34:7). The people of God suffered His wrath on account of their faithless for forty years as they died in the Wilderness (Numbers 14:26-39). Yet Moses also knew that the Israelites would sin again and suffer great distress (Deuteronomy 31:27-32:44), and perhaps is giving them voice through his prayer in Psalm 90.

Israel desperately needed to keep Moses’ prayer in mind during difficult days. The Psalter is aware of this and likely places this psalm in its position as Psalm 90, the introduction to Book IV of the Psalms, but also after the maskilim of Heman and Ethan the Ezrahites (Psalms 88-89), which maintain confidence in YHWH as God of Israel, full of covenant loyalty, but who would really like to know where that covenant loyalty has gone in light of distress and exile. Of all the “lament” psalms they do not end on a note of faith; the questions are left open. In many ways Moses is left to “answer” Heman and Ethan: yes, our days may be full of woe and suffering; we may make it to 70 or 80 but those years are full of pain; but God is eternal, to Him a thousand years is like a night of sleep, and so we must number our days and be wise. God shows covenant loyalty and is faithful to His promises, but sometimes those promises take years to unfold, many more years than the average human life. From Abraham to the Conquest is about 590 years; from David to Jesus is about 950 years; from the hope of the end of exile to the establishment of Jesus’ eternal Kingdom was no less than 570 years. God was not slow as many count slowness; He was patient, and worked according to His purposes.

We also do well to keep Moses’ prayer in mind, not least because Peter quotes Psalm 90:4 in 2 Peter 3:8. It has been almost two thousand years since Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 1:1-11); that may be 25 times the average lifespan of a human, but it is only as a half a night or two days to God. When we experience great trial and distress, living our seventy or eighty years in labor and sorrow, we may be tempted to wonder where the promise of God’s goodness or covenant loyalty has gone. We must remember that God has promised to give eternity of joy and rest, far more and longer than the days of our sorrow and pain (Romans 8:17-18, 2 Corinthians 4:17). We do well to ask for God to teach us to number our days and get wisdom, to always remember that God’s time-frame is not our time-frame, and it is for us to trust that all things will work together for good for the true people of God (Romans 8:28). May we serve God in Christ and obtain the blessing!

Ethan R. Longhenry