Darius the Mede

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Kingdom Refugees

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).

Peter wrote to the Christians in many Roman provinces of what we today call Asia Minor, or Turkey. He speaks of them as “elect who are sojourners” (ASV) or “elect exiles” (ESV) of the “Dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1). It would be easy to assume that he wrote specifically to Jewish Christians who considered themselves part of the Diaspora, the Jewish community outside of the land of Israel based on this terminology; it is similar to James 1:1, and of all the nations only Israel would see itself in exile as dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. And yet Peter considered his audience as having been redeemed “from [their] vain manner of life handed down from [their] fathers” (1 Peter 1:17); they were a people who had once not been a people, but were made the people of God (1 Peter 2:10). While the latter prophecy was given specifically to Israel (Hosea 1:1-3:5), and Peter himself considered the Law a burden he nor his people Israel could bear (Acts 15:10), no Israelite would presume that his ancestors had lived in a vain matter, or speak of their people as not the people of God; instead, Peter has Christians converted out of the Gentile world in view (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18, etc.).

Peter appropriated Israelite imagery to describe Christians throughout 1 Peter. Christians are the temple and its priests (1 Peter 2:3-5); titles and concepts associated with Israel are now appropriated for Christians in 1 Peter 2:9-10. Peter used the term “Gentiles” with all of its negative connotations of hostile pagans (1 Peter 2:12, 4:3), even though according to ethnic heritage many of the Christians to whom he wrote would be reckoned as Gentiles. Thus Peter envisioned Christians as the people of God, speaking of them in terms of Israel, and spoke of their opponents among the nations in terms of the Gentiles.

And uniquely among all the letters of the New Testament Peter also appropriated the imagery of sojourn and exile experienced by Israel and applied it to the present circumstance of Christians in the world. Peter addressed the Christians as exiles/sojourners (1 Peter 1:1); exhorted them to reverence before God during their sojourn (1 Peter 1:17-21); encouraged them as sojourners and exiles to conduct themselves appropriately before the Gentiles (1 Peter 2:11-12); and spoke of his current location as “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13). In this way exile and sojourn proves to be a running theme in 1 Peter: as Israel was exiled by Babylon and had to learn to live as exiles and sojourners, so Christians are to see themselves as exiles/sojourners under “Babylon,” or Rome, and live accordingly.

“Sojourners” and “exiles” are terms often used interchangeably and yet maintain important distinctions and nuances. A sojourner is a person who voluntarily leaves his homeland to go and live somewhere else; Abraham is the model sojourner, following God’s call to leave Ur and Haran and live in Canaan, in which he never owned any property beyond a gravesite (cf. Hebrews 11:9-10). An exile is a person who less than voluntarily leaves his homeland to live somewhere else; Israel in the days of Babylon is the model of exile, a people forced to go somewhere else (Psalm 137:1-9). A sojourner often has good reasons for leaving the homeland and has little desire to return; they are tempted to assimilate into their new land and culture. The exile tends to want nothing more than to return to his homeland; they are tempted to have nothing at all to do with their new land and culture and idolize their country of origin.

Christians are to be as both sojourners and exiles in different ways. Christians are as sojourners inasmuch as they should have no desire to return from the “land” of sin and darkness from which they have been redeemed (Romans 6:21, Ephesians 2:1-18). Christians are exiles inasmuch as they should not feel too comfortable in the land, culture, and nation-state in which they reside, always maintaining primary loyalty to their “real home,” the Kingdom of God in Christ (cf. Philippians 3:20-21). Christians must resist the temptation to assimilate to the land in which they live (Romans 12:2); likewise, Christians must resist the temptation to be so focused on separation from the world so as to be no earthly good, not showing the love God would have us show to those around us (Matthew 22:34-40, Galatians 2:10, 6:10).

Peter did well to speak of the life of the Christian in terms of exile and sojourn. We today rarely speak in those terms; instead, our preferred concept is that of the refugee. A refugee feels compelled to flee their homeland because of strife, war, famine, plague, or other ravages; they seek asylum in another land. Some refugees want nothing more than to forget the past and assimilate into a new land; other refugees desperately cling to their identity from their former land. Christians are to have fled to God for refuge in order to lay hold of the hope of resurrection (Hebrews 6:18); their primary citizenship, and thus loyalty, is to the Kingdom of God, even though they are also to obey earthly authorities (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 2:11-18). There is no land in which they are to feel fully comfortable; it is not for Christians to plant their flag anywhere and declare it their own in the name of God in Christ. The refugee always remains in a precarious situation, the quality of their life dependent on the goodwill and hospitability of their land of refuge; Christians are always likewise in a precarious situation under any nation-state. Christians cannot get too settled; they cannot too closely align with or be identified with earthly power, lest they prove no longer refugees for God’s Kingdom. As refugees we can identify with those who are marginalized, neglected, oppressed, or in danger; we know that God has special concern for such people (Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27). As refugees we must be skeptical of the nation-states of man even as we prove obedient to rulers, understanding that the principalities and powers of this present darkness empower the nation-states (Matthew 4:8-9, Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Christians must know their comfort must not come from their environment but from their God (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

We find it difficult to understand ourselves as refugees because we have not physically gone anywhere; we live in a strange tension, remaining the same demographically as before, and often even within the same nation-state, and yet so fully transformed spiritually so as to be a different person than before. Such was true as well for the Christians to whom Peter wrote. It helps us understand and cope with the fractured relationships and hostility we encounter from those whom we knew beforehand who see our new conduct in Christ and prove hostile to it (cf. 1 Peter 4:1-6). But it also helps us develop a mindset and posture that glorifies God in Christ as distinct from that of the nation-state and culture around us. We may maintain friendship and association with people in the world, and yet they remain as “Gentiles.” We may appreciate the privileges of living under a given nation-state, and yet we remain as refugees within it. If we lose our distinctiveness, we prove unprofitable (Matthew 5:13).

Christians are exiles and sojourners on the earth: refugees for the Kingdom of God in Christ. We must flee the world and its ways so as to find refuge for our souls in God and hope for the resurrection and a world of righteousness in Jesus. May we live in the world as refugees of the Kingdom and glorify God in Christ in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wonderfully Made

I will give thanks unto thee / for I am fearfully and wonderfully made
Wonderful are thy works / and that my soul knoweth right well (Psalm 139:14).

If we step back and think about it, mankind represents a powerful and amazing manifestation of God’s creative genius.

In Psalm 139 David meditates on how God knows him. YHWH has thoroughly searched and known him; He knows the thoughts and the ways in which David walks, and this knowledge is far beyond David’s ability to understand (Psalm 139:1-6). David could not hide from God: God is in heaven, Sheol, the deepest part of the sea, or even the darkness, God is there and sustains him, for God sees whether it is light or dark (Psalm 139:7-12). David confessed how God formed him in his mother’s womb and knew of his ways before they took place (Psalm 139:13-16); in the midst of this observation David exclaimed how he would give thanks to God because of how he was fearfully and wonderfully made, and because of this testified to the wonderful nature of God’s works (Psalm 139:14). David would continue by praising God’s thoughts, how God would judge the wicked, considering YHWH’s enemies as his enemies and asking for them to depart from him, and opening himself up to searching by God so God would lead him in the right and good way (Psalm 139:17-24).

Psalm 139 does set forth God’s formation of a human being in the womb; David does not believe that a human being only becomes as much after birth (Psalm 139:13-16). Yet such meditations about babies in the womb are just one part of David’s greater purpose in praising God for His continual sustenance, care, and direction. In Psalm 139:14 David glorified God for the wonderfully amazing nature of mankind His creation; and yet Psalm 139 on the whole is not about mankind, or even about David, as much as it is about God’s great understanding and perception. God sees all things; we cannot hide from God. We cannot imagine that our thoughts are hidden from Him; He knows all things, and all will be laid bare and we will have to give an account (Acts 17:30-31). God is always watching, but not as a tyrant or as “Big Brother”; God knows, sees, and watches for our care and our benefit. If we associate with God in Christ we have every confidence that God has known our life and plan from beginning to end and will sustain us and see us through as long as we subject ourselves to His examination so as to depart from the ways of wickedness and follow in His right way.

And yet we do well to stop for a moment to consider how fearfully and wonderfully made we are. We inhabit a universe with many constants fine-tuned to allow for the presence of life. We live on a planet in the habitable zone of the solar system with sufficient elements to facilitate life. While many creatures on earth may have certain characteristics which prove superior to what may be found in mankind, no creature measures up to homo sapiens. No one has quite the dexterity and brainpower; coordination and language; the ability to reason and to find much more out of life than just the bare necessities of living. We walk on two legs; can run and jump; and also paint, sculpt, and design. God has made us with all of these skills; indeed, only in mankind do we find the testimony of God’s divinity in the creation (Genesis 1:26-27, Romans 1:18-20). Mankind is made in God’s image, the Three in One and One in Three, able to reason, meditate upon the nature of existence itself, appreciate aesthetics of beauty, uphold truth, and above all things seeks after relational unity with his God and with his fellow man. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made; we do well to praise God for His wonderful works.

Far too many people anymore deny the truths of Psalm 139:14. Yes, indeed, many deny that God is their Creator; yet far too many others deny that man is fearfully and wonderfully made, and think very little of the value of people. A lot of people find it much easier to love “humanity” than individual human beings. We hear so often that people go to “find God” in the wilderness, as if a place out in nature without any human beings around is the ultimate sanctuary. In such a view people are the biggest problem in the world, and everything would be better off without them.

God’s divine power is manifest in nature (Romans 1:18-20); we can certainly understand the benefit of a place of solitude, meditation, and reflection, which are often difficult to find in the presence of other people (e.g. Matthew 14:13). But God is not present “more” in nature than He is among people. You will search in vain to find the image of God in nature; you only find the image of God in your fellow human beings. If the world is better off without human beings, not only would that include you and me, but it also would mean that God made the most colossal blunder imaginable in creating mankind as a steward of the creation!

What if God felt that way about mankind? We would be utterly lost without hope! Thanks be to God that He loved and cared for mankind enough to continue to provide for and sustain them, as David professes throughout Psalm 139. Thanks be to God that He sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins so we could maintain hope in the resurrection (John 3:16). Thanks be to God that He proved less willing to give up on humanity than we do!

People are often difficult; they are sinners, corrupted by evil, and cause untold suffering, misery, and even environmental degradation (Hosea 4:1-4, Romans 3:23, Titus 3:3-4). In truth, so am I and so are you. There is a lot of ugliness in our own lives we would rather not acknowledge. We are who we are but by the grace of God; so it is with our fellow man.

Therefore, despite the difficulties of sin and evil, we do well to praise God for He has made us in such a fearful and wonderful way. We do well to see the image of God in our fellow man despite all of his sins, weaknesses, and shortcomings, for so God has elected to see us. We do well to recognize that God’s presence is as much among people as it is in nature or other such places, and to seek the image of God not in plants and majestic scenes but among people made in His image, even if they are grubby and dirty and laden with problems. May we uphold the dignity of humanity as made in God’s image, and in the name of Jesus treat each other accordingly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Telling History

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

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

What is history?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Transcendent Kingdom

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36).

Few of Jesus’ declarations have reverberated over time as His confession of the nature of His Kingdom in John 18:36. Few have also proven as contentious.

Jesus had been betrayed by Judas into the hands of the religious authorities; they had already condemned Him to death as a blasphemer (John 18:1-27). Since they had no authority granted to execute Jesus, they brought Him before Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea, to issue the final condemnation (John 18:28-32). Pilate asked Jesus if He indeed was the King of the Jews based on what had been said of Him by the religious authorities (John 18:32-35). Jesus declared that His Kingdom was not of this world: His servants were not fighting to foment insurrection or rebellion so as to rescue Him, and such was sufficient evidence to show His Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Jesus would go on to identify Himself as a King according to what Pilate himself had said; Pilate found no crime or guilt in Him (John 18:37-38).

But what is Jesus really attempting to say to Pilate by this declaration? As is unfortunately the norm in Christianity, people have often gone to extremes. Some fervently expect Jesus to one day make the Kingdom be of this world, and so they emphasize the idea that His Kingdom is not “now” from here, presuming that at some point in the future that will change. Others so emphasize “not of this world” so that it becomes “entirely of another world,” as if His Kingdom has nothing at all to do with this world.

In the contextual moment Jesus is attempting to “clear the air” about Him and His intentions. From the first century until now it has been all too easy to misunderstand Jesus’ purposes in His Kingdom and to conceptualize the Kingdom entirely in earthly terms. The Jews wanted to make Jesus their king; He escaped from them, for His Kingdom was not to be what they desired it to be (John 6:15). Christians were easily accused of sedition against Rome, declaring that Jesus was King, not Caesar (Acts 17:6-7); so both Paul and Peter strongly urge Christians to remain subject to all earthly authorities lest anyone get the wrong idea (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Thus, when Pilate heard that Jesus is being called the “King of the Jews,” he perceived Jesus to be a threat to the stability of Roman rule over Judea, because he is aware of the Jewish expectation that their God would send their Messiah who they imagined would liberate them from foreign pagan oppression and would re-establish a Jewish Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. And so Jesus clarified before Pilate that His Kingdom is not of this world; it would not be an earthly kingdom vying for territory with a man on a throne in a capital. If it were, His servants would be fighting to make that happen.

Such should be a strong warning to any who would imagine that Jesus’ only concern is one of timing and not substance. Jesus is not saying, “my Kingdom is not now of this world, but it will be at some undetermined point in the future”; the work God was accomplishing in Jesus powerfully demonstrated the error in Jewish expectations. Jesus was the King of the Jews, not just a more improved version of David, but as the One like a Son of Man who would soon be given an eternal dominion from the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:13-14). The Kingdom He would inaugurate would strike in pieces all of the kingdoms who had come before (Daniel 2:43-45). God would give Jesus all authority in heaven and on earth, over all the powers, not merely over some acres of ground on earth (Matthew 28:18, Colossians 1:15-20). Jesus’ Kingdom is too much of a present reality and far too profound to restrict it to a future earthly hope (Colossians 1:12-20, Revelation 1:9).

Yet it is not as if Jesus’ Kingdom has nothing to do with this world. Neither Pilate nor later Roman authorities were entirely wrong to raise an eyebrow at the claims made by Jesus and His later followers. If Jesus is Lord and Savior, then Caesar is not the ultimate authority. Christian claims of God giving authority to whom He will and of Jesus being over all the kings of the earth stand at variance with Caesar’s claims about himself. Even if Christians seek to honor and obey earthly authorities in all things, their loyalties and ultimate commitment lie in God in Christ and His Kingdom, not in Rome (Philippians 1:27, 3:20-21). Jesus’ Kingdom was not envisioned as an alien force; He reigns from heaven indeed but reigns over both heaven and earth, and all peoples and nations are subject to Him (Philippians 3:20-21, Revelation 5:12-14, 7:9-17). Just as Christians ought not imagine that Jesus’ Kingdom is merely awaiting its earthly manifestation, so they ought not imagine that the concerns of the Kingdom have nothing at all to do with the present world.

Jesus’ Kingdom is neither earthly nor otherworldly; it is transcendent. Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings; His Kingdom reigns above all other principalities and powers (Colossians 1:15-20, 2:11-17, Revelation 19:16). Jesus’ Kingdom absolutely crushed and shattered the empires of the world through God’s judgments upon them and the work of Christians within them proclaiming the Gospel and glorifying God. The Gospel of Jesus and His Kingdom undermines every tyrant and despotic tendency in government, for fear, shame, suffering, and death, the coercive tools of government, are made devoid of power in the life of the one who trusts in the crucified and risen Jesus (Matthew 10:28). Jesus will return one day and will raise our bodies to be like Himself (Philippians 3:20-21); this energizes all believers in Him to uphold the values of the Kingdom no matter what man may try to do to us. The flower of the glory of empire will fade and die; the word of God, the Gospel, will endure forever, as will those who faithfully participate in the Kingdom of God to the end (1 Corinthians 15:51-58, 1 Peter 1:23-25).

Christians live in the world and do well to honor and obey earthly authorities. Yet we must demonstrate that our true affections and loyalty lie in the transcendent Kingdom of God in Christ. We must live as if we truly do eschew the extremes in understanding about the Kingdom. We must not foolishly believe, as so many do, that Jesus’ Kingdom will be established as an earthly Kingdom some day, or that through our efforts we can establish His Kingdom on earth. The Lord Himself considered such things as a fool’s errand; if He did not do so, who are we as His followers to imagine we can succeed where He “failed”? Thus we have no right to imagine that God’s Kingdom is manifest in any given country or any political platform or ideology therein; we likewise have no right to imagine that we will succeed in bringing the Kingdom to earth through benevolent action. At the same time, the Kingdom does have a word to speak to rulers and citizens and how we should live; we must not foolishly believe that Christians are to be so alien as to have nothing to say or do with those who live in the world. We are not given the right to “monasticize” ourselves, withdrawing from society entirely and/or put most of our efforts into creating some sort of Christian subculture. We must serve God in His Kingdom in the world, knowing that all of the kingdoms of the world will ultimately become the Kingdom of our Lord and Christ (Revelation 11:15), and that His transcendent Kingdom, while not of this world, powerfully reigns over it. May we serve the Lord Jesus in His Kingdom to His eternal glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Worldly Wisdom

This wisdom is not a wisdom that cometh down from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where jealousy and faction are, there is confusion and every vile deed (James 3:15-16).

James, the Lord’s brother, wrote to exhort his fellow Jewish Christians in the Diaspora regarding their conduct in Christ. Having encouraged them to avoid showing partiality (James 2:1-13), to manifest their faith in their works (James 2:14-26), and to give heed to how they speak and avoid hypocrisy in so doing (James 3:1-12), he then challenged the “wise” among them to demonstrate their wisdom through their lives full of good deeds (James 3:13). Wisdom “from above,” from God, is pure, peaceable, open to reason, full of mercy and good works, and is without partiality and hypocrisy; those who are wise make peace and in so doing sow unto a harvest of righteousness (James 3:17-18). But those who have zelos (jealousy or envy) and eritheia (strife, selfish ambition) in their hearts are not truly wise, and they should not glory and lie against the truth (James 3:14). Such people are motivated by a different kind of “wisdom,” that which is of the earth, of this life, and demonic; such wisdom leads to confusion and wickedness (James 3:15-16).

How can there be two different types of wisdom? Is not wisdom automatically good? By no means; wisdom is simply knowledge that “works.” Wisdom can be good; it can be evil. We may want to believe whatever wisdom that “work” must come from God, but it does not take much investigation to recognize just how terribly correct James is about the different sources of wisdom. In the experience of mankind, “might makes right” or “the ends justify the means” certainly seems to “work”: those with power tend to make the rules to benefit them and marginalize others, and not a few terrible deeds have been justified because of the perceived benefits of the outcome. In fact, most of what passes as wisdom about “getting ahead” in life all derives from the two base impulses identified by James: jealousy/envy and selfish ambition. While we may be able to find some morally exemplary persons among the wealthy and the elite, most of them have obtained their wealth because they were driven by jealousy and selfish ambition. It seems almost axiomatic that every ruler, those who actually rule and those who strongly desire to do so, are almost nakedly ambitious in life. Most give lip service to the moral superiority of love and humility, but when it starts hitting the power base or the pocketbook, it is all about fear and winning.

It is crucial for Christians to recognize the contrast between the wisdom from above and “worldly” wisdom, to not confuse the two, and in every respect to purge ourselves of “worldly” wisdom and pattern our lives on the wisdom from above. Christians are easily tempted to use a bit of the Devil’s ways against him; after all, they “work,” and if they “work,” then what would be the problem? James never denied the efficacy of “worldly wisdom”; instead, he pointed to its ultimate fruit. Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and vile practices (James 3:16). If there is jealousy and selfish ambition in the home, there will be fights, distress, stress, and the children will not be able to be fully raised in the Lord’s discipline and admonition and will have much to overcome as adults. If there is jealousy and selfish ambition in the church, there will be strife, divisions, and all kinds of ungodliness, hurting Christians and giving the Gentiles reason to blaspheme (e.g. 3 John 1:9-10). Our culture, society, and nation are under the control of the god of this world; we should not be surprised to see such terrible partisan bickering and division since there is so much jealousy and selfish ambition (2 Corinthians 4:4). We can understand how all of these situations come about, yet we recognize that none of them are really good or truly healthy.

For good reason did our Lord and Master draw a very strong and solid line between the “ways of the Gentiles” and the way it should be among His people in Matthew 20:25-28: the Gentiles live by the earthly, this life, demonic wisdom of this world. It should not be so among us. Christians must live by the pure, peaceable, reasonable wisdom from above, from God, full of good works and mercy, without partiality and hypocrisy. We will be tempted to use the world’s ways of doing things; after all, they “work,” and we do not want to be fully left behind. We will be tempted to use Satan’s tactics to tell people about Jesus, using manipulation, coercion, judgmentalism, or bait-and-switch tactics; such is not pure and peaceable, but derives from jealousy and selfish ambition, and is condemned. Many wish to judge the effectiveness of the Lord’s people in their efforts based on the metrics of the business world; we do well to remember that the business world is motivated entirely by jealousy and selfish ambition, and be very wary of whatever “wisdom” someone wants to derive from it. Whenever God’s people get involved in the economic and political world, they enter a realm dominated by jealousy and selfish ambition; if they are not careful, God’s people may end up finding themselves commending the unjustifiable and approving the unconscionable so as to obtain power or standing, compromising all that is good and lovely on account of fear and/or a will to power.

We do well to remember that God did not save us through economic prosperity or through the power games of the political realm; God has saved us through His Son Jesus who lived, suffered, died, and whom God raised from the dead because He proved willing to bear the shame and the scorn and proved obedient to the point of death (Philippians 2:5-11). We must have the mind of Christ, the wisdom from above; we must love where there is fear, we must remain humble where there is arrogance, we must show mercy where there is judgmentalism, we must remain content where there is jealousy, and we must seek the best interest of the other where there is selfish ambition. This world’s wisdom has not brought lasting peace; it is incapable of doing so. Christians, however, have access to peace toward God through Jesus who Himself killed the hostility by suffering on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). Peace does not come through any form of the wisdom of this world; it does not come through fear or projections of strength; it comes from humility, purity, a willingness to show no partiality, and righteous living under the Messiah. If we really believe Jesus is who He says He is, then we shall willingly give up our jealousy and envy, finding contentment in Him, and renounce all selfish ambition, and live for Him (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 2:20, Philippians 4:10-13, 1 Timothy 6:5-10).

We live in a world saturated with demonic earthly wisdom. We must recognize it for what it is, but as Christians we must not capitulate before it. We cannot advance the Lord’s purposes with the Devil’s wisdom; we cannot will ourselves to power through the wisdom of demons, but must in every respect become the slave of Jesus so His reign can be seen through us. May we seek to purge ourselves of all jealousy and selfish ambition, the wisdom of this world, and find contentment and true life and identity in Jesus the Christ, and obtain the resurrection in Him!

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

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

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

Stubbornness in Heart

“Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go to serve the gods of those nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood; and it come to pass, when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying,
‘I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart,’
to destroy the moist with the dry. The LORD will not pardon him, but then the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. And the LORD will set him apart unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that is written in this book of the law (Deuteronomy 29:18-21).

Deep down most of us want our cake and to eat it as well. We can’t.

Moses Pleading with Israel (crop)

Moses has established the “words of the covenant” between YHWH and Israel, renewed in the land of Moab (Deuteronomy 29:1). Moses grounds obedience to the Law in terms of the recognition of what YHWH has done for Israel: they saw how YHWH devastated Egypt, rescued them from bondage, etc., but they did not fully perceive what it all meant until the present (Deuteronomy 29:2-4). YHWH has sustained Israel in the wilderness so that they would know He is their God; He gave them victory over Sihon and Og (Deuteronomy 29:5-8). YHWH’s saving and victorious hand is the reason why Israel should keep the covenant so they can prosper (Deuteronomy 29:9). All Israel stands before YHWH that day to enter into that covenant: not just those physically alive and present, but in a real and binding way, those who are not yet alive but will be born or otherwise grafted into that covenant for generations (Deuteronomy 29:10-17). Moses brings up the universality of the moment for good reason: he wants to make sure that no one thinks they have an “out” or an escape, as he explains in Deuteronomy 29:18-21, either in the present or in the future to come (cf. Deuteronomy 29:22-28).

What kind of “out” would people think to have? Moses imagines a person who is standing there at that moment, having seen all YHWH had done for Israel and yet allows his heart to be turned away from Him to serve the gods of the nations (Deuteronomy 29:18). Such a one is imagined to say, in the stubbornness of his heart, that he will have peace (Deuteronomy 29:19). He thinks he will have peace, but Moses says such a one will “destroy the moist with the dry”; a proverbial expression, likely indicating that destruction or difficulty will come to the good as well as the bad in such a circumstance (Deuteronomy 29:19). Moses wants it to be perfectly clear that such attitudes are right out: this person is actually a source of gall and wormwood, toxic to the health of the nation, and upon whom the anger of YHWH will be fully expressed, experiencing the full weight of the curses of the covenant (Deuteronomy 29:18, 20-21). The person may not even be physically present at the moment; even if it is a child of a later generation, the same suffering will take place, and Israel will be as Sodom and Gomorrah, a by-word and parable for the nations (Deuteronomy 29:22-28). Moses wants one thing to be plain: YHWH is not messing around. Do not think that you can present a false front of adherence to YHWH while nursing idolatry and wickedness in the heart. The stubbornness of your heart will be exposed for what it is and it will not go well with you!

Unfortunately all Moses warned about would come to pass: many Israelites pursued the stubbornness of their hearts, served other gods, and it led to exile for Israel and Judah (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23). The stubbornness of Israel’s heart was evident in the way they treated the prophets YHWH sent to them. They did not listen; they refused to hear; they paid the penalty.

We can all see these things and nod in assent. It is easy to see how they did not hear because they were stubborn in their hearts. But do you really think that they would have really said in their hearts that they would have peace though they walk in the stubbornness of their heart (Deuteronomy 29:19)? Were they really that self-aware?

While there are always exceptions to the rule, in general, most of the Israelites who believed they would have peace despite maintaining rebellion against YHWH through serving idols would not have considered themselves as being stubborn in heart. Moses is “putting words in their mouths” to explain the situation. In reality they are being stubborn in heart, yet they are most likely deceived, thinking that they know better, understand better, or expect that things will be alright because YHWH will surely not abandon His people, etc. (e.g. Jeremiah 7:1-15). They were being stubborn, but they didn’t think that way about themselves!

Walking in the stubbornness of the heart is the perennial danger of the people of God. We easily imagine that “God will understand,” “God surely will not abandon us,” or perhaps even worse, “God will be pleased with this,” despite the fact that what we are doing is contrary to His revealed will and purposes in Jesus Christ. The danger is real; we are easily tempted, when hearing what God has condemned, to try to carve out some exceptions, to make it seem less dangerous, or to otherwise justify our current perspective or behavior. We are tempted to conform to the habits and views of those around us just as Israel was (Romans 12:2); for them it was serving a pantheon of gods and engaging in customs contrary to the Law, while for us it involves the cultural relativism, elevation of empiricism and materialism, and drunkenness through consumerism rampant in our culture. It’s tempting to want to straddle the fence, to act as if we can serve God fully while adhering to these cultural concepts in the stubbornness of our hearts.

God is gracious; we are all dependent on His grace and mercy (Ephesians 2:1-10). But what if God “will not understand”? What if confidence that “God surely will not abandon us” is misplaced? What if we have actually called evil good, and good evil? How will it go for us on the day of the Lord Jesus? Let us learn from the example of Israel, and let us not bless ourselves in our hearts when we should mourn, and seek to perceive the deceptive stubbornness in our hearts so as to root it out and subject ourselves to God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry