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

Hateful and Hating

For we also once were foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another (Titus 3:3).

The story of life outside of Christ is always ugly. And yet Christians must remember what it was like.

Paul has been encouraging Titus in his work of ministry, encouraging Christians and promoting the Gospel. Paul is telling Titus the types of things which he must tell those who will hear him so they may be encouraged and remain faithful in Christ (Titus 3:1-2). Part of that exhortation involves the continual remembrance of who we were outside of Christ and what God has accomplished for us in Christ: we were foolish, disobedient, deceived, pursuing passion, living in malice and envy, being hated, and hating in turn, but God’s kindness was displayed to us in Christ, who saved us through the regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, justifying us, making us heirs with Christ (Titus 3:3-7). Paul wants this explained so that the Christians would be careful to maintain good works (Titus 3:8).

Why would Paul want to bring to light something so dark and ugly as the lives Christians led before they came to a knowledge of the Lord Jesus? In no way does he want to glorify and exult in the types of things regarding which we all should be ashamed (Romans 6:21). He does so regarding himself in order to magnify the great love and mercy displayed to him and to all mankind in Jesus (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Christians are to do so for a similar reason to an extent as well. Paul’s ultimate reason is for Christians to be productive unto good works (Titus 3:8): we are to recognize how dependent we are on God for our salvation, which was entirely undeserved, and should respond with humility and gratitude. It is to remind Christians that we have no basis upon which to boast about being better than others, for our condition has improved only by the grace of God poured out on us (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18). We are not to look down on those still in bondage but to love them and seek their best interest (Matthew 5:44-48, Romans 12:17-21). It also provides Christians with an understanding of the types of attitudes and behaviors from which they have been rescued; such should be a sober warning to no longer return to them again (2 Peter 2:20-22)!

Among the characteristics of life outside of Christ is hate: being hated by others and hating one another (Titus 3:3). Paul accurately assessed a major element in life in this world: fear of the other continually manifests itself as hate toward the other. What is seen as not directly for us is very easily manipulated to look like it is against us. In worldly terms there is only so much that one can motivate people to believe, feel, and do in the name of love, self-interest, greed, etc., but one can get people to think, feel, and do almost anything to preserve themselves against that which they fear. Fear and hate are intertwined; you cannot hate what you do not fear.

Few motivators prove as powerful as fear. The worst atrocities mankind has ever perpetrated have been done in the name of fear. Strong, powerful nations most powerfully exert themselves by doing what is necessary to cause those who would oppose them to be afraid of their arsenal. For many smaller nations and forces the only form of influence they can wield is to inspire fear and terror into the hearts of those with greater resources and strength. Fearmongering is a powerful thing: “be afraid” is always a powerful motivator for action and only rarely can be refuted.

Fear and hate are everywhere. People are afraid that Christians just might be right about the consequences of sinful behavior; the easiest thing to do is to hate Christians and Christianity in response (1 Peter 4:1-6). Nations fear other nations and develop hatreds and hostilities; groups of people within nations, or from different regions or religions or any other number of ways in which humans divide themselves, find reasons to engender fear and hate toward each other. The cycle never ends. In this present world the cycle will never end.

And yet, for the Christian, “hateful” and “hating one another” are to be in the past tense (Titus 3:3). In Romans 8:15 Paul made clear how Christians did not receive a spirit of slavery to be afraid, but received the spirit of adoption as sons of God in Christ. Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18); Jesus provided the means by which we could break through the fear and hate cycle by enduring fear and hate, dying on the cross, and being raised again in power (Ephesians 2:11-18). In Christ all such hostility is to be killed: Christians are to come together as one people from many different nations and languages and exemplify the only power that could overcome the forces of darkness (Galatians 3:28). If the Lord is our helper, who are we to fear? What can man do to us (cf. Psalm 27:1, Hebrews 13:6). Other people may not like us, hurt us, and even kill us; if God is for us, who can really be against us (Romans 8:31)? We may suffer harsh consequences for following the Lord Jesus; and yet He died, but was raised in power, and in so doing struck the deepest fear into the heart of even the cruelest tyrant.

hate killed

How so? Fear and hate get their power from sin and death. Of what is anyone afraid? That they will be taken advantage of and/or experience loss of life, property, and/or standing. The tyrant attempts to get people to do things for him in fear for their lives; the terrorist tries to get people to listen to them or meet their demands in fear for their lives; the fearmonger attempts to get power or influence by giving the impression that he or she is the one that can be trusted to eliminate the threat. Jesus experienced the shame, was taken advantage of, and lost His life, and in so doing gained the victory over sin and death (Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Peter 2:18-25). The tyrant can never overpower the Christian who does not love his or her life even unto death; the terrorist cannot strike fear into the heart of the Christian who trusts that all is well whether he or she remains in the body or goes to be with the Lord; the fearmonger cannot influence the Christian who understands that the only power which can overcome fear, hate, sin, and death is the all-conquering sacrificial love manifest by God in Jesus.

fear conquered

Fear remains a continual temptation for Christians, but our fear always comes from a lack of trust in God, His goodness, His promises, and the ultimate manifestation of His love for us in Christ and Him crucified. To give into fear is to return to the hateful and hating life from which God has rescued us in Jesus. Therefore, brethren, let us stand firm. May we not give into the voices of fear and hate. Let us not be troubled by any fear or terror. Let us trust in Jesus our Lord, who died and was raised again in power, and prove willing to endure any shame or deprivation so as to obtain His glory in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God’s Chosen People

Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men: and they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the congregation, called to the assembly, men of renown; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them,
“Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (Numbers 16:1-3).

With these actions and words Korah begins his rebellion. The motives of his rebellion are far from pure, and he may just be interested in a power grab. The logic of his argument, however, is a problem that Israel must deal with perpetually.

Israel certainly understood the message that they were God’s chosen people. Korah saw that God’s presence dwelt in the midst of Israel, and to him that meant that the people must be holy. If the people are holy, who are Moses and Aaron to condemn them?

This idea does not go away. Almost a thousand years later, the people of Judah do not pay sufficient attention to the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah. Instead, they trust in the fact that the Temple of God is in Jerusalem, and since God is in the Temple, the city and the Temple will not be harmed by Babylon (Jeremiah 7:4). After all, God struck the Assyrians when they drew near. Would He not again do so with Babylon?

In the days of John the Baptist and Jesus the Jews trusted in their lineage. They were children of Abraham– that was what mattered. They had never been enslaved to anyone (John 8:33)!

All of these made a similar mistake. Indeed, God chose Israel from among all the nations. Yes, God made a covenant with Abraham, and his offspring were the beneficiaries. Yes, God chose to dwell in the midst of Israel. But that was never enough. For God to continue to bless Israel, they had to be faithful. They had to obey His commands. They had to serve Him properly.

Yet they constantly sinned and rebelled. The earth swallowed Korah for his sin. The Babylonians came and ransacked Jerusalem and the Temple because of the sin of the people. Judgment again came upon Jerusalem 40 years after the death of Jesus.

We now live under the new covenant of Jesus Christ, through whom we have been reconciled to God if we have obeyed Him (Ephesians 2:1-18). Yet, just as in the days of old, it is not sufficient just to wear the name of “Christian.” We cannot expect that God will give us an easier time or that He will look aside as we commit sin just because we believe in Jesus. We cannot expect God to bless whatever we want or do just because we think we are part of Him.

Instead, we also must be obedient servants. We must do His will, not our own (Galatians 2:20, Romans 12:1-2). Do we think that somehow we will escape the same condemnation as Israel of old if we profess to be of God but do not obey His will?

“Not every one that saith unto me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day,
‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works?’
And then will I profess unto them, ‘I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity'” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Ethan R. Longhenry