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

The Light of the World

“Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Light and darkness represent a familiar contrast in Scripture. God is the light, representing all which is good, holy, true, and righteous (John 1:1-5, 1 John 1:5). Darkness, as the absence of light, is the absence of what is good, holy, true, and righteous, and therefore represents evil, sin, unholiness, ungodliness, and unrighteousness (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 1 John 1:5-10). This imagery is often extended to people on the basis of their identification and conduct: those who seek after God and His righteousness and holiness are considered part of the light, while those who do not seek God but seek their own interests are considered in darkness (Ephesians 5:7-14, 1 John 1:5-10). Light and darkness also have their representative works (cf. Ephesians 5:9, 11). The early Christians exhort one another to walk in the light, participate in the light, and turn away from the darkness and avoid it (Ephesians 5:3-11, 1 John 1:5-10). Jesus understands this imagery and uses it for full effect in Matthew 5:14-16, but toward a slightly different end.

As with salt in Matthew 5:13, so with light in Matthew 5:14: Jesus declares, without a hint of doubt or qualification, that the disciples are the light of the world. Jesus is not providing blanket approval for anything and everything the disciples will think, feel, or act; He is not attempting to deny the temptation for the disciples to act in darkness, and in a parallel declaration in Luke 11:33-36, will warn about the dangers of the eye and the body being full of darkness. Jesus is in no way seeking to contradict the way the imagery of light and darkness has been used throughout the Scriptures. In Matthew 5:14-16 Jesus takes for granted how His disciples will seek to walk in the light and pursue God and His righteousness. Therefore, they are the light of the world.

But what does that mean? Jesus follows up with another declaration: a city set on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14). Most cities in the ancient world were built on a hill or accessible mountain for defensive purposes: if an enemy attacked, the defenders of the city would maintain the higher ground and maintain a slight advantage. A city set in the heights has the advantage of seeing the surrounding territory for some distance, but this also means that people in the surrounding territory can always see the city as well. One cannot camouflage a city on a hill!

Jesus then returns to the imagery of light with an example in the negative: no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel (Matthew 5:15). “Bushel” is the Greek modios, a dry unit of measure of grain, often translated as “basket” under the assumption that Jesus uses the term to describe that into which a bushel of grain is placed. The point, made in Mark 4:21-23 as well, is clear enough: if it is sufficiently dark to need to light a lamp, it makes no sense to put the lamp under a bushel and hide or cover the light. Instead, the lamp is placed on a stand to illuminate the whole house (Matthew 5:15).

This entire series of illustrations leads up to Jesus’ explanatory conclusion in Matthew 5:16: as the light of the world, the disciples should let their light shine before others so they can see the good works done and thus give glory to God the Father.

Jesus therefore uses the images of light and a city on a hill to describe the “public” nature inherent in following Jesus. If we are in the light as Jesus is the light, our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions will be conformed to Jesus and reflect righteousness and holiness. As light shines in darkness, so our faith must be evident to all men.

Holiness and righteousness cannot be hidden, covered up, or kept private: a holy and righteous life, by its very nature, will be clear and evident to everyone who interacts with it. Followers of Jesus who reflect His light are the light of the world, a city set on a hill: they cannot be hidden or camouflaged. And that is the point: just like a lamp lit and hidden is next to useless, so is a Christian who seeks to hide his Christianity.

Jesus’ exhortations are quite appropriate for us today. While superficial profession of Christianity remains popular in our culture, firm adherence in following Jesus and His truth are not. We are often tempted to downplay our faith and the role it plays in our lives. Religion makes a lot of people very uncomfortable; our secular society puts a lot of pressure on Christians to “play nice” and not seek to offend or trouble anyone by proclaiming the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in word and deed. Nevertheless, we must obey God, not men (cf. Acts 5:29), and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ought to so completely transform us that we cannot help but talk about it and live transformed lives because of it. That faith cannot be hidden any more than a city on a hill or light in the darkness.

It has always been a challenge to be the light in a world full of darkness (cf. John 1:5); this is not just a modern phenomenon. Christians are always under immense pressure to compromise their faith and “turn on the dimmer switch,” so to speak, regarding their light. Nevertheless, when we truly shine as the light of God in Christ, people will see our good works, and they will have reason to give glory to God the Father. Even in these dark days many people appreciate the blessings which come from Christians reflecting Jesus. People still appreciate knowing that others love them and care for them. People still appreciate it when others do good things for them. Even if people disagree with Christianity, there remains respect for people who maintain convictions, as long as they live by them.

And such is the warning within Jesus’ exhortation. Yes, His disciples are to be the light of the world, a city set on a hill. But that means there can be no hiding. Just as the people around us are given reason to give God glory when we reflect Christ toward them, they are also given reason to blaspheme when we fail to reflect Christ and act little differently from anyone else despite professing to follow Jesus. If the light of the world acts like the darkness, what hope remains for the world?

Christianity has never been nor can it become merely a private affair. Christianity cannot hide in the shadows; such places are for all those forces opposed to Christianity! Our faith, if it is truly alive and reflecting Jesus, will not just change our lives, but has the capacity to draw all around us toward Jesus as well. Neither Christians nor the church were ever called to “circle the wagons” and retreat into some private, “safe” Christian sphere, withdrawn from the world. You might be able to hide in a desert cave or a rural commune, but Jesus never described believers like that. His people are the light of the world, a city set on a hill. Christianity is supposed to be practiced in the sight of others, for the benefit of others even if it sometimes poses challenges or causes difficulties in our lives.

The Christian life is like living in a glass house, open to the eyes of everyone. There is a lot of pressure in that to conform to the world and to compromise the standards of Jesus; there is also a lot of pressure to try to cover up the windows and retreat into private spirituality. Yet, to this day, people put lamps on stands to give light throughout a room or a house, and so it must be with us and our faith. It will be uncomfortable at times, and it will involve a lot of pressure, but we are called to practice our Christianity everywhere and before everyone. We are called to reflect Jesus in the public sphere. Let us so live to give reason for others to glorify God in Christ, and shine as lights in the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Civilization

And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch (Genesis 4:16-17).

There are certain things that are almost universally accepted as good, right, beneficial, and the way things “should” be, and few such things have such power over us as the idea of civilization. Ever since the Greeks looked upon themselves as “civilized” and everyone else as “barbaric,” our history and our language assumes the overwhelming benefit of civilization over any substitute. We are all expected to conduct ourselves as if we had been civilized; barbaric behavior is frowned upon. Our history books tell a story of the development of civilization out of– and often in the face of as well– the forces of chaos, primitivism, and barbarism. Since civilization seems to be so wonderful, we might think, the Bible would commend such a message. Surprisingly, the Scriptures are a bit more ambivalent about civilization than we might imagine.

Civilization means cities: centralized locations wherein different people maintain different tasks to the benefit of all. The Scriptures do not reveal that Adam, Noah, or Abraham build cities. Instead, the first person to build a city is none other than the brother-murderer Cain!

The story is told in Genesis 4:1-17: Cain is Adam and Eve’s first child. He grows up to be a farmer; his brother Abel becomes a shepherd. They each bring the produce of their work as sacrifices before God, but God only accepts Abel’s sacrifice. Cain, angered and jealous, kills Abel. As a consequence for this crime, God condemns him to be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth which will not produce its fruit as a response to his toil. Cain expects that his fellow man will kill him if they find him; to this end, God provides some type of mark upon him so that this would not happen. Cain therefore departs from God’s presence, heads east of Eden to the land of Nod, marries, has a child Enoch, and builds a city named Enoch in honor of his son.

So many questions about this story center on what the Genesis author has not told us: who are all of these other people? Where did Cain’s wife come from? What was the mark placed upon him? While we understand that Adam and Eve had other children (Genesis 5:4), and Cain’s wife and these other people likely came from that union, most of these questions remain unanswered. We should not miss the story that the Genesis author is trying to tell us while wondering regarding all the matters he has left unrevealed.

In his punishment, Cain was separated from the presence of God, went east of Eden, and built a city. To build a city is to reject wandering as a fugitive on the earth; to build one while separated from God, separated from the Garden in which God placed man and from which man was expelled, is quite telling.

The Genesis author consistently demonstrates a level of ambivalence with cities and civilization. The next city of note mentioned features the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9): Babel, or Babylon, will develop into a civilization and empire that will become paradigmatic for the godless oppressive power against God and against God’s people. The next cities of note are Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 14, 18, and 19, which also become paradigmatic for sinfulness. Later, when Jacob buys some land and settles down a bit near Shechem, his daughter is there defiled, and his sons take vengeance upon the whole city (Genesis 33:18-34:31). Meanwhile, God calls Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to live in tents, maintaining a far more “primitive” lifestyle than provided by the big city. Abraham, after all, was called out of the big city of the day– Ur of the Chaldeans– to go to Canaan (Genesis 11:27-12:1).

It would be tempting to roundly condemn civilization on the basis of these and other texts, but such would be going too far. Egypt, its cities, and its civilization provide refuge from famine in Canaan. The Israelites will eventually live in a settled, civilized existence in the land which God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The city of Jerusalem will become paradigmatic for the location of God’s presence among God’s people, ultimately becoming the image of the glorified church at the end of Revelation. Even though the Roman Empire would be chastised for its opposition to the Kingdom of God, such chastisement never extended to many of the benefits of civilization provided by the Romans.

One can serve God in the city; one can serve God in the fields. One can be “civilized” and serve God; one can be “primitive” and a “barbarian” and serve God as well. The Bible’s critique of civilization, however, remains a good reminder for all of us that whereas we might think of civilization in purely glowing and rosy terms, there are hazards involved as well. “Culture” in cities tends to magnify man over God; certain sins are easily found within cities. Cities and civilization may bring some people together but all too often pulls people apart, both from each other as well as from the earth that sustains them. God has often worked among the shepherds, summoning Abraham from the city to the hinterlands; God Himself became flesh and dwelt among us, growing up far from the big city in the rural hinterland of Israel.

Civilization has provided us with innumerable benefits; our current population and way of life is entirely impossible without it. But let us not be fooled into thinking that civilization is the be all and end all of everything; it comes with a price. Let us continue to live in our civilization, keeping its challenges in mind, and praise and honor God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Our Waiting Glory

And there came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls, who were laden with the seven last plagues; and he spake with me, saying, “Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:9).

Most people, even if they do not know much about the Bible, have a definite picture in mind of what Heaven is like. Many people think of pearly gates and a city of gold. This view is reinforced by all kinds of spiritual songs that are sung. “We will walk on streets of purest gold,” according to Ira Stanphill’s “Mansions Over the Hilltop.” A lot of people think about Heaven and look forward to being in a large and magnificent city.

These images come from Revelation 21 where John describes the “new Jerusalem.” The city is described as a roughly 1,380 mile cube (Revelation 21:16) with a golden street, a jasper wall having foundations of precious stones (Revelation 21:17-20), and the glory of God shining brightly (Revelation 21:11). There is no night there and no Temple; the Father and the Son dwell there all the time (Revelation 21:22-25). It sounds like a great place to go!

Yet a major aspect of the image– and part of its encouraging message– is lost when we think that the “new Jerusalem” is a city to which God’s people go. The “new Jerusalem” is also “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb,” as we see above, and that Bride is the Church (Ephesians 5:22-32).

And what is the Church? The Church is nothing more than its constituents: people (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 1 Peter 2:4-6)! Therefore, no one is going to be going to the city described– the redeemed of God will be the city!

No one is going to be walking the golden streets– those who conquer through the Lamb are the golden streets (cf. Revelation 21:7). The large city and the shining wall all represent the glory which God will bestow upon those who trusted in Him!

We ought to recognize that the picture of the “new Jerusalem” represents the best attempt that can be made of describing the indescribable, as is made evident from Romans 8:18 and 2 Corinthians 4:17:

For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us-ward.

For our light affliction, which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory.

How can anyone describe that “eternal weight of glory”? Human language fails. To a small, persecuted, and mostly poor group of believers, the most fantastic image that can be imagined is a large city full of great wealth. For those conversant in the Old Testament, a city of gold with the glory of kings coming into it evokes the days of Solomon and the glory days of Israel (cf. 1 Kings 3-10).

Therefore, when we consider the new Jerusalem of Revelation 21, we ought not think of it as a place to which we are going as much as the glory which God eagerly awaits to bestow upon all those who conquer through the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony (cf. Revelation 12:11). It is fantastic, wonderful, exhilarating, breathtaking, and beyond our wildest dreams.

This is, indeed, the call for the perseverance of the saints, and the invitation of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Do not go outside the city or remain outside the city in filth and defilement– obey God in Jesus Christ, be cleansed and purified in the blood of the Lamb, and let us not grow weary in pressing upward to be that city!

Ethan R. Longhenry