Anthems

Oh give thanks unto YHWH; for he is good / For his lovingkindness endureth for ever (Psalm 136:1).

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Behold, the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key: made the United States national anthem. For many it is a stirring song of potential and hope. Admit it: when you read it, the tune played in your head.

Now let us use our imaginations: 3,000 years have passed by. Over time people have forgotten the nature of tunes and music of our times, and controversy exists over what exactly the musical notation found on many old documents means. And yet the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner have been preserved, as has the story of the song’s origin: Francis Scott Key was imprisoned by the British in 1813 and composed it while watching the shelling of Fort McHenry near Baltimore after Washington, D.C. had already been burned to the ground.

Try to again read the lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner as just text on a page, without playing the tune in your head, just like our imagined students of the past 3,000 years from now might have to do. A natural reaction might be: what kind of national anthem is that? A dangerous war; bombs bursting in the air; rockets flying around; and oh, by the way, does the United States flag still fly over America? It almost sounds like an existential crisis, which the War of 1812 really was for a time. How would you explain the feeling of perseverance and confidence in the future we have associated with the song without making reference to how the song is sung and how the tune communicates those feelings? It would be very difficult indeed to communicate what The Star-Spangled Banner means to Americans by just looking at its lyrics on a page.

A similar difficulty is very real for us today when it comes to the Psalms. We have the lyrics to the Psalms; some words have been preserved which provide some kind of musical direction, although their exact meaning and nature are in dispute. We know that many were set to tunes which had names and were known to its original audience, but the sound of those tunes has been lost for generations. All we have now are words on a page.

Psalm 136:1-26 might prove exasperating to a reader: it is a call and response psalm, and the response is always the same: literally, “for His hesed to forever,” with hesed meaning “covenant loyalty” and often translated as “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love,” and a verb added for understanding (“endures,” “is”). The call exhorts Israel to give thanks to YHWH as God of gods and Lord of lords (Psalm 136:1-3); declares YHWH as the Creator of all things (Psalm 136:4-9); reminds Israel how God delivered them from Egypt, through the Wilderness, and gave them victory so as to conquer the land (Psalm 136:10-22); assures them how YHWH will remember them in their low estate, will deliver them from their enemies, and cause them to prosper in the land (Psalm 136:23-25); and ends as it began, a call to give thanks to YHWH (Psalm 136:26; cf. Psalm 136:1). The modern reader may see such a psalm, read over it quickly, perhaps even skipping over the repetitive response, and move on without much thought.

Yet what would Psalm 136:1-26 represent for Israel? It looks very much like an anthem, something for them akin to our The Star-Spangled Banner. It is a song of praise and thanksgiving to God for all He has done for Israel, providing a continual reminder of how God’s covenant loyalty has delivered Israel thus far. God has the power above all powers; God is the Creator; God has rescued Israel and sustained Israel. Whether in the days of David, Josiah, Zechariah, or Jesus, Psalm 136:1-26 would remind Israel who they are and their complete dependence on God for all things.

We can only imagine what the tune might have been or how the call and response would have sounded like in ancient Israel. It is possible that it was sung or chanted like a funeral dirge, but that seems unlikely. Perhaps the volume escalated in a crescendo, becoming quite the raucous sound by the end. But we can be sure that it would have been powerful and meaningful for Israel, just like The Star-Spangled Banner is for Americans.

As we read and meditate upon the Psalms, we must never forget how lively and powerful they were for Israel. They deserve better than a quick skimming and moving on. There is deep faith, life, and hope in the Psalms for the people of God, and they remain a deep reservoir for us as we go through the joys and difficulties in life. May we also give thanks to God, for His covenant loyalty endures forever in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Laodicea

“I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich; and white garments, that thou mayest clothe thyself, and that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest; and eyesalve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see” (Revelation 3:18).

The Christians in Laodicea thought they had everything. In fact, they had nothing.

God had given Jesus a vision to give to John on Patmos; it began with messages directed to the seven churches of Asia, of which Laodicea was the seventh (Revelation 1:1-3:13). Jesus had at least something good to say about the previous six churches; He has nothing good to say about Laodicea.

Laodicea was a prominent city of Asia in the Lycus River valley. Many of the things which made the city famous are spoken of in some way by Jesus: the water which came into town from hot springs outside of the city would be lukewarm by the time it arrived. The city was known for its garment manufacturing, a great medical school and a local powder used as an eyesalve, and for its great wealth, placed on important trade routes. When the city was leveled by earthquake in the 60s it did not obtain Imperial assistance to rebuild; it used its own resources. A lot of people would have considered Laodicea a great place to live; no doubt many would be tempted to hold the church and its members in high esteem. They believed in Jesus; they partook of the wealth of which the city had become famous.

And yet that wealth had blinded, paralyzed, and deformed the Christians of Laodicea spiritually. Jesus indicted them as lukewarm, being neither cold nor hot (Revelation 3:15-16): they provided neither warmth in cold nor refreshment in heat, but wavered in the middle, leading to instant revulsion. How did they manifest lukewarmness? They said to themselves they were rich and thus had need of nothing. Jesus told them they, in truth, were wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked (Revelation 3:17). Jesus brought home the message in a most devastating way: the Christians who had a lot of gold needed to buy from Jesus gold refined by fire; Christians who enjoyed a thriving garment industry needed white garments from Jesus with which to clothe themselves; Christians who had easy access to the best eyesalve of the day needed Jesus’ eyesalve so they could see (Revelation 3:18). Jesus said such things because of His love for them: He reproves and chastens those whom He loves, and so the Laodiceans ought to prove zealous and repent (Revelation 3:19).

What had gone so wrong for the Christians in Laodicea? How could they have reached the point where Jesus could say nothing positive about them? How could they have been so deceived and deluded? By the moment Jesus wrote to them, the Laodicean Christians had become as “thorny” soil, deceived by their wealth (Matthew 13:22/Mark 4:19/Luke 8:14).

Riches and wealth prove alluring for all sorts of understandable but ultimately unprofitable reasons. With wealth we are able to provide for ourselves and others, yes, but we also start putting our confidence in looking toward the future in that wealth. We feel self-sufficient and in charge if we have wealth. Other people start treating us as more valuable and honorable because of that wealth. Soon we might find ourselves seeking to preserve and grow our wealth for the sake of maintaining it. Some people are able to grow wealth without actively harming or oppressing others; far too often, however, wealth is gained by one at the expense of others. With wealth comes decadence in its many forms: often no appetite is left for seeking justice, advocating for those less fortunate, or zeal for a cause, lest these pursuits somehow jeopardize our wealth and standing. We want to please all people; we want to avoid suffering at any cost. With wealth we become fat and happy.

On a spiritual level wealth proves a disaster. God is the Source of all blessings and gifts; without what God has given, there could be no wealth (James 1:17). One’s wealth all too easily displaces God from the center of one’s life; the wealthy tend to serve Mammon more than God (Matthew 6:24). Maintaining wealth works against all of the demands of believers in Christ Jesus toward dependence on God, humility in disposition, zeal in righteousness and justice, and willingness to suffer affliction so as to grow in faith (cf. Ephesians 4:1-5:21, Colossians 3:1-17). Furthermore, even if there are spiritual warning signs to be seen, the great discomfort which would be caused by recognizing the dangers leads to strong resistance to think of them as problematic. In this way the Laodicean Christians presumed themselves rich and sufficient but proved spiritually wretched, poor, and blind.

Thus Jesus counseled them to suffer, buying gold from Him as refined by fire (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-7); they were to again turn to Him in repentance for cleansing, receiving white garments to cover their nakedness and shame; they were to prove willing to open their eyes to see their true condition before God in Christ, anointed with eyesalve so as to see (Revelation 3:18). Only through suffering would they learn true humility and faith; only by repenting could they find a way to trust in God in Jesus; all these things could only take place if they proved willing to see their true condition. And so it continues to be with the wealthy.

Jesus’ message to the church in Laodicea should be heard as a clarion call to repentance for Christians today. In the Western world all of us, even if poor by modern standards, maintain far more wealth than was present in the ancient Roman world, and enjoy far greater security, comfort, and health than even the wealthiest Romans. The church in the modern era has all too often fallen into decadence, like Laodicea, presuming itself wealthy and in need of nothing, but truly wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. The state of the church in the Western world speaks for itself.

And so Christians today do well to turn to the Lord Jesus and buy from Him that gold refined by fire, proving willing to suffer for the Cause. In the New Testament the Christians who suffered more in life and in persecution tended to be more spiritually mature than those who did not suffer. The way of Christ offers no bypass around suffering: if we wish to reach Zion, we must go through Calvary. Christians must repent of their trust in material wealth, entitlement programs, or their own ingenuity, but repent and seek clothing from Jesus. We are exposed in nakedness to all sorts of dangers even if we have nice clothing and comfortable homes; only Jesus can cover our nakedness and shame. Christians must prove willing to see their plight and not turn aside from its ugliness. How many will enter perdition because they were deceived by the riches of this world? May we prove willing to suffer for the Lord Jesus, repent of our confidence in riches, and gain the victory in faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Sword

And behold, one of them that were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and smote the servant of the high priest, and struck off his ear.
Then saith Jesus unto him, “Put up again thy sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:51-52).

The great confrontation had finally come.

The disciples had eagerly awaited the moment when they knew Jesus would inaugurate His Kingdom. They had been promised it would happen in Jerusalem; they had arrived in triumph; and now, finally, Jesus was confronted with the power of the religious authorities and the Romans. Now, they were no doubt certain, Jesus would rise up and defeat the Roman menace.

Peter was ready. He had promised Jesus he would not be offended by Jesus and would even die for Him (Matthew 26:33, 35); at his side was a sword, one of the two swords which Jesus had commended for them not long before (Luke 22:35-38).

And then all of a sudden it was not going according to the plan they had imagined. Judas had betrayed Jesus; the men with him laid hands on Jesus (Matthew 26:50). The disciples wondered: should they attack (Luke 22:49)? But then Peter then did what Peter was good at doing: he acted. Peter unsheathed the sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest; he did so perhaps to protect Jesus, or to begin the battle (Matthew 26:51, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:50, John 18:10).

Yet Jesus would have none of it. He had a cup He had to drink; the Scriptures had to be fulfilled (Matthew 26:54, Luke 22:51, John 18:11). Jesus reasoned with Peter: could He not call upon God who would send twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53)? Peter well knew the story of Israel: one angel struck down an Assyrian army of 185,000 men (1 Kings 19:35); a Roman legion included around 6,000 men, so how much more could an army of 72,000 angels wreak upon the earth? Jesus then healed the servant of the high priest, and was led away to trial, suffering, and execution (Luke 22:51).

But in Matthew’s Gospel, before Jesus speaks of legions of angels and the need to fulfill Scripture, Jesus stopped Peter with a powerful premise: he ought to put his sword away, for all who take the sword shall perish with the sword (Matthew 26:52). This is not just about this night and this moment. This is about the way of the world and the way of Jesus.

The sword is the way of the world. Ever since the fall of man, people have sought to gain advantage over others through coercive and violent force. Jesus and Peter understood the way of the sword very well: they lived under Roman oppression. Jesus was not wrong to point out that power gained with the sword must be maintained by the sword: He was about to experience the full force of the power of the sword at the hands of the religious authorities and the Romans (Matthew 26:55-27:50). The Romans had overcome the Macedonians; the Macedonians had overcome the Babylonians, who had overcome the Assyrians. A day would come when the Romans would finally be overcome themselves. Peter nursed the hope of many Israelites that God would grant them victory over the Romans, but it would involve that same sword, and would just as easily be lost by that sword. Within forty years of Jesus’ death the Israelites would take up the sword in a vain attempt to gain freedom from the pagan oppressor by it; they would die at the hands of Roman swords. Jesus’ warning became prophecy.

Matthew, throughout his Gospel, contrasts the way of the world, the way of the sword, with the way of Christ. The Pharisees and the Jewish establishment understood the Law in carnal terms; the way of the Kingdom of God in Christ demanded greater righteousness (Matthew 5:1-7:27). The Roman rulers lorded their authority over others; it would not be so among those serving in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:25-28). The Israelites would choose the Messiah of their own desire, Jesus Barabbas, an insurrectionist, over the Messiah whom God had sent them: Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 27:17-23). Jesus’ way involved humility, service, suffering, even death (Matthew 16:24-25, 20:25-28). Jesus’ Kingdom would not be inaugurated by His servants wielding the swords against others, as so many other kingdoms had begun; Jesus’ Kingdom would be inaugurated because the sword came for Jesus Himself.

Jesus’ words to Peter ring out to faithful believers in Christ to this day. God has empowered earthly governments to render justice and wield the sword (Romans 13:1-7); they will also all go the way of all kingdoms on the earth. For the most part the people of God attempt to live by peaceful means and seek to advance God’s purposes in ways which glorify Him. But what happens when danger comes upon the people of God? What then?

Peter learned the lesson well. We have no record of Peter ever wielding the sword against another person again, even though his life was endangered on many occasions (cf. Acts 12:1-19). When threatened by the Sanhedrin, he and his fellow Apostles prayed to God for power to continue to boldly proclaim the Gospel (Acts 4:24-30). A few years before the Romans did unto him what they had done unto Jesus, Peter wrote to Christians of Asia Minor, exhorting them to suffer persecution and general evil for having done good, not to revile or repay evil for evil, but bless, because Jesus provided them an example, suffering unjustly but entrusting Himself to God who judges justly (1 Peter 2:18-25, 3:9-16, 4:1-19).

Peter and the Christians of Asia Minor found themselves in far more dangerous circumstances than most of us could even imagine. But they did not resort to violence; Peter vividly remembered what the Lord had told him, and he lived and taught accordingly. One can go far in conversation with words and acts of love and hospitality, but once one turns to the sword and violence, the affair will be decided by violence. In this way those who take the sword shall perish by it. It is not for us to trust in the ways of this world, but to follow the way of God in Christ in His Kingdom, the way of humility, service, and suffering, even, if need be, unto death (1 John 3:16, Revelation 12:11). May we, as Peter, leave the violent coercive force of the world in its sheath, and put our trust in God in Christ and follow Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Bring It to Jesus

But Jesus said unto them, “They have no need to go away; give ye them to eat” (Matthew 14:16).

Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand is one of His best documented and compelling miracles. The event is attested in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-15). It becomes the springboard for Jesus to speak of Himself as the bread of life which proceeded from the mouth of God (John 6:16-71); it demonstrated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the power of God present in Jesus, providing food out of nothing, just as God had sent manna to Israel in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 16:1-36).

Yet it is worth exploring how Jesus set up the situation. Jesus had withdrawn to the mountains; the crowds had followed Him, and He healed many (Matthew 14:13-14). They had come out in faith to Him and were not disappointed. As it became late the disciples, as seemed to be the custom, encouraged Jesus to dismiss the crowds to the neighboring villages to find food (Matthew 14:15). But this day would not take place according to usual custom; nevertheless, Jesus told the disciples to give the people something to eat.

The reaction of the disciples is telling. In Matthew 14:17, they saw that they have but five loaves and two fishes; in Mark 6:37, they asked if they themselves should go into town and buy two hundred denarii (1 denarius was the average day’s wage for a laborer) of bread; Luke combined these themes in Luke 9:13. We can share their astonishment. Five loaves and two fishes could not feed so many people; they would need a lot of money to buy a lot of bread to satisfy such a group!

We know the rest of the story: Jesus has them bring the five loaves and two fish to Him; He blesses and breaks the bread; the people eat and are satisfied; twelve baskets of bread remnants, no doubt more than the original mass of bread, was taken up afterward (cf. Matthew 14:18-21, etc.).

Jesus has accomplished a powerful miracle; we often speak of how all would have seen the “original” five loaves and two fish, and then would have seen the greater amount taken up in the end; it is a very public, and manifest, miracle. For many this narrative has great apologetic potential.

Yet, as Matthew tells the story, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people (Matthew 14:16). He does this knowing quite well how they have but five loaves and two fish. He does this knowing they are not able to do this by their own strength or through their own efforts.

And yet He tells them to do it anyway.

As we have seen, the disciples react as you or I would react. First they assess the situation: they have five loaves and two fish. They would need to buy 200 denarii of bread to feed the multitude. They should get going if they are going to buy that much food.

But no, Jesus says. Feed them with what you have.

How can they do that? They must first give the loaves and fishes to Jesus. Jesus could then bless what they had and distribute it so that everyone’s needs were satisfied.

Matthew (as well as Mark and Luke) could have told the story in the way John does, speaking of it as a collaborative effort (John 6:5-9). But they did not; perhaps they had a reason to do so. Maybe they have a lesson they want to teach us.

What happened in this story? Jesus asked the disciples to do something which was impossible for them to do. They assessed the situation, recognized what would need to be done, and saw that it was beyond their present resources. They had to give Jesus the resources they had, and then and only then could Jesus make sufficient the resources they had given Him.

What would happen throughout the rest of the Gospel story as told in Acts? Jesus told the disciples to go and bear witness around the world (Acts 1:8). They assessed the situation, recognized what needed to be done, and saw that it was beyond their present resources. They gave themselves over to Jesus, and then and only then did Jesus make sufficient the resources they had given Him, and the Gospel message spread powerfully throughout the known world (cf. Colossians 1:6).

This proves to be the pattern for all followers of Jesus, for what is impossible with man is possible with God (Matthew 19:26). Jesus has called on all of us to do impossible things: be perfect as the Father is perfect; take up our cross and follow after Him; suffer loss for the Kingdom’s sake; refuse all the works of the flesh and manifest the fruit of the Spirit; proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation (Matthew 5:43-48, 16:24, 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Galatians 5:17-24). We hear Jesus’ commands; we assess our situation; we recognize what needs to be done; we see it goes beyond our present resources.

At this stage we might despair; we might try to fight through using our own strength; yet in all these ways we are doomed to fail. It is only when we offer up to Jesus the few resources we have that He can take them and make them sufficient in us to accomplish His purposes (2 Corinthians 3:5-6, 9:8, 12:9-10, Philippians 2:12-13). We can then look back and see how the power of God worked through us to accomplish His good pleasure.

In this way the means by which Jesus fed the five thousand is instructive. He fed them through the work of His disciples even though He was right there the whole time; this was not by necessity but by means of instruction. The day would come when Jesus would no longer be physically present with the disciples, and yet the pattern would remain the same. That pattern remains to this day. We must bring to Jesus what God has given us so that He can make it sufficient to accomplish God’s purposes. We will not succeed through our own strength alone; may we learn to depend on the strength of God in Christ, fulfill His purposes, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Source of Security

Except YHWH build the house / they labor in vain that build it.
Except YHWH keep the city / the watchman waketh but in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early / to take rest late / to eat the bread of toil;
For so he giveth unto his beloved sleep (Psalm 127:1-2).

From insurance to elaborate building designs, humans continue to seek various sources of security.

Solomon meditated upon the true source of security in Psalm 127:1-5. Psalm 127 is listed among the “songs of ascent,” songs which would be sung as Israelites would make the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem and Mount Zion to the presence of YHWH at a festival. For Solomon, and the Israelites who sang this song as they climbed to stand before YHWH, only YHWH was true security. To build a new house would be vain unless YHWH protected it and provided for it. All the watchmen in the world would prove useless to a city unless YHWH watched over it. Working excessive hours to make a living independent of YHWH’s blessings proved equally vain; YHWH gives reason for those whom He loves to sleep, for they have little need to fear (Psalm 127:1-2).

Solomon will go on to glorify children as the heritage of YHWH, His reward to people (Psalm 127:3). Children are seen as arrows in the hand of a mighty man; a man with many (and ostensibly good) children will not be made ashamed in the gate of a city, the place where the elders would meet and matters were adjudicated (Psalm 127:4-5; cf. Ruth 4:1-12).

It would be easy to consider Psalm 127:3-5 as separate from Psalm 127:1-2, but a connection is there. YHWH provides for His people. He watches over them, protects them, and blesses their endeavors. No endeavor will succeed if it does not come with His blessing. Part of that provision is children who will honor their father and mother in their old age (cf. Matthew 15:4-6). The man who trusts in YHWH and is blessed by Him will have a strong house and descendants; his blessedness will be known to all; he will have no reason to be ashamed among his fellow people.

We can understand why Psalm 127 would prove to be a satisfying song of confidence in YHWH as Israelites went up to stand before Him. Israel is thus reminded that YHWH and YHWH alone is their source of confidence; all feeble human attempts to maintain their own security will fail. You can only hold so much food in barns, and even then an enemy can seize them. Military strength can take you only so far; not a few times a massive force was thoroughly defeated by a smaller one. Foreign policy is a capricious adventure: your ally one day may turn into your foe the next. Other people often prove only as good as their word, and the world has always lacked sufficient people who uphold their word. Israel always needed this reminder; temptations always existed to trust in other presumed sources of security other than God.

Christians today could also use this reminder. Far too often, in the name of worldly wisdom, Christians are tempted to put their trust in anything and everything but God. In the name of worldly wisdom we purchase insurance to mitigate the risks to health, life, and/or property; we invest resources in markets and pay into governmental schemes to provide for life in the present and/or for days of disability or retirement. We are invited to trust in government for security against all foes, domestic and foreign. Many seem to orient their lives around the proposition of risk management.

There is nothing automatically or intrinsically sinful or wrong in buying insurance, investing for retirement, or taking advantage of the social safety net. The Israelites themselves built the houses; walls and watchmen were still needed in the cities of Israel. But we must remember Matthew 6:19-34, Jesus’ message which is not unlike Solomon’s in Psalm 127. It is one thing to use insurance or investments to mitigate risk in a sensible way as one seeks to trust in God and His purposes; it is quite another to fully depend on such insurance or investments, or to orient one’s life around such insurance and investments. In the process we have no right to dismiss God’s intended “retirement program” for His people, providing an opportunity for children to honor their fathers and their mothers (1 Timothy 5:8, 16). As children we should seek to provide for parents in times of need, and to have children ourselves and instruct them in God’s right way (Ephesians 6:1-4).

We almost must take care how we use and consider Psalm 127. Israelites themselves were vexed by the apparent discrepancies between the message of Psalm 127 and its ilk and experienced reality: sometimes the righteous, whom one would imagine YHWH would protect, suffered, and the wicked, which one would imagine YHWH would not bless, nevertheless prospered (cf. Job 21:1-34, Ecclesiastes 8:10-17). It has proven all too easy to take Psalm 127 as prescriptive and to thus judge those who prosper as blessed by YHWH and those who suffer as chastised by YHWH. This might well be the case in some circumstances; it need not be the case in every circumstance.

Can we live in that ambiguity, trusting in God in Christ even though that trust does not guarantee a comfortable middle class existence in this life? Will we give more than mere lip service to Psalm 127:1-2, recognizing that our prosperity might well prove a demonic temptation to trust in the things of this world and not in God the Giver of all good things? Do we trust in YHWH as our real, lasting, and ultimate security, or have we given ourselves over to the pervasive temptation to trust in our possessions, our bank account, our portfolio, our government, our military, or other such things of the world? How much do our children factor into our confidence about our present and future? As we continue in our pilgrimage on this earth we do well to sing this song of ascent as we seek to stand before the throne of God, recognize God is the only true source of security, and seek refuge in Him!

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

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

Foundations

If the foundations be destroyed / What can the righteous do? (Psalm 11:3)

What are we supposed to do if we feel the ground is being pulled out from under us? Such is the meditation on David’s heart in Psalm 11:1-7.

Someone is setting the situation before David, perhaps a well meaning friend: go and flee for safety (Psalm 11:1c). Such is necessary because the wicked lie in wait to attack the righteous, to overthrow all that is good and to persist in their behaviors (Psalm 11:2); if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do (Psalm 11:3)?

Yet David already has made his decision; YHWH is his refuge (Psalm 11:1b). YHWH is in His holy temple and on His throne in heaven (Psalm 11:4). He examines all men; He tests the righteous; He hates those who live wickedly and love violence (Psalm 11:5). YHWH lays snares for the wicked; the awful consequences of a negative judgment will be theirs, for YHWH is righteous, loves righteousness, and promises that those who live uprightly will see His face (Psalm 11:6-7).

David makes no effort to deny the challenges of the situation which are presented before him. He does not deny that the wicked are devising plans against him; he does not deny that the foundations are being destroyed. Nor does David put much confidence in his culture, even the culture of the people of God, to reform itself; if the foundations are destroyed, he does not tell the people of God to petition their legislature to “fix” them or to begin a major societal campaign to rebuild the foundations. His confidence is not in men whom he knows well will do whatever it takes to obtain and press their advantage (Psalms 36:1-4, 37:7, 12-16, 94:3-7). Instead, David trusts in YHWH as holy, righteous, and ruling from heaven. YHWH will judge. It may not be today, it might not be tomorrow, and it most assuredly will not look like anything we would imagine, but that judgment will come. If nothing else, in the hereafter, the wicked and those who love violence will endure the penalty for their decisions.

The difficulty set before David was not unique to his time and place. The people of God are constantly confronted with the same challenge. The wicked are active and they find ways of getting the powers of the world to bend to their will. Foundational laws, customs, and norms may no longer be honored, and rampant immorality increases. What should the righteous do?

The grass withers and the flower fades (Isaiah 40:6-9). Isaiah has little concern about botany; he speaks about the nations of mankind. Regimes come and go; one generation’s crusade becomes the black eye of the next. Some generations get a front row seat to see the unraveling of the results of their labor; others are in the grave before their work is mostly undone. Such is why David puts no confidence in any attempt to reform society; he knows it is a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, this fleeting temporality goes both ways: the designs of the wicked are often undone before their very eyes. Purveyors of immorality get their comeuppance. They may have it done to them as they had done unto others; they also may see all their wickedness unraveled before their eyes. YHWH’s judgments are often sublime.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of YHWH endures forever (1 Peter 1:23-25). When the foundations are destroyed, the righteous should take refuge in YHWH. Even when the foundations might seem strong, the righteous must still trust and take refuge in YHWH. YHWH is in His holy temple; YHWH sits on His throne. He has the power to save, not society (Romans 1:16); He maintains all authority and power, not the governments who are so often manipulated by the wicked to the latter’s advantage (1 Peter 3:21-22).

As Christians we are tempted to heed the advice given to David; we are tempted to “circle the wagons,” or attempt to “flee to the mountains,” and try to set up an alternative society or subculture. Yet we do well to consider David’s question: if YHWH truly is our refuge, why would we flee? Is YHWH not able to uphold us or sustain us in the face of wickedness and those who love violence? If we would be righteous, we must recognize that we will be tested and tried (Psalm 11:5): will we continue to trust in God or will we capitulate to the world, either by conforming to its norms or by escaping? If we would be the light of the world, we must recognize how exposed we will stand before the world, the wicked, and those who love violence (Matthew 5:13-16). Are we willing to trust in God so that we can endure those trials and thus reflect Christ to the world?

David was not delusional; he recognized the danger posed by the wicked and those who love violence. But he maintained greater confidence in YHWH as the God of righteousness who loves the righteous and hates the wicked. He made YHWH his refuge; he did not seek to build his own. He knew YHWH would judge the wicked and condemn them; YHWH would vindicate his trust. Will we share in David’s trust? Will we prove willing to make YHWH our refuge and to trust in Him and His power when the foundations are strong or shaken? May we follow the way of God in Christ, trusting in His power and authority, and represent Christ to a lost and dying world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Discomfited Theology

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

Biblical narratives discomfit easy, comfortable theology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Stronghold

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

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

Zin stronghold (4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry