A Time For Lament and Confession

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

Israel understood the importance of a time for lament.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Panting and Thirsting for God

As the hart panteth after the water brooks / so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God / When shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1-2)

“As the deer pants for the water / so my soul longs after You…”

Many Christians will recognize the above as the beginning of the hymn “As the Deer,” one of the more well known and beloved hymns. It proves to be a hymn of yearning for God, a desire to establish God as primary in life and to serve Him. For its purposes “As the Deer” is a great hymn, well composed, its message matching its tune, and is justly popular.

The Biblical antecedent for “As the Deer” is much more bleak and challenging even if it ends up in a similar place.

The first line of “As the Deer” is taken from Psalm 42:1, attributed to the sons of Korah, and set by the Psalter as the beginning of Book Two of the Psalms. The sons of Korah yearn for God as deer pant for water; they deeply desire the presence of God as one desires food and drink (Psalm 42:1-2; cf. Matthew 5:6).

The sons of Korah have this experience in distress: their food and drink have been their tears, and people all around deride them by asking where their God has gone (Psalm 42:3). They pour out their souls when they reflect on how they used to go up to the house of God during the appointed festivals (Psalm 42:4). The sons of Korah pick up the refrain of Psalm 42: they rhetorically ask their souls why they are cast down and in distress, for they do well to hope in God whom they will yet praise (Psalm 42:5).

Yet, for the moment, the sons of Korah speak as if in distress, remembering God as if from on the heights of Hermon and in the depths of the Jordan valley (Psalm 42:6). They feel as if overwhelmed by God, as if His waves have gone over them (Psalm 42:7). They express confidence in YHWH’s hesed, covenant loyalty, and His song is in them, and yet they wonder whether God their Rock has forgotten them while their enemies oppress and reproach them, asking where their God has gone (Psalm 42:8-10). The sons of Korah end with their refrain: why are their souls cast down and disquieted? They ought to hope in God, for they will yet praise Him, the help of their countenance, their God (Psalm 42:11).

For most Christians “As the Deer” is a hymn of encouragement, giving them a voice to express to God their desire to be devoted to Him and serve Him, firmly confident in God’s nearness and love. The sons of Korah give voice to the people of God in a far more dire, and all too realistic, situation: crying out to God in the day of trouble when God feels far away and we are cast down in distress and hopelessness, and even the remembrance of better days increases present sorrow.

And yet even in that day of distress the sons of Korah wish for the people of God to reflect. Why are their souls in distress and cast down? They do well to trust in God’s covenant loyalty; He remains their God; they will yet praise Him in and despite all their difficulties and the taunts of their opponents.

Israel would need such a psalm many times in its history. Those who endured the exile would remember the past glory of Zion bitterly in light of their later experiences in a foreign land under the authority of a pagan nation. Many times during the next few hundred years Israel would endure great pain and distress on account of the nations around them; none of this speaks to the various difficulties and challenges endured by individual Israelites on account of smaller-scale oppression and persecution, illness, other tragedies, and death. And yet, through it all, Israel would be encouraged to trust in God and His covenant loyalty, to be assured that one day they would yet praise God.

Christians to this day will find times during which the sons of Korah will give them voice before God in Psalm 42:1-11. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit times when our souls are in distress within us, disquieted on account of trial or trouble. In days of distress, be it on account of personal trial, oppression or persecution, illness, our sins or those of others, etc., even remembrance of better times among the people of God may cause greater distress and disturbance; we may feel even greater distance from those good times and God and all that is good and right.

In those times when God feels the furthest away we do well to yearn for Him as the deer pants for the water; our soul can only truly thirst for the living God if and when we feel as if it has been some time since we were able to drink deeply from His presence. The sons of Korah give voice to freely ask where God has gone, to wonder if we have been forgotten: these are real feelings, real experiences, and attempting to paper over them with theological niceties will not allow us to endure the day of distress. The sons of Korah give voice to those moments in the dark valley of shadows in which we feel very far away from God; that is a real experience, and presuming that no faithful Christian will endure it is a fool’s errand. Yet the sons of Korah do not allow themselves, or those to whom they give voice, to stay there: whatever reasons the soul may be in distress or disquiet do not negate the love and covenant faithfulness of God. We will yet praise Him; we have reason to hope that our desires in Him shall be satisfied. Yet those desires can only exist when they have yet to receive satisfaction; we must learn to seek God precisely because our current condition is fraught with danger, distress, oppression, and opposition. Yes, we will praise God; He is the light of our countenance; yet while we walk in the shadow of the valley of death, may we pant and thirst for the living God, seeking the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Prayer

“And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites: for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee. And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him” (Matthew 6:5-8).

It should be evident what prayer is all about. Unfortunately, all too often, its primary purpose gets missed.

In the midst of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus addressed the three primary religious practices of righteousness in Second Temple Judaism: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matthew 6:1-18). He does so in light of the theme set forth in Matthew 5:17-20: one’s righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and scribes if they desire to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, while Jesus is directly addressing His disciples in view of the crowd (cf. Matthew 5:3), He continues to critique the standard of righteousness professed by scribes and Pharisees, elsewhere considered rather hypocritical (Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 11:37-54). Righteousness is not a thing done to be seen by others; if that is one’s motivation, then one gains nothing from his or her heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1).

Jesus began His discussion of prayer by again pointing out the motivation of the “hypocrites”: they stand and pray publicly so as to be seen in both religious venues (the synagogue) and “secular” space (street corners) in order to be seen by men (Matthew 6:5). As with almsgiving, so with prayer: they have their reward; people see them and think they are holy and righteous (Matthew 6:2, 5). Instead Jesus commended going into an “inner chamber,” an inner room, and pray in secret, and the Father who sees in secret would reward them (Matthew 6:6).

Jesus then turned to a concerned rooted in the practices of the pagan nations: the belief that they would be heard by divinity for their battalogesete, literally “stammering,” but here referring to constant repetition of phrases (Matthew 6:7). Jesus assured His disciples and His Jewish audience that God already knows what they would need before they asked (Matthew 6:8).

What are we to conclude from Jesus’ instruction? We do well to note how Jesus brings us back to the original point of prayer: communication with God. When we pray we are making petitions of God; it is not about impressing other people. If in regular conversation with people we prattled on with ceaseless repetition of phrases, those with whom we converse might think us mad. God wants to hear our prayers; God wants to bless us; but God wants us to speak with Him in prayer; God is not some mystic force which requires a certain mantra repeated over and over in order to be summoned.

Is it wrong to pray in public? Jesus does not condemn prayer in the synagogue; prayer will become an important feature of Christian assemblies in the new covenant (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:15-19). Jesus Himself prayed in public at times (John 11:41-42, 12:28). Jesus’ concern is less about location and more about motivation: are we praying so as to impress others or to humbly pour out our souls before God? Granted, much prayer, especially intimate prayer, is best done in the inner chamber; plenty of prayer subjects have no place in the assembly or in the public square. If we pray in the assembly, we do well to focus on how we can build up each other by making thanksgiving, petitions for protection, strength, and need, keeping the focus on God (1 Corinthians 14:15-19, 26). If we pray in public, we do well to pray for the needs of the moment, keeping the focus on God. We easily delude ourselves into justifying praying in such a way as to impress men as opposed to really speaking to God. We must stand firm.

Is it wrong to use the thoughts of others, or to repeat ourselves in prayer? Jesus will go on to provide the Lord’s prayer as a model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13); God gave us the Psalms to this end; the Psalms themselves sometimes feature a repeated phrase (e.g. Psalm 136:1-26). Jesus condemned a pagan practice which did not respect God as god; we must resist any such pagan practices, vainly imagining that if we repeat a phrase over and over again, however substantive, God will listen to us or give us an ecstatic experience because of it. Jesus exhorts us to maintain prayer as a form of effective and meaningful communication with God. God knows what we need; prayer is for our benefit more than His. We can use the words of others, appropriating them for ourselves, and pray in a way that glorifies God; we can pray halfheartedly and absentmindedly with our own thoughts and thus dishonor God. In life we tend to need the same things; our prayers will most likely seem repetitive since life is rather repetitive. We must not sacrifice meaning in repetition; God is not a genie or force we conjure up through some kind of ritual incantation; He is our Creator and the ultimate Power of the universe, and we do well to speak with Him accordingly.

Humans, then and now, are easily tempted to forget about the purpose and meaning of prayer. It is easy to turn prayer into a ritual incantation or a pretense given to manifest holiness; neither practice honors God. Prayer, first and foremost, is communication with our God, the God of the universe, who already knows what we need. We do well to pray in thankfulness and sincerity, meaning what we say, focused on God in prayer, to His glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wonderfully Made

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Telling History

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

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

What is history?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

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

Placed in God’s Garden

And YHWH God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed (Genesis 2:8).

When we think of the Garden of Eden, we tend to do so in terms of paradise lost: man sinned and was forced out (Genesis 3:1-22). Yet we can gain lessons about man’s relationship toward God based on what God sought to accomplish in Eden.

Genesis 2:4-25 provides greater detail regarding the creation of man and woman as mentioned in Genesis 1:26-30. Much is made of Genesis 2:4-25 as a “competing” account of creation; the Genesis author has no such idea in mind, but presents to further explain man’s creation. We make much of God making man from the dust of the ground and breathing into him the breath of life (Hebrew neshama, Greek psyche; Genesis 2:7), and for good reason: such explains how man is both earthly and divine, energized dust. Thus man returns to the dust from which he came (Genesis 3:19); the breath of life in him is a gift and is not to be treated flippantly. Yet what does God then do with the man? YHWH planted a garden, made every tree with fruit good to eat grow there, and He put the man into that garden where he was to work it and keep it (Genesis 2:8-15). God does not just drop the man anywhere in the creation. He places the man in His garden.

“Eden” seems to connote delight and pleasure, as can be seen in the related Hebrew word found in Genesis 18:12, 2 Samuel 1:24, Psalm 36:8, and Jeremiah 51:34; not for nothing does the Greek translator of the Septuagint translate “garden” with paradeison, “paradise,” in Genesis 2:8. The Greek term itself derives from a Persian word describing a “walled enclosure”; a “royal park” is really in view, a well-planned, well-maintained garden, not terribly unlike the gardens of palaces, manors, and estates still visible in Europe, even if reflecting different tastes. Thus Eden was never really “raw nature”; it was a divinely created and organized garden estate, featuring aesthetically pleasing plants, plants good for food, and most likely embodying divine creativity and organization throughout.

A garden, by its very nature, is artificial; if left untended it will become overgrown and lose the properties which distinguish a garden from a forest or other form of natural environment. Man, therefore, was to work and keep God’s garden. Man is made to work; the ultimate futility of the endeavor is the curse of the fall, not the desire for the endeavor itself (Genesis 3:17-18; cf. Ecclesiastes 1:2-11). But man is not made to work in a vacuum: he is made to work and keep God’s garden. Man does not make the garden; man does not innovate in the garden; man is placed in God’s garden to keep it, to enjoy it, and to relish the sublime beauty and truth established in how God has composed that garden.

Since the fall man has been removed from that garden and has lost his innocence; from Eden man will end up at Babel, using his creative energies to make monuments to his own greatness (Genesis 11:1-8). Not much has changed since. Man was made to explore God’s garden and world in wonderment; we have perverted that impulse into a desire to become the masters of the universe. When we “discover” something, we presume some sort of ownership or control over it. In the grand scheme of things such claims seem petty, as a child’s game. It reminds us of the claims of certain Europeans having “discovered” America and other places; the Native Americans of the time were unaware that their lands needed “discovering,” and were quite aware of its existence for millennia without any Europeans around. Likewise, when humans learn about things, they are not really new; they have always existed, testifying to God’s majesty and power (Romans 1:19-21). We could learn about such things and give glory to God; instead, we tend to try to take them back to the Babels which we have built and use them to magnify ourselves. The results are less than aesthetically pleasing.

And yet, ever since the fall, God has called humanity back into restored relationship with Him. We now have opportunity to return to God and seek His purposes through His Son Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1-11). In Jesus we have the hope to return to paradise, to recover what was lost in the fall (Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 12:4, Revelation 2:7, 22:1-6). We yearn for full restoration and to bask in the glory of God’s presence without hindrance for eternity (Romans 8:18-25, Revelation 21:1-27). We want to go back to the Garden.

While we do await that full restoration, we are also told that we are a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). God “undoes” the curse of Babel on the day of Pentecost when the assembled Jewish people hear in their own languages the mighty works of God (Acts 2:11). In our lives as Christians we are again invited to participate in the work of glorifying God in His Kingdom, to do His work for His purposes (1 Corinthians 15:58, 2 Corinthians 9:8, Philippians 2:13, Colossians 1:10). Thus, in a real way, Christians are invited to “keep God’s garden” by working in His vineyard, the Kingdom (Matthew 21:33-44).

In many ways God invites us into His garden to enjoy its delights and to work and maintain it. The whole creation is, in a real sense, God’s garden. Through science and technology we learn much about God’s creation; we should not presume to be able to master and manipulate it fully to our own ends, to bring it back into our philosophical boxes to serve our ends, but should glorify God in wonderment for what He has made and how (cf. Psalm 8:1-9). God has given us of His Word (Hebrews 1:1-3, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). We ought to spend time in that Word, diligently applying ourselves to learn it and to accomplish its purposes in our lives (2 Timothy 2:15). Yet, just as Adam could never truly innovate in or master Eden, so we should never presume that we can discover something new through our investigation or mining of the Word, or imagine that we can take God’s Word to our Babel of philosophical ideologies and structures and in that way improve on it or understand it better than all who have come before us (cf. Colossians 2:8). We will never master the Word; we submit to God through the message of the Word and find ourselves mastered by it (Hebrews 4:12). The Word is to be one of God’s gardens of delight for us, a place in which we may find constant surprise which is to lead to confidence in God, adoration of His beauty, and praising and glorifying His name. God has given us important people and relationships in our lives; man was not made to be alone, for God Himself is not alone, but one in relational unity (Genesis 2:18, John 17:21-23). Those people in our lives are not there to be mastered or manipulated; instead, we are to enjoy their presence, seek to encourage them and help build them up, and glorify God for their presence. Every time we are tempted to make a Babel of something which God has made we do well to instead frame it as part of God’s garden, something on which we cannot improve, but something which we can cherish, enjoy, and learn about, all to the glory of God.

God has made us; in Him we live and move and have our being; we are made to seek Him (Acts 17:26-28). It is not for us to master, manipulate, and presume that we can make better than what God has already made. Instead, since the beginning, it has been for us to enjoy with wonderment God’s garden, to work in God’s creation and maintain things, and to give God all the glory. May we seek alignment with God’s purposes, renounce our impulse for mastery and control, submit to the Lord Jesus, and work in His Kingdom to His glory for all eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Worldly Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

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