Sowing the Wind, Reaping the Whirlwind

For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: he hath no standing grain; the blade shall yield no meal; if so be it yield, strangers shall swallow it up (Hosea 8:7).

Sometimes little things can lead to far more severe consequences. Witness the snowball rolling down the hill, becoming an avalanche.

For years, generations even, the northern Kingdom of Israel perpetuated all sorts of transgressions. They had become commonplace by the days of Hosea and Jeroboam II king of Israel; the cult statues of the golden calves in Dan and Bethel had been entrenched for over one hundred and fifty years (cf. 1 Kings 12:25-33, Hosea 8:4-6). The Israelites had negotiated treaties and alliances with all of their neighbors for that long as well; they had been one of the stronger military powers in the Levant in that period, perhaps lesser than the Arameans, but certainly greater than the Judahites, Moabites, Ammonites, Philistines, and others. There were times of deep idolatry, as with Ahab, Jezebel, and the Baals (1 Kings 16:29-33); yet Jehu son of Nimshi exterminated Baal out of Israel, at least for a time (2 Kings 10:28). Thus, Israelites in the eighth century BCE had lived in ways quite consistent with over five generations of their ancestors. Why should they expect anything to change? Why wouldn’t they continue to serve YHWH as the calves in Dan and Bethel as their fathers had done? Why wouldn’t they be able to continue to preserve their kingdom with a robust military and strategic foreign policy just as they had done for years?

For us today, the answer is obvious: Israel had not yet faced the full, unmitigated fury of the Assyrian menace, and they would prove no match for the Assyrian. We can see that with the benefit of hindsight; we can see how they had sown the wind and thus reaped the whirlwind.

To sow the wind and reap the whirlwind is an interesting phrase; it might well already be proverbial when Hosea uttered it, and it certainly has become proverbial ever since. It is an easily understood agricultural metaphor: the whole premise of farming demands a person reaps more than he originally sowed, else he will not be able to survive. Sowing a little and reaping a lot is great when it comes to food; it is terrifying and horrible when it comes to consequences of transgression. “Wind” often denotes vanity or futility (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:11); Israel sowed the vanity of idolatry and would reap the whirlwind of complete devastation and destruction at the hands of Assyria. That did, indeed, escalate quickly!

Sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind is proverbial for good reason. It is not as if it could only apply to Israel in the eighth century BCE. In the United States we are well aware that the American Revolution, or the Civil War, did not just spontaneously come about; plenty of smaller decisions and practices developed over centuries that “snowballed” into those armed conflicts. People still argue about how World War I began in 1914, and probably always will; yet all agree that the seeds of that conflict had been sown over at least the century beforehand, and in some cases likely far earlier. Regardless, we would be hard pressed to explain or even understand why those specific generations were the ones to endure such horrific tragedies like the Civil War, World War I, or World War II and its effects. What had they done that was that much worse than what their ancestors had done?

The answer provides cold comfort: no, those particular generations were not much better or worse than those who had come before. Instead, they were simply the ones around when it came time to reap the whirlwind. What they endured seemed disproportionate compared to what they themselves had done, but in the grand scheme of things, and viewed historically, it seemed all but inevitable. So it was with Israel; so it was in America and in Europe.

And so it will no doubt be again. In how many ways are people today sowing the wind and they, or perhaps their descendants, will reap the whirlwind? We can consider such things on both the individual and societal levels. A person may begin experimenting with drugs, become abusive, suffer terrible trauma, and make decisions which will negatively affect their offspring, who in turn also make poor decisions which perpetuate, and often deepen, the cycle. Whole groups of people exploit others or the environment, turn away from what makes for healthy societies, and the exploitation and brokenness multiplies as the generations continue until it can be sustained no longer. At some point there must be a reckoning, a suffering of terrifying consequences that may not be the fault of one particular generation but nevertheless remains a just consequence. Such is the way it goes whenever wind is sown; the whirlwind will come, and it will be savage!

Christians do well to learn from the lesson of Israel and the many lessons history would have to offer us. There may be concessions we have made to the world which seem to us as a little thing. They may involve flashpoints in the “culture war”; they may be things we believe everyone takes for granted, things “everyone just does,” “the way things are,” etc., all ways to justify things that might be contrary to the purposes of God and which in fact have only existed for less than two centuries. We get lulled into complacency on account of our narrow time frame and the fact that our ancestors did similar things and did not suffer tragic consequences, at least in this life. But what will happen if the whirlwind comes in our generation? What will we say or do then?

Hosea may have been perceived as a cantankerous lunatic in 752 BCE, but after the whirlwind of 722 it was painfully obvious just how accurate he was (Hosea 14:9). The benefit of hindsight we have regarding the failings of the people of the God before us proves relatively useless to us if we do not apply it in foresight of our current situation. May we seek to ascertain those ways in which we are not really trusting in God but trust in our own strength or in the ways of the world, turn and repent, and be saved in Christ!

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

Singing in a Strange Land

For there they that led us captive required of us songs / and they that wasted us required of us mirth / “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How shall we sing YHWH’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137:3-4)

The agony is palpable.

The historical books of the Bible tell us the story of the people of God, and generally do so in a rather straightforward fashion. So it is in 2 Kings 25:21, tersely declaring that Judah was exiled out of its land. The shock, the agony, the horror, and the astonishment of the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the exile of its people would find its voice elsewhere in Scripture. Few places prove as compelling as Psalm 137:1-6.

The Psalter communicated much simply by placing Psalm 137 in its current location. Psalms 120-134 are the “songs of ascent,” which we believe were sung as pilgrims would ascend the hill country of Judah to approach Jerusalem and Zion, where YHWH made His name to dwell. Psalm 135 praises YHWH as Creator, the God of Israel who destroyed their enemies, and the One True God, no dumb and mute idol. Psalm 136 is the grand call and response powerfully affirming YHWH as the Creator God of Israel, who has done great things, who delivered Israel from his adversaries, and who continues to provide, for His covenant loyalty/lovingkindness (Hebrew hesed) endures forever.

But then Israel sat by the waters of Babylon, and cried when they remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1). They hung up their musical instruments upon the willows (Psalm 137:2). The victorious Babylonians, pagans vaunting over their defeat of the people of YHWH, demand to hear the songs of Zion (Psalm 137:3). The Psalmist’s question rang out: how could they sing YHWH’s song in a strange, alien, foreign, and pagan land (Psalm 137:4)? The Psalmist would go on to resolve to never forget Jerusalem; he would rather forget his skill and never speak a word again before he would forget Jerusalem or enjoy anything above it (Psalm 137:5-6).

Ferdinand Olivier 001

We can barely begin to imagine the trauma of exile for those in Israel. Everything they knew and believed about themselves had literally been dashed to pieces in front of their eyes. They watched as thousands of their fellow Israelites, fellow people of God, died from famine, plague, and sword. They watched as the pagans ransacked the holy places of YHWH, whom they had believed to have been the God of Israel, who maintained covenant loyalty, and who overcame Israel’s adversaries. They were led to a distant land as the spoils of war, a land of strange tongues and stranger customs. Nothing could ever be the same again. Who would they become? What happened to YHWH’s promise? How had He let this happen to His people? How could they sing the songs of ascent to Zion when no such ascent proved possible? How could they sing YHWH’s song in a foreign land?

Without a doubt exile began as an extremely disorienting experience for Israel. Many would apostatize, believing the lie that might makes right, buying into the Babylonian propaganda. Yet for many the exile would prove the catalyst unto greater faithfulness; YHWH really was not only the God of Israel but the One True God, the God of heaven. He judged His people on account of their continual rejection of His purposes; Israel deserved far worse than it actually received. YHWH would again visit His people and bring them out of exile; He would again choose Jerusalem and Zion; Israel would again sing YHWH’s song in His land (Isaiah 40:1-5, Zechariah 2:10-12).

When Cyrus overthrew the Babylonian monarchy and took over the empire, Israel was allowed to return to its land (Ezra 1:1-4). And yet the exile was not fully over; Israel was still captive to foreign powers. Their long exile would only find its satisfaction in Jesus of Nazareth, YHWH in the flesh, having returned to His people, defeating sin and death through His death and resurrection, in His ascension establishing a dominion which would have no end (Daniel 7:13-14, John 2:14-22, Acts 2:36). Israel, and all mankind, received access to God through Jesus, and could become a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, with all the rights and privileges thereof (Ephesians 2:1-18, Philippians 3:20).

Yet before the people of God can inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, they must also experience exile. As Christians we live as exiles and sojourners in this world (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11); we live in its midst, ought to pray for peace and the salvation of all men, and do what is honorable among all, but we cannot love this world, cannot be friends with it, and cannot live according to its customs (Romans 12:1-2, 17, 1 Timothy 2:1-4, James 4:3-5, 1 John 2:15-17). We will be thought strange and consider the ideas and customs around us as strange (1 Peter 4:3-4); no matter how much we may look for a home and security, we will not find it here.

As with Israel, so with us: exile begins as a very disorienting experience. We also are tempted to apostatize, to believe the lie that might makes right, to buy into the propaganda of our nation and our cultural ideology (Romans 12:2). But our exile is designed to prove the catalyst for greater faithfulness, to prove the genuineness of our faith (1 Peter 1:1, 6-7). It is through the crucible of exile that we learn that God is the One True God, who has made Himself known through His Son, and that the only hope of the world is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is through the crucible of exile that we come to understand that the world is out for its own, does not glorify what God would have glorified, and that whatever we have experienced is far less worse than what we have deserved. It is through the crucible of exile that we learn to anchor ourselves in our great confidence and hope that Jesus will return again to gather His people to Him, that we will rise and forever be with the Lord, and dwell in His presence in the resurrection forever (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, Revelation 21:1-22:6).

It does seem difficult to sing YHWH’s song in a foreign land. Yet we must remember that God has already obtained the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, and we will prove more than conquerors if we remain faithful to Him (Romans 8:37, 1 Corinthians 15:54-58). The day is coming on which we will sing a new song and the song of Moses and the Lamb before the throne (Revelation 5:9-10, 15:3-4); until then, we do well to sing the songs of Zion even in a strange land, glorifying God for what He has accomplished for us through Jesus Christ the Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Den of Robbers

Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods that ye have not known, and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered;’ that ye may do all these abominations? Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” saith the LORD (Jeremiah 7:8-11).

The people of Judah were about to learn the disastrous consequences of their misplaced confidence.

For generations the people of Israel had served all sorts of gods. Yes, the prophets persistently warned them against serving the gods of the nations, and to avoid their practices abhorrent to YHWH, yet they were still in the land of Israel, a Davidic king was on the throne, and in their minds, YHWH would most assuredly glorify His name against the nations. After all, in the days of Hezekiah, did YHWH not deliver Jerusalem from the hand of the king of Assyria? If YHWH protected His city, His house, and His people from the Assyrians, He would surely do the same from the Babylonians. The people of Judah looked to the existence of the Temple as their refuge and protection from danger; such was their confidence in YHWH.

The people of Judah had good reason to trust in YHWH, but they really did not trust in YHWH, for they did not pursue after Him alone. Even when they did not introduce abominations into the Temple itself, they still practiced abominations, but then expected to find refuge and forgiveness in the Temple of YHWH. Thus God sent Jeremiah to warn the people regarding the folly of their position: just because YHWH delivered Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah does not mean that He will do the same again. The people of Judah treat the Temple as thieves treat their den: they may not commit terrible sins there, but they seek refuge there from the sins they commit elsewhere, and perhaps even seek to enjoy comfort from the fruit of their iniquity there. When the place where YHWH and His name are to be glorified becomes a place where the people of God seek YHWH’s protection despite not trusting in Him alone, that place becomes a stumbling block. Within a generation the city of YHWH was cast down, His house destroyed, and His people led away to Babylon. It pained YHWH to see it, yet Israel gave Him no recourse: they abused God’s concern for them and treated it as license to continue as they always had been.

The Jews of the first century CE would learn the same lesson. As Jeremiah warned the people of Judah regarding the imminent demise of the first Temple, so Jesus warned the Jews regarding the imminent demise of the second: as He entered Jerusalem in triumph, He ritually cleansed the Temple, and in so doing declared that the people had made YHWH’s house of prayer into a den of robbers (Matthew 21:12-16, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46). No doubt Jesus has some concern regarding how the money-changers exploited the people and how such profiteering in the Temple did make it an actual den of robbers. Yet Jesus’ allusion to Jeremiah’s words would not have been lost on the Temple authorities, the Sadducees and chief priests, who perceived Jesus’ threat to the entire Temple establishment and thus their center of power, and they proved pivotal in engineering the conspiracy which led to Jesus’ death (cf. Luke 19:47-48). Nevertheless, Jesus’ witness was appropriate: many of the Jews had seen how their ancestors had overthrown the rule of the pagan Seleucids and were convinced that they could do the same against the Romans. Their confidence remained in the Temple and how YHWH would not allow the pagan Romans to overthrow that Temple. Yet in the process they rejected Jesus their Messiah and followed after those who taught lies, and within a generation of Jesus’ death Jerusalem was again destroyed and the Temple razed to the ground, never to be built again.

The logic used by the people of Israel is always tempting: YHWH is our God, YHWH is forgiving, YHWH will get glory over His enemies, so YHWH will protect His people no matter what. It is true that YHWH is God, that YHWH loves His people, and always proves faithful (cf. Romans 8:1-39), but YHWH is also holy, righteous, just, and does not provide cover for persistent sin (Hebrews 10:26-31, 1 Peter 1:16-17)! God’s judgment begins with His own household (1 Peter 4:17-19), and we do well to learn that lesson.

There is no longer a physical Temple, but God’s presence remains among His people, individually and collectively, through the presence of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 6:19-20, 1 Peter 2:3-5). How shall we treat the place where God maintains His presence? God expects the body and the church to be holy places, used in sanctification for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Ephesians 4:11-16, 5:23-33). Yet we are tempted to turn them into dens of robbers, a place where we seek refuge from the consequences of our sinful behavior without any real intent to reform or change. We must not be deceived, for God sees all. If we treat the body or the church as a den of robbers, God knows it, even if we deceive other Christians or, God forbid, other Christians participate in the same forms of darkness with us. Retribution may not be immediate, but retribution will come, and it will be swift and severe.

The Israelites persistently trusted more in God’s willingness to overlook their faults so as to uphold His name and His glory than to actually repent and reform themselves, and for it they twice watched all they held holy and sacred defamed, defiled, and destroyed. We do well to learn from them and turn aside from such folly. Let us not consider our bodies or the church as a den of robbers, seeking refuge from the consequences of sinful behavior without needing repentance, but instead turn and be holy as God is holy to His glory and honor forevermore!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Family

While he was yet speaking to the multitudes, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, seeking to speak to him.
And one said unto him, “Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, seeking to speak to thee.”
But he answered and said unto him that told him, “Who is my mother? And who are my brethren?”
And he stretched forth his hand towards his disciples, and said, “Behold, my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50).

One can hardly overstate the importance of family, both in the ancient and modern worlds. Family connections provided the only real “safety net” of the day; one’s standing in one’s family often defined one’s career and marriage prospects, let alone religion and ideology. One of the worst fates a person could experience was to be bereft of family, excluded from family, or to be a part of a family whose name was dishonorable in the community.

One’s family tends to share in commonalities: a common bloodline, and therefore common characteristics. We have latent expectations that children turn out a lot like parents; athleticism, intelligence, skills, and temperaments tend to be inherited characteristics. If one person in a family gains prominence, it tends to be easier for other family members to also gain prominence as well.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that family would have a role in Jesus’ life and teachings. During His life, those who knew Him from His youth had challenges accepting His authority since it seemed so inconsistent with His family’s social place (cf. Matthew 13:54-58). A lot of people put some emphasis on Jesus’ earthly family: Mary His mother is prominent in the eyes of some, and there are no lack of conspiracy theories about Jesus possibly having a wife and family and how His descendants would become kings. There is no legitimacy to any such tale, but it goes to show just how much we associate people with their families; it is easy to assume that whatever made Jesus great would be passed on to other family members as well.

At one point during His ministry, Jesus’ mother and (half-)siblings wished to speak with Him (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21). Concerning what specifically we are never told; considering Mark 3:21 and John 7:5, it probably was not for good. Nevertheless, Jesus is in the middle of teaching the people, and He takes the opportunity to teach a most profound lesson. He declares that those who are really His brother, sister, and mother are not those who are somewhat biologically related to Him, but those who “do the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Let us first make it clear what Jesus is not saying. He is not attempting to justify people dishonoring their biological parents; He affirms the commandment to honor one’s father and mother (Matthew 19:19), and puts it into practice by making sure that His mother is provided for after His death (John 19:25-27). We should not assume that He intends any disrespect to His earthly family whatsoever with His declaration, and Jesus is certainly not trying to overthrow the institution of the family.

So why does Jesus make such a strong declaration? He does so in part because of the tendency we noticed above: it would be easy for the people to look to Jesus’ earthly family to provide future leadership and to exalt Jesus’ earthly family in inappropriate ways; this is also seen in Luke 11:27-28. The honor and praise is well-meaning but dangerously wrong-headed.

And its wrong-headedness makes up the bulk of the reason why Jesus says what He does. Families are known for their strong connections and the emphasis on what they share in common; Jesus has come to reveal first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles as well that they should honor their spiritual connection with God as primary in their lives, and thus the common relationship they share as children of their Heavenly Father should be preeminent, far more valuable than any earthly connection (cf. Matthew 6:33). Jesus is not trying to say that anyone can become His spiritual “mother”; He is using the terms on the basis of connecting the physical to the spiritual. Yet all can become spiritual brothers and sisters of Jesus through the reconciliation with the Father made possible through His blood (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-17). Had His physical brothers and sisters persisted in unbelief, their genetic relationship to Jesus would not have somehow saved them; while James and Jude will take on prominent roles in the early church, it is not because they are Jesus’ brothers, but Jesus’ servants (James 1:1, Jude 1:1). Nepotism may get you somewhere on earth, but physical nepotism will not get anyone anywhere in heaven!

Jesus’ teaching is powerful: yes, there is great value in the physical family, and those commitments should be honored (cf. 1 Timothy 5:1-16), but the earthly family should never be made an idol. Instead, as with all good things that come from God, we should perceive how the physical is a shadow of the real and spiritual: participation in the family of God is of the greatest importance, and that which we share in common in Jesus can overcome anything else that could divide us. No one need be excluded from Jesus’ family; there is not one who cannot become an adopted son/daughter of God and thus brother/sister of Jesus. During His earthly life Jesus did honor His physical family but took every opportunity to more greatly honor His spiritual family, bought by His blood. Let us join together as Jesus’ family and honor our Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Not to Direct His Steps

O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps (Jeremiah 10:23).

Some of the more “amusing” things that small children do involves the plans they devise. As they are trying to sort out things like logic, cause and effect, argument, and such like, they find themselves in all sorts of trouble for doing things they thought would work but failed miserably. This is especially true for boys; it seems that one of the parent’s most important tasks in raising young men is to keep them from killing or maiming themselves.

The problem with humanity is our presumption of getting beyond this stage in life. We get to a point when we think we have most things somewhat figured out, and we have a way forward. And yet time and time again, in various ways for various reasons, we find ourselves in all sorts of trouble.

Jeremiah saw such trouble coming for Judah. The people put their trust in metallic images of their own manufacture; the leaders of Judah were involved in high-stakes political maneuvering. They all thought they had things sorted out and were acting in their own best interest. But Jeremiah knew the word that had come from YHWH, and it was all for naught. The idols would be quickly proven worthless; the political maneuvering would end with the Babylonian army at Jerusalem’s gates and Judah’s supposed “allies” far away or conquered. The men of Judah did not consult YHWH for direction; they did not turn to him and away from their idolatry. They would soon learn how foolish that decision had been.

In such a condition Jeremiah had good reason to utter the words of Jeremiah 10:23. The way of man is not in himself. It is not in man who walks to direct his steps. When humans get to thinking that they can figure it out, things start going very badly.

Paul describes the degeneracy well in Romans 1:18-32. When people start thinking they know better, they rebel from the way of God. God allows this rebellion and gives them over to the consequences of this rebellion. Humans then invent their own gods based on what they can perceive in the universe. They then give themselves over to commit immorality and give full vent to their animalistic impulses. Meanwhile, virtue is cast aside.

It never takes too long to see this degeneracy in action. We most assuredly see it in our own day with a generation which does not speak a coherent language of morality and which is content with individualistic moralism. The god of this age seems to be the self: what I think, what I want, what is best for “#1.” It certainly seems that many people today actively snub their nose at any concept that it is not within them to direct their own steps.

But how well is this turning out for everyone? Are we all better off because we believe we are the pilots of our own lives? Hardly. Pain, misery, and suffering abound, and a lot of it is a direct consequence of our choices and behavior. People today seem content to lose their humanity in order to keep consuming and producing, thinking they are in control of it all.

The details might be different, but the story has been the same throughout time. People in Jeremiah’s day thought they knew better. People in Jesus’ and Paul’s day thought the same. Many of our ancestors did as well.

We do well to learn this fundamental lesson: no, we are not good at directing our own steps. No, it is not within a man to figure out how he should go. We are not much better off than when we were children and did things that seem quite stupid on reflection but somehow made sense to us then. When we try to figure it all out, things get distorted, because despite our pretensions, we do not know everything. We do not know much of anything when it comes down to it. The way we live, what we choose to do, and what we choose not to do exemplify that!

Once we learn that lesson we can turn to God and follow His steps. We can learn from Jesus, the exact imprint of the divine nature, and walk as He walked (Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 2:6). When we go in the way our Creator intended us to go, we will find ourselves truly human again, since we have returned to intended purpose of humanity. We will not go after the distortions, perversions, and degeneracy that comes with believing ourselves more important and better informed than we truly are.

It takes a lot of humility to learn from God; there is always that impulse within us seeking to go its own way. But how well has that ever gone for us? Let us learn our lesson, not trusting in ourselves, but instead placing our trust in God through Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery

Thou shalt not commit adultery (Exodus 20:14).

The seventh commandment is one that has been universally upheld in societies throughout the world; nevertheless, it is continually violated. Statistics on rates of adultery are difficult to properly ascertain, but it is believed that somewhere between a third and two thirds of all married people will commit adultery at some point in their lifetimes. That is astoundingly depressing!

The emphasis placed on this commandment by its placement is notable. In terms of the commandments involving one’s relationships with fellow humans, it falls right in the middle, after commands to honor parents and to not murder, and before commands to not steal, bear false witness, or covet. One might think that the latter three commandments would have greater importance, considering that they involve a lot more than just one’s spouse. Thus, what makes adultery such a challenging problem, and why is emphasis placed upon it?

We should first note two things. First, the commandment is specifically against adultery, which demands that at least one, if not both, parties are already married or betrothed. This is probably because people got married rather young in ancient times, and fornication was not as much of a problem as it would become in later generations (nevertheless, see 1 Corinthians 7:1-9). Secondly, one of the significant impulses leading to adultery– coveting the wife (or, for women, the husband) of one’s neighbor– is condemned in the tenth commandment (Exodus 20:17). If the impulse that leads to adultery is already condemned, why does God feel compelled to come out and condemn the fruit of that impulse? And why would the command against adultery come before the command against coveting?

The big problem with adultery is the violation of covenant that it represents. The marriage commitment was always intended to be mutual and perpetual (Genesis 2:24). To this day people will vow to love and cherish only their spouse; to commit adultery is to demonstrate that one thinks nothing of that vow, and is unable to maintain a solemn commitment made before God.

Jesus demonstrates the seriousness of adultery in Matthew 19:3-9. He derives a principle from God’s originally stated purpose for marriage: what God has joined man is not to separate (Matthew 19:4-6). Those who would divorce and marry another are condemned as committing adultery, yet an exception is made for those who have divorced their spouse for the latter’s sexually deviant behavior (Matthew 19:9). It is evident that said sexually deviant behavior– adultery by any other name– is itself a way of separating what God has joined. Paul uses this same principle to condemn the use of prostitutes in 1 Corinthians 6:15-20.

In fact, sexual sin constantly makes the top of the list of sins in the New Testament– witness Galatians 5:17-19, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and Ephesians 5:3. There are good reasons for this: humans easily fall into sexual temptation and then sexual sin.

And let us be honest– sex is treated differently than most subjects. If we consider many of the consequences of violation of these commandments– adultery, stealing, false witness– people are made to feel violated when these acts are perpetrated. When possessions are stolen, it is easy to feel very violated– something we feel is secure is proven to be rather insecure. When people bear false witness against us, it is easy to feel betrayed.

Yet adultery always reaches very deeply since it represents violation and betrayal on the deepest level. Sexuality is the greatest form of physical intimacy that can be attained in this life, designed to reflect, in some small measure, the connection we are to have with God (cf. Ephesians 5:31-32). The two becoming one flesh is to lead to a very tight bond, one not freely shared with everyone. That is why, of all things, most people understand that sexuality is to remain private. Therefore, when a spouse betrays us by committing adultery, we are deeply betrayed and feel violated– that intimate connection has been made with another, and the severity of that indiscretion sinks deeply.

Such is why adultery ranks so highly in the Ten Commandments; stealing, false witness, and covetousness are sins people might commit against one another, but adultery tends to cause greater hurt and deeper mistrust. A cloud of suspicion hangs over any adulterous spouse, and reconciliation is quite the challenge if it can even be pulled off.

It is little wonder, then, when God wanted to express to Israel the severity of the latter’s idolatry, He used the imagery of adultery, as evidenced in Hosea 1-3 and very graphically in Ezekiel 16, for example. The comparison was apt– just as a man makes a covenant with a woman so as to become husband and wife, so God made a covenant with Israel (cf. Malachi 2:14, Exodus 19-20). Such covenants were designed to be mutual and perpetual– husband and wife for one another and no other, God and Israel for one another, and Israel certainly for no other (cf. Exodus 20:1-4)! But Israel went and served other gods, and in so doing committed spiritual adultery (Hosea 4:9-19).

Adultery is one of those sins that leads to profound regret for most of the people who commit it. Whatever pleasure the fling might provide cannot compare to the pain, guilt, and misery inflicted upon the existing marriage relationship. The same is true in our spiritual relationship with God: no matter how attractive it might be at times to forsake God’s way, such ultimately causes more grief than it is ever worth. Let us all strive to honor the covenants which we have made, both to our spouses and to God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Second Commandment

“Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5a).

YHWH has delivered His people from slavery and bondage (Exodus 6-14), and has already provided the first command– Israel was to have no other gods before/beside YHWH (Exodus 20:3).

The second command is like it– Israel shall not make a “graven image” or a “likeness of any thing” so as not to bow down to it or serve it (Exodus 20:4-5a).

In the ancient Near Eastern context, of which Israel was a part, this command makes sense and is entirely necessary. Pretty much every culture believed in various gods– and every god had his or her representation. Dagon had his statue (1 Samuel 5:2-4); the Asherah was a wooden pillar (Judges 6:25-26). While some people might have actually believed that the statue was their god, most understood it as a representation of what their god really was.

YHWH, as the One True God, the Creator God, is utterly distinct. His very name– “Yahweh”– does not come with some meaning about power or lordship. Instead, it means “the Existent One.” YHWH does not need to have some “power name.” He exists; that is sufficient. And, as Paul will later explain, since God exists, and in Him all people live and dwell and have their being, God cannot really be represented by any image of any creature or anything of the sort (Acts 17:28-29).

Therefore, as Isaiah will later make very clear, if you can fashion a “god,” it ceases to have any real power (cf. Isaiah 44:9-20). If you can imagine it, build it, or even bow down to it, it’s not really God– it’s an idol of some form or another.

This idea was quite strange to people in the days of Israel. In order to serve God in truth they would have to act differently from every other nation in the world. The pressure of being distinct in this way proved too much– before Israel even makes it to Canaan, they serve Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:1-3). The story of the next five hundred years of Israel often features Israel’s service to other gods, bowing down to statues (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23). This, in part, led to the exile of Israel and Judah.

Nevertheless, we must notice two things: first, that YHWH already commanded Israel to not have any other gods beside Him, and second, that He does not explicitly mention any other gods in the second commandment. This is due to a much more insidious form of idolatry that also overwhelmed Israel.

It would have been one thing if Israel made statues of other gods and bowed down to them– still wrong, indeed, still a violation of the first commandment– but Israel dared to make images and to call those images YHWH, attempting to represent the incomparable and transcendent Creator of the universe with a statue of a golden calf.

It first took place while Moses was on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:1-4); it would happen again in the days of Jeroboam son of Nebat king of Israel (1 Kings 12:26-33). And it is precisely this thing which concerns God in the second commandment.

The image of the golden calf became too pervasive, especially in the Kingdom of Israel. Even though Jehu removed the idolatrous service of Baal, he left the golden calves as they stood (cf. 2 Kings 10:26-31). This idolatry is one of the reasons given by God as to why He exiled Israel (2 Kings 17:22-23).

Throughout time many have wondered why people who knew better than to serve other gods still bowed down to the golden calf. The answer is probably a bit more simple than we would like to imagine– once the image is in one’s head, it is very difficult to remove it. Jeroboam makes the golden calves and tells Israel that these are the gods that delivered them from Egypt (1 Kings 12:28). Therefore, when the people hear all the stories about YHWH and His saving acts, they start thinking of the golden calf. The mental association is there throughout time. Even if a prophet stands up in the name of YHWH to speak, when he speaks of YHWH, of what will the people think but that golden calf? And if any declaration is made about destroying the calf, the people will think that you are destroying YHWH, and such is intolerable!

In reality, it would have been stranger had Israel given up the calves and began going to Jerusalem to the Temple to bow down before YHWH there. Images have more power over us than we would like to admit.

And therein is the key to understanding the challenge of the second commandment for us today. While it is true that we are not likely to make an actual, physical image of something and bow down to it, such does not make us immune from making mental images to which we bow down metaphorically.

It is true that we have to have some mental conception about something about God. We obtain that from His Word– God as love, God as holy, God as represented fully in Jesus of Nazareth (1 John 4:8, Leviticus 19:2, Colossians 2:9). But we get ourselves into the same trouble Israel did when we start making up our own definitions of the way God “must be.”

We can imagine that God “must be” a certain way– loving like a grandparent, someone who would never allow us to suffer pain, someone who privileges us and/or our nation, or a thousand other things– but there is no reason at all why God “must be” that way. God only “must be” what He is, and we only understand as much as He has revealed about Himself in that regard. Whenever we limit God by our declarations of how we “must be” we act no differently than Israel did– we have just set up our own “golden calf,” our own view of God to worship.

Therefore, when we think of God, we must seek to understand His nature as best we can from His revelation of Himself in Scripture, and know for certain that God is no thing– no thing we can make, imagine, or devise. Let us understand that God is the Existent One, and serve Him today!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Futility of Idols

And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the sojourners of Gilead, said unto Ahab, “As YHWH, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1).

Here we have the moment that James describes in James 5:16-18: Elijah, prophet of God but still a man with a nature like ours, prayed to God, and it did not rain for three and a half years. such is a powerful demonstration of the effectiveness of prayer, proving that God can do amazing things when His people devote themselves to prayer and righteousness.

Yet there certainly is a dark side to this prayer– Elijah has just consigned the land and its people to drought for three and a half years. A drought means no rain, and when there is no rain, crops fail. When crops fail, there is no food. When there is no food, people starve, suffer, and die.

We might feel inclined, through the lens of “modern sensibilities,” to think of this as utterly merciless, cruel, barbaric, and inhuman. What kind of prophet is Elijah to consign his people to famine and death? What kind of God would withhold rain and thus lead His people to starvation and death? Or, in less judgmental terms, why is it that Elijah prays for it to not rain as opposed to praying for some other demonstration? Why does God punish Israel with a lack of rain as opposed to some other calamity or difficulty?

In order to make some sense of this we must understand what is going on at the time. Elijah has been called by God– whose personal name is YHWH or “Yahweh”– because Ahab king of Israel is exceedingly wicked (1 Kings 16:30). He and his wife Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, have rejected YHWH in favor of Baal, Asherah, and the Canaanite gods (1 Kings 16:31-33). Israel followed along in this apostasy.

Baal, in the Canaanite belief system, was a storm god and a fertility god. Baal was believed to provide the storms that led to crop growth and thus fertility. Baal is in a contest against Mot, the god of death; when Baal wins, there is fertility; when Mot wins, there is famine and death. Much of the belief system of the Canaanites surrounded the idea of fertility, both in crops and in child-bearing.

We should not imagine that God or Elijah really want the people to suffer for suffering’s sake. Instead, a powerful lesson is being taught: the gods of the world are emptiness and nothing. During the drought, no doubt, Ahab and Jezebel constantly sacrificed to Baal and plead for mercy from him, along with many of the Israelites. During the contest on Mount Carmel, the prophets of Baal plead with Baal, even cutting themselves in the process (1 Kings 18:26-29). Yet, as the Kings author says, “there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded” (1 Kings 18:29). Baal was not there– because there was no Baal.

Afterward YHWH demonstrated His existence powerfully with fire from heaven and a return of the rains (1 Kings 18:30-46). The lesson was evident: YHWH was God, not Baal. YHWH is responsible for the rains and fertility, not Baal.

This was not the first time YHWH had made such a demonstration; the plagues upon Egypt in Exodus 8-12 are also demonstrations that YHWH, and not the gods of the Egyptians, is really in control. It’s a demonstration with which it is hard to argue: if you believe that Ra is the sun god, but at the command of YHWH the sun turns to darkness, and your pleas to Ra change nothing, then it is clear at least that YHWH is stronger than Ra if Ra even exists. It is only when idols are dethroned that people really reflect on the power of the One True God.

We should not think that we are much different today. Granted, we do not have many people going to temples and bowing down to statues of perceived divinities as was prevalent in Biblical times. But that does not mean that we have solved the challenge of idolatry– far from it (1 John 5:21)! Our idols are just more abstract. And we still need powerful demonstrations of their ultimate inefficiency and inefficacy.

For generations money has been an idol (Matthew 6:24, Ephesians 5:5). It is easy for people to trust in their material goods– their stuff, their bank accounts, their investments, and even their government’s entitlement programs. And yet what was powerfully demonstrated during our great recession? Wealth is uncertain, and cannot be trusted (1 Timothy 6:17)! Government is proven to be uncertain and ultimately not entirely trustworthy; stuff also cannot bring satisfaction. Health, status, prestige, relationships, fame, the Internet, science, you name it– all of them are really subject to the One True God, and in and of themselves, cannot save, and cannot be entirely trusted. Unfortunately, all too often, we only perceive this after they have been rendered ineffective and inefficacious in our lives. It is only in crisis do we learn that we need to rely upon God and not the gods of the world.

If we want to avoid needless suffering we would do well to learn from Israel’s example and trust in the One True God and not the gods of this world. God always has a way of demonstrating His power and authority over every false god, and we would do well to trust in Him and not suffer His chastisement!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God in Man’s Image

Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things (Romans 1:22-23).

Human beings have been searching after the divine for as long as they have existed. There is an undeniable impulse in humanity to seek that which is beyond himself (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:11, Acts 17:27).

Yet as long as that impulse has existed it has also been corrupted. As opposed to discerning the true nature of their Creator God, people have gone ahead and divinized various aspects and elements of His creation (cf. Romans 1:20-32). This is idolatry– perhaps one of the first sins, and certainly one of the most pervasive sins of mankind throughout his generations.

While it is true that many people considered the sun or various creatures to be gods or divine in essence, we find constant representations of at least some of the gods of a given nation to be in the form of men. These forms may be extravagant in some ways, and yet there is always something familiar about them. Human representations of Egyptian gods do not look like Hittites, Greeks, or Babylonians, but like Egyptians. The gods of the Greeks, mostly in human representation, were just like Greeks: they lived near Greece on Mount Olympus, fought each other, committed sexually deviant behavior, were capricious, and so on and so forth. What we see is that as opposed to people recognizing that they have been made in God’s image (cf. Genesis 1:26-27), they fashion gods or a God in their own image!

Yet we live in the twenty-first century. At least in America we do not often come upon people bowing down to the image of a human or an animal. But we should not confuse this with real progress, for the same impulse is still at work among us. It is still very easy to make God in our image as opposed to being conformed to God’s image!

The statistics present a rather stunning picture. The vast majority of Americans believe in a Higher Power. Most believe in the Creator God Who revealed Himself through the message in the Bible, and that Jesus of Nazareth is His Son. Most believe in Heaven, and believe that they are going there. Fewer accept the reality of hell, and even fewer think that they will go there.

If these statistics are to be believed we should be looking across this country and seeing a most religious people, thoroughly devoted to serving God and accomplishing His will. But such is not the way things are here. We live in a society plagued with all manner of ills– rampant sexual immorality, divorce, misery, pain, and distress all around. What has happened?

Yes, indeed, people profess to believe in the God revealed in the Bible. Most are quite sincere in that profession. And yet they really do not believe in the God revealed in the Bible, but instead the God they think should exist based on part of what the Bible teaches.

Who is this “God”? It will depend on the person with whom you speak. For many, He is in no way different from divinities of other religions, in person, in nature, or in teaching– to them, one can believe in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a host of other beliefs, and reach the same destination. Many also believe in the God of “love” who would never condemn anyone whom we would define as a “good person.” Many think that God has no concern with what you believe as long as you conduct yourself in appropriate ways. The list goes on and on.

These statements are at variance with what the Bible teaches, and many people understand this to a degree. It is not as if Jesus’ statement that He is the only way to the Father is confusing or unclear (cf. John 14:6). Galatians 1:6-9 is pretty clear about what happens to those who teach differently than what was originally taught. Matthew 7:21-23 quite clearly indicates that many people might be religious and yet will not make it to Heaven. We might even suggest these passages to people who believe in God in their own image, and hopefully some of them will understand the difference. But many others will attempt to explain them away or will have no explanation period. But that will not stop them from thinking that they believe in the God of the Bible.

We must recognize that the danger is not just from those around us, for it is just as easy for us to make God in our own image as it is for them to do so. What happens when it becomes evident that something we believe about God, about ourselves, or about our world is at variance with what is revealed by God in His Word? If we persist in our belief, our God is an idol– the God we want, at least in one respect or another, and not the One True God. But if we are willing to change our belief to come into greater conformity with the will of God, then we make it evident that we are serving the true God, being fashioned according to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29), and not ourselves.

Idolatry may not be as physical today as it was in times past but it is no less prevalent. Let us make sure that we are serving the One True God and not the God of our own image or liking!

Ethan R. Longhenry