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

A Singing People

Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise (James 5:13).

The people of God are to be a singing people.

As James began to conclude his letter he set forth a series of exhortations for Christians in their walk with God (James 5:7-20). Christians who are suffering should pray; those who are cheerful should sing praise (James 5:13).

James’ exhortation should not surprise us. While in prison Paul and Silas sang and prayed (Acts 16:25). Christians are to speak, teach, and admonish one another in song (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Such exhortations build on the heritage and experience of Israel, singing the psalms before YHWH in the Temple and in their lives (1 Chronicles 25:1-31, Matthew 26:30). Thus, when things went well, the people sang praise; when things were not so well, they sang laments. They sang thanksgivings; they sang prayers. In all this they were singing before God. Thus we do well to consider: are we a singing people?

It seems that the voices of the people of God continue to grow quieter. In the assembly many can barely be heard; Christians will listen to secular and/or “contemporary Christian” music, get used to hearing singing, but do not share in that singing themselves. It is easy to believe that singing is better left to other people.

Bifurcation of life in terms of times of “worship” and the “rest of life,” along with an emphasis on the performative elements of singing, have proven very deleterious. We do well to note that James tells individual Christians to sing praises when cheerful (James 5:13). As there is no authorization for the use of instruments when Christians sing together (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), there is no authority for them in the individual praises of Christians, either (James 5:13). Attempting to suggest the problem features instruments “in worship” and not in the “rest of life,” as many are wont to do, simply beg the question. From where do these distinctions come? They are not in the pages of Scripture; singing in the assembly is not uniquely defined as “worship” over and against individual singing. No direct association is made in Scripture between singing together and “worship” as commonly understood. Likewise, while we all like to have good singing, and we would all love to sing well, performance should never be the driver when it comes to our singing, individually or collectively; the substantive message of the song should always be the driver. The best performed song that does not speak, teach, or instruct has no share in Ephesians 5:19 or Colossians 3:16; praise can be beautiful, but beauty without substance is not praise (James 5:13).

Abide with MeSinging is designed to build up and encourage (1 Corinthians 14:26); we can only do that when we recognize the profound value in the substance and singing of songs. Science has known for some time that people learn messages better when put to a tune; the best preached sermon can hardly match the visceral power of a well written hymn. Singing can change your mood; singing can help us keep our minds and hearts on Christ as they should be, even in difficult circumstances, just like Paul and Silas in Acts 16:25. We can sing praises when alone; we can join our voices together to praise God in song and instruct each other, audibly demonstrating the unity we share in God in Christ (1 John 1:1-6). From song we can derive strength in the moment of trial and reinforce the joy of more fortunate times.

Singing is not better left to other people; God intends for all of His people to sing. The quality of the performance is never nearly as important as the value of the substance. Singing edifies mind, heart, and soul. In good times we do well to sing; in distress we ought to cry out to God in prayer and sing laments. There is a song for every circumstance if we are only willing to sing it. May we be the singing people of God to His glory and praise!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Judgment at the House of God

For the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God: and if it begin first at us, what shall be the end of them that obey not the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)

A good rule of any communication is to “know your audience.” They are, after all, the ones to whom you are speaking. They are the ones to whom the message should be directed.

Those who speak in the pages of Scripture knew their audience. The prophets spoke the Word of YHWH to the Israelites of their generation, warning them about their sins and transgressions and the impending judgment to come on account of them and yet providing hope for restoration in the future. Jesus spoke to the Israelites of the first century about the impending Kingdom of God. The Apostles wrote to first century Christians about their conditions and situations and what God wanted them to do.

Peter continues in this tradition in 1 Peter 4:12-19. He is encouraging the Christians who live in what we today call Turkey regarding the persecution and suffering they are experiencing or about to experience. They should not find it at all strange that they will suffer for the Name; they should in fact glory in it (1 Peter 4:12-16). He then emphasizes that judgment is coming, but it begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Such judgment then extends to those outside the house of God, and their condemnation is understood in Peter’s rhetorical questions (1 Peter 4:17-18; cf. Proverbs 11:31). God will judge and condemn those who persecute and cause suffering for the people of God; the people of God are to entrust themselves to their faithful Creator while continuing to do good (1 Peter 4:19).

Albrecht Dürer The Last Judgment circa 1510

We can see, therefore, that God is very much interested in speaking to the condition and situation of the specific audience to which He speaks. That audience is primarily His people from beginning to end. Those who are not His people are not listening to Him; He can do nothing for them while they remain in that condition (Romans 8:1-9). In Scripture God makes it very clear that those who do not know Him and do not obey the Gospel of His Son will be condemned (Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9, Revelation 20:11-15). They need to hear the Gospel, repent of their sin, and serve the Lord (Acts 17:22-31).

So it will be that the evil, indifferent, slothful, and uncaring will get their just deserts on the final day. Yet our concern must, first and foremost, be with us as the people of God. God is speaking to us through the message of His Word: judgment begins here (1 Peter 4:17)!

As we have seen it has always been so. The people of God may want to continually point to the gross sinfulness and immorality all around them and act as if such justifies their comparatively less sinful behavior. God has never provided any such refuge; He recognizes that the wicked live in wickedness, expects it, and has given them over to their lusts (Romans 1:18-32). He expects better from His people! Many take too much comfort in passages like John 3:18, Romans 8:31-39, and similar passages, interpreting them absolutely and teaching that their salvation is fully secure no matter what. Nevermind passages like Hebrews 10:26-31, 2 Peter 2:20-22; the story of God’s involvement with Israel should disabuse everyone of the notion that being made the elect of God automatically grants salvation! God does not want to condemn us or anyone else (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); nevertheless, He has never, and will never, justify or commend any who persist in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors contrary to His will and character.

Judgment begins at the house of God, the church (1 Timothy 3:15, 1 Peter 4:17). Too many look into the pages of Scripture to find how everyone else is condemned or judged; if we would be God’s people we must be humble and chastened enough to recognize that the exhortations and warnings found in the pages of Scripture are indeed primarily directed toward us. God will handle the condemnation of those outside (1 Corinthians 5:13). If we would claim to be the people of God we must allow God to point the finger of exhortation and rebuke found in Scripture at ourselves before we dare attempt to ascertain how it may be directed at others (Matthew 7:1-4). Judgment begins at the house of God; are we ready?

Ethan R. Longhenry