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

The Magnificat

And Mary said,
“My soul doth magnify the Lord / and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath looked upon the low estate of his handmaid / for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things / and holy is his name.
And his mercy is unto generations and generations / on them that fear him.
He hath showed strength with his arm / He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart.
He hath put down princes from their thrones / and hath exalted them of low degree.
The hungry he hath filled with good things / and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath given help to Israel his servant / that he might remember mercy
(As he spake unto our fathers) / toward Abraham and his seed for ever (Luke 1:46-55).

God was doing great things; He was worthy of praise. The mother of the Lord Jesus gives God praise for what He was accomplishing through her and the Child who would be born.

maryMary has come to visit her relative Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist; Elizabeth recognizes that Mary is carrying the Lord because her child leapt in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice (Luke 1:39-41). Elizabeth declares Mary and her Child blessed (Luke 1:44-45). In response Mary begins this beautiful poem/song of praise to God for what He is accomplishing.

Luke 1:46-55 is frequently called the Magnificat (Latin for “he/she/it magnifies”, the first word of the poem/song in the Latin Vulgate of Luke 1:46). Mary speaks as a mother of promise in the same chord as Hannah sang generations before (cf. 1 Samuel 2:1-10). The composition is in Greek but throughout is constructed in terms of Hebrew poetry and praise.

Mary begins by magnifying and rejoicing in God as Savior; this joy is rooted in recognizing that He has raised her up from her lowly estate so as to be the mother of the Lord, and she recognizes that the generations to come would consider her blessed (Luke 1:46-48). God who has done this is mighty and holy, full of mercy to those who fear Him, a constant refrain regarding the nature of God (e.g. Joel 2:13; Luke 1:49-50).

Mary then perceives what God is doing by lifting up a lowly peasant girl to bear the Christ child: God shows strength and has scattered the proud; He elevates the lowly and brings down princes from their authority; the rich are sent away with nothing while the hungry are filled with good things (Luke 1:51-53). In the greatest sense God is fulfilling His promises to Abraham and Israel through the Child whom she will bear, remembering the mercy He has shown toward them (Luke 1:54-55). Thus ends Mary’s song.

Many have over-emphasized Mary’s role and place in the scheme of God’s redemption of His people, yet we do well to keep in mind that God did do great things through her and that she is blessed for having given birth to Jesus our Savior. Mary can tell that the story is not going the way that many had expected it; most were not thinking of the Christ being born of a peasant girl in the backwoods of Galilee (Luke 1:26-27, 2:21-24). The King would not be raised among nobility in a palace; the Messiah would not be trained by the foremost rabbis of the day. By elevating Mary God already was showing how Jesus would be about exalting the humble and humbling the exalted. The Christ of God would be familiar with common people and would be able to identify with those otherwise marginalized or cast out (Matthew 9:10-14, 11:16-19). As Mary was a “nobody” whom God made “somebody” by choosing her to bear the Lord, so the Lord would make many “nobodies” into “somebodies” and dismiss “somebodies” as truly “nobodies.”

Mary’s song ought to resonate to this day among those who look to her Son as the consolation not only of Israel but of the whole world. In the Kingdom of God in Christ everyone has a place; “nobodies” can be somebody. There is no room for the proud and the self-exalted; the Lord is about humility and service. God will help His people and remembers the mercy He extends to those who share in the faith of Abraham. We do well to magnify God and rejoice in the Savior, for He has showed strength with His arm, has elevated the lowly and brought low the mighty. Such is the prayer and hope truly known and understood only by those who are humble, lowly, brought low, in despair, marginalized, and/or oppressed. Let us come to the Lord with humility and meekness and magnify His holy name!

Ethan R. Longhenry