The Shepherd

YHWH is my shepherd / I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

Psalm 23:1-6 is by far the most famous Psalm in the Bible, and it may even be the most well-known and beloved passage in all of Scripture. You have likely heard it read at almost every funeral service you have ever attended. But what’s it all about?

David meditated on his relationship with God in Psalm 23:1-6. As a young man he lived as a shepherd, and thoroughly understood that responsibility (cf. 1 Samuel 17:34-36). Thus it was not difficult for David to speak of YHWH as his shepherd (Psalm 23:1).

David set forth what it meant for YHWH to be his shepherd: YHWH would provide what he needed (Psalm 23:1). As a shepherd finds green pastures, calm streams, and good paths for the sheep for their sustenance and development, so YHWH has provided prosperity, peace, and the way of righteousness for David, restoring his soul (Psalm 23:2-3).

Yet the world is a dangerous place, full of evil; the image of the day of difficulty in the world as the “valley of the shadow of death” is haunting yet compelling (Psalm 23:4). David has confidence to persevere on account of YHWH’s presence. David received comfort from YHWH’s rod and staff: a shepherd would have kept a rod or staff, often bent with a hook to form the “crooked staff,” in order to support himself while walking and to provide guidance for the sheep. The presence of the rod/staff indicates the presence of YHWH and discipline to follow the good, right, and healthy way.

David found himself often beset by enemies, and yet YHWH had prospered his way; he praises God for having prepared him a table before his enemies (Psalm 23:5). God had anointed David’s head with oil and his cup overflowed: while David was anointed by Samuel at YHWH’s behest to be made king in 1 Samuel 16:13, both images here refer more to abundant prosperity from God’s hands (“anointed” is literally “to make fat” in the Hebrew; cf. Amos 6:6, Matthew 6:17). YHWH has provided abundantly for David.

YHWH has taken care of David and continues to provide for him; David thus fully expected YHWH to continue to manifest goodness and covenant loyalty toward him for the rest of his life (Psalm 23:6). David’s great hope involved dwelling in YHWH’s house forever, always enjoying His presence.

David did not write Psalm 23:1-6 merely for himself; YHWH inspired him to write to give voice to the people of God throughout time. Countless generations have taken comfort and strength from Psalm 23:1-6, and for good reason. Many have also walked in the valley of the shadow of death. Who would not want abundant prosperity? People like the idea of green pastures and still waters.

We can therefore understand why Psalm 23:1-6 gets appropriated for funerals and other moments of difficulty, and yet the entire psalm is animated by its very first phrase: YHWH is my shepherd. Everything else follows from it, indeed, but also depends upon it.

For YHWH to be my shepherd, however, I must be His sheep (Psalm 23:1). While the image of YHWH as shepherd might have come easily to David, having been a shepherd himself, the implications of the truth of such an image still requires a person to swallow a lot of pride and to exhibit humility. Comparing a person to a sheep is not flattering, then or now: sheep, quite frankly, are dumb. They must be led everywhere they go. Without a leader they wander aimlessly or stay paralyzed in one place. They are defenseless and prove easy prey for wolves and other predators. They are easily scared.

We humans easily fall prey to the pride of life, presuming a level of independence in understanding. We like to think we know how things work, can see through conceits and deceit, and have a good handle on knowing what we should do and how we should go. And yet we all make quite a mess of our lives on our own; whether we want to admit it or not, we are often powerfully motivated by fear, insecurity, and doubt, and prove self-deceived far more often than we would like to believe. In the grand scheme of things, yes, we are like sheep.

Thus, we do well to swallow our pride and to understand ourselves to be as sheep, and to look to YHWH as our Shepherd. We therefore must prove willing to follow Him and the paths He has established for us, even and perhaps especially when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death. We need to recognize our complete and utter dependence on God for all good things and confess our continual struggle to appreciate them and fully trust in Him. David’s final desire must also be our own: to dwell in the house of YHWH forever.

Psalm 23:1-6 is immensely comforting, but it can only be so for those who submit to YHWH as His sheep. God will lead His sheep to good pasture, still waters, and tables of prosperity. Yet His sheep must endure the valley of the shadow of death and perhaps great trial; they must depend upon YHWH their Shepherd for all things and not presume to have gained anything through the unaided work of their own hands. May we all trust in God in Christ and follow Him, the Good Shepherd, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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

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

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

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

Enemies

Be merciful unto me, O God / for man would swallow me up / All the day long he fighting oppresseth me.
Mine enemies would swallow me up all the day long / For they are many that fight proudly against me.
What time I am afraid / I will put my trust in thee.
In God (I will praise his word) / In God have I put my trust, I will not be afraid / What can flesh do unto me? (Psalm 56:1-4).

No one particularly enjoys having enemies. But they do exist; we are foolish if we think we can navigate through life without them.

Westerners who have lived primarily during the last decade of the 20th century and into the 21st century have enjoyed a period of peace and calm which has been extraordinary in comparison with what came before. Many may find this statement difficult to believe in light of terrorist attacks and the constant specter of jihad; that speaks more to what Westerners expect in life than anything grounded in historical reality.

For the majority of human history everyone was always in some danger of attack by enemies. The Old Testament relates plenty of stories of how people would attack each other’s cities, slaughter the men and their wives, and take unmarried women as war prizes; this was reality in the ancient Near Eastern world. The Classical world was little different; many slaves became as much because they were prisoners of war, and enemy incursions could frequently reach far deeper than might be imagined. The medieval world is infamous for such constant war; the European continent has rarely seen peace in the past 1500 years. When it did for a century from 1815 until 1914, the continent then exploded with unparalleled fury in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. Safety from enemies may exist for a period of time, but it has never been guaranteed, and it can never be perfectly maintained.

We have been lulled into thinking that we can easily and effectively keep our enemies at bay, maintaining them ensconced “over there” so as not to harm us “here.” We also think that we can somehow enact sufficient measures to provide complete protection from assault by our enemies. Some would even like to pretend that our enemies are too weak to really do anything to us; they pay them no mind at all.

The attacks of 9/11 shattered the myth that America was impregnable. Many have struggled to feel safe or protected since; they are easily scared by the prospect of yet another terrorist attack. In the name of doing things to be kept safe we have seen significant curtailment of personal liberty and the creation of a surveillance state which would have made George Orwell blush. We seem perfectly willing to do anything to feel safe from enemy attack.

David’s perspective is important, for David understands what far too many Westerners do not: none are guaranteed complete safety from enemies. Despite all the efforts of the surveillance state, some may successfully plot and attack. Despite all the security protocols, some may become sufficiently inventive and find a way to get through. Even if the authorities break up a lot of terrorist plots before they can be actualized, law enforcement is highly unlikely to keep a 100% active in perpetuity. There is a danger, indeed, but dangers have always existed. Danger is always present. Safety has never really been guaranteed!

David had plenty of enemies; the superscription of Psalm 56 suggests that he wrote the psalm while living among the Philistines to evade Saul (1 Samuel 27:1-2). At this stage in his life, David has almost no safety or security; at this juncture he has been forced to abide with the lesser of the acute dangers to his life. David knows of what he speaks in Psalm 56:1 when he cries out that man would swallow him up.

If David were to hope in arms or physical strength he would be undone. David knows that his true help is not among man, but from God. David seeks God’s mercy; when David is afraid (and he has good reason to be afraid!), he trusts in God (Psalm 56:1-3). Such is David’s great boldness and confidence: in God I have put my trust, so what can people do to me (Psalm 56:4)?

The events of the past couple of decades should be sufficient to disabuse us of the notion that complete safety and security can be obtained through the projection of force locally and abroad. We likewise should be disabused of the notion that the government, the military, or any other human force is able to keep us entirely safe. This is not cause for despair or discouragement; it is merely recognition of limitations. We want to feel safe and secure; our security cannot be in man who would swallow us up, but instead in God who is our hope, our salvation, and our refuge.

Even heavily secular, “de-Christianized” Western countries seem to be brought to prayer when terrorists strike, for all of their military and technological might and prowess still cannot save them. We will not find complete security in body scanning machines, online surveillance, or an all-out attack on a Middle Eastern country. Our hope and trust must be in the God who made us, who seeks to save us in Christ, and who will in Him deliver us from the bondage of sin and death. Only in God can we find true security, knowing that we will gain the victory no matter what may happen to us. Do you want to stop being afraid of man? Then join David and put your trust in God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Power of the Word

By the word of YHWH were the heavens made / and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.
He gathereth the waters of the sea together as a heap / He layeth up the deeps in store-houses.
Let all the earth fear YHWH / Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spake, and it was done / He commanded, and it stood fast (Psalm 33:6-9).

God is the Creator. Among God’s people, “everybody knows that.” But did you know that the Psalms are grounded and rooted in what it means for YHWH to be the Creator?

Among the many psalms affirming YHWH’s role as Creator is Psalm 33. The Psalmist considers the implications of not only YHWH’s role as Creator but specifically how He accomplished the creation and what it means for Israel and the universe.

Of special note is the Psalmist’s motivation: the righteous and upright are to rejoice in and praise YHWH (Psalm 33:1-3). The Psalmist has no expectation that he can somehow gain mastery over YHWH by understanding what He has done; instead, he seeks to know more about YHWH and His deeds so as to praise and glorify Him.

In Psalm 33:6-7, 9 the Psalmist affirms that YHWH created the heavens and the earth by His word: He spoke and it happened just as He said. By His word the hosts of heaven came about; through His Word the waters were gathered (Psalm 33:6-7).

Am Anfang schuffF GOtt Himel vnd Erden

The Psalmist is meditating on the way Genesis 1:1-31 explains the means of creation: God spoke and it came forth. At other opportunities he notes the structure of the creation and the structure of God’s instruction (e.g. Psalm 19:1-14), yet in Psalm 33:6-9 he focuses instead on the power inherent in YHWH’s Word. The earth is to fear–to stand in awe–of YHWH (Psalm 33:8). He exercised His power through His Word to create the heavens and the earth; will not the same power energize His Word which He has spoken to Israel to determine right and wrong, to show covenant loyalty to the righteous but condemnation to the wicked? If His Word is what established the heavens, will He not establish the truth of His Word throughout all generations? Yes, as all Israel knows, YHWH is their Creator God. Yet if they recognize that YHWH created by His Word, then they should be all the more diligent to keep the word He gave to Israel, for it comes with no less power.

For Christians this idea takes on more compelling meaning thanks to John 1:1-18; the Word which God spoke, the Word by means of which all things were created, became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus of Nazareth. God has spoken powerfully through His Son Jesus to establish what is right and wrong, true and false, the way which leads to life, and the way that leads to death (cf. Hebrews 1:1-3). Yet the Word which made the heavens proved willing to suffer and die on a cross for the sin of the world; the breath by which life was given cried out in the agony of death (cf. Matthew 27:46, Romans 5:6-11). In so doing the Word through which all things were made in this creation paved the way for the new creation when He was raised from the dead in power (1 Corinthians 15:20-58). The Word, Jesus of Nazareth, now reigns over His Kingdom; all the earth is to fear the Word of God, and its inhabitants stand in awe of Him (Philippians 2:9-11). The Word spoke, and it is done; He commands, and it stands fast (Matthew 16:16-19, 28:18-20).

We may know that YHWH is the Creator but we do well to meditate on what that means. If this present heavens and earth were created by means of God speaking His Word, then every Word which has proceeded from God maintains the same amount of power. YHWH spoke, and the heavens were established; when YHWH speaks to His people, His Word will be established firmly. The Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, and we do well to follow Him (John 1:14, 1 John 2:3-6). Let us revere YHWH, stand in awe of the power of His Word, and seek to practice His Word in our lives firmly and wholeheartedly, never doubting its power, since by the same Word all things exist and continue to be sustained!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Basis of Torah

YHWH is my portion / I have said that I would observe thy words.
I entreated thy favor with my whole heart / be merciful unto me according to thy word.
I thought on my ways / and turned my feet unto thy testimonies.
I made haste, and delayed not / to observe thy commandments.
The cords of the wicked have wrapped me round / but I have not forgotten thy law.
At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee / because of thy righteous ordinances.
I am a companion of all them that fear thee / and of them that observe thy precepts.
The earth, O YHWH, is full of thy lovingkindness / teach me thy statutes (Psalm 119:57-64 ח).

God’s instruction has great value, but only because God gave it and God stands behind it.

Psalm 119 is the great paean to torah and faithful observance thereof. Torah is the Hebrew word most frequently translated as “law” throughout the Old Testament; a fuller definition would be “instruction” since the Torah involved a lot more than just “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” but included explanations and illustrations. Psalm 119 is full of praise for YHWH’s Torah, expressed with meticulous order and care. Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm in octets, with each verse in each octet beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Toward the middle of Psalm 119 we have the ḥet section, Psalm 119:57-64, with each verse beginning with the Hebrew letter ḥet (ח).

Each octet of Psalm 119 maintains a type of theme regarding torah; ḥet in many ways summarizes the primary themes not only of Psalm 119 but the Psalter in general. YHWH is the portion of the Psalmist; thus the Psalmist has promised to keep the words which He has established (Psalm 119:57). The Psalmist knows he cannot live by his own righteousness or according to his own standard, and so he implores YHWH to obtain His favor and mercy (Psalm 119:58). The Psalmist considers the way he lives his life and on its basis recognizes his need to follow the ways or testimonies of God, to not delay in observing God’s commandments (Psalm 119:59-60). The Psalmist experiences adversity but does not forget the law (Psalm 119:61). Even in the darkness the Psalmist will give thanks to YHWH because of His righteous ordinances; the Psalmist maintains communion with all who fear YHWH and keep His precepts (Psalm 119:62-63). The Psalmist perceives that the earth is full of YHWH’s ḥeṣed, a term often translated “lovingkindness” or “mercy,” yet with the connotation of “covenant faithfulness” or thus “loyalty” (as you can tell, an essentially untranslatable term!), and thus asks YHWH to teach him His statutes (Psalm 119:64).

The Psalmist has laid it all out well in Psalm 119:57-64: he praises YHWH for His torah consisting of the Word of YHWH, His testimonies, commandments, law, ordinances, precepts, and statutes (cf. Deuteronomy 4:40, 45, 5:10). The Psalmist confesses how the earth is full of YHWH’s ḥeṣed; in other psalms such a declaration is a confession of how YHWH created the heavens and the earth and thus could fill it with His ḥeṣed (Psalms 33:5-9, 104:24-31). The ḥeṣed of YHWH, especially as it is granted to Israel, is a major theme throughout the Psalter, and part of the bedrock of trust in YHWH expressed throughout the Psalms (e.g. Psalms 23:6, 25:10, 85:7, 86:5, 89:1, etc.). Thus we have the theme of Psalm 119:57-64: YHWH has maintained His ḥeṣed, lovingkindness/covenant loyalty to Israel, manifest in His creation and in giving His torah, or instruction, to Israel. On account of this the Psalmist praises YHWH, promises to observe all the laws, ordinances, testimonies, and statutes of YHWH, and desires to be further taught in YHWH’s torah. Yet the Psalmist can only obtain these blessings through God’s favor and mercy, all because YHWH is his portion.

Likewise this understanding of how YHWH’s torah relates to His covenant loyalty, favor, and mercy, and how it is YHWH Himself who is the Psalmist’s portion, helps us to keep the rest of the Psalmist’s praise of torah in all its forms in proper context. It would be easy to reduce the praise of the law in Psalm 119 to mere law keeping for the sake of keeping and observing it, and many have gone down this path. Yet the Psalter does not commend keeping torah just for the sake of keeping torah as if it is a checklist to be marked off and then one can move on. There is great value in observing YHWH’s precepts and statutes, but their value is not in and of themselves; their value is in the fact that they are the expression of the will of YHWH, the Creator God of Israel who has continually displayed covenant faithfulness to His people and in fact to all the earth. The torah is not the Psalmist’s portion; YHWH Himself is. It is because YHWH is, has made all things, expresses covenant loyalty to His people and to His creation, and provides favor and mercy to His people, that the Psalmist upholds and affirms the great value of torah.

Torah was uttered by YHWH for the sake of His people; Torah was not God. Israel was supposed to follow torah because God had spoken it as His Word, the same Word which generated the creation, all life, and allows existence to continue (Psalm 33:5-9, Colossians 1:17, Hebrews 1:1-3). To disconnect torah from YHWH by attempting to observe torah to its own end would not only be impossible but also worthless: as the Apostle Paul will later note, none save Jesus have kept the Law perfectly, and no one can be made righteous before God on the basis of works of the Law (Romans 3:1-20). One continues to need God’s covenant faithfulness, favor, and mercy, and for such things you have to turn to YHWH Himself. YHWH was Israel’s portion, and thus Israel should follow torah.

We serve God in Christ under a new covenant enacted with better promises (Hebrews 7:1-9:27), yet the premise of Psalm 119:57-64 remains quite important. Not for nothing does the New Testament speak of the Word of YHWH as God and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1-18). The Word of God has great power to save (Romans 1:16, Hebrews 4:12), yet that power is not on the page or in ink but in God who both sent the Word to the earth as Jesus and testified to that Word through the Spirit who proclaimed the message of this Life (John 1:1-18, 3:16, Acts 2:1-12, 5:20). In understandable attempts to defend the importance of the Scriptures many well-intentioned Christians will speak so as to suggest that the Scriptures are themselves God, and we must be on our guard about such a presentation, for just as torah was not Israel’s God, so the New Testament is not the Christian’s God. Instead the New Testament makes known to us what is true about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how God has wrought salvation and forgiveness of sins through Jesus of Nazareth and gave Him all authority in heaven and on earth (Romans 5:6-11, Philippians 2:5-11). Jesus is Lord; such is why the New Testament has great value for us. Jesus is risen from the dead; such is how the Word of God gives us hope for eternal life (Romans 8:18-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

As with Israel, so with us. God must be our portion; if we have any hope to stand before Him it is because He has been faithful to His covenant, displaying to us lovingkindness, favor/grace, and mercy, and we cannot find such things from a book, but only from a Person. We can have all confidence in God and the message He has revealed to us because He is the Creator and the creation is full of His lovingkindness/covenant loyalty. Therefore we observe God’s commandments, not as an end unto themselves, but as the embodiment of our trust in and loyalty to the God who loved us and saved us in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10, 1 John 2:1-6). Let us be sure that God in Christ is our portion, that we seek His favor and mercy, and seek to observe His commandments because He is God, our Creator and Sustainer and loyal to His people!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Son of God

I will tell of the decree: YHWH said unto me, “Thou art my son; This day have I begotten thee” (Psalm 2:7).

Israel found itself in a good land that happened to be the crossroads of the ancient Near Eastern world. To that end Israel was surrounded by enemies: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, larger powers yet further away; Philistia, Phoenicia, Aram, Ammon, Moab, Edom, Amalek, Midian who might be a bit smaller but all quite near. Israel wanted a king to lead their armies onto the field (1 Samuel 8:20); as Israel grew in power and prestige in the days of David and Solomon, many among the nations would conspire against Israel and seek its downfall.

Yet Israel had a benefit not available to these other nations: their God YHWH was the One True God. The nations might rage against YHWH and the anointed king of Israel, and seek to break free from Israelite control, yet YHWH laughts at such designs (Psalm 2:1-4). YHWH in His anger will let the nations know of the decree: the king of Israel is God’s chosen man, adopted as a son, and he will have the strength to break the nations and keep them under subjection (Psalm 2:5-9). The kings and the people of the nations would do well to heed wisdom, serve YHWH with fear, and give proper respect to the king of Israel whom He anointed (Psalm 2:10-12).

In the days of the United Monarchy of David and Solomon the second Psalm would have been a triumphant proclamation in Israel, accurately presenting the state of affairs. David and Solomon, both anointed kings, sat on the throne in succession (1 Samuel 16:12-13, 1 Kings 1:39). God loved both men, and in the ancient Near Eastern world kings were understood to have a special relationship with the divine, and could be seen as (adopted) sons of God (1 Samuel 13:14, 2 Samuel 12:24-25). YHWH had given David victory over all his foes and Solomon peace in his days (2 Samuel 8:1-18, 1 Kings 4:20-25). Thus the nations should have heeded YHWH, respected the King of Israel, and bring relevant tribute.

In the days of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah there were times when the nations were subject to either Israel or Judah but also plenty of instances when the nations rebelled, and often successfully, from Israelite or Judahite rule (e.g. 2 Kings 1:1, 8:20-22). Since Israel and Judah forsook YHWH, YHWH allowed the nations first to rebel, and then despoil, and ultimately destroy both kingdoms (2 Kings 17:1-23, 24:1-25:21). If Israel looked back to the glory days of the past, the second psalm would seem bitter; many looked forward to a day when the nations would learn again that YHWH was God over Israel and they were a force with which to be reckoned.

After the exile Israel understood the second Psalm to be Messianic and waited for YHWH to send His Anointed King to again rule over Israel and the nations. As Israel suffered under the yoke of the Persians, Ptolemies, Seleucids, and Romans in turn, their yearning for the fulfillment of the second Psalm would only grow greater and deeper.

When Jesus of Nazareth ministered among the Israelites there was some excitement about whether He could be the one concerning whom God had spoken. In the end Israelites called Him the “Son of God” in accusation or mockery: He claimed to be so, in their view falsely, and they would only “believe” in Him if He did what they expected their king to do: defeat the Romans and the other nations (cf. Matthew 26:63, 27:40, 43). He did not act according to their expectations, and so they kept looking for another. Within forty years Israel would lose their city and their Temple; they were in a worse place than before. Some in physical Israel still look for the king of the second Psalm to come.

Yet there remained many in Israel, and a growing number among the nations, who confessed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God. Whereas kings like David or Solomon were not actually sons of God, Christians claimed that Jesus was actually the Son of God: God in the flesh, the imprint of the divine character, the fulness of God in bodily form (John 1:1, 14, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). They quoted Psalm 2:7 in terms of Jesus (Acts 13:33). In their view the nations did rage against YHWH and His Christ, and one of those nations was physical Israel itself (Acts 4:23-31)! How could this be?

Israel expected the coming King to be like the kings of the past. Yet God was doing something greater with His Son. Previous kings defeated the nations, but the nations were still around and did not give YHWH the glory. Through His Son God overcame the forces of spiritual darkness that empowered the rage of the nations (Ephesians 6:10-18, Colossians 2:14-15, Revelation 12:1-14:20). God granted His Son authority over heaven and earth just as had been promised (Psalm 2:8-9). People near and far from all sorts of nations came to serve the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and to confess His name (Colossians 1:5-6).

Yet how can Jesus be the Son of God? The Apostle Paul focused on the idea that on “this day” God “begat” His Son in Psalm 2:7 and connected it to the resurrection: by raising Jesus from the dead on the third day, God declares Jesus the Son of God in power (Acts 13:30-34, Romans 1:3-4). The Apostle John frequently affirms Jesus as the “only begotten” Son of God (John 1:18, 3:16, 18). In past times many emphasized that Jesus was “begotten not made”: however the Son proceeded from the Father, He was not a created being. Just as humans beget humans but create other things, so God “begets” God, but creates other things. Whether “only begotten” (Greek monogenes) means that the Son is actually begotten of the Father or whether it is a way of speaking of uniqueness in relationship is a matter of discussion and dispute to this day. Regardless Jesus remains God the Word, fully God, co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit, and active in the creation (John 1:1-14).

Israel had some good days with an anointed king, but they did not last, and they would never come in the same way again. God through David was pointing forward to the actual Son of God, manifest in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, who would overcome sin and death through His death and resurrection, thus be declared the Son of God in power, and given authority over all the nations for all time. Rome has fallen; so have a hundred other kingdoms; yet Jesus remains Lord. Let us confess that Jesus is the Son of God to the praise of God the Father, put our trust in Him, and be His obedient servants!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Rage of the Nations

Why do the nations rage, and the peoples meditate a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD and against his anointed (Psalm 2:1-2).

It is a pressing question in almost every generation: why are the powers that be opposed to the purposes of God?

The Psalmist envisions the day of conflict between YHWH and His Anointed One with the rulers of the nations (Psalm 2:1-12). The land of Israel was a tempting target for all sorts of nations: the neighboring Ammonites, Arameans, Canaanites, Edomites, Moabites, Phoenicians, and the Philistines would certainly enjoy more territory and tribute from Israel, while the greater nations of Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and others understood its value as the main land connection between Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Old Testament is full of discussions of wars between the Israelites and their neighbors both near and far, and how God would often give the king of Israel and/or the king of Judah victory over their enemies.

All of these conflicts and battles are only the shadow of which the reality would be realized in Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of God. Herod the Great conspired against Him at His birth (Matthew 2:1-18). His death brought together Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea, and Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, who had formerly been at odds with each other (Luke 23:1-12). The cry for His crucifixion came from Jewish men and women who were willing to cry out that their only king was Caesar (John 19:15). The Roman power would fulfill their request (Luke 23:13-49). They all might have thought that such would be the end of Jesus of Nazareth and His mission, but they were quite wrong. God raised Jesus from the dead, and triumphed over the authorities, not just in the flesh on earth, but also the spiritual powers of darkness (Colossians 2:15).

Even though Jesus obtained the victory, His followers continued to understand the conflicts caused by their witness to Jesus in terms of Psalm 2:1-12. After Peter and John were cast into prison and castigated by the Sanhedrin, they and the other Apostles prayed the very words of Psalm 2:1-2 before God, connected it with Jesus before Herod and Pilate, and asked for continued boldness to advance Jesus’ purposes in Jerusalem (Acts 4:24-30). John sees a vision of Jesus being born and then taken to heaven where He rules with a rod of iron (Revelation 12:1-6; cf. Psalm 2:9). John then sees the contest between the people of God and the beast, the world power arrogating against God as empowered by the dragon, the Evil One, and the ultimate victory of the people of God over the forces of evil through Jesus (Revelation 12:7-14:20). When it is all said and done, God is praised, for while the nations raged, His wrath came, and the judgment came: the saints are rewarded, and the destroyers are destroyed (Revelation 11:18).

Opposition to the Kingdom of God is to be expected; the claim that Jesus is Lord, by its very nature, demands that those who would like to presume the highest authority for themselves are not. The kings of Babylon and the Caesars of Rome may have passed on, but nations still seek to be seen as all-powerful and deserving of all loyalty, and they chafe at the idea that people’s loyalty should fully and always be with the Lord Jesus (Matthew 10:34-39). Time would fail us if we were to tell of all the persecutions experienced by the people of God when they dared to stand up for Jesus as Lord against kings and nations who sought glory and honor for themselves. It continues to this day!

The kings of the earth plot against the purposes of God; the nations often rage against Him and His purposes. Their ultimate failure is guaranteed; the Lord Jesus has won the victory (Revelation 1:8, 17-18). Therefore, we should not be afraid of the nations. Sure, they may persecute us, perhaps even to death, but they can never extend the hope of resurrection and eternal life as Jesus has. Let us trust in Jesus as Lord and proclaim His Lordship boldly come what may!

Ethan R. Longhenry