No Soundness in My Flesh

O YHWH, rebuke me not in thy wrath / Neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure (Psalm 38:1).

Illness exposes our weakness and fragility in ways we would rather deny or forget. We would rather figure out reasons why we surely would not be called upon to thus suffer and explain the illnesses of others as somehow based upon their particular plight or as the consequences of their behavior. Far more seem ready to provide some kind of ready-made cure than to sit in lament with the one enduring illness.

At some point in his life David experienced great distress from some kind of illness, or gave voice to the people of God to express great distress from illness before God, in Psalm 38:1-22. The psalm is reckoned as one “to bring to remembrance,” begging God to pay attention and to deliver. David called on YHWH to not rebuke him in His wrath or to chasten him in His displeasure (Psalm 38:1). David acutely felt affliction, and he deemed it as having come from God; in his flesh there was no soundness or health in his bones because of his sin (Psalm 38:2-3). His sins were many and too heavy a burden for him; he has infected wounds on account of his foolishness (Psalm 38:5). David felt numb in the crushing weight he experienced, crying out with moaning in heart (Psalm 38:6-8). David appealed to God who understood his heart and heard his groaning: his strength was failing, and even though his adversaries plotted against him and friends and family avoided him, he was as a deaf or mute man, incapable of making a defense (Psalm 38:9-14). David waited for YHWH, expecting a response: he prayed for deliverance lest his enemies gloat over him and taunt him (Psalm 38:15-16). David felt great pain and was concerned he was about to stumble, thus he confessed his sin (Psalm 38:17-18). David begged for God not to abandon him or remain far from him, but desired the Lord to hurry to help and deliver him (Psalm 38:20-22).

It would not be wise for us to attempt to ascertain exactly when or how David experienced this affliction so as to identify what sins David might have committed to lead to his condition. No such information is revealed; even if it had, we must always remember that David never spoke only for himself in the psalms, but wrote to give voice to the people of God to bring their distress, concerns, and praise before Him. We can imagine many Israelites having reason to come to the Temple and proclaim Psalm 38:1-22, or most of it, before YHWH: afflicted terribly with some disease, looking for deliverance and healing from God, and thus humbling themselves in lament and confession of sin so nothing would come between them and God.

David strongly considered illness the consequence for sin and iniquity. He had good reason to do so. David numbered Israel and saw God’s plague cut down thousands of his people in response (2 Samuel 24:1-17). In the Law Israel was promised they would be protected from sickness and would not suffer the plagues YHWH imposed upon Egypt if they remained faithful to the covenant (Deuteronomy 7:15); the curse which would come for disobeying the covenant included sickness (Leviticus 26:16). In judgment YHWH sent plague against Israel, but they would not listen (Amos 4:10); plague would be among the means by which YHWH judged Jerusalem and Judah (Ezekiel 5:12). To this end Jesus’ disciples simply conveyed the normal assumptions and expectations of Israelites during the Second Temple when they asked Jesus whether it had been the man himself or his parents who had sinned, leading to his blindness (John 9:2).

Such a perspective about illness does not sit well with us today. We are uncomfortable with those who to this day make the naïve proclamation that health displays the favor of God and illness God’s disfavor, and for good reason. Plenty of wicked people maintain good health throughout their lives; many righteous people have suffered terribly from sickness and illness. According to Jesus neither the man born blind himself nor his parents so sinned as to lead to his condition: his blindness was given as the means by which God’s actions would be revealed to the world (John 9:3). Illness might come about from a host of reasons not directly connected with any given transgression by its sufferer: environmental conditions, a pandemic, a result of stress or trauma, and so on. Few sights prove as devastating and heart wrenching as seeing small children undergoing treatment for cancer or other major illnesses: they suffer greatly and yet have not personally participated in any sin or transgression.

Yet perhaps modern Westerners have proven a little too eager to disassociate illness from sin. Illness is part of the corruption of the creation introduced with sin (cf. Romans 5:12-21, 8:18-23). We have no quarrel with germ theory; we appreciate the benefits of modern epidemiology and the greater quality of life made possible by the elimination or significant reduction of many diseases. And yet, as we live in a more sanitized culture, we see the development of autoimmune conditions and “superbugs” which are becoming antibiotic resistant. As long as we live in the broken, corrupted creation of the present, illness will be with us in some way or form.

Christians do well to take another look at Psalm 38:1-22 as they consider illness, themselves, and others. We might be far removed from David’s worldview, and that might be at least partly to our own harm. We tend not to think much of illness until we suffer it ourselves or hear about the suffering of others. When we are confronted with the prospect of illness, we have a tendency to respond in shock, anger, and bitterness; we rarely look to ourselves the way David did.

Yet perhaps the greater warning from Psalm 38:1-22 ought to come to those who do not presently suffer as much from illness. After all, why is it that so many people are invested in attempting to ascertain what sin it might have been that led to an illness? Why do so many seek out the right behavior, supplement, or oil and regard them as having almost magical powers? We humans desperately look for reasons to explain why “they” are ill to reassure ourselves that “we” will not succumb. Jesus addressed a similar challenge in Luke 13:1-5 when informed of recent news about how Pilate mingled the blood of some people with their sacrifices, with the intent to understand that such people must have sinned in some way so as to bring that fate upon them: He declared that they were no more or less sinful than anyone else, and if His audience did not repent, they would likewise perish.

So much of what we do in the face of illness is a reflection of our deep anxiety about the prospect of suffering and/or death. We do not like the cold, hard reality: we are all sinners and all have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and we may suffer from illness no matter how healthily we live, eat, or behave. We may go through our lives without enduring many difficult or challenging illnesses; our lives might prove to be a never ending parade of various illnesses or marked by a chronic condition. No one automatically deserves health or illness; if we escape, we may be fortunate, but if we suffer, it is part of the corruption of the creation, and it is our lot.

In all such things we do well to return to the words God has given us to speak to Him. David is giving us a voice to beg God for forgiveness of our sins and to acknowledge that our illness is a result of sin, even if it is not the result of any individual specific sin we may have committed in Psalm 38:1-22. David understood the most important thing in the face of illness is to maintain relational unity with God and to clear out any sin, foolishness, or difficulty which might get in the way of that relationship. Note well that David never associated his illness with any specific sin: his illness reminded him that he did have sin and transgression, and did not want to have to stand before God in His fierce anger. Neither should we.

In the “new heavens” and the “new earth” John envisioned no more death, and no more pain, crying, or mourning anymore; in such a place illness can have no place (Revelation 21:4). We eagerly await that day. Until then, we do well to turn to God and put our trust in Him whether in sickness or in health, and seek healing from Him in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wrestles With God

And he said, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).

Many stories in Scripture serve as representative concrete examples encapsulating greater truths or development. And so it is with Jacob and the angel.

“Jacob” meant “he cheats”; the name is an apt description for Jacob in his early years. He was quiet, dwelling in tents, not the outdoors type like his older brother Esau (Genesis 25:26-27). He had his mother’s affections, and probably not a little of her personality as well (Genesis 25:28). Esau was willing to give up his birthright for some stew, and was foolish to agree to it, but Jacob was the one who set such an extravagant price (Genesis 25:29-34). When his mother suggests the plot to deceive his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, Jacob’s concern is not about ethics or morality but about logistics and challenges (Genesis 27:1-13). He thus cheats his brother out of his birthright and his blessing (Genesis 27:36). Esau, predictably, is not a fan of this turn of events, and conspired to take out his brother Jacob (Genesis 27:41); Rebekah hears of it and makes sure Jacob is sent far away to her brother Laban in Paddan-Aram (Genesis 27:42-28:2). God grants Jacob a vision of the ladder with angels upon it and promises the blessings of the inheritance of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 28:10-19). He promised that if God would keep him and preserve him back to his father’s house, he would build a house for God at Bethel and give a tenth of what he had (Genesis 28:20-22). A cheater who makes demands of God; this is certainly not the story of a mature patriarch!

The cheater is then cheated: he works seven years for Laban’s younger daughter Rachel but is given the older daughter Leah instead; he then must work another seven years for Rachel (Genesis 29:1-30). Jacob had to deal with the contentions among his wives (Genesis 29:31-30:25). Laban continually attempted to cheat Jacob, but the “God of [Jacob’s] father Isaac” preserved him and made him prosper (Genesis 30:26-31:55).

Jacob thus heads toward his father’s land after around twenty years of striving with Laban and others; he sends word to Esau and hears that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men with him (Genesis 32:1-6). Jacob has overcome the challenges surrounding Laban but does not know how things will work out with Esau. In the middle of all this an angel of YHWH visits Jacob, and of all things, wrestles with him (Genesis 32:24). Jacob did not give up; neither did the angel. The end came when the angel displaced the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and day had come (Genesis 32:25). Jacob demanded a blessing; his name is changed to Israel, “wrestles with God,” because he strove with men and with God and had prevailed. Only then did Jacob realize he had wrestled with an angel and named the place Peniel (Genesis 32:29-30).

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Jacob and Esau would then meet and things went well; Jacob return to the land of his father (Genesis 33:1-20); he fulfilled the vow he made to God (Genesis 35:1-7). But it is quite telling, and appropriate, that “Jacob” left the land of his father, never to return; “Israel” is the man who comes back to the land which will bear that name, with a full household who would become the tribes of the land.

Of all the characters we meet in Scripture, Jacob’s is one of the best developed. The Genesis author does so for good reason: Jacob becomes Israel and provides a paradigm for Israel. “Jacob,” as “he cheats,” was in no position to be a patriarch; he had to learn humility, and learned it by receiving plenty of his own medicine. And yet he prevailed. He wrestled with an angel, and yet he prevailed.

There is a little detail that can often be missed but is quite telling within this story of Jacob. Before Jacob becomes Israel by wrestling with the angel, God is never “his” God; YHWH could only be his God if He provided for him (Genesis 28:21). God, to Jacob, was “the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac” (Genesis 31:42). But when Jacob/Israel has returned to the land of his father, and he builds an altar near Shechem, he names it El-Elohe-Israel, “God, the God of Israel” (Genesis 33:20). God is not merely the God of his ancestors. God is his God as well.

Such is the lesson of Jacob/Israel. Israel the nation embodied Israel the patriarch constantly throughout its history, striving with God, often falling short of His glory and holiness, and wondering where His promises had gone despite their perceived faithfulness (e.g. Psalms 44, 88-89). We can read the story of many of the men of faith who had to grow into their role, strove with God, and ultimately grew in character, faith, holiness, and in their relationship with Him. Each new Israelite and generation of Israelites had to wrestle with their situation, wrestle with their faith, and in some way wrestle with God so that He would not just be the God of their fathers but their God as well.

And so it is to this day. We are the spiritual descendants of Israel (1 Corinthians 10:1-12, Galatians 3:29, Hebrews 11:1-12:2). Those born to godly parents do well to consider that “Jacob” was born to godly parents as well; “Jacob” as such needed to grow into “Israel” to be the patriarch God intended for him to be, because only “Israel” considered God to be his God. We cannot expect to short-circuit the process, either: we must strive with God and men, wrestle with our faith and our situation, and through the experiences of life, some for good, many perhaps seeming to be to our detriment, we are to come to the recognition that God is not just the God of our fathers but our God as well. May we honor God as our Creator and our God, and serve Him through His Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Deep Knowledge

And the man knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (Genesis 4:1).

On account of the private nature of sexuality, euphemisms for sexual behavior have been developed throughout time in many cultures. One such euphemism in Hebrew is the use of the verb normally meaning “to know” to describe sexual intercourse, used from the very beginning of time to describe the copulation of the first couple, Adam and Eve (Genesis 4:1). This euphemism is used frequently in the Old Testament, for licit sexual relations (Genesis 4:17, 25, 1 Samuel 1:19), and illicit (Genesis 19:5, Judges 19:22, 25), and even to describe the lack of such behavior (Genesis 38:26, Judges 11:39, 1 Kings 1:4).

Some association between knowledge and sexuality therefore exists in Hebrew, although there are other euphemisms for sexual behavior, particularly the general “lay with,” as in Genesis 30:16, 34:2, and the rather brute “come into” of Genesis 30:16, 38:16. Therefore, it remains entirely possible that the euphemism “to know” for “to have sexual intercourse” just happens to exist in Hebrew as a particular idiom in the language without a whole lot of meaning behind it. Nevertheless, since Paul in Ephesians 5:22-33 lays the groundwork for understanding the (legitimate) sexual relationship as the physical shadow of the spiritual reality of the intimacy which should exist between Christ and His people, and since Hebrew is the language in which God communicated with His people, we also must be open to the strong possibility that there is something behind this particular euphemism.

If nothing else, the euphemism of knowledge to describe sexual behavior does well at reminding us that “knowledge,” in the Bible, tends to involve far deeper matters than the way we generally use the term in our language today. Modern ideas of “knowledge” derive from science and philosophy: knowledge is the set of facts comprising human understanding of reality, past and present. Knowledge, therefore, is primarily a matter of mental cognition: to “know” something is to mentally understand and master it. We “know” that 2+2=4; yes, this information does matter materially, but it first and foremost remains something we mentally recognize and accept. If we “know computers,” for instance, we know how to use a computer: we have cognitive mastery over its functions, nature, and processes. Whatever experience would be involved in this knowledge must flow from mental understanding and mastery.

Yet the euphemism of “to know” for “to have sexual intercourse” demands a much more expansive view of “knowledge,” one that involves at least the physical body and its experience, and ideally, the emotions as well (as per Genesis 2:24). It is not as if the mind is uninvolved in such “knowledge,” but this knowledge certainly goes beyond just what the mind can conceive, understand, and master: it is a knowledge to be felt, experienced, and in its proper sphere, enjoyed. We intuitively understand this when it comes to our relationships: one can mentally recognize as true a set of facts about a given person, but that does not automatically mean that you really know that person. To truly know a person, we must experience the presence of that person. Hence the euphemism of “to know” for “to have sexual intercourse” proves rather appropriate, since sexual intercourse is an extremely intimate experience with another person. People who have had such a relationship “know” each other in ways that they can not (and should not!) “know” of others.

This is important to keep in mind in terms of passages like John 8:32. We are called to know the truth in Christ, but this knowledge is not merely what passes for “knowledge” today. One can mentally understand and even master the sum of all facts regarding the Person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, and yet not be changed or transformed by it (cf. Matthew 7:21-23); such a one may “know” Jesus cognitively, but mere cognition of Jesus cannot save (James 2:19). To “know” the truth in Jesus demands more than mere cognition; this truth must be experienced. It is through constant practice of the faith that we grow to maturity (Hebrews 5:14); the imperative of knowing Christ is never just about learning the facts about Christ but always aimed toward following after Him thus being transformed into His image (Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6). This knowledge cannot remain merely in the mind if it will save; if it is only mental, it will at best only remain until persecution or tribulation, and at worst, it leads to arrogance and hypocrisy (Matthew 13:20-21, 1 Corinthians 8:1). To know Jesus is to come to grips with the reality that He is the Lord and Christ, and therefore we must follow after Him, subjecting not only the mind but also the emotions and the body to His will (Galatians 2:20, 5:17-24). This “deep” knowledge is the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ!

It can never be enough to just know about Jesus. We must know Jesus, to develop the intimate spiritual relationship with Him which leads to the spiritual oneness which He seeks according to John 17:20-23. Let us therefore recognize that mere mental cognition is not true knowledge; true knowledge must go deeper, demanding the experience and subjection of mind, body, emotion, and soul. Let us truly know the Lord Jesus Christ so as to be saved by Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Keeping Up Appearances

“But all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, ‘Rabbi'” (Matthew 23:5-7).

It is one of the most natural desires of mankind: to be valued and appreciated. Most would rather people have a favorable opinion of them than an unfavorable one. Few are those who revel in being unloved, unappreciated, and completely rejected by others!

This impulse is natural for a reason– we were never meant to be alone. Just as God maintains relational unity– One God in Three Persons, one in will, purpose, essence, substance, and mind– we, having been made in His image, seek after relational unity with God and with others (cf. John 17:20-23, Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:27). It is nearly impossible to develop healthy relationships when we show complete disinterest in the ways others look at us. Not a few social customs emerged as ways of living so as to be acceptable to one’s fellow man.

Yet, as with all impulses, the desire to be valued and appreciated can be tragically misdirected. This is Jesus’ concern with the Pharisees as expressed in Matthew 23:5-7. They certainly wanted to be valued and appreciated– and made it their goal and obsession. They received what they wanted. But it did not please God.

It was likely that there were a few Pharisees who were sincere in their approach– they really wanted to serve God through their phylacteries, garments, and wanted to be humble. Sadly, such were hardly the majority. We can be confident that the reason that these charges burned was because they rang true in the hearing of the people. Sure, the Pharisees acted religiously. But far too many did so in order to keep up appearances and to gain favor with the people. We can safely reason that if the Pharisees were offered a chance to receive salvation and eternal benefits but would be despised by their fellow Jews on earth, or to be condemned yet receive the glory and accolades of their fellow Jews on earth, most would take the latter route– because most did, according to Matthew 23, Acts 7, and the testimonies throughout Acts. Jesus’ summons to humility and suffering were too much for them to endure.

When confronted with such a passage, it is quite easy to point fingers at the Pharisees. It is also extremely easy to find opponents, religious or otherwise, and point fingers at them. Yet we must remember that Jesus is speaking to fellow members of God’s covenant people to wake them up and exhort them to repentance. As painful as it might be, it is always best to first point the finger at ourselves before we try to point it at others (cf. Matthew 7:1-4)!

How many works do we do in order to be seen of men? It is less an issue of the types of things that we do and more of an issue of the motivations behind what we do. It was not inherently wrong to have broad phylacteries or long bordered garments. For that matter it is not inherently wrong to be honored by one’s fellow man. It is all about why we do what we do– are we doing it to please others? Are we doing it because we are afraid of what others will think about us if we do not?

There are some obvious applications of this. Not a few give themselves titles or “earn” titles and insist on their use. Jesus condemns this attitude (Matthew 23:8-12). It is one thing to be given the seat of honor; it is quite another to constantly seek it out and love it and cherish it. The world does not lack people who have too high of an estimation of themselves, and who are quite sure that others should also. The world is full of monuments of ambition and glory-seeking; some are physical, some are not; some are magnificent in their glory, and far too many others are tragic in their failure. These all will pass away (1 Peter 1:24-26). These glory-seekers may get their reward on earth, but they are headed for quite the disappointment on the final day!

Nevertheless, this conversation can get personal and painful very quickly. It is one thing to talk about glory-seeking actions like we have; it is quite another to start talking about the appearances we keep up among one another. While no one lives an entirely transparent life, most of us could use a little more transparency and authenticity in the way we present ourselves. We feel like we must “keep it all together” on the outside even though things may be falling apart inside. Yet how willing are we to find some fellow Christians with whom we can discuss our difficulties and confess our sins (James 5:16)? What stops us from “going forward” regarding our difficulties? How many soldiers of Christ have fallen, having rarely or never cried out for help for fear of rejection, finding it easier to say nothing and to keep up the appearance of righteousness?

In Jesus we have the example of the authentic life. He served others, always mindful of His connection with the Father (cf. Matthew 20:28). He humbled Himself greatly (Philippians 2:5-8). He received honor at times but was not acting in order to receive the honor. Yet He also honestly grappled with the sufferings He experienced; He did not hide away from them or act like they were not there, but poured out His anguish before God and His disciples (Matthew 26:37-39). There was nothing to hide.

While propriety does demand that some things ought to remain private among people, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that anything is hidden before God. We must live transparently before Him and authentically toward others, as Jesus did. We must not live seeking self-glory and honor; we may get it, but we do so at the expense of our relationship with God. We must never do anything just to be seen by our fellow man. That certainly includes any number of public religious acts and “rituals,” but let us not fool ourselves– it includes the very manner of our lives as well. We want to be accepted and appreciated, and yet, in Christ, God is willing to accept and appreciate us more deeply than we can ever imagine, but only if we allow ourselves to be satisfied in Him and Him alone (Romans 8:1-39). Let us not be as the Pharisees; let us be willing to endure the shame and dishonor of humility and discipleship, and serve God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry