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 Worthy Woman

A worthy woman who can find? For her price is far above rubies (Proverbs 31:10).

Lemuel’s mother’s question is a good one: who can find a woman like this?

The book of Proverbs ends with the description of the worthy, or virtuous, woman (Proverbs 31:10-31). Lemuel’s mother provides the following characteristics of such a woman: her husband’s heart trusts in her, she provides profit through her efforts, spinning wool and linen, shops in the marketplace, makes sure the house is properly organized, staffed, and provisioned, buys a field and plants a vineyard, strengthens herself for labor, makes clothing goods deep into the night, provides benevolence to the needy, has fully clothed her household, maintains great carpets and clothes, is married to a notable man of the city, makes linen clothes as well and sells them, maintains strength, dignity, wisdom, kindness, industrious, receives commendation from husband and family, and fears YHWH (Proverbs 31:10-31). That is quite the résumé! Her worth would be far above rubies (Proverbs 31:10).

We have presented here the ideal élite woman of ancient Israel, handling her responsibilities well, wonderful in every way. When we recognize her as an idealized portrait from which we can derive many good principles, all is well. But when we expect women to use this portrait as a yardstick by which they are to measure their value, worth, or effectiveness, we not only abuse the passage but also cause great grief, distress, and suffering for women. This is especially true today in America, where this idealized portrait is merged with an idealized portrait of the “good Christian wife” and thereby setting a level of expectations which very few, if any, women could reasonably satisfy.

Therefore, before we attempt to derive applications from the description of the “worthy woman,” we do well to consider such a portrait in context. Israel during the monarchical period was a very stratified society featuring a wealthy élite and a large number of poor people living at subsistence level. The “worthy woman” is very much a part of the wealthy élite: she can occupy herself primarily with spinning and clothes manufacturing, she has enough wealth to buy a field, she is clothed in fine linen and purple, and she has servants (Proverbs 31:13-16, 18-19, 21-22). She is in a position to provide benevolence to the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:20). Her husband has high social standing, known in the gates where he sits among the elders, indicating his privileged status (Proverbs 31:23). The “worthy woman” is enterprising because she has the opportunity to be enterprising. Far more women are doing all they can, with their husbands, to keep their family fed and a roof over their heads. Most Israelite families would not have enjoyed the privilege of having servants; poorer Israelite women would still need to make clothing, but would rarely be able to provide clothing for any beyond their family. Notable in its omission is any discussion of childcare; such is likely one of the tasks of some of the female servants (Proverbs 31:15). It goes without saying that female servants, of whom there would be many in Israel at this time, could never fit the portrait of the “worthy woman.” The same is true of most poor Israelite women. If Lemuel’s mother is setting the standard for how a good Israelite woman will function, then she has already set up well over 90% of Israelite women for utter failure.

Lemuel’s mother, therefore, is not setting up expectations for the average Israelite woman; she is talking about the way a woman of the élite class should compose herself. In that sense, in its historical context, there is great value in considering what she has to say. The picture painted of élite Israelite women in the Old Testament is less than ideal. Amos calls them “cows of Bashan,” and they are described as constantly demanding drink (and, we imagine, other dainties; Amos 4:1). Isaiah castigates such women for their lustfulness, softness, and excessive jewelry (Isaiah 3:16-24). While we ought to remember that the prophets have no interest in attempting to speak commendably about such women, and these condemnations may not be representative of the whole, they still demonstrate how many of the élite Israelite women behaved. They were not very industrious unto profitable or productive ends, but enjoyed the high life and desired to spend their time in satisfying their desires. Lemuel’s mother warns Lemuel, and all other men of means, away from such women. Instead, they ought to find wives who will not treat their husbands poorly, but instead will manage the household well. In the ancient world, women ran the household, which involved far more people than just the husband and children, but many slaves and perhaps relatives as well. The husbands would manage the land as well as maintaining social connections and prestige in the gates and in the royal court. A wife who not only maintained a good house but also provided more income through effective resource management and cloth production would have been most excellent for the élite men of Israelite society. They sure beat the “gold-digger” who is nothing but a drain on resources!

Yet even then it would be hard to find many women who would attain to the standard of the “worthy woman.” In the Hebrew ordering of the Old Testament, Ruth comes directly after Proverbs, and many have seen Ruth as an example of the “worthy woman.” She certainly is a virtuous woman, fearing YHWH, industrious, trying to make the best of her situation, marries a man known in the gates, bears a son, yet even then, we do not have any evidence that Ruth did absolutely everything the “worthy woman” was doing (Ruth 1:1-4:22). Esther was a woman of abiding faith in YHWH who sought the welfare of her people and acted wisely, prudently, and shrewdly, but was expected to maintain a high standard of external beauty and would not have manually labored at all (Esther 1:1-10:3). These are good women, godly women, yet even they do not reach the lofty standard of the “worthy woman” of Proverbs 31:10-31.

Therefore, the “worthy woman,” even in context, is an idealized portrait. We do well to derive from it the principles and types of behaviors which made the woman worthy: enterprising, a competent manager of her own and her family’s affairs, benevolent, and reverent toward God. These are great attributes to which all women should aspire. In contrast, an unworthy woman is one who is lazy, a drain on the family’s resources, one who mismanages her own and her family’s affairs so that her husband cannot trust her with any responsibility, selfish, uncharitable, and irreverent toward God. Sadly, such all too frequently define many women of wealth as manifest on celebrity television shows; therefore, even the contextual wisdom is good for men of means to take into consideration as they search for a wife. Nevertheless, the principles of the “worthy woman” remain important for all women regardless of wealth, and women can manifest those principles in their lives and be reckoned as “worthy” women.

Men who find worthy women as wives do well. Women are virtuous when they revere God, prove enterprising, faithfully execute their responsibilities, thus engendering trustworthiness, and are benevolent. We do well to encourage women to manifest these principles and commend them when they do so. Let us all honor and revere God, maintain our responsibilities, and glorify God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Troubler of Israel

And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, “Is it thou, thou troubler of Israel?”
And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father’s house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the LORD, and thou hast followed the Baalim” (1 Kings 18:17-18).

There had been three difficult years in Israel. The rain had been withheld; crops died, and people throughout the land went hungry. The people and the land were in great distress.

But what was behind the drought? Why did the rains cease? The reason is made evident in Scripture: Elijah the Tishbite, the great prophet, prayed to God, and it did not rain (1 Kings 17:1, James 5:17-18). The rain would not return until it was done by his word.

King Ahab is quite aware of this– it is precisely what Elijah had said to him. Therefore, in his mind, the matter is easily settled– Elijah is the culprit and the reason for the distress. Ahab sought Elijah in every surrounding nation (1 Kings 18:10). As the drought and thus the famine worsened the greater the blame was placed on Elijah. He became a very effective scapegoat. Therefore, when Elijah finally presents himself before Ahab, Ahab calls Elijah the “troubler of Israel.”

In all of this, however, the most important question is not asked. Why did Elijah pray to withhold rain in the first place? Is he some malevolent person who seeks the ruin of Israel? Hardly! Ahab and his wife Jezebel had led the people of Israel astray, inducing them to serve the Baals and to not give YHWH the LORD His honor (1 Kings 16:30-33). Elijah needed to make a grand demonstration of who was really the true God, and this demonstration begins with the withholding of rain. Baal, after all, was the Canaanite god of fertility. If Baal was really a divinity, and if Israel should really honor and serve him, would he not provide them rain when they rendered him the appropriate service? And yet for three and a half years there was no rain. The Power behind Elijah the Tishbite was far greater than the Baals.

1 Kings 18:19-40 will feature the public humiliation and then execution of the priests of Baal, and the Israelites will confess again that YHWH is God. And then in 1 Kings 18:41-45 Elijah will pray and rain will fall upon Israel again.

The real “troubler of Israel,” then, is Ahab, for he was found impious before God and led God’s people Israel astray. But that is not the answer Ahab wanted to hear, and it is certainly not the answer that Ahab (or Jezebel) wants Israel to hear and believe. Thus Elijah feels compelled to go on the run for his life, a justified scapegoat, but a scapegoat nonetheless (cf. 1 Kings 19:1ff).

Such scapegoating happens all too often. When problems arise, for whatever reason, people want to find someone to blame. No one ever wants to blame themselves– therefore, they find a scapegoat, someone upon whom the burden of blame and responsibility is placed. Elijah is seen as the reason for the drought here, even though the real reason is the idolatry of Israel. In the days of the Roman Empire, whenever a famine, earthquake, or plague ravaged the land, the Christians would be blamed. Assigning blame and scapegoating happens to this very day. Sometimes the people who are blamed deserve the blame. Many times the blame goes well beyond the original misdeed. And there are plenty of times when there is really no one to blame, but someone has to take the heat anyway.

But the most pernicious circumstances are those when the truly guilty parties work hard to shift the blame onto the innocent parties, as Ahab does with Elijah. Not a few times have the righteous found themselves in great persecution and distress as the ungodly work to absolve themselves of the responsibilities of their actions. It is quite unjust, but we can be sure that God will execute justice (cf. Romans 2:5-11, 2 Timothy 4:14)!

We will find ourselves in the mist of circumstances when two parties blame each other for the situation in which they find themselves. It is always easier to shift blame than to accept blame. That is why we must diligently make sure that we are not the “troublers” of the family, the church, the workplace, etc., and that we do not justify the “troublers” at the expense of those who are trying to do the right thing. Let us judge righteous judgment and act responsibly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Taking Responsibility

And David said unto God, “Is it not I that commanded the people to be numbered? Even I it is that have sinned and done very wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let thy hand, I pray thee, O the LORD my God, be against me, and against my father’s house; but not against thy people, that they should be plagued” (1 Chronicles 21:17).

David had indeed acted wickedly. He was incited to number the men of Israel and Judah– an act that indicates an expectation of war. Joab protested, but to no avail; David would not be moved. Yet, when confronted with his sin, and when he sees its consequences, David takes responsibility and wishes for the consequences to fall upon him and his house and not the innocent.

This is not the first time David has been confronted with sin and took responsibility. The same was true when Nathan confronted David regarding his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 12). He took responsibility for his own sin; Psalm 51 eloquently shows as much.

Such is partly why David is indeed a man after God’s own heart. It is a natural human impulse to shift blame away from oneself. After all, when God confronted Adam about how he knew that he was naked in Genesis 3, Adam immediately shifted the blame to Eve, who in term shifted the blame to the serpent. We have all seen politicians and others impulsively deny claims made against them, only later to see them confess to the deed.

It is always easy to try to find some way to shift blame in regards to sin. One could blame the influence of others, one’s raising, one’s genes, one’s culture, government, society, other such thing, or even the influences of the spiritual powers of darkness. Nevertheless, we do best to take the blame for our own sin, since, in the end, none of us are ever forced to sin (1 Corinthians 10:13). We should be upfront and take responsibility. By doing so, we minimize the damage done, and show that we are indeed different in how we act.

John promises in 1 John 1:9 that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and righteous and will forgive us. To confess our sins means, literally, “to speak the same thing as,” or to directly and specifically take responsibility for what we have done. That is at least part of the way that David became a man after God’s own heart. We would do well if we did the same!

Ethan R. Longhenry