The Source of Security

Except YHWH build the house / they labor in vain that build it.
Except YHWH keep the city / the watchman waketh but in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early / to take rest late / to eat the bread of toil;
For so he giveth unto his beloved sleep (Psalm 127:1-2).

From insurance to elaborate building designs, humans continue to seek various sources of security.

Solomon meditated upon the true source of security in Psalm 127:1-5. Psalm 127 is listed among the “songs of ascent,” songs which would be sung as Israelites would make the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem and Mount Zion to the presence of YHWH at a festival. For Solomon, and the Israelites who sang this song as they climbed to stand before YHWH, only YHWH was true security. To build a new house would be vain unless YHWH protected it and provided for it. All the watchmen in the world would prove useless to a city unless YHWH watched over it. Working excessive hours to make a living independent of YHWH’s blessings proved equally vain; YHWH gives reason for those whom He loves to sleep, for they have little need to fear (Psalm 127:1-2).

Solomon will go on to glorify children as the heritage of YHWH, His reward to people (Psalm 127:3). Children are seen as arrows in the hand of a mighty man; a man with many (and ostensibly good) children will not be made ashamed in the gate of a city, the place where the elders would meet and matters were adjudicated (Psalm 127:4-5; cf. Ruth 4:1-12).

It would be easy to consider Psalm 127:3-5 as separate from Psalm 127:1-2, but a connection is there. YHWH provides for His people. He watches over them, protects them, and blesses their endeavors. No endeavor will succeed if it does not come with His blessing. Part of that provision is children who will honor their father and mother in their old age (cf. Matthew 15:4-6). The man who trusts in YHWH and is blessed by Him will have a strong house and descendants; his blessedness will be known to all; he will have no reason to be ashamed among his fellow people.

We can understand why Psalm 127 would prove to be a satisfying song of confidence in YHWH as Israelites went up to stand before Him. Israel is thus reminded that YHWH and YHWH alone is their source of confidence; all feeble human attempts to maintain their own security will fail. You can only hold so much food in barns, and even then an enemy can seize them. Military strength can take you only so far; not a few times a massive force was thoroughly defeated by a smaller one. Foreign policy is a capricious adventure: your ally one day may turn into your foe the next. Other people often prove only as good as their word, and the world has always lacked sufficient people who uphold their word. Israel always needed this reminder; temptations always existed to trust in other presumed sources of security other than God.

Christians today could also use this reminder. Far too often, in the name of worldly wisdom, Christians are tempted to put their trust in anything and everything but God. In the name of worldly wisdom we purchase insurance to mitigate the risks to health, life, and/or property; we invest resources in markets and pay into governmental schemes to provide for life in the present and/or for days of disability or retirement. We are invited to trust in government for security against all foes, domestic and foreign. Many seem to orient their lives around the proposition of risk management.

There is nothing automatically or intrinsically sinful or wrong in buying insurance, investing for retirement, or taking advantage of the social safety net. The Israelites themselves built the houses; walls and watchmen were still needed in the cities of Israel. But we must remember Matthew 6:19-34, Jesus’ message which is not unlike Solomon’s in Psalm 127. It is one thing to use insurance or investments to mitigate risk in a sensible way as one seeks to trust in God and His purposes; it is quite another to fully depend on such insurance or investments, or to orient one’s life around such insurance and investments. In the process we have no right to dismiss God’s intended “retirement program” for His people, providing an opportunity for children to honor their fathers and their mothers (1 Timothy 5:8, 16). As children we should seek to provide for parents in times of need, and to have children ourselves and instruct them in God’s right way (Ephesians 6:1-4).

We almost must take care how we use and consider Psalm 127. Israelites themselves were vexed by the apparent discrepancies between the message of Psalm 127 and its ilk and experienced reality: sometimes the righteous, whom one would imagine YHWH would protect, suffered, and the wicked, which one would imagine YHWH would not bless, nevertheless prospered (cf. Job 21:1-34, Ecclesiastes 8:10-17). It has proven all too easy to take Psalm 127 as prescriptive and to thus judge those who prosper as blessed by YHWH and those who suffer as chastised by YHWH. This might well be the case in some circumstances; it need not be the case in every circumstance.

Can we live in that ambiguity, trusting in God in Christ even though that trust does not guarantee a comfortable middle class existence in this life? Will we give more than mere lip service to Psalm 127:1-2, recognizing that our prosperity might well prove a demonic temptation to trust in the things of this world and not in God the Giver of all good things? Do we trust in YHWH as our real, lasting, and ultimate security, or have we given ourselves over to the pervasive temptation to trust in our possessions, our bank account, our portfolio, our government, our military, or other such things of the world? How much do our children factor into our confidence about our present and future? As we continue in our pilgrimage on this earth we do well to sing this song of ascent as we seek to stand before the throne of God, recognize God is the only true source of security, and seek refuge in Him!

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

Seeking Safe Dwellings

And my people shall abide in a peaceable habitation, and in safe dwellings, and in quiet resting-places (Isaiah 32:18).

In times of distress and turbulence, “normal stability” seems like paradise.

The prophet Isaiah spoke to Israel at the end of the good times and in times of great terror. Israel trusted in her prosperity and in her nimble foreign policy maneuvers yet would soon find out there was no security in them. Before Isaiah’s time was done Israel would experience the full terror of Assyria; the Kingdom of Israel would be no more, and the Kingdom of Judah was humiliated, impoverished, and broken (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-19:37, Isaiah 1:1-9). Furthermore, the time for Judah was short; the Babylonian menace loomed large in the future as Isaiah saw it (cf. Isaiah 39:1-8). Safety proved to be an illusion.

It is this future devastation which Isaiah seems to envision in Isaiah 32:9-14. He speaks to women who are at ease in Judah: they are complacent and ought to repent in light of what will take place (Isaiah 32:9). Isaiah envisions the failure of harvests, an empty palace, cities overrun with animals and weeds, no doubt the result of pestilence, famine, violence, and exile (Isaiah 32:10-14). Everything which seemed stable would fall apart; in the chaos, a return to what was expected as “normal” would seem great!

Yet that is precisely the problem: the Israelites, particularly the wealthy among them, have taken their stability and safety for granted, and have believed that it has come as a result of their own devices. Isaiah provides no message to encourage such a view. In the cutthroat ancient Near Eastern world, safety and security could not come from chariot, sword, gold, silver, or power. They all would fail over time.

Isaiah does speak of a time when stability, safety, and peace will return, and does so in a picturesque and ideal way for all times: the desert becomes fruitful, justice and righteousness abide in the land, all live in peace and confidence, with safe and quiet houses (Isaiah 32:15-18). Yet this does not come because of Israel and anything she has done but because God has poured out His Spirit upon His people (Isaiah 32:15).

Isaiah’s message did not receive much of a hearing while Israel remained prosperous. Yet after the devastation and terrors came to pass, later generations took comfort in the hope of Isaiah’s prophecies. They yearned for the security and stability they did not enjoy in their day. They looked forward to when God would pour out His Spirit and this security would be present.

We find the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in Jesus of Nazareth and His Kingdom. God has poured out His Spirit upon His people (Acts 2:1-41). Yet if we look for the prosperity and security on a physical level, we look in vain, for the promise is for spiritual prosperity and security. In Christ all spiritual riches and blessings are poured out (Ephesians 1:3); in Christ we find true security and refuge (Hebrews 6:18). In Christ we have a great treasure ensured for us for eternity (1 Peter 1:3-9)!

We can therefore find a safe dwelling in God in Christ and among His people (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 6:19-20, 1 Peter 2:3-5). Yet we do well to heed the warning provided by the example of Israel in the days of Isaiah: safety will not be found in this world among the tools of this world. We are not guaranteed material prosperity and comfort. In this world we will find danger, distress, trial, and tribulation (Acts 14:21, 2 Timothy 3:12). God has not sent His Son to help us escape the problems of life but to provide us strength so as to endure them (cf. Ephesians 3:17-21, 6:10-18). We may be fortunate enough to find a nice piece of property with a nice house in a nice community with nice neighbors with nice services and a clean, safe, sanitized environment, but we should never confuse that with normalcy or how Christianity ought to be. If our lives are going well and we have relatively safe dwellings, we should be thankful but not complacent, aware that earthly stability may vanish, but Jesus will remain. Days may come when we find ourselves in great distress or trial and we will discover, as Israel did before us, that confidence in earthly forms of stability may fail, and that true security can only be found through God and His loving-kindness.

The desert is now fruitful; righteousness now exists in the Kingdom of God; safe dwellings can be found. We will not find them from the military or the government but only through dwelling in God through His Son in the Spirit. Prosperity, righteousness, and stability do not demand the American dream but instead through quiet confidence in God’s strength unto endurance, humbly living as a faithful servant in the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus, suffering the loss of all things for Him for His eternal glory. Let us not seek safety in the world but through trusting in the Lord Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God, Our Refuge and Strength

[For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of the sons of Korah; set to Alamoth. A Song.] God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).

What do we expect from God?

If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that we have expectations regarding who God is and what He will do for us. Sure, we should recognize that we do not “deserve” anything from God; our existence and all that we have is already a gift of His which we could never deserve and which we could never repay. We also should recognize that God has gone above and beyond by giving of His Son so that we could receive the forgiveness of our sins which we could never do on our own (cf. Romans 3:20-28, 5:6-11). Nevertheless, just as children have expectations from their parents even though, by all rights, their parents do not “owe” them anything, so we, as the children of God, have expectations of God (cf. Romans 8:16-17). Those expectations say much about our understanding of who God is and who we are and what we ultimately seek in life.

The sons of Korah lived in difficult times and shared in the distress of Israel in the days of the exile. They questioned God on many occasions, but always in faith (cf. Psalm 44:1-26). Throughout Psalm 46:1-11 they demonstrate how they view God and what they can expect from Him.

God is present, and God is their refuge and strength (Psalm 46:1, 5, 7, 10-11). Since God is with them, they will not fear, even though they may experience great distress and difficulty (Psalm 46:2-3). God is present in the midst of His holy place, and it will not be disturbed (Psalm 46:4-5). The nations might rage; there might be war on the earth; but God will overcome it all and through His voice can melt the earth (Psalm 46:6-9). They could know that He, YHWH, is God, and thus they could be still, for He will be exalted among the nations and on the earth (Psalm 46:10). YHWH was with them and served as their refuge (Psalm 46:11).

For generations many have taken comfort in the message of Psalm 46:1-11, and we can certainly understand why: it eloquently expresses God’s sovereignty over the earth and His presence among His people. The message remains quite compelling in terms of our expectations of God.

Many expect God to act like a magician, to wave a mighty wand and make everything better. Others expect God to work as the ultimate 911 service: to come and save the day in times of distress. Some expect God to provide them with a comfortable existence. Still others seek after safety and look to God to preserve their present way of life.

These are not the types of expectations we see set forth in Psalm 46:1-11, and for good reason: these are not realistic expectations. They are rather self-serving, perhaps even to the detriment of others, and entirely confuses the reality of who God is and our standing before Him. He is mighty and holy; we are weak and sinful. He is the Creator; we are the creation. It is for Him to get glory for His name; it is for us to trust in and acknowledge Him.

We do well to make our expectations of God align with what He provides, for He is willing to give us something that is more powerful and valuable than our feeble expectations: His presence. YHWH of Hosts desires to be “with us” (cf. Psalm 46:7). In His presence we can obtain His strength which can allow us to overcome any difficulty in our lives (cf. Ephesians 3:14-21). We can take refuge in His presence, but we must never confuse refuge in His presence with refuge in the world. We have every reason to trust in God and have confidence in whatever we place in His hands (cf. Matthew 6:19-33). But this does not mean that we will find safety on earth: quite the contrary! The nations still rage; turbulence sweeps over the land; disaster and calamity are very real threats. We may have to suffer through them. This does not mean that God is unfaithful, for even in the midst of such trial we can entrust ourselves to Him and draw strength and comfort from His presence.

YHWH, Lord of Hosts, is the Creator, and is a mighty God, but He is not a magician, nor is He the ultimate “Get out of problems free” card. To become a follower of God in Christ does not mean that all of your problems go away and you can rest and relax in a good, long, prosperous, safe existence. If anything, to become a follower of God in Christ is to sign up for humiliation, degradation, persecution, and a host of other challenges (cf. Matthew 10:16-42). Let none be deceived: Christians will experience and suffer the same challenges as everyone else, and perhaps even more so. Christians get sick and die. Christians suffer the loss of children, spouses, parents, friends, and others. Christians get robbed and suffer violence. Christians suffer the effects of disasters, both natural and artificial. Christians are subject to the same forces of decay and corruption as the rest of the creation (cf. Romans 8:18-25).

Yet the difference is that God is with those who call upon His name and follow His Son Jesus (cf. Matthew 28:20). God is their strength and refuge. God will ultimately obtain the victory over death and these forces of corruption and decay in the resurrection and Christians will obtain glory which cannot be expressed in words (Romans 8:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58). Therefore, Christians can find nourishment and strength in the hope of their faith (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-9).

Will God live up to our expectations? It all depends on what we expect from God. We do well to consider the Scriptures, particularly Psalm 46:1-11, and consider whether our expectations conform to His truth or not. God may not fix all of our problems the way we want them to be fixed, but He will be present with us as we go through our challenges and can strengthen us to overcome them. We may not find the safety and security we seek in the world but we can always find God to be trustworthy and a refuge in the day of distress. We may not get everything we have ever wanted, but if we maintain our trust in God in Christ, we may find that what He gives us in His presence and strength far exceeds anything for which we could ever hope. Let us find strength and sustenance in God’s presence and find our refuge in God in Christ for all eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry