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

Prophetic History

Yet YHWH testified unto Israel, and unto Judah, by every prophet, and every seer, saying, “Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”
Notwithstanding, they would not hear, but hardened their neck, like to the neck of their fathers, who believed not in YHWH their God (2 Kings 17:13-14).

It is said that history is written by the winners. Such is true also of Israel, but for very different reasons.

Some presume that the story of history can be narrated fully and objectively. Such is a fool’s errand; no historical narrative can be comprehensive. History is only ever written for a purpose: whatever story is told has a reason behind it. Perhaps that reason is to set forth the basic timeline of events for a given nation, person, etc; perhaps the story is told with a particular focus, slant, or even bias. Some details will be left out; some details will be emphasized. The later reader may be frustrated by these decisions, wanting to know what has been left unsaid and skeptical regarding that which has been emphasized. And yet, since all retelling of history has a purpose, we do well to understand what the purpose of any specific historical narrative is and reflect upon why it was considered important.

All of this proves especially true with the story of Israel in the days of the kings. 1 and 2 Kings do not read like your average historical narrative about a nation. Some of Israel’s glorious achievements are recounted, but the text mostly focuses on the relative faithfulness (or lack thereof) of the kings to YHWH, certain events which took place during those reigns, especially as they relate to the prophets and the kings. We learn next to nothing regarding some kings; for other kings we have their activities laid out in great detail. The narrative throughout is clearly biased. What are we to make of it?

The Kings author was not shy or secretive about his motivations. Having recounted the fall of the northern Kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians in 722 BCE, he broke into the narrative with an extended explanation of precisely why Israel, and later Judah, would fall and be exiled (2 Kings 17:7-23). He indicted them for their faithlessness toward YHWH, their idolatry, and their conformity to the other nations. And he made sure everyone knew that Israel under the kings knew better: YHWH had warned them about the consequences of their behaviors through the prophets, and encouraged them to repent and follow YHWH’s commandments, but they did not listen (2 Kings 17:13-14).

This is not your ordinary historical narrative! Not one king comes out as the ideal, shining hero: the Samuel author recounts David’s transgression with Bathsheba and Uriah and its fallout (2 Samuel 11:1-20:26); Solomon’s idolatry on account of his wives is made plain (1 Kings 11:1-8); the failings of the rest of the otherwise faithful kings are not hidden. These are not the boastful proclamations of the kind written for Ramses II, or Sennacherib, or Cyrus; this history of Israel did celebrate their empire in the days of David and Solomon, yet maintained its focus on the transgressions of the nation. Why?

In the Hebrew Bible 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings are part of the nevi’im, the prophets; they are considered the “former” or “historical” prophets. It was therefore never their intention to write the “normal” or “great man” version of Israelite history: for this they referred the reader to the Acts of Solomon and the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and Judah, works now lost (e.g. 1 Kings 11:41, 14:19, 14:29). Instead, the history they wrote is a prophetic history: telling the story of the kings of Israel and Judah as a warning for the people of God in and after the exile to not follow in the same pattern of disobedience.

We can know this because the final form of 1 and 2 Kings was composed in the days of the exile: they most likely used documentation from the chronicles mentioned above, and YHWH directed them to write the story as they wrote it. 1 and 2 Kings are their own form of lament: in them the transgressions of the fathers are explicitly identified and not justified; the book was written to leave no doubt in the mind of the reader as to why Israel was cast off. All socio-political explanations, of which many can be adduced, ultimately fall short for Israel: yes, they suffered the fate of the other nations, but only because they had abandoned their unique heritage in YHWH and had become just like all the other nations. And YHWH handed them over to their desires.

This story would sustain Israel in faith through very difficult and trying times ahead. The Israelites would only briefly maintain independent rule over their land and would suffer existential threats in persecution. Yet they did not commit idolatry as their fathers did; they had learned the prophetic lesson from their history. They did not yearn for past days or made the past out to be rosy and wonderful; they owned up to the sins of their fathers. Whereas all of the members of other nations would get swept up in Hellenization and abandon their distinctiveness, a remnant of the Jewish people stubbornly maintained confidence in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of their forefathers and endured. Ultimately, the proclamation of YHWH’s great work in Jesus of Nazareth would overtake the Roman Empire and many parts of Mesopotamia; the descendants of the oppressors would end up calling on the name of the God of Israel. Egypt faded; Assyria was destroyed; Babylon was laid low; Persia was overrun; the Macedonians came and went; Rome would collapse; the people of God endured.

In this way the history of Israel was written by the victors: not the people who won the battles or political victories, but those who would perpetuate strong faith in YHWH and His covenant promises to Israel. To “win” meant to preserve the faith; to preserve the faith demanded an honest accounting of how the fathers failed and were cut off by YHWH, and how to serve YHWH faithfully so as to obtain the promised restoration.

The people of God to this day do well to learn from the prophetic history of the kings of Israel. Historical narratives abound which seek to glorify a given philosophy, ideology, nation-state, or some other ideal. These narratives prove very tempting to follow. Yet all such things are inherently flawed; they are creatures of the world, and they go the way of the world (Colossians 2:8-9, 1 John 2:15-17). If the people of God will obtain the victory in Christ, they can only do so by preserving the faith (Jude 1:3, Revelation 12:11); to preserve the faith demands honoring the faithfulness of those who have come before us along with an honest accounting of how we and those before us have failed to uphold the standard of Christ. We must pattern our lives according to the faithful examples of Jesus, the Apostles, and those who have believed on their Word ever since; we must take note of the ways in which those who came before us went in the ways of Israel, hardening their heart, rebelling in various ways, and patterning themselves after the nations, lest we share in the same condemnation.

History can be told in all sorts of ways; when it is all said and done, the only story which will matter is the story of God reconciling all things to Himself in Jesus, and those who trusted in Him and obtained the resurrection of life. May we prove faithful to God in how we understand the story of the people of God throughout time, trust in the Lord, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Lord’s Prayer (1)

After this manner therefore pray ye:
Our Father who art in heaven / Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (Matthew 6:9-13).

The Lord’s prayer is extremely familiar to many people, profoundly simple in presentation, yet profoundly compelling in its substance.

Jesus, in the middle of what has been popularly deemed the Sermon on the Mount, condemned those forms of Israelite “religious” behavior, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, which is done to be seen by men; such people have received their reward, but it does not come from His Father (Matthew 6:1-17). In terms of prayer Jesus warned against both praying so as to be seen as holy by others and using vain repetitions presuming to be heard by uttering many words, the latter of which was a common practice among the Gentiles (Matthew 6:5-8). Jesus commended praying in secret, encouraging people to remember that God knows what they need before they ask Him (Matthew 6:6, 8). He then provided what has become known as the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 as a model prayer.

Jesus offered His prayer as a model prayer: He encouraged His disciples to pray “like” this, not necessarily this precisely (Matthew 6:9). There is no transgression in praying the Lord’s prayer as written or as liturgically set forth (as we will discuss below); but it is not required to pray the exact words of the Lord’s prayer. In many respects Jesus provided the types of things for which we are to pray as much as actual words to pray.

Jesus began His prayer by addressing the Father in heaven and the holiness of His name (Matthew 6:9). Jesus encouraged direct petition and appeal to God in the name, or by the authority, of Jesus Himself (John 16:23-24). He is our “Father in heaven,” not an earthly father, although the parallel account of the Lord’s prayer in Luke 11:2 makes no reference to heaven. To “hallow” is to make or declare something as holy; Christians do well to proclaim God’s name as holy, and to show appropriate reverence before Him (cf. 1 Peter 1:15-17). Prayer demands a balancing act: God would have us speak with Him as our Father, and thus in great intimacy in relationship, but also as the Holy One worthy of honor and reverence, thus not glibly or casually. To emphasize God’s holiness so that people are afraid to even address God in prayer warps what ought to be a strong relationship; to emphasize the intimacy in relationship so as to justify speaking or addressing God as if a good buddy disrespects the sanctity of the Name. In prayer we do well to thank God for all His blessings and provisions for us, and ground our expectations from Him in that light (cf. Colossians 3:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Jesus asked for God’s Kingdom to come (Matthew 6:10). Matthew has Jesus speak of the “Kingdom of Heaven” throughout (cf. Matthew 4:17, 23); His words here indicate how “heaven” in such verses is a way of speaking about the God who dwells and reigns from heaven (cf. Mark 1:15, Luke 4:43). A kingdom is that over which a king reigns; the Kingdom of God, therefore, would involve the coming of the reign of God. What would it mean for God’s reign to come? As Jesus continued: that the will of God be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). Jesus would thus have Christians pray for God’s will and reign to be manifest on earth as fully as it is in heaven; as long as evil and sin reign on earth, this prayer proves necessary. Yes, the Kingdom was established in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension (Colossians 1:13, Revelation 5:9-10); and yet it does not take long to recognize that God’s will is not being done on earth as it is in heaven. Christians should pray for more people to hear the Gospel and obey it (Romans 1:16); we should pray for God to strengthen His people to better discern His purposes in Christ and to realize them (Ephesians 3:14-21).

Jesus asked for God to give us our “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). “Daily” translates Greek epiousion; the term connotes the needful thing, being for today. In this way Jesus expects believers to give voice to ask God for the basic needs of life: food, drink, shelter, etc. Far too often people take these things for granted, or might presume that God is too busy or great to be bothered by such trifles. God is the Creator of all; everything we are and have ultimately came from God, and thus we are totally dependent on God for everything (James 1:17). We should ask God to provide for us the things needful for the day, being careful to delineate what proves needful from what proves superfluous.

Jesus exhorted people to pray for forgiveness as they have forgiven others (Matthew 6:12). Jesus spoke literally of debts (Greek opheilema), yet referred to trespass or transgression (cf. Matthew 6:13-15). Asking God for the forgiveness of sin is a crucial element of prayer: we continually fall short of God’s glory, we continually transgress or not do the right even as we grow in holiness and sanctification, and we remain dependent on God’s forgiveness (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). God is faithful to forgive us if we truly and fully confess what we have done wrong and when we have not done what is good and right (1 John 1:9). Yet Jesus has also inserted a bit of a “poison pill” in how He framed forgiveness: to ask God for forgiveness of sin as we have forgiven others may prove problematic for us if we have not proven willing to forgive others of their sins against us. We might end up not really praying for forgiveness at all!

Jesus concluded His prayer with an appeal to not be led into temptation but to be delivered from the Evil One (Matthew 6:13). We should not imagine that Jesus suggested God Himself leads people into temptation: God tempts no one in such ways (James 1:13). The appeal instead is for God to not allow us to be led into temptation, to either intervene Himself for us against the forces of evil or to strengthen us to endure them. The traditional liturgical form of the Lord’s prayer asks to be delivered from evil; the presence of the definite article indicates that it is the Evil One, Satan or the Devil, under discussion, not evil in the abstract. In this way Jesus encourages Christians to pray to resist the temptations of sin and for strength to overcome the forces of evil (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13, Ephesians 6:10-18).

The liturgical form of the Lord’s prayer concludes with “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen,” present in many manuscripts of Matthew, but not in the most ancient authorities. It is right and appropriate to give God such glory, as it is present in many doxologies throughout the New Testament (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21, 1 Timothy 6:16); but here it is a later addition, inserting into the text a doxology which would have been used when the Lord’s prayer was recited as part of the daily office.

Jesus’ words in the Lord’s prayer are few, but they say quite a lot. They provide a paradigm by which we may understand the types of things for which we ought to pray. May we continually pray to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus in ways consistent with the Lord’s prayer, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry