Serpents and Doves

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

As Jesus sends His disciples out to proclaim the message of the Kingdom among the villages of Israel He warns them about many of the challenges and difficulties they will experience. In so doing He tells them to be as “wise as serpents” and yet “harmless as doves.”

This statement sounds rather strange to the ear. We rarely consider serpents and doves in the same breath– they are two radically different types of animals. And that is precisely Jesus’ point.

It is not as if serpents are really “wise” or that doves are “innocent.” These are human characteristics that are imposed upon the animals because of their behavior and lifestyles.

Snakes have from the beginning had the reputation of shrewdness and craftiness (Genesis 3:1). They hunt by stealth, slithering quietly to attack their prey unawares. They strive to remain hidden and oftentimes blend in with their surroundings. To this day many people experience a slight shock when coming upon a snake, a type of shock that does not take place when people come upon birds or deer or other similar animals. Therefore, it is understandable that the snake is associated with Satan the Devil and his schemes (cf. Revelation 12:9).

Doves also have represented innocence and peace for a long time. A dove let Noah know that the flood waters had receded (Genesis 8:11). Many doves are white, and white has throughout time been associated with purity, cleanliness, and holiness (cf. Isaiah 1:18). Doves are also very gentle birds– they do not harm other animals and they certainly do not harm humans. Therefore it is appropriate that when the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, He does so as a dove (Matthew 3:16, Luke 3:22).

We can most certainly understand the reference to doves and the expectation that Jesus’ disciples would not harm people and represent purity and holiness. But how can it be that disciples should be as wise as serpents, considering how the serpent is a representation of the Evil One?

This whole contrast is framed by Jesus sending out His disciples into the world, described as sheep in the midst of wolves. Sheep are loyal followers but otherwise rather dumb. They go where they are directed and they have almost no natural defenses. Wolves, on the other hand, are highly intelligent and ruthless creatures, and they love nothing more than an easy meal. Jesus is sending His followers out into a world where whatever defenses they may have against persecution, temptations, and sin would be easily overcome on their own, and the world has plenty of such temptations.

Since disciples are sent out into a fallen world, therefore, there must be a balance between the dove and the serpent. There is great value in purity, holiness, and innocence, but we recognize that innocence can easily lead to naive thinking and actions and therefore disaster. The innocent are easily exploited and manipulated into falling. Likewise, we understand that there is no virtue in being crooked and full of schemes like the Evil One, but nevertheless there is value in being wise in the ways of the world– not necessarily based on experience, but understanding the means by which exploitation and temptation occur so as to avoid them.

If we desire to be disciples of Christ we must recognize that we, too, are sent out into the world like sheep in the midst of wolves. It is critically important that we do all that we can to avoid sin and to practice righteousness, but we must also be aware of the naivete that can accompany innocence. Therefore, we must have a handle on the way the world works while striving to be righteous servants of God, or, as Jesus would say, to be wise as serpents while remaining as innocent as doves. Let us seek to do so and reflect Christ to the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Fool Speaks in His Heart

The fool hath said in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they have done abominable works; There is none that doeth good (Psalm 14:1).

The Psalmist’s declaration in Psalm 14:1 (and Psalm 53:1) is understandably famous and often used these days when referring to those who do not believe that God exists. While it is true that many people turn to atheism in order to get around having a superior moral authority than themselves, and the presumption that there is no spiritual power beyond our ability to comprehend or perceive is folly, such is not really what the Psalmist addresses here.

The problem in Psalm 14/53 is not that people do not intellectually concede the existence of God– instead, the people act as if they do not believe in God! Their “atheism” is functional more than ideological. They go about their lives and act in corrupt, sinful, and ungodly ways– ways that show that they have no fear of a higher power than themselves!

The Psalmist continues:

The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, To see if there were any that did understand, That did seek after God. They are all gone aside; they are together become filthy; There is none that doeth good, no, not one (Psalm 14:2-3).

The Psalmist declares that the problem is greater than any of us could imagine– this is not a problem limited to just “the wicked.” Everyone has turned aside. Everyone has acted in sinful ways. There are none that only seek after God’s purposes! Paul will later use these verses to demonstrate how all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and understandably so (Romans 3:10-12; 23)!

If we are honest with ourselves, we will recognize that when we decide to do things our own way, to seek after what we want, and to live according to our own will, we are playing the role of “the fool.” We have declared in our heart that there is no God, no matter how much we may protest that declaration in our minds.

God made things clear when He spoke through Jeremiah: “I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). It is not for us to direct our own steps; instead, we must seek after God. We must seek to understand His will so that we can walk in His steps (2 Peter 3:18, 1 John 2:3-6). We must not live for ourselves and our own will, but subject ourselves entirely to God and His will (Romans 6:16-23, Galatians 2:20). We ought to know He who will render judgment for every work we do (Romans 2:5-11).

Atheists do trust in a series of foolish propositions, but they are at least intellectually honest with themselves. Far too many others may profess to believe in God and yet act as if there is no God, and we have all played that role at various points in our lives. The greatest fool is the one who says in his heart that there is no God and lives however he wishes. Let us not play the fool any longer. Let us serve God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Where is the God of Justice?

Ye have wearied the LORD with your words.
Yet ye say, “Wherein have we wearied him?”
In that ye say, “Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delighteth in them;” or, “where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17).

The evils and inequalities of life can pose a quandary for people who believe strongly that there is a God and that He loves and cares for His creation. When oppression takes place and injustice seems to rule the day, it is easy to start wondering where the God of justice went! Probably not a few people have turned to Deism in order to make some sense, at least in their own minds, of how it could be that God could create the universe and then allow such things to happen– instead of trusting that God will right the wrong, it is easier to believe that God is an absentee landlord.

Undoubtedly Israel in the days of Malachi wondered whether God was an absentee landlord. It would be quite easy to interpret their statements in Malachi 2:17 as rebellion but they are most likely the result of frustration and despair. They say such things not because they do not believe in God but precisely because they do believe in God and do believe in the promises God made to their forefathers.

What they do not understand is how God can be the God of justice and lovingkindness and allow what was happening to continue. These Jews had their faults and failings– but they were not as guilty as their fathers. They had not established idols of all the gods of the nations around them as their fathers had done. And yet while their fathers lived in a free and independent Israel with their own king, they remain under the hand of the Persian authorities and Persian taxes. How was that just? How was that fair? How could God allow them to remain under the hand of a foreign authority when they were acting more faithfully than their fathers who were free? Where was God in all of this, anyway?

The Jews also perceive how the ways of the wicked, at least for the time being, were prosperous. They had read in the Law and the Prophets how blessings come to those who obey God and curses to those who act wickedly (e.g. Leviticus 26:1-46, Jeremiah 7:1-15). The Psalms and Proverbs are full of such statements (e.g. Psalm 1:6, Psalm 37:17, Psalm 75:10, Proverbs 3:33, Proverbs 10:6). Yet, in the eyes of the Jews, those who were righteous were not gaining favor, but the wicked were increasing and prosperous. In bitterness they declare that God must now be siding with the wicked– how else could they be so successful?

The Jews, however, are not right in this, no matter how justified they might have felt in their despair and criticism. They are wearying God with these words and these ideas. Malachi goes on to promise the day of God’s coming, a day of refining and purification, and it will be painful (Malachi 3:1-6). The message is evident: God is paying attention. God sees what is going on. God remains the God of justice. God does not take pleasure in the sinfulness of the wicked. Yet God is patient, and shall accomplish His will in His good time.

We would do well to learn the same lesson. It is easy to get impatient and impetuous and wonder where the God of justice has gone. One could easily despair and wonder if God is in fact prospering the wicked. But such would be wearisome and unprofitable– God is still here, and God has no pleasure in the sinfulness of the wicked (1 Peter 3:12). God also takes no pleasure in any injustice, especially injustice perpetrated against His elect (cf. Luke 18:1-8). Nevertheless, God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). He is patient when we would be impatient (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). His concept of time is far different from our own (2 Peter 3:8). When God acts, it will be done mightily, and we will be ashamed of ourselves if we wearied God with these types of words– we will see His justice vindicated, and righteousness fully established (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-13). The righteous will be refined as silver (1 Peter 1:6-9); the wicked will perish (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

Let us not fear or be distressed. The God of justice has not abandoned His creation. He is paying attention. He will render to each one according to His works. Let us therefore serve Him while we still can, fully confident in His presence and justice, and be prepared for the ultimate Day of the Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry