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

Seeking Shalom in Exile

And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto YHWH for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace (Jeremiah 29:7).

What had possessed Jeremiah to say such things?

Judah and Judahites were rife with unfounded hopes in the days of Zedekiah king of Judah. They held out hope that somehow a rebellion against Babylon would prove successful; somehow YHWH would deliver them from the hand of Nebuchadnezzar and restore all the persons and possessions which Nebuchadnezzar had taken with him to Babylon (2 Kings 24:11-16, Jeremiah 28:1-5). Some “prophets” among those who had been exiled encouraged those in Babylon to maintain similar hopes (Jeremiah 29:8-9, 15-23).

Jeremiah had received the word of YHWH; he knew better. The end of Judah would come soon; the exile would not last a few months but until after the seventy years of Babylon had been accomplished (Jeremiah 29:10). The exiles were being set up for distress on top of distress, hindering them from establishing some sort of life while in exile. Therefore YHWH directed Jeremiah to send a letter to those exiles, the substance of which is seen in Jeremiah 29:4-23. YHWH encouraged His people in Babylon to perpetuate life: build houses, plant gardens, get married, and have children (Jeremiah 29:5-6). They were to seek the shalom of the city in which they have been exiled, praying to YHWH on its behalf, for in its shalom these exiles will find shalom (Jeremiah 29:7). The letter would go on to explain its purpose, to warn against listening to the false prophets, and to set forth the promise that YHWH would restore them to their land and would do good to them, but only after the years of Babylon had been completed; the doom of the false prophets was also foretold (Jeremiah 29:8-23).

Jeremiah, therefore, wrote so as to provide the exiles with a bit of divine context in order to understand their situation. At the time it was less than appreciated (Jeremiah 29:24-32); after the events of 586 BCE it would prove to be the sustaining lifeline of Judah in exile. YHWH would restore them to their ancestral homeland; YHWH would not abandon them in Babylon. Yet, for the time being, they must be nourished and sustained within Babylon.

Ferdinand Olivier 001

While Israel knew they could not sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land, they could at least make a living in Babylon and prepare their descendants to maintain confidence in YHWH, to prove loyal to His covenant with them and their fathers, and to prepare to return to the land when that day would come (Jeremiah 29:5-6). But the shalom of the city? shalom is the word used three times in Jeremiah 29:7. It is translated as “peace” in the American Standard Version (ASV; also in KJV, NKJV), which is its standard definition. shalom, however, goes beyond the idea of peace as the absence of conflict, representing wholeness and blessing as well; such is why the term is also frequently translated as welfare (so ESV, NASB, RSV, NRSV) or prosperity (so HCSB, NIV). Thus YHWH intended for the exiled Judahites to pray for the city of their sojourning for its overall benefit: an absence of conflict, absolutely, but also its welfare or prosperity, so that all would go well for all of them.

Such is why Jeremiah’s letter would seem so scandalous to the exiles. To seek the shalom of Babylon? shalom for the place and the people who had led Judah captive, who tore down the Temple of YHWH, and who had overpowered the people of God? How could they seek such a thing?

Yet Jeremiah pointed out that the shalom of the city would lead to their own shalom. The Judahites, after all, had just experienced 30 years of significant instability; Judah had seen invasions by Egypt and Babylon, many deportations and plundering, and all of that was before the final convulsive end of the Kingdom of Judah, in which the number exiled most likely paled in comparison to the number who suffered and died from war, plague, famine, and lawlessness (cf. Ezekiel 5:1-17). They needed some shalom. YHWH would provide some shalom for Babylon, not because Babylon deserved it, but on account of His people who now dwelt there. YHWH would bless it for their sake. The people of Judah had no need to fear; the condemnation of Babylon had already been decreed (Jeremiah 29:10, 50:1-51:64). Yet it would happen in stages, and its ultimate end would come without harm to the Israelites who still dwelt in Mesopotamia. YHWH judged His people in His anger, but He never stopped loving or caring for them.

Over six hundred years later Peter would write to the chosen “exiles” of his day, the Christians of modern-day Turkey (1 Peter 1:1, 2:9-10). He encouraged them to abstain from the lusts of the flesh, to maintain righteous conduct among the “natives,” to remain subject to the “native” rulers, for husbands and wives to dwell with each other in appropriate and God-honoring ways, and to seek the good of the “natives” in their midst, even if they are reviled in return (1 Peter 2:11-3:18).

Therefore, while Jeremiah did not write his letter to Christians today, we can learn much from his recommendations for Judah in exile, since we are to understand ourselves as exiles of the Kingdom of Heaven in a modern-day Babylon. We may live in the midst of the people who have or would oppress and persecute us for our confidence in the Lord Jesus. We may wonder how we can sing the songs of Zion in such a foreign land, or how we could “get settled” in such a place.

We do well if we carry on our lives while in exile, to work, marry, and raise up children to know the story of the people of God and to perpetuate it (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:1-15). We do well to seek the shalom of the city in which we reside, to pray to God in Christ for it, so that in its shalom we may have shalom (1 Timothy 2:1-3). Such does not mean God’s judgment will not come against it; the “time of Babylon” will meet its end, and so will that city and its nation-state. Yet we, as sojourners and exiles, know that when those seventy years of life in “Babylon” have come to an end, we will obtain the victory of God in Christ, and will rise triumphantly on the day of resurrection.

The Christian’s hope, therefore, is not in the salvation of the nation-state in which he or she lives. Such a state will fall; its end is decreed; we are to reckon ourselves as sojourners and exiles, citizens of the Kingdom of God, waiting for our ultimate restoration in the resurrection (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 1:1, 2:11). Yet the Christian is to live in that city, work in that city, and pray for its shalom: we cannot imagine that we can simply escape the problems of the city in which we live, but must do good to all of its inhabitants, and pray on its behalf, both for its peace and for the salvation of its inhabitants (1 Timothy 2:1-4, 1 Peter 3:14-18).

If the Judahites exiled to Babylon could find shalom through YHWH there, we can find shalom in the place where we sojourn. The place in which we sojourn should never feel exactly like home; nevertheless, we must seek its shalom as we await the resurrection of life and a permanent home in the presence of God. May we strive to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ in the midst of this world, doing good to all, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of YHWH!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Den of Robbers

Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods that ye have not known, and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered;’ that ye may do all these abominations? Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” saith the LORD (Jeremiah 7:8-11).

The people of Judah were about to learn the disastrous consequences of their misplaced confidence.

For generations the people of Israel had served all sorts of gods. Yes, the prophets persistently warned them against serving the gods of the nations, and to avoid their practices abhorrent to YHWH, yet they were still in the land of Israel, a Davidic king was on the throne, and in their minds, YHWH would most assuredly glorify His name against the nations. After all, in the days of Hezekiah, did YHWH not deliver Jerusalem from the hand of the king of Assyria? If YHWH protected His city, His house, and His people from the Assyrians, He would surely do the same from the Babylonians. The people of Judah looked to the existence of the Temple as their refuge and protection from danger; such was their confidence in YHWH.

The people of Judah had good reason to trust in YHWH, but they really did not trust in YHWH, for they did not pursue after Him alone. Even when they did not introduce abominations into the Temple itself, they still practiced abominations, but then expected to find refuge and forgiveness in the Temple of YHWH. Thus God sent Jeremiah to warn the people regarding the folly of their position: just because YHWH delivered Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah does not mean that He will do the same again. The people of Judah treat the Temple as thieves treat their den: they may not commit terrible sins there, but they seek refuge there from the sins they commit elsewhere, and perhaps even seek to enjoy comfort from the fruit of their iniquity there. When the place where YHWH and His name are to be glorified becomes a place where the people of God seek YHWH’s protection despite not trusting in Him alone, that place becomes a stumbling block. Within a generation the city of YHWH was cast down, His house destroyed, and His people led away to Babylon. It pained YHWH to see it, yet Israel gave Him no recourse: they abused God’s concern for them and treated it as license to continue as they always had been.

The Jews of the first century CE would learn the same lesson. As Jeremiah warned the people of Judah regarding the imminent demise of the first Temple, so Jesus warned the Jews regarding the imminent demise of the second: as He entered Jerusalem in triumph, He ritually cleansed the Temple, and in so doing declared that the people had made YHWH’s house of prayer into a den of robbers (Matthew 21:12-16, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46). No doubt Jesus has some concern regarding how the money-changers exploited the people and how such profiteering in the Temple did make it an actual den of robbers. Yet Jesus’ allusion to Jeremiah’s words would not have been lost on the Temple authorities, the Sadducees and chief priests, who perceived Jesus’ threat to the entire Temple establishment and thus their center of power, and they proved pivotal in engineering the conspiracy which led to Jesus’ death (cf. Luke 19:47-48). Nevertheless, Jesus’ witness was appropriate: many of the Jews had seen how their ancestors had overthrown the rule of the pagan Seleucids and were convinced that they could do the same against the Romans. Their confidence remained in the Temple and how YHWH would not allow the pagan Romans to overthrow that Temple. Yet in the process they rejected Jesus their Messiah and followed after those who taught lies, and within a generation of Jesus’ death Jerusalem was again destroyed and the Temple razed to the ground, never to be built again.

The logic used by the people of Israel is always tempting: YHWH is our God, YHWH is forgiving, YHWH will get glory over His enemies, so YHWH will protect His people no matter what. It is true that YHWH is God, that YHWH loves His people, and always proves faithful (cf. Romans 8:1-39), but YHWH is also holy, righteous, just, and does not provide cover for persistent sin (Hebrews 10:26-31, 1 Peter 1:16-17)! God’s judgment begins with His own household (1 Peter 4:17-19), and we do well to learn that lesson.

There is no longer a physical Temple, but God’s presence remains among His people, individually and collectively, through the presence of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 6:19-20, 1 Peter 2:3-5). How shall we treat the place where God maintains His presence? God expects the body and the church to be holy places, used in sanctification for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Ephesians 4:11-16, 5:23-33). Yet we are tempted to turn them into dens of robbers, a place where we seek refuge from the consequences of our sinful behavior without any real intent to reform or change. We must not be deceived, for God sees all. If we treat the body or the church as a den of robbers, God knows it, even if we deceive other Christians or, God forbid, other Christians participate in the same forms of darkness with us. Retribution may not be immediate, but retribution will come, and it will be swift and severe.

The Israelites persistently trusted more in God’s willingness to overlook their faults so as to uphold His name and His glory than to actually repent and reform themselves, and for it they twice watched all they held holy and sacred defamed, defiled, and destroyed. We do well to learn from them and turn aside from such folly. Let us not consider our bodies or the church as a den of robbers, seeking refuge from the consequences of sinful behavior without needing repentance, but instead turn and be holy as God is holy to His glory and honor forevermore!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Knew Not the LORD

And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, that knew not the LORD, nor yet the work which he had wrought for Israel (Judges 2:10).

Humans are creatures of habit. We participate in “good” habits and “bad” habits; it is easy to perpetuate “bad” habits, and far harder to stop them, but the opposite tends to be true for “good” habits. What is true about us as individuals can also be seen in terms of larger groups and even on a generational level. Certain practices, for better or worse, get communicated from generation to generation. Other practices can be neglected and forgotten.

When it comes to habits, the beginning of the process is extremely important. Some say that it takes twenty-one days to start or break a habit; after that point, it is easier to keep on going (or not going, whatever the situation might be). Whatever starts well has a better chance of ending well.

The same is true when it came to God’s work amongst the Israelites. The generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt saw God’s powerful hand both defeating their enemies and keeping them alive. The generation afterward saw God’s hand in the conquest of Canaan. A legacy had been established which could be now communicated to successive generations of Israelites: the powerful story of God’s working on behalf of Israel. The story was to be perpetuated for generations so that Israel would always remember how YHWH delivered their fathers out of Egypt and knew that YHWH, not Baal, not any other god, was truly God (e.g. Exodus 12:24-27). It was intended to be a catalyst toward faithfulness for each successive generation.

Yet as soon as the Israelites enter the land, something goes wrong. Perhaps the fathers did not properly instruct their children; perhaps the children, as they grew up, rebelled against the teachings they received. Nevertheless, the next generation grew up without knowing YHWH nor the work which He had done for Israel.

The “good” habit had been broken; the “bad” habits began to perpetuate themselves. The Judges author goes on to describe the faithlessness of Israel, following the customs of the nations around them, turning to the Baals, provoking YHWH to anger (Judges 2:11-14). This will be the paradigm that marks Israelite history for another 800 years, culminating in the exile of Israel and Judah (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23, 2 Chronicles 36:13-16).

The challenge makes sense: everyone has to get some sort of story about who they are and the world in which they live from somewhere. God provided that story for Israel through His saving acts of deliverance, but for a generation who did not know YHWH and what He did, all was left was the story the Canaanites were telling.

The challenge remains to this day. Everyone has to get some sort of story about who they are and the world in which they live from somewhere. God provides that story for us in Scripture: God as Creator, man’s fall, God’s work to redeem mankind through the Patriarchs, Israel, and ultimately and completely through His Son, Jesus of Nazareth. As God did for Israel in Egypt and the Wilderness, so God has done for all mankind in Jesus: God has acted powerfully to redeem us and rescue us from bondage (cf. Romans 5:6-11, 6:16-23). This is the story that should be told from generation to generation.

Yet rebellion persists. Some never learn of the story; some only receive a portion of the story; others learn it but reject it. Plenty grow up and live, never knowing God, and as a result, believe in whatever story they hear from their society and culture through its various agents.

While we all enjoy the creation which God has made for us, and should be able to perceive His hand within it (cf. Romans 1:19-20), we should not expect to see in our generation any of the powerful acts of deliverance akin to what God wrought for Israel in Egypt and the Wilderness and in Judea in the days of Jesus of Nazareth. This does not minimize the power of those events; it shows us how God acts decisively within human history in order to transform humanity, and it then becomes incumbent on every successive generation to communicate the message of God’s deliverance and to orient others back toward a reconciled relationship with their Creator. It is a never-ending process. Even if we have accepted it in the past and seek to communicate it to others, we must be reminded of it again frequently, lest we forget. And we must take special concern not to see the message confused and distorted by later adaptations and changes meant to make it all more palatable to the audience of the day.

Good habits are hard to start; bad habits are tough to break. Let us promote the Gospel of Christ, develop the “habit” of dependence upon God, lest we incur the same judgment and condemnation as those who did not know YHWH or what He has done!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Not to Direct His Steps

O LORD, 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).

Some of the more “amusing” things that small children do involves the plans they devise. As they are trying to sort out things like logic, cause and effect, argument, and such like, they find themselves in all sorts of trouble for doing things they thought would work but failed miserably. This is especially true for boys; it seems that one of the parent’s most important tasks in raising young men is to keep them from killing or maiming themselves.

The problem with humanity is our presumption of getting beyond this stage in life. We get to a point when we think we have most things somewhat figured out, and we have a way forward. And yet time and time again, in various ways for various reasons, we find ourselves in all sorts of trouble.

Jeremiah saw such trouble coming for Judah. The people put their trust in metallic images of their own manufacture; the leaders of Judah were involved in high-stakes political maneuvering. They all thought they had things sorted out and were acting in their own best interest. But Jeremiah knew the word that had come from YHWH, and it was all for naught. The idols would be quickly proven worthless; the political maneuvering would end with the Babylonian army at Jerusalem’s gates and Judah’s supposed “allies” far away or conquered. The men of Judah did not consult YHWH for direction; they did not turn to him and away from their idolatry. They would soon learn how foolish that decision had been.

In such a condition Jeremiah had good reason to utter the words of Jeremiah 10:23. The way of man is not in himself. It is not in man who walks to direct his steps. When humans get to thinking that they can figure it out, things start going very badly.

Paul describes the degeneracy well in Romans 1:18-32. When people start thinking they know better, they rebel from the way of God. God allows this rebellion and gives them over to the consequences of this rebellion. Humans then invent their own gods based on what they can perceive in the universe. They then give themselves over to commit immorality and give full vent to their animalistic impulses. Meanwhile, virtue is cast aside.

It never takes too long to see this degeneracy in action. We most assuredly see it in our own day with a generation which does not speak a coherent language of morality and which is content with individualistic moralism. The god of this age seems to be the self: what I think, what I want, what is best for “#1.” It certainly seems that many people today actively snub their nose at any concept that it is not within them to direct their own steps.

But how well is this turning out for everyone? Are we all better off because we believe we are the pilots of our own lives? Hardly. Pain, misery, and suffering abound, and a lot of it is a direct consequence of our choices and behavior. People today seem content to lose their humanity in order to keep consuming and producing, thinking they are in control of it all.

The details might be different, but the story has been the same throughout time. People in Jeremiah’s day thought they knew better. People in Jesus’ and Paul’s day thought the same. Many of our ancestors did as well.

We do well to learn this fundamental lesson: no, we are not good at directing our own steps. No, it is not within a man to figure out how he should go. We are not much better off than when we were children and did things that seem quite stupid on reflection but somehow made sense to us then. When we try to figure it all out, things get distorted, because despite our pretensions, we do not know everything. We do not know much of anything when it comes down to it. The way we live, what we choose to do, and what we choose not to do exemplify that!

Once we learn that lesson we can turn to God and follow His steps. We can learn from Jesus, the exact imprint of the divine nature, and walk as He walked (Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 2:6). When we go in the way our Creator intended us to go, we will find ourselves truly human again, since we have returned to intended purpose of humanity. We will not go after the distortions, perversions, and degeneracy that comes with believing ourselves more important and better informed than we truly are.

It takes a lot of humility to learn from God; there is always that impulse within us seeking to go its own way. But how well has that ever gone for us? Let us learn our lesson, not trusting in ourselves, but instead placing our trust in God through Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Know That I Am YHWH

And the slain shall fall in the midst of you, and ye shall know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 6:7).

Thus we see the first example of a persistent theme throughout Ezekiel’s prophecies– the LORD (YHWH) has made a decree of violence, pestilence, plague, and famine against Judah and Jerusalem, and when the terrible events of the destruction of Jerusalem and Temple and the Babylonian Captivity come upon the people of Judah, they will know that “I am YHWH.” This phrase– “they/you will know that I am YHWH”– occurs repeatedly throughout Ezekiel (e.g. Ezekiel 6:10, 13, 14, 7:4, 7:27, 11:10, etc.). But why is this such a major theme in Ezekiel?

Is it because the Israelites do not know anything about YHWH? One would be forgiven for receiving such an impression throughout the Old Testament. Yet we see in Ezekiel 8:12 that the people speak about YHWH; false prophets bring messages of peace to the people in the name of YHWH (Ezekiel 13:2, 10). If you were to ask the people of Judah about YHWH, they would agree that YHWH is God, that He is the God of Israel, and even that He delivered the Israelites out of the land of Egypt long before. So how come we have this persistent declaration that the people of Judah will know that “I am YHWH”?

Is it because they do not believe that YHWH is Lord? This again is hard to believe. While other prophets speak in the name of YHWH, Ezekiel often declares that he speaks in the name of “Lord YHWH” (cf. Ezekiel 2:4, 3:11, etc.; this is often missed in translation because it will be rendered as Lord GOD or something of the sort). We never see anyone challenging Ezekiel, declaring that YHWH really is not Lord. Furthermore, we do not see God saying that the people of Judah will know that He is “Lord YHWH.” No; Lord YHWH is speaking to them, declaring that they will “know that I am YHWH.”

So if the people of Judah know that YHWH is God, Lord, even the God of Israel, why do they have to learn that He is YHWH?

The people of Judah do not really accept that He is YHWH, for they have been serving other gods and committing all sorts of abominations (cf. Ezekiel 6:3-13, 8:5-18). They might admit that YHWH is God, and that He is the God of Israel, but that does not stop them from believing in Tammuz the god of the Mesopotamians, the Baals, Molech, the Queen of Heaven, and to do all sorts of things that YHWH condemned.

Ezekiel is rather likely going beyond the surface of the statement to its inner meaning. Sure, Israel believes that YHWH is her God. But YHWH is not just “a” god– He is God, the Existent One. In Ezekiel 8:12 some of the people believe that YHWH does not see them. How can the Existent One not see them? How can they think that the Existent One is not entirely and always aware of their thoughts, intentions, and actions?

Therefore, the Israelites know YHWH only as one god among many; they do not know YHWH as the Existent One, the One, the Only, All-Sovereign God. They will only come to terms with this reality when everything they have is taken from them. Only then can they see clearly that all the other gods are nothing, and in serving them they have offended the Existent One.

Do people today know YHWH? Most people profess to know God the Father and the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Most people believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, that He is Lord, that there is a heaven and a hell– and most believe that they are going to heaven. But do they really know YHWH the Existent One? Not when they go and serve other gods; not when they hold firm to their own views of how God “must be” even if those are contrary to the way that He has revealed Himself; not when they pursue after the things God warns His people to avoid, and run from the things which God tells His people to pursue. We only can demonstrate that we know Lord YHWH when we submit to His Son to seek to accomplish His will and not our own (Romans 12:1, Galatians 2:20).

The day is coming when everyone will know that “I am YHWH” (Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-11, Philippians 2:9-11). And, just as with Israel, when that day comes, it will be too late for the people to come to repentance (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Hebrews 9:27). It will be a fearful day if we only come to know that “I am YHWH” on the final day, having spent our lives in foolishness that greatly offended the Existent One. Should we think that the Existent One is not entirely and always aware of our thoughts, intentions, and actions? Should we be so foolish as to think that “YHWH does not see us”–or, its modern variant, “God is dead”? The Existent One is always there. It is in Him that we live, move, and have our being (Acts 17:28); nothing will escape His notice. Everything will come under judgment. Therefore, let us submit to the Existent One as He truly is while we still have time– let us serve God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ and know that He is YHWH!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Taking God’s Name in Vain

Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain (Exodus 20:7).

Perhaps you have always wondered why the name of God in the Old Testament is often rendered as LORD in capital letters, or how some concluded that His name is “Jehovah,” or why to this day some among the Jews will only write “G-d.” It all goes back to a very strict interpretation of the third commandment: the Israelites were not to take the name of YHWH their God in vain (Exodus 20:7).

Long after the Ten Commandments were given, it was reasoned that if you never spoke the name of God, you would not take it in vain. Therefore, the Jews stopped saying “Yahweh” and would always substitute some other divine title– Adonai (Lord), Elohim (God), Ha-Shem (the Name). The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, consistently renders Yahweh as Kurios (Lord). Later on, as the Masoretes, the Jewish scribes who copied the Hebrew Bible texts in the first millennium CE, developed the vowel pointing system, they would always put the vowels for Ha-Shem, Adonai, or Elohim under the Divine Name YHWH so that even if a Jew thoughtlessly began uttering God’s name without providing an alternative substitute, what would come out of his mouth would be meaningless. This is how we got “Jehovah,” which is meaningless in Hebrew– it is the consonants of the Divine Name (YHWH) with the vowels for Adonai. To this day, many translations avoid transliterating God’s name as Yahweh and continue to use LORD in capital letters.

We mention all of this, partly in way of explanation, but also partly to show how some people have taken God’s commandment to not take His name in vain rather seriously. Yes, in many respects, this devotion was terribly misguided. It was not at all God’s intention to mean that His name should never be uttered– we have evidence from early Israelite history showing that people spoke of YHWH and sought His blessings for one another (cf. Ruth 2:4). God also did not intend for His unique name Yahweh to be upheld while other terms used to refer to Him, like God, Lord, etc., could be used more flippantly. We should also hasten to mention that this is not evidence of some conspiracy to remove God’s name from Scripture, as if we sin if we never refer to God as Yahweh, as some would allege. God, the Lord, Yahweh, even “Jehovah”– YHWH the Creator God knows when people speak to Him and about Him, whether in using His personal name or by referring to one of His divine titles and functions in the speaker’s native language.

Yet all of this ultimately serves as a distraction from what God was seeking in the third commandment. What is the big deal with taking God’s name in vain?

Some might suggest that this is yet another example of God’s insecurities and despotic behavior, as if God must absolutely be upheld and treated differently or else He finds Himself in difficulty. Yet there is no reason to even suggest this. God is all-powerful and Sovereign whether we uphold His name as holy or we do not (cf. Hebrews 1:3, Ephesians 1:21). No– the command to not take God’s name in vain was for Israel’s sake.

One of the great declarations of the Old Testament involves God’s holiness– God is holy, and Israel is to be holy because of it (Leviticus 11:44, 19:2). To be holy is to be separate and distinct.

Taking God’s name in vain is to show disrespect to God’s holiness, indeed. Far too many people only seem to get religious in their speech when they find themselves in compromising or compromised positions. Too many people speak of God only in vulgar speech, insults, or in various exclamations and interjections. Euphemisms for the names of God and Christ remain popular, even though the same spirit is there, but in our increasingly crude society, fewer people find the need for alternatives and just keep with the “real thing.”

Yet the challenge is not just in the disrespect demonstrated– the real difficulty is in how God is made mundane in the process. Israel was to show respect and reverence for God’s name in order to remember how holy and separate God really is (Isaiah 55:8-9). To utter God’s name in the common events of life– when one hurts oneself, as an unthinking response to some circumstance, and so on and so forth– is really to empty God’s name of its power, holiness, and importance. It is truly taking God’s name “in vain”– using God’s name in a throwaway sense, and in so doing, we nullify and make vain for us the power and holiness present in God. God, and Christ in our own day, is made too common and unthought of when God’s name is used in such trifling circumstances.

This is not an aspect of God that changes in the new covenant, as it is written:

Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but such as is good for edifying as the need may be, that it may give grace to them that hear (Ephesians 4:29).

As believers we must give thought to what we say. We will be brought into judgment for every careless word uttered (Matthew 12:36). While it is popular in our society to invoke God’s name for swearing in all kinds of senses, in all kinds of casual, trivial circumstances that have no bearing on God’s great holiness and work in Jesus Christ, we must make sure that our speech is different. If we revere God as holy, we will speak about God as holy. We will understand that we should not trivialize or make common God’s name through frivolous and vain usage. We also will understand that euphemisms are no better; the same spirit is at work, and we are not giving grace through speaking them.

God wants us to speak about Him and to use His name to glorify Him, praise Him, and serve Him. But His name must be kept holy– separate and distinct– if we are going to truly revere Him as holy. Let us therefore consider our speech and strive to not take God’s name in vain!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The First Commandment

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

The great moment is upon Israel. YHWH has delivered Israel from Egypt and slavery with a strong arm and with mighty deeds (Exodus 6-14). He is physically sustaining them in the desert wilderness, seeking to make them His chosen people (Exodus 15-18). He has brought them to His holy mountain, Sinai; they have consecrated themselves; He is speaking, reminding them regarding who He is and what He has done (Exodus 19:1-20:2). God now begins the commandments that Israel must keep to receive the blessing.

When lists are made there is often emphasis placed on that which comes first. Therefore, what is the first commandment that YHWH gives to Israel? What, of all the commands He will give, does He highlight?

That Israel shall have no other gods “against” or “before” His face, if we attempt to render the command more literally. As is often translated, that Israel will have no other gods before/beside Him.

That might seem a little strange to us today. Of all the plagues and difficulties of humanity, YHWH focuses first on other gods? Is YHWH being megalomaniacal or utterly self-possessed, as the Gnostics would later suggest?

We must first understand the mindset of the people who lived in the ancient Near East. Every nation then had its own specific god– a “national god,” if you will. Moab, for example, had Chemosh (Judges 11:24); the Philistines had Dagon (Judges 16:23). If your nation was prosperous and successful, it was evident that your national god was blessing you. If disaster came upon you, then your national god was angry with you. On top of the national gods were the gods of natural forces and things of that sort– El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon, or group of gods; Baal, the storm and fertility god; Astarte his consort; Yam the god of the sea, and so on and so forth. All the nations believed in these gods– even the gods of the foreign nationalities.

Therefore, the temptation was very great for Israel to see YHWH as their national god and believe in all of the other gods of all the people around them. In turn, everyone else would believe that YHWH was the god of Israel, but in no different way than, say, Chemosh was the god of Moab.

What would be the big deal if this happened? If Israel does not understand that YHWH is distinctive and different from all other “gods,” then they will not understand how the law YHWH is giving them is different from the laws of the nations around them. If they accept the religious views of the people around them, they will follow the customs of the people around them. This concern is entirely justified– and this is precisely what will take place in Israel’s history. They will fall into the trap we have described, always understanding that YHWH is the God of Israel, but acting as if He is just one of the divinities of one of the nations of the ancient Near East. Little wonder, then, that they start engaging in the abominations of the world around them!

We must also understand that God’s concern here– idolatry– is one of the most fundamental dangers of life. Paul will later show in Romans 1:18-32 how man’s depravity begins with the rejection of God as the One True God, the Creator, to whom all creation is subject. This rejection takes place when man begins to serve some aspect of the creation rather than the Creator.

A lot of people, when thinking about this idea, think about Egyptian “gods” and their presentation as animals and the like, or people bowing down in fear before the sun, moon, rivers, and being terrified when eclipses and the like take place. All of those are ways that people, throughout time, have taken the creation and turned it into a god or many gods.

But such idolatry does not stop there. The same impulse that led people to make gods out of sun, moon, fire, wind, and water now leads people to make gods out of themselves, money, desire, power, sex, science, their nation, and a whole host of other “gods.” They are all part of the creation that God made as very good (Genesis 1:1-31), but when they are made to be the reason for life, or absolute, they become gods that people serve.

This is why the first– and highlighted– commandment is for Israel to have no other gods before/beside YHWH. This need not mean that YHWH is legitimizing the existence of other “gods”; far from it (cf. Isaiah 44, 1 Corinthians 8). The problem is not that there actually are other gods out there– the problem is that we humans will either serve the One True God or we will invent a god or gods to serve. And then there are the times when we try to do both– to serve YHWH while serving our idols. This cannot be tolerated, not because YHWH is truly megalomaniacal, but because, as Jesus says, when we have more than one god, we will love the one and hate the other, or hold to the one and despise the other (Matthew 6:24). We cannot love YHWH and therefore the Creator and Source of life while we elevate something He made to a position equal or greater to His in our lives.

As Israel was not to have other gods than YHWH, Christians are to guard themselves from idols (1 John 5:21). We must clear all idols from our hearts to serve the One True God. Let us do so and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Foundation of the Law

“I am YHWH thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2).

The climactic moment was upon them.

YHWH had delivered His people Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Egyptians now knew that He is YHWH and they feared His name, and for good reason– they saw the devastation of their country with the plagues and the destruction of their army in the Red Sea (Exodus 7-14). As God had promised Moses, He brought the people to serve Him on Mount Sinai (cf. Exodus 3:12). He was sustaining Israel with manna and water from His hand, and brought them victory in war (Exodus 15-18). Furthermore, Israel had been preparing themselves for three days, cleansing themselves, becoming a consecrated people, trembling before the power of God manifest on Sinai (Exodus 19).

And now God begins to speak. And the first thing He declares to all Israel is something they should already know– that He is YHWH, that He brought them out of Egypt, and had delivered them from slavery! Why would this be the way that God begins the declaration of His law for Israel?

First of all, we must remember that while YHWH is speaking directly to the Israelites standing before Him around 1450 BCE, He is also speaking to every Israelite who would follow for 1500 years. While those Israelites who were the ones actually delivered from slavery would remember it, future generations might not.

The statement is not something over which we should just gloss and move on. God’s declaration of being the One who delivered them from Egypt and bondage is, in fact, the foundation of the Law He is about to establish.

Let us think about this for a moment. Why does YHWH wait until this point to give Israel His Law? By all accounts, it would have been more convenient if YHWH had revealed His Law before the Exodus when it was just Moses upon the mountain (cf. Exodus 3-4). Israel would have known everything that God would expect of them before they even left Egypt. As it stands, God has been working with this people for at least a few months without any operating covenant between them.

Yet if God had given the revelation of His Law directly to Moses before the Exodus, how would that have been accepted by the Israelites? Didn’t they, at some level, have the same question about YHWH as Pharaoh did (cf. Exodus 5:2)? Who is YHWH? Why should we believe in Him or follow what He says? If He is God, why are we in bondage and in terrible distress?

The Exodus and the sojourn in the Wilderness represent YHWH’s demonstration of His power and authority, not just to the nations, but especially to Israel (Exodus 7:1-5, 14:4, 14:30-31, Deuteronomy 8:3). God answers their questions in these actions. Who is YHWH? He is the One who devastated Egypt and delivered Israel from their grip. Why should we believe in Him or follow what He says? Because He has proven Himself to be the One True God, superior to all the “gods” of Egypt, and has delivered us and sustained us by His power alone. YHWH orchestrated all of this so Israel could never declare that it was by her own hand, her own power or strength, that delivered her from Egypt and persevered through the Wilderness. There was to be no doubt, in that generation or in any future generation: YHWH is the powerful God without whom Israel would still be slaves in Egypt.

This is why YHWH’s declaration of Himself as the Deliverer of Israel from Egypt and slavery is the foundation of the Law. It is how He proved His power, love, and compassion upon Israel. Israel can have complete confidence in YHWH’s Law because they can have complete confidence in the power and love of YHWH who delivered them.

Today we Christians live under a new covenant enacted on better promises (cf. Hebrews 8:6). Yet the nature of God has not changed (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8)! He has acted in similar ways in the inauguration of the new covenant.

While it is true that Jesus provides many of the ethical guidelines for the lives of His disciples while He lived (cf. Matthew 5-7, etc.), He does so as a proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom that is coming (cf. Matthew 4:17, 23). In reality, nothing in the old covenant could be changed until the new was inaugurated (Matthew 5:17-18, Hebrews 9:15-22).

Israel could trust the law of YHWH because He brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. So how can we trust in the law of Christ? Because God, in Christ, brings us out of the land of sin, out of the house of death (Romans 8:1-3). This was attested to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the ultimate demonstration of YHWH’s love, mercy, and power (Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 15:54-58). Whatever questions people might have had about who Jesus was or what He was doing before His death should have been finally and decisively answered in His death and resurrection and the resultant proclamation of the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:1-41, Colossians 1:13).

The foundation of the Law of Moses was YHWH’s deliverance of the Israelites from the hand of Egypt. The foundation of the new covenant between God and man through Jesus the Christ is His death and resurrection. In Jesus’ death and resurrection God defeats sin and death and provides us the means of doing the same (Revelation 12:11). The death and resurrection of Jesus are assurances of His Lordship and of His return to judge the living and the dead (Acts 17:30-31, Philippians 2:5-11). God has definitively acted; we should not doubt, for He has proven His love for us and the basis of our hope of eternal life through the death and resurrection of His Son. Let us serve God to the full!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A God Who Hides Himself

Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour (Isaiah 45:15).

We have all gone through times in our lives when we have felt that God has hidden His face from us. Perhaps it was in the midst of a trial or challenge and we felt that there was no divine aid. Maybe it was during an entire period in our lives when we admittedly turned our backs upon God. Far too many people, at times, feel as if God has abandoned them and all of us. Some want to know where God has been for the better part of the past two thousand years!

The Israelites living in Babylon toward the end of their exile would have likely felt in similar ways. Many were not quite sure what to make of their experience. Was YHWH really there? Why did He not save us from the Babylonians? Is Marduk really stronger than YHWH? If YHWH is out there, and He is the God of Israel, why are we still in Babylon? It would be easy for them to feel as if they were abandoned by God!

The statement made in Isaiah 45:15 has caused discomfort throughout time. The Greek translator of the text seemingly could not reconcile its substance with the proper understanding of YHWH, and so he translated it, “for thou art God, yet we knew it not, the God of Israel, the Saviour.” Even if we take the text at its face value, we must wonder whether the author is being deadly serious or whether he is lodging an implicit critique or complaint. Are there times when God really does hide Himself, or does Isaiah just feel as if that’s the way it seems sometimes? Or perhaps he means a little bit of both?

Yet we can make some sense of what is being revealed here. The message is consistent with what Paul will say to the Colossians regarding the gospel of Christ: it is the mystery hidden for ages and generations that was manifest in Jesus and revealed to all who will believe from the first century onward (Colossians 1:25-27). While it is true that God comforted Israel with predictions regarding the Christ and His Kingdom (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12), how it would all work out was hidden until the time when God the Son was manifest in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1, 14).

So it was for Israel in the exile. God had already comforted His people with the understanding that the exile was temporary. The fortunes of Israel would change quickly– the mighty Babylonian empire fell quickly to Cyrus the Persian, and the Israelites found themselves able to go home (2 Chronicles 36:20-23, Daniel 5:1-31). All of this, Isaiah assures that audience, is from the hand of YHWH (Isaiah 44:24-45:7).

Is God a God who hides Himself? There are times when it may seem like it– but notice the end of the verse. The God of Israel remains the “Savior” (Isaiah 45:15). Sometimes, in His acts of salvation, He does not reveal everything all at once. At times the message is held back so that events can play out. God has infinitely greater understanding and insight than we do (Isaiah 55:8-9), and if He decides to hide Himself in some way, we must trust that it is part of His greater plan for salvation. We may not understand it now, but if we love God and seek to serve His Son, we may rest ourselves in Romans 8:28, knowing that it will all work out for good in the end.

Even though God hid His message of deliverance and salvation to some, it was ultimately accomplished so that all could benefit if they so chose. God has acted definitively against sin and evil to redeem mankind through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:6-11), and we have the opportunity to be saved through Him and to obtain the resurrection of life (1 Corinthians 15:1-58, Philippians 3:12-14). If it seems that God is hiding Himself, it might be our mistaken impression, or perhaps God is working to deliver us in ways we do not understand. Let us rest assured of God’s overwhelming love for us and that He is the Savior indeed!

Ethan R. Longhenry