Pharisees and Scribes

Then spake Jesus to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not. Yea, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:1-4).

The Evangelists consistently speak of mutual antagonism between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. From their presentation alone one might imagine that Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are miles apart in their understanding of God and Judaism. And yet, of all the various sects of Second Temple Judaism, Jesus has the most in common with the Pharisees. The Sadducees accepted only the Torah as legitimate ground of authority and denied the existence of angels, the soul, and the resurrection (Matthew 22:23, Acts 23:8). The Herodians, by virtue of supporting Herod and his government, would have no love for a rival King of the Jews (Matthew 22:16). One might think that Jesus and the Essenes would have much in common; while they shared an apocalyptic worldview and some “ascetic” practices, the Essenes rejected the present Temple and its authorities as illegitimate and looked forward to the day when the Sons of Light would restore the Temple and its proper service and who withdrew from life in the greater Jewish community. Jesus did not look forward to establishment of a restored Temple in Jerusalem, nor did He withdraw from life among the people of God (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed about the inspiration and authority of the prophets and the writings, angels, the soul, the resurrection, and the hope of Israel in the Messiah. This leaves us with a major challenge: if Jesus and the Pharisees share so many similarities in outlook, why are the Pharisees and the scribes singled out for such strong condemnation by the Evangelists? If Jesus and the Pharisees agree on so much, why are the Pharisees portrayed in such consistently negative ways in the Gospels?

Few places express Jesus’ difficulties with the scribes and Pharisees with as much rhetorical force and denunciation as in the series of woes Jesus sets forth in Matthew 23:1-35. Jesus begins His litany of invective against the scribes and Pharisees by denouncing a form of their hypocrisy in Matthew 23:1-4.

Brooklyn Museum - Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) - James Tissot

Jesus begins with the recognition that the scribes and Pharisees maintain a pride of place in Second Temple Judaism: they “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). No actual chair is envisioned; Jesus gives recognition to their claims of serving as the interpreters of the Law of Moses on behalf of the people. For this reason Jesus tells the people to do what the scribes and Pharisees bid them to do (Matthew 23:3a). Some interpreters of this passage suggest that Jesus is being sarcastic and does not actually expect His audience to live according to what the Pharisees teach; such an interpretation is possible but not necessarily warranted. We do well to remember that even though Jewish people put great emphasis on literacy and would have maintained higher literacy rates than seen among the Gentiles, plenty of Jewish people could still not read or write, and even then, scrolls of the Law, Prophets, and Writings were copied by hand on expensive papyrus and parchment and would have been reserved for use in the synagogues and those like the scribes and Pharisees who were trained in the Law (Luke 4:17-20). Previously Ezra and his associates had read the Law and gave an understanding of its meaning (Nehemiah 8:1-8); many Jewish people in the first century looked to the scribes and Pharisees for the same reason, and for the time being, Jesus recognizes their role.

In Matthew 23:1-4 the problem is less with the specific interpretations and explanations given by the scribes and Pharisees and much more their unwillingness to do them (Matthew 23:3b-4)! They say the things faithful Jewish people should do, but they themselves do not do them. They expect Jewish people to adhere to all sorts of laws according to what is written and the traditions of the fathers, denounce as sinners those unwilling to bear them (John 9:16, 24), but provide no assistance to others, show no mercy, and themselves frequently (and flagrantly) violate them. In short, it may be good to do what they say, but do not do as they do.

To say one thing but do another is the essence of hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees were respected for their knowledge; no doubt many “average” Israelites looked up to them as holy people because of it. Yet, in practice, they were not very holy. They were just as guilty of violating the Law as other Israelites (Acts 13:39, Romans 3:13-21). Yet such totality begs the question: were not all the Israelites, save the Lord Jesus, hypocrites to some degree? Why are the scribes and Pharisees being singled out for this condemnation?

It is one thing to try and fall short; it is quite another to not even try. It is one thing to teach a given path, try to live it, and stumble at times; we humans are imperfect. It is quite another to act as if one is all holy and righteous, presume to be holier and more righteous than others, and yet substantively are little better than those whom they denounce. Such were the scribes and Pharisees: they acted as if knowing and teaching the Law brought forth its own special kind of holiness. Jesus makes it clear that it does not.

We do well to remember that the scribes and Pharisees were part of the people of God, and of all the people of God at the time, were considered to be the most holy and righteous. Their denunciation by all the Evangelists is, in its own way, a warning for believers: do not be like the Pharisees. The way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisees are quite divergent, yet throughout time Christians, however well-meaning, have fallen prey to the ways of the Pharisees!

The Apostle Paul declares that knowledge puffs up while love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1); it is very easy to obtain knowledge of God and His ways and thus presume one’s holiness based upon one’s superior knowledge. That is the way of the Pharisee and the Gnostic; it is not the way of Jesus or those who truly follow Him (1 Timothy 6:20-21)! We are not made holy by our knowledge; we are not better than others simply because we have come to a better understanding of the will of God than they have. Such is why the first and foremost aspect of the Gospel is our own sinfulness and our inability to solve our sin problem through our own efforts (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). We are entirely dependent upon God in Christ for the hope of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9); our obedient response in faith, while necessary, does not earn us or merit our salvation!

Every Christian, to some degree or another, is a hypocrite; we proclaim the way of God in Christ but fall short at times (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). But we must walk the walk of Christ; we must do the commandments (1 John 2:3-6). In seeking to do them we will learn humility, faith, and obedience. We would never imagine to lay heavy burdens on others and let ourselves go free; quite the contrary (Galatians 6:2)!

In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus begins to set forth the contrast between the condemned ways of the scribes and Pharisees and the righteous way of God in Christ. The way of the Pharisees is always tempting for the people of God; we must resist it, remaining humble and dependent upon God in Christ, seeking to do the will of the Lord in all respects, bearing one another’s burdens and not attempting to make them heavier! Let us serve the Lord Jesus in humble faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Spies’ Report

And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.”
But the men that went up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.”
And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:30-33).

The mission had been completed. But what did it mean?

Moses commissioned twelve spies, one from each tribe of Israel, to go and search out Canaan and ascertain the nature of the land and its inhabitants (Numbers 13:1-20). They went up and saw the land and its inhabitants; they brought back a cluster of grapes, some pomegranates, and figs (Numbers 13:21-26). They even brought back a united assessment of the land: it was a great land, “flowing with milk and honey,” but the people who live there were strong, in great and fortified cities, and the descendants of Anak (the Nephilim, Numbers 13:33) lived there, as well as Amalekites, Jebusites, Amorites, Hittites, and Canaanites (Numbers 13:27-29).

Altdorfer Joshua and Caleb

Caleb, the spy from the tribe of Judah, then encouraged Israel to go and possess the land (Numbers 13:30). But ten of the other spies threw cold water on that suggestion, emphasizing the strength of the adversaries, considering themselves as grasshoppers in comparison (Numbers 13:31-33).

Israel went the way of the ten spies; they went so far as to express the desire to return to Egypt and slavery (Numbers 14:1-4). Caleb, along with Joshua, the spy from Ephraim, begged Israel to reconsider, affirming the goodness of the land and that YHWH would give it to them, confident that if YHWH was with them it would not matter how strong their foes might seem (Numbers 14:5-9). But it was too late; Israelites sought to stone Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:10).

Consider Israel’s perspective. The reality “on the ground” is never in doubt: the ten spies recognize that the land is of excellent quality with great produce; Caleb and Joshua recognize that the inhabitants of the land are numerous, strong, and living in well-fortified cities. The Israelites have just left slavery in Egypt; they did not have the resources and strength among themselves to overcome their enemies’ advantages. They, as with the ten spies, assess the situation as it looks on the ground; their response is entirely natural according to such a perspective. If it is their strength versus their opponents’ strength, they will die in battle. Such seems quite realistic.

And then there was the faith motivating Caleb and Joshua. If all Israel could rely on was its own resources and strength then Caleb and Joshua would agree that any invasion was a fool’s errand. But Caleb and Joshua remembered that YHWH had just redeemed them from Egyptian slavery, from the very Egypt which dominated Canaan and boasted the strongest empire of the day. If YHWH could rescue Israel from Egypt, then YHWH could dispossess the strong Canaanite nations from before Israel (Numbers 14:9). No, Israel would not obtain Canaan because of their own abilities. They could only obtain it if they trusted in YHWH.

But Israel was not trusting in YHWH. They were rebelling against Him! He promised that He would bring them into the land; they wanted to go back to Egypt, to abort YHWH’s mission halfway through (Exodus 3:7-9, Numbers 14:1-4). To return to Egypt would be to forsake YHWH and everything which He had done for Israel. They even wished that they had died in Egypt or the wilderness; such is how little they trusted in YHWH or thought of the efficacy of His power in this situation.

To this day there is a place for assessment of the situation “on the ground.” In general there is consensus about the situation of the faith “on the ground.” Its influence, however strong it may have been in the past, seems to be waning. Church membership and participation is declining. More and more people identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Strong secular and spiritual forces attempt to subvert the faith and marginalize those who proclaim it. Following Jesus seems to be a quaint relic of the past, a historical legacy many feel is better to discard. Likewise, there is general agreement that by our own resources and strength it will prove nearly impossible to turn the tide on these trends. We can see the “post-Christian” secular future across the pond in Europe where it has been going on for longer than here. “Realistically” we have reason for lamentation and mourning. “Sober assessments” recognize the seeming futility of our endeavors. “On the ground,” it would seem that we should make sure to ask the last person to leave to turn off the lights.

Yet such assessments, however “realistic” or “sober” they seem to be, do not take into account the existence of God and all He has done for us. They do not take into account that “realistically” Christianity should never have existed, and even if it had been started, by all “realistic” scenarios would have died out a long time ago. Jesus has won the victory; Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:31-33). The forces of darkness in this world are arrayed against us and they are strong (Ephesians 6:12); nevertheless, He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

Many Christians have fallen into the trap of cynicism and pessimism dressed up as being “honest” or “realistic” about the manifold problems facing Christianity and the church. We do well to remember that the spies and Israel were the people of God, and they were being quite “realistic” and “honest” about the situations they were facing. Yet God punished that generation for rebelling against Him; they ironically got their wish, for they all but Caleb and Joshua would die in the wilderness and would not inherit the land (Numbers 14:10-35). The ten spies died by plague (Numbers 14:36-37). It would be the next generation who would trust in YHWH and obtain the promised land, and Caleb and Joshua would lead them to victory (Joshua 1:1-24:33). We must remember this because what the Israelites thought was “honesty” and “realism” betrayed a lack of faith and rebelliousness (1 Corinthians 10:1-12)! YHWH had already proven Himself by delivering them from Egyptian slavery and providing for them to that moment. Likewise God has proven Himself to us through the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus His Son (Romans 1:4, Romans 5:6-11, 8:17-25). He is able to do more than we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:20-21). The only reason we have ever had the opportunity to hear the Gospel ourselves is on account of His great power working through His servants; if it were only ever based on the resources and strength of the faithful the message would not get very far!

The world gives many reasons for cynicism, despair, doubt, and pessimism. It always has; it always will. Christians are called to put their trust in God, recognizing that the victory comes through Jesus even in difficult circumstances, and that the ways of the world are folly to God (1 Corinthians 1:19-25, 1 Peter 1:3-9). The decision is up to us. Are we going to give in to the realistic assessment and be driven to cynicism and despair as the ten spies and Israel, proving to have more faith in our perception and the ways of the world than in our Creator and Redeemer, and be found in rebellion? Or will we prove willing to put our trust in God in Christ, aware of the long odds and impossibility of our mission in worldly terms, but ever mindful of God’s strength and faithfulness, and to put our hope in God and His strength, as Caleb and Joshua did? May we maintain faith and hope and not give in to cynicism and despair, and obtain the victory in Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Go and Die With Him

Thomas therefore, who is called Didymus, said unto his fellow-disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

Thomas was convinced it was a suicide mission for all of them.

As the third Passover of His ministry drew near Jesus was a marked man if He returned to Jerusalem. He had challenged the existing Temple system (John 2:13-22); He had unrepentantly healed on the Sabbath (John 5:1-18); He taught regarding His relationship with His Father, and the Jews sought to stone Him (John 8:54-59, 10:24-39). Jesus’ disciples saw the writing on the wall: a return to Judea risked stoning or some other form of death (John 11:8).

Yet Jesus insisted. Lazarus had died; He had attempted to communicate this in less direct ways but had to come out with it (John 11:1-15). Jesus knows why He must go down to Judea; His disciples seem less than enthusiastic about the proposition. As He is about to leave Thomas makes this declaration: “let us go also, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16).

021 Apòstols de Santa Maria d'Orcau, sant Tomàs.jpg

Thomas’ declaration is certainly not optimistic. He may have thought it seemed realistic, yet we would rightly call him cynical. Yes, the Jews had threatened Jesus before, yet He had always escaped. Where was Thomas’ faith or confidence in God or in Jesus? It is easy to be hard on Thomas and to question his faith. If we are honest with ourselves, however, we would have to come to the recognition that if we were there and in Thomas’ position, we would probably at least think the same thing if we did not actually say it. Thomas’ sentiment was likely shared among the other disciples as well. The odds did seem long. The way Thomas felt is exactly the way humans feel in those circumstances.

At first it may seem as if Thomas overstated the situation. Yes, Jesus would die during this trip to Jerusalem, but the disciples did not (John 18:8-9, 19:30). They did not physically die with Him. And yet, in a very real sense, the situation happened exactly as Thomas had cynically foretold. The disciples did not die physically, but their lives changed dramatically during their stay in Jerusalem, having seen Jesus not only die but also rise from the dead (John 20:1-29). Thomas would return to Galilee with some of the other disciples and would see the Lord in the resurrection yet again (John 21:1-24). The next time the word of the Lord Jesus came to Galilee it would do so in power to convict and convert people to the Kingdom of God in Christ (Acts 1:8, 8:4). What would be the message that Thomas as well as the other disciples would preach? That people would have to die to the world in Christ so as to rise again and walk in newness of life according to His purposes (Romans 6:1-23). All have to go and die with Jesus!

In a very real sense Thomas and the other disciples went and “died” with Jesus. After Jesus’ death and resurrection they would never be the same; where once was doubt and cynicism there was now faith and hope on account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Where there was fear there was now boldness to preach the message no matter what resistance was encountered (e.g. Acts 5:17-42). They reckoned themselves as dead to the world and alive to Christ (Galatians 2:20). They took the world by storm. It would never be the same.

Thomas’ story resonates in the 21st century. In the world hope seems like a delusion; we come to the recognition that cynicism and despair prove more realistic and accurate than hope. On a human level our endeavors seem futile and hopeless. This attitude can easily infect and affect the people of God! It is easy to see the spiritual forces of darkness at work all around us and conclude that we are doomed, the situation is hopeless, and decline is inevitable.

If we hope in this life and this world only then these assessments would be realistic. We would have no reason to do anything than be cynical and in despair if we are the only ones at work. Yet we preach Jesus crucified and risen from the dead! We, like Thomas, must go to Judea to die with Jesus. We must die to the ways of the world and to cynicism and despair; we must find hope and new life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:20, Philippians 3:1-15)! Our hope is not folly but rooted in deep and abiding faith in God as faithful to His promises, confident that He is greater than those who are against us (1 John 4:4). When we look around us we are not to see Satan triumphant; we are to recognize that this is his last gasp as he has gone down to defeat, and that we will overcome him if we hold firm to the Lamb and prove willing to not love our lives even to death, to see victory in what the world would call defeat, for the Lord Jesus reigns in Heaven and He will return to right all wrongs (Revelation 12:1-14:20).

Yet it all begins, as it did for Thomas, by going with the Lord Jesus to Jerusalem to die with Him. Let us put to death the man of sin, the ways of living in this world and the cynicism and despair they engender, and let us find new life through faith, baptism, and obedience to the Lord Jesus in His Kingdom, living in the hope of the resurrection and the fulfillment of all God’s purposes for His people in Christ (Romans 6:1-23, 8:17-25)! Let us die with the Lord so we may live with Him eternally in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Lawful vs. Profitable and Edifying

All things are lawful; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful; but not all things edify (1 Corinthians 10:23).

“If I can, I should.”

The above statement can never be found in the pages of Scripture but it has been accepted as if it were by many people in the world today. In science rarely are limits imposed on ethical grounds; present levels of knowledge and technology are the major hindrances and there are always researchers seeking to push ahead regardless of potential consequences. It is only when things go horribly wrong that questions are asked in retrospect, yet even then, the impulse to do because it was possible is rarely challenged. This is not only a matter of science; how many times have people decided to exercise a given liberty just because they could? How do most people celebrate their 16th, 18th, or 21st birthdays? They “celebrate” their newly gained freedoms, often to excess. If responsibility is ever learned it is only after many painful experiences of excess.

P46.jpg The same mentality has infected the religious world thanks to the strong American emphasis on freedom. People want to justify what they want to justify; they look to Scripture for “authority” so they can do what they want to do. It is important to have Biblical authority for what we do (Colossians 3:17), but Biblical authority is not an end unto itself as Paul seeks to explain to the Corinthians.

Corinth was a Greek and pagan city. Most of its residents continued to participate in idolatrous observances; its practice was so prevalent that the meat sold in the marketplace had been previously sacrificed to the town’s idols and most everyone had no problem with that. Paul wanted to make it clear that eating the meat was not a problem in and of itself; the problems came in when either a fellow Christian who did not have understanding was tempted to honor idols or if pagans were making an issue of it (1 Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:27-30). Meanwhile Christians must flee from idolatry, not partaking of the table of the Lord and the table of demons as well (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). It is not as if the Corinthians were unaware of these things; they just seemed to feel as if they were fine.

The challenge is laid down in 1 Corinthians 10:23. There is some question as to how the verse should be understood: is Paul actually saying that all things are lawful, or is it a quotation of the statement or premise of the Corinthians? Strong arguments can be made either way. For our purposes we can be confident that such was the basis upon which the Corinthians acted; if Paul is making the statement he does so accommodatingly, always recognizing that matters of sin are not lawful (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21).

Thus “all things are lawful” was the operating mode of the Corinthians: we can do these things, therefore, we should. To the Corinthians eating meat sacrificed to an idol was lawful; the matter was thus settled.

Paul does not argue about the authority or lawfulness of the behavior; he has already affirmed that an idol is nothing (1 Corinthians 8:4-6). Eating meat sacrificed to an idol is thus “lawful.” Yet Paul wishes to go further: is it expedient (or profitable)? Does it build up? He makes one thing evident: just because something is lawful (thus, authorized) does not make it profitable or edifying (1 Corinthians 10:23). After all, Christianity is not about doing whatever one pleases; Christians should be looking out for the good of his neighbor (1 Corinthians 10:24).

Eating meat sacrificed to idols may be lawful, but causing a brother to stumble because of it is not (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). Christians may be able to eat meat sacrificed to idols but should not cause pagans to think they are honoring the idol (1 Corinthians 10:25-33). If eating meat sacrificed to idols brings you back into an idolatrous orbit, it has become a stumbling block, and is no longer lawful (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). Christians cannot just go around doing things just because they can; they have to give consideration to themselves and to their neighbors. Is it profitable? Does it edify?

Paul’s lesson is sorely needed today. We need to have Biblical authority for whatever we do; all must be done in the name of the Lord (Colossians 3:17). But the analysis does not stop there. The goal is not just to find Biblical authority, let alone to invent Biblical authority to do what we feel like doing. It is not enough for something to just be authorized; it must be profitable; it must edify, for all things ought to be done unto edification (1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16). How will this practice influence my fellow Christians? Will it be a cause of stumbling? Will those outside the church think I have compromised myself by the way I exercise my liberty?

Even if “all things” are lawful, they may not be profitable; they may not edify. We should never do anything just because we can; we should do it because it glorifies God in Christ and is profitable unto edification. Let us seek the good of our neighbor, live under Biblical authority, but seeking to edify the Body of Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Oaths

“Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths’:
But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be, ‘Yea, yea; Nay, nay’: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).

When in the middle of disputes it is easy to miss the forest for the trees, focusing only on the details of the issue at hand. Jesus resolutely maintained focus on the forest!

Jesus declares Matthew 5:33-37 in the midst of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount”; it is also the fourth of six declarations whereby Jesus contrasts what the disciples and Israel had heard from what “I say unto you,” and in all six Jesus is contrasting the standard of righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with that of God’s full purpose in His Kingdom (Matthew 5:17-48). Previous declarations involved murder, adultery, and divorce; in each circumstance Jesus also condemns giving expression to the desires that lead to those sins and returns to God’s purposes for marriage from the beginning (Matthew 5:21-32).

In Matthew 5:33-37 Jesus turns to the matter of oaths and vows. What Israel “had heard” as cited in Matthew 5:33 does not come from one specific passage but represents the substantive message of Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2-16, and Deuteronomy 5:11, 23:23: God commanded for Israel to not swear falsely but to pay what they vow.

In days of old many in Israel took this commandment very seriously. Even though the covenant made between Israel and the Gibeonites was made under false pretenses, Israel decided to honor that covenant because they had sworn to the Gibeonites by the name of YHWH (Joshua 9:1-27). Jephthah made a foolish and rash vow, yet the text makes it abundantly clear that he did exactly what he vowed, even though it meant sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering (Judges 11:30-39). While we might question why such vows should be honored, the Israelites did not. The vows should not have been made; they were rash and foolish; but once made they were obligated to follow through. The Law provided only a narrow provision for a vow to be repealed, and it only involved a vow of a woman in certain circumstances (Numbers 30:1-16).

Yet things had changed by Jesus’ day. We can see from Matthew 23:16-22 that the Pharisees had worked out an elaborate system on account of which some were obligated to keep their vows but not others: those who swore on the Temple or the altar were not obliged, but those who swore on the gold of the Temple or the offering on the altar were obliged. Jesus devastates that logic, asking which is greater, the gold or the Temple that sanctifies the gold, the altar or the One who sanctifies the altar, and making it quite clear that even in the first century, regardless of whether you swore on the Temple, its gold, the altar, its offering, or heaven in reality swears in the name of the One who accepts the gift on the altar, who dwells in the Temple, and who sits on the throne in Heaven. God was not confused nor was He amused: if Israelites swore on anything they were still obligated to pay their vows!

Nevertheless, in Matthew 5:34-37 Jesus goes even further. Throughout He never denies that if you swear you are obligated to pay your vow; He does not say otherwise here, and in Matthew 23:16-22 He makes His feelings about paying vows actually made quite well known. In Matthew 5:34-37 Jesus goes a large step further: do not swear at all!

Humans have a propensity toward swearing; yes, we could include the “cursing” kind as well, but we speak specifically of the impulse to make a vow. When we are doubted or challenged we impulsively swear to be telling the truth; not a few in our midst greatly desire for us to vow, or commit, to various projects. Humans show almost equal propensity to break vows as much as to make them; how many times will people swear to be telling the truth precisely when they are trying to pass off a lie? How many have given their word but do not follow through? Such is why God commanded Israel to not take His name in vain, concerned less about cursing and far more about swearing the truth in the name of YHWH flippantly (Exodus 20:7). Such is why God put such strong emphasis on Israelites paying whatever they vowed (Numbers 30:1-16). And this is why so many first century Israelites were trying to find an “escape route” out of their vows!

What good does swearing do, anyway? Is something we say or promise more valid if we swear by heaven? As Jesus says, it is God’s throne, His seat of power, not ours (Matthew 5:34; cf. Isaiah 66:1). What if we swear by the earth? It is not ours; it is the footstool of God’s feet (Matthew 5:34; cf. Isaiah 66:1). Jerusalem? The city of the great King (Matthew 5:34; cf. Psalm 48:2). Well, what about on our own heads? Jesus reminds us that we cannot make one hair white or black (and the premise is not contradicted by current hair coloring products; we are still not nearly in as much control of our existence as we would like to imagine but subject to all sorts of forces, Matthew 5:36). Swearing by our own righteousness would prove counter-productive (Romans 3:20, 23). Thus, in the end, we humans really do not have any basis upon which to swear; there is no external force that grounds our words as true.

Instead, as Jesus suggests, we ought to say yes and no; our integrity should be inherent in our words (Matthew 5:37). If we are trustworthy, our yes or our no should be sufficient. As Jesus says, anything beyond “yes” and “no” is of the Evil One, since it comes from a place of doubt, fear, mistrust, and sin (Matthew 5:37). For good measure James repeats the same command in James 5:12.

Whenever Jesus’ command to not swear is discussed many questions multiply about being sworn in as a witness in a trial, making contract commitments in general, and things of that nature. Is the prohibition absolute? The text does not say. Being sworn in as a witness in a trial is a way to observe the civil laws, a commendable thing in Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-15, and not the issue regarding which Jesus is discussing. Jesus’ concern is about our propensity to want to invoke other people, places, or authorities to somehow invest our words with greater veracity or authority. Yet, in reality, all we have is our “yes” and “no.” Our words are no more or less true if we swear on God’s name, heaven and earth, the grave of our mother, or anything else. Furthermore, when we make vows, we obligate ourselves to fulfill them, and is that a wise course of action? We do better to live with such integrity that those around us know that our yes or no can be trusted. Living with such integrity is how we may exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and thus enter the Kingdom of God! Let us be true to our word, avoid swearing and vowing whenever possible, allow our yes to be yes and no, no, and speak and live in integrity before God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Motherly Affection

But we were gentle in the midst of you, as when a nurse cherisheth her own children: even so, being affectionately desirous of you, we were well pleased to impart unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were become very dear to us (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).

No one could ever accuse Paul of working in the Lord’s vineyard only for the money or just as a job or a way of passing time. He poured his heart and soul into the people who had heeded the Gospel he preached.

The Gospel was received by some in Thessalonica under a cloud of persecution and difficulties as seen in Acts 17:1-9. Within a few weeks Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica after he had heard the report regarding them by Timothy (1 Thessalonians 3:6-10). Paul has been explaining the circumstances under which he arrived in Thessalonica after leaving Philippi and how he preached to them the Gospel not for covetousness nor for seeking men’s glory but for the welfare of their souls (1 Thessalonians 2:1-6).

Mother and childHe appeals to how he treated them and compares his love for them to that of a nursing woman for the child she nurses, explaining that he became affectionately desirous of them, willing not only to proclaim to them the Gospel but to even give of his own life if need be (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). Paul loved the Christians in Thessalonica, and he expected them to understand as much.

Paul’s love and concern went well beyond the Christians of Thessalonica (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:28), yet the way he expresses his affection for the Thessalonians is extraordinary. The maternal image of the nursing woman expresses great care and concern and is probably not a little influenced by the relative youth of the Thessalonian Christians in the faith. Paul recognized the imperative given to him to preach the Gospel to everyone (1 Corinthians 9:22-23), but that never meant that he had to feel warmly toward any given group like he expressed to the Thessalonians. He developed genuine care and affection for the Christians in Thessalonica; he actually liked them and enjoyed being around them even though it was only for a short time.

We do well to note this love and concern and seek to find ways to feel similarly toward our fellow Christians. We are to be known for our love for one another (John 13:35); while it is true that such does not demand that we feel the “warm fuzzies” about every Christian we know we do well to be kindly disposed to one another and to have Christians in our lives regarding whom we could say that we felt tender affection. “Brother” and “sister” should not be mere titles or pretense but should express genuine brotherly and sisterly love for one another. Christians do well when they actually like one another and enjoy being in one another’s company!

We also should consider the nature of the relationship between Paul and the Thessalonian Christians: not only did they not know each other a few weeks or months before the writing of this letter, but also their relationship was forged in the preaching of and obedience to the Gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:2). We can therefore see how Paul treated those to whom he preached the Gospel: he did not keep them at a distance, as “prospects” or “clients,” but felt warmly toward them as a mother would her child, thus, as fellow family members (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). While parallels exist between marketing/sales and evangelism we ought not over-emphasize them; the church is not a business but the family of God (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15). Neither Jesus nor the Gospel are “products” to “sell” but the plea for the prodigal and the alienated to come home (cf. Luke 15:11-32). The goal of all evangelism is to lead those outside of Christ to Him so as to become His disciple (Matthew 28:18-19); if they heed the message and obey it our relationship has not ended but has in fact just begun (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28).

Paul loved the Thessalonian Christians tenderly. We ought to have a similar love for our fellow Christians and to seek to share in such relationships with even more people. Let us proclaim the Gospel in our lives so as to lead people to faith in Christ and to share in the household of God and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Declaration of the False Prophet

And it came to pass the same year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year, in the fifth month, that Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet, who was of Gibeon, spake unto me in the house of YHWH, in the presence of the priests and of all the people, saying,
“Thus speaketh YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel, saying, I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two full years will I bring again into this place all the vessels of YHWH’s house, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place, and carried to Babylon: and I will bring again to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, with all the captives of Judah, that went to Babylon, saith YHWH; for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon” (Jeremiah 28:1-4).

When reading the history of Israel it can be very easy to wonder why the Israelites would not listen to the prophets. They warned about upcoming dangers, and those dangers came to pass. Why were they so foolish?

While such a response is understandable we have to be very careful. The history of Israel in the Old Testament is true and told the way God wants it to be told. Yet, and for good reason, much of what was said and done in Israel was not preserved, especially the words of the false prophets. One exception to this is found with Hananiah son of Azzur in Jeremiah 28:1-17, and his example is quite instructive for us.

The context is set in Jeremiah 27:1-22: near the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah and son of Josiah YHWH told Jeremiah to make iron yokes to send to the kings of the neighboring nations with the decree that YHWH was giving all those nations, along with Judah, into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon (ca. 596-592 BCE; Jeremiah 27:1-6). All those nations were to serve Nebuchadnezzar and his sons or suffer destruction; they should not listen to all the prophets, soothsayers, diviners, or anyone else who would presume to say that they will not have to serve the king of Babylon (Jeremiah 27:7-10). Those who served Nebuchadnezzar would stay in their land (Jeremiah 27:10). Jeremiah brought the same message to Zedekiah king of Judah: serve Nebuchadnezzar, stay in the land, and live, and do not listen to those who prophesy lies and speak falsely (Jeremiah 27:11-15). Jeremiah took the same message to the priests and the people, declaring that all things left in the Temple would also be taken to Babylon, but they would be restored on a later day of YHWH’s visitation (Jeremiah 27:16-22).

Within the same year we hear of Hananiah son of Azzur, called a prophet of Gibeon: he spoke to Jeremiah in the Temple in the presence of all the people (Jeremiah 28:1). His message was exactly what Jeremiah had warned against in Jeremiah 27:11-22: a claim that YHWH has broken the yoke of the king of Babylon, and within two years all those vessels which had been taken out of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in the days of Jehoiachin would be brought back to Jerusalem (Jeremiah 28:2-3; cf. 2 Kings 24:1-16, Daniel 1:1-2). Jeconiah (another name for Jehoiachin) king of Judah would return along with the other captives (Jeremiah 28:3; cf. Daniel 1:1-2). After Jeremiah challenged Hananiah’s legitimacy Hananiah broke the yoke bar Jeremiah was still wearing; YHWH through Jeremiah sharply condemned Hananiah to death for having spoken rebellion (Jeremiah 28:4-16). Within three months Hananiah was dead (Jeremiah 28:17). Two years later nothing much had changed in the geopolitical situation. Within six years Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, Zedekiah had been blinded and carted off to exile, and all that YHWH had spoken through Jeremiah had come to pass (Jeremiah 52:1-27). No doubt remained: YHWH spoke through Jeremiah but did not speak through Hananiah.

We can understand why most of the authors of Scripture do not take up space directly quoting false prophets; their messages proved false and it is better for us to hear the true words spoken by the faithful prophets (2 Peter 1:21). But it is good for us to see Hananiah’s words here as representative of what false prophets would say, why they would be motivated to say it, and why people believed them.

Hindsight, it is said, is 20/20; after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile it is easy to commend Jeremiah and condemn Hananiah. But the people of Judah in 592 BCE did not have that advantage. From their point of view Hananiah’s message was preferable not only politically but theologically as well. They believed YHWH was God of Israel; they believed He dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem. He would not give His glory to another. Had not the mighty Assyrians invaded about a century before and yet YHWH preserved Jerusalem from their grasp (701 BCE; 2 Kings 18:1-19:37)? If YHWH was their God, and He is greater than Marduk and the gods of Babylon, then surely He would preserve Jerusalem yet again. Judah would outlast Babylon as he had Assyria. Yes, the king, Temple furnishings, and the nobility had been exiled, but YHWH would bring them back. That made sense to the people. It was consistent with their expectations. Jeremiah’s message, on the other hand, was precisely not what anyone wanted to hear. Serve a foreign king? Submit to bondage? YHWH would see the rest of the vessels transported in exile to Babylon? The Babylonians would overrun the holy place? Such ideas were deeply offensive to the people of Judah, contrary to everything they believed about themselves, their God, and their land. No wonder they persecuted him and wanted him dead (Jeremiah 26:11-24)!

In the end Jeremiah was vindicated. He would have considered it cold comfort; he was not exactly excited about the prospect of watching the devastation of his people, his land, and the triumph of the pagan enemy. But he understood it was the judgment of YHWH on account of the transgressions and rebellion of the people. Few proved willing to listen to him beforehand; even afterward people questioned his sincerity (Jeremiah 43:1-4). The event was a tragedy all around, the greatest moment of crisis in Israelite history to that day.

Hananiah was not alone. Not a few prophets warn about the influence of false prophets and the suppression of the true message of prophets (Isaiah 29:10, Ezekiel 13:9, Micah 3:5, Zephaniah 3:4). Jesus warned His disciples to be concerned when all men spoke well of them, for thus they did to the false prophets who had come before them (Luke 6:26)! The false prophet’s message sounded better, made more sense, flattered people’s sensibilities, did not demand as much, and instilled complacency among the people. Viewed in that light it is not surprising the people listened to the false prophets. Their message was always easier.

The spirit of prophecy has passed on (1 Corinthians 13:8-10), yet there remain to this day those who speak falsely in the name of God. Their words sound good; they seem to make sense; they flatter people’s political and religious sensibilities; they often instill a sense of complacency. They are just as wrong and just as dangerous as was Hananiah (1 Timothy 4:1-4). Our trust must be in YHWH and in the truth He has revealed in Scripture, and we must test all spirits against that standard (2 Peter 1:20, 1 John 4:1-2). Let us put our trust in God in Christ, test all things, and proclaim His truth, no matter how unpopular!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Vine

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; so neither can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

Jesus had spoken of a Kingdom in many figures: a field, fishing, a pearl of great price, a Master entrusting His servants with a stewardship. As He was about to leave His disciples He used a new old illustration: not a full vineyard, but a vine (John 15:1-8).

In John 13:31-16:33 speaks to the eleven disciples; Judas Iscariot has gone off to betray Him, and after the prayer of John 17 Jesus will be betrayed, tried, and crucified in John 18:1-19:37. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke move fairly quickly from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:30-36, Mark 14:26-32, and Luke 22:23-39, John spends what would later be delineated into over three chapters on the extended discourse between these events. Throughout Jesus is preparing His disciples so that they might be able to endure and stand through the ups and downs of His death, resurrection, and ascension (John 14:1, 16:1). Jesus, after all, understands perfectly what is about to take place. His disciples have no idea; they will be left to grapple with His death without Him being present physically, and thus Jesus does well to leave them with words of encouragement and exhortation.

Right in the middle of this discourse Jesus introduces the illustration of the vine: He is the vine, His Father the vinedresser, and His disciples the branches (John 15:1, 4). He had previously “updated” Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard of Isaiah 5:1-7 in Matthew 21:33-44 and in parallel accounts, yet the vineyard there is Israel. Jesus compared the Kingdom to a householder hiring workers to work in his vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16; even there the vineyard is incidental, setting up the lesson about receiving what is promised and that the last shall be first and the first last. Here in John 15:1-8 Jesus focuses on a single vine is able to explain through it the relationship between the Son, the Father, and disciples.

The disciples would have understood the basics of grape vines and their maintenance. Grape vines do have roots but one sees the vine and its branches. The branches maintain their health through their connection to the vine from which it can draw water and other nutrients originating in the roots and the soil. A healthy branch bears fruit: grape clusters. The sign of an unhealthy branch is a lack of fruit, and the solution is to prune the vine to get rid of all the dead branches. And so it is in the illustration of the vine: disciples draw strength and sustenance through Jesus the Vine; when connected to Jesus the Vine they can bear fruit; apart from Jesus the Vine they can do nothing; if they do not bear fruit the Father the Vinedresser will prune them and throw them into the fire (John 15:1-8).

Jesus’ main point in the illustration is to emphasize the disciples’ need to bear fruit and to understand how they will be able to bear fruit: through abiding in Him (John 15:3-4, 8). We do well to heed both messages.

This is not the first illustration Jesus has used to emphasize the need for Christians to be obedient and to manifest the fruit of righteousness; Matthew 5:13-16 and 25:14-30 come to mind, among others. It is unfortunate that many in the religious world have settled for cheap grace, the belief that God will save no matter what, and have ignored Jesus’ many warnings about the fate of the unproductive in His midst. Their fate is never left in ambiguity: Jesus denies He ever knew them (Matthew 7:21-23); they are cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:14-30), and here in John 15:6 unproductive branches are gathered and burned, reminiscent of the Gehenna of fire (e.g. Matthew 5:29-30). Thus we must bear fruit for the Lord: we must manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24), do good (Galatians 6:10), proclaim Jesus crucified and risen (Matthew 28:18-20), and remain faithful unto death (Matthew 10:22). Such obedience and faithfulness is not “optional”!

Yet it can be very easy to so emphasize obedience and righteousness that we forget Who is empowering the endeavor. As branches we are to bear fruit for the Lord, but we can do so only when connected and sustained by the Vine, the Lord Jesus. Jesus is very blunt about this in John 15:5: apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from Jesus we proved disobedient, sinful, children of wrath, living in licentiousness and lusts, hated by others and hating in turn (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). In Christ we were rescued from our hopeless condition and reconciled to the Father (Romans 5:6-11). But we must not imagine that once we are “in Christ” we are then left out “on our own” to do His work. Instead we work and are profitable because we remain in Him and are sustained in Him (Ephesians 2:4-10, Titus 3:4-8). Through the sustenance and strength from our Vine God can work through us beyond all we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:14-21). Let none be deceived: as branches bear fruit but not without the nourishment which comes through the vine, so believers obey and seek righteousness but can only do so through the strength that God supplies. On our own we can do nothing; we can imagine that we can do great things, and try to build great towers of Babel, maybe even adorn such towers with religious and spiritual sentiments, but they cannot succeed and will someday be exposed for what they really are. Every plant not planted by the Father will be rooted up (Matthew 15:13); so it shall be with every religious institution and personal belief system not grounded and empowered by God and the Lord Jesus (cf. Matthew 7:24-27).

Thus asking God to bless or prosper our work is really vain; we do better to ask God to direct us to His work and for Him to bless, strengthen, and sustain it. We are but the branches, responsible for taking the nourishment given by the vine and producing fruit; let us therefore glorify God through the Lord Jesus Christ, serving Him through the strength that He supplies!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Divorce

“It was said also, ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement’:
but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).

Jesus addresses a matter controversial in almost every age.

It is no secret that marriage, divorce, and remarriage (MDR) issues are tearing the church and the Lord’s people apart. People prove too eager or not eager at all to discuss divorce and remarriage. Nevertheless, we do well to consider what Jesus is saying in context and to what end He says what He says.

In Matthew 5:31-32 Jesus speaks about divorce and remarriage as the third of six contrasts between “what was said” and what “I say unto you” in Matthew 5:21-48; these six statements are framed by Matthew 5:17-20 with the expectation that one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees to enter the Kingdom. The previous two contrasts both emphasized not only the avoidance of the physical behavior of sin but also the thoughts and feelings that lead to such behaviors: not just to not kill or commit adultery, but not to hate in one’s heart or look upon a woman with lustful intent (Matthew 5:21-30). In all these things the Pharisees would stress the letter of the Law and the physical behavior only; Jesus shows how those who would serve Him in His Kingdom must be as concerned about the heart and mind as the behaviors of the body. Yet this section of the “Sermon on the Mount” is not just about thoughts and feelings vs. behavior; Jesus will go on to exhort believers to not swear at all (Matthew 5:34) and to not resist the evil person (Matthew 5:39), behavior matters indeed. The consistent contrast is between what Jesus’ audience understood as not only the Law but the acceptable and approved interpretation thereof by the scribes and the Pharisees versus the greater standard of righteousness necessary to enter God’s Kingdom (Matthew 5:19-20, 23:1-2).

It is worth noting that Jesus only speaks of marriage, divorce, and remarriage when involved in conversations with or about Pharisees (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:3-9, Mark 10:1-12, Luke 16:18). The reason for this becomes clear in Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:1-12: the Pharisees attempt to test Jesus in terms of how to understand Moses’ legislation in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 and whether a man has the right to divorce his wife for almost any reason or only for sexually deviant behavior. Pharisaic understanding of the matter was no certain thing as is evident in Jewish sources:

The school of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he finds in her a matter of lewdness, as it says, “If he finds in her an unseemly thing” [Deuteronomy 24:1], but the school of Hillel say: Even if she burnt his food, as it says, “If he finds in her an unseemly thing”. Rabbi Akiva says: Even if he found one more beautiful than she, as it says, “If she should not find favour in his eyes” (Mishnah, Gittin 9:10).

A wide dispute within not just Second Temple Judaism but even among the Pharisees thus stand as a backdrop behind Jesus’ teachings about divorce and remarriage. In Matthew 5:31 He paraphrases Deuteronomy 24:1-2, having the entire scenario in view. He then declares that anyone who would thus put away his wife makes her to commit adultery, and that whoever would marry a woman thus having been put away commits adultery (Matthew 5:32). For many the way Jesus phrases His declaration seems curious: how can it be that a man divorcing his wife causes her to commit adultery? We do well to remember that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is case law based on a particular scenario in which a man might attempt to remarry a wife he had put away who in the meantime had been married to another man. Deuteronomy 24:4 declares such would be an abomination; he cannot have her back since she had been the wife of another. Thus in the legislation as written the assumption exists that the woman will take the certificate of divorce and become the wife of another man (Deuteronomy 24:2). Jesus is saying that in the Kingdom if a woman thus divorced went and became the wife of another, her (ex-)husband has proven guilty of the divorce and has put her in the position whereby she is committing adultery, and the new husband is committing adultery by being married to her as well (Matthew 5:32).

How can it be that marrying another means a person is committing adultery? Many suggest that Jesus is adding a new definition of adultery when in fact He is returning to the simplest definition of adultery: having sex with someone other than your spouse. On the surface Jesus’ statement does seem paradoxical yet is rooted in what He will declare in greater detail in Matthew 19:6: what God has joined man is not to separate. Man can commit the sin of separating what God joined, and God recognizes that he has done so; God does not legitimate that separation unless done because the spouse has committed sexually deviant behavior. Thus, according to the rule, if either spouse has sex with another person, they are having sex with someone other than the one to whom God joined them. This is the case when either the (active) divorcing spouse or the (passive) divorced spouse marry and have sex with another. Jesus’ statements are pretty clear and comprehensive. It is only because of sin that His truths regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage seem so difficult to understand.

Jesus’ contrast is blunt, shocking to His audience, but entirely consistent with what He has been saying. The Law and the Pharisees may justify divorce in many circumstances, but from the beginning it has not been so. God does not want separated what He has joined, either by sexually deviant behavior (which involves one spouse joining themselves to another, cf. 1 Corinthians 6:13-20) or by divorce. It may be a more difficult standard, but it is the standard of righteousness in the Kingdom of God in Christ. What God has joined let not man separate: may this be true of us in terms of both our spouse as well as with God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Basis of Torah

YHWH is my portion / I have said that I would observe thy words.
I entreated thy favor with my whole heart / be merciful unto me according to thy word.
I thought on my ways / and turned my feet unto thy testimonies.
I made haste, and delayed not / to observe thy commandments.
The cords of the wicked have wrapped me round / but I have not forgotten thy law.
At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee / because of thy righteous ordinances.
I am a companion of all them that fear thee / and of them that observe thy precepts.
The earth, O YHWH, is full of thy lovingkindness / teach me thy statutes (Psalm 119:57-64 ח).

God’s instruction has great value, but only because God gave it and God stands behind it.

Psalm 119 is the great paean to torah and faithful observance thereof. Torah is the Hebrew word most frequently translated as “law” throughout the Old Testament; a fuller definition would be “instruction” since the Torah involved a lot more than just “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” but included explanations and illustrations. Psalm 119 is full of praise for YHWH’s Torah, expressed with meticulous order and care. Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm in octets, with each verse in each octet beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Toward the middle of Psalm 119 we have the ḥet section, Psalm 119:57-64, with each verse beginning with the Hebrew letter ḥet (ח).

Each octet of Psalm 119 maintains a type of theme regarding torah; ḥet in many ways summarizes the primary themes not only of Psalm 119 but the Psalter in general. YHWH is the portion of the Psalmist; thus the Psalmist has promised to keep the words which He has established (Psalm 119:57). The Psalmist knows he cannot live by his own righteousness or according to his own standard, and so he implores YHWH to obtain His favor and mercy (Psalm 119:58). The Psalmist considers the way he lives his life and on its basis recognizes his need to follow the ways or testimonies of God, to not delay in observing God’s commandments (Psalm 119:59-60). The Psalmist experiences adversity but does not forget the law (Psalm 119:61). Even in the darkness the Psalmist will give thanks to YHWH because of His righteous ordinances; the Psalmist maintains communion with all who fear YHWH and keep His precepts (Psalm 119:62-63). The Psalmist perceives that the earth is full of YHWH’s ḥeṣed, a term often translated “lovingkindness” or “mercy,” yet with the connotation of “covenant faithfulness” or thus “loyalty” (as you can tell, an essentially untranslatable term!), and thus asks YHWH to teach him His statutes (Psalm 119:64).

The Psalmist has laid it all out well in Psalm 119:57-64: he praises YHWH for His torah consisting of the Word of YHWH, His testimonies, commandments, law, ordinances, precepts, and statutes (cf. Deuteronomy 4:40, 45, 5:10). The Psalmist confesses how the earth is full of YHWH’s ḥeṣed; in other psalms such a declaration is a confession of how YHWH created the heavens and the earth and thus could fill it with His ḥeṣed (Psalms 33:5-9, 104:24-31). The ḥeṣed of YHWH, especially as it is granted to Israel, is a major theme throughout the Psalter, and part of the bedrock of trust in YHWH expressed throughout the Psalms (e.g. Psalms 23:6, 25:10, 85:7, 86:5, 89:1, etc.). Thus we have the theme of Psalm 119:57-64: YHWH has maintained His ḥeṣed, lovingkindness/covenant loyalty to Israel, manifest in His creation and in giving His torah, or instruction, to Israel. On account of this the Psalmist praises YHWH, promises to observe all the laws, ordinances, testimonies, and statutes of YHWH, and desires to be further taught in YHWH’s torah. Yet the Psalmist can only obtain these blessings through God’s favor and mercy, all because YHWH is his portion.

Likewise this understanding of how YHWH’s torah relates to His covenant loyalty, favor, and mercy, and how it is YHWH Himself who is the Psalmist’s portion, helps us to keep the rest of the Psalmist’s praise of torah in all its forms in proper context. It would be easy to reduce the praise of the law in Psalm 119 to mere law keeping for the sake of keeping and observing it, and many have gone down this path. Yet the Psalter does not commend keeping torah just for the sake of keeping torah as if it is a checklist to be marked off and then one can move on. There is great value in observing YHWH’s precepts and statutes, but their value is not in and of themselves; their value is in the fact that they are the expression of the will of YHWH, the Creator God of Israel who has continually displayed covenant faithfulness to His people and in fact to all the earth. The torah is not the Psalmist’s portion; YHWH Himself is. It is because YHWH is, has made all things, expresses covenant loyalty to His people and to His creation, and provides favor and mercy to His people, that the Psalmist upholds and affirms the great value of torah.

Torah was uttered by YHWH for the sake of His people; Torah was not God. Israel was supposed to follow torah because God had spoken it as His Word, the same Word which generated the creation, all life, and allows existence to continue (Psalm 33:5-9, Colossians 1:17, Hebrews 1:1-3). To disconnect torah from YHWH by attempting to observe torah to its own end would not only be impossible but also worthless: as the Apostle Paul will later note, none save Jesus have kept the Law perfectly, and no one can be made righteous before God on the basis of works of the Law (Romans 3:1-20). One continues to need God’s covenant faithfulness, favor, and mercy, and for such things you have to turn to YHWH Himself. YHWH was Israel’s portion, and thus Israel should follow torah.

We serve God in Christ under a new covenant enacted with better promises (Hebrews 7:1-9:27), yet the premise of Psalm 119:57-64 remains quite important. Not for nothing does the New Testament speak of the Word of YHWH as God and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1-18). The Word of God has great power to save (Romans 1:16, Hebrews 4:12), yet that power is not on the page or in ink but in God who both sent the Word to the earth as Jesus and testified to that Word through the Spirit who proclaimed the message of this Life (John 1:1-18, 3:16, Acts 2:1-12, 5:20). In understandable attempts to defend the importance of the Scriptures many well-intentioned Christians will speak so as to suggest that the Scriptures are themselves God, and we must be on our guard about such a presentation, for just as torah was not Israel’s God, so the New Testament is not the Christian’s God. Instead the New Testament makes known to us what is true about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how God has wrought salvation and forgiveness of sins through Jesus of Nazareth and gave Him all authority in heaven and on earth (Romans 5:6-11, Philippians 2:5-11). Jesus is Lord; such is why the New Testament has great value for us. Jesus is risen from the dead; such is how the Word of God gives us hope for eternal life (Romans 8:18-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

As with Israel, so with us. God must be our portion; if we have any hope to stand before Him it is because He has been faithful to His covenant, displaying to us lovingkindness, favor/grace, and mercy, and we cannot find such things from a book, but only from a Person. We can have all confidence in God and the message He has revealed to us because He is the Creator and the creation is full of His lovingkindness/covenant loyalty. Therefore we observe God’s commandments, not as an end unto themselves, but as the embodiment of our trust in and loyalty to the God who loved us and saved us in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10, 1 John 2:1-6). Let us be sure that God in Christ is our portion, that we seek His favor and mercy, and seek to observe His commandments because He is God, our Creator and Sustainer and loyal to His people!

Ethan R. Longhenry