Protection

You are my hiding place; you protect me from distress. You surround me with shouts of joy from those celebrating deliverance (Psalm 32:7).

Who can protect us?

Protection is a quite salient matter in a world full of dangers. Many want to speak of “the universe” as if it has some kind of specific will for us or will grant us certain things if we intend or behave in certain ways; yet scientifically it is beyond doubt that the universe is actively trying to kill us. Bacteria and viruses continually beset us. And we have all sorts of dangers in between: weather conditions and natural disasters, let alone what fellow human beings might do to us. It’s dangerous out there!

Some might want to think they live in greater danger today than those who came before us, but upon any level of investigation it would be difficult to sustain that kind of argument. If anything, our ancestors lived in greater dangers: various illnesses, wild animals and hostile weather conditions, natural disasters, and fewer ways to ameliorate the danger. Yet such kinds of comparisons ultimately prove futile: in truth, people have always been in danger; people will never run out of things regarding which they can be afraid and which they believe is dangerous; and therefore people have always looked to find some kind of protector.

As we have become ever more secular and skeptical of authority, many have come to suggest themselves as their own protector, or the protector of others. There is a whole American culture dedicated to the proposition of maintaining and upholding the honor and integrity of the family and friends through protection by any means necessary. It has deep roots in Americana; one easily identifiable source would be a particular Scots Irish frontier libertarian culture and mentality that elevated one’s ability to provide for oneself and one’s family without interference from authorities and protected with vigilance. Such types of perspectives easily meld protection within provision so that when many read, for example, that one who does not provide for one’s family is worse than an unbeliever (as in 1 Timothy 5:8), they understand it to mean not just to provide material and emotional resources but also protection, with violence if need be. We are now at the point when many profess the name of the Lord Jesus and will maintain weapons for violence on their person to be ready, at a moment’s notice, to harm or take the lives of others in the name of protecting those they love. Such is even done within the assembly of the Lord’s people, and is often commended as reasonable and sensible!

We understand the impulse; the desire to protect one’s own life and the lives of those we love and to whom we are dedicated is very strong. But is this the explicit will of the Lord Jesus? And who can really protect us?

The Lord Jesus spoke a word about protection through violence in Matthew 26:52: those who take hold of the sword will die by the sword. It was a message powerfully imprinted upon His disciples: Jesus had said as much to Peter when Peter had taken out a sword in an attempt to protect Jesus, and we never hear of Peter or any other Apostle using or encouraging the use of violence to protect themselves afterward. Such a posture only makes sense in light of what Jesus was about to do: He willingly gave Himself to suffer and die even though He had not done anything wrong. Peter himself would reflect upon this and declare that Jesus entrusted Himself to the God who judges justly and did not retaliate when harmed (1 Peter 2:22-23). Peter understood what Jesus had done as marching orders for those who would follow Him: they should go about doing good for others, even if they suffered for doing so, while entrusting themselves to a faithful Creator (1 Peter 4:19). What would motivate anyone to do such a thing? The testimony of deep, abiding love of God displayed in Jesus for those who sinned and were alienated from God (cf. Romans 5:6-11). As God has loved us even though we have sinned and fallen short of His glory, so we are called to love others in the same way. We are to love those who would hurt us and pray for those who would persecute us (Luke 6:35). Jesus loves the criminal as much as He loves you, me, small children, and everyone else. Jesus wants them all to be saved: even the person who wants to hurt you (1 Timothy 2:4).

So who can protect us? In the days of old few men proved as mighty in battle as David son of Jesse. Yet after he confessed his sins before YHWH because they laid upon him grievously and commended this for others, he confessed YHWH was his hiding place, and that YHWH would protect him from trouble (Psalm 32:1-7). David was surrounded by those shouting for joy because God delivered them (Psalm 32:7).

Throughout the Psalms, in fact, David and other writers reckon YHWH as their refuge, strong rock, strong tower, and place of hiding and protection. They praise YHWH for deliverance. They also warn Israel against trusting in military might for their protection (cf. Psalms 20:7, 146:3). The prophets would utter a similar warning, exemplified in Isaiah 7:1-17: if God’s people trust in military maneuvering and foreign policy and not in their God, they will be humiliated, fail, and incur judgment. They were better off trusting in YHWH as their King and Protector, and YHWH would provide deliverance for them. They did not trust; they sought protection in chariots and foreign policy; and they were overrun and destroyed by chariots and foreign policy.

The faithful and wise people of God have always understood that God, and God alone, can truly protect them. How God has protected His people has manifested itself differently at different times and in different circumstances, and sometimes through very strange means. It is not as if there is no place for violence; God has established civil government to establish justice in the land and to punish evil; God’s people are to let them take vengeance and wield the sword (Romans 13:1-7). The rulers of old were held to that standard as well (cf. Isaiah 1:10-17). God helped Israel fight its battles time and again (cf. Exodus 15:1-19). Isaiah envisioned judgment on Aram and Israel to deliver Judah by the hands of the bloodthirsty Assyrians (Isaiah 7:1-17). The same kind of Roman soldiers and guards who helped to execute Jesus protected Paul from death at the hand of the Jewish people almost thirty years later (cf. Acts 21:32-26:32). God will hold all such authorities responsible for how they used and abused their authority; God does not hold responsible those who live, or those who suffer, under it.

It is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which it did not look like God protected His people. Plenty of God’s people have died at the hands of raging persecutors. Many others have died at the hands of violent men. Many have suffered exploitation in a thousand different ways. Untold thousands have died of disease or because of natural disasters. That’s a lot of suffering.

But what have we come to expect, and to what end? It is futile to imagine that we can truly protect ourselves or anyone else from every danger. We are not as powerful, and often not in control, as much as we would like to think we are. If protecting others through intimidation or force were as important to faithful Christian witness as many would imagine, why has God not spoken about it? Why did Jesus or the Apostles not model it, and just as importantly, why did Jesus denounce it when one of His disciples actually tried it? When we must speak frequently when God has not spoken it should give us great pause regarding what we are saying. Perhaps we have imported something that was never there in the first place. Perhaps we are not listening to what is being said.

It is a particularly modern delusion to think we are in control and can control our environment. Those who came before us lived by time and chance (Ecclesiastes 9:11); and if we would hear it, so do we. If we will be protected from dangers, it is because God is protecting us. If for whatever reason in God’s economy, be it the freewill decisions of others, the work of the powers and principalities, or perhaps even just unfortunate circumstance, we are called upon to suffer and die, it is not as if God has proven unfaithful. We brought nothing into this world; we cannot take anything out of it (1 Timothy 6:7). We are weak and frail; our strength should have always been entrusted in the Lord and His might (Ephesians 6:10-13). If we would truly want to see our families, friends, and loved ones protected, we do best to entrust them into the hands of God our Protector. If a mighty warrior like David thus trusted in God, perhaps we should also.

In the end, we will all be held accountable for what we have done in the body when we stand before the Lord Jesus (Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-11). We do best to stand there having entrusted ourselves to our faithful Creator, even through tremendous suffering, humiliation, and degradation, than to stand before a faithful Creator with the weight of the pain, distress, and perhaps even the blood of human beings on our souls and our hands. We should stand before Jesus having followed His ways of humiliation and suffering so we might be exalted through the unimaginably fantastic glory of God, praising God as the Protector and Deliverer of our souls unto eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Protection

The Incurable Wound

Your destruction is like an incurable wound; your demise is like a fatal injury! All who hear what has happened to you will clap their hands for joy, for no one ever escaped your endless cruelty! (Nahum 3:19)

Who could have seen it coming?

The Neo-Assyrian Empire was the great superpower of the day, featuring effective leadership and dominance in strength and power to a degree never before seen in the ancient Near Eastern world. Nineveh seemed to be the capital of the world, full of the wealth and the goods of nations from Europe to Africa and deep into Asia. The Assyrian army was notorious for its cruelty, but it had been the catalyst for the end of nation after nation. The Assyrians had leveled and rebuilt Babylon; they had humiliated Egypt and had sacked Thebes. King Ashurbanipal had just finished eliminating Elam and the Elamites, a nation which had been around for as long as anyone could remember, as a going concern. He would be remembered forever as one of the greatest of the kings of Assyria, overseeing the Assyrian Empire at its strongest, the “King of the Universe,” a great patron of the arts, and the collector of a great library of Mesopotamian literature.

At the same time, a prophet from the rarely faithful vassal Kingdom of Judah pronounced the doom of Assyria. YHWH declared through Nahum that Nineveh and the Assyrians had acted like wanton prostitutes practicing sorcery, seducing and enslaving the nations in their economy and ways, and thus He was against them. They had terrorized the world; the time would soon come when they would become terrified of their enemies. They thought they were superior to the nations they conquered, but would soon learn they were no better. They would be devastated and no one would lament; in fact, everyone who would hear about their demise would rejoice, having remembered the cruelty they had suffered from the Assyrians.

We can easily imagine how such a message might have been heard by Ninevites in Ashurbanipal’s day. Such sounded like wishful thinking from a bunch of restive nobodies in the middle of nowhere. As if the great and mighty Assyrians would be thus humbled! As if Nineveh, the center of the world, would be so easily overthrown! Many may have even laughed at the prospect or the possibility. Assyria’s enemies may have enjoyed the prospect but would have good reason to doubt its possibility.

But then Ashurbanipal died, likely in 631 BCE; his son Ashur-etil-ilani, likely a weak and ineffective king, would only reign for four years, and then another son, Sinsharishkun, took over the throne. Sinsharishkun was almost immediately confronted by a civil war against a general who aspired to the throne; in the meantime, the Chaldean Nabopolassar was able to take over Babylon, which was never controlled by the Assyrians again. Sinsharishkun was able to put down the revolt against his rule, and successfully recaptured some lost territory in Mesopotamia, but suffered another revolt in 622. Nabopolassar pressed his advantage and pushed north, entering Assyrian territory, and defeated the Assyrian army many times. If it had just been a conflict against the Chaldean Babylonians, Sinsharishkun and the Assyrians might have been able to hold firm if not prevail; but when Cyaxares and the Medes invaded from the east in 615, the doom of Assyria was at hand. Sinsharishkun had been able to successfully defend Assur, the ancient heart of their land, from the Chaldeans in 615; in 614 it fell to the Medes. Nabopolassar and Cyaxares made an anti-Assyrian pact, and in 612 their combined armies marched on Nineveh. Two months later the town was taken, ravaged, and burned to the ground. Sinsharishkun is presumed to have died in the fighting. We have some records of one Ashur-uballit II, likely Sinsharishkun’s son, who was proclaimed king at Harran but fled three years later and vanished from the record; the Egyptians would try to help prop up the rump state of Assyria for awhile but to no avail. Thus, for all intents and purposes, Sinsharishkun was the last king of Assyria.

Twenty years. It had only taken twenty years for Assyria to go from its greatest extent to complete destruction and devastation. Thus Nineveh and Assyria were exactly what Nahum had prophesied they were. They were no better than those they had defeated. They had generated intense dislike and hostility because of the cruelty they had inflicted; when their enemies obtained an advantage, there would be no mercy. As the Assyrians had destroyed Babylon, so the Babylonians destroyed Nineveh. There would be no renaissance or renewal for Assyria; this was the end. A nation which had existed since around 2500 BCE fell completely in half a generation.

There are many who remain skeptical about many of the messages of the prophets and the way they would be fulfilled. All of those messages would find their fulfillment, but often would take much longer than many expected. No such ambiguity exists about Nahum’s message: he prophesied it at some point after 671 BCE, and it was finished by 609. The world it imagined would have been unthinkable until it took place; but then it happened. Who could have seen it coming? Those to whom YHWH had spoken.

Those of us who live long after such events took place should still give heed. God would indict Babylon for the same kind of whoredom and sorcery for which He had indicted Assyria; Rome would also fall under the same condemnation.

We can therefore see a trend at work. Powerful rulers over prosperous and successful empires frequently boast of their great exploits and endurance. Their cities glisten with wealth and the fruit of power and prosperity. Everything looks stable; people expect things to continue as they have in the past.

But then, all of a sudden, disaster strikes. Difficulties which have been manifest for those who had eyes to see now undermine the presumed strength of the nation. Collapse, destruction, and devastation may come quickly and thoroughly; it may be drawn out for years, decades, or even centuries. But the end would indeed come.

Who could have seen it coming? Those who would heed what God has spoken. Power and prosperity remain ephemeral; everything seems to go on as it always has until it no longer does. We should not trust in princes or the powers of this world; instead, we should put our trust in the God who sees all things and who will judge. May we trust in God in Christ and obtain life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Incurable Wound

Wait in Silence

My soul waiteth in silence for God only / From him cometh my salvation (Psalm 62:1).

If God is who He says He is, we must trust Him and find our security in Him and in no other.

We know this to be true in terms of intellect and cognition: we understand the logical nature of the premise, and by faith we accept it to be true. And yet what happens the moment we are tempted to trust in someone, or something, else? Or, perhaps, what happens when it is revealed to us just how much we have been trusting in someone, or something, else, and not truly in God?

David meditated on the matter in Psalm 62:1-12. David waited in soul in silence for God, and God alone, for his salvation came from God: God was his rock, salvation, and high tower, so David would not be moved (Psalm 62:1-2). David noticed how many people laid in wait to strike one another: they focused on other people to tear them down, delighting in lies; they might bless with their mouths, but they curse in their hearts (Psalm 62:3-4). Thus David reinforced his message: his soul should wait for God only and in silence, for David’s expectation is from Him, his rock, salvation, and high tower, so he would not be moved; his salvation and glory were with God, and in God was his strength and refuge (Psalm 62:5-7). David called all people to trust him at all times, pouring out their hearts before Him, for He is their refuge (Psalm 62:8). David again considered humanity and how he could not rely upon any: those of low esteem are “vanity,” a breath (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:2, etc.); those of high esteem lie; they all, when weighted, are lighter than vanity/a breath (Psalm 62:9). People should not trust in oppression or robbery; if people gain wealth they should not trust in it (Psalm 62:10). David has seen the end of the matter: God has spoken, that power belongs to Him, as well as hesed, where covenant loyalty meets steadfast love; in His faithfulness to His covenant God will render to every person according to what they have done (Psalm 62:11-12).

David thus understood who God is: all power belongs to Him, and He is faithful to His covenant. Thus David recognized his need to wait for God in silence, to trust in God as the source of his salvation and a place of refuge and strength. People always fail: they are here one day, and gone the next, and focus the whole time on looking better by reckoning others as worse. Wealth, whether gained honorably or dishonorably, is vain, and does not deliver on its promises; poverty is no less vain.

The world has not appreciably changed in these regards over the past three thousand years. People still always fail. People still focus on other people, looking for reasons to tear down others and look better by comparison, as exemplified in modern social media. Those lowly esteemed in society remain but a breath, a vanity; those more highly esteemed promote the lies that allowed them and their ancestors to obtain that esteem and the privileges which flow from it. Wealth remains as David, and Jesus and Paul, described it: a continual source of temptation toward idolatry, to trust in one’s material prosperity over the God who gave it all (cf. Luke 12:13-48, 1 Timothy 6:3-10, 17-19). Meanwhile, God remains all powerful, and has proven faithful to covenant; He will recompense all according to what they have done (Romans 2:5-11, 13:1, Hebrews 10:19-25).

As Christians we “know” these things: we accept their truth on a cognitive level. But how deeply have we internalized it? Has it transformed our hearts? Has God revealed to us our dependence on the opinions of others, our valuation of our status, whether low or high, and/or our reliance on material wealth, whether by heeding His wisdom or through trials and distress? Have we really learned to depend upon God as our refuge from all of the unreliability of the world, or are we still trying really hard to make the world more reliable for us?

How we answer these questions might depend on how well we have internalized and practiced David’s posture in Psalm 62:1-11: do we wait for Him in silence? Waiting for God requires great patience: God works according to His time scale, and that goes well beyond ours. We may cry out for justice, peace, or any number of things, and have to suffer long until God’s purposes are fully accomplished. Watching God’s purposes play out can be a glorious thing; when in judgment, it can prove quite painful, and more prolonged than we might want to imagine. Yet, as God’s people, we must reckon God’s longsuffering as salvation (2 Peter 3:15): if God had proven as patient with us as we are with Him, we would all be doomed.

We must also wait for God in silence. Most of us do not tolerate silence well. We find it awkward. We want to fill that time and space with noise and busy activities. Perhaps, in the silence, gnawing questions, trauma from our past, or other things bubble up, and we would rather not address them. Perhaps we have been acculturated to resist silence, choosing the dopamine release of constant stimulation from devices or activities. Or perhaps we lack the patience to sit in the silence. Such is especially manifest in our prayer life: do we ever just sit with God without having to speak? Is there any other relationship in our lives that only involves one-way monologue quite like the relationship many of us have with God in prayer?

God has all power; God displays covenant loyalty, and because of that covenant loyalty will both reward those who seek Him and judge those who do not. We are weak; He is strong. We are often and easily beset with temptations and trials; He can rescue us. We easily look to the idols of this world, making much of little and esteeming little of what is great; He would be our everything, but only if we wait on Him in silence. As God’s people we will learn to wait for God in silence by heeding such wisdom, be humbled by our circumstances and trials as through fire to wait for God in silence, or have our idolatry exposed, either to repent and turn to the living God or to cling to them ever more closely and go into perdition because of them. May we all turn to God in heart as well as mind, and wait for Him in silence!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wait in Silence

After the Manner of the Fathers

Wherefore say unto the house of Israel, “Thus saith the Lord YHWH: ‘Do ye pollute yourselves after the manner of your fathers? And play ye the harlot after their abominations? And when ye offer your gifts, when ye make your sons to pass through the fire, do ye pollute yourselves with all your idols unto this day? And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live’, saith the Lord YHWH, ‘I will not be inquired of by you'”! (Ezekiel 20:30-31).

The soul that sins shall die: a person will not bear the iniquity of their father, nor will the father bear the iniquity of their son. The apple does not fall far from the tree: like father, like son; like mother, like daughter. Both of these statements prove equally true, as Ezekiel would have Israel understand.

Ezekiel received the message on August 14, 591 BCE; Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had already determined on a western military campaign in Beyond the (Euphrates) River, and most likely was on the march (Ezekiel 20:1; cf. Ezekiel 21:21-27). The judgment against Judah and Jerusalem was about to play out in real time. The elders of Israel would inquire of YHWH before Ezekiel; YHWH asked if He would really be inquired of by them, and Ezekiel was to judge them by making known to them the abomination of their fathers (Ezekiel 20:2-4).

Ezekiel then set forth a comprehensive indictment of Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry manifest in the generation liberated from Egyptian bondage: their eyes had feasted on the abominations of Egypt, and in their hearts they never fully parted from the idols of the Egyptians (Ezekiel 20:5-7). The only reason He did not destroy them then or in the Wilderness was on account of His name lest it be profaned among the nations (Ezekiel 20:8-17).

But it was not only this generation: YHWH spoke to their children and urged them to turn aside from the ways and idolatry of their fathers, and to follow in the statutes of YHWH their God, and yet they also rebelled against Him, keeping their eyes on their fathers’ idols (Ezekiel 20:18-24). Again YHWH did not destroy them on account of His name lest it would be profaned.

Successive generations did not fare much better. They blasphemed against God and dealt treacherously with Him even after He brought them into the land He had promised to their fathers: they offered sacrifices on high hills and made provocative offerings to idols on high places (Ezekiel 20:25-29). And thus Ezekiel offered YHWH’s indictment against the elders and people of Israel: they defiled themselves after the manner of their fathers and served their detestable idols, presenting gifts and offering children to the fire (Ezekiel 20:30-31). Thus the judgment YHWH was about to bring against Judah and Jerusalem was more than just.

For many, “Ezekiel” immediately conjures up his message in Ezekiel 18:1-32: the soul that sins will die; fathers will not die because of the iniquity of the son, or vice versa. Ezekiel certainly taught this message, and meant it, yet not in an atomistic individualist way. The Israelites were using a proverb to suggest their doom was fated and thus there was nothing they could do about it (Ezekiel 18:1-2): Ezekiel exhorted them to cease that mentality, to change their hearts and minds so they might live and not die.

However we understand Ezekiel 18:1-32 must also take Ezekiel 20:1-31 into account: both messages come from YHWH and are given by the same prophet to the same audience. It remains correct that the son will not die because of the iniquity of his father: but if the son follows in the iniquitous ways of his fathers, he also will die. Sons can change and no longer walk in the ways of their fathers; and yet children tend to follow in their fathers’ footsteps.

For generations we have seen far too many go to extremes regarding “the sins of the fathers.” Many, insisting on passages like Exodus 20:5-6, suggest predetermined depravity and condemnation: the sons are punished for the sins of the fathers, and that is right and good. Others, insisting on Ezekiel 18:1-32, suggest a complete separation between fathers and sons: sons and fathers are completely different people, a Lockean confidence in children as tabulae rasae, “clean slates” upon whom justice and righteousness might easily be impressed. Each argues against the extreme form of the other; neither end up capturing the truth.

When we understand Ezekiel 18:1-32 and Ezekiel 20:1-31 in light of each other, we can come to a more effective and holistic understanding. Children are not tabulae rasae; they are born with characteristics of their parents for good and for ill. They are acculturated by their parents and culture and will most likely follow after the ways of their parents and culture (cf. Proverbs 22:6). They might rebel against their parents and culture and follow a different path, and yet even then their disposition, actions, and attitudes will reflect that engagement with the ways of their parents. People can change; people can turn from iniquity to righteousness, but also can turn from righteousness to iniquity. We are never compelled to follow in the ways of our fathers; but we generally follow their ways, consciously and unconsciously, because that is how we have been raised.

And so Israelites for generations persisted in the idolatry they learned in Egypt. They served the litany of gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East; they did not fully sanctify YHWH as their God and did not observe His statutes. God continually sent prophets to warn Israel from their ways, to turn aside from the delusions of their fathers; nevertheless, they mostly persisted. Some certainly turned from idolatry to righteousness; a few may have been raised righteous but turned aside to idolatry. They would experience the distress of the trial of judgment and exile; many persisted in idolatry and assimilated into the native populations of Assyria and Babylon, but a precious few did turn sharply to fully dedicate themselves to YHWH and to teach their children likewise.

We do well to compare and contrast Israel in Ezekiel’s day with Daniel and Ezra. Israel in Ezekiel’s day first felt as if they were doomed because of their father’s sins and thus felt justified in doing as they wished (Ezekiel 18:1-2); after the exile, they were convinced they suffered so greatly because of their transgressions and sins that they could not be brought to repentance (Ezekiel 33:10): in both situations they did not seek YHWH but despaired of life, and in many respects did not wish to see their complicity and guilt which led to their circumstances. Daniel and Ezra were conditioned by the trauma of the exile to immediately beg for forgiveness for the sins of their fathers they had continued to commit, whether or not they fully participated in all of their father’s sins (Daniel 9:4-19 and Ezra 9:6-15): they sought to draw near to YHWH, and were willing to identify with the sins of their fathers in order to do so.

No, children do not need to persist in the ways of their fathers. But children tend to go after the manner of their fathers. Our fathers can but leave us with a mixed legacy: we can honor them for what is right, just, and good about what they have done and what they have left us, but we must fully identify, confess, and repent of what is evil, unjust, and ugly about what they have done and what they have given us. Whatever we do not separate ourselves from in sharp relief we will be tempted to continue to practice.

We all remain creatures of our time, place, and context, no matter our pretensions toward transcendence or objectivity. The legacy our fathers and mothers bequeathed us has many praiseworthy and honorable aspects, and we do well to celebrate, uphold, and imitate them. Yet that legacy also has many sinful, evil, and ugly aspects: if we do not identify them, confess them, and repent of them, we will be continually tempted to persist in them. We cannot just uphold the good and pretend the bad does not exist, or think we can suppress or neglect the bad in order to honor those who came before us and come out unscathed. Sons do not bear the iniquity of the fathers merely because the fathers committed iniquity. Yet, more often than not, sons do bear iniquity, because they do not turn away from that on which their fathers feasted their eyes. May we all pursue the ways of our heavenly Father, and glorify and honor Him in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

After the Manner of the Fathers

No Soundness in My Flesh

O YHWH, rebuke me not in thy wrath / Neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure (Psalm 38:1).

Illness exposes our weakness and fragility in ways we would rather deny or forget. We would rather figure out reasons why we surely would not be called upon to thus suffer and explain the illnesses of others as somehow based upon their particular plight or as the consequences of their behavior. Far more seem ready to provide some kind of ready-made cure than to sit in lament with the one enduring illness.

At some point in his life David experienced great distress from some kind of illness, or gave voice to the people of God to express great distress from illness before God, in Psalm 38:1-22. The psalm is reckoned as one “to bring to remembrance,” begging God to pay attention and to deliver. David called on YHWH to not rebuke him in His wrath or to chasten him in His displeasure (Psalm 38:1). David acutely felt affliction, and he deemed it as having come from God; in his flesh there was no soundness or health in his bones because of his sin (Psalm 38:2-3). His sins were many and too heavy a burden for him; he has infected wounds on account of his foolishness (Psalm 38:5). David felt numb in the crushing weight he experienced, crying out with moaning in heart (Psalm 38:6-8). David appealed to God who understood his heart and heard his groaning: his strength was failing, and even though his adversaries plotted against him and friends and family avoided him, he was as a deaf or mute man, incapable of making a defense (Psalm 38:9-14). David waited for YHWH, expecting a response: he prayed for deliverance lest his enemies gloat over him and taunt him (Psalm 38:15-16). David felt great pain and was concerned he was about to stumble, thus he confessed his sin (Psalm 38:17-18). David begged for God not to abandon him or remain far from him, but desired the Lord to hurry to help and deliver him (Psalm 38:20-22).

It would not be wise for us to attempt to ascertain exactly when or how David experienced this affliction so as to identify what sins David might have committed to lead to his condition. No such information is revealed; even if it had, we must always remember that David never spoke only for himself in the psalms, but wrote to give voice to the people of God to bring their distress, concerns, and praise before Him. We can imagine many Israelites having reason to come to the Temple and proclaim Psalm 38:1-22, or most of it, before YHWH: afflicted terribly with some disease, looking for deliverance and healing from God, and thus humbling themselves in lament and confession of sin so nothing would come between them and God.

David strongly considered illness the consequence for sin and iniquity. He had good reason to do so. David numbered Israel and saw God’s plague cut down thousands of his people in response (2 Samuel 24:1-17). In the Law Israel was promised they would be protected from sickness and would not suffer the plagues YHWH imposed upon Egypt if they remained faithful to the covenant (Deuteronomy 7:15); the curse which would come for disobeying the covenant included sickness (Leviticus 26:16). In judgment YHWH sent plague against Israel, but they would not listen (Amos 4:10); plague would be among the means by which YHWH judged Jerusalem and Judah (Ezekiel 5:12). To this end Jesus’ disciples simply conveyed the normal assumptions and expectations of Israelites during the Second Temple when they asked Jesus whether it had been the man himself or his parents who had sinned, leading to his blindness (John 9:2).

Such a perspective about illness does not sit well with us today. We are uncomfortable with those who to this day make the naïve proclamation that health displays the favor of God and illness God’s disfavor, and for good reason. Plenty of wicked people maintain good health throughout their lives; many righteous people have suffered terribly from sickness and illness. According to Jesus neither the man born blind himself nor his parents so sinned as to lead to his condition: his blindness was given as the means by which God’s actions would be revealed to the world (John 9:3). Illness might come about from a host of reasons not directly connected with any given transgression by its sufferer: environmental conditions, a pandemic, a result of stress or trauma, and so on. Few sights prove as devastating and heart wrenching as seeing small children undergoing treatment for cancer or other major illnesses: they suffer greatly and yet have not personally participated in any sin or transgression.

Yet perhaps modern Westerners have proven a little too eager to disassociate illness from sin. Illness is part of the corruption of the creation introduced with sin (cf. Romans 5:12-21, 8:18-23). We have no quarrel with germ theory; we appreciate the benefits of modern epidemiology and the greater quality of life made possible by the elimination or significant reduction of many diseases. And yet, as we live in a more sanitized culture, we see the development of autoimmune conditions and “superbugs” which are becoming antibiotic resistant. As long as we live in the broken, corrupted creation of the present, illness will be with us in some way or form.

Christians do well to take another look at Psalm 38:1-22 as they consider illness, themselves, and others. We might be far removed from David’s worldview, and that might be at least partly to our own harm. We tend not to think much of illness until we suffer it ourselves or hear about the suffering of others. When we are confronted with the prospect of illness, we have a tendency to respond in shock, anger, and bitterness; we rarely look to ourselves the way David did.

Yet perhaps the greater warning from Psalm 38:1-22 ought to come to those who do not presently suffer as much from illness. After all, why is it that so many people are invested in attempting to ascertain what sin it might have been that led to an illness? Why do so many seek out the right behavior, supplement, or oil and regard them as having almost magical powers? We humans desperately look for reasons to explain why “they” are ill to reassure ourselves that “we” will not succumb. Jesus addressed a similar challenge in Luke 13:1-5 when informed of recent news about how Pilate mingled the blood of some people with their sacrifices, with the intent to understand that such people must have sinned in some way so as to bring that fate upon them: He declared that they were no more or less sinful than anyone else, and if His audience did not repent, they would likewise perish.

So much of what we do in the face of illness is a reflection of our deep anxiety about the prospect of suffering and/or death. We do not like the cold, hard reality: we are all sinners and all have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and we may suffer from illness no matter how healthily we live, eat, or behave. We may go through our lives without enduring many difficult or challenging illnesses; our lives might prove to be a never ending parade of various illnesses or marked by a chronic condition. No one automatically deserves health or illness; if we escape, we may be fortunate, but if we suffer, it is part of the corruption of the creation, and it is our lot.

In all such things we do well to return to the words God has given us to speak to Him. David is giving us a voice to beg God for forgiveness of our sins and to acknowledge that our illness is a result of sin, even if it is not the result of any individual specific sin we may have committed in Psalm 38:1-22. David understood the most important thing in the face of illness is to maintain relational unity with God and to clear out any sin, foolishness, or difficulty which might get in the way of that relationship. Note well that David never associated his illness with any specific sin: his illness reminded him that he did have sin and transgression, and did not want to have to stand before God in His fierce anger. Neither should we.

In the “new heavens” and the “new earth” John envisioned no more death, and no more pain, crying, or mourning anymore; in such a place illness can have no place (Revelation 21:4). We eagerly await that day. Until then, we do well to turn to God and put our trust in Him whether in sickness or in health, and seek healing from Him in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry

No Soundness in My Flesh

The End of Their World

“And when I shall extinguish thee, I will cover the heavens, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land,” saith the Lord YHWH (Ezekiel 32:7-8).

You either flock to “apocalyptic” passages of Scripture or prove at least a little apprehensive about them. They look weird. Hollywood could take notes on what is portrayed.

Many are convinced no such passage has been yet fulfilled since we have not seen such cosmic signs in the sky. Yet maintaining such an expectation unnecessarily literalizes prophetic imagery, creates impossible expectations, and misses out on the prophet’s main lesson. People read apocalyptic passages and expect the end of the world; the prophet is warning the people regarding the end of their world.

Ezekiel’s message regarding Egypt in Ezekiel 32:7-8 can help us better understand the nature of such “apocalyptic” prophecies. From 587 until 585 Ezekiel received a series of messages against Pharaoh and the Egyptians; one such message came in 570 and represents the final prophecy given by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 29:1-32:32). Ezekiel’s prophecy against Egypt remained consistent throughout: YHWH would send the king of Babylon and his army against Pharaoh and his host, Pharaoh would be humiliated, the people would suffer exile, and Egypt would no longer rise as a kingdom among the nations. Ezekiel 32:7-8 is given in this context; in Ezekiel 32:11, he explicitly associated this “apocalyptic” message with the promise of the arrival of the king of Babylon against Egypt.

This “apocalypse,” therefore, was expected quite soon. Nebuchadnezzar did send a Chaldean Babylonian army against Egypt in 567 to help deposed Pharaoh Wahibre (Apries) regain his throne against the upstart Ahmose II (Amasis). The invasion proved unsuccessful. The Egyptians would not experience an exile in the way Ezekiel originally promised, but the “apocalypse” would come upon their land: Ahmose’s son Psamtik III would be defeated by Cambyses king of Persia in 525, deposed, and exiled to Susa. Egypt would be incorporated into the Persian Empire, and beyond a brief stint of home rule in the 4th century BCE, would continue to serve as a pawn for successive empires until 1953 of our own era.

For us today such a conclusion might seem underwhelming, and not much of a fulfillment. It does not seem sufficiently dramatic to us. Yet consider the situation from Ezekiel’s own perspective. When he was born around 622 BCE the world around him remained as it had been for the better part of 500 years: sure, the kingdoms of Israel and Aram had fallen to the Assyrians, but the Assyrians still ruled, Babylon laid in wait, Jerusalem stood, and Egypt remained as it had been for millennia. A visitor from a few centuries earlier would have recognized that world. By the time Ezekiel received these messages from YHWH, Assyria had fallen, no longer a going concern; Chaldean Babylon was now ascendant; Jerusalem had been destroyed. Within another century Persia, in Ezekiel’s day one among many peoples subject to the Medes, would conquer the known world, eliminating both Babylon and Egypt as independent nations. This was a completely new world; nothing like it had ever been seen. Surely the collapse of the Late Bronze Age kingdoms proved more catastrophic, and yet even then Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt remained. Babylon had been founded in 2300 BCE; Assyria, 2500; Egypt, 3100. Within one century all would fall, never to rise again. All of them had in their own way oppressed Israel the people of God; all of them were denounced by the prophets; all thus endured the Day of YHWH.

Therefore, even though by our standards we might find it hard to accept these “apocalyptic” prophecies met their fulfillment, the historical evidence makes it difficult to argue otherwise. Assyria was at the apex of its power under Ashurbanipal who died in 631 BCE; who could imagine it would be destroyed 20 years later? Josiah of Judah oversaw a renaissance in Judah; within 25 years of his death Jerusalem and its Temple would be destroyed, and the Davidic Kingdom of Judah would never rise again. Nebuchadnezzar presided in Babylon as king of the world; within 25 years it would all become the possession of a king and a nation which was not even an independent force when he died. Ahmose II and his fellow pharaohs of the Twenty-Sixth dynasty presumed to restore the glory of Egypt and imitated Old Kingdom art; yet Egypt in their day would become subject to distant foreigners, and would remain so for about as long as it had enjoyed independence. All of these collapses happened suddenly. The world had not ended; but their world was gone, never to return.

If we understand the gravity of the events which took place between 625 and 525 BCE, we would recognize how imagery like the sun, moon, and stars turning dark is more than appropriate. Everything the people of the nations had taken for granted for centuries, if not millennia, was suddenly overturned. For anyone who was invested in the status quo which had developed in the first half of the first millennium BCE the events proved to be an unmitigated disaster.

No one would come out the same. Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and the small surrounding nations would undergo Hellenization after the conquest of Alexander the Great, syncretizing their cultural and religious ideologies with those of the Greeks. Some Judahites would return from Babylonian exile, yet they would not return to the syncretized ways of their ancestors; Second Temple Judaism would prove as uniquely distinct from the practices of the days of the Solomonic Temple as it would from the Judaism which developed after the second Temple was destroyed.

Such is how it goes with “apocalypses.” The world does not end, but the world will never be the same again. A world has come to an end.

As Christians we confess Jesus as Lord of lords and King of kings; we recognize the nations of the world are empowered by God but enslave themselves to the powers and principalities over this present darkness (Romans 13:1, Ephesians 6:12, Revelation 13:1-18, 19:16). We look forward to the day on which the Lord Jesus will return and fully defeat death, the final enemy, and receive unto Himself all of every nation who serves Him, and to share in eternity in the resurrection of life (1 Corinthians 15:20-58, Revelation 20:11-22:6). In the meantime we have every confidence that the nations and their fates remain in the hands of God just as they did in the days of the prophets; the fact John can see judgments on Rome in terms of the judgments against the nations according to the prophets provides such testimony.

To this end we might well experience “apocalypses” as we await the ultimate Apocalypse, the final appearance of Jesus, the Son of Man and Risen Lord. These “apocalypses” are not the end of the world, but they will represent the end of a world. They might be personal in nature; they might afflict a particular group of people; they may afflict a nation or the entire world. In these times things people took for granted and assumed to be predictable become so no longer. What used to be “normal” becomes impossible. Life might well go on for many, but it will not look like it did before.

God has never promised to remove us from such forms of distress, but He has left us the same promise He has always left His people in difficult times. He will strengthen and sustain us through whatever we must endure, but only if we turn to Him and cling to Him as our refuge and strength. Ultimately we have no basis in confidence and reliance on any thing in this creation, and “apocalypses” remind us of this: they all fade and fall apart (1 Peter 1:23-25). At the same time, nothing in the creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:31-39): no force can tear us away from God. In Christ we can endure anything as long as we maintain our faith and trust in Him come what may.

No one ever asked to live through an “apocalypse.” No one wants to experience a day and time in which metaphors of cosmic dislocation seem just about right or perhaps even a little understated. And yet according to God’s sovereign purposes such times come upon mankind. They end a world; but they have not yet ended the world. They have often allowed for transformation and new life to grow. Whether we live in times of comfort or distress, stability or “apocalypse,” we do well to maintain our confidence in God in Christ, and not in anything He has made, and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The End of Their World

Anthems

Oh give thanks unto YHWH; for he is good / For his lovingkindness endureth for ever (Psalm 136:1).

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Behold, the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key: made the United States national anthem. For many it is a stirring song of potential and hope. Admit it: when you read it, the tune played in your head.

Now let us use our imaginations: 3,000 years have passed by. Over time people have forgotten the nature of tunes and music of our times, and controversy exists over what exactly the musical notation found on many old documents means. And yet the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner have been preserved, as has the story of the song’s origin: Francis Scott Key was imprisoned by the British in 1813 and composed it while watching the shelling of Fort McHenry near Baltimore after Washington, D.C. had already been burned to the ground.

Try to again read the lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner as just text on a page, without playing the tune in your head, just like our imagined students of the past 3,000 years from now might have to do. A natural reaction might be: what kind of national anthem is that? A dangerous war; bombs bursting in the air; rockets flying around; and oh, by the way, does the United States flag still fly over America? It almost sounds like an existential crisis, which the War of 1812 really was for a time. How would you explain the feeling of perseverance and confidence in the future we have associated with the song without making reference to how the song is sung and how the tune communicates those feelings? It would be very difficult indeed to communicate what The Star-Spangled Banner means to Americans by just looking at its lyrics on a page.

A similar difficulty is very real for us today when it comes to the Psalms. We have the lyrics to the Psalms; some words have been preserved which provide some kind of musical direction, although their exact meaning and nature are in dispute. We know that many were set to tunes which had names and were known to its original audience, but the sound of those tunes has been lost for generations. All we have now are words on a page.

Psalm 136:1-26 might prove exasperating to a reader: it is a call and response psalm, and the response is always the same: literally, “for His hesed to forever,” with hesed meaning “covenant loyalty” and often translated as “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love,” and a verb added for understanding (“endures,” “is”). The call exhorts Israel to give thanks to YHWH as God of gods and Lord of lords (Psalm 136:1-3); declares YHWH as the Creator of all things (Psalm 136:4-9); reminds Israel how God delivered them from Egypt, through the Wilderness, and gave them victory so as to conquer the land (Psalm 136:10-22); assures them how YHWH will remember them in their low estate, will deliver them from their enemies, and cause them to prosper in the land (Psalm 136:23-25); and ends as it began, a call to give thanks to YHWH (Psalm 136:26; cf. Psalm 136:1). The modern reader may see such a psalm, read over it quickly, perhaps even skipping over the repetitive response, and move on without much thought.

Yet what would Psalm 136:1-26 represent for Israel? It looks very much like an anthem, something for them akin to our The Star-Spangled Banner. It is a song of praise and thanksgiving to God for all He has done for Israel, providing a continual reminder of how God’s covenant loyalty has delivered Israel thus far. God has the power above all powers; God is the Creator; God has rescued Israel and sustained Israel. Whether in the days of David, Josiah, Zechariah, or Jesus, Psalm 136:1-26 would remind Israel who they are and their complete dependence on God for all things.

We can only imagine what the tune might have been or how the call and response would have sounded like in ancient Israel. It is possible that it was sung or chanted like a funeral dirge, but that seems unlikely. Perhaps the volume escalated in a crescendo, becoming quite the raucous sound by the end. But we can be sure that it would have been powerful and meaningful for Israel, just like The Star-Spangled Banner is for Americans.

As we read and meditate upon the Psalms, we must never forget how lively and powerful they were for Israel. They deserve better than a quick skimming and moving on. There is deep faith, life, and hope in the Psalms for the people of God, and they remain a deep reservoir for us as we go through the joys and difficulties in life. May we also give thanks to God, for His covenant loyalty endures forever in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Anthems

Prophetic History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Prophetic History

The Shepherd

YHWH is my shepherd / I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

Psalm 23:1-6 is by far the most famous Psalm in the Bible, and it may even be the most well-known and beloved passage in all of Scripture. You have likely heard it read at almost every funeral service you have ever attended. But what’s it all about?

David meditated on his relationship with God in Psalm 23:1-6. As a young man he lived as a shepherd, and thoroughly understood that responsibility (cf. 1 Samuel 17:34-36). Thus it was not difficult for David to speak of YHWH as his shepherd (Psalm 23:1).

David set forth what it meant for YHWH to be his shepherd: YHWH would provide what he needed (Psalm 23:1). As a shepherd finds green pastures, calm streams, and good paths for the sheep for their sustenance and development, so YHWH has provided prosperity, peace, and the way of righteousness for David, restoring his soul (Psalm 23:2-3).

Yet the world is a dangerous place, full of evil; the image of the day of difficulty in the world as the “valley of the shadow of death” is haunting yet compelling (Psalm 23:4). David has confidence to persevere on account of YHWH’s presence. David received comfort from YHWH’s rod and staff: a shepherd would have kept a rod or staff, often bent with a hook to form the “crooked staff,” in order to support himself while walking and to provide guidance for the sheep. The presence of the rod/staff indicates the presence of YHWH and discipline to follow the good, right, and healthy way.

David found himself often beset by enemies, and yet YHWH had prospered his way; he praises God for having prepared him a table before his enemies (Psalm 23:5). God had anointed David’s head with oil and his cup overflowed: while David was anointed by Samuel at YHWH’s behest to be made king in 1 Samuel 16:13, both images here refer more to abundant prosperity from God’s hands (“anointed” is literally “to make fat” in the Hebrew; cf. Amos 6:6, Matthew 6:17). YHWH has provided abundantly for David.

YHWH has taken care of David and continues to provide for him; David thus fully expected YHWH to continue to manifest goodness and covenant loyalty toward him for the rest of his life (Psalm 23:6). David’s great hope involved dwelling in YHWH’s house forever, always enjoying His presence.

David did not write Psalm 23:1-6 merely for himself; YHWH inspired him to write to give voice to the people of God throughout time. Countless generations have taken comfort and strength from Psalm 23:1-6, and for good reason. Many have also walked in the valley of the shadow of death. Who would not want abundant prosperity? People like the idea of green pastures and still waters.

We can therefore understand why Psalm 23:1-6 gets appropriated for funerals and other moments of difficulty, and yet the entire psalm is animated by its very first phrase: YHWH is my shepherd. Everything else follows from it, indeed, but also depends upon it.

For YHWH to be my shepherd, however, I must be His sheep (Psalm 23:1). While the image of YHWH as shepherd might have come easily to David, having been a shepherd himself, the implications of the truth of such an image still requires a person to swallow a lot of pride and to exhibit humility. Comparing a person to a sheep is not flattering, then or now: sheep, quite frankly, are dumb. They must be led everywhere they go. Without a leader they wander aimlessly or stay paralyzed in one place. They are defenseless and prove easy prey for wolves and other predators. They are easily scared.

We humans easily fall prey to the pride of life, presuming a level of independence in understanding. We like to think we know how things work, can see through conceits and deceit, and have a good handle on knowing what we should do and how we should go. And yet we all make quite a mess of our lives on our own; whether we want to admit it or not, we are often powerfully motivated by fear, insecurity, and doubt, and prove self-deceived far more often than we would like to believe. In the grand scheme of things, yes, we are like sheep.

Thus, we do well to swallow our pride and to understand ourselves to be as sheep, and to look to YHWH as our Shepherd. We therefore must prove willing to follow Him and the paths He has established for us, even and perhaps especially when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death. We need to recognize our complete and utter dependence on God for all good things and confess our continual struggle to appreciate them and fully trust in Him. David’s final desire must also be our own: to dwell in the house of YHWH forever.

Psalm 23:1-6 is immensely comforting, but it can only be so for those who submit to YHWH as His sheep. God will lead His sheep to good pasture, still waters, and tables of prosperity. Yet His sheep must endure the valley of the shadow of death and perhaps great trial; they must depend upon YHWH their Shepherd for all things and not presume to have gained anything through the unaided work of their own hands. May we all trust in God in Christ and follow Him, the Good Shepherd, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Shepherd

The Nephilim

The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them: the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown (Genesis 6:4).

It seemed that everyone in the ancient world looked back to the heroes of their past for inspiration and direction. The Egyptians considered the gods Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Horus to have once ruled the land, and every generation would recreate the story. Assyrians and Babylonians looked back to Gilgamesh, Sargon, and other great kings of the past. Homer and others told the stories of what the Greeks deemed the Golden Age, the age of the heroes, Hercules, Jason, Theseus, Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Ajax, and the rest. Roman orators constantly appealed to their countrymen to return to the days of humble civic virtue embodied by Cincinnatus and others.

All of these cultures and societies venerated and highly esteemed their heroes and ancestors, often considering them worthy of emulation. For most the code of conduct by which the heroes of the past lived persevered without question or doubt. When the contemporary world could not sustain the contradictions and difficulties of living by a mythic standard (which the ancient “heroes” themselves no doubt failed to embody!), it would prove to men and women of old just how far civilization and culture had fallen from those glorious days in the past.

Ancient Israelites were well-acquainted with these stories from these other cultures. The Genesis author spoke of the mighty men of old, men of renown; he spoke of them as the Nephilim (Genesis 6:4).

Few things provoke as much contention and disputation as the Nephilim. The Nephilim were the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men,” interpreted either as certain angels who consorted with women or the descendants of Seth who comingled with the daughters of Cain. The Nephilim lived before the Flood and also afterward. In Numbers 13:33 the Israelite spies of the fifteenth century BCE testified to the existence of the Anakim in the land of Canaan, described as the descendants of the Nephilim. The Anakim all those years later were still reckoned as giants; they would be exterminated from the land of Israel in the days of Joshua (Joshua 11:21-22), and only a few remained in what would become the land of the Philistines, which might explain the height of Goliath four centuries later (1 Samuel 17:4-7).

We could endlessly speculate regarding the nature of the Nephilim and what made them the “mighty men of renown,” but to no avail, for we know nothing else about them from Scripture beyond what has been described above. Whoever they were, and whatever the nature of their power, the Genesis author’s ambivalence toward them is evident: the conjoining of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” led God to limit human life to 120 years, and they flourished in the days when the heart of man was only evil continually (Genesis 6:3, 5).

Much has been made of the parallels between Genesis and Mesopotamian narratives such as Enuma Elish and The Epic of Gilgamesh, generally attempting to diminish what is written in Genesis as a second-rate adaptation of these older stories. Yes, these stories all relate to the distant past and prove parallel, flowing from some sort of shared remembrance. Yet the Genesis author is very consciously standing against the Mesopotamian traditions in many ways; and very much so in terms of the understanding of the “heroic past.”

The Genesis author does not deny the existence of these men in the past who are hailed as “heroes” and “men of renown.” Instead, he contextualizes their situation: they did mighty things because of their origins. Their mighty deeds did not redeem them, however; their origin was not good. It should not have happened. They stand apart from the generations of men and women who followed. Their story is not one to emulate; it is a warning to heed.

What we see with the Nephilim remains consistent throughout the Hebrew Bible. The prophetic retelling of Israel’s story is a warning for future generations to avoid the idolatry and rebellion which led to judgment and exile. The faith of many men and women are held up as exemplary, yet all manifest significant character flaws which cause great distress and grief. The only unalloyed “hero” in the Hebrew Bible is YHWH.

Today Christians live in societies profoundly shaped or influenced by the cultures mentioned above; we may not honor their heroes, but the impulse to find men of some renown and to esteem them as larger than life remains. What the Greeks did to the Mycenaean warriors of the late Bronze Age Americans tend to do with their “Founding Fathers” and other exemplary leaders of the past: their virtues are extolled and magnified beyond historical reality, their vices diminished, and a divine hand is reckoned to have guided them in ways they may not have even understood. Many wish to return to the virtues of a former age and in the process turn the past into a myth, magnifying what may have been good while suppressing what was less than pleasant. Everyone seems convinced today is worse than yesterday.

Christians must look upon such narratives with a skeptical eye, understanding their own past as the Genesis author understood humanity’s shared past. Yes, there were men of renown; yet many of them may not have come from a good place, and even the most exemplary manifested tragic flaws. One man’s “golden age” is another man’s age of decrepitude and decadence. The only unalloyed hero in history is Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God, the embodiment of the Godhead (Colossians 1:15, 2:9). The things He said and did which have earned Him renown stand in strong contrast against what most “heroes” do in order to gain fame and prominence.

It is good to aspire to virtue in character; despite what the modern world may imagine, it is good to be part of a story involving a people in which one finds his or her place. As Christians, however, we will not be able to find the most compelling such story and find such virtues in any individual society; we find them embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, and ought to seek to be part of the eternal purpose God has purposed in Him. May we follow Jesus the Christ and not the hero narratives of our culture and find salvation in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Nephilim