The Praise of Storms and Men

Praise YHVH! Praise YHVH from the heavens; Praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; Praise him, all his hosts! Praise him, sun and moon, Praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Psalm 148:1-4

In Psalm 148, the Psalmist exhorts the heavens, angels, animals, hills, and even the weather to praise the name of YHVH. He spoke, and they were created in all their complex glory, therefore they ought to praise him, and they do!

We humans, on the other hand, have rejected him, despised his instructions, hated one another, and killed his Son. If the sun and moon and all of these things which have no real will, which have never rebelled against God, ought to praise his name, how much more we, who have been forgiven so much, who have been created not once, but twice, ought to praise his name!

Sing and speak of God’s glory, justice, and mercy. Praise his power to destroy, as well as his willingness to forgive. Most of all, praise his name by emulating him to each other. Keep his Law, which instructs in how to love. Live a righteous life. Be patient and understanding. Champion justice–God’s justice, not man’s perversion of it–protect those who are in your power, and be quick to forgive those who wrong you. Teach your children what it means to love God first and their neighbor second.

The most effective way to express our gratitude to God for his grace, is to reflect his character into the world through our words and actions.

God Is Faithful to the Faithful

Have I mentioned that I love chiasms? (Technically, I think it’s supposed to be chiasmi, but you know what? I’m sticking with chiasms.)

I do. I love chiasms and I have another one for you. This one is in Psalm 66, which begins and ends with praise to God and a call to the nations to worship the God of Israel, but is centered on the trials and restoration of Israel.

A chiasm in Psalm 66 highlighting God's faithfulness to His faithful remnant

Hard times come and go for everyone and sometimes it seems like there’s more coming than going. I don’t know what is happening in your life or what trials you have faced or might be facing now or in the future. I won’t pretend that I understand your suffering or that I’ve been there. Chances are very good that I haven’t. Overall, my life has been pretty good. I have been fortunate in having been spared most of the horrible things that many people must endure. I pray that God is merciful to you, that your burdens are as easy as they can be and still accomplish God’s purposes.

“God’s purposes? You mean God is doing this to me?”

Probably, yes. Again, I won’t pretend to know everything. Maybe the things you have endured are strictly from the Adversary and not from God at all, but the weight of Scripture is on God causing your suffering.

Many people are under the false impression that God never does anything bad to anyone or that he only did that in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, there are a large number of examples in both Testaments of God inflicting suffering on both the wicked and the righteous, and, as he told Malachi, “I am YHVH. I change not.”

Psalm 66 says

For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance. (Psalms 66:10-12 ESV)

Clearly God inflicted great hardships on Israel. Enslavement in Egypt, oppression by the Philistines and others, conquest by Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome…all brought on Israel by God. The Scriptures and the ancient sages of both Judaism and Christianity are agreed on that point.

Each person suffers for different reasons at different times. Some are wounded and sick so that God can be glorified through their healing. Others, as the Psalmist points out, are afflicted so that they will be refined. And still others so that their lives may become catalysts for the salvation of many more.

Although all peoples have suffered, because of the Scriptures and the scholarly traditions of Jewish culture, we have a more thorough record of the trials of Israel and the Jews than of any other people. Whether they have suffered more or less than others, I can’t say, but after all that they have endured, it is truly remarkable that they still exist as a people at all.

For almost 2000 years they were homeless sojourners all over the world in lands where they were alternately blessed and cursed by their hosts. They have been subjected to genocide after genocide, purge after purge, and yet they persist long after the Philistines, Hittites, and Midianites have vanished from all but stone and parchment.

Because God is faithful.

God promised Israel–the physical descendants of Jacob, not anything called the Church–that he would always preserve a remnant of them for his own purposes. He made covenants with Jacob, Moses, and Pinchas (among others), that their descendants would always be a people before God, and that all the fires, nets, and burdens of the ages could not eradicate them, but would refine them like silver in a crucible.

As we who have submitted ourselves to Messiah Yeshua are grafted into the tree of Israel, we become joint heirs of the promises and prophecies it contains, both good and bad. Refinement by fire is part of being Israel. If we are to be citizens of the Kingdom, then we must be willing to bear our crosses alongside Yeshua, whatever crosses God might have in store for us.

Remember that Yeshua said it was not the Romans or the Jews who crucified him, but he gave up his life willingly according to God’s will. And we know that, just like the suffering recounted by the Psalmist, his suffering was for the good of the whole world. His shed blood opened the way to our adoption into the House of Israel. Without his suffering we would be lost, and without our own suffering, we would remain impure, incomplete and incapable of fulfilling the role that God has for us to play in his great plan.

The chiastic pattern in Psalm 66 tells us what God wants us to do with our suffering: he wants us to praise him, to trust him, to tell the world about his great deeds and how he is faithful to bring those who trust in him through any trial, no matter how severe.

God’s plan might be impossible for us to see from where we stand, but the essence of faithfulness is trusting in him despite whatever evil happens in the world around us, to us or to others. The faithful are preserved, while those who cling to their sin are burned off like dross and cast aside.

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. (Psalms 66:18-19 ESV)

Keep the faith, because God’s purpose is not to destroy his people, but to refine them. Recall what Paul wrote to Timothy:

The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful [to the faithful, according to his word]– for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:11-13 ESV)

And what Yeshua said to the disciples:

But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. (Matthew 24:13 KJV)

Suffering must come, but those who reject God because of it will in turn be rejected by him. Those who endure, however, will be restored in mercy and rewarded appropriately. Stand tall or fall on your face before the almighty, whichever seems right to your circumstances. You are in good company.

When Love Requires Violence

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven… You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-45a,48)

In Matthew 5, Yeshua corrected a number of man-made doctrines and misunderstandings of Biblical principles. Although Leviticus 19:18 says “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”, there is no command in Scripture to “hate your enemy”. It’s easy to see where they would get such an idea, though. In Psalm 139, David wrote,

Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies. (Psalm 139:21-22)

This sounds at first like David hated his enemies, but that’s not what he said. David hated “those who rise up against” God and also counted them as his own enemies. He didn’t say that he hated his own enemies, most especially those who merely hated God in their hearts–which is bad enough–but only those who took action on their hatred, who rose up against God in open rebellion, attempting to bring others into their error.

On the national level, the Tanakh (the Old Testament) records numerous instances of God commanding Israel to attack those who had made themselves enemies of God either by attacking God’s people directly or by attempting to lead them into sin through which they could be cursed and defeated.

This is exactly the strategy that Balaam taught Moab and Midian to use against Israel. By attacking Israel, those nations became God’s enemies. If they had attacked Israel only in self-defense, they would still be Israel’s enemies, but not necessarily God’s, and Israel would be in the wrong. But they didn’t attack Israel in self-defense. They didn’t even attack because they hated Israel, but because they hated God who had chosen Israel instead of them.

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.” (Numbers 25:16-18)

There is no instance of God commanding Israel to attack or hate anyone simply because they were rivals or enemies of Israel. Edom also hated Israel, but unlike Midian and the various Canaanite nations, they didn’t rise up against God. Despite centuries of conflict between the rival kingdoms, God commanded Israel to respect the boundaries of Edom until they were both conquered by Babylon.

The same principle holds true for interpersonal relationships, especially between brothers among God’s people. In Matthew 5:43-48, Yeshua drew on the broader context of the original source of “love your neighbor as yourself”, Leviticus 19:1-30. This passage is structured as a chiasm (see here for more information on chiasms) in which commands to refrain from hateful behavior are sandwiched between instructions on sacrifice, refraining from idolatry, and reverencing parents, Tabernacle, and Sabbath.

  • v3 – Reverence for parents & Sabbath
    • v4 – Idolatry/paganism
      • v5-10 – Sacrifice and food
        • v11-20 – Fraud, oppression, hatred, mixtures, sexual abuse
      • v21-26a – Sacrifice and food
    • v26b-29 – Idolatry/paganism
  • v30 – Reverence for Tabernacle & Sabbath

A chiasm in Leviticus 19:3-30 that equates hatred with idolatry.This is very similar to another, much larger, chiastic structure in Exodus 25-40. In that instance, the idolatry of the golden calf, after which God commanded the faithful of Israel to kill their own brothers, is set between the stone tablets, Sabbath, and instructions for the Tabernacle. See more details on that chiasm here.

God’s intent in this arrangement appears to be to equate unjust hatred for one’s brothers with idolatry, or hatred of God himself. To paraphrase God’s message…

Don’t steal from or lie to one another. Don’t oppress the powerless. Don’t hold hatred in your heart for your brother. Don’t speak ill of one another. Respect the boundaries I have created. Just like you, your brothers are created in my image and if you abuse them, it is like you are abusing me. My true worshiper not only offers sacrifices and reverences his parents, my sanctuary, and my Sabbath, but reverences his brothers, even those who have done him wrong.

Mercy is always God’s default position. He loves all mankind and doesn’t want even a single person to be lost. But for reasons of his own, he has created us able to reject him and each other. We are fully capable of theft, rape, and murder, and God doesn’t stop us from committing whatever wicked act comes into our hearts.

Just as he has empowered us to do evil, he has empowered and even commanded us to correct injustices. We are required to execute murderers and adulterers and to exact punishment and restitution where applicable.

The punishment of criminals and the destruction of entire nations who have sworn enmity against God is not counter to Yeshua’s instructions to love one another. It is impossible to love everyone equally as some are willing oppressors while others are innocently oppressed. To destroy the one is to love the other and God’s word is consistently in favor of the oppressed.*

Usually love means being kind and merciful, but sometimes love also requires violence.

*And by oppressed I don’t mean poor or uneducated. Those are conditions that might be the result of oppression, but they might as easily be the result of natural disasters or poor personal decisions. I mean people who are actively being oppressed by someone else and who are unable to defend themselves.

Update: Here’s a little more detail on that chiasm. The chiasm itself is actually one and one-half segments of a triple parallelism.

  • V3 – Reverence (Mother, Father, Sabbath)
    • V4 – Idolatry
      • V5-10 – Sacrifices and food
        • V11-12 – Fraud
        • V13-15 – Oppression
        • V16-18 – Hatred
        • V19 – Mixtures
        • V20 – Oppression/sexual immorality
      • V21-26a – Sacrifices and food
    • V26b-29 – Idolatry/paganism
  • V30 – Reverence (Sabbath, sanctuary)
    • V31 – Idolatry/paganism
  • V32 – Reverence (Elders)
    • V33-36 – Oppression & Fraud

The End of the Wicked

Arise, O LORD! Let not man prevail!

David begins Psalm 9 with an outline:

  • I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart;
  • I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.
  • I will be glad and exult in you;
  • I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.

He proceeds to describe the victories and favoritism God has granted (and will grant) him, then to invite the people of Zion to join him in singing God’s praises, and finally to make several observations about the relationship of God to men that reveals the characters of both.

In the final segment, David focuses on the futile nature of mere men thumbing their noses at an omnipotent Creator.

Psalms 9:15-20 ESV
The nations have sunk in the pit that they made;
     in the net that they hid, their own foot has been caught.
The LORD has made himself known;
     he has executed judgment;
The wicked are snared
     in the work of their own hands.

Meditation. Selah.

The wicked shall return to Sheol, 
     all the nations that forget God.
For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
     and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.
Arise, O LORD! Let not man prevail; 
     let the nations be judged before you!
Put them in fear, O LORD! 
     Let the nations know that they are but men!

Selah.

Scheming for relative advantage is one of the favorite activities of the wicked, and they are often very good at hiding both their actions and their motives. They set traps for the unsuspecting, hoping to tear people down to make themselves look higher, or to take advantage of someone else’s fall in order to promote their own interests.

If you are ever unsure about the character of someone, watch how he treats people who are less capable or less “sophisticated.” Does he hide the flaws of a product in order to pass the expense of future repairs on to a future owner? Does he make loud promises of gains for everyone, but somehow only ever enriches himself?

No matter what a person says or appears to do, pay attention to the end result of his personal and business dealings. If people who trust him regularly lose, while he keeps going along as if the fault is always someone else’s, watch out. Eventually he’ll fall into a trap of his own making and take with him anyone who is standing too closely. (Remember Korah!)

Death is a great magnet, pulling on men’s souls. Like iron, the evil that infects us and drives us to work toward the destruction of others inevitably pulls us back to its point of origin. David says that the wicked “shall return to Sheol,” and how can they return to something from which they haven’t already come?

Don’t, however, confuse entrapment with giving someone enough rope to hang themselves. It’s one thing to set traps for the unsuspecting. It’s another thing altogether to stand back and let someone destroy themselves by their own blundering or scheming.

The difference between these two competitive strategies draws a clear line between the character of God and the character of mere men. God doesn’t set out to destroy us, but He knows our faults, and has designed the Universe in such a way that those who seek to destroy others will eventually be destroyed by the very weapons they use against others. He knows the End from the Beginning and can never lose a game that He designed for His own purposes.

He will never abandon his faithful who are oppressed by the wicked. He is a God of Life and He will not allow those who put their trust in Him to be swallowed up by Death.

Arise, O LORD! Let not man prevail; let the nations be judged before you! Put them in fear, O LORD! Let the nations know that they are but men!

The Real Difference Between the Righteous and the Wicked

The Scriptures call Noah, Abraham, and David righteous men, but Paul said that “all our righteousness is as filthy rags.” The Biblical narratives of these men illustrates Paul’s point very well:

The second thing Noah did when he got off the boat was to plant a vineyard so he could get drunk. (You have to give him props for patience and long-term planning.) When push came to shove, Abraham lied and gave up his wife in order to save his own skin. And who can forget the story of David and Bathsheba? Over the preceding decades, he killed hundreds of men with his own hands and then topped it off by stealing a friend’s wife and having the friend killed to cover up his adultery.

After all that, how can Scripture call them righteous men, “a friend of God”, and “a man after God’s own heart”?

Psalm 32, written by David, is a chiastic song (see here for an explanation of chiasms) that helps us understand this seeming contradiction.

A chiasm in Psalm 32

  • A – V1-2 Blessed is the forgiven who honestly repents
    • B – V3-4 Living in unrepented, unconfessed sin is oppressive to a righteous man
      • C – V5 I determined to confess (speech) and I will be forgiven.
        • D – V6-7 Let the righteous pray to God before it is too late. God will save them.
      • C – V8 Let me tell you (speech) how to find the peace that I have.
    • B – V9 Don’t cling stubbornly to sin. Don’t prompt God to reign you in forcibly.
  • A – V10-11 Steadfast love and joy are for the righteous and upright in heart

David began by describing the reaction of a righteous man to sin in his own life. “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. Day and night your hand was heavy upon me. My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” He vividly described a tormented, guilty conscience. He continued by describing the antidote to his shame: confession, forgiveness, repentance. He said the same will work for every righteous person: “Let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may still be found.”

Adopting the perspective of God speaking to the penitent David, he wrote, “I will teach you how to walk and will watch over you as you go.” The wicked, to the contrary, do not repent, but cling stubbornly to their sin. If they feel shame’s call to repent, they suppress it until they can no longer hear it. Longing to be free, they reject God’s Law of life and love, and replace it with another, harsher law of death and hatred. “Many are the sorrows of the wicked,” David said, “but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in Adonai.”

David was a righteous man, yet he sinned. The difference between a righteous and a wicked man, according to David’s testimony, isn’t sin itself, but the man’s response to it. The righteous man doesn’t want to sin. He wants to be perfect, to be obedient to God’s instructions. He listens to his conscience and to God’s words. The wicked man hears the same words, feels the same shame, but trains himself to ignore it, to submit instead to a yoke of sin that can only lead to death.

Be the righteous man by confessing your sins to God, asking His forgiveness, and by endeavoring not to repeat them. In Romans 1-2, Paul describes what will happen if you ignore God’s call for too long.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.
(Romans 1:28 ESV)

Eventually, it will be too late. You won’t be able to turn back, either because God won’t let you or because you have just run out of time.

(This post is about what separates the heart of the righteous from the heart of the wicked. Later this week, I’ll talk about a few outward evidences of what’s going on inside.)

Despite Appearances, the Foundations Can Never Be Destroyed

We often hear Psalm 11:3 quoted in despair.

If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?

People repeat this one verse as if all hope will be lost if we don’t defeat this new law, win this election, save this marriage, but how many of us have read the entire chapter? It doesn’t say what we often seem to think it says.

David wrote of what appeared to be a hopeless situation, “The wicked are ready to destroy all those who are pure of heart. If all support is gone, what can the righteous do to prevent it?” But he didn’t stop there. He followed that with an observation on the reality that is hidden behind what we see and a profound statement of faith. To paraphrase, he wrote,

Adonai is still on His throne in Heaven and, although it appears that He has closed His eyes to our suffering, this is only a test for our benefit. He will destroy the violent and the wicked; a violent end is their inescapable destiny. But He loves the righteous and He is always watching over them.

Whatever you may be suffering, however evil your circumstances might appear, God still sees you. The sense of abandonment that you are experiencing is a test. Hold fast to your faith, because God has promised that the end of the faithful will be glory and life, while the ultimate demise of all oppressors, no matter how powerful they appear to us right now, will always be an ignoble and permanent grave.

For the righteous ADONAI loves righteousness and His countenance is toward the upright.

Adonai is still on His throne!