Ruth: three thoughts

I was named after Ruth in the Bible. I may be biased, but I’ve always thought she was pretty special. I’ve always been interested in the book named after her. As a child, I thought it was the loveliest of love stories. As an adult I still think it’s within the top five loveliest of love stories, but I’ve come to understand so much more about it, about the three main characters, and about God’s incredible love for each one of them. I could write many things I’ve discovered about this book of the Bible, but you don’t want to read something that long, so I’ll let you in on three lessons I’ve learnt.  

1. There’s a phrase that changes my perspective on this love story significantly.

In the days when the judges ruled…” (Ruth 1:1)

I did not read through all of Judges as a child, although I knew of Samson, Ehud, Deborah. I had never heard the final horrific chapters of Judges.  I did not understand that the book was about the nation of Israel declining into the sinful patterns of the nations around them. I had not heard the final section’s repeated refrain “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25; 17:6; 18:1; 19:1).  

Ultimately, I hadn’t placed the book of Ruth, and the actions of the characters in Ruth within the time they lived. I was the poorer in understanding for it. I would now suggest that to understand Ruth, one should first read Judges. When you start Ruth with a background of Judges, there are answers to questions.

Judges is a significantly longer book than Ruth, so for the sake of the length of this article, I am going to briefly focus on the two sections of Judges that I think specifically shed some light on Ruth: chapter 3 [1] and 19-20[2].

When I have read the book of Ruth with other women, there has been a persisting question over whether Elimelech did the right thing moving to Moab with his family.

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.” (Ruth 1:1)

I don’t know if this was during the events of Judges 3 or not, but having read the chapter, I suspect as readers we should be calling out ‘ no, don’t go there!’.  In Judges 3, King Eglon of Moab defeated and ruled over Israel for 18 years. Moab is no friend of Israelites and it is not a good thing for this man and his family to move there for however long he’s planning to be there. He’s moving into enemy territory. Whether it was enemy territory then or not, having read Judges, those alarm bells should be ringing in our heads when reading the beginning of Ruth. ‘Not Moab, don’t go there.’ And in case you missed it, Ruth’s author reinforces the move “They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.” (Ruth 1:2). In the time of the Judges, this is not an advisable move. 

You may be mentally arguing with me, saying ‘But there was a famine in the land. They had to do something. They might have been starving to death.’ And I would say, yes I agree. This was a serious time. But, in the book of Judges, and in many books in the Old Testament, a famine on the land may be a sign of God’s judgement on the people. If there is a famine in Israel, but not in Moab, which is geographically quite close, doesn’t that concern you even a little?  Rather than move to enemy territory, perhaps the answer was to call out to God, like one of the themes of Judges in that repetitive cycle of sin, judgement, repentance, rescue (judge), sin (judge has died), judgement, repentance, rescue, sin, judgement, repentance, rescue. Moving away from the promised land is not ever the antidote to hardship in the time of the Judges. It is always calling out to God in repentance.

But then we also have the sad irony of the name of the man. Elimelech. A man whose very name means ‘My God is king’. During a time when the writer of Judges reminds us more than once ‘In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’ Elimelech should have cried out to the one who was truly king in Israel, but instead he abandoned the meaning of his own name and did what he saw fit in his own eyes. And he ended up dying in that foreign land, followed ten years later by his two, married to Moabite women, sons.  Block argues that “the theme of the book [Judges] is the Canaanization of Israelite society during the period of settlement”[3], and in the beginning of Ruth we have a miniature picture of a family in all appearances becoming Moabite, assimilating with a people group that they should not be assimilating with or seeking a treaty of friendship with. (Deut 23:3-6)

2. The important ending that changes perspective.

Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.”  (Ruth 4:18-22)

Without the ‘surprise reveal’ at the end of the book of Ruth, we might leave it as a lovely love story about Boaz and Ruth. Yet, this ending makes the story so much more significant. Sometimes, we can lose the ‘wow factor’ when we’re too familiar with Bible verses. Here’s the ‘wow factor’ ending. It turns out that this story, about these Godly, amazing characters, Ruth and Boaz, are King David’s great grandparents! God blessed them is such a huge way, much bigger than merely providing an heir for Mahlon’s land.[4]

 One of the big themes of the book of Ruth is God’s provision. In the book the author descibes the LORD as intervening explicitly in two verses, providing food and family: 

“Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food.”  (Ruth 1:6)


So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son.” (Ruth 4:13)

In each case, the book of Ruth continues to show how much more abundant God’s provision is in these two areas of food and family.  In Ruth 1:4-5 we learn that Naomi is left without food and without family, apart from two foreign daughters-in-law.  By the end of the book of Ruth, Naomi’s future food and shelter are sorted because Boaz has agreed to take care of Naomi and Ruth, and her arms a filled with a new baby. As the women of the village say: 

Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” (Ruth 4:14-15)

And the story could be finished there. God’s incredibly abundant provision for Naomi’s needs is shown.   But then, even in the next verse, we read that this child, Obed, is the grandfather of the greatest King in the Old Testament! This is the eye-popping moment of the book. 

3. Now combine my first two points and look at the main characters in the book of Ruth.

When we read the final, awful, chapters of the book of Judges, we read what the common Israelites lived like. They are confused in their understanding of God, (eg. Judges 17), they are depraved, at civil war, and oddly enough, the little town of Bethlehem gets quite a mention[5]. There are no likeable people in this final section of the book of Judges. 

Against this backdrop, compare Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. 

Some people may question Naomi’s faith because of her bitterness in Ruth 1, but throughout the book she calls on the name of the LORD regularly.  In Ruth 1:8, Naomi prays for God’s hesed[6] to be shown to Ruth and Orpah. She uses the word that encapsulates one of the biggest themes of the book. In Ruth 2:20, Naomi recognises God’s hesed, in the amount of food Ruth has brought back from Boaz’s fields. 

Ruth is a foreignor, a Moabite. And in case we ever forget, the author of Ruth writes it repeatedly throughout the book. Yet, her big speech in Ruth 1:16-17 is astounding, especially when compared to the backdrop of the final chapters of Judges. 

“For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”  (Ruth 1:16-17)

Ruth calls on the name of the LORD, and she declares that she follows him. She works long hours in Boaz’s fields, to provide food for herself and her mother in law, and remarkably the characteristic of God, ‘hesed’ that is so big a theme of the book, is used to describe her actions in Ruth 3:10. This is a far cry from the times in which she lives. She is not a woman of her home or her times. One might even argue that although the book of Judges contains the ‘Canaanization of Israel’, we see in the book of Ruth, the ‘Israelization of a Gentile’.

And then we turn to Boaz. He cares for the foreignor and his distant relative by marriage, he is a man of his word and integrity. When we read of the truly disgusting way the women are treated at the end Judges, Boaz by comparison is phenomenal. He did not take advantage of Ruth on the threshing floor and he also protected her reputation. (Ruth 3:14). At great cost to himself, he took on a woman whose first son would carry on her first husband’s name, and he took on her mother-in-law and provided generously for both of them. He was considerate, not wanting Ruth to feel awkward in the fields, (Ruth 2:15), and throughout the book, Boaz calls on the name of the LORD and refers to the LORD. 

And this Boaz and Ruth are ancestors of King David. These characters that know God’s ‘hesed’ and display it by their actions, are ancestors to the king who metnioned God’s ‘hesed’ more than any other author in the Old Testament, in the Psalms. And this couple who gave of themselves, one as a kinsman-redeemer, are, through David, ancestors of the ultimate example of God’s hesed, the greatest of all kings, Jesus.

The loveliest of love stories? The book of Ruth, when we dig a little deeper into it, pushes us towards our redeemer, as we see the ‘canaanization’ of the world around us, and as we read of the one who stands out above all others, who is the very expression of God’s love. Although Ruth is really a part of the greatest love story ever, an early chapter in the story yet to unfold, even without knowing the ultimate ending, I’d say the book of Ruth is at least in the top five best love stories.

This article was first published on Equal But Different.

[1] Although nobody knows for sure when in the age of the Judges the events of Ruth took place, it is most commonly believed to be during this time.

[2] The events of these chapters are recorded at the end of the book for thematic purposes, but most likely happened much earlier in the chronology of the events.

[3]Daniel Block, The New American Commentary Vol 6, Judges, Ruth, p.58.

[4] Ruth 4:10

[5] Intererstingly Gibeah, Saul’s hometown is central to the last chapters of Judges as well. We have an embyonic David vs Saul origin story.

[6] A hard word to define in English. Block writes: “…all the positive attributes of God – love, mercy, grace, kindness, goodness, benevolence, loyalty, covenant faithfulness; in short, that quality that moves a person to act for the benefit of another without respect to the advantage it might bring to the one who expresses it.” Daniel Block, The New American Commentary Vol 6, Judges, Ruth, p.605.

A heavy or light yoke? Jesus and the kings of old

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Jesus. Matt. 11:29-30)

Jesus calls us to rest. He calls everyone who is burdened to a soul-restoring discipleship. These are some of the most precious words ever spoken. They have shaped my understanding of the universal call of Jesus as well as the shape of the Christian approach to obedience. Jesus is our Saviour and our Lord.

The context drips with interpretive implications. His words seamlessly flow from his own personal and thankful prayer to this Father. The Father has given him authority to reveal the most profound things to those he chooses (Matt. 11:25-27). The Son answers authority with a gracious call to “little ones” to find rest in him.

Matthew then recounts two stories that illustrate Jesus as the Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus fulfils that commandment in his person by bringing rest for his disciples and for a man with a withered hand (Matt. 12:1-8, 9-14). Jesus promises rest and then shows it with a visual aid.

Jeremiah’s words clearly lay behind Jesus’ call. Jesus invokes the old ways.

Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” (Jer. 6:16) 

But what about the word ‘yoke’, that word used for husbandry and servitude? The Greek word lying behind ‘easy’ is elsewhere translated ‘kind’ or ‘virtuous’. While there is no such thing as yoke-less Christianity, the yoke of Jesus is kind.  Where has this language of yoke been used before? Let’s go back to Solomon and his son Rehoboam. They were given authority by God. But how did they use it?

Jesus’ call compared to the kings of old

Jesus is King David’s greater son, but David’s own son and grandson, Solomon and Rehoboam, do not measure up well, especially when it came to laying a yoke on their people. Weakness, pride and stupidity ran rich through that line.

The story is recounted in both 1 Kings 12 and 2 Chronicles 10. When the people come up to the young Rehoboam they make a comment about the recently deceased Solomon and plead to their brand-new king. 

“Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you.” (1 Ki. 12:4; 2 Chr. 10:4)

They were not exaggerating. Solomon, made the people suffer under a heavy burden and yoke, even and especially, in the building of the temple. ‘King Solomon drafted forced labour out of all Israel’ and made slaves out of the foreigners (1 Ki. 5:13; 9:15-22). All the prophecies about heavy kingship were being fulfilled almost immediately (1 Sam. 8:10-18). 

How did Rehoboam answer this request? He famously rejected the wisdom of the gray-beards and listened to the young bucks. God used his pride to rip most of kingdom away from him (1 Ki. 12:6-15). His childhood friends advised him to lay even more burdens on the apparently rebellious people. Show them who is boss and who is the most manly. 

“Thus shall you speak to this people who said to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but you lighten it for us,’ thus shall you say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s thighs. And now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.’” (1 Ki. 12:10-11; 2 Chr 10:10-11). 

And Rehoboam regurgitated this advice verbatim.

“My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (1 Ki. 12:14; 2 Chr. 10:14)

The result of this was bad news for the people, the king, and the nation. Rebellion fomented and Israel was ripped in two. What can we draw from this comparison?

A. This story about Rehoboam is most certainly behind the words of Jesus

I’m not saying that this story is the only Old Testament reservoir for Jesus’ words. There are many threads tied together in Jesus’ call to rest in him, but the language of yoke and the ideas of heavy or light are found nowhere else in the Bible in such concentration as the account of Rehoboam.

B. Therefore Jesus’ words of comfort are, in some way, about kingship

Yes, they are about discipleship and there is most certainly a comparison with the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, but the comparison is also royal. The prayer of Jesus that immediately precedes recounts his heavenly authority and the following Sabbath debate is, in part, about kingship. In talking about the rest of the Sabbath, Jesus compares himself to yet-to-be-king David who ate the ‘bread of Presence’ (Matt. 12:3). Jesus even describes himself as greater than the temple which Solomon built (Mat. 12:6). And this temple was not going to be built by the ‘hard-service’ of all the people, but only of the king. Rehoboam destroyed the integrity of the kingdom of God, but Jesus restores it with an kind yoke rather than a heavy burden. 

C. Jesus does not have anything to prove when it comes to his own Father

Rehoboam had daddy issues. He wanted to prove that he was more manly and tough than his own father and make his stamp on the people. Jesus is the exact opposite. His light burden and his easy yoke comes from a deep heavenly security that he has in relationship with his Father (Matt. 11:25-30). The richness of that relationship secures our own relationship with him. 

D. The heart of the king is the heart of kingship

In outlining the laws about kingship in Deuteronomy, God’s concern for the king was all about his heart, which must be protected above all else. He must not chase gold, girls or glory and must keep close to God’s word, ‘lest his heart turn away’ or ‘that his heart be lifted up above his brothers’ (Deut. 17:17,19). Solomon’s heart turned away from God and Rehoboam’s heart was certainly exalted over his brothers. Politicians and schmoozing leaders can promise us lighter burdens, but their heart is even more important to guarantee that they are not lying. Jesus shows us his inner being, “for I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). 

E. Jesus’ life resonates with the words of the old advisers to Rehoboam

Let’s hear the advice of the old men. They followed the ancient paths (Jer. 6:16).

And they said to him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” (1 Ki. 12:7; 2 Chr. 10:7)

What does this language remind us of?  Rehoboam only ever called the yoke, ‘yours’. Jesus calls it ‘my’ before he offers it to those who would learn from him. Jesus also tells us that he came to serve and only then he calls his people to serve as he did (Matt. 20:26-28; Mk 10:45).

F. Jesus is the complete opposite of Rehoboam and Solomon.

He keeps his heart on the Lord. He does not destroy the unity of the people. He builds a temple without destroying the people, but by destroying himself. He speaks good words that come out of his secure relationship with his father. He leads by serving. He lays a burden on people that he himself bears, which he takes on himself. Instead of threatening a whip against his people, he himself is whipped, and in this he brings rest.

Along with its other biblical and theological connections, may the story of Rehoboam make these words stand out in even brighter contrast with all other rival leaders, both ancient and contemporary. In Jesus’ service is perfect rest.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Jesus. Matt. 11:29-30)

Xylolatry: the worship of wood

Can a piece of timber lead you to hell? Can it make you turn your back on the true and living God? Read the Bible, and you’ll find the answer is yes.

Think about the wooden instrument you tap with a mallet and the practice of serving idols, and you’ll have our very rare word, but very common practice.

Xylolatry is the worship of wood; and is strongly condemned in the Bible as being one of the most dangerous snares. Believers need to be careful, not just in Old Covenant times. In the age of Jesus Christ and his gospel and right up to the judgment day, this danger is still real.

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk.

Rev 9:20

The times of ignorance are over. God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:3). He will judge the world through Jesus Christ and has given proof of this “by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:4-5).

We’ve so reduced idolatry to a metaphor that we can easily forget the essence that still plagues many people. 

1. But, why wood?

No one says today says they are worshipping wood. No one in the ancient world did either.

People claim to be worshipping the gods of their ancestors, the powers that will look after their mum who is dying, the one who will bring favourable rains, or, the one who will grant success for a business merger. The wood merely represents the form of their divine ideal. The timber is shaped as an archetype. 

In a sense, wood is the crudest, cheapest and most common form of idolatry before the mass production of plastic. This is idolatry for the common person.

He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.

ISA 40:20

2. Saved from wood!

One of the narrative arcs of the Bible is that of exile and return. Even before the Israelites felt the soil of the promised land between their toes, God predicted that, for their continual rebellion, he would eject them, scatter them, send them to exile where they would serve carbon, cellulose, and crystals. 

And the LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the LORD will drive you. And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. But from there you will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.

Deut 4:27-29

When prodigal Israel returns to her senses, she will find the Lord. If Moses freed the Israelites from Egypt, who will release them from their future twin slave masters, xylolatry and her sister, litholatry (think paleo-lithic)?

3. Come out! Ridiculing wood

Almost all the discussions about serving wood come from the mouths of the prophets who speak of the exile, certainly the wittiest and most causticly barbed.

I expected there to be more about making wooden idols in the earlier parts of the Old Testament story, but it is the advanced cultures of the Assyrians and Babylonians that seem to ensnare the Israelites into these cheap, portable family idols.

Three key chapters are Isaiah 40:18-20; Isaiah 44:9-20 and Jeremiah 10:1-10. Each is worth reading in its entirety, but let me draw out five themes:

A. Don’t learn how to handle wood from those around you

“Learn not the way of the nations…for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.

JER 10:1-4

B. How does wood measure up to God?

To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? An idol!

ISA 40:18-19

Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.” There is none like you, O LORD;

JER 10:5-6

C. The idols that are made from wood are creations of mere people. 

The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house.

ISA 44:13

D. The very same wood is used for both adoration and oxidisation

He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

ISA 44:14-17

E. You become what you worship: thick as a plank of wood

They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”

ISA 44:18-20

The prophets are not polite. They call the Israelites to come out of such practices.  The emperor has no clothes. Beneath the most culturally historic, aesthetically beautiful, and most revered wooden idol, is undressed wood. But they can’t see it. Those who worship blocks become blockheads. And yet this lie can be as close as the right hand.

And now that Jesus has come, the time of ignorance is over, not just for the Israelites, but for all nations. 

4. Some hopefully not wooden applications:

1. In our service of the true God. Don’t make representations of God made out of wood (or plastic, ceramic etc..) This includes Jesus. Christ can see and hear and he is not located in front of us, but waits in heaven. Christian syncretism of idolatry and the triune God is alive and well in our generation.

2. In cultural tourism. We admire the wooden idols of other cultures, but remember what these things are. It’s what we have been saved from. When you bring them home and place them in your gardens, what are your saying to your neighbours, to people converted from idolatry who come over and have lunch? What are you saying to God?

3. In calling people to follow Christ. We call people to turn “to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thes. 1:9-10) Just as the exiled Jews were called out of their new-found wood and stone idolatry, so the gospel calls all nations and tribes out of their own captivity.

4. In seeing the stupidity as well as the wickedness. Our age of cultural relativism screams at us that we must admire and not judge other cultures. But there are bad ideas and foolish ones too. We shouldn’t feel arrogant, but remain thankful that are not trapped by such a distortion of true worship. We also must be very careful with those things that capture our heart. 

5. In applying the lessons widely. Remember what Isaiah said about the wooden idols. “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” (Isaiah 44:20) What do we carry around, serve inordinately, entrust with our happiness and security, and love and can’t do without? By it we stay connected to the world – literally. Not all crutches are made of wood.

Why would the Israelites call their father a wandering Aramean?

1. A God given liturgy for future generations  

Does God tell his people exactly what to say when they gather to serve him? Does he give a liturgy for his people to follow in perpetuity?  For the most part, he seems not to. Look throughout the Scriptures and notice that wedding and funeral services are not described in any detail for future generations. There is no chapter and verse like the detail of The Book of Common Prayer within the Bible. But we are not left in the dark. Much is said about marriage. The Christian theology of marriage shapes the way a wedding service is conducted. Funeral customs from different cultures can be shaped by the sure hope of the resurrection for those who trust in Jesus Christ. 

But an individual act of confession bucks that trend; and importantly this is found in the monoculture of ancient Israel. When the Israelites first enter the land of promise, they are told to stand before God and bring their first-fruits to his altar. 

Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the LORD your God. “And you shall make response before the LORD your God,

Deut 26:4

And then this confession comes condensed in three words in Hebrew, all starting with Alephs. אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י (Arami Obed Avi) 

A wandering Aramean was my father

Deut 26:5

2. A God given framing for future generations with first-fruits 

Before we examine why they would describe their father as “an Aramean”, and what “wandering” might mean, we must see that in its context, this confession is an enduring expression of the grace of God, a framing for future generations.  These are not, in fact, the opening salvos of the liturgy. Before the first-fruits are handed over, a bold statement is made.

And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.’

Deut 26:3

God has kept his promises; the first-fruits is an expression. Having handed the tokens of his blessing, a theological history is recounted, which starts off with, “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut 26:5).

This father is clearly Jacob/Israel, who went down to Egypt “few in number” and came back a “nation, great, mighty and populous” (Deut 26:5). The individual recounts God’s work in bringing them out of Egypt and into “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut 26:5-9). They then present the first-fruits of the soil before God and worship and rejoice before him “in all the good the LORD has given to you and your house”. (Deut 26:10-11)

At first reading it seems like this event was a one-off ceremony, but the details also imply that this reenactment could happen every year as the new season arrived. When they enjoy their crop of harvest, God is calling them to remember not just what he has done, but to never forget where they have come from. Never forget in the face of the abundance of wheat, barley or olives, their corporate story, that their father was a wandering Aramean. 

3. But was father Jacob an Aramean?

This declaration of a godly Israelite in Canaan states that their father was a Aramean. When we remember that another translation of this word is Syrian, is there a scandal lurking beneath this confession?

Here’s what we do know. Jacob’s mother’s family was Aramean. His maternal grandfather is called Aramean (Gen 25:20; 28:5) and so is his uncle Laban (Gen 31:20, 24).  The place Jacob fled to was called Paddan-aram, outside the land of Canaan (Gen 25:20; 28:2,5-7; 31:18; 33:18; 35:9,26). Eleven of  Jacob’s sons were born in Paddam-aram (Gen 35:22-26 cf. 33:1-2). It was where he spent the best parts of his life. The children might have identified at least as culturally Aramean. If you’ve moved countries, sweated to create a new life, and raised a family, you do feel like you belong to that new country. Jacob’s is the migrant’s story.

But nowhere else in the Bible is Jacob himself called an Aramean, and his relatives are referred to as Aramean to distinguish them from him. Jacob was of the seed of Abraham. Jacob’s family blessing was focused in Canaan, but he lived most of his life with his other relatives just outside the promised land. If Abram was called from Ur of the Chaldeans, Jacob was called away from the Arameans. Interestingly, God blesses and changes his name only as he left Paddam-aram to return again to Canaan (Gen 35:9).

God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but nIsrael shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel.

Gen 35:9-10

The much later prophet Hosea tells the whole story of Jacob/Israel from Canaan to Aram, and then to Egypt and back to Canaan again.

Jacob fled to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he guarded sheep.

By a prophet the LORD brought Israel up from Egypt, and by a prophet he was guarded.

Hos 12:12-13

God’s renewing mercy came to Jacob as a foreigner outside the land of promise in Aram. He was in a sense “an Aramean”.  If the Israelites were called out from the nations around them, then they need to remember that they were “once not a people” and the were formerly part of the gentiles around.

4. What sort of ‘Aramean’ was Jacob: wandering, perishing or lost?

My greater difficulty is not the word “Aramean”. When you read the story, that makes sense. The greater difficulty lies with the word “wandering”.  

The word in Hebrew is the participle, אֹבֵד (‘bd). You might recognise it from the related word Abaddon, destruction. This particular participle (QAL) form is nowhere else in the ESV translated “wandering”, but rather:

  • perishing (of animals and people) – Job 4:11, 29:13, 31:19; Prov 31:6; Eccl 7:15
  • lost (of animals and people) –  1 Sam 9:20 (donkeys); Is 27:13 (exiles); Jer 50:6 (sheep – metaphoric for people), Ezekiel 34:16 (sheep – metaphoric for people), Psa 119:176 (sheep – metaphoric for people); 
  • void (of counsel) – Deut 32:28
  • broken (of a vessel) – Psa 31:13

What if we read the statement as perishing or lost rather than wandering? Sure he fled and then returned to Canaan, but Jacob worked for his uncle Laban for decades in the one location. Maybe God’s grace is deeper here.

Arguments for “perishing”: 

In the context of the first-fruits in Deuteronomy 26, the focus is on food. Because of the famine, Jacob and his family were about to die in Canaan (42:1-3; 43:1). They were saved by their journey to Egypt; and indeed by their mistreatment of Joseph and the plan God had for him.  “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen 50:20)  When the Israelites come before God they remember that, in the loins of their father, they were almost dead, but God saved them and brought them through the hardship of Egypt to the bounty of the promised land.

Arguments for “lost”:

Perhaps there is a more metaphoric view here, like the times when the Israelites are referred to as lost sheep (Jer 50:6; Ezekiel 34:16; Psa 119:176)? My father was a lost Aramean. Jacob was a shepherd his whole life and especially at Aram his shepherding of sheep turns around his fortune. He is the first in the Bible to see that God was his shepherd. When blessing his sons he tells that the “Mighty One of Jacob” is “The Shepherd”(Gen 49:24).  

“Perishing” and “lost” intersect in their meaning when it is clear that lost sheep would by nature also be defenceless and perishing. Interestingly the New Testament stories of the lost sheep and prodigal son use the Greek “perishing” word when describing the one who was lost and is now found (Luke 15:4, 6, 24).

Probably I would suggest that we follow the King James Version’s more humbling translation.

“A Syrian ready to perish was my father”

DeuT 26:5 (KJV)

5. Once was lost, now I am found; once dead, now alive.

As saved people in the New Testament we must never forget who we were. And we have an Old Testament example of personal and family testimony.  

The Israelites in one of their only divinely-mandated liturgies are told to remember that they were just one of the nations and that they were perishing, like lost sheep, before God led them to and from Egypt into the promised land. 

Saving the perishing and finding the lost is a point of continuity between the Old and New Covenants.  Jesus said to Zacchaeus,   “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (lit. perishing).” (Lk 19:9-10) Perhaps Jesus is saying that Zacchaeus is very much like one of Abraham’s children have always been at there deepest identity; perishing and lost. When the prodigal son is now enjoying the restored relationship with his father and enjoying his new robe, fattened calf and rings on his fingers, he would need to remember that he was dead and now is alive again, was lost and now is found (Lk 15:24).

And further, perhaps the saving of people from all kinds of nations is hidden in embryonic form in the Hebrew declaration. The essential nature of the Old Testament Israelites is precisely the same as the New Covenant Christians. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:10)

With three Hebrew words, the Israelites, God’s first-fruits, remembered where they came from when they gave their own first-fruits.   

“A wandering Aramean was my father”

Deut 26:5 ESV

Or, even more helpfully .. 

“A Syrian ready to perish was my father”

DeuT 26:5 KJV

It may be wrong to look back longingly, like Lot’s wife at what we have been saved from; but it is a God-given practice for us to look back and confess where his grace has led us.

Visions of Victory That Disturb and Terrify

Years ago I made the mistake of reading a few of H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories. My recollection might be blurred, but I remember a similar thread in each. The protagonist investigates macabre events, ominous signs, cultic symbols, and unexplained happenings. But there is never a good resolution. Some things are better left covered. In the face of an ancient mythos of monstrous evil at work, the world they thought they knew no longer existed. Apparently it never did. Each story ends with the main character himself insane or close to that point, shaking-and-quivering. Even worse is the fate of those who return to normal life. Knowing what they have seen, now faking sanity, they pretend that life is good. They keep the matter to themselves.

The Biblical book of Daniel is full of night visions and strange dreams—monstrous, majestic and overwhelming. The world as they know it is not as it seems; and it never was. Both pagan kings and God’s prophet see visions of rocks, mountains, statues, symbols on the wall, and beastly abominations. Each proclaims, when properly understood, that God has not abandoned his people. His kingdom will endure even despite their strange Babylonian captivity. Heaven rules.

However, it’s not just the pagan rulers like Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar who are terrified. They see visions of their personal or national downfall. Daniel is also terrified.

When he sees a vision of God’s victory, returning to normal life must have been strange.

Daniel 7 is, perhaps, his most famous vision. In the midst of captivity and hostile empires, God is still in control. The language of “one like a son of man” coming “to the Ancient of Days”  becomes the vocabulary of Jesus Christ and the song of his scattered church to this day.

Having seen four increasingly hideous beasts rising from the sea and witnessing their blasphemous rage, finally there was something restoratively natural—rather than a grotesque abomination—a glorious figure of a man. Judgment will happen and God’s kingdom will endure.

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

The interpretation is magnificently layered and should be unpacked at another time, but Daniel’s reaction to this vision lingers and haunts me now.

He has a two stage reaction.

1. He viscerally reacts after seeing the vision and

2. He reacts even more after hearing the angelic interpretation.

I would have expected the night vision to terrify, but the angel to soothe his nerves. But after hearing the interpretation, Daniel was even more rocked to the core. The reality of God’s victory is more terrifying than than the illustration.

After seeing the vision, Daniel, with great self awareness said:

As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. (Daniel 7:15)

But after the angelic interpretation, he is much more troubled.

Here is the end of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my colour changed, but I kept the matter in my heart. (Daniel 7:28)

Read each phrase out loud. This is what happened when Daniel heard about the victory of God. Would he ever be the same?

Let me explore four applications.

1. Properly understood, God is more terrifying than evil and chaos (Daniel’s reaction to the vision itself)

God’s most frequent command to people in the Bible is “do not be afraid”, mostly accompanying a revelation of God himself, or his purposes, to those whom God favours.

Here Daniel sees a throne and the Ancient of Days who literally silences the raging of the nations about. If the nations are a drop in the bucket, then the one who holds that bucket is much more to be feared.

This aspect of the Christian life is continually downplayed in our modern therapeutic gospel. If God meets our needs, then meditating on him and his purposes is only ever simplistically comforting. The reality is that thinking about him should actually make us uncomfortable too. Deeply uncomfortable.

When the storm was raging, Jesus’ disciples were afraid in the boat, but when Jesus “rebuked the wind” and brought about a “great calm”, their fear went off the scale. “They were filled with a great fear”. (Mark 4:39-41)

Likewise, Daniel might have been afraid of the weight of Babylonian authority and the powers that blaspheme God, but the God who can silence these nations is even more intimidating.

Immediately after he saw the Son of Man and the judgment seat of God that his inner being was disturbed. Read the words again.

As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. (Daniel 7:15)

2. The wise will find the interpretation more impacting than the symbolism (Daniel’s reaction to the interpretation)

If you are more dazzled by the image than the reality then you are titillated by divine theatrics rather than living in awe of God himself. Do we see God’s word as an older more sophisticated form of amusement than TV or TikTok? Religious immersive drama, perhaps?

Daniel is more terrified by the angelic interpretation than the vision. That interpretation included mention of future evil that would be befall God’s people, but also the end to the story. The saints of the Most High God would be handed all authority, power and dominion from God’s throne.

Daniel contrasts loudly to his contemporary, Belshazzar, the king in chapter 5. That last king was terrified when he saw the writing on the wall, and when none of his astrologers could interpret that writing.

Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his colour changed, and his lords were perplexed. (Daniel 5:8-9)

But Belshazzar is foolish. When he finally receives the interpretation that his days are numbered, that he is judged, found wanting and that the Persians will destroy him, he responds by pompously praising Daniel.

He is more terrified by the uncertainty of the scan than by the diagnosis of terminal cancer. Or perhaps it is worse than that. He is foolish in loving the theatrics of God’s sermon to him but not actually listening to the content.

I’m sure he’s not the only one who has been greatly moved by a sermon about God’s judgement and then responded by praising the preacher rather than dealing with God. He ‘bishop-ed’ Daniel, with purple clothes and a gold chain, but did not humble himself before the hand that held his breath at all times (Daniel 5:24,29).

Daniel was so different. The interpretation meant even more to him, because he actually believed the word of God.

Here is the end of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my colour changed, but I kept the matter in my heart. (Daniel 7:28)

Daniel kept this vision and its interpretation in his heart. Could this explain his resilience in defying the edict of the next king who said that anyone who prayed would be thrown into the lion’s den?

Christians, even though we love the story of the Bible and the beauty of its message, must not just be moved to fear God by the imagery but also because of the reality, the interpretation of what God is doing and will do with us all. This is a rebuke to the teacher who gets caught up in his own rhetoric, but not in the truth of what he is saying. Likewise the listener.

What happens next is the best measure of the effect of the word of God in a hearer’s heart. God’s truth should continually comfort and disturb the souls of his children.

3. Does Daniel’s reaction to the vision and interpretation help us understand the women at the empty tomb? The ending of Mark’s Gospel and Daniel 7.

The earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark’s gospel finish the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection with what seems like an abrupt ending. The women who come to see Jesus, find an empty tomb, hear the angelic proclamation, and then leave in fear. And with those words the gospel finishes, seemingly unresolved. Those witnesses also have a two step reaction.

When they see the empty tomb they react like Daniel did, in fear.

And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed.  (Mark 16:5)

When they hear the angelic’s glorious interpretation that Christ is risen, their reaction like Daniel’s goes off the scale.

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8)

I’m not saying that Mark deliberately ended his gospel to match the ending of Daniel 7, but the similarities are profoundly appropriate. The Son of Man has triumphed; and things are not the same as they were. For these women, the rest of their lives has been changed.

Their response was not like Belshazzar, shallow and unbelieving, but a deep response of faith like Daniel. No-one should say that these women were weak in their response unless they also say that Daniel’s response was also weak.

Make your own comparison:

And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. (Mark 16:5)

As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. (Daniel 7:15)

Here is the end of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my colour changed, but I kept the matter in my heart. (Daniel 7:28)

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8)

4. Singing the song and seeing him coming

One last point. Many of our songs are based on the vision of Daniel chapter 7. Most of these songs are incredible, comforting and joyous. The Ancient of Days will bring judgement. The Son of Man will come in clouds descending. Glory and power will be given to him. His people are waiting.

Don’t forget the comforting truths of God’s word that you sing, but also, don’t forget that when Daniel first saw them, and when the women saw the first-fruits of the resurrection, they were comforted, but also disturbed, viscerally so.

A true vision of God will disturb, but not as a predictable writer of horror. We will not be reduced to quivering shells, with faked superficiality—re-released into a seemingly ordinary world. We will be more sane. More sober-minded.

When we encounter God in his word, we face deep-heart-transformation that makes us want to live more, in every way more, especially for the God holds our salvation in his hands. The deeply troubled Daniel was also the deeply resolute man who endured exile, out-lived empires and kings, worshiped God in a pagan land and prayed every day even if meant being thrown in into a pit of lions.

For those who’ve seen a vision of God’s victory, the world we might have thought existed, doesn’t. It never did. But a better one does.

Unto Us a Father is Born. The Fatherhood of Jesus in Isaiah?

Can a man be at the same time a father and a son? Of course. If he couldn’t, the human race would quickly disappear.

But, what about Jesus?

Isn’t it blasphemous to call him father since he never married and sired children? And furthermore, doesn’t this confuse the members of the God-head, since he reveals himself as God-the-Son made flesh?

Can we call Jesus in any way a father?

The Old Testament book of Isaiah boldly walks in this direction and uses language that might at first glance make an uptight theologian blush. These references are not hidden in its most obscure parts, but are centre stage in the most beloved verses. First, the most famous Christmas verse of all.

1. Unto Us A Father Is Born (Isaiah 9:6)

The darkness of despair is broken by the dawning light of new birth. A child will be born and that light will be first seen in Galilee (Is. 9:1-2). This king, whom we now know refers to Jesus, will rule in David’s line (Is. 9:7). Amongst all the things said about this son, he will be called “Everlasting Father”.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  (Is. 9:6)

When applied to Jesus, ‘Everlasting Father’ reminds me of the Patriarch Abraham. Even though he and his wife Sarah had no children, God changed his name from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of many), ‘for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations’ (Gen. 17:5). With this one, fatherhood has been turned up even higher. He is the ‘Everlasting Father”.

But perhaps this is a very honorific title, an address of someone humbly coming before him. There are other examples of in the Old Testament.

  • David calls the vengeful King Saul “my father” (1 Sam. 24:11; although Saul was his father-in-law).
  • Elisha referred to Elijah as “my father, my father” (2 Ki. 2:12; cf. 13:14).
  • Servants called Naaman the Syrian “my father” (2 Ki. 5:13).

Undoubtedly there is an honorific element in the word father, but the analogy with Abraham is picked up later in Isaiah. This future king would in some way be the father of the nation.

2. From One, The Many (Isaiah 51:1-2)

So often, the key to understanding the future is remembering the past. The remnant rump of Israel dwindling in exile and judgment needed to recall God’s ways. Though now in their disobedience, Israel forsook peace ‘like a river’, ’righteousness like waves of the sea’, and offspring like grains of sand, could these be reversed (Is. 48:18-19)? They had to remember his track record, so they would not lose heart.

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. (Is. 51:1-2)

Although their future now seemed cut off, the past would teach them. God has done the incredible before. He had brought the many from one.

To the broken hearted who were seeking God, they needed to remember ‘the rock from which [they] were hewn’ (Is 51:1). Would God bring about someone just as good, if not better, than Abraham? Would God again astonish his people, bringing from one, many?

3. The Seed Of The Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:10)

If Isaiah 9 is the Christmas chapter, Isaiah 53 is its Good Friday and Easter chapter. Jesus comes as both the King born for us and the Suffering Servant who died for us. The son will be called ’Everlasting Father’ and the Suffering Servant will ’see his offspring’ (Is. 9:6; Is 53:5,10).

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.

Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. (Is. 53:10-11)

After suffering severe humiliation from people and holy affliction from God, the servant will have the joy of seeing his offspring. This is the same word sometimes translated ’seed’ that is at the centre of God’s promises to Abraham. When we are in Christ, we are his seed, his children, so to speak. After his suffering there is joy for this servant because there will be offspring for him. From the righteous one, many will be declared righteous.

4. Barren Jerusalem, Greater Abraham (Isaiah 54:1)

At Moore Theological College, I remember learning from our lecturer, Barry Webb, who wrote an excellent commentary on Isaiah, that the key to understanding all of Isaiah is: the transformation of Zion.

The Jerusalem that was (Is. 1) would be transferred into the Jerusalem that will be (Is. 2). The wicked violent city would become the glorious mountain of the Lord where nations would stream in peace to be taught by him. The whole book explores this theme.

One place this theme is seen most clearly is the sandwiching of prophecies about Zion around the suffering servant.

51-52: God will save Zion. But first she will drink the cup of God’s wrath. But soon, beautiful news of good tidings will be preached to her.

53: The suffering servant

54: Zion will again be highly populated, the ruined city will be made beautiful and she will have safety.

Remove the suffering servant chapter and the the prophecies of Zion flow beautifully. But remove the suffering servant chapter and you remove the way that Zion will be transformed.

He suffers so that she flourishes, or as the New Testament says: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph. 5:25-27).

Just as the Suffering Servant would delight to “see his offspring”, so too the barren city would rejoice in her fecundity.

“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the LORD. (Is. 54:1)

The New Testament quotes this verse and makes explicit what is implicit (Gal. 4:21-31). Zion is like the barren Sarah, unexpectedly, unthinkably, unbelievably giving birth to a nation.

If Israel had to go back to the quarry from which it was formed, then perhaps we should understand that it’s the Everlasting Father who as Suffering Servant will see his people multiply and receive God’s blessing.

5. One More Allusion to Jesus being a father of sorts (Isaiah 9:6)

This brings us to one more verse that links Jesus to fatherhood in Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah, his disciples, and his own children are like the faithful remnant of Israel.

Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. (Is. 8:16-18)

The New Testament describes Jesus in these family terms. Read carefully these words.

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.”  And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” (Heb. 2: 10-13)

The words of the prophet himself prophetically point to what Christ himself would say about his disciples who would be his brothers and, in a sense, his children.

6. What then?

In no way do I want to build too much on this language of Isaiah. Jesus taught us to call God-the-Father, our Father (Matt. 5:9). He is nowhere addressed as “Father” in the New Testament. God-the-Son’s most fundamental identity is in relation to his Father and not to us. That is why we can can be called God’s children and brothers with Jesus Christ. Being “in Christ” means that we enjoy his relationship to his own Heavenly Father.

But, we must remember that Jesus does start a new family, a new people. The promise to Abraham was to his descendants, his seed. Christ is that seed and he is also the greater Abraham who will see his own seed. Here are some brief implications from what we have seen in Isaiah:

a.  Appreciate the language which breaks out of our categories. While we must always be thinking theologically, we must also let the text of the Bible speak for itself. Rather than be defensive about why the Messiah might be called “Everlasting Father”, or ignore the verses about the Suffering Servant having offspring, we must listen to what God is actually saying. Maybe there is a deep truth that will be obscured if we won’t listen.

b. Appreciate the birth of Christ as the birth of our founding father. Greater than Governor Phillip for Australians, Mao Tse Tung for Communist Chinese, George Washington for Americans, or even Abraham himself for Jews, Jesus is the Everlasting Father, the great patriarch of his people. We now refer to the God and Father our Lord Jesus Christ rather than merely the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Christmas celebrates our even more fundamental founding father’s day.

c. Appreciate God’s ways: from the one comes the many. God formed the covenant people from the miraculous offspring of Abraham and Sarah. But they were just a shadow of the his miraculous creation of the new covenant people. From one came the many. So too with Jesus. As the New Israel, he would be the one greater than Abraham who would be the real focus of all God’s blessings, he and his family. All of us our children of the promise, citizens of the Jerusalem from above (Gal. 4:21-28).

d. Appreciate that the birth of Christ’s people came through suffering and led to joy. It was through the afflictions of the Suffering Servant that Jerusalem could be full of people and joy. Jesus spoke in this way of his own life and his expectation for all believers. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit … If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:24; cf 12:25-26)  Because the New Abraham suffers, the New Sarah rejoices and so do her children. And this is also the example for us to follow. Suffering for the sake of others while holding out the gospel will lead to joy.

e. Appreciate the depth and width of being born again through Jesus. The word of Christ is that imperishable seed that gives us new life. When Christ calls his people to make disciples of all nations, individuals are born again, a new family is formed, a spiritual household is created out of the quarry of Christ (Matt. 28:19-20; 2 Peter 2:5). Those “in Christ”, therefore, are appropriately called Christians, his own people. Their ties to this heavenly family are stronger than their earthly loyalties. And from God’s perspective we are more a part of this family than our own. And so, Christ is indeed more Abraham (father of many) than Abraham.

f. Appreciate that the New Testament also thinks this way too. Once we’ve see this theme in Isaiah, we remember that the New Testament calls Jesus the Last Adam, and says that while all humanity is in Adam, Christians are in Christ  (1 Cor. 15:45-49; 15:22; Rom. 5:14-21).  As Church we can call him our husband. As a body, he is our head. But as a people, he is the underlying foundation of the people of God, what better name for him would there be than “Everlasting Father”?

Trees in the House of God: where they belong

Ancient church leaders posed deep questions about the relationship between philosophy and Christianity when they said, “what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” I’m asking something more figurative. What does the Jerusalem Temple have to do with Gardens ‘R’ Us? Or perhaps more precisely, what does the Lord’s temple have to do with gardens, and what does that have to with us?

Do you see yourself as a tree planted in the temple of the Lord?

Even if you’ve read the previous article, you might suggest that this metaphor is over-the-top, over-cooked, over-mixed, or, dare I say, flowery and out-on-a-limb. Quaint perhaps, but strange.

What do trees have to do with God’s temple? Are we talking about pot plants near the Most Holy Place?

A worshipper in the temple? Yes.

A tree planted by God’s life-giving waters? Yes.

But not the two mixed up.

You might question my Biblical Theology. Now that Christ has come, and the physical temple does not exist, why would I use that language?

You might question my over-confident eschatology and perfectionism. I could understand how someone could say that in the New Creation, when all is right and good, we’ll be with God like this, but now when there are evil forces, deep suffering, and my own personal sin ruining everything, can we really claim to be trees in the temple of the Lord?

However, I will argue that this imagery fits very naturally in main-stream temple theology. The Garden of Eden and the temple point to the same reality. Arboreal designs are prominent features of the Jerusalem temple, and sanctuary-planting imagery features in its song-book. Most importantly, our Lord Jesus Christ is that new temple of which we are also a part. Our confidence to be part of that temple is based on his work.

God’s Holy Garden Intention For His People

When the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea, Moses blended garden and sacred imagery.

You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary … (Ex. 15:17)

What was true of Mount Sinai, where once a bush burned, would also be true of the portable tabernacle, and most especially of Mount Zion. God’s sanctuary would be in their midst and Israel would be planted around it.

So, when Balaam was under the control of the Holy Spirit, God’s view of Israel was lush, botanic, and thoroughly Edenic.

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel! Like palm groves that stretch afar, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that the LORD has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters. (Num 24:5-6)

God had planted the Garden of Eden and now he is planting his people Israel in his sacred place.

With this in mind, Paul’s language in the New Testament is quite natural. He moves from planting, watering and growing, to buildings, and to God’s temple.  “You are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Cor. 3:9)

Singing about being a tree in the temple

I remember being a tree in a musical. I doubt that decision was a theological choice. Yet God casts us this way.

In the last article, we already saw David describe himself as a “green olive tree in the house of God” (Psa. 52:8). But there is also a Sabbath day song that bring a chorus to echo David’s solo. All God’s people are like fruitful and strong trees planted in God’s house (Psa. 92:12-15).

The song leader, and all those who join the Psalm, speak confidently with this language, to God. In real world situations of suffering, pain and defiance, come what may, they stand firm and grow, flourishing and thankful in the presence of the Lord. This forest grows best in the temple.

The righteous flourish like the palm tree

and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

They are planted in the house of the LORD;

they flourish in the courts of our God.

They still bear fruit in old age;

they are ever full of sap and green,

to declare that the LORD is upright;

he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him. (Psa. 92:12-15)

Before we move on, notice the wonderful truth about fruitfulness into old age! For these old trees, age cannot weary them. The righteous don’t dry up and lose fecundity. The sap always flows. Middle-age, menopause, retirement, and infirmity does not slow down the productivity in God’s sight. If we stay in the Lord, we keep producing. And that fruit is lips that bring God’s praise (Psa 92:15; cf. Heb. 13:15).

Palm trees and cedars are symbolic of thriving and strength respectively. The same trees mentioned by Balaam, both are focused on here (Num. 24:5-6; Psa, 92:12-15). Instead of being found in Lebanon and the river Jordan, these trees are in the house of God. This is not surprising. Not only are believers fruitful and strengthened in the Lord alone, these are the two most visible trees in Solomon’s physical and Ezekiel’s prophetic temple.

The Temple Design is Forest

The doors leading into the temple and its most holy place were especially designed with palms. Interestingly, the descriptions of the temple in Kings and Ezekiel do not mention a curtain at all. Only a veil.

The emphasis, however,  is on the design of the doors (2 Chr. 3:14; 4:22). In Revelation, it is that door which stands open to the throne room of God (Rev. 4:1-2).

For the entrance to the inner sanctuary he made doors of olive-wood; the lintel and the doorposts were five-sided. He covered the two doors of olive-wood with carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers. He overlaid them with gold and spread gold on the cherubim and on the palm trees. (1 Ki. 6:31-32)

From the floor to above the door, cherubim and palm trees were carved; similarly the wall of the nave. (Ezekiel 41:20)

Palms were carved on all the doors and walls and cedar timber covered every internal surface: the floor, the walls and the ceiling, overlaid with gold (1 Kings 6:15-18). “All was cedar; no stone was seen”(1 Kings 6:18).

So a worshipper at the temple would see palms carved into the door to the temple, even into the most holy place, and they would be in a room built by cedar. Strength and fruitfulness are symbols of the physical temple.

Little wonder that the Psalmist would choose these trees for his song. The righteous are like the trees that make up the temple.

All faithful Israelites know they must remain in the house of God, wherever they go.

Is the New Covenant Temple also a Forest?

Are there links when Jesus approaches Jerusalem? John’s Gospel does not describe any visit to the temple building before the crucifixion. However Jesus does visit the people. They speak the words of the blessings that were meant to emanate “from the house of the Lord” (Psa. 118:26).

The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (Jn 12:12-13)

The book of Revelation describes the doors of heaven being opened! (Rev. 4:1) There is no building around the throne of God, but instead the people themselves are that temple and the they employ a similar symbolism.

… a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands … (Rev. 7:9)

Believers are like the stones that make up the New Covenant temple, but even in the Old Testament they were also like the trees that adorned the temple.  Or perhaps the imagery goes the other way around. The reality is imprinted on the shadow.

Plants planted in the Presence of God

There are so many other avenues to explore, including the feasts of the tabernacles, the Edenic language of the New Jerusalem, arrogant leaders described as cedars disconnected from God and also the false worship of idols in sacred groves and holy trees.

What I notice now is how much organic imagery there is in the Bible. People are plants growing before God.

  • The book of Psalms opens with believers described like fruitful and strong trees, and closes with the sanctuary praising God (Psa. 1:3; Psa. 150:1). Trees and temple start and finish the song-book, and at least two bring these themes together (Psa. 52, 92).
  • Those in Zion will move from mourning to gladness, and will be known as “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified” (Isa. 61:3). On that mountain of the temple, what Moses sung about will happen to all who claim his name (Ex. 15:17).
  • The imagery of the Messiah is also a mix of the botanic and theological proximity. “He grew up before him [the Lord] like a young plant” (Isa. 53:2). Surely Christ is the beginning of the New Temple, God’s planting.

Remember what we saw in the last article. In face of everything, tragedy and attack, if you are in Christ, you are strong.

There are two approaches to forests and temples. For most they are places to visit, but for God’s people, they are places to stay.

Join your place in the house of the Lord, rooted and established in Christ and bearing fruit into old age.

You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary.  (Ex. 15:17)

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (Col. 2:6-7)

T = Trees in the House of God: facing hard times

It’s not only bombs that destroy a church.

White-anting also happens from within. When there is no acknowledgement of the King of Kings, the people determine what is right in their own eyes.

The Bible may be paraded in the pulpit and even studied diligently, but judges sit in the polycarbonate chairs, stand behind the perspex lecterns, and speak through the pulp-mill of publishing houses. They weigh and filter which truths are acceptable in our age. A gospel of forgiveness is preached without a call for holiness. Faith may be ok, but obedience now is a dirty word.

On the other hand, retaining a veneer of “right theology”, some local churches leaders inject their own fragile egos into everything. They seek to expand God’s kingdom, but have forgotten the words that follow: “and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).  And so, instead, their kingdom comes, and their will is done. And they protect their daily-bread for themselves.

The sheep also bite each other. Breathtaking bitterness, small-mindedness and un-forgiveness reigns. Ex-volunteers and ex-employees of Christian organisations multiply with untended wounds. The institution might protect itself, but not its people. And lies hurt so much from people who are meant to speak the truth of Jesus.

What hope can we offer someone in that situation?

One approach points across the road, where people do not treat each other that way. They remain faithful to God’s word and muzzle their own egos. They are broken and forgiven sinners who love the Lord Jesus with an undying love. They pass the ultimate litmus test. They want him to return. Come and see them.

But that approach may just be a band-aid. Until someone hurts, someone is offended, someone is betrayed.

But here is another way. If the church is under physical attack from a hostile force or white-anted from the insider, see yourself as a tree planted in house of God. More than that, be that tree.

David saw himself as a fruitful olive tree in God’s House even in the face of betrayal and slaughter (Ps. 52).

When King Saul murderously hunted him, young David turned to the priestly house of Nob for refuge (1 Sam. 21:1-9). Jesus referred to this sanctuary as “the house of God” (Mt. 12:3-4; Mk. 2:25-26; Lk 6:3-4). Surely this would be a physical place of refuge in the storm.

And so it was for a short time. The priest Ahimelech gave David and his men the holy bread of God’s Presence, as well as the sword of Goliath, stored behind the Ephod (1 Sam. 21:4-6, 8-9). In God’s hand of providence, these otherwise forbidden provisions and hitherto forgotten arms seemed to be stored in God’s house, for such a time as this.

But a rat was sniffing around.

Doeg the Edomite, or Doug as Australians prefer to call him, was watching everything, and told Saul. In unhinged rage, the king slaughtered eighty-five priests who kept God’s house, together with all the inhabitants of the town of Nob, the city of priests (1 Sam 22:11-23 cf. Mk 2:25-26). One arm of government destroyed the other.

David’s response to this betrayal and massacre are preserved for us. “A Maskil of David, when Doeg, the Edomite, came and told Saul, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech” (Ps. 52:0).

Psalm 52 begins with a curse of judgment on the wicked and proud liars whom God will certainly destroy, but ends with this testimony of David’s confidence. (Ps. 52:0-4)

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever. I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly. (Psalm 52:8-9)

It is astonishing that David would see his safety in God’s house, when the guardians of that house had been brutally murdered.

Having already experienced God’s anointing, protection and table set before him, David’s longing to dwell in the house of the Lord forever, is now spoken in our Psalm in realised language (Ps 23:6; 52:8-9).

He is now absent from the physical building, but enduringly present with the Lord. Yet he lives there, like a green olive tree, by faith and not by sight.

Green here does not mean young and naive, but is the same word used elsewhere for leafy, healthy and flourishing foliage. The word is very commonly used for pagan worship. The Israelites were tempted to worship other gods under “every green tree” rather than the central place God calls for worship (Dt. 12:2-5). But here David worships God as the green spreading tree in the house of God.

The olive tree planted in the temple evokes both the liquid of Messianic anointing and the fuel that keeps the temple lamps burning. Both are joined together in the promises to David, especially when it comes to the place God has chosen. There I will make a horn to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed.” (Ps. 132:17 cf. 1 Kings 11:36; 15:4; 2 Kings 8:19)

The prophecies of Zechariah and Revelation also take up the rich imagery of Messianic Olive Trees in the temple and develop them in their own unmistakable style (Zech. 4:1-14; Rev. 11:4). When all else is abandoned or trampled, God’s olive trees will remain.

But look and see what this tree grounded in God’s house produces. Rooted in the steadfast promises of God, he trusts. He waits. He thanks his Lord always (Ps. 52:8-9). This is where David will remain, whatever others do and whatever they do to him.

Being an olive tree in God’s house might feel lonely for a while, but in the end this will be the place where all the godly will be found. And furthermore it will be where God will arrive for the faithful waiting of his people. He who is coming will not delay.

Can you see the power of this approach for us? If all the people we trusted have been slaughtered, we can still stay with the Lord and grow. If our church is burned to the ground and children are killed, and we are tempted to hate, despair or become numb in pain, we can stay with him and be thankful.

Wherever David went, he would stay firm in the house of the Lord.

If others abandon Christ’s way, water-down his gospel and grow cold on personal obedience, if our church feels hard and discouraging, we can stay in God’s house. The footprints poem could also be shaped to say that as we looked back at the footprints of our life, we notice that as they went forward, they also stayed in the same place, with God.

When Christ was born, this was the position of the elderly Simeon and Anna, who trusted in the presence of the godly, in the house of God, waiting for God’s name to arrive (Ps 52:8-9; Lk 2:25-38)

We’ll look at many other passages in the second part of this article, and show the surprising extent of the garden imagery inside the temple, but for now let us turn to Christ.

We don’t worship in a physical building but in Spirit and in truth. But trees still belong in the true temple. We should see ourselves as a fruitful tree in Christ Jesus himself even in the face of deception, lies and false teachings.

“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Col. 2:6-7)

Here is a better way than just finding strength in the face of disappointment, ego and apostasy. Rather than just looking for the better people across the road (which sometimes is necessary), we need to be built on Christ, a planting of the Lord.

All of our energy and strength comes from Christ; and our place is with him. This might be lonely at points, but it where all the godly wait for him, full of faith and gratitude.

But remember, David does not abandon God’s people. Ghandi said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians.” Sometimes Christians say this too. But David longs to stand with those who are truly godly, who as we’ll see in the next half of this article, are also trees in the house of God.

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever. I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly. (Psalm 52:8-9)

Q = Quick wrath, quick atonement; stored-up wrath, planned atonement.

Let’s step into dangerous territory and speak directly about the anger of God.

Our own worldly hearts testify with the liberalism entrenched in Western churches: speaking on this topic is both dangerous and unpalatable. Preachers, including this author, dance around hell when speaking to a friendly congregation, let alone the outside world. A colleague answering a work-mate during a smoking-break, waters-down God’s wrath to make Christianity seem almost acceptable. We never quite succeed, but we do our best to make God more like us, or at least how we like to project ourselves.

Children’s Bibles, like the Jesus Story Book Bible, amongst others, morph God’s holy anger into longing sadness; his judgement against sin becomes a hovering pity that people don’t understand that he loves them. Modern approaches to Christian education avoid God’s anger and righteous judgment, at least, not in front of the children.

If a young person’s world-view is shaped by the age of seven to twelve, and they’ve never heard that from the Bible: God not only loves his people, but also breaks out in anger against sinful behaviour, then sentimentality and self-esteem will eventually clash with scriptural truth. A hundred and fifty years have taken us a long way from JC Ryle’s, Children’s Stories which opens with the story of Elisha and The Two Bears. God judges children because he actually takes them seriously.  

Challenges don’t just come from the children’s ministry bookshelf but from the data projector too. The Bible Project beautifully summarises Biblical books and doctrines in unparalleled educational videos, but consistently removes God’s wrath from its story Grief and pain replaces God’s anger at the Golden Calf; and rather than God’s wrath revealed against the world in Romans 1, “the nations are trapped in sin”. The passive replaces the active. Sadness replaces anger.

When one of the most used Christian websites, one of the most popular kid’s Bible, and almost all preaching and teaching reflects the cultural zeitgeist, that is, the air we breathe, speaking about wrath seems dangerous, divisive and unpleasant.

But there is a far greater danger than the fear of man.

Writing, thinking and discussing God’s anger is terrifying for believers, if we stop, even for a moment, and think. The world we inhabit will face God’s wrath one day, many people without a saviour. What about us?

A shiver creeps within me, and perhaps you, that we must not misrepresent God in any way, by overemphasising or under-emphasising this most holy and terrifying of topics. What we speak about now, will be experienced then. This calls us to a place of relative safety, standing on God’s word is better than standing over it. When we speak on this topic, let’s hear Jesus’ words. “I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Lk. 12:5).

With care, humility and a little trembling, we must know the disease and its prognosis if we will seriously drink the medicine God has on offer. But what we are facing is not an depersonalised disease, but our creator whom we have offended.

Two broad perspectives frame our discussion of God’s anger in the Bible: the immediate and instantaneous, as well as the long-term, and even eternal plans of God.

In the New Testament, Romans describes a present wrath and a future wrath to come (Rom 1:18ff; 2:5). Christ’s death and resurrection saves us from that wrath to come (Rom 5:9). The indwelling work of the Holy Spirit, the internal application of Christ’s death and resurrection, transforms the inner person, and mitigates against the present wrath, the debasing our minds and passions (Rom 12:1-2; cf. 1:18,24,28). We are being saved out of the present wrath and will be saved from the day of wrath to come by the death and life of the New Adam, God’s long-planned and patiently worked out strategy to turn aside his own wrath, self-propitiation, in other words.

The Old Testament prepares us for Christ’s atonement with Israel’s regular and annual sacrificial system. God’s long suffering anger at a sinful world is held back from the second page until the second last, finding a release at the crucifixion of the Son of God.

But the Old Testament also displays a different side of atonement, a speedy side, where the Lord’s quickly kindled anger needs to be dealt with decision and haste.  Zipporah’s swift circumcision skills stop God consuming Moses’ family in his wrath (Ex. 4:24-26). Moses himself steps decisively into the breach to turn away God’s burning anger from wiping out the whole nation of Israel (Ex. 32). Even his relative Phinehas’ fast action spearing the amorous idolatrous adulterers is commended by God (Num. 25). It turns away God’s wrath. Several kings, prophets and priests act to deal with a flare up of God’s righteous wrath against the sin in his own precious people.

How do these quick atoning actions prepare us for the long-planned self-propitiation of Christ on the cross? And what do they reveal to us about his anger that he mostly withholds from unleashing to us now?

1. The character of God is not a cartoon: his anger is slow, yet kindled quickly

The first thing we must learn is that God does grows angry, whether or not, to us, this seems quick or slow.  But God is not like a tired mother whose kids hassle her when she gets home from work, or a stressed out father who can’t handle one more person asking him for money. God’s character is consistent. Slowness-to-anger is a much part of his character as mercy and grace.

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Ex. 34:6-7)

God proclaims to Moses that he does not have a short fuse, that he is long-suffering. But his own description is not mono-dimensional. If he is to stay true to his whole character, that anger will actually burn. He will repay iniquity, and “by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7). Slow-to-anger does not mean no-to-anger.

Remember the setting. The Israelites had just heard the Ten Commandments and cut a solemn covenant with God. However, they cheated on the honeymoon by making and worshiping an idol of a golden calf (Ex. 20, 24, 32). The one whose name is Jealous showed Moses what they deserved. Here is insight into the internal character of God.

“Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” (Ex. 32:10)

Moses pleaded. God relented. Nonetheless, many were destroyed by God in a plague. While Moses’ prayer was the means, the real foundational reason God spared Israel was his own faithfulness to his promises (Ex. 32:13). In this context of anger burning and anger relenting, God reveals his character to Moses. Who he was meant that some were destroyed. Who he was meant that many were spared. This surrounding story fleshes out God’s self description. And the Lord’s self-description of his character explains the events.

God’s rage is not like ours: bodily, visceral and bio-chemical. A teenager punches the wall because he stubbed his toe. A middle-aged man who fails at work and who has never forgiven his family becomes a ticking time-bomb. The object of his outburst might be a young driver who waited more than two seconds before taking off at the green traffic light. God is not like us.

The Lord’s anger is product of his holy mind, directed only at the guilty party, and bringing to bear all of his character, promises and plans.

If in the Old Testament, the Lord always instantaneously burned against everyone who sinned, there would be no human race. If in the Old Testament, God never burned against anyone we’d be tempted to treat his anger as hypothetical rather than real.

2. The quickly flaring anger of God in the past warns and teaches later generations about God’s long-suffering anger

A teacher who never displays anger at rowdy students is just as weak as a teacher who always is shouting. The most respected disciplinarians are those everyone knows “has it in them”, but who keep most of their disciplinary powder dry. The students must see a hint of follow-through early on, so they know the teacher is not making false threats.

We know God’s character is long-suffering anger, but we learn that this anger is real from past stories.

What made God’s anger burn so quickly teaches us a lot too, and is often so unexpected. One theme emerges: misusing the symbols and means of his grace and kind presence  particularly evokes swift reaction: eg. using unauthorised fire in the Holy Place (Lev. 10:1-7); touching the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6:7); or speaking against his servant Moses (Num. 11:9). The Lord’s anger instructs his people not to despise the very gifts he gives for protection, redemption and leadership. In the New Testament, this continues. How we treat the fulfilment of the sacrificial system, the temple, the king, prophet and priest, true circumcision, the Holy of Holies, in other words, Jesus Christ, is the fundamental predictor of God’s favour.  Little wonder, he says,

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life;  whoever does not obey the Son shall not  see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (Jn 3:36)

Rather than being hidden asides and ignored as past embarrassing blemishes, the times of God’s quickly poured out wrath are pivotal in instructing all subsequent generations. What will again bring God’s long-suffering anger? Psalm 95 says we must learn from the past failures. “Today, if you  hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at  Meribah”, when they grumbled against God (Ps. 95:7-8). This Psalm used to be read out most weeks in church as a warning for us before the Bible reading.  “I  swore in my wrath,”They shall not enter  my rest.” (Ps 95:11) Hebrews applies this warning directly to New Testament people too (Heb. 4). If we now harden our hearts to God’s goodness, how can we expect anything different to his past reaction?

Psalm 106 also recounts a litany of events where God’s anger broke out to judge his people: rebellion at the Red Sea (6-12); grumbling about food (13-15); leadership challenges against Moses (16-18); the golden calf (19-23); faithlessness when they should have entered the land (24-27); turning to sexual immorality and idolatry with the Baal of Peor (28-31); Meribah (32-33); and failure to conquer the land, and instead worshipping its gods (33-46). God’s wrath and judgment are recalled in each, but the final word of the Psalm reminds us that God did not destroy the whole people. God’s character means that he will continue with his people because of his promise, but his anger is real nonetheless.

Then  the anger of the LORD was kindled against  his people … Nevertheless, he looked upon their distress, when he  heard their cry. For their sake he  remembered his covenant, and  relented according to  the abundance of his steadfast love. (Psa. 106:40,44-45)

The New Testament applies the stories of God’s holy anger and judgement in exactly the same way as these two Psalms. For instance, the stories of idolatry, sexual immorality and grumbling are told in 1 Corinthians 10 as examples to make Christ’s people very careful in how they approach exactly the same topics. In their own time the quick outbreaks against his people were “an  example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Cor 10:11).

Most drivers don’t feel guilty for speeding until they see the police lights in their rear vision mirror. Even for Christ’s forgiven people, God’s judgement reminds us that our sin is not just a little bit dirty, but is completely horrifically filthy. When we speed we break the law, but when we sin we not only break the law, but also personally offend the one made who that law. Paul teaches about the sinfulness of sin by reminding us of God’s future stored up wrath.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.  (Col. 3:5)

In this same way, God’s quickly flared-up anger against Achan, in the Old Testament, and Ananias’ in the New, put the fear of God in everyone in their time, as well as generations to come (Josh 7; Acts 5). Wrath teaches us the seriousness of sin.

Every moment when we read that God broke-out against his own people, we are reminded that he should by all rights do this all the time, and that it is only, at every moment, by God’s mere pleasure, that we are not destroyed. That, and the atonement of Jesus Christ.

By re-writing God’s character for kids, by avoiding this topic for adults, and by not witnessing God’s anger to the world, we act like God’s un-appointed public relation officers, rather than faithful servants. Is it right to misrepresent God’s character? If God thinks we should remember these stories, why do we try to forget them?

3. Old Testament examples of quick atonement and Christ’s greater atonement

There are many examples in the Old Testament where God’s anger pours out quickly. The wise will take this as a warning.

But what about those situations where God’s anger is averted by decisive human actions? We’ve mentioned already Zipporah’s circumcision skills and Moses’ prayer intervention after the golden calf. But two examples particularly use the language of wrath, decisive speed and atonement. The first was during the populist anti-aaronic revolution of Korah, and the second in the aftermath of wide-spread flagrant idolatry and adultery even when the whole assembly was weeping in repentance before tent of meeting (Num. 16, 25). Both were unfinished work, sin was still spreading, even though heaven’s judgment had already come down on earth.

God’s anger was averted in one by Aaron’s quick action, using the recent symbol of God’s clear affirmation as now the instrument of atonement.

And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the LORD; the plague has begun.” And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped. (Num. 16:46-48)

Phinehas, on the other hand, kept God’s original command to kill all those who led the people into sin (Num. 25:4).

And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were  weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas  the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. (Num. 25:6-8)

If any passage reaffirms the basic truth that sadness and wrath are not the same thing, it is this one. The people were sad, but God was angry; and only Phinehas knew how to turn that anger away.

“Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. (Num. 25:11)

Interestingly, both acts of atonement were made by priests, Aaron and, his grandson Phinehas. Their regular method of atonement, turning away God’s wrath, was the sacrificial system, daily sin and guilt offerings, and the yearly day of atonement (Lev. 4-6, 16). But here they stepped outside the regular, to stop the immanent destruction of even more people.

But how do these, and all the other previously mentioned, quick humans actions point to us our atonement in Christ?  Besides yet another reminder of the reality of God’s wrath, as we’ve seen, there is at least one difference and one similarity.

A. Christ’s atonement was completely planned and dealt with even greater wrath

While some describe Jesus Christ as being crushed in the wheels of history, a victim of evil people, and an unfortunate martyr, the Bible consistently proclaims that his atoning death was:

  • planned by God before the creation of the world (1 Pet. 1:19-20; Rev. 13:8),
  • proclaimed consistently in all the Old Testament  (Lk. 24:46-47),
  • seen by Christ himself as the purpose of his incarnation (Heb. 9:27-10:10; Mk. 10:45; Gal. 2:20),
  • and was a real propitiation, a turning aside of God’s anger, in other words, saving his people from the terrible future day of wrath (Rom. 2:5; 3:25; 5:9; Heb. 2:17; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10).

If God reacted favourably to the determined prayers of Moses, respected the fast priestly intercession of Aaron, and if he responded to the speedy outward circumcision done by Zipporah, and he ended his anger because of the impulsive zeal of Phinehas, how much more will he receive the work of his unique eternal Son, that was planned from before time (Rom 8:31-39)!

If God hadn’t shown us these Old Testament examples of his long-suffering anger breaking out in holy rage, we might not have taken sin seriously. And if we hadn’t seen even these small pictures of wrath being turned away, we just might have thought propitiation was impossible. Each Old Testament example gives us a taste, Christ gives us the meal, and the daily bread that sustains us every day.

When we rob people of the truth of God’s wrath, we don’t just steal from them the warning God wants us all to hear. We also deface the glory of Christ’s work on the cross.

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Rom. 5:8)

B. Humans are called to act swiftly and decisively to his planned atonement.

There is something else we learn from those who acted swiftly to deal with God’s wrath. In the Old Testament, quick wrath needed to be dealt with quickly by human leaders. But even though God’s stored-up wrath was eternally planned, perfectly prepared and wonderfully dealt with in Christ’s atoning work on the cross, there is still the same urgency for all who would receive him.

Those outside the church have an urgency since we don’t know if we’ll ever hear the gospel again, the time of our death, or the hour of Christ’s return. Now is the time for repentance, the day of God’s salvation (Acts 2:36-41; 2 Cor. 6:2). Quickly respond, while you still can! And the word is especially also a word for those inside the church family. Every day is a chance to strengthen each other and cling to Christ.

As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Heb. 3:11-14)

It would be a great danger to doctor the character of God and remove his anger to make Christianity more acceptable to our world, but an even greater danger if that impulse led us to not take Christ seriously.

The church has a choice like the Israelites, freshly rescued from Egypt. Follow God as he has revealed himself or fashion him into how we want him to be. Remember what happened that time.

This Psalm is quoted so many times about Jesus in the New Testament. It pulls together everything we have been saying. God’s long-suffering anger is real and is quickly kindled. Be wise. Be warned.

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.

Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”  I will tell of the decree:

The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:4-12)

Blessed are those who take refuge in Jesus.

P = Prayer in the Book of Job

What if Job had more to say about right relating to God than it did about right theology?

I first read the Biblical book of Job in my final year of High School, sitting in my living room, covered head-to-toe with chicken pox. My take-away was simple. I didn’t have it as hard as him; and no, I wasn’t going to scrape away my open sores with broken pottery.

Fast forward twenty five years to just a few days ago. One of my teenage boys told me that he’d been reading Job for the first time in his ‘Time Alone With God’ on a recent youth camp. It was profound. He loved it. He’d been through more than I could protect him from. He had to carry his big-brother’s coffin through an arch of school friends who had all hoped and prayed that their friend would not die.

Kids with mild cases of chicken pox, brothers and friends who have suffered excruciating loss, couples who find themselves despondent and childless, men who have lost jobs and can’t afford to repair their cars, women who are despairing of decades of mistreatment by family members, and pastors dealing with the avalanches of pain pouring down all at once on their people, often turn to the book of Job.

But the academic loves Job too. There’s so much to discover and explore. The book is an exquisite literary masterpiece.

This essay will just explore one thread, perhaps a loose thread (although you might judge it to be an unattached thread), that of prayer, which may be of some intellectual concern, but perhaps even more solace, as practical help to those suffering.


Job opens and closes with a heavenly perspective that affects the earth (Job 1-2; 38-42). Satan thinks Job trusts the Lord just because he has it so easy. Spoiler alert! With God’s full permission, Satan casts down the richly-blessed godly man, turning him into a wreck of human being, covered in sores, loosing all of his property, livestock, and most of his workers. Not only this, he buries every one of his children (Job 1-2). At the end of the book, the Lord speaks, gives instructions, restores Job’s riches, standing, and blesses him with new children.

In the middle chapters, Job and his friends speak. One after another, back and forth, the friends start out conciliatory, but soon end up as the kind of ‘comforters’ found in many Christian churches who like to tell you exactly why you are suffering at the moment. What moral lessons can they draw from this untypical riches-to-rags story?

One of the challenges for the reader is who gets theology right. Who speaks correctly of God?  Does Job? Does Eliphaz, Bildad or Zophar? What about the younger Elihu who only speaks at the end?

One way of reading the core of the book, works through the dialogue and weighs what they say against the rest of the Old Testament, the New Testament, Calvin’s Institutes, the Heidelberg Catechism, or the perhaps even the AFES doctrinal statement. Who gets God right?

Part of my problem with this approach is that the friends seem to say some right things. They often speak with “right theology”, but in ignorance and applied without wisdom. The biggest problem with this approach is that Job also gets things wrong. One example is clear. He thinks God is against him. But the opening heavenly scenes makes clear that God is completely for Job.

God’s final verdict informs this way of reading Job. Having spoken to Job, the LORD addresses the friends …

“My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7-8; ESV)

But what if these two verses could be translated:

… for you have not spoken to me what is right, as my servant Job has.  (Job 42:7-8; my modified translation of the ESV)

What if this was the most literal translation and the one that makes the most sense of the context? What if God was commending Job’s words to God, or at least his final words?

We’ll look first at Job 42:7-8 and then more broadly on Job’s prayers. One thing is certain. Job initially speaks to God in his suffering, longs to speak to God more directly, and when he gets the chance, even repents of his speech.

On the other hand, Job’s friends just speak about God; and not once speak to him. Isn’t this the case far too often for Christians, preachers and academics?


This translation suggestion is not my attempt to twist the meaning of the text. This is not my intention. It’s the most common general translation of these words, and as far as I can see the only way this particular Hebrew construction is ever translated elsewhere in the ESV.

There is always a danger in proposing a translation not followed in any English Bible. For those who don’t know Hebrew, bear with me. Hopefully what I write will still make sense. For those who do know Hebrew, please show me where I am wrong.

1. The key word in 42:7 and 8, אֵלַי (‘elay), is nowhere else in the ESV translated “of me”, and is usually translated “to me”. 

Those learning Hebrew learn that the normal gloss of (‘el) is “to”, usually involving movement or direction towards someone, unlike (‘al) which is translated very broadly, including “on”, “concerning” and “on account of”. If you add a personal ending (-ay) to (‘el), the gloss becomes “to me”. Of course, context always shapes meaning and the more samples we can examine the better.  What about the verbs of speaking followed by (‘el) with any personal ending.

2. Only in a tiny percentage of occasions ( ‘el) without a personal suffix following the word for speaking  דבר (dbr) is translated by “of” or “concerning”: only in 13 out of 270 verses. 

The verb form (dbr) followed by ( ‘el) without any suffix occurs in about 270 verses. In every verse the ESV translates the phrase with a word of speech (say, tell, command ) followed by a “to” or an implied “to”, except for 13 verses: “concerning” (7x) – (1 Sam. 3:12; Is. 16:13; 32:6; Jer. 30:4; 50:1; 51:12, 62); “of” (2x) – (2 Sam 7:19; 2 Chr. 32:19);”against” (4x) – (1 Ki. 16:12; Jer. 28:16; 36:7, 31). Some of these are also arguable. For instance, it is entirely possible that God’s prophetic word against or concerning a person or nation is actually also his word to them. This would account for 10 of the 13 verses.

But in the key phrases we are looking at, Job 42:7-8, ( ‘el) has a personal suffix.

3. Out of 147 other verses, on every occasion, ( ‘el) with a personal suffix following the word for speaking  דבר (dbr) is translated by a word of speech (told, command, said) and a “to” or an implied “to”.

There is one verse where the preposition was untranslated for smoother flow, but this does not change the argument (Ruth 1:18).

But perhaps 147 verses is not a broad enough sample, what about embarking on the same search with an even more common word for speaking?

4. אמר (‘amr) followed by (‘el) with a personal ending occurs in 550 verses. In all verses the ESV translates with a word of speaking (spoke, cried, command, tell ) followed by a “to” or an implied “to” (told him, spoke to her, spoke with us).

There are a handful of cases where the pronoun is left out or substituted with the noun for clarity, but the result still stands.

But what about the verse itself?

5.  It seems odd that the ESV and other English translations would translate the three occurrences of the same (dbr) + (‘el) two different ways in the same verse. Why is it fine to say that God had spoken to Job, is speaking to Eliphaz, but that Job was speaking about God?

After the LORD had spoken (verb form of dbr) these words (noun form of dbr) to (‘el) Job, the LORD said to (‘el) Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken (verb form of dbr) of me (‘el + personal suffix) what is right, as my servant Job has. (Job 42:7; ESV; brackets added)

With all this weight of evidence, we would need some pretty strong contextual evidence to translate the verse, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has”.

6. However, surely the context implies that speaking *to* God is on view. 

Remember that before God’s word to the friends in 42:7-8, God had just twice spoken to Job, and Job twice to God (G-J: 38:1-40:2; J-G: 40:3-5; G-J 40:6-41:34; J-G 42:1-6). In his first reply to God, Job is very self conscious about speaking to God.  “I have spoken (dbr) once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 40:5)

7. Most importantly, Job’s final words to God are words of confession and repentance about his speech. Why would God say that Job has spoken rightly about him, when Job had just said he himself didn’t.

At the end of the book, Job admits that he spoke too much about things he didn’t know. “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:3)

It would be weird to think that God was giving Job a top mark for his theology, when Job had just acknowledged his own ignorance.

Wouldn’t it make more sense that, in the following verses, God was commending Job to his friends for his humility and repentance in what he had just said to God? The friends were not ready or prepared to speak the truth to God , unlike Job.

What if part of God’s condemnation of the friends is that they were like the Pharisee in Luke 18, looking down on Job sitting in misery with them. They were standing and speaking about God to themselves, whereas at the end Job when confronted by almighty God, was like the tax-collector, calling out, have mercy on me the sinner. 

Who went home justified before God? That’s right, the one who humbled himself.

Who is the one the Lord will listen to? He who humble and contrite in spirit.

The book finishes with God instructing the friends to turn to Job for intercessory prayers.

“My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken to me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken to me what is right, as my servant Job has.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the LORD had told them, and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer. (Job 42:7-9; ESV with my translation change of these two words: “of” –> “to”; emphasis added)

Earlier, Job desperately sought a mediator in heaven to argue his case against God and his “comforters”. And now in the denouement, Job himself becomes a mediator on earth to plead with God on behalf of his friends.


If you agree with what I have written, then perhaps a new thread is opened up for us in this deep and profound book. Search through the book and see how Job, unlike his friends has a first impulse to speak to God; he wants to speak to God, and many of his speeches to his friends leak into speaking to God.

In the first cycle of speeches there is an amazing pattern. The friends talk to Job, but Job ends up talking to God.

  • Eliphaz speak to Job (4:1-5:27)
  • Job speaks to Eliphaz about God (6:1-7:6)
  • Job transitions and says that he wants to speak to God (7:7-11)
    • eg. “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” (7:11)

  • Job speaks to God and addresses himself directly to God in the second person (7:12-21)
    • eg. “Why have you made me your mark? Why have I become a burden to you Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?” (7:20-21)


  • Bildad speaks to Job (8:1-22)
  • Job speaks to Bildad about God (9:1-31)
  • Job transitions and says that he wants to speak to God (9:32-10:1)
    • eg. “Let him take his rod away from me, and let not dread of him terrify me. Then I would speak without fear of him, for I am not so in myself.” (9:34-35)

  • Job speaks to God and addresses himself directly to God in the second person (10:2-22)
    • eg. “Remember that you have made me like clay; and will you return me to the dust?” (10:9)


  • Zophar speaks to Job (11:1-20)
  • Job speaks to Zophar about God (12:1-13:2)
  • Job transitions and says that he wants to speak to God (13:3-18)
    • eg. “I am not inferior to you.But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.” (13:2-3)

  • Job speaks to God and addresses himself directly to God in the second person (13:19-14:22)
    • eg. “Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath be past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!” (14:13)


At first his friends tell Job to speak to God, but they themselves never do so (Job 5:8). If prayer is faith breathing, Job breathes, even with a panting, gasping expiration. His friends just talk.

In every conversation there is the conversation we thought we had, the one we wished we had, and the one we actually had. Job’s final face-to-face words with God is not the one he had planned to say, it was what he actually had and God was pleased.

At first, Job is cast down in pain by earthly events, but his words to God at the end show internal remorse and a contrite heart. They were in a sense the deepest re-echoes of his first prayer when he suffered so much, albeit amplified. At the beginning, Job was humbled externally and praised God.

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:20-21)

But at the end, Job was humbled internally and feared God more than ever before. Losing absolutely everything made him sit in the ashes, but seeing almighty God made him repent in those same ashes.

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6)

Remember, the disciples were terrified of the storm, but even more petrified of standing before the one who could calm that storm (Mk 4:38-41). There is something scarier than losing everything in life, and that is to be confronted by our creator.

We will never grasp it completely this side of heaven, but may we speak to God as Job did at the end. Humble indebtedness and repentance is a good beginning.

But we have a mediator, and Jesus is an even better advocate than Job could have dreamed of. For a young man with chicken pox, a brother suffering loss, a man unable to pay for a car repair, or a woman re-living age-old family pain, Christ and his shed blood makes all the difference. The external cannot harm us, and even the terrifying thought of facing our creator turns to expectation because we have one greater than Job who prays for us.

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Romans 8:33-34)

If that’s the conversation on our behalf in heaven, how much more should we engage with God on earth in humble repentance, prayer and thanksgiving! We know more, so more is to be expected of us.

I placed a false choice before you at the beginning of this essay, when I asked, “what if Job had more to say about right relating to God than it did about right theology?” For Job, right knowledge of God led to right relating to him. Knowing God properly meant desperate humility.

The most dangerous profession for “Christians” and comforters alike is one where we talk about God, but never to him.



S = Sorrow Upon Sorrow of Parents Who Lose A Child

Tomorrow marks two years since we said goodbye to our teenage son, Nathan, who went to be with Jesus. We were on holidays and we knew that the cancer would take him soon, but it’s hard to drive home with one less kid in your car.

When he died, I was relieved that he was with his Lord, but I still miss him so much. My temporary shepherding of him had finished, and he now is with the the greater shepherd of his soul.

I still cry when I eat his favourite food, watch his favourite sport, or see a picture of him as a little child or young man enduring chemotherapy. Sometimes I weep uncontrollably, as I am doing right now. Other times, I just cry internally. It’s like the tears just fall down the inside of my face rather than the outside. No one sees them. The tears are mixed with joy, thankfulness, parental pride, gratitude and confidence that I will see him again. But they are still tears.

The New Testament gives us hope in Christ, for all who trust in him, but I also take great encouragement from the smallest of phrases, “sorrow upon sorrow”. The Apostle Paul, who taught us to grieve with hope, could also say about his dear friend and brother.

Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.  (Phil. 2:27 cf. 1 Thess. 4:13)

While I have been strengthened by Jesus and his gospel, I wanted now to dig into the Old Testament, which portrays many generations of parents and children living outside the Garden of Eden.  What does it reflect to us about the tragedy of a parent burying their son or daughter?

In my small search, here are six things I have found that I need to tell myself and others who have lost children.

A. Know that many others in God’s family have lost children

The roll call of God’s people who have lost children is longer than you might realise, but that doesn’t make it any easier to you add your name to the list. Some clubs you never want to join and this one has the worst entry fee. Parents who lost children before their time include: Adam and Eve (Gen. 4:25); Judah; Aaron; Samuel; David; Job, not to mention in the New Testament Jairus, the widow of Nain and Mary.  While there is no safety in numbers, I have found it good to know that I am not alone in this pain.

B. Know that the pain in the Bible is real and the responses varied

What unites the parents who lose children is overwhelming pain, physical anguish, and sorrow upon sorrow.

The Egyptians on the night of the passover lost their firstborn children. I remember reading this passage for the first-time holding the hand with my little first-born. In contrast to theirs, my tears were silent.

There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.” (Ex. 11:6; cf. 12:30)

I can imagine the multiplication of that agony, with everyone suffering simultaneously, there would not have been the backup of helpers and supporters. All Egyptian hope and confidence would have died with their boys; not unlike the Israelites whose boys they had previously ruthlessly slaughtered.

King David lost several children, but his reaction to two of these sons is so different. His young unnamed child, from the adulterous affair with Bathsheba, was struck sick for six days and died on the seventh. His servants couldn’t understand why David was so visibly grieving while the boy was alive, but not when finally he died. David answered their astonishment.

“While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Sam. 11:22-23)

I can relate to David’s hope. He knew God’s goodness isn’t limited by death. He also held to the reality that nothing can change the fate of his son.

But in a deeper way I stand more comfortably with his servants. I don’t know anyone who has lost a baby who has acted this way. Normally the roles are reversed. Comforting friends tell the parents about hope and moving on, while the parents sits weeping next to the hospital bed. But we all react so differently.

David’s reaction to his adult son Absalom’s death almost undoes him as a king, and swings in the completely opposite direction. That the same man could grieve so completely differently for two of his sons, warns us that different situations will affect us quite differently.

In a well-planned revenge, Absalom had already killed David’s firstborn son, stolen the people’s hearts, taken the throne and had made his father an exile from Jerusalem. However, during a very bitter civil war, David’s men finally killed Absalom. The man who brought the report thought he was bringing news of peace. There was no peace in this father’s heart.

And the king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam. 18:22).

Shock, anger, bargaining and depression are all seen in this bitter moment. At his death, Absalom was not an enemy, but a son. I could imagine a grief like this from a parent over an estranged daughter or son. It doesn’t matter how much you have seen them or how well you relate to them, if it is your flesh and blood, they should not die before you. Five-times in two sentences, he calls him “my son”. If we were there, I would not be surprised to have heard him say it five hundred times.

Even a lie can cause the same pain. The patriarch Jacob spent many years thinking that his favourite son Joseph was dead, killed by wild animals. His first reaction was mourning and his plan was to mourn for the rest of his life, until his dying day. I have spoken to elderly mothers who lost their children sixty years ago, who still shed tears. We cry together.

Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. (Gen. 37:34-35)

Many years later, when Joseph, who had been living in Egypt, had risen meteorically to the role of prime-minister, his father was still mourning and it greatly affected his parenting. Joseph only had one full-brother, Benjamin. Jacob would not let Benjamin join the others journeying to Egypt.

But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.” (Gen. 44:38)

In Genesis we do not know as much about Jacob’s wife, Rachel’s tears, but they are prophetically used later in the Bible.

“Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” (Jer. 31:`15)

Mothers and Fathers who lose children react differently, but there is always deep pain involved.

C. Know that there is more than one way to lose a child

Let me just draw aside to underline an important truth. Death is not the only cause of sorrow for parents. Some readers can relate deeply to this truth. Cancer, motor-vehicle accidents and birth-complications are not the only things that rob us of hope and cause ongoing mourning and tears. Completely wasting away a life on addictive online computer games, drinking away life-savings, and turning away from God the saviour and redeemer, all bring pain to parents.

The proverbs of Solomon. A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother. (Prov. 10:1)

He who sires a fool gets himself sorrow, and the father of a fool has no joy. (Prov. 17:21)

An older man I greatly respect was at an inner-city church full of young families. They had one of those sharing questions about what brings joy in life. Person after person answered that their children do. My friend told me that he had to stand up and balance the answers. Children do not just bring joy, they can also bring so much pain. Ask any parent of a teenage or adult child. Nothing hurts more than a child who hates you. Many prodigals do not return. In Jesus’ parable, if the younger son had not returned to this father, in this father’s experience, he would have remained lost and dead (Lk 15:32).

I know this aside has broken the flow of the argument, but as a parent of a child who has died far too young, but still trusted in Jesus,  I find encouragement. Some of us can take comfort in the short lives that we had with our children – that during the time they brought us joy, honour and happiness. This is a gift from God.

But I also mourn and am reminded to pray for parents who have lost their children in this other way where there was no funeral. For many it is not too late. May God listen to our prayers mixed with tears. While many prodigals never return, some do.

D. Know that the loss of children may lay behind some of the deepest prayers and songs in the Bible

One is for sure. Job was a godly man who suffered greatly. He loved his children tremendously and went far beyond the normal love and spiritual protection of their souls (Job 1:5). On one day, all of his ten children were killed in a windstorm (Job 1:18-19).

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. (Job 1:20-21)

This prayers drips with pathos. He mourns and then he worships. Before my son died, this prayer seemed so far removed from reality, a two-dimensional cartoon of what someone should do – but I see it far closer to my experience. When they are taken, so is our earthly hope and our future plans. When we are laid bare, if we had the Lord to begin with, all we have left with us is him. We trust him because who else can we turn to?

But I acknowledge that not everyone reacts this way. Two of my good friends who have lost children find it hard to pray and sing. We all react differently.

As I’ve mentioned already, David was a man who had buried at least three of children by his middle-age. Surprisingly there is no single Psalm about child loss, but his experience must have coloured everything he wrote.

Last year, I found myself drawn to sermons and books written by people who had been through the pain of child-loss. I didn’t want to read their books on grief. I just wanted to hear their normal teaching, prayers and hope in the gospel. I could hear their loss affecting their pastoral care and urgency.

In a similar way, when we read and sing the Psalms, we step into a world where many who wrote them had lost children and the community that sung them was full of families with empty spots at their Sabbath meals. I find there is a depth to all the Psalms of David as I read of his pain, loss, love and joy in the Lord his God. Little wonder then that most of the people I know who have lost kids are drawn to the Psalms. Psalm 61:1-2 spoke for me.

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I … (Psalm 61:1-2)

I not only needed the Lord in my cries, but I needed God to lead me to himself.

E. Know the stories of children returned

Like the New Testament, there are stories of children being returned to their parents in the Old Testament. Each portrays interesting responses of the mothers and fathers involved, but even more, each shows the hand of God stepping into this world of brokenness and sin.

  • Elijah raises the Widow of Zarepath’s son (1 Ki. 17:17-24)
  • Elisha revives the Shunnamite woman’s son (2 Ki. 4:18-37)
  • Jesus raises the dead son of the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11-15)
  • Jesus wakes the dead daughter of Jairus, the synagogue ruler (Mk 5, Lk 8)

Reading these stories can be like joining a prayer group for childless couples. With each wonderful news joy is born internally for those others, but there can be an extra pain for the mother and father whose little one has not yet been returned. I still love these stories and will always volunteer to teach on them. I hope that others also in my club would not avoid them either. Each is a picture of God’s kingdom to come and a promise of things God has planned. Hebrews which says that “Women received back their dead by resurrection”, also says that God has promise something better even for his own people now in Christ (Heb. 11:35, 39-40). It’s hard to think of what could be even better than that.

F. Know the eternal promises for God’s people of children returned

The story of Joseph returning to his father is a picture of a dead child being returned to his father. But it is his mother, Rachel, whom we now turn to. She never saw her son again. Rachel is a such tragic figure since she died giving birth to her second son. She was buried in Bethlehem (Gen. 48:7). But the prophets used her tears as a picture of God’s salvation.

Thus says the LORD: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” (Jer. 31:15)

The matriarch is figuratively crying out from her tomb in Bethlehem because her descendants looked like they would die or go into exile. But God tells Rachel to stop weeping over Israel, because the children will come home.

Thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country. (Jer. 31:16-17)

When the New Testament uses this quote of Jesus and the slaughter of the Bethehemite children, we resonate with the pain and agony, but sometimes forget the second half of what God was saying. They will return. And the one who brings life, even though he was taken to Egypt, was returning home to save all God’s children.

This promise reminds us of the hope that is found embryonically in the Old Testament and is shown to be completely fulfilled in the New. God will “create new heavens and new earth” (Is 65:17). One of the focal points will be God’s rejoicing in the New Jerusalem.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. … They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their descendants with them. (Isa. 66:19-20,23)

The promise is ramped up through Jesus, who promises more.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:3-4).

I find great encouragement in the promises of God that address one of the most horrific tragedies that can affect anyone. When loud voices call out that there will be no mourning or cry or death, from reading Isaiah, I am convinced that front and centre is the weeping of parents over a casket that is far too little or crying over a body far too young (Isa. 66:19).

God is not far from broken-hearted parents who trust him. The foundational event of the Old Testament was the salvation of the first-born sons, and the reality of the New Testament atonement involved the self-giving of God’s only son for the sake of his people. God the Father saw his Son die, before he received him back again with joy.

But while we wait for all things being made new, I also find deep encouragement in the men and women who have walked before me, men and women who have also trusted in God and have had to bury their own children. Fathers who have mourned, mothers who cried their whole lives, but who still worshipped the Lord in hope.

Sorrow may come upon sorrow while we wait, but Jesus said to us: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4)

R = Raised Up a Horn For His People (Christmas Special)

Christmas is a time when metaphors shine, and the most popular one does so literally. Christ is the true light who came into a dark world. Names also speak volumes. Immanuel is God for-us becoming God-with-us. He is called Jesus because he saves his people from their sins. One name and metaphor, however, is lost in all translation, not the word-for-word rendering, but in cultural traction, even though it abounds in the English Bible. Zechariah, the priestly father of John the Baptist prophecies about Jesus with words given him by the Holy Spirit.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old …” (Lk. 1:69-70. Emphasis here and for the rest of the article is mine)

We don’t place horns on our Christmas trees, cards or around our church buildings. Here’s a challenge: search the zillions of well-loved Christmas carols and find one that mentions horns. Almost every other Biblical (and non-Biblical) imagery, is squeezed into our Christian Christmas piety.

Let’s see what the Hebrew Bible says about horns and why Zechariah would link them with the birth of his saviour.

1. Horns are used descriptively of musical instruments, the corners of altars, and containers of anointing oil

Before we turn to metaphoric uses, we must consider the uses of horns in the Israelite’s world. Many sacred objects in Israelite worship and life-together were made from horns or shaped-like them. Early musical instruments were made from horns, like the ram’s horns blown at the destruction of Jericho (eg. Josh. 6:4-8). The bronze altar outside the tent of meeting was to be made with horns, of one piece with the altar, covered with bronze (Ex 27:2; 28:2. Likewise the altar of incense. 30:2-3).

Perhaps most fruitful for our discussion, anointing was done by pouring oil from a horn. God instructed Samuel, “Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” (1 Sam 16:1 cf. 16:3)   

2. Horns are used metaphorically for God and his people in the Exodus, Wandering and Conquest of Canaan

As the Israelites prepared to enter the promised land, the Holy Spirit overpowered the cash-for-comment Balaam and gave him these words to pronounce.

God brings [Israel] out of Egypt and is for him like the horns of the wild ox; he shall eat up the nations, his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces and pierce them through with his arrows. (Num. 24:8; also 23:22)

While God could not be visually compared to a calf, bull or oxen—such a treatment is a idolatrous blasphemy—by his Spirit, he himself boldly uses this simile. The wild ox mentioned here may represent an ancestor of our more domesticated modern stock of bullock.  The image here is of power, strength and violent devastation, overthrowing oppressive enemies and saving his own dear people.

In blessing the tribes of Israel, Moses placed this blessing on the house of Joseph with very similar connotations.

A firstborn bull—he has majesty, and his horns are the horns of a wild ox; with them he shall gore the peoples, all of them, to the ends of the earth; (Deut. 33:16-17)

But not all horns are good.

3. Horns serve well as descriptors of arrogant pagan kings

Daniel’s central vision of the saints of Israel is “one like a son of man”, but the nations are more animalistic and grotesque. Their strangely numbered, speaking and outgrowing horns, clearly portray kings rising, boasting and usurping each other. Here are some of the divine interpretations.

As for the ten horns, out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise, and another shall arise after them (Dan. 7:24)

As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia. And the goat is the king of Greece. And the great horn between his eyes is the first king. As for the horn that was broken, in place of which four others arose, four kingdoms shall arise from his nation, but not with his power. (Dan. 8:20)

Likewise Zechariah promises judgment on the horns that were involved in the exile.

““These are the horns that scattered Judah, so that no one raised his head. And these [craftsmen] have come to terrify them, to cast down the horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter it.”” (Zech. 1:21; cf 1:18-20)

The book of Revelation picks up this imagery too, applying to Satan’s worldly powers who are a distortion of God’s true king (Rev. 12:3; 13:1,11; 17:3, 7, 12, 16).

But it is not just the apocalyptic literature employs horns, the songs of Israel also speak this way, and generalise this opposition to more common people who see themselves as important.

I say to the boastful, ‘Do not boast, and to the wicked, ‘Do not lift up your horn; do not lift up your horn on high, or speak with haughty neck.’ … All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be lifted up. (Psalm 75:4-5,10)

But even this Psalm says there are some the Lord lifts up.

4. Most especially, horns are used of God exalting his Messiah and his people

The image that powerfully describes God and also grotesquely depicts worldly kings, is most distinctively used of God’s work to raise up a king, the hope for the people of Israel. The narrative arc of Israel’s human kingly hopes begins with Hannah’s song of thankfulness. Hannah’s own horn is lifted high because God will exalt his Messiah’s horn (1 Sam 2:1, 10).

And Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation … The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (1 Sam 2:1,10)

The language is so similar to Balaam’s prophecy about God. God will destroy his enemies. What remains unclear is whether the newly exalted horn will be the instrument or the result of that judgement. Is his horn used for smashing too? Psalm 89, the great celebration of the Davidic covenant, sings a resounding yes to that question.

I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him, so that my hand shall be established with him; my arm also shall strengthen him. The enemy shall not outwit him; the wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him. My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him, and in my name shall his horn be exalted. (Psalm 89:20-24; cf 17)

That promise was not just fulfilled in the youngest son of Jesse. David’s line is on view. Psalm 132 speaks confidently of Zion, the place where God will keep his promise.

There I will make a horn to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed (Psalm 132:17)

As we have already seen with Hannah, the horn of the godly believer can also be lifted up (1 Sam. 2:1). Speaking of the blessedness of the generous man,

“He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever; his horn is exalted in honour.” (Psalm 112:9 cf. 92:10)

God lifts up his Messiah and his godly people, but how can we draw this all together?

6. Connecting the metaphors with the physical objects

We have seen a consistent metaphoric use of horns, the strength of a mighty animal threatening destruction to his enemies. It is not a morally loaded term, as it can equally be applied to God, his people, enemy kings, the Messiah and godly Israelites. But what about the objects that are described as horns?

  1.  a musical instrument, not from the brass section, but from bovine or ovine dissection
  2. the corners of altars, perhaps with real horns attached and covered with bronze or gold
  3. an object filled with oil to pour out on a king or priest

Since the metaphor is so powerfully consistent, it may be that they are also used with some of its meaning transferred to them too. Lifting up horns and blowing them may not just sound great, but symbolise the strength of God as in the time of Jericho. The horns of the altars were places where blood was dripped-over and where people grabbed hold of for safety. God’s anger must be covered. There is refuge in God’s strength, but not from it.

As much as these are speculative suggested connections, anointing oil is explicitly linked to God’s exalting of a horn. The horn with oil lifted and poured over a man is a visual aid that God is lifting up that man as a horn.

But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil. (Psa. 92:10)

Remember what happened to David, Solomon and every other king?

  • Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward.  (1 Sam. 16:13)
  • There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. (1 Kings 1:39)

From the lower case “a” anointed ones, we finally turn to the great Anointed one, Christ the King of Christmas.

7. The Christmas Horn Raised Up

So we turn Christmas. The dumbstruck Zechariah now had Holy-Spirit-given words put in his mouth. Like Balaam, Moses, Hannah, the Psalmist and prophets, God spoke of a horn.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old …” (Luke 1:69-70)

What does this mean for our understanding of Christmas?

A. The Christmas horn reminds us that Christmas is about rivalry

In a saccharine attempt at positivity, we tend to think of Christmas as a time of peace.  Both now and two-thousand years ago, it was a time of rivalry and competition. The angels were not giving a news report about an unparalleled time of peacefulness, but rather promising something to a ravaged world,  “…on earth peace among those with whom [God] is pleased!” (Lk 2:14) They were promising God’s peace to those who turn to him.

If God was going to raise up a horn, what about the rival horns who exalted themselves?

In Disney’s, The Lion King, when baby Simba is iconically lifted high and presented to all the animal kingdom, not everyone was happy. In that one act, his Uncle Scar had lost claim to the throne. When one king is lifted up the hopes of others are brought low. But truth is even more extreme than fiction. Jesus’ exaltation threatened everyone.

Herod the Great thought of himself as the beginning of a new dynasty. He was the king of Jews and the temple builder. The birth of a new horn was such a threat to him that he would use the words to Scripture to find out the location to massacre all new-born boys (Matt 2). The religious community was threatened too. The life of Jesus bears this out. Their power was being attacked so much they would have him killed. The Psalm Jesus makes his own on the cross, beginning with asking why God has forsaken him, continues with these words.

Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! (Psa. 22:21)

And to this day, the horn that God has lifted high remains a threat to people. Some even at Christmas, like King Herod, know scripture, fake the worship, but are unwilling to really bend their own knee to such a rival power. They are unwilling to repent even though the Kingdom of Heaven is near (Matt.  3:2).

But, isn’t our king a different sort of king?

B. In his first coming, the Christmas horn is different to those in the Old Testament

The Old Testament creates the categories which prepare us for Jesus, but while fulfilling them, he also breaks out of them in surprising ways. When Jesus was anointed by God’s Holy Spirit, the animal symbolism was not that of an ox or ram horn raised above him with oil. Rather it was a dove, a symbol of gentleness, innocence, and dare I say, weakness. “Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild beasts; do not forget the life of your poor forever.” (Psa. 74:19 cf. Matt 10:16) At least in his first coming he came more as a dove than a rampaging bull.

Pull back the curtains of heaven, and you see that Christ does have horns, but he instead won the victory by dying in our place.

“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  (Rev. 5:5-6)

He had the strength, but used it differently to other kings.

C. The raising of the Christmas horn is key

The horn is not dropped on the ground, but raised up high. One consistent truth we have seen is that it matters who lifts the horn. Those who exalt themselves are the false pagan kings or hypocritical Israelites. On the other hand, almost every positive use of horn used of people in the Old Testament is accompanied by a variation of the verb, רוּם, (raised, exalted, lifted up etc..) and critically it is God who does that exalting. Zechariah proclaims that God has “raised up a horn of salvation for us” (Luke 1:69).

For Christ, even though the language of horn is not used very much, the language of being raised is certainly used repeatedly and often. So often the resurrection of Jesus is linked to his Davidic ancestry (Rom. 1:4; 2 Tim 2:8; Rev. 5:5-6).

And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ (Acts 13:32-34)

When the bulls and wild oxen surrounded Jesus on the cross, their horns may have temporarily triumphed, but one horn was exalted. The one promised to David, God’s people now sing about today.

D. The Hallelujah Chorus crescendos in the horn that God has raised

Psalm 148 is the the Hallelujah Psalm. The first half calls everything in the heavens to praise the Lord; and the second half calls the earth and everything in it to respond with the same adoration (Psa. 148:1-6,7-13). The final verse focuses on the people of God. Their praise is focused on the horn that God has exalted.

The pattern is:

  1. Praise God from heaven (148:1-6)
  2. Join that praise of God from earth (148:7-13)
  3. Especially, God’s people praise him for the horn he has raised up (148:14)

He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 148:14)

That last verse of the Psalm is actually the closest in language to the prophecy of Zechariah. The angels proclaim glory to God and peace on earth, but having seen their king, the Bethlehem ‘shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.’ (Luke 2:20). They praised God for the horn.

The heaven, earth and God’s people pattern is repeated at the second coming of Christ too.

(From heaven) After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out,  “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God… (Rev 19:1)

(Repeated from earthly creatures) And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who was seated on the throne, saying, “Amen. Hallelujah!” (Rev. 19:4)

(And joined in by God’s people, in the loudest possible way, rejoicing over Jesus, the lamb, the offspring of Jesse, the root of David) Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come … (Rev. 19:6-7)

My six-year old boy walked out to me on the balcony early in the morning and asked me what I was ‘researching’ on my computer. His words, not mine. ‘The horn God raised up at Christmas’, was my reply. He smiled and said one word, ‘Reindeers’. I said in reply, ‘No. Jesus is the horn’.

My little boy has thrown a spanner into my earlier assertion. Maybe we do use horns, or at least antlers in our decorations. In Australia they are everywhere. On sizzling hot days, people wear reindeer hats and put antlers on their cars.

However that is not what Zechariah is saying. A great power has risen at Christmas, one who threatens others, similar to David, but breaking the mould. The horn of Christmas has come to bring salvation on those who are waiting for him, peace to those “with whom [God] is pleased” (Lk 2:14).

Next year in our family, I might put up a horn as a decoration, include it in our advent readings or even write a Christmas carol using this language. What rhymes with horn? Scorn, forlorn, first-born. Lot’s of good options, aren’t there?

But more than this, I won’t wait until next summer (here in Oz) to rejoice in the horn that God has raised up high. I spoke the Saturday before Christmas on the Hallelujah Psalm that looks forward to Christmas. May that word bless you too. Until we join the great Hallelujah chorus at the final judgement, every day remains a day to rejoice, like Zechariah, in Christ, the horn of Christmas.

For further reflection
Two of my sermons have come from this article (and are hopefully a bit more accessible).

  1. Psalm 148 – Praising God (a week before Christmas) – video
  2. The Three Kings of Christmas – about the rivalries of Christmas (preached on Christmas Day)

O = Outwit, Outplay, Outlast! Hebrew Women are Survivors.

Watch a woman give-birth, a mother stand-up for her child, a widow quietly undergo hardship, and you will see a strength, dignity and endurance of a different type to men. Not better, just different. On average, men can bench-press more, fight wars for national protection, and engage in riskier professions, but women are the survivors.

Post-modern history teachers tend to obscure this plain truth. In almost every society, in any age, the same story rings true. When under intense threat men may carry the weapons, but, with greater urgency, women will carry the babies from the spears, scimitars or the attack-helicopters of the invaders. Evolutionists and biblicists hold the same truth, externally communities depend on men for protection, but on women to be knit-together and to protect the weakest and most vulnerable members of that society. In families and churches, some men stand-up as leaders, but almost all women pass-on traditions, maintain healthy patterns, and keep things going.

In the pre-Exodus days, Pharaoh might have been scared of the Hebrew male, but little did he know, that the female of the species would be his undoing. These women outwitted, outplayed and outlasted the king of Egypt three times. First, with the full cooperation of men, and then twice entirely without male help at all.

Moses might have been the saviour, but the Hebrew women were the survivors and preservers. These women frustrated the supreme Egyptian monarch’s three strategies of destruction: labour camps, forced terminations, and the final solution. Let their works receive praise at the city gate, Christian home and history books (Prov. 31:31). And let men join in that praise.

1. Outlast: the fertility response to harsh slavery and labour camps

When a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph and his family’s nett blessings, he only saw their size and power and tried to subdue them, “lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land” (Ex 1:10). Heavy forced labour and bitter ruthless slavery only had the opposite effect.

… the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. (Ex. 1:12)

The Creation mandate and Abrahamic promises are brought together in a way reminiscent of the  story of Jacob whose promised seed would increase and spread abroad (Gen. 1:28; 16:10; 28:3,14). Oppression was intended to control the numbers, but instead it increased them. Even this mistreatment was in God’s plan (Gen. 15:13). Whether we read this increased fertility as active obedience or a passive blessing received, women and their creation role are front and centre. The Egyptians tried to bring an even greater curse on the work on the Israelites, and God brought greater blessing in their childbearing.

2. Outwit: health professionals lie to prevent government-forced terminations

Midwives were meant to help women in their most vulnerable state. Pharaoh ordered them to betray both their vocation and the creation-inclination of their sex. These medical professionals broke the law of the land rather than perform postpartum gender-based terminations.

“When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birth-stool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. (Ex. 1:16-17)

Two midwives, in particular, were singled-out. Like the much later sisters, Betsy and Corrie ten Boom, who hid Jews in WW2 from Nazis, Shiphrah and Puah lied to save the lives of those under their care.

So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (Ex. 1:18-19)

Most Bible discussions flounder about in an ethical minefield created in the passage. But this minefield is only one created from the comfort of a cosy office computer or comfortable lounge-room discussion. These women feared God; and God approved of their actions. They were not baby-killers.

“So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.” (Ex 1:20-21)

These are real heroes in the story. For the next eighty years, they would be the only named people who could stand up against Pharaoh, survivors waiting for a saviour. They certainly out-wit him. Unlike Moses they did not doubt their ability to speak to great king. I, for one, am looking forward to meeting these great ones in the kingdom of heaven.

Shiphrah and Puah when they tricked Pharaoh and saved the babies, didn’t have children, wealth or freedom, but they were Proverbs 31 women nonetheless.

“Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” (Proverbs. 31:30)

3. Outplay: Moses’ Ark made, protected and opened by women

What the king feared did not happen. He had targeted the wrong sex. There was no male uprising, neither after the harsh labour, nor after the order given to the midwives.

Even in the final solution when Pharaoh commanded his whole people to kill Hebrew boys, no men rose against him (Ex. 1:22). The only ones standing up to him were women, and great ones at that, a mother, a sister and the daughter of Hitler too.

Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him. (Ex. 2:1-4)

The word translated here twice as “basket” is used twenty-five other times in the Hebrew Bible, only ever referring to Noah’s ark, which was was also covered in water-proofing pitch (Gen. 6:14). The parallel is very strong. The hopes and fears of all their years was placed in this little box that day. In a sense they were literally keeping Pharaoh’s order that all boys be thrown into the Nile, but they gave him a life-raft.

The mother was the principle human-agent in hiding the baby, protecting him, and building the basket. She could have been killed for doing it. And Moses’ big sister was so brave, so wonderful and so quick-witted to complete the circle, and bring the boy back to his mother, who would act as his wet-nurse (Ex. 2:7-10). I have seen big sisters do really special things for little brothers. Yesterday, my little girl, on her own initiative covered her little brother in a blanket when all the other males in the room didn’t notice that he’d even fallen asleep on the couch. If this sister is indeed Miriam (and we are never told), then it does provide depth to our understanding of her later character.

The surprise in the story is the Princess of Egypt. She defies the king, her father when she found the basket. Knowing full-well his ethnicity, this is the first use of the verb ‘to pity’ in the Bible.

When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” (Ex. 2:6)

The Sydney Jewish Museum has many rooms outlining the Holocaust and one of those rooms is in honour of the thousands of “Righteous Gentiles” who helped them escape or survive. At its roots, the original “Righteous Gentile” would be this woman.

God’s plan would take another 80 years to accomplish and a man would stand up for God against another man, but it was women who made it all possible. One to put him safely in the river, one to walk beside and another to draw him out.

Here are a few reflections:

A. Don’t stand between women and children

Even in the animal realm, a mother will do anything to protect her own. From bears to Hebrew mothers, such care is proverbial.

  • they are enraged, like a bear robbed of her cubs in the field (2 Sam. 17:8)
  • I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs (Hos. 13:8)

The best defenders of children have often been women. Many more women than men are drawn to jobs and industries that teach and protect the youngest human beings. This is not a social-wrong that needs to be fixed, but perhaps a biological inclination that is created and blessed by God.

There is something amazing in the Exodus story. It is not just the mothers who save children. Two are midwives, one a sister and one the daughter of the enemy. Pharaoh tried to do the unnatural and turn women against children, and I’m sure many were weak and played their part in his evil plan. But others did not. I’m searching for a word that means ‘manly’ for women. There should be one. Their strength, determination and compassion was womanly.

Pharaoh placed an evil wedge between women and their male offspring. Where he failed, it seems that modern ideology has succeeded. And we weep.

Aggressive modern feminism elevates the right for a mother to throw her child into the nile river as a core undeniable axiom. Many women do oppose this. Rather than being treated as traitors of their sex, they should be praised.

B. Sight matters

They lived by faith and sight. Their decisions were all based on sight. There is something beautiful about a baby’s face, his little body, her toes and those adorable rolls of fatty thighs.

In Moses’s case there was something else amazing. We see the artists drawings of him looking wise, impressive, an old man slightly balding with a beard that would make Abraham Lincoln proud. We have no idea what he looked like, but as a child we are told that there was something about him that made his mother risk her life and the princess love him as her own. Notice how much sight mattered.

  • (Of Moses’ mother) when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. (Ex 2:2)
  • (Of the Egyptian Princess) she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him. (Ex. 2:6)

Moses didn’t just have a face that only his mother (and step-mother) could love. The New Testament shows the affect he had on his earthly father and heavenly one too.

  • By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. (Heb. 11:23)
  • At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. (Acts. 7:20-21)

I wonder whether the increase in ultra-sound technology will turn the tide. Women see their baby, not a generic baby, but one with its own beautiful feet, hands and heart. Some medical professionals may grow numb to this, but many see and know. Even imperfections can be beautiful. I have wept when I have seen my own children for the first time – both on the screen and with my own eyes.

When we say we live by faith, we mean faith in God above, but we certainly live by what we see in front of us too. Maybe we could borrow a prayer from Elisha when we pray for our medical fraternity and governments who hold the power of life and death, and families who struggle to love their babies. “O Lord, please open their eyes so that they can see?”  (2 Kings 6:17)

C. The eternal struggle between the woman and the serpent is played out in history

[God, to the serpent] “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen. 3:15)

While we see this ultimately fulfilled in Christ and his people, the warfare reaches its first crescendo in the story of the Exodus. Satan rages against the children of the women; and the women defend their offspring.

The king of Egypt stood in the line of Satan’s seed, doing his father’s bidding. Egypt and Pharaoh are likened to serpents in the Old Testament. Isaiah calls Egypt the sea-monster, Rahab. “Awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?” (Is. 51:9) God also names a later Pharaoh, “the great dragon that lies in the midst of his streams (Ez. 29:3). These kings of Egypt were murderers and destroyers, just like their father, the devil.

It would be the seed of the woman, Moses, who would deliver them from this monstrous foe, but in the fight the women do anything to protect their children.

In the great apocalyptic vision of the apostle John, we see a picture of this eternal struggle, painted with the colours of the Exodus and applied to Jesus.

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. (Rev. 12:1-6)

The agony of childbirth, the fear and terror, the murderous breath of the dragon trying to kill the son will all be transformed into glorious memories and scars that shine to the praise of God’s grace, when the saviour finishes his work. This is true in Christ and in Moses. Mary had to flee from Herod wanting to kill her baby and had to see the Romans bastardise him on the cross. Moses’ mother had to make a hiding place and, if she’d lived long enough, seen him flee as an exile himself. But in this struggle, the serpent’s head will be crushed, even though he rages so much against the woman and her offspring.

D. In this struggle, godly women are often the preservers of society, especially when waiting for a saviour

Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (2 Tim. 2:15)

This is one of the most controversial verses in the whole New Testament, made more so because of  a shift in culture that tries to avoid distinctions between the sexes. Whatever this verse means to us, and to women today, this resonates profoundly with the Old Testament narrative arc.

The people were saved through procreation, from Eve to Sarah, and from Hannah to Bathsheba. In the Exodus, the future generations were their only hope. When oppressed by the new Pharaoh, it was their procreation that gave them a future. Shiphrah and Puah, who didn’t have their own children at the time, were saved through child-bearing.  Moses’s mother, sister and all the women and men of Israel were saved through a son who was born.

It is a New Testament truth too that the world was saved through the birth of Mary’s baby.

However it is also a way of life. A pattern that many godly women of the past and present have done, being unashamedly women. The curse was in the blessing; and they were enduring the curse and redeeming the original blessing. Continuing in childbearing with faith, love, holiness and self-control describes so much of Old Testament female spirituality.

When God is delivering his people and raising up a saviour, it is often the women who are doing their part, ready, waiting, protecting and preserving – raising families whether their own biologically or spiritually.

We’ve seen this already in the story of the Exodus, and I’ve noticed it in Judges. Go through and list all the men and their accompanying flaws; and then do the same with the women. I only found one or two men whom I’d like to emulate, but I could not find fault with a single one of the Hebrew women (I don’t think that Delilah was one of God’s people). The Israelites were meant to enter the land physically, but the land entered them spiritually. While the men often seemed to do what was right in their own sight many of the women keep serving the Lord.

I speak anecdotally here, but many agree, and have seen the same in churches. It is the prayers of grandmothers, the witness of female scripture teachers, the consistent service of godly widows and the daily Bible reading of mothers that has had kept the churches alive, even in the periods of greatest spiritual droughts. For every new Timothy to stand in leadership, there is a Lois and Eunice behind the scenes. For Moses, there was a mother, a sister, a princess and perhaps even a midwife who didn’t obey the government’s instruction to have him killed.

E. Godly women deserve their praise

Not all women should be praised. Horrific women have been involved in terrible crimes. And it’s all the more tragic when it involves attacks on the weakest and most vulnerable.

However, godly women deserve their praise. The women of Israel, and in particular the midwives, mother and sister of Moses should be praised. When the serpent was out to destroy, they preserved the people even in the midst of slavery by having more children, against murder by their own fear of the Lord, and against genocide by protecting the special gift God entrusted to their care. When we tell the story of Moses, do not forget the women.

I, for one, love to sing the praises of my wife, my mother, my mother-in-law. Even in the last year, I have delighted in the stories of Amy Carmichael’s and Gladys Aylward who saved children from horrific temple prostitution, starvation and invading armies. Who knows what stories the next generation will retell about the women of our time?

Remember men, that Proverbs 31 was written for you, telling you what do to do and value.

Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all. Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. (Proverbs 31:29-31)

N = Nebuchadnezzar, will I see you in heaven?

My family loves Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), a triple-win, big-family congeniality and clean humour, all served-up Steve Martin’s wit. One scene stands out, where he, the stressed-out and guilty father, has to perform an impromptu funeral for his oft-forgotten son’s favourite pet.

“Beans was a good frog. He was, uh, not like a lot of the bad frogs…you hear about today, all hopped up. He was loveable. He was almost human. He was like, uh, one of the family. Except that, of course, he was green and he ate flies. But he was a hopper. He hipped and he hopped. He loved hip-hop.”

Nebuchadnezzar was no Beans. In the Bible’s story, this Babylonian king had one of the most remarkable personal turn-arounds in the whole Old Testament. But he was not one of God’s people; he was their chief captor. If someone asked you to give him a eulogy, what would you say?

“Nebuchadnezzar started off as a bad king, he became a good king. He wasn’t like those other kings you hear about who never humbled themselves. At times he killed and burned. At other times he bowed and he kneeled. For his arrogance, become like an animal and ate grass. But by the end, he lifted his eyes to heaven.”

Eulogies suppress the horrific and highlight the best. In Nebuchadnezzar’s case, now ancient history, there is not much to be gained by praising him, nor burying him. But, can we ask a dangerous question?

Jesus preached about heaven and hell, eternity with God’s blessing, and eternity with God’s judgment. What is the fate of Nebuchadnezzar? Will we  see him at the great banquet with our Lord Jesus Christ, and all who trusted in him?

Nebuchadnezzar, will I see you in heaven?

1. Before we think about Nebuchadnezzar particularly, is it ever right to ask this question?

There are perhaps three immediate objections that my imagined reader might have. I have sympathy for the first two, but find the third one unreasonable.

A. God is the judge, we should never ask that question.

There is a lot of wisdom in this, particularly when someone dies who has never made a clear profession of faith. However, in the New Testament, even though Christians do not know definitively the hearts of their departed brothers and sisters, they could, and should, say to each other with confidence that if they died in the Lord, they would rise (1 Cor. 15:22-23; 1 Thess. 4:16). We will proceed with caution and acknowledge that we are not God. We can only stand on his promises.

B. It’s not a question the Bible raises, therefore we might not find an answer.

Nebuchadnezzar is not mentioned in the New Testament, neither as a model of faith nor someone who will be with Christ in eternity. To me, this holds a lot a weight. We might reach the end of our investigation without certainty congruent to our curiosity. However, since Daniel, the great book that we’ll examine, begins with the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s possible conversion (1-3) and finishes with the clearest Old Testament passage about the general resurrection of the dead (12), we might be able to say something.

C. Nebuchadnezzar is presented as a cartoon character, not a historical person.

Both liberal academics and dismissive Bible readers tend to treat the King of Babylon as a two-dimensional literary foil, a theological point rather than a person. I disagree. The New Testament treats Daniel, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego as historic examples of lived-out faith for others to follow (Heb. 11:33-34). Likewise, internally in the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar is presented as model for the next king, Belshazzar. His repentance was a rebuke to his successor.

2. Bearing this in mind, we need to know, will anyone from the Old Testament be in heaven?

When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, he promised paradise, and a new home (eg. Matt. 5, Lk. 23, Jn. 14). His death and resurrection dealt with sin and judgement so that the gospel could hold certain hope for eternity. But was that promise backdated? Could eternity be given to those in the past?

Jesus answered with a strong affirmative. Patriarchs, prophets and Old Testament people of faith will join his followers in rejoicing and banqueting with the Lord. Jesus warned hearers against missing out on this Biblical-theological reunion.

In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.  (Jesus. Lk. 13:28-29 cf. Luke 16:22)

Elsewhere the New Testament addresses this question from different angles. Old Testament believers, as much as New, will be part of the Eternal Kingdom.

  • The cross justifies those past, present and future who trust in God’s promise (Romans 3:21-26).
  • God has prepared a heavenly city for all those died in faith before Christ (Heb. 11:13,16).
  • God’s plans, for them, was only to be completed when New Covenant believers are fulfilled in Christ (Heb. 11:39-12:2).

So we must ask if Nebuchadnezzar was a believer?

3. But wasn’t Nebuchadnezzar incredibly wicked?

Yes. Absolutely, as we all are.

But, wasn’t he uniquely wicked, the instrument of God’s judgement on the people of Judah?

In the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar’s evil is not white-washed. His army besieged Jerusalem twice and took captive the best of those who remained in the land (Dan 1:1). He was the principle antagonist in the Babylonian Captivity. If Jerusalem, like Christ, was handed over to the Gentiles, was mocked, spat on, suffered and crucified, Nebuchadnezzar was the Pilate of the story.  He stole all the precious articles from the temple and placed them in pagan temples (Dan 1:2; 5:2-4). His hubris knew no limits, he built a statue to himself and threatened to kill anyone who wouldn’t bow down and worship it (Dan 3:1-7)!

If anyone fell foul of the Abrahamic and Balaamic curse, surely it was he. “Blessed are those who bless you [Israel], and cursed are those who curse you.”” (Numbers 24:9; cf. Gen 12:3) If God judges people in the New Testament by their reception of Jesus, in the Old Testament, he judges them by their treatment of the men and women of his covenant. And Nebuchadnezzar sins intensely, destroying their city, robbing God’s temple, taking away their freedom and forbidding true worship.

But, there are signs of conversion in Nebuchadnezzar.

4. Was Nebuchadnezzars’ repentance genuine? Was he a genuine believer?

When the four Jerusalem youths arrived to serve Nebuchadnezzar, he was impressed with their wisdom and understanding (Dan. 1:20). As the story develops, three mind-shifts overcome Nebuchadnezzar, each with an accompanying confession to the power of their God.

A. After Daniel revealed the meaning of his dream, Nebuchadnezzar’s paid homage to him personally and proclaimed the greatness of his God (Daniel 2).

Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him. The king answered and said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.” Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. (Dan. 2:46-48)

B. After Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were saved from the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar offered complete protection for worship of their God (Daniel 3).

Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.” Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon. (Daniel 3:28-30)

C. Nebuchadnezzar’s third confession:  now it’s personal (Daniel 4)

The enthusiastic reader shouldn’t be over-excited about Nebuchadnezzar’s first two confessions. They were fake and flimsy. Praising Daniel’s God was meaningless if he would later build a statue of himself for state-imposed worship. Proclaiming protection was as much a personal-conversion experience as a modern state allowing religious liberty or preference to a minority group.

But Daniel 4 presents the Bible’s last word on Nebuchadnezzar.

What he learned this time around is deeply personal and his praise has all the hallmarks of being real. Chapter 4 is Nebuchadnezzar’s letter, his will and testimony to a pagan world. Isn’t it amazing that a chapter of the Bible is essentially written by a man who destroyed Jerusalem?

King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you! It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me. How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation. (Dan. 4:1-3)

Nebuchadnezzar recounts his conversion experience. Having received a dream and warning from God against arrogance, Nebuchadnezzar mocked heaven, by praising his own majesty and the glory of his building achievements (Dan 4:30). God kept his warning and this King of Babylon was thrown out of his own self-exalting paradise by God, only to become a degraded animal. In language reminiscent of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Nebuchadnezzar wouldn’t acknowledge his creator, so God handed him over to a debased mind and lifestyle (Rom 1:21-22). But then in humility, he turned to God and a gift from his creator, was transformed by the the renewing of his mind.

At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; (Daniel 4:34)

The earlier thin-proclamations refer to God as the God of Daniel or his three companions, but this chapter speaks of God as the Most High, King of Heaven (Nebuchadnezzar: Dan. 2:47; 3:28; Darius: Dan. 6:26).  Read by itself, Nebuchadnezzar’s final sentence, speaks loudly as a personal, real acknowledgement of sin and of God’s righteousness.

Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble. (Dan. 4:37 cf. Moses and the Lamb’s Song in Deut. 34:4 and Rev 15:3-4)

Are we too easily fooled by this? Is the King of Babylon a charlatan or a just a pagan voice-box, like Balaam and his ass?

What God thinks is more important than what we do.

5. Did God regard regard Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance as genuine and permanent?

There is strong evidence within chapter 4 that God regarded Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance as genuine. He judged the powerful, but arrogant ruler; and saved the wretched but humble beast. He would not have restored the Babylonian kingdom unless he acknowledged that heaven ruled (Dan. 4:26).

But couldn’t Nebuchadnezzar have just as easily turned away from God like he had done before? I think not. The next story rules this out.

The heir continued his father’s arrogance and sin, but he did not have his own ‘road from Babylon’ experience. The writing was on the wall for Belshazzar. He should have learned the lessons from the very recent past past. Nebuchadnezzar’s personal conversion is treated as history and is an extra basis for his son’s condemnation.

O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father kingship and greatness and glory and majesty. […] But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was brought down from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him. He was driven from among the children of mankind, and his mind was made like that of a beast, and his dwelling was with the wild donkeys. He was fed grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will. And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven. (Daniel 5:18,20-23)

Unlike Nebuchadnezzar, God weighed his Belshazzar’s kingdom and found it wanting, ready to be judged and divided up (Dan. 5:24-27). God saw something different in his father. If only he had followed in his repentance. Would God through Daniel have pointed to Nebuchadnezzar’s learnt humility if he didn’t regard it as genuine?

6. Nebuchadnezzar, Confession and Salvation: Daniel 7 and 12

A. Confession and Daniel 7

Nebuchadnezzar’s final testimony must be read in context of the rest of the book of Daniel. What he confessed about God, in chapter 4, is so incredibly similar to what is revealed in the later visions, of Daniel 7. Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that God is the only king-maker and kingdom establisher, and Daniel 7 demonstrates God dealing with the kingdom, and creating his own that will last.

Interestingly, Daniel 7 is set in the first year after Nebuchadnezzar’s reign ends, when a new king who doesn’t acknowledge God ruled (Dan. 7:1). Two very tight points of comparison present themselves:

  • Nebuchadnezzar’s testimony and Daniel’s first vision use almost identical words. Nebuchadnezzar proclaimed that God’s “dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:34).  In the vision, when the Ancient of Days gives his power over to one like a Son of Man, the authoritative voice says that “his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:14). Nebuchadnezzar’s language is almost verbatim to what God says.
  • The names for God are also identical. Nebuchadnezzar’s calls God, “the Most High”, the same name that both Daniel and the angelic interpreters consistently use in chapter 7 (Dan. 4:1,34; Dan. 7:18, 25, 27). This weakens a potential argument based on God’s name. Yes, Nebuchadnezzar didn’t call out to God’s personal, covenantal name, the LORD, but he did invoke the name for God that Daniel taught and used himself (Dan. 4:23-25). Could this perhaps be the name, by which, God relates to the kingdoms around him?

Perhaps then, Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion in chapter 4 presents itself as a role-model for what would happen in the future in chapter 7. He calls on the same name of God with almost the same proclamation as the divine voice. “Peoples, nations and languages” would serve the Ancient of Days and his appointed king (Dan. 7:14).

Was Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion a flesh-and-blood down-payment to show Daniel and his readers that God could be trusted to keep his promises? If the greatest king of his time could turn in history, then nations might in God’s future eternal plans. If the man who destroyed Jerusalem could serve the God whose name he blasphemed, then the Most High’s plan to call nations to faith and obedience makes sense.

B. Salvation and Daniel 12

But I have hidden a vital piece of evidence, something very important. Nebuchadnezzar was never promised eternal salvation. Even in obedience, he was only promised God’s blessings in his earthly life and rule.

Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.” (Dan. 4:27)

At his repentance, his reason, glory, majesty and splendour was restored and “still more greatness was added to me.” (Daniel 4:36). There is no hint, or mention of any greater salvation beyond the grave. What he was promised, he was given. Nothing more is said.

But before we push this too far, the same is true of Daniel and most Old Testament saints. He is nowhere promised eternal life, heaven or anything beyond the grave. All the blessings he receives in the narrative are honours, protections and promotions—that is, until the the end of the book. The last chapter makes me most wonder, not just about Daniel, but also Nebuchadnezzar.

But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.” (Dan. 12:1-4)

A few observations about this prophetic word:

  • God’s future plans are about a general resurrection. Some will go to a blessed life and others to everlasting shame.
  • The certain promise is only for the people of the covenant. The children of Abraham are on view, ‘your people’ as the passage maintains. Others nations are not mentioned.
  • God’s judgement book is not open for us to read. Likewise, this whole vision was to be sealed up, waiting for fulfilment.
  • However, the clear promise of everlasting life is for the wise and those who turn many to righteousness. While this certainly applies to future generations, presumably the example of these traits up to this point, par excellence, is Daniel, wise and the one who has turned people to righteousness.

But who has he turned to righteousness? Moving backwards, Darius is somewhat affected by his witness, Belshazzar doesn’t learn at all, but one king does turn to God and acknowledge the righteousness of all God’s ways as his final word (Dan 6,5,4). Could Nebuchadnezzar be one of those who have been turned?

7. Are there any other parallels in the New Testament?

Is Nebuchadnezzar a real convert and inheritor of eternal salvation or is he just a model for those from the nations who would genuinely accept God? Is he a visual aid or an heir of heaven?

For this we return to the New Testament and examine key parallels that Jesus mentions. Two other pagan examples stand as warnings against the unbelieving Jews of his day. Christ mentions those of the Assyrian capital who turned to God; and the Queen of Sheba who sought God’s king.

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Jesus. Matt. 12:41-42)

The parallels are so tight with Daniel 12, the clearest Old Testament passage about the general resurrection from the dead, the judgement day that Jesus also speaks about. Furthermore, the original word describing the Ninevites rising (ἀναστήσονται) is exactly the same as the Greek of Daniel 12 describing the rising (ἀναστήσονται) of all those asleep (Matt. 12:41; Dan. 12:2).

Jesus is very close to saying that the Ninevites will rise to life. But the nature of metaphor doesn’t remove all doubt. However, he does say that they will stand as a witness against the current generation who won’t repent. Remember that the men of Nineveh were only promised limited salvation against temporal judgement, but their repentance has an effect that continues to speak for eternity.

Is Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance similar?

8. So, what can we say?

I began this discussion comparing Nebuchadnezzar to a dead pet in a family movie. In my first thinking, I must admit, that I thought that there was as much chance for the Old Testament Pilate—the destroyer of Jerusalem, the builder of the self-aggrandising idolatry and the totalitarian oppression—to be be saved eternally as there would be for a fictional frog.

But as I write, I’m not so sure. Universalism and wishful sentimentality are both thoroughly opposed in the Bible.  But if we take God’s word seriously, Nebuchadnezzar was a genuinely broken believer in the Most High God.

He wasn’t promised eternity, and he may not be given it. But he did humble himself before the Lord and repent as almost no other pagan leader in the whole Old Testament.

If God’s purpose with Pharaoh was to harden his heart, God’s transformational heart-work in Nebuchadnezzar was for humility and a confession that God is the true ruler. While the king of Babylon didn’t cast his crown voluntarily before the Lamb, he did have it removed so that he would acknowledge the source and right of all power on earth.

Whether or not Nebuchadnezzar will sit with the patriarchs, prophets, Jesus and all his followers, we do not know and I will not say. But I would not be surprised, if he was. And the history of the world will look very different when viewed from eternity.

Can we use Jesus’ parallel? If so, then Nebuchadnezzar will rise as a testimony against all great ones who claimed to be God’s people but didn’t acknowledge the king of heaven.

He stands as a warning against arrogant presidents who don’t think they ever need forgiveness and toward self-made Australians who think they have created all their own lives. Learn from Nebuchadnezzar.  “O kings, be wise; be warned O rulers of the Earth” (Ps. 2:10).

M = Mining is a massive blessing from God

A young teacher sits in a classroom and enthusiastically tells the kids how bad mining is for our world. The students all agree and post about it on Facebook. That teacher sits on a chair with metal legs, and a seat made of plastic, derived from petrochemicals. On her desk rests a reusable coffee cup, filled with locally brewed coffee, ground and extracted in a machine made of plastic and metal. The students recline at wooden tables, cut, manufactured, painted and transported using, you guested it, tools, treatments and fuel made of substances that have in some way been dug up. The computers and phones they all use, the building they sit in, and the fixed-gear bike the teacher rides home, speak a contradictory message to the well-worn pantomime that mimics education.

Everything that makes the civilised world work is in some way dependent on mining. Go to a hospital and receive treatment for cancer, a broken leg or dehydration and, all you see and experience, is made possible directly and indirectly from the wealth of the Earth’s riches. Eat food, live in a house, use refrigeration, go to a supermarket, flush a toilet, rely on clean sanitation and you should be saying thank you to the miners (and builders and engineers) who made it possible. Healthy drinking water is dependent on electricity, which regardless of whether it comes from coal, gas and nuclear comes from the ground. Even solar, wind and hydro-electric power stations are constructed from materials. Productive farming methods, from ploughs to combine harvesters, that give us freedom as a society for people to sit around and complain about mining, only exist thanks to what mining has given us.

I do not understand why some Christian people thank God for food and farmers, but not for the other blessings that come from beneath the top-soil. In past generations, preachers felt silenced about talking about sex. Today, if you mentioned the blessing of mining, you might be not be booed down, but you would be blogged against. There are obviously huge abuses of people and the environment in mining, but the activity and concept itself is as much a part of God’s good plan as farming. We shall see in what follows that mining is God’s idea and a good blessing for humanity.

1. Mining is God’s good idea for humanity from the Garden of Eden

God made the world perfectly good for humans and perfectly right for our flourishing. He didn’t put minerals, metals and petrochemicals in the Earth, hoping that people would not find them; and if they did that they would not use them. The paradise of Eden extended beneath the surface of the earth.

A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. (Gen. 2:10-12)

God saw all he made and it was very good (Gen. 1:31). In Eden, it’s not just the trees that are “good for food”, but also the the gold that is called the same (Gen. 2:9). The gold is good. But who would use it? Presumably people.

Good things can easily be distorted. But there is a tendency for Christian people to go even further, seeing parts of physical creation as inherently evil. When philosophical Neo-Platonism marries cultural Neo-Marxism, mining for fossil fuels, uranium and heavy metals is portrayed as evil.  Human hearts can abuse anything, but the created things themselves are good. Calling a good thing evil is a demonic teaching.

“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Tim. 4:4-5).

If Adam and Eve had lived in paradise long enough, they would have mined. Rather than destroying their Edenic state, it would have fulfilled their creation mandate. Mining was God’s idea for humanity.

2. Mining, together with agriculture, is God’s gift to his people in the Promised Land

“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.” (Deut. 8:7-10)

Moses described the land of Canaan as a new paradise. The goodness of that land is described, not just in her waterways and trees, but also an abundance of iron and copper. These metals are not ornamental, but are meant for humans to dig out of the hills.

Here we have a helpful and productive parallel between agriculture and mining. Both agriculture and mining are intended as gifts from God.

If God gives a gift, we should be thankful. If a church holds a harvest festival, why not thank God for our electricity and building materials? If we thank God for our food before we eat, why not thank God for the petrol that enables us to drive our cars? If we pray for farmers doing it tough, perhaps we can also pray for miners who face equally isolated and difficult conditions. We tend to beatify one industry and demonise the other. Instead both are blessed by heaven and equally ruined by human sinfulness.

Mining and farming can both be abused by raping the environment or exploiting the poor for the sake of the very rich. The Old Testament doesn’t warn against bad mining practices, but the prohibitions against wicked farming practices then apply equally to mining now: not paying workers or giving them breaks (Lev. 19:13; Deut 5:12-15); robbing other people of their land (1 King 21; Deut. 27:17); and perhaps even overworking the land (Lev. 25:4). If it’s a gift it must used with respect. The prayer book raises this concern for justice in farming and mining.

Give wisdom to those in authority in every land, and give to all peoples a desire for righteousness and peace, with the will to work together in trust, to seek the common good and to share with justice the resources of the earth. (Common Prayer, 35) 

3. While the fruits of mining can easily distort our relationship with God, they are not rejected by God in true worship

The riches from the earth breed dangers that come from the human heart: greed and idolatry. Both turn the good gift into a god. Here are just some of the Old Testament warnings:

  • False security: “Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the LORD.” (Zeph 1:18)
  • False trust: “If I have made gold my trust or called fine gold my confidence, if I have rejoiced because my wealth was abundant or because my hand had found much … I would have been false to God above.” (Job 31:25,28)
  • False worship: “‘Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the LORD, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.’ (Deut. 27:15)
  • False praise: “And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honoured … And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. (Dan. 5:23,25)

However, the fruits of mining are still welcomed by God in true devotion. As dangerous as these riches can be, they are not eschewed in temple worship. God gladly received as gifts the mining products of the pagan city Jericho.

And they burned the city with fire, and everything in it. Only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD. (Josh. 6:24; cf. 22:8)

And while Solomon’s mines are not mentioned in the Bible, he must have had some sources to his great wealth. His father David gave greatly to the Temple project from the resources of the earth.

So I have provided for the house of my God, so far as I was able, the gold for the things of gold, the silver for the things of silver, and the bronze for the things of bronze, the iron for the things of iron, and wood for the things of wood, besides great quantities of onyx and stones for setting, antimony, colored stones, all sorts of precious stones and marble. (1 Chr. 29:2)

David’s view was that he was merely returning to God what is his own anyway. God was, as C.S. Lewis said, “six-pence none the richer”. This is the only way to treat a gift from God, whether we use it for his service directly or the good of our neighbour.

For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.  (1 Chr. 29:14)

Stones, precious metals and jewels were adorning features of the tabernacle, temple and even the breastplates of the High Priests, symbols of God’s beautiful provision to Israel and their extreme valuing of him (Ex. 35, 39). However even these symbols can, when used wrongly, become snare for human arrogance than results in a fall (Ez. 28:1,13).

4. Mining is used as an image for humanity’s search for wisdom

“Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold that they refine. Iron is taken out of the earth, and copper is smelted from the ore. Man puts an end to darkness and searches out to the farthest limit the ore in gloom and deep darkness. (Job 28:1-3)

Job 28 is worth its own study, describing humanity’s effort to mine as one of his ultimate achievements. No animal or bird digs so deep, swings in dark caverns and cuts through rocks, “overturning mountains by their roots.” (Job 28:4-11). Humanity alone goes to extreme limits to find the things that God has hidden.

However the greatest thing God has hidden we cannot fathom.Even though humanity can mine, God’s wisdom cannot be obtained by our human ingenuity and resourcefulness.

It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir, in precious onyx or sapphire. Gold and glass cannot equal it, nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold […] “From where, then, does wisdom come? And where is the place of understanding? It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air. […] And he said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.’” (Job 28:16-17,20-21,28)

Mining is a creation gift, but is certainly not the greatest thing we can find. The simple truths of fearing God and turning from evil are much more precious.

5. The New Creation is painted as if the mineral riches of Eden and Canaan were insignificant compared to what God had planned for those who love him

There might be copper in hills of Canaan and gold near the land of Eden, but the heavenly Jerusalem has gold as bitumen and onyx adorning the foundations of the walls. Her description is more luxurious than the temple itself.

The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx … (Rev. 21:18-20)

This is God’s idea and his gift to his people. New Jerusalem has rivers, trees and beautifully built engineering masterpieces. Old Testament prophecies speak in this language.

Instead of bronze I will bring gold, and instead of iron I will bring silver; instead of wood, bronze, instead of stones, iron. I will make your overseers peace and your taskmasters righteousness. Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise. (Isaiah 60:17-18 cf. Hag 2:7-9)

In the New Creation, the fruits of the earth, the gifts from the ground will be enjoyed with justice and peace. The gifts that God has placed in the earth will be used properly and for his sake. The end point of the Bible is not an unkept Eden, but as Eden was meant to be: inhabited and settled by humanity, dwelling in peace with God himself.

Mining, Solar Batteries and Us

Imagine if there was a way of storing the sun’s power for later use.

God created it. We call it wood. The Bible sees this as his gift to his people. Burning it provides warmth and light, releasing the stored energy.

But, imagine there was a way that the sun’s energy could be stored even more efficiently, for say, hundreds of years. We call it charcoal and peat. But what if there were other more long lasting, efficient and less polluting ways of storing this power? We call them coal, oil and gas. Humanity has leveraged from one form of power to the next, exploring more efficient and clean sources of energy, enabling us to pass from bronze and iron age, through the industrial revolution, to the use of plastic and electricity, and beyond.

If an Israelite chopped down wood and burned it on a fire, shouldn’t they thank God that their kids didn’t freeze to death? Of course they should.

Coal, which is much more efficient and less polluting than individual combustion stoves, means we can provide electricity, refrigeration and water purification, so that billions don’t die prematurely.  Shouldn’t we also thank God for the coal he placed for humanity’s use?

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be looking for other, even more efficient energy sources, but one thing we must not become: ungrateful. God has given us what we needed to provide unparalleled riches, agricultural advances and medical opportunities, as we keep seeking new ways of mining that are more equitable, less damaging and more beneficial to other people.

My opening picture of a teacher at school was a parody, but was it that far from the truth? We rightly want to oppose injustices and irreversible environmental damage, but sometimes throw out the basis of our modern society. We give people two polar options about mining: either big business exploitation or western civilisation self-hatred. The Christian approach should instead be thankfulness and seeking wisdom. More fruitful discussions should be about justice and better resource management. Schools should not be places of ignorance. Arguably, some places should certainly forbid mining, but that discussion is best premised on balancing competing goods. Individual mines and harsh practices should, at times be strongly opposed, but mining per se, which has been such a boon to humanity’s development should be acknowledged for what it has given us.

As adults we must not act like selfish and petulant children, ungrateful for the efforts of others and of our heavenly father’s provision. Most of us would be dead without the things we dig up from the earth.

Do you see mining as a necessary evil or a God-given good?

Mining was God’s idea. In the Garden of Eden and in the promised land it was a gift. Used wrongly, the moral and spiritual pitfalls far out-way even the most dangerous conditions in a shaft-mine. You can only die in a mine collapse, whereas the love of money and idolatry can take you to hell.

However, these resources are sanctified by thankfulness, the word of God and prayer if used for God’s glory and the good of other human beings. The love of money is a root of all evil. However, the Samaritan’s purse paid for a place at the inn, the widow’s copper coin was a demonstration of generosity, and tested gold becomes a pale illustration of faith under trial.

Even more, God’s future plans in the New Creation are presented physically as the result of unearthing hidden resources, richer than Eden, Canaan and the temple combined.

Even though mining is a massive creation blessing from God, there are so many ‘even-more-massive’ ones. Job spoke about true wisdom and Peter speaks about Christ, more precious than perishable materials dug from the earth.

… you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Pet. 1:18-19).

God is not as embarrassed about mining as 21st Century young Christians. After all, he invented it and gave it to us as we wait for the New Creation. There is an old industry slogan that points out our utter dependency: “What’s mined is yours”. Christians might say instead “What’s mined is hishe gives it to us to use wisely.”

L = Living Waters

O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water. (Jer. 17:13)

Kangaroo carcasses, spread on the side of the dirt road, and next to each lifeless heap, deep scratch marks. Recently returned from his outback trip, a friend painted this sensory picture of deadly thirst. Had we been there, we might have seen majestic animals wildly digging up the red dirt, desperately trying to find water.

This year, country New South Wales has endured one of the worst droughts on record. Cattle have been hand fed by desperate and despairing farmers. Sheep have been put down by the RSPCA. In alarming rates, farmers have sadly taken their own lives.

In spite of all this, here in Sydney, I can still water my lawn, take a daily shower, wash my dishes, and drink as much clean water as I desire. In big cities, we don’t know how good we have it. Hike, work on the land, or survive a natural disaster, and you always think about the supply levels of the most precious liquid on earth.

For the ancient Israelites, as for most people, clean, good water was the difference between life and death, riches or poverty, hope or despair. To describe God as the ‘fountain of living waters’ screams and shouts rather than whispers.

Humanity’s utter dependency on her Creator speaks a reassuring word to those going through hardship (Jer. 2:13; 17:13).  God is the only true reservoir in this spiritually arid world. When all other rusty taps only pour out dust, he pours out water, not just a refreshing drink, but the source of life itself. Like the kangaroos, cattle, sheep and farmers, we are dead without it.

Jesus picked up this Old Testament phrase,  ‘living water’, when he talked about creating such wells within believers lives (Jn. 7:37-39). He promised this water to a Samaritan Woman, and he promises it to us (Jn 4:7-15). While drinking afresh from his words, what difference will understanding their source make? Let us see. There are four different ways living water is used in the Old Testament.

1. ‘Living water’ is a very normal and common expression meaning flowing or fresh water

Before we over-theologise  ‘living water’ in every context, we must see that it is often an ordinary phrase. The ESV most commonly translates the two words, ‘living’ and ‘water’, as ‘fresh water’ (Lev. 14:5,6,50,51,52; 15:13; Num. 19:17. Other English Bibles also use ‘running water’).  In the well-digging narratives of Patriarchs there is another use of this expression.  Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water’ (Gen. 26:19; the NIV uses ‘fresh water’ and the KJV ’springing water’). These waters flow, are fresh and hence alive.

Acknowledging this ordinary meaning explains why the Samaritan Woman could respond so naturally to Jesus when he offered her a new source of ‘living water’.

“Sir,” said the woman, “You don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep. So where do You get this ‘living water’? You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are You? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and livestock.” (Jn 4:11-12).

2. A man can describe his wife as a well of ‘living water’ (Song of Songs 4:15)

A lover can describe his bride as as ‘a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.’ (Song. 4:15)

Fresh or running water would also work in this context. She satisfies his deepest longings and satiates his sensual thirsts, and vice versa. Like a well, she is not just for one drink, but for a lifetime. She doesn’t need to stray anywhere else, nor does he. A family’s well is their most important asset, likewise their embodied-covenantal expression in the marriage bed. This resonates well with Solomon’s warning, albeit using a different Hebrew phrase. “Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well … rejoice in the wife of your youth” (nb. Prov. 5:15,18; ‘moving water’ in Heb. rather than ‘living water’).

We must be careful to avoid importing every Old Testament use into each New Testament occurrence. However, Jesus’ shift in the conversation with the Samaritan from ‘living water’ to her current distorted sexual relationships with at least six men isn’t that strange. Many preachers quote a 20th Century poet: “I can’t get no satisfaction.” The Samaritan Woman is thirsty for actual fresh water and for human-to-human covenantal unity. But Jesus offers more than both of these needs combined. He offers God himself.

3. God is the oft-forsaken well of ‘living water’ (Jeremiah 2:13; 17:13)

The wicked men of Jerusalem who hated Jeremiah’s ongoing message of God’s judgement threw him into an empty waterless well (Jer. 38:6). The irony is not lost. They chose this to be Jeremiah’s prison, perfectly fitting for their crimes, not his. After all they had been rejecting their own water-filled well, and preferred cheap imitations.

“… my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. 2:13)

Even if translators had used ‘fresh’ or ‘running’ rather than the more theologically evocative and word-for-word, ’living water’, the same essential truth holds. God is the life-giving well, satisfying and sustaining life.

Our sinful human hearts never just reject God. We might not realise it, but our souls are made to thirst for God (Ps. 42:1). Therefore, to avoid insanity, emptiness and hopelessness, we manufacture other sources of meaning, significance and purpose to fill his place.

Many make or buy a carved figurine to worship, serve, and adore. However, worship of idols is not just a worship of God via a different object; it is an attempt to control the object of worship and use him, her, or it to mitigate the uncertainties of this life.

We worship: a Baal or Buddha idol for a better blessing or bonus at work; an Asherah or ancestor shrine for answered prayers about health; a Molech or Mary statue for more me-time. If even the most intellectual atheists can become practicing idolators, how much more the everyday-person who thinks they don’t need God. Deep soul-satisfaction is sought in having the appearance of a good family life, the most exotic stamps on our passports, or the most varied experiences with food, sex or exercise.

We thirst for some sort of water, and we create well-worn neuro-plastic pathway to those familiar broken cisterns of promise, falsely drinking some water-substitute that is not living-water.  God sees this problem as a double-sin, a sin of two movements. First rejecting God, then turning elsewhere for someone who seems like they are less demanding. The parallels with marriage and adultery are pretty apparent.

Jeremiah 17 speaks about the same truth.

 “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart, and on the horns of their altars, while their children remember their altars and their Asherim, beside every green tree and on the high hills, on the mountains in the open country.  … O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water. (Jer. 17:1-3,13)

Their sin was turning to different gods, other hopes, and false mirages. Their judgment would be severe for forgetting and forsaking the fountain of living water. Their sin is on record, indelibly written on their hearts and their places of religious safety. However their names will ultimately be written in the dirt, a sign of judgment.

Could this be what Jesus was communicating, when all the accusers came around to stone the woman caught in adultery? He twice bent down and started writing on the ground (Jn. 8:6,8). Was he writing down the accusers in the earth? (Jer. 17:13) I know that John 8:1-11 is not in the earliest manuscripts, but it is fascinating that only a few verses earlier in John 7:38, Jesus promises living waters.

Regardless, the truth of Jeremiah stands. Forsaking the source of life will mean being forgotten, and put to shame ourselves. Jesus warns about this waterless judgment more than anyone else (Lk. 16:24). And in contrast the new heavenly Jerusalem was all about an abundance of living water.

4. Jerusalem will be the source of ‘living water’ (Zechariah 14:8)

“On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter.” (Zech. 14:8)

The ancient city of Jerusalem did have an underground water-source, but had no outwardly flowing river. The Psalmist rejoiced in this truth.  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.” (Psalm 46:4)

But in the Messianic future, Jerusalem’s internal blessing was going to flow into the whole world. Ezekiel saw a vision of a renewed Jerusalem where water flowed from the threshold of the entrance to the temple. That trickle became a great river, headed east, bringing healing to the Dead Sea (Eze 47:1-12) .

Zechariah’s later prophecy progresses that vision further. He saw the river flowing both east and west, influencing not just the land of Canaan but the world further abroad, Mediterranean as well as the Eastern Sea (Zech. 14:8). Those living waters may have their source in the fountain opened for sin and impurity that we have looked at in a previous article (Zech. 13:1. F = Fountain of Water and Blood).

The waters flowing from Jerusalem are described as living. They will be life-giving fresh water. Is Zechariah also drawing from Jeremiah’s description of God as the fountain of living water? It is hard to say with certainty just from this Old Testament prophet, but when you see where the source of these living waters come from in Revelation, we are left without doubt. The water images of Eden, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah are brought together.

“Then he showed me the river of living water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the broad street of the city. The tree of life was on both sides of the river, bearing 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, and there will no longer be any curse.” (Rev. 22:1-3)

At the Festival of Booths, Jesus spoke of living waters to the people in Jerusalem. And what was said in Zechariah “of Jerusalem” he now applied to every believer’s heart.

Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:38-39)

There is so much here to pursue. Jesus is saying that the living waters are in fact the Holy Spirit; and that every individual believer becomes a source. How much does this colour the other theological uses of living water? If God is the fountain of living waters, God gives life by giving us himself.

As the promised rivers of living water were to come from Jerusalem, they would flow through people, moving from Jerusalem, not just into the land of Israel but the world beyond. The Jewish leaders thought Jesus was going to speak to the Greeks (Jn. 7:35). In a sense they were right and in another sense they were wrong. The living waters would flow out into the western sea, but through believers and the Holy Spirit going with them (Zech 14:8; Jn 7:38).

We could also pursue the cry of dereliction in John’s Gospel. “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” (Jn. 19:28) The trickle, which became a river came from the self-giving of the only One who always honoured and deserved God’s living waters. There are so many more avenues to explore.



Looking at the Old Testament uses of the phrase ‘living water’ provides colour and texture to the way the New Testament uses it, but also direct promises. It also opens up many other related themes.

Promised water is not just restricted to the phrase ‘living waters’. For instance, Isaiah calls people to “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Is. 55:1). Revelation echoes this truth. “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” (Rev. 22:17)

However, we have seen in the Old Testament that:

  • ‘Living water’ is a very normal and common expression meaning flowing or fresh water (Gen. 26:19; Lev. 14:5,6,50,51,52; 15:13; Num. 19:17)
  • A man can describe his wife as a well of ‘living water’ (Song. 4:15)
  • God is the oft-forsaken well of ‘living water’ (Jer. 2:13; 17:13)
  • Jerusalem will be the source of ‘living water’ (Zech. 14:8)

So when Jesus promises living water to the woman at the well, she thinks he is merely speaking about drinkable water, but he is speaking about a satisfaction that is beyond covenantal-sex or even receiving something from God. What all creation needs most is their creator. The promise of Jerusalem being the source of living water and the individual believer being a fountain of rivers find their synergy in the story of the spread of the gospel of Christ.

It’s not just kangaroos that die, with holes next to them. Five bedroom McMansions, streams of social media feed, impressive CVs, golf-handicaps, computer-game achievements, attempted relationships, (and even good ones) might be the futile holes we dig to find significance, security and purpose while denying our God. They barely remain in the dirt next to us. They can not give life eternal or connection with our Creator.

We need God’s living waters and must not turn from him.  With that picture in my head, I can’t but help to think of our Australian animals in times of severe drought. As the roo pants ‘for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.’ (Psa. 42:1-2)

K = Kill ’em all


1   “When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, 2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. 3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5 But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire. “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. (Deut. 7:1-6)

The Israelites were meant to be the hammers of God’s judgment on the abhorrent and violent behaviours of the existing nations of the promised land (Gen. 15:13-16; Lev. 18:24,27; Deut. 18:10-12). The passage before us does not focus on retribution, let alone theodicy, but on the Lord’s prophylactic against ongoing corrupting influences on his treasured people. 

There must be no skerrick in the land of its previous inhabitants, neither familial nor political alliances with them, and no evidence of their pagan culture, human sacrifices or shrine prostitution. Israel’s single-minded devotion mattered. The faith of unborn generations hung on their obedience.

While it might please some readers that the Israelites did not keep this command seriously, that belies something flaky in our Christian constitutions. We think the worst thing that can happen to someone is for them to die.  But there are many worse things, including turning one’s backs on God. The rest of the history of Israel lives out the heart-wish of many modern readers as Israel’s limp devotion to the Lord expressed itself in leaping between two opinions, syncretistically following others gods and forsaking their very own fountain of living water (Jeremiah 2:4-13). 

However, the predictions of what would happen if the Israelites were to disobey God in the conquest should evoke great pathos to those who love the Lord. Why didn’t the Israelites fear God rather than people?

Despite the ethical questions that may be raised in the believer, there are real application questions of the New Covenant. To what does this point for us? Is it a warning? And if so, of what kind? Jesus does not call us to conquer the land physically, but rather to take the gospel into all the world. Rather than God driving out the nations, we are a part of him gathering them in. Outside of Christ, I am nothing more than an idol-worshipping Canaanite.

Twenty years ago I had a busy week.  I had to prepare a youth Bible Study on Deuteronomy and a talk on Colossians 3 that I saw such a link. I’m sure it is just one of many. My preparation was cut in half since they fit together so beautifully.

  • Moses prepares the people on the edge of the promised land to live for God (Deut. 1-6)
  • Paul prepares God’s people for living in our heavenly existence at Christ’s right hand (Col. 3:1)

  • The victories of Israelites have been rehearsed (Deut. 2-3).
  • Christ’s victory on the cross is celebrated (Col. 2:9-15).

  • The Israelites were holy people belonging to the LORD (Deut. 7:6). 
  • All those in Christ are ‘God’s chosen ones, holy and loved’ (Col. 3:12).

  • Idolatry is explicitly forbidden for the Hebrews and was the focus of their demolition work (Deut. 4:15-24; 7:5).
  • Heart idolatry is in the target sights for Christians too (Col. 3:5; cf. 3:10).

The strongest link is perhaps the most challenging. Having seen God’s salvation, and preparing to enter God’s promised land, both of these two chapters, Deuteronomy 7 and Colossians 3 contain this command to ‘kill ‘em all’. No treaty, alliance or skerrick of sin should remain. 

5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming.  7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. (Col. 3:5-8)

What must be conquered is, at the same time ourselves, and not ourselves.  Who we used to be must be removed so we now live out what it means to be a people holy to the Lord, his treasured possession. The instruction is extreme, slaughter and complete destruction. If God didn’t want idolatry to be a snare for the people of the Old Covenant, how much more does he want us to kill what will turn our hearts away from single-hearted devotion to the Lord? 

While many readers arc up against God’s commands for the Israelites to kill and drive out the wicked inhabitants of Canaan, the New Covenant also challenges our modern Western sensibilities. The fixation is on authority, particularly to our own self-determination. People in our churches don’t mind obeying God’s truth when it what they wanted to do anyway, but to live seated with Christ, the killing will be intense. 

Like the Israelites, our danger is half-hearted obedience to this command. 

Some pornography has been removed, flirting toned down, some foul language has been curbed, some envy and covetousness has been dealt with. But just enough remains for us to return to when we are discouraged or tired of living God’s way. We look around and see our Christian neighbours are also just wounding sin, and so we reach a point of respectable comfort in sin.  As Augustine described it, we treat sin as a mistress to be locked up in a cupboard, hidden away to the prying eyes of others, but to be used when we need it. Rather we should put her out, throw out her phone number, and move house so she doesn’t know where we live. We should smash the mobile phone that has her contact info, and cut into pieces the sim card. Of course, I’m just paraphrasing Augustine. 

Yes, we have a new Moses. He brings us to the promised land now by faith, and one day we’ll see it in all its beauty. Don’t forget to be brutal with your sin, or it will be brutal to you. God’s command now is just as savagely important as it was then.

Our removal of sin is also a prophylactic against destroying our faith. We don’t want our history to be the same as that of Israel, do we? 

J = Jethro ‘destroying’ solo ministry

15 And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; 16 when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. (Ex. 18:15-18)

Moses’ feet had stood firm before the Lord, un-sandled and safe, his wobbly legs kept upright as he approached the throne of Egypt, his stomach un-retched at the stench and repulsive sight of boils, hail-damage, and widespread slaughter. His back was strong in leading the people, lifting the staff over the Red Sea; and unlike the hordes of Hebrews, he didn’t turn his neck back to the oh-so-delicious onions of Goshen.  He kept it towards Mount Sinai, the downpayment, and the promised land to come.

But early on the journey, it was Moses’ head that was almost completely undone, and that by the constant demands and needs of his people. Moses was in danger of ending his ministry with a whimper. And so am I. And so are all of us if we do not listen to the man who should be the ‘patron saint’ of all fathers-in-law, Jethro.

After bringing Moses’ wife and sons from stage left-behind, hearing all that had happened, ‘Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the LORD had done to Israel’ (Ex. 18:9).  But Jethro can’t believe what Moses is doing now, how he is ruling and adjudicating all their problems, ‘from morning till evening’  (Ex. 18:13). He wants to protect Moses from himself.

Jethro echoes something from the creation of the world. Just as God said it was not good for Adam to be alone in the ruling of the garden, so in redemption, Jethro says the same to the man ruling over God’s people. “Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” (Ex. 18:15) “What you are doing is not good.” (Ex. 18:17)

In its simplest form, we cannot and must not do things alone. Moses certainly couldn’t adjudicate all the disputes of a people upward of six hundred thousand men. How could he? 

And how do we pastor the hundred and fifty adults in our care? Or the youth ministry of sixty? But the answer is not merely delegation, at least, not lazy or foolishly applied. We need to feel the severity of the prognosis before we really take the medicine.

The damage is done to BOTH Moses and the people 

Most people in ministry hear a lot of about self-care and self-protection, but the greater motivation for a good leader is actually the welfare of the people under his or her care. The great shepherd taught us that greatness consistent in serving others, pouring out your own life, giving more (Mk. 10:43-35). Wasn’t this why Moses worked from 6am to 10pm every day: for the people’s sake? Isn’t that what causes so many bad practices in us too?

Moses’ drowning in his duties may have been well-meaning and selfless, and if so, it is Jethro’s words, “and the people with you” that make all the difference. Read the following verse with and without those words.  You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.” (Ex. 18:18) Without these words this might be dismissed as a nagging father-in-law, perhaps protective of his own family, loving of his son-in-law.

But this is a truth in all leadership. If you do not bring others along with you, you will not just hurt yourself, but you will damage the flock.  People will be exhausted by you; or me, trying to be a hero. They won’t come to anyone for prayer, for guidance, for instruction, for leading-to-Christ. Newcomers won’t be followed-up; the sick will lay in hospital beds unvisited, without the love and strength of Christian fellowship they need.

If a company only had their CEO answer each clients problem, although it might seem noble, grounded and humble, it will in the long-run either limit the business or annoy everyone. Picking up a phone only to hear waiting-music makes people less likely to ring again. Moses wanted to bring justice and do God’s will on earth, but because of his own selfless, but ineffective work, injustice reigned and he was going to self-combust. The only question was, whether the people would wear out first.

Jethro’s advice spelled out in detail 

Delegation is often done badly and Jethro was not calling on Moses do to that. Delegation did not mean that Moses would recline and watch Netflix, while others worked. Jethro gave advice that would shape Moses’ ministry and set the trajectory of the apostles and the early church.

1. Moses, you pray and teach

“You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do.” (Ex. 18:19-20) 

Moses was to give his best energy and focus to prayer and in instruction. And this was his lasting legacy. No doubt the daily debates about unsettled debts, wandering goats, or even the ‘they took my camping spot’ claims were important to their litigants, but this was not Moses’ focus. Moses had to warn and teach the whole body of Israel and represent the many to the one in prayer. He brings to the world the Ten Commandments and pleads for God to spare the people who turned their backs on him. The temporal needs of the crowds needed to be heard, but their eternal needs must not be forgotten.  

2. Moses, you appoint excellent, reliable and godly men to do the daily work 

“Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.” (Ex. 18:21)

Moses wasn’t called to appoint the closest Tom, Dick or Hezekiah.  Each must be “able”, literally “great” or “valiant men”, who treated God reverently, could be trusted with tasks and were free from financial temptations. This search must have taken time, and be undertaken carefully. Finding people to share the work might have taken him away from coal-face work, the immediate problems of the people, but it was was the only right long-term multiplying approach. Able people must combine right doctrine and worship and marry this with good proven character.

This is the third element of all Biblical ministry. Leaders not only pray and preach, they also appoint people who themselves will do exactly the same. But if the leader appoints unreliable or godless people, both the leader and the whole ministry will be submerged and hijacked.

3. Moses, you deal only with the biggest and hardest issues

“And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.” (Ex. 18:22)

The shared approach to judging does not mean that Moses removes himself from all decision making and adjudicating, instead, he particularly takes the hardest cases. Moses had to deal with the golden-calf, Korah’s rebellion and the Midianite problem (Ex. 32, Num. 16, 26). He didn’t throw hospital passes to his deputies, making his own life easier.  

Bible Study members should be there to help each other, the leaders have a pastoral role, but if the issue involves dangerous false teaching or serious marital infidelity these issues should be referred to the pastoral oversight team. Smaller issues should not clog up the pastor’s desk so that there is room and ability to deal with the bigger and more damaging problems.

4. Jethro’s Abiding Advice is multiplied in the Christian Church

I have already started drawing parallels with our ministries and churches, and for good reasons. Jethro’s advice is re-echoed throughout the New Testament in the early church. Almost every passage about the appointment of leaders resonates with the truths of the ancient priest of Midian. It is not good to do ministry alone, but the appointment of others must be done carefully.

The apostles were weighed down with the very important issues of daily distribution of meals for the most vulnerable in their community. But like Moses, they had to focus on prayer and preaching. And this was their legacy. The character of those they chose was vital.

“Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:3-4)

These deacons dealt with justice, resolving disputes, but the hardest issues of false teaching, including the council of Jerusalem, had to be taken by the apostles. 

The pastoral letters contain the same truths. Paul calls Titus and Timothy to deal with the most controversial doctrinal and pastoral issues, but for the daily running of the church it was essential the other reliable, local men are appointed (Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Timothy 3).

If Christian ministers try and do everything solo, they will without-fail injure themselves and their families, but they will also ‘certainly wear out’ the people whom they love(Ex. 18:18). These are not just possibilities, but absolutely guaranteed outcomes. You must listen to Jethro’s advice and give yourself to teaching and proclaiming Christ, appointing reliable people and yet still deal with the hardest issues yourself. And I must too.

It might be that you are not in leadership, but you can see someone sinking under the weight of their own good intentions. They are godly leaders trying to be selfless. Maybe you need to have a private good word with them. Change must take place not only for their sake, but for the sake of the people. Could you be a Jethro to them? This could be such a gift from an older person to someone younger. Remember that Moses was at this stage 80 years old and his father-in-law must have been even older.

Jethro’s promise of God 

But Jethro is not a management guru, a secular paragon of leadership with a Masters from the Midian Business School. The apostles also were not mere pragmatists. 

Jethro’s advice was pretty forceful and it needed to be. “Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you!” (Ex. 18:19). He saw God in it all. “If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.” (Ex. 18:23)  God’s presence would be with Moses and he would guide. Moses was promised that changing this would sustain him personally and lead to people extending to the people. There is something wonderfully integrated about this approach. When God gave Eve to Adam he blessed them together, and if Moses appoints the right people to rule with him, there would also be a blessing. 

Don’t forget what happened immediately after the apostles put this into practice. The “word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7) Why would we be surprised? 

Solo ministry got rekt by Jethro.

I = “I” in Psalms and Songs in the Old Testament

Back in the 90s, I recall a heightened interest in making sure that all church activities were corporate, and explicitly so. The Apostles’ Creed in some churches was modified from “I believe” to “we believe” and songs were judged poorly if they were not plural. That shibboleth only applied unevenly to new songs, since almost all of the safe favourite hymns were in the first person singular—Amazing Grace, I will sing the wondrous story, When I survey, Be thou my vision, Abide with me, And can it be?, How great thou art, It is well, Jesus paid it all. Even with these notable exceptions, “I, Me” and My” were out. “We, Us and Our” were ascendant. But over the last 20 years reality hit, and no one seems to care now. The Old Testament trajectory right from the beginning, and especially in the Psalms, conforms to this reality. The “I” is an essential part of corporate praise.

Israel’s First National Song of Praise Is “I” All Together

Having escaped the land of Egypt, crossed the Red Sea on drying-land, and witnessed Pharaoh’s cavalry divisions swept away in the torrent, the Hebrews sing. And they sing magnificently. It’s hard to picture the sheer scale of the scene. This is the Bible’s first recorded public hymn of praise.

Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.” (Ex. 15:1-2)

Notice how they *together* sing “I” so unashamedly. The Lord is “my strength” and “my song” and now “my salvation”. The cacophony of their terrible groans under the Egyptian slavedriver, and disharmony of their whinging against Moses and God for leading them into a dead-end, is transformed into a tune, in unison, celebrating their real saviour, God himself.  The exhausted octogenarian prophet and the better part of two million Hebrews can sing together of their own personal experience of God. What a moment to be savoured!

The first line, “I will sing”, contains an implicit promise of future and enduring praise to God. If only God had remained their song for their years wandering in the wilderness! Think how much grumbling would have been dispelled if they had just kept singing that same note. A later Psalm reflects on this.

“He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry, and he led them through the deep as through a desert …. Then they believed his words; they sang his praise. But they soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel.” (Psa. 106:9,12-13)

The same is true for us. Jesus is not just “our song” on Sundays between 10 and 11:15am, and even then only for the three, four, or eight times we get up to vocalise it. The devil’s whispers and our tendency to grumble would be muted if that song was also taken outside of the church meeting (Psa. 8:2; and Phil. 2:5-15). 

There are so many trajectories to follow with this first Israelite song. In many ways it lays the path for almost all subsequent theology of praise. But let’s reflect on a simple point. This first Israelite song makes abundantly clear that a group of us singing “my chains fell of, my heart was free” or standing affirming that “I believe in one God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” can at the same time be the most personal and corporate expression of our faith. They are not in opposition to each other. God himself becomes the song of the individual, and can (and I would add should) be expressed personally to God. This finds its resonant frequency when we are gathered to celebrate the common salvation we have all experienced. Charles Wesley put the individual and the group together magnificently in his longing hymn. “O for a thousand tongues to sing, *my* great redeemer’s praise”. 

The “I” in the Psalms Becomes The Dominant Voice of Corporate Praise

Moving forward a few hundred years to the promised-land-settled events of David, Solomon’ temple and beyond, the book of Psalms continues the tradition of songs that are both deeply personal and at the same time corporate. What David said to God personally became part of the hymnbook. 2 Samuel 22 gives one of the rare occasions of showing how the Psalms were originally given.

And David spoke to the LORD the words of this song on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. He said, “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer …. “For this I will praise you, O LORD, among the nations, and sing praises to your name. Great salvation he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever.” (2 Sam. 22:1-2, 50-51; which is also the heart of Psalm 18)

Like the Exodus generation, in this prayer, David calls the Lord his own three-fold personal deliver (my strength, my song, my salvation || my rock, my fortress, my redeemer) and makes his own promise to continue to sing to the Lord. David certainly kept that oath. This situationally-based and individual prayer, together with many others, formed the song book for the nation.

One simple observation about the book of Psalms is the sheer number of deeply personal “I/me/my/mine” songs. In my very quick scan through, I have categorised all 150. The first two groups represent almost two thirds of the songs. I do call on my brains-trust to question or fix any errors I’ve made. 

  • First person singular only (I/me/my/mine): 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, 21, 32, 35, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 49, 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 62, 63, 64, 69, 70, 71, 73, 77, 84, 86, 88, 89, 91, 92, 94, 101, 102, 104, 109, 110, 111, 116, 119, 120, 121, 122, 130, 131, 135, 138, 139, 140, 141, 142, 143, 144, 145, 146

  • First person singular & plural (I/me/my/mine & we/us/our/ours): 20, 34, 36, 60, 66, 68, 75, 78, 85, 103, 108, 118, 123, 129, 137

  • First person plural only (we/us/our/ours): 12, 21, 33, 46, 47, 48, 65, 67, 74, 79, 80, 90, 95, 99, 100, 106, 115, 124, 126, 132*

  • Neither (most are calls to God’s people to praise him, some are talking about God): 1, 2, 10, 14, 15, 24, 29, 50**, 53, 58, 72, 76, 81**, 82**, 83, 87**, 93, 96, 97, 98, 105**, 107, 112, 113, 114, 117, 125, 127, 128, 133, 134, 136, 147, 148, 149, 150  (** these contains first person “I” but only in the words of God)

Some interesting Psalms are in the second group. For example, Psalms 34 and 36 sound like the voice of a single person, appealing to God to save the collective, “us”. Others like Psalm 66 recount the corporate testing of the nation, and have a singular voice declaring what he will sacrifice and pray, even if no-one else joins him. He, of course, wants them with him. That is the point of the song. 

However, if we dig down into the Davidic psalms, there is an even greater imbalance towards the personal, since his prayers were made corporate. Isn’t it astonishing that his prayers of repentance after his adultery with Bathsheba became the songs of repentance of the people? I’ve heard David being called “the Elvis of his day”.   Imagine the influence that modern Elvis would have had if he also really was the king? David’s songs give shape to the Psalter; and their preference for the “I” gives the nation a very personal songbook.

  • Davidic – First person singular only (I/me/my/mine): 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31, 32, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 66, 69, 70, 86, 101, 108, 109, 110, 122, 131, 138, 139, 140, 141, 142, 143, 144, 145

  • Davidic – First person singular & plural (I/me/my/mine & we/us/our/ours): 20, 34, 36, 60, 68, 103, 108

  • Davidic – First person plural only (we/us/our/ours): 12, 21, 65, 124

  • Davidic Neither (most are calls to God’s people to praise him, some are talking about God): 14, 15, 24, 29, 53, 58, 133

The trajectory from the Old Testament to the New Testament is not the way we may think

I have to be careful here. We don’t have a psalm-book of the New Testament. However, it is striking, that in the Revelation, every song recorded in the heavenly throngs of worship is either a general summons/proclamation about God, or a praise cast in the corporate “we/us”. There are no “I” songs recorded in around the throne of the lamb. The most famous example is representative of the whole book.

 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.” (Rev. 19:1)

Even the end-time crystal-sea crossing reprise of Moses’ song doesn’t have the same personal tone as Exodus 15. 

“And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways,O King of the nations! (Rev. 15:3)

We mustn’t read too much into this since Revelation is a fairly unique book, but it does buck against the assumption that the Old Testament emphasised the corporate interaction with God, while the New is all about individual salvation. The Psalms and songs in Revelation are almost the reverse.

Here on earth, in the overlap of the ages, our New Covenant songs are perhaps best thought of as being modelled on the Psalms and fuelled by the songs around God’s throne in heaven, directed to the God and the lamb on the throne.  In the most famous practical summons for Jesus-centred, Spirit-filled, Father glorifying living, the church is called to

“be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:19-20).

Songs are directed to God, and the words to our neighbours. Perhaps this is just a development of a theme already seen in in the Israelites on the far shore of the Red Sea and David in the psalter.  *My soul makes its boast* in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad. *Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!* (Ps. 34:2-3)

The “I” in the Psalms shows us the voice of the Messiah for generations to come

There is one deeper significance of the “I”s in the Psalms, particularly in the songs of David. They give us insight into the heart of the prototype messiah, and ultimately the mind of the Christ.

The New Testament sees many of the Psalms as Jesus speaking. They belonged to him before they belong to us. When we sing them, we sing from his hymnbook. Psalm 40, used by Hebrews, is clear. “Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me” (Heb. 10:5). Jesus’ resurrection is seen as the fulfilment of all the prayers that David offered. Jesus is David perfected. While David asked and received in part, Jesus prayed and was answered in full. He was saved, rescued, not abandoned completely in the resurrection.  Psalm 16:10 is quoted as being fulfilled by Jesus in Acts 2:27-31 and 13:35-38. “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.”  Psalm 22 and 69 are quoted and alluded to countless times, about his suffering and resurrection, as if Jesus himself were the pray-er of the original song. As a result of his post-cross glorification, Jesus “is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” (Heb. 2:11-12 quoting Psalm 22:22)

The Psalm I first referenced shows us the connection of the Messiah to his people. His rescue becomes their rescue. And by implication his song becomes theirs. Great salvation he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever.” (Ps. 18:50, also recorded in 2 Sam. 22:51) We are Christ’s people, his offspring (Isa. 9:6; 53:10; Heb. 2:13-14) 

There are enough reminders in the Davidic Psalms to show us that while ultimately they point to the King of Kings, they were first written as the personal songs of a sinning, fallen version of the Christ (Psa. 32, 51, even 69:5). We sing in David’s shoes as the sinner and in Christ’s clothes as the saved one now righteous before God.

The “I”s of the Psalms still proclaim that we individually and corporately come to Christ because he is the Messiah. The many were saved by the one. And if all the Psalms were “we” and “us” we wouldn’t have access into his mind. Therefore the “I”s of these Psalms are glorious as they show us Christ.

Let’s get personal about collective music

Our churches stand in the face of rampant individualism. We want our lyrics to be different and proclaim that God is central, and not us. The problem with many modern songs is not the subject, but the object of the song.. At their worst, they are less about God’s character and Christ’s works and more about my emotions, in its most aberrant forms the subject can become the object. Our simplistic reaction to the word “I” and “me”, however,  misdiagnoses this real problem.

I’m not calling us to abandon the corporate language and move to exclusively individual language. But let me suggest that it is no accident that the majority of corporate music in the Old Testament as well as in the contemporary church is “I”. It is in fact particularly Hebrew, copying their pattern of salvation from Exodus 15, and in a deep way profoundly Christian, since our Christ came to fulfil and share his songs with us. The Psalms are his first and foremost. And in union with him, what is his, becomes ours.  Along with other songs, we are particularly called to keep the Psalms on our lips. A Spirit-filled person will speak them to each other (Eph. 5:19). Someone controlled by Christ’s word will sing them to God (Eph. 5:19).

This personal faith, hope and love, expressed as a group to our Saviour and Lord, in word and music, separates us from the ravings of Baal worship to awaken God, the endlessly repetitive drones of Buddhist chants, and the anti-music, anti-joy, anti-personal Quranic recitation of Sunni Moslems. 

It’s often joked that Christians just borrow popular music, take away the word “baby” and add “Jesus” in its place. That might be true of some of the worst Christian contemporary songs, unfortunately.

But I wonder, whether in a bigger sense, our Western world, itself historically raised on the Bible and Psalms, has borrowed from its own background. Have they adopted the personal individual, yet corporate song, as mainstream, and made it their own, replacing the true God with the some other substitute saviour and elusive source of fulfilment? 

H = Heroes At Drinking Wine (aka. Intoxicated Masculinity)

“Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” (Isa. 5:22-23)

The battle-lines have been dug in the conflict about Christians and alcohol, with entrenched positions generating pamphlets, sermons and even denominations. But those trenches are now largely empty. Most of the fighting has already taken place; and the fortifications are largely abandoned with only a small cadre of hold-outs remaining, fighting for abstinence. And while I am not one of those who argues practically for this position, I do see their wisdom. The cost of new generations moving on from this discussion, is that unexamined worldliness seems to be winning. In interest of deeper healing, let’s reopen the wound.

My contribution to this discussion will not be so much a word study on alcohol, but will be about the words “hero” and “valiant”, and its focus will be unashamedly on men, with secondary application for women. The Bible does not overlook women. Christian older women are taught “to be reverent in behaviour, not slanderers or slaves to much wine”. (Tit. 2:3) But men are lined up in the target sights in Isaiah 5. What is on view is an intoxicated masculinity. In its place we need one that is sober, strong and just.

Isaiah speaks into the Eighth Century world of the rich and powerful, safe and secure in themselves, and yet full of arrogance and abandonment of duty. Their religion is completely bankrupt, justice perverted, and widows and orphans ignored (Isa. 1:10-23). God’s future for Jerusalem will be a baptism of fire and judgment. Her filth and bloodstains will be washed clean and a new city will emerge holy to the Lord (Isa. 4:2-4). The old Jerusalem is likened to a vineyard that the Lord tenderly planted, but which produced terrible grapes (Isa. 5:1-7) “He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” (Isa. 5:7). What follows is the most appalling list of charges. These are the reasons God would bring a fury against his own possession and call for nations to take them in exile (Isa. 5:13-30). Six lamentable woes are sung over the people against: greed in property investment, chasing after alcohol early in the morning and late at night; presumptive lies, calling what is evil good, and being arrogant. It all sounds very contemporary. The crescendo of these indictments is their intoxicated masculinity.

“Woe to those who are heroes (gibbor) at drinking wine, and valiant (chayil) men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” (Isa. 5:22-23)

A distortion of male virtue

God expects heroism and valour. These are particularly masculine virtues. We must not deny that women can be heroic and valiant, but it is especially horrific when absent in men. 

The word “hero” (gibbor) is elsewhere translated in the ESV as “mighty man”,  “champion”, “warrior” and “chief”. Gibbor is most often linked with our other focus word, “valiant” (chayil). When put together these two words are translated “mighty man of valour” or even “worthy man”. The words are not themselves morally loaded. Mighty men include the enemies of God—Nephilim, Nimrod and Goliath—as well as God’s own people—Gideon, Boaz and David’s elite soldiers (Gen. 6:4; 10:8; 1 Sam. 17:51; Judg. 6:2; Ruth 2:1; 2 Sam. 23:8). Violence is not at its core. Boaz, among many others, never takes up a weapon. These are the best of men, the ablest and most courageous. Gibbor is used exclusively of men, with one exception. God himself is called mighty multiple times.

The problem in Isaiah’s day is that this heroism was being distorted, and valour misdirected. They were wasting their manliness in “drinking wine” and “mixing strong drink”. Rather than defending their families, or standing up for what is right or even fighting for their country, they becomes experts in sculling, swigging and sampling the best or the perhaps the most alcohol. This is the problem of wealth and ease. Professional sportsmen are the strongest on the field, but often weakest off. The sporting community seems obsessed with drinking. Former heroes on the tee become legends of the nineteenth hole. Powerful bankers, lawyers and politicians instead of using their strength and intelligence for helping others, live for Friday night drinks, or even a quiet one mid-morning to get them through the day. 

This heroism has a terrible price tag on those whom the men could serve and protect: their families and the community at large. For many, fathers, who are meant to provide and be a rock and pillar for the family, would rather drink and escape his family and responsibilities. For others intoxicated men become predators, inflicting violence and sexual abuse on women. You’re not a hero and you are not valiant when you do this. 

It was a deep part of the Australian culture that you are not a real man if you don’t drink. That is still true in some subcultures. That was the problem for Judah too.

God hates this. Do you? 

In contrast to the justice we should seek

The main problem is that this obsession with alcohol takes people away from what they should give their best manliness toward: justice on earth.  In embracing the wine-glass and a beer-keg they “acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” (Isa. 5:23). For judges and household leaders, right treatment of the vulnerable matters.  Proverbs warns about alcohol’s affect on those who make decisions.  “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted” (Prov. 31:4-5). The rich and powerful have more money to spend on drink, but they also have a lot more opportunity to use their blessings for the sake of others. Being sober-minded is a repeated call for all Christians, and particularly for leaders.

The first time in the Bible that God is described as gibbor (mighty) is surprisingly on-topic.  “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty (gibbor), and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.” (Deut. 10:17)  True greatness pursues justice and integrity, the same issues dealt with in Isaiah 5. If we want to be great like God, and not like the little ‘h’ heroes of the clubhouse, then seek fairness. 

All the greatest commands are affected by valorising alcohol. Love of God is diluted and the neighbour’s need is ignored. You can’t act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God, and be consumed by drink. It was because of this sin that God sent his people into exile. Remember what Jesus taught. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, rather than inebriating ourselves to a spiritual death (Matt. 6:33). The second of the six woes in Isaiah 5 is also about alcohol. It says that those who chase after strong drink and entertainment “do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands” (Isa. 5:11). False heroism, failure to be just and numbness-to-God walk together very comfortably.

For those who are starting to feel pretty good about themselves—those, who don’t drink much, and perhaps never have—let me apply the acid, by extending the principle. I wonder if the same can be true of the greatest modern expression of false-masculinity: the obsession with computer games. These are an addictive escapism that makes us feel like heroes, but when we stop we are reminded that we have not mowed the lawn, taken out the rubbish, read with our children, helped a neighbour, or prayed to our God. And it is not just computer games: Netflix, novels, and endless YouTube videos can also be just as intoxicating. Woe to those who are online level 65 Barbarians who ignore the poor and those of your own family.

True heroism and valour

We need to see examples—flesh and blood encapsulations of godly principles. One candidate is Isaiah, whose call in chapter 6 comes straight after the woe on alcoholic heroism, and God’s ensuing judgment on the people. Isaiah has a transforming vision of the glory of the Lord. He confesses his own sinful lips, adding his own woe in echo to God’s. From his altar the Lord atones his guilt, and then unfurls his plan (Isa. 6:1-13). Yet unlike the priests and prophets who might be content in gazing at “wine when its red”, and unlike the rich who chase after drinks and entertainment, Isaiah says “Here I am! Send me.” (Prov. 23:31; Isa. 5:11; 6:8)  Here is a true mighty man, in brokenness, and in courage, willing to face down his own people with an unpopular message of God’s truth. What makes him different? Surely it is the work of God in revelation, forgiveness and transformation.

However, the greatest mighty man is Christ, who shares with his Father the most sober, just and impartial valour ever seen on this earth. His life becomes a radical break in the cycle for those of us who have only had heroes of wine and beer. We may follow Isaiah’s example, but we worship Jesus Christ. And that vision of Christ must rebuke our tendency to value the small and insignificant rather than stand amazed at true greatness.

Let me point to a picture of Christ’s courage, involving alcohol, but pointing far beyond the symbol. At the Passover, we see him using his own position to serve others. He serves wine to point to a greater non-toxic and non-intoxicated masculinity that champions self-sacrifice and self-denial. Jesus took the cup and said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mk. 14:24-25). 

We have a true leader, priest, prophet and king. He did not indulge in self-centred pleasure seeking to “acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” (Isa. 5:23). Instead the innocent one allowed himself to suffer as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45). 

Do you need to change your definition of hero?