Trust.

Christianity, Religion

“In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;

    let me never be put to shame;

    in your righteousness deliver me!

Incline your ear to me;

    rescue me speedily!

Be a rock of refuge for me,

    a strong fortress to save me!

For you are my rock and my fortress;

    and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;

you take me out of the net they have hidden for me,

    for you are my refuge.

Into your hand I commit my spirit;

    you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.” Psalm 31:1-5

“But I trust in you, O Lord;

    I say, ‘You are my God.’” Psalm 31:14

David’s psalms are some of the most heart-wrenching writings in all of Scripture, and yet they are also some of the most relatable. When reading his work, the reader never has to wonder what emotion David is trying to communicate; the emotion of the text leaps of the page. David’s psalms of sorrow and anguish hit us in the pit of our stomachs, and his psalms of joy leave us feeling as happy and invigorated as he was when he penned them. Ever the poet, David understood how to express and communicate whatever emotions he was experiencing.

The thirty-first psalm is no exception to this rule; in this psalm, David laid bare his soul and expressed to God–and to later readers–the emotional and spiritual toll he experienced as a result of the numerous trials he went through. 1 Samuel recounts the saga of David and Saul when David had to stay on the run from an ever increasingly paranoid and deranged Saul, who was bent on killing the anointed future king of Israel. Samuel’s account tells the reader of David’s hiding in the caves in the wilderness of Israel, his having to periodically flee Israel, of doing absolutely anything to stay always one step ahead of Saul–the king whom David had sworn to serve and who at one time found such solace from David’s music. Saul would stop at nothing to kill David. Despite this, David had numerous opportunities to kill Saul, and yet he spared Saul’s life every single time. On more than one occasion, David had to flee to the land of the Philistines–Israel’s mortal enemy at the time–because it was safer for David to live in the land of his enemies than to live amongst his people. While Saul lived, David was a vagabond; he lived a life of exile. Those who aided him did so at a high cost; helping David elude Saul warranted death. Saul did everything within his power to ensure that David had no one to turn to for help or protection–or so Saul thought.

It was during this chapter of David’s life that he penned Psalm 31. In this psalm, David cried out to the One who would not forsake him, to the One who had aided and protected him all along the arduous journey. David knew that, had it not been for God’s protection, Saul would have captured him and killed him long ago. God alone had been David’s refuge, his stronghold. David also knew that he had done nothing to merit God’s favor or protection; God had been doing so purely out of love and mercy, and because it was what He desired to do. God had foiled Saul’s plans and intentions every step of the way, and David trusted that God would continue to do so. David understood that God had saved him–ransomed him–for a purpose, and so he knew he must entrust his life and soul to God’s care; he must commit his spirit into God’s hands.

David did not hold back from crying out to God in this psalm. Though he was trusting God’s providence for the outcome of this trial, David was still being crushed under the weight of his ordeal. He was reaching his mental and physical breaking points; his life was nothing but sorrow, distress, and sighing. His body was withering away. Those who knew him avoided him; those who were once his friends looked at him as a danger and threat to their own safety. People had forgotten about him as they would a person after their death. David–the man the people once cheered for and celebrated–was now an object of scorn and rebuke. The man who slew the giant to save his people had now been forsaken by them. In spite of this, he continued to trust in God. The world may attack David and shake him to his very core, but God would remain his rock and refuge.

At times, it is difficult for us to have this same level of trust in God. In times of joy and plenty, it is easy for us to say that we trust in Him, but that confidence does not always readily carry over into the times of sorrow and anguish. In the difficult times, we more closely resemble the disciples in the boat in the midst of the storm when they cried out “Save us, Lord!” (Matthew 8:25). What was Jesus’ response to this plea? “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26). There the phrase “little faith” could also be translated “little trust.” Our trust in God is directly related to the faith we put in Him; we will never be able to trust in Him fully if we do not place the entirety of our faith in Him. Our trust in God reflects our faith in Him. If we have great faith in a great God who can do all things, then we can boldly endure the trials of this life, regardless of their impact upon us, just as David did.

God does not count our failures to always trust in Him against us; He loves us and sustains us in spite of this. Furthermore, He knows what these moments of anguish and turmoil feel like, for He experienced them firsthand. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each detail in their gospel accounts Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane before His betrayal and arrest. The Gospel of Luke says this: 

 “And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray,  saying, ‘Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.’ Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” (Luke 22:41-44).

The miracle and the beauty of the Incarnation is that Jesus was fully man and fully God. His deity allowed Him to know exactly what was going to happen and what would befall Him; He understood everything that He was going to endure. His humanity allowed Him to feel the emotions that would accompany such knowledge. He knew the pain and the torture and the cruelty that awaited Him. He knew He would be mocked and ridiculed and scorned. He knew to defeat sin and death and the grave that He must first die. He knew that He would be forsaken by His friends and neighbors. He knew all of this, and He was scared. He asked the Father if it were possible to achieve the salvation required for humanity to be accomplished another way, then to allow it to be so. Yet, He prayed for the Father’s will to be done, not His. His faith was in the Father, and He trusted in the Father, just as his forefather, David had. Christ took the cup that was set before Him, went forward on His mission of salvation, and with His dying breath, quoted the words of His ancestor David:  “And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.’” Having said this, He breathed His last,” (Luke 23:46). Christ’s last words, as He hung dying on the cross, forsaken by all humanity, were those that His ancestor David had penned at a time when he too was forsaken by all, except God. In their moments of agony, David and Jesus both trusted God. 

The sin-slayer and the giant-slayer, both scorned and forsaken by men, knew that they could do nothing else but trust in God.

The echoes of Psalm 31 in Christ’s crucifixion are one of many of the amazing and unbelievable threads of continuity within Scripture. One final detail to point out is that Psalm 31 is one of the many psalms which are dedicated to “The Choirmaster.” outside of the psalms, this phrase appears many times, but only one other instance is it translated from Hebrew into English as “choirmaster.” In every other situation, it is translated as “Eternal One,” or “The One Who Overcomes.” Additionally, these particular psalms–the ones to the Choirmaster–have messianic themes, and often have the highest view of God’s majesty. With this understanding, it makes Christ’s last words even more powerful. Not only was Jesus quoting David; He was quoting a work that was dedicated to Him.

Trials and grief and sorrow in this life are plentiful and sure to come. But take hope in the One who has been your rock and your refuge. Trust in the One who knows how hard it can be to trust. Commit your life and your spirit to the One who took your damnation and who died to slay sin to save you.

Artwork: “Crucifixion,” 1964, Marc Chagall

Obedience.

Christianity, Religion

“Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices

As in obeying the voice of the Lord?

Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,

And to heed than the fat of rams.

For rebellion is as the sin of divination,

And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry.

Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,

He has also rejected you from being king.” 1 Samuel 15:22-23

Chapter 15 of 1 Samuel is a hard text to wrestle with; it is one in which we see God’s vengeance on full display, and it is a text in which we are forced to realize the high value that God places on obedience. We read of Saul’s failure to obey God completely, and we learn from that failure that incomplete obedience is not good enough for God; we are forced to understand that incomplete obedience to God is no better than total disobedience. 

At the outset of chapter 15, God calls upon Saul to go and “utterly destroy” the Amalekites and all of their livestock; Saul and his men were to leave nothing left of the Amalekites. This is a prime example of one of the issues which make this text so difficult; it is hard for us to read and accept that God would give such orders to be carried out. Many critics of Scripture point to such instances in the Old Testament–such as this example of the destruction of the Amalekites, or the purging of the Canaanites in the conquest of the Promised Land–and make claims about God being blood-thirsty and unjust. Such claims ignore the fact that God is, indeed, just, and He is also holy. He is so holy that He cannot tolerate sin; anything which is infected with sin is destroyed by His very presence. God is so totally holy that He cannot even be in the presence of sin, and yet the mere fact that He does not issue more such decrees to destroy sinful man–that He continues to allow fallen humanity to exist– is a testament to His mercy and love. We must remember that God is holy and just and that He has justified reasons to issue the commands that He does. We must also not forget that such decrees for destruction are but mere reminders of what we all truly deserve.

The root cause of the destruction of the Amalekites is found in the pages of Exodus, in chapter 17. Immediately after liberation from Egypt, and just as Israel was starting their journey through the wilderness, they were attacked by the Amalekites. This attack was unprovoked and came at a time in which Israel was weak, vulnerable, and unprepared to fight. The Amalekites knew this, and as such, this attack was intended to destroy Israel. Moses and Joshua were able to find men to fight back against the attack. As Joshua led the defense, Moses went up on a mountain overlooking the battlefield. During the course of the battle, Moses stands upon the mountain with his arms and staff raised above his head; as long as he had his arms up the Israelites prevailed. As the battle rages on, Moses grows tired and is unable to keep his arms up, and the Amalekites began to prevail. Aaron and Hur come up the mountain and hold Moses’ arms up for him, and the Israelites defeat the Amalekites. Following the battle, God tells Moses that He will remember the transgression of Amalek, and because of this egregious attack, He will “blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven” (Exodus 17:14). God told Moses that He would seek vengeance upon Amalek for trying to destroy His people.

Some 300 to 400 years later, God decides that the time has come to repay the Amalekites for their attack. He gives Saul the orders to follow, to completely destroy all the Amalekites and all their possessions, and Saul calls up the army and heads off to fight. Saul and the army destroy the Amalekites, but they do not follow through with everything that God had told them to do. They spare Agag, the Amalekite king, and they spare the best of the livestock–they only destroy the things that were of lesser quality and importance. Saul was given explicit orders by God, yet he only offered God partial obedience.

The results of Saul’s partial obedience are severe: God tells Samuel the Prophet that He regrets making Saul king over Israel. We see the same word used here to describe God’s emotion as was used in Genesis where before the flood that God was “sorry” He had created humanity after seeing how evil mankind had become. 

God’s regret regarding Saul stems from the fact that Saul was disobedient. Saul was supposed to be God’s representative on earth. He was ruling over the people with whom God had chosen to recreate the relationship that had been lost as a result of the fall in Eden, and Saul repeated the same sin–disobedience–which had led to the fall in the first place.

Samuel is sent to confront Saul about his disobedience, and Saul attempts to justify saving the best of the Amalekite livestock by saying they were going to be offered as sacrifices to God. Samuel, however, informs Saul that this is not the point; God doesn’t value sacrifices as much as He values obedience. Saul’s offerings were merely insincere flattery, a lip-service to God, in the light of his disobedience. The true intentions of Saul’s heart were revealed through his actions.

Due to his failure to obey, Saul would lose the kingdom, and a new king–David–would be anointed. David would be the king that ruled as God wanted a king to rule, and he would be a king who sought after God’s own heart. The obedience exhibited in David–though he did have his failures–would be further exemplified and perfected by one who would come from his line. From David’s line would come one who would demonstrate perfect obedience to God, following God all the way to the cross to die so that sinful humanity might be redeemed. That one would be Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of God.

So often, we find ourselves following in Saul’s footsteps, offering God partial obedience and expecting Him to be satisfied with that. We have made ourselves believe that God will look past our lack of obedience because we show up on Sundays to offer Him praise and prayers and worship. We forget that our real intentions–the intentions of our hearts–are exhibited in our actions and that He sees our very hearts. We try to substitute prayer for obedience, but we fail to understand that our prayers and worship mean nothing if we have no intention of being obedient. We pray to God and give Him our list of demands to be satisfied, and tell Him that if He fulfills those demands that we will then reward Him with our obedience. We demand that the God of the Universe justify our obedience to Him as if we have authority over Him to make such a plea. If Christ’s death isn’t enough to justify our obedience, then there is nothing which will justify it.

We must stop acting like Saul. We must stop offering God partial obedience. Our incomplete obedience is the same as total disobedience. We cannot substitute prayer or worship for obedience; for our obedience is the thing which God values more than anything. Christ was obedient to God, even unto death, a death which saved us from damnation. You can offer Christ no less than your total obedience in return.

Artwork: “Saul Reproved by Samuel For Not Obeying the Commandments of the Lord,” John Singleton Copley, 1798.

The Sons of Saul and the Son of David.

Christianity, Religion

“There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people.” 1 Samuel 9:1-2

“And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him….And Saul eyed David from that day on. The next day a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand. And Saul hurled the spear, for he thought, ‘I will pin David to the wall.’ But David evaded him twice.” 1 Samuel 18:8-11

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Acts 9:1-2

“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Philippians 3:4-7

There is no doubt that David is one of the most significant figures of the Old Testament. He was a shepherd boy from a small town in the middle of nowhere who became the greatest king in all of Israel’s history, and the model by which all future Israelite kings were measured. David sought after God, and God loved David; so much so that He promised David’s descendants would be on the throne in Israel forever and, one day, the Messiah would come from David’s line.  The Davidic Covenant is one of the most crucial components of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it further highlights the importance of the figure of David.

David was not without his enemies. One of the most intriguing aspects of the early narratives about David’s life is his struggle with Saul.  During the period of the Judges in Israelite history, the Israelites began demanding that they be given a king to rule over them so that they might be like the other nations. God allowed Israel to have a king, after warning them that this would eventually lead to the same sort of oppression they had experienced in Egypt, and the man selected to be the first King of Israel was Saul–a tall and handsome man from the tribe of Benjamin.

Though  Saul looked the part of a king, he possessed no leadership abilities. His reign was marked by constant fighting with Israel’s enemies. Saul often wavered as a leader, and this was ultimately his downfall. Saul’s failures a political leader were made worse by his shortcomings as a spiritual leader. Throughout his reign, Saul moved further and further away from God, at one point going so far as to summon a psychic to summon the ghost of the prophet Samuel. Due to his constant rejection of God, God removed his favor from Saul, and God appointed David to be the next king.

David, being anointed as the new king would set the stage for the conflict between him and Saul. As David increased in popularity throughout Israel by his exploits on the battlefield, Saul descended further and further into jealousy, bitterness, and paranoia. Saul became determined to kill David, and for the remainder of his rule as king, Saul and his armies chased David and his men all across Israel. Saul viewed David as a usurper who must be dealt with. Despite Saul’s repeated attempts on his life, David never retaliated against Saul; he still respected Saul as the king and the appointed ruler of Israel. Eventually, Saul would die, and David would become king, and Israel would know a time of peace and prosperity that it would not know again.

In the Book of Acts, we are introduced to another man from the tribe of Benjamin named Saul. This Saul was a zealous Pharisee who viewed with hatred the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. These followers of “The Way” preached that Jesus was the Messiah, the Savior of Israel, the promised Son of David. In just the same way that King Saul became determined to kill the “usurper” David, Pharisee Saul and those with him became determined to root out and destroy the “heretical” followers of Jesus. Saul the Pharisee was present when the first follower of Christ was killed, and he “took much pleasure” (Acts 8:1) in the killing of Stephen. Saul the Pharisee– Saul the Persecutor–was resolved to destroy the followers of the Son of David, just as his forefather was bent on destroying David. He would stop at nothing to stamp out this movement, going as far as to chase Christ-followers all over Israel and beyond, just as David had been.

This Saul–Saul the Persecutor–would make a radical change; he would become a follower of Jesus, the Son of David. On his way to Damascus to round up Christ-followers, Saul encountered someone unexpected–Jesus. This meeting changed Saul–now Paul– and no longer would he hunt down followers of Christ; instead he would go on to be a preacher, missionary, and theologian. Paul traveled throughout the known world, starting churches and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, teaching all that Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of David. Paul would evangelize the Gentiles and would suffer much for the name of Christ: he would survive numerous beatings, whippings, being stoned nearly to death, shipwreck, and being bitten by a venomous snake. He would speak before kings and rulers and philosophers. Paul is proof that God can and will use anyone–even those who fight against Him–to accomplish His will.

The sons of Saul–those who are opposed to Christ– are still hunting down those who follow the Son of David. The world will never be the friend of the follower of Christ. We see how David was treated, how Christ was treated, and how the early church was treated; we should expect no less. The world will always view the radical Gospel of Christ as a threat, and the world will stop at nothing to crush this movement. When we are met with this opposition, we must remember that David never took up arms against Saul. We must also remember that Christ commanded us to pray for and love those who persecute and do harm to us. We must fight back with our love and with our prayers. We must pray for the Sauls who have yet to become Pauls.

Artwork: “Saul Tries to Kill David With His Spear,” Giovan Francesco Barbieri, 1646.

Trust Issues.

Christianity, Religion

“Then the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.’ So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, ‘The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height’…” Numbers 13:31-32

“When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.”  1 Samuel 17: 11

Though these two texts seem as if they could be taken from the same account, they are not. In fact, the events they recount are, by most estimates, separated by at least four hundred years. Both of these texts come from crucial moments in Israel’s history, and each demonstrates a tragic failure on Israel’s part to trust in God entirely. The fact that these events transpired, though separated by a considerable amount of time, reinforces the fact that people do not change.

In the Numbers passage, we find Israel on the verge of one of the greatest moments in its then brief history. It had been roughly over a year since Israel had been led out of Egypt by God and His servant Moses. Since then, God has provided for Israel in the wilderness, and led them to Mount Sinai, where He gave Moses the Law, which Moses would then relay to the people. In that same time, Israel would be grumbling almost continuously against Moses and God, continually desiring to be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt rather than living free with God in the wilderness. But now, Israel is on the border of the Promised Land, the land which God swore to their fathers to give them; in a sense, they are on the doorsteps of being home. There is only one catch: the land is inhabited, and Israel will have to fight to possess it. God, however, has already promised it to them and has vowed to go before them and aid Israel in their quest to capture this land.

Moses sent twelves spies into the land to scope it out and see what lay before them. They came back forty days later with a report of land abundant in resources and fertility–flowing with milk and honey as they said. The abundance and richness of the land wasn’t enough to encourage the spies, though; many fixated on the strength of the walled cities and the size of the people who inhabited the land. Of the twelve spies, only two–Joshua and Caleb–thought Israel could take the land; only two of the twelve trusted in God to deliver on His promise. The other ten couldn’t get past the giants and the obstacles, and in turn, they turned the people against going into the land. They spread dissension and bad reports throughout the camp, and they set the people of Israel against going into the very land that God had promised to them. These ten spies convinced Israel that these giants were too great for them to defeat, and in turn, that God was not big enough to aid Israel.  Nevermind the fact that God had just previously intervened in a way unseen before in all of human history to save Israel from slavery; He sent plagues of blood, frogs, lice, flies, diseases on the Egyptian livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of all the Egyptian firstborns. He parted the Red Sea so that Israel could escape when Pharaoh’s armies were closing in upon them, and he caused that same sea to engulf those same armies after His people passed through safely.

Israel had seen God’s presence descend upon Sinai and upon the Tabernacle; they witnessed God provided manna and quail and water from rocks. Here Israel was standing at the doorway of the land that God had promised to Abraham that his descendants would inherit, and those descendants are saying to God “we don’t want it.” Their ingratitude is staggering, but their lack of faith in God to give the land to them is even more so. It is for this that Israel would be punished to wander in the wilderness for forty years. The Israelites had to wander until everyone from the ungrateful generation of the Exodus died; only Joshua and Caleb–the two faithful spies–would live to inhabit the Promised Land.

Fast forward about four hundred years; Israel has possessed the land and has established a kingdom for themselves. They live in a continuous cycle of following God and then straying away from Him, and this passage from I Samuel represents a moment in which their faith is waning. Israel’s first king, Saul, though a decent warrior, is a weak and vacillating leader; seldom does he seek after God. In fact, just before the events of this passage transpired, God withdrew His blessing from Saul and informed him that a new king would soon be taking the throne.

In this passage from I Samuel, the Israelites are being confronted by their nemesis of this era, the Philistines. At this particular encounter, the Philistines bring out their secret weapon, a 9’9″ giant named Goliath. The giant came out every day for forty days and issued a challenge to the Israelite army, a one-on-one fight between him and Israel’s best fighter, with the loser’s army becoming the victor’s slaves. All of Israel, Saul included, are disheartened and dismayed. No one thinks of God; no one seeks Him. All Saul and the armies of Israel can focus on is the giant before them and the fact that they have no answer for him. It is quite nearly the same scenario as was previously seen with the ten spies convincing the rest of the camp that they could not take the Promised Land from the giant Canaanites. Saul and his armies exhibit no faith in God. However, the Lord was with a shepherd from Bethlehem named David, and he, like Caleb and Joshua, knew who had already won the battle. It was this same David who had just previously been anointed to be Israel’s next king, and it is he who would who God would use to deliver Israel from the Philistines and their giant.

Israel in Saul’s day commits the same sin as their forefathers did in Moses’ day: just as the Exodus generation did not have faith in God to deliver them from the giants to help them possess the land, Saul’s generation did not have faith in God to deliver them from the giant Philistine to help them remain in the land. Saul and his armies were no better than the ten faithless spies; they never learned.

Are we any better than the Israelites of Moses’ or Saul’s day? Are we like the masses who see the obstacles before us and count the reasons why we–why God–can’t do something? Or are we like Caleb and Joshua and David, counting the reasons why God can and will do something? Do we trust in God when it isn’t easy to do so? What is our faith like in the moments when the “rubber meets the road?”

Sadly, far too often these texts presented to us as a prosperity gospel of sorts in which we are told that “if we trust in God, He will deliver us from the giants in our lives.”  Yes, God has the power to deliver us and, yes, He can deliver us–if that be His will. Our faith, however, is not a bargaining chip to be played with God; we cannot go before the Creator of the universe and say “I will believe in you if you do this for me.”  These texts are about trusting in God, regardless of what the situation is. Sometimes the giants aren’t to be slain, and even then we must still trust in God. We must have faith like Job demonstrated when, in all his anguish, he cried out “though He slay me, still will I hope in Him,” (Job 13:15). Do we do live that type of faith, or do we lose our faith at the first sign of opposition? Do we view God as being bigger than our circumstance, or is our situation bigger than God? Do we have big faith in a big God or a little faith in a small God? Is our God one who cannot be contained by the heavens, or is our God one who fits in the box in which we try to put Him?

God promised Israel that he would give them the land, and He promised to keep them in the land, as long as they had faith and served Him obediently. They forgot this promise. Christ promised that He would be with us always, even until the end of the age. Do we live with the security and peace that promise affords us in every situation, regardless of the outcome, or have we, too, forgotten His promise?