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A Prayer for Deliverance (Psalm 13)

The brevity of Psalm 13 should not lead us to think that it is unimportant. David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, presents us with a psalm that not only struggles with those moments when God seems silent, but gives us a beautiful model for prayer at the same time. David wrestles with those questions which beset all of us from time to time: why does God seem so far away in the midst of my troubles?

This psalm has three sections of two verses each, yet in these few lines David presents a remarkable transition. Psalm 13 opens with all the fury of a storm and closes with all the calm of a storm that is past.

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.

How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

How long will I take counsel in my soul, sorrow in my heart day by day? How long will my enemy be exalted over me?

It is not certain what prompted David to write this psalm, whether his troubles with Saul, Absalom, or some other event. Whatever the occasion, the result is the same. God seems to be far off when everything is going wrong. As with all psalms which cry out to God in the midst of trouble, however, Psalm 13 should not be interpreted as moping or having an inward, depressed focus. The soul which despairs of God’s mercy would not pray. It is only the Christian who knows that God will answer, even in the worst of circumstances, that can pray. Even if the tone seems desperate, it still cries to God confidently knowing He will hear.

Yet this confidence doesn’t mitigate the intense struggle. These questions are not seeking answers, but rather giving vent to the state of the soul. For that reason, the first question is the most intense. It is not the problems of life that cause such distress, but God’s seeming distance and forgetfulness. This seeming absence sparks terror, because God’s face seems to have looked away. Deuteronomy 31:17-18 describes this looking away as God’s wrath, while in Numbers 6:25, God looking on us with His face is a sign of His favor. However, for the Christian, it only seems as if God looks away, because God sometimes withdraws Himself from His people (Song of Solomon 3:1-4; Hebrews 12:3-17). In this, we see a picture of Christ’s own anguish on the cross. The difference, however, is that Christ’s abandonment was real, not perceived, yet He still cried out to the Father with the trusting words of Psalm 22.

Look at, answer me, LORD my God. Light up my eyes lest I sleep in death.

Lest my enemy says, “I have prevailed over him.” My oppressors rejoice when I am made to stagger.

The distress of the first section has given way to the firm confidence of prayer. Having given vent to his soul, David calls on the Lord to answer him. “My God,” though frequently abused as a term, is a beautiful expression of our election in God. God has made us His own, and we belong to Him personally, even when it seems like He has turned away. The terror of God’s seeming absence cannot overwhelm the truth that He is “the LORD my God.”

Eyes may be regarded as dark for a couple of reasons. The first is that death is actually looming, and the eyes are darkening as a forerunner of the grave (Proverbs 29:13; 1 Samuel 14:27; indirectly in Ecclesiastes 12:1-3). Lighting up the eyes, then, is a call to bring back from the threat of death. Death is a place of silence, and therefore David could not praise the deeds of the Lord before the congregation there (Psalm 6:5). The other reason is that death is metaphorical for the deep distress of his soul (Ezra 9:8). I think either could work here.

David moves the Lord to action through this prayer, because he bases it on firm promises which the Lord has made. God’s glory and honor are at stake in this moment. If the enemy can say, “I have prevailed over him,” then it would seem that God either has broken His promises or that He is unable to keep them, both of which are manifestly untrue! Why should Egypt say that He brought them out to kill them (Exodus 32:12)? Why should the nations say, “Where is their God” (Psalm 79:10)? Why should the enemies of God blaspheme Him by triumphing over His people (Deuteronomy 32:27)? “It is not for your sake,” says the Lord, “that I am about to act, but for the sake of My holy name” (Ezekiel 36:22).

But I in your steadfast love have trusted. My heart will rejoice in your salvation.

I will sing to the LORD who has shown himself to me.

All has now become calm, like Christ stilling the storm (Matthew 8:26). This trust is not based in emotions, though one may feel emotionally calm at the same time. Rather, this trust bases itself on God’s steadfast love. Nor should we understand steadfast love as an intense feeling either. This is God’s unwavering faithfulness, the love He shows to us and has promised to us. God cannot lie, therefore His steadfast love is unwavering. This is the ground of our confidence, because in His Son Jesus Christ, the Lord’s steadfast love for His people reveals itself. It is a peace and joy which comes in Christ and is like nothing else (John 14:27). Even if the troubles of life continue, they will not go on forever. We can put our trust in God’s promises, so that even when He seems far away, He has promised to hear us when we cry to Him.

Note also that while the wicked rejoice in the downfall of the righteous, the righteous rejoice in the salvation of the Lord. The wicked man trusts in what is ultimately fleeting and transitory, like putting his trust in his own destruction (Psalm 52:7). However, the godly man trusts in what is everlasting and sure, because the Lord will not forsake those who trust in Him. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30:5).

As an addendum, the Septuagint interestingly adds the following phrase to verse 6:

[and I will sing to the name of the Lord Most High.]

Why it does this is not clear, though it is reflected in translations based on it and on translations based on the Latin Vulgate. The psalms frequently present ideas in pairs, and it may be that verse 6 is only “half” a verse. Perhaps the Septuagint took this from a unique variation in the texts it translated. Perhaps someone added this in order to fill in the “other half” of verse 6. Whatever the reason, the effect is the same: David praises the name of God for all that He has done in delivering him from trouble.

The Evangelist’s Slumber

Our Lord at times desired to have time apart from the demands of His ministry. He was often entirely alone, retiring to mountains where He could not easily be found. Sometimes His attempt at seclusion was frustrated through the demands of others for His presence and attention. Sometimes He called his disciples to come with Him into seclusion.

This is all tremendously needful, refreshing, and helpful. Who does not desire some time apart? Who of us can say that at every waking moment he is entirely ready and willing to carry out the ministry of the gospel? No honest man could answer “Yes.”

But there is a danger in the desire for rest. Rest is not only the resort of the hard-working. Rest is also the refuge of the lazy man who is unprepared for life’s demands. Rest throughout the week, not only on the Sabbath, is what a man does with himself when he is not carrying out his God-given tasks.

How much have we been resting from spreading the gospel? How much preparation time, reflection time, and downtime do we need until we are ready to spread the kingdom of God the Lord? How many books and conferences and modules and workshops on evangelism does one man need? How many years will pass in which we seek conversions only from other forms of Christianity rather than the ever-increasing number of people in our country who have never known Christ in the least? Godly rest and relaxation and meditation and prayer are one thing. Ungodly sluggishness and laziness and most of all apathy are another altogether.

How long will you slumber, O sluggard?
When will you rise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
A little folding of the hands to sleep—
So shall your poverty come on you like a prowler,
And your need like an armed man.
(Prov. 6:9-11)

We are most apt to rest prematurely when the work is hard. Calling up a friend and sharing ecclesiastical gossip is easily accomplished. Firing off a profound theological put-down on social media is easily accomplished. Assembling one’s theological books for an Instagram gem is easily accomplished. We are more apt to put off things like calling on a parishioner who has some beef with us or to do the hard work of engaging and evangelizing a completely new person because those things require hard, uphill, back-breaking, and at times spirit-breaking work.

But the Lord has said, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” We do not say these things only to condemn. We say this, as our Lord said what He did to his lazy, restful followers in Gethsemane: Would you not watch with Me? If our lazy, apathetic flesh could not remain awake for the betrayal of God’s Son, how likely is it to remain watchful for the hard but much smaller tasks of the ministry, including doing the work of an evangelist?

Honesty about our apathy is honesty about ourselves, about what we are most prone to love (our flesh) and most prone to neglect (our hardest tasks). Honesty about our apathy is like every confession the gate to a new path. We see head-on how ugly and untimely and niggardly our apathy about the gospel and the spread of the gospel is. We see how captivating and world-changing and bounteous is our Lord’s compassion for sinners. Knowing our hearts and knowing His mighty love and purposes, we set our hands to the hard tasks, the things we’d rather stay in bed than get up for, the things that call sinners out of their slumber into the wakefulness of the dawning light of Christ:

Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light. (Eph. 5:14)

The Work of an Evangelist: What are We Planting?

Of the bookshelves in my study, one entire shelf bears titles like “Planting Missional Churches” and “Church Planting for the 21st Century.” These books come from a wide variety of Christian confessions. “Church planting” has become a term as ecumenical as “stewardship” or “pastoral care.” Each of the books on that shelf means by “church planting” the establishment of a new Christian congregation where there was none before. No doubt, those books may recommend that the church planter should be bivocational or that he should seek out hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding before he begins. One book may insist that public worship services begin almost immediately; another may contradict that advice flatly and require that at least 200 people be on hand for the first public service. Yet each of those books presumes in common with all the others that there is such a thing as a “church planter” who establishes new churches, an activity obviously biblical called “church planting.”

It is surprising, to say the least, to read the Bible and not to find the phrase “church planting” in it. Is this like how the phrases “Holy Trinity” or “communication of attributes” also don’t appear in the Scriptures? Not really. “Trinity” unites the biblical data on the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in a single word expressing the essential divine reality for which we have no other single word. “Communication of attributes” expresses elegantly the relationship between the human and divine natures of the God-man for which we can cite all manner of passages. New congregations are established in Scripture. There is no question that Christian assemblies for worship and common life in Christ sprang up in Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and so many other locations named in the New Testament. But does the Bible speak of “planting” churches?

It does not. It speaks rather about “planting” in a variety of other ways. Jesus speaks of the Pharisees in their obstinate opposition to him as “every plant that my Father in heaven has not planted” (Mt. 15:13) and the sowing of the wheat as “plants that came up” (Mt. 13:26) alongside the Enemy’s sowing of weeds. Here the action is God’s, and the means identified in Mt. 13 is the “word of the kingdom” (Mt. 13:18). In the parable of the tenants (Mt. 21, Mk. 12, Lk. 13) the master of the vineyard plants a vineyard that belongs to Him alone. Paul, the great missionary of the post-Pentecost church, says three times in 1 Cor. 3 that he has planted (3:6, 7, 8), as he has spoken of feeding the Corinthians with milk (3:2) and of himself and Apollos as “servants through whom you believed” (3:5). The object of that planting and Apollos’ watering and God’s gift of growth is explicitly the Corinthian people themselves, “You are God’s field, God’s building” (3:12). Paul’s aim has not been to establish an institution but to call men to faith by preaching Christ crucified.

What’s the difference? This is the difference between thinking of our evangelistic task as people-centered or institution-centered. The Bible speaks about gathering people, cultivating people, God’s field as people, God’s building as people, the temple of God composed of people. Paul plants not a church but the “word of the kingdom.” The sower in Mt. 13 plants not a well-funded institution but the same word that the man sows with good seed later in the same chapter. The focus is constantly on the spread of the word and the cultivation of the Lord’s vineyard, the Lord’s field, the Lord’s building which are the believers who receive that word and bear abundant fruit. Our task is not planting organizations. The organizations with their budgets and boards will arise to manage what has been given, as you can see the church’s forms of life develop in the Acts of the Apostles. Our task is rather planting the word of the kingdom in the field of this world so that the wheat, the good seed, the abundant fruit of the Lord may grow and flourish in His vineyard.

The Work of an Evangelist: The Need

It was a truth universally acknowledged that a parish pastor in a free church should “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). Providentially guided to flourishing in America, the early Missouri Synod was ardent in spreading the gospel and planting new congregations. A synod that began with a dozen congregations and scarcely fewer clergymen reached its fiftieth anniversary with many, many times that number of churches and ministers. Without the in-depth demographic research and financial backing that is our contemporary good fortune, they spread the kingdom of God the Lord widely and deeply. They had been freed from the unbelieving strictures of the state church. They were now free to preach the Word in season and out of season.

We cannot recall their fervency without a mixture of confusion and of shame, confusion due to the sea-change in our common life and shame due to our lukewarm efforts by comparison to our fathers who were threadbare in the things of this life and rich in the things of the life to come. Everywhere we look, congregations are struggling mightily, and pastors are drowned in busyness, when they do have the means to be supported by the church. When they do not, the church’s work suffers so that the minister can put some food on his family’s table. Everywhere we look, we hear that the Faith is receding from our shores and going elsewhere, that the “passing shower of the gospel” has passed us by. What has become of us? Where has all our fathers’ resolve and confidence and joy gone? Yet we cannot recall their fervency only to bemoan our degeneration. The saints are our examples for imitation, not the occasions of our piously mournful recollection. This cloud of witnesses spurs us on to look afresh at how we might yet in our own time fulfill our calling and do the work of an evangelist.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll look closely at the evangelistic nature of the office of the ministry as the New Testament teaches it. We’ll do that in the firm conviction that if the Lord has placed us in a difficult field, yet it is here that he has given us the work that is his to bless. We do not find Saint Paul bewailing the difficulty of his task or being at all daunted by the ideological and political forces arrayed against him. In the firm conviction that “now it is the opportune time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2) for all mankind, we preach in season and out of season the Word of reconciliation also here and now in America, also here and now to the actual neighbor next door.

Here and now God has put our free church, our confessional church, our church of the pure Gospel, to proclaim that Gospel and to fulfill our calling to teach and to baptize all nations, including this one, including the spiritual-but-not-religious, including the less-than-exotic auto mechanics and coal miners and sugar beet farmers. We know that God works by calling something out of nothing and not by the wisdom of the world. We know that Christ died for us while we were yet his enemies and committed to us the Word that in Christ God was reconciling the world, even present-day Americans, to himself (2 Cor. 5:19).

Fifth Sunday after Trinity: 1 Kings 19:11-21

Elijah has been very zealous for the Lord of Hosts.  The reading for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity is part of a larger section beginning in 1 Kings 16:29.  “Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him.  And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him” (1 Kings 16:30-31).  Ahab is deliberately wicked, and Elijah is sent to proclaim the Word of the Lord to him.

Elijah therefore proclaims a drought upon the land.  He does not predict that one will come, but rather that it will not rain “except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1).  This is the first of several signs in this conflict, all with the same ultimate end.  Elijah is provided bread and water for a time by the ravens by the brook Cherith, because it is the Lord who provides (1 Kings 17:2-7).  The widow at Zarephath receives the miraculous jar of flour and jug of oil “until the day that the Lord sends rain,” because all things come from His mighty hand (1 Kings 17:8-16).  Her son is raised from death, because the Lord is the Lord of life and death, and His Word is in Elijah’s mouth (1 Kings 17:17-24).  The altar of Elijah is burned up in the sight of all, because “the Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God” (1 Kings 18:39)!  Finally, the Lord sends rain again upon the land (1 Kings 18:41-46).  All of these signs point to the same thing:  the Most Holy Trinity is the Lord of heaven and earth, and beside Him, there is no other.  “See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god beside Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of My hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39).

But Elijah doesn’t yet understand this.  Jezebel threatens to kill him because he put the prophets of Baal to death, and Elijah flees.  He has seen the hand of the Lord again and again throughout his life, and especially throughout the time of the drought.  But he is now afraid of the threat of a woman.  As Jesus says: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  But Elijah fears for his life.

A few notes about the passage itself.  Elijah strives to present his fear as zeal, as if he was the only one left who was faithful in Israel.  He has apparently forgotten the widow and Obadiah who hid the prophets in his fear, among others.  He is convinced that there is no future, because he thinks that the Lord’s Church will die out with him.  Yet the Lord reminds him that He will leave seven thousand in Israel (1 Kings 19:18).  Not seven thousand who have chosen to remain faithful or even a count of those still faithful at the moment.  The Lord declares “I will leave seven thousand in Israel,” because it is His Church.  The Church does not continue because of men, but because of the will of God.

The end of this chapter should not be excluded in this consideration.  Elisha’s call follows right on the heels of Elijah’s experience at Horeb.  God still sends men to proclaim His Word from generation to generation.  His Church will continue her mission in this age until Christ brings it to a close.  But this should remind us, as it probably did for Elijah, that the Church does not depend on us.  There will not be a “hole” when our time is ended.  Our talents, our gifts, our zeal, our ability are useful for the time in which God wills to use them for His purposes.  But the time allotted to each will come to an end, and the work of the harvest will pass to others.  We should not think of ourselves too highly and imagine that God will lack something when we are gone.  It is His Church, and He will never fail to provide for her.

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Isaiah 12

The song of Isaiah 12 actually forms the last part of a long subsection beginning in Isaiah 7.  Isaiah is sent to Ahaz in the face of an impending invasion from Syria and Israel to tell him that they will come to nothing.  Ahaz, however, does not believe, even when the Lord invites him to do what is normally forbidden by testing the Lord (Isaiah 7:12).  God gives the sign of Immanuel both as a promise of future deliverance in Christ (Matthew 1:23) but also to show faithless Ahaz that He will still do what He said by bringing the invasion to nothing (Isaiah 7:16).  However, the Lord declares that Assyria will come to sweep faithless Judah away (Isaiah 7:17-20).

Though Assyria will wipe away Judah, yet God will also bring Assyria into judgment, a promise which He emphasizes beginning in Isaiah 10.  Even though God will send His people away into exile, He will also bring them back (Isaiah 10:20-23).  The righteous Branch, that is, Christ will come forth “from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1), the seemingly dead remains of the tree of the house of David.  Jesus will be “a signal for the peoples” and “in that day the Lord will extend His hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of His people” (Isaiah 11:10-11).  Just as the Lord would bring back His people from exile, so He would also gather together His people from all the ends of the earth.

This, then, is the greater context for Isaiah 12.  “In that day,” that is, in the day when the Lord gathers His people in the second time, “I will give thanks to You” (Isaiah 12:1).  This is closely related to last week’s reading in Lamentations 3, where Jeremiah declared his hope in the Lord even in the face of the Lord’s wrath.  God will turn away from His fierce anger which lasts but a moment and bring His favor which has no end (Psalm 30:5; Job 13:15).

Isaiah 12:2 is unusual in that the Lord’s name is repeated twice in a row, first in a shortened form and then in its usual fuller form.  The NKJV renders it the most literally:  “For Yah, the LORD, is my strength and song.”  This form also occurs in Isaiah 26:4.  Perhaps this doubling is used for emphasis, especially since both references speak of the Lord as “strength.”

The imagery of “water from the wells of salvation” finds important parallels in passages like John 4 where Jesus speaks of living waters to the woman of Samaria; John 7:37-19 where He speaks of the Holy Spirit as “rivers of living water”; Ezekiel 47:1-12, where the prophet sees the river which flows forth from the temple; and Revelation 22:1-5, which speaks of the river of life in New Jerusalem.  On that day, when the believer draws water, he will call upon the name of the Lord and praise Him for what He has done (Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13; 1 Chronicles 16:8; Psalm 9:11; 105:1).

Two other words are noteworthy in this text.  The first is “gloriously” in Isaiah 12:5.  This word has the most basic meaning of “rising,” and it is used in this sense in Isaiah 9:17 where it describes smoke rising into the sky and in Psalm 89:8 where it describes the raging of the sea.  Both a column of smoke and a raging sea bring to mind a sense of awe, a rising that brings with it a sense of power.  It can also describe the rising of pride, that is to say, presumption and arrogance, as it is used in Psalm 17:10.  But the word is most often used to describe the exaltedness and the “rising” of God:  Psalm 93:1; 110:6; and Isaiah 26:10.  If the sea and smoke are exalted, how much more so the Lord!

The other is “cry aloud” or “shout” in Isaiah 12:6.  It is used in several other places, like Isaiah 10:30; 24:14; 54:1; Jeremiah 31:7; and Esther 8:15.  But its most colorful usage and the one which shows its most basic meaning occurs in Jeremiah 5:8 and 50:11, where it describes the cry of stallions.  While the translation “to neigh” doesn’t make much sense in relation to men, it is an extremely intense shouting, much like a stallion crying aloud.  Perhaps it is related to the loud whinnying of a horse who sees a long lost companion returning.

Micaiah and the Prophets

Jehoshaphat, faithful king of Judah, and Ahab, wicked king of Israel, sought a word from the Lord.  The Syrians occupied Ramoth-Gilead in northeastern Israel.  Ahab sought the aid of Jehoshaphat in reclaiming this part of the inheritance of Gad, the Levite city of refuge (Joshua 21:38).  It was shameful for Ramoth-Gilead to belong to a foreign people, even if Ahab only wanted to expand his own authority.

But Ahab still limped between the idolatry of his wife and the worship of the Lord.  Elijah had brought him to repentance some years before.  He recognized that a king should consult the Lord before attempting to retake the city, because all things were in His hands.  Therefore, they called together a great assembly of prophets and sat in the gates of Samaria, sitting on their thrones dressed in their royal robes.  What a sight it must have been!

And what a powerful and favorable message these four hundred prophets brought to the kings!  “Go up, for the Lord will give the city into the hand of the king!”  Ramoth-Gilead would belong to Israel again!  The kings would return in triumph!  Zedekiah, son of Chenaanah, who was likely their leader, even made two horns of iron, a strong and powerful symbol that the Lord was with these kings.  How could they fail?  Four hundred men all said the same thing.

But Jehoshaphat, faithful king of Judah, recognized that something seemed a bit off.  Doubtless, it was a pleasant message to hear, and Ahab delighted in hearing it.  Nevertheless, he asks “Is there not here another prophet of the Lord of whom we may inquire?”  There is indeed another man, Micaiah, son of Imlah.  He, however, never speaks a pleasant word.  Ahab kept him away intentionally.

At Jehoshaphat’s insistence, however, they call him.  Micaiah is even coached beforehand how to respond.  How could four hundred prophets be wrong?  But Micaiah said, “As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I will speak.”  He wasn’t impressed by the kings sitting in all their splendor.  Four hundred prophets all saying the same thing meant nothing.  Even when he sarcastically said what the other prophets said, they knew he didn’t mean it.  Rather, he faithfully spoke a word of judgment from the Lord.  Satan, that lying spirit, had deceived these four hundred men, because it was the will of the Lord to put Ahab to death.

Micaiah spoke a faithful word, even when everyone was against him.  He prophesied faithfully, knowing full well it would cost him his life.  After all, he was thrown into prison, and the Bible says nothing else about him.  He most likely died there.  But Ahab, despite his best efforts to avoid the judgment, met his death at Ramoth-Gilead.  All Israel was scattered, just as Micaiah had said.

The time will come for all when a faithful Word must be spoken.  They will drag you into courts.  They will drag you before kings.  It may cost you a fine.  You may be impoverished for the sake of the Truth.  It may cost you your job.  You may have to speak a faithful word even against those you know best.  But in that hour, do not be afraid, “for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:20).  Micaiah knew this, and therefore he was not afraid.  Even though he stood alone, the Lord of Hosts was with him.  Micaiah died speaking the Word faithfully.  May we also be ready to leave everything behind—house, job, family, a retirement plan, even our very lives—in search of a better country, that is, a heavenly one.

1 Kings 22:1-40 and 2 Chronicles 18