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Our Avenging Shield (Psalm 3)

The martial character of many of the Psalms should not give us pause.  Paul, after all, encourages Timothy to “wage the good warfare” as a soldier of Christ (1 Timothy 1:18).  Wearing the whole armor of God, Christians stand firm and unbending against the devil seeking their destruction (Ephesians 6:10-20; 1 Peter 5:8-9).  The Lord, after all, is the Lord of hosts, that is to say, the Lord of armies who guides and protects His people.

Psalm 3 is the first psalm to bear an inscription.  These titles appear originally in the text and frequently provide some information about the circumstances surrounding the psalm.  In this case, the most likely reference is to 2 Samuel 15:13-17.  David, upon learning about the conspiracy of his own son Absalom, flees Jerusalem.  Certainly, some of Absalom’s faction reviled David as fleeing in terror.  David, however, trusts firmly in the Lord even in the face of imminent danger, which in this case is amplified coming from his own family.

David begins by alluding to this danger.  “O Lord, how many are my enemies!  Many stand up against me.  Many say to my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God.’”  David’s enemies taunt him, saying that God is unable to deliver him from their hands.  God will not be able to save you now!  David, on the other hand, does not minimize the danger, as if trusting in the Lord meant that it wasn’t real.  Rather, even in the midst of a very real danger to his own body, he continues to seek the Lord.  Even if we must suffer, God himself will “restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish” us with an eternal glory (1 Peter 5:10).

The term selah, which appears here for the first time in the Psalter, is a matter of debate.  It may be a musical direction, related to the idea of “lifting up,” which might mean to lift up the voice in pitch.  Nevertheless, I will pass over it for the time being.

“But you, Lord, are a shield surrounding me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.”  The Lord surrounds His own like a shield wall, protecting against attack from every direction.  Elisha comforted his servant by reminding him that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” for the Lord surrounded them with horses and chariots of fire (2 Kings 6:16-17).  Further, God lifts up the head of David, bowed down with the troubles and dangers of life.  “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

“I called [with] my voice to the Lord, and He answered me from His holy hill.”  God hears the cries of His people.  No prayer of the faithful goes unheard.  Further, the “holy hill” is Zion, the site of the temple.  God dwells in the midst of His people, and the temple served as the place of His dwelling for a time.  Now, as the Lord dwells within us, His temple (1 Corinthians 3:16), we have an even greater assurance, because the Spirit Himself prays within us (Romans 8:26).

“I lay down and slept.  I woke up, for the Lord supported me.  I will not be afraid of a multitude of people encircling, who set themselves against me.”  So confident is David of the Lord as His salvation that anxiety does not consume him.  He is able to sleep even though men are seeking his life.  Anxiety accomplishes nothing (Matthew 6:34).  It is the sign of a doubting heart.  Even if ten thousand foes surrounded David, what could they do?  “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).

“Get up, Lord!  Save me, my God, for you strike all my enemies on the check.  The teeth of the wicked you break.  Salvation [belongs] to the Lord!  Your blessing on your people.”  The imagery of striking hard enough to break teeth loose is not disjointed here.  When the Lord protects His people, it is not merely a passive act.  “Vengeance is mine, and recompense” (Deuteronomy 32:35; see also 1 Thessalonians 4:6).  Many of the promises of God include the destruction of His enemies, because then those who assaulted His Church will receive their just reward (Psalm 110:1; Hebrews 10:13-14).  The point, therefore, is that deliverance or salvation comes from God alone.  Revenge is forbidden, because our own hand accomplishes nothing.  God alone will save us at the proper time.  “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6).

Let us pray this Psalm confidently, therefore, knowing that the Lord protects us in the midst of all dangers.  The Christian rests safely in His hands, and the Lord will set all things right.

Third Sunday after Trinity: Micah 7:18-20

The prophet Micah was more or less a contemporary of Isaiah.  Micah 1:1 notes that his ministry stretched from the reign of Jotham to Hezekiah in Judah.  His time was a turbulent one.  While Jotham and Hezekiah were both good kings in the sight of the Lord (2 Kings 15:32-38 and 18:1-8), Ahaz was not (2 Kings 16).  If things had been improving when Micah began, they certainly took a hard turn not long after.  On top of that, the northern kingdom of Israel fell during his days (2 Kings 17:6).  It is a period of turbulence and upheaval everywhere.

Micah initially directs his rebuke against the people in general, warning them of their coming destruction because of their sins.  The people were complacent and distorted the promises of God to mean something entirely different.  “’Do not preach’—thus they preach— ‘one should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us’” (Micah 2:6).  God will surely not destroy His chosen people, right?  But they were carnally secure, thinking that the promises applied to them even if they did not walk in the ways of the Lord.  “If a man should go about and utter wind and lies, saying, ‘I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,’ he would be the preacher for this people” (Micah 2:11)!  The Lord does not promise to save the faithless or the rebellious.  Was that the case, who would ever be condemned?

Micah also rebukes those in command, because they in particular were “eating up” the people through their sins (Micah 3).  The prophets were preaching lies and crying “peace” when there was no peace.  They were promising that the sinful people would remain in the land, though in our own day many say that God does not actually hate sin.  Manifest sinners are part of the Church, right?  Nor is it right to say that we are all sinners, which is true enough in itself.  No one deserves grace.  But to say that someone who refuses to repent of a sin, declaring it to be natural or that God has made them this way, is to declare peace when there is no peace.  “Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination. The sun shall go down on the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God” (Micah 3:6-7).

But the Lord promises to His faithful remnant that “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:2).  If the day of destruction is surely coming, then the day of peace is also coming in Jesus Christ.  Bethlehem Ephrathah, being too small to supply men for military service, will be the place from whom the Ruler shall come (Micah 5:2).  Jesus, born in Bethlehem, will be the one to bring peace to the land.  There will be no more war or idolatry in the land anymore.

Micah 6-7 forms the final section of the book.  The Lord brings an indictment against His people:  why have they turned away when He has done so much for them (Micah 6:1-5)?  It will not do to offer thanksgiving without atonement, so to speak.  Sin must be atoned for, and rivers of oil will not cover over it (Micah 6:6-8).  The wicked will come to an end for their sins, especially seen in the sins against their own brothers (Micah 6:9-16).

Yet even though the righteous man suffers much, especially at the hands of the wicked, the Lord will not fail him.  He is not righteous because of anything he has done, but because the Lord “pleads my cause and executes judgment for me.  He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon His vindication” (Micah 7:9).  After all, God pardons iniquity and passes over transgression for His faithful remnant.  Casting our sins into the depths of the seas, the Lord shows that promised faithfulness.  Abraham and our fathers have not been cast off, and God does not cast us off because of His Son.

Sixth Sunday of Easter: Numbers 21:4-9

That Israel was complaining yet again on the way around Edom in Numbers 21:4-9 is not surprising.  The people have done little other than complain against God and His providence during their journey through the wilderness.  Even their complaint is nothing unusual (finding parallels with passages like Exodus 16:3 and 17:3).

What is unique about this passage is the punishment the Lord sends against them in the form of “fiery serpents.”  The word translated here as “fiery” is related to the word “seraphim” from Isaiah 6:2, which might be translated there literally as “the burning ones.”  But it is not as clear in Numbers 21 what the word is meant to describe.  Is it “fiery” because of their bite, a burning sensation?  Is there something about their appearance which makes them seem like fire?  They do not need to be a miraculous form of snake, since the Lord has shown through the plagues and other similar miracles that He may use even what is “natural” to fulfill His will.  Moses even mentions them in passing in Deuteronomy 8:15 as if they were a normal part of the wilderness.  But they may be related to the flying fiery serpents of Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6.  Nevertheless, the question, while intriguing, does not change much in terms of the point of the passage.

The people recognize their sin and ask for Moses to intercede for them.  Aaron did a similar act earlier in Numbers 16:46-50, when he stood between the dead and the living to make atonement for them.  Exodus 32:11-14 is helpful for understanding such intercession, because it recalls the longsuffering and the mercy of the Lord.  He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to whom He swore by Himself.

The Lord commands Moses to fashion a metal image of a snake.  Such a command does not break the law against such images in Exodus 20:4, because it is the Lord who commands it (compare the similar command to test God, normally forbidden, in Isaiah 7:11).  Gazing upon this image carried with it the clear promise of deliverance.  God delivered His people who had faith in Him and His promises, even in the midst of judgment.

Jesus refers to this event while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:14-15.  As the serpent was raised up, so must the Son of Man be raised up.  As gazing upon the serpent according to the promise delivered men from death, so will the Son of Man deliver those who believe in Him from everlasting death.  The serpent on the pole delivered from a temporal judgment, and Christ on the cross delivers from an eternal judgment.

One must be careful, however, to not turn the serpent on the pole into merely a sermon illustration.  Christ makes a comparison between Himself and the serpent of Moses, not an identification, so to speak.  God delivered His people in a real and very historical way on the way to Edom, and this should not be overlooked.  Christ delivers His people in a greater way, to be sure, and the serpent points to this deliverance.  But if God did not act in history to work a very real, however limited, salvation, then why does the “story” have to be “real”?  The parables are fictional stories which still make spiritual points.  But the Old Testament is not a collection of narratives, so to speak, but an account of God delivering a “real people” through His “real acts” of deliverance in preparation for the great Deliverance in His Son.

One final note about the bronze serpent occurs in 2 Kings 18:4.  Hezekiah tears down that image and destroys it during his religious reforms, because the people had fallen into idolatry, calling it “Nehushtan.”  They had corrupted the clear promise of God for deliverance and perverted it into something God had not intended.  Israel had likely made it into a “god” in its own right, in spite of the clear commandment against it.  But it also shows the very real danger to fall into spiritual security, imagining that God’s promises provide license for sin (compare Jeremiah 7:4).  This is no less a temptation for Christians, who may exalt the love of God so as to extinguish His wrath.

Who Can But Prophesy?

Unbelievers are not the only ones prone to sinful security.  Sin certainly hardens the heart of the unbeliever into believing that there is always more time (Luke 2:16-21).  But abused mercy has a way of hardening the heart in a way that unbelief cannot.  The one who sins believing that he has God’s favor is in a more dangerous position than the one who does not believe (Luke 12:47-48).

“Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O sons of Israel, against all the clans that I brought up out of the land of Egypt, saying:  ‘You only have I known out of all the clans of the earth’” (Amos 3:1-2).  The Lord directed this prophecy, which came through the shepherd Amos, against the idolatrous northern kingdom of Israel in the days of the second Jeroboam.  For hundreds of years Israel had walked in the footsteps of the first Jeroboam, who had led Israel into sin (1 Kings 12:25-33).  But they did not imagine themselves to be apostate or idolatrous.  After all, they still offered burnt offerings to the Lord and peace offerings, didn’t they (Amos 5:21-22)?  Didn’t they at least observe the Sabbath, even if they had things to do after the requirement was over (Amos 8:4-6)?  Idolatry is always papered over, serving the Lord in one’s own mind in ways that he has not commanded, or claiming to fear God and yet going after other gods (Zechariah 1:4-6; 1 Kings 18:21; 2 Kings 17:39-41).

This is why it is so easy for sin to blind the one who has received mercy and turn again toward sin as a result.  “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’” (Matthew 3:9).  “A Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:29).  “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13).  The prophets fought against this hardness, for the people had convinced themselves that the Lord would not bring disaster upon His people.  He has made all of these wonderful promises to our fathers!  Why would He now bring judgment?

But the judgment of God rests heavier upon those who have known His mercy and yet rejected it.  This is why He reminds them of His former mercy in bringing them up out of Egypt.  They have known His grace and His love for them and for their fathers.  The Lord did not choose them because they were unique in any way, but because He loved them (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).  Yet they should not lull themselves to sleep because God is long-suffering.  The patience of God does not mean He is unaware or does not care.

“Do two walk together unless they have agreed to meet?”  No.  “Does a lion roar in the forest when he has no prey?”  No.  “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid?”  No.  “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?”  No!  These things do not just happen, as if the forces of nature were mindless and independent, the way we so often view them.  Disasters are a call to repentance.  Amos makes this abundantly clear later:  the Lord sends famine, drought, blight, locusts, pestilence, and war as a call to forsake evil and turn toward him, “yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6-11).

It is true that in Jesus Christ, Christians know the mercy of the Father.  Jesus is our forgiveness and our life.  In Him, the work of our salvation is finished.  But will we look to our Baptism and say that I may do as I please, because I have been baptized into Christ?  Will we receive the Lord’s Supper while holding a grudge in our hearts?  “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1)?  Will we imagine that only the Jews were prone to carnal security?  “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1)!

But disasters are not a blind call to repentance.  It is all too easy to see “acts of God” and attribute them to natural forces.  The Lord has not, however, left us with only a mute witness in the world.  “For the Lord does nothing without revealing His secret to his servants the prophets.  The lion has roared; who will not fear?  The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy” (Amos 3:7-8)?  In His holy Word, the Lord calls us to repentance.  In the Scriptures, we have more than ample warning.

And through His servants, the prophets and also the apostles, the Lord has declared this Word to us.  Through the living voice of those whom He has called to proclaim His message, the Lord declares this Word.  Who can but prophesy?  The living Word proclaimed by the Holy Spirit is a fire in the bones, incapable of being restrained (Jeremiah 20:9).  We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).  “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16)!  The watchman of the house of Israel cannot but speak what he has heard, lest he endanger his own soul also (Ezekiel 3:17-18).