To Heal the Land

On patriotic holidays such as July Fourth, I always intend to pray for my country.  I also mean to pray for Israel, for the many nations experiencing great suffering, for Christian missionary work throughout the world, and for the return of Jesus to establish His righteous Kingdom.

But I usually don’t get very far with such prayers.  Over the years, I have lamented my laziness, and decided that others have more of a calling to intercession than I do.  But now I think there is also another reason at work.  Resolute and persevering intercession seems to be at war with gratitude and worship.  Even in heaven, the voices of the souls of the martyrs, calling “How long . . . ?” from under the altar (Revelation 6:9-10), seem to us to clash with the just-concluded anthem of “blessing, and honor, and glory, and power” (5:13, KJV) — even though, since “every creature” joined in that chorus, the martyrs apparently offer both protest and praise.  In the same way, the watchmen posted by the Lord on Jerusalem’s walls, calling on Him day and night, giving themselves and Him no rest till He establish the city and the kingdom (Isaiah 62:6-7), come across as unbalanced, as severe and fierce, though, as heralds of the rejoicing Bridegroom (verse 5), they roar in hope.

God is so kind that He helps us with such dilemmas, teaching us in many different ways.  He gives us His great and precious promises, but His Word also presents accounts and examples of people believing these promises, living by them, and claiming them in prayer.

There is one promise in particular that Christians often think of on patriotic occasions, but we don’t always remember the context.  David desired to build a Temple for the Lord in Jerusalem, and made many preparations for it.  His son Solomon spent seven years building it, and all Israel gathered for seven days just to dedicate it.  Some time after this, the Lord appears to Solomon at night and makes this promise:

I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for Myself as a Temple for sacrifices.

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among My people, if My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.  I have chosen and consecrated this Temple so that My name may be there forever.  My eyes and My heart will always be there.  (2 Chronicles 7:12-16, NIV)

This promise is made at the height of the Kingdom of Israel’s glory.  Its territorial boundaries were greater than at any other time, with safety and “peace on all sides” (1 Kings 4:24-25); we also read, “King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth” (10:23, NIV).  This was Israel’s golden age.

Now we move ahead about 420 years, and we find one person who enters into this promise.  The times are very different: because of sin, the Lord has torn Israel in two, handed them over to their enemies; the Temple is destroyed, Jerusalem lies in ruins, and the people are in exile.  It seems to some as if all the promises of God have failed.  But a man named Daniel is reading his Bible and trying to understand.

. . . I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.  (Daniel 9:2, NIV)

He’s thinking that the time should be about up, and yet there’s no sign of a restoration.

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with Him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.  (9:3, NIV)

Remember what the Lord said to Solomon: “if My people . . . will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways . . .”

I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:

“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with all who love Him and obey His commands, we have sinned and done wrong.  We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from Your commands and laws.  We have not listened to Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.

“Lord, You are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame — the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where You have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to You.  O Lord, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against You.  The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against Him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws He gave us through His servants the prophets.  All Israel has transgressed Your law and turned away, refusing to obey You.

“Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against You.  You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing upon us great disaster.  Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem.  Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to Your truth.  The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything He does; yet we have not obeyed Him.

“Now, O Lord our God, who brought Your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for Yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong.  O Lord, in keeping with all Your righteous acts, turn away Your anger and Your wrath from Jerusalem, Your city, Your holy hill.  Our sins and the iniquities of our fathers have made Jerusalem and Your people an object of scorn to all those around us.

“Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of Your servant.  For Your sake, O Lord, look with favor on Your desolate sanctuary.  Give ear, O God, and hear; open Your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears Your name.  We do not make requests of You because we are righteous, but because of Your great mercy.  O Lord, listen!  O Lord, forgive!  O Lord, hear and act!  For Your sake, O my God, do not delay, because Your city and Your people bear Your name.” (9:4-19)

This is a remarkable prayer.  Notice, first, that Daniel fully identifies with Israel.  If anyone among the exiles could have called himself “special,” it was Daniel: he had been chosen as a young man, trained in all the wisdom of the Babylonians; he had lived many decades in or near the king’s palace.  But from the first, when he insisted on a diet of vegetables and water, he allied himself with the Israelites, a displaced people, living as refugees.

Moreover, Daniel doesn’t say that a previous generation sinned — or “those people.”  He keeps saying “we.”  There is utter humility here — no excuses, no boasts.  Partly because of this, as he prays, his faith rises up; he reminds himself of what he genuinely believes about the character of God: “You are righteous . . . merciful and forgiving . . . righteous in everything [You] do . . . great in mercy.”

The outcome of this prayer is astounding.  While Daniel is still speaking, the angel Gabriel shows up to instruct him (9:21).  Within two years the first return begins, and the rebuilding of the Temple. (1)  More enduringly, the Lord reveals to Daniel and to us that He has a plan “to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness,” and He announces the coming Anointed Ruler (9:24-25, NIV).  In other words, when Daniel prays, the Lord in some measure reveals Jesus to his heart.

It can seem out of balance to pray like this; it’s as if Daniel has joined the ranks of the martyrs and the watchmen.  Normally, we want and need to enumerate our blessings and give thanks to God, and praise Him for who He is.  Daniel knew this; in an earlier chapter, he is described as praying, “giving thanks to his God” three times a day (6:10, NIV).  But sometimes God calls intercessors to focus their attention on the glass half empty, to groan and travail over sin and its consequences.  And yet Daniel isn’t moved to pray because things are “so bad,” because of a plague or a drought.  Rather, it’s a promise from God, stirring his hope, that prompts him to cry out for restoration.  Remember, he has just been reading the words of his contemporary Jeremiah:

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill My gracious promise to bring you back to this place.  For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.  I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”  (Jeremiah 29:10-14, NIV)

Daniel doesn’t turn from thanksgiving to intercession because conditions are so awful, but because God is so good and His purposes so marvelous.  The prayer of faith that honors God doesn’t spring from a desperate, bargaining fear but from clear-eyed hope in a gracious Lord.  And it is a people filled with wonder, practiced in the discipline of giving thanks, who are best equipped to take up the calling (be it long or short) of unrelenting intercession.  We give Him no rest because of the joy set before us.

Let us then pray for our nation, and for the world, not because we have no other hope but because we have been given such an astonishing hope.  We are able to humble ourselves, and to acknowledge the extent of our depravity, as we stand in the light of His glorious plans.  This holiday, let’s pray not because we see desolation — wars and refugees, famines and epidemics, injustice, poverty, trauma, ruination — but looking toward the unseen, grasping hold of some great Biblical promise of national and global healing.  If we spend time in His presence, taste His goodness, consider His plans, we will invite His coming.

Father, we pray:

  • That You will establish, guide, and bless “all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness,” and that You will raise up people in every place “to lift up holy hands in prayer” (1 Timothy 2:2, 8, NIV), for, though we are now citizens of the heavenly realms and of God’s Israel (Philippians 3:20; Ephesians 2:6, 12, 19), still, so long as we are “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13, RSV; 1 Peter 2:11), we seek the peace and prosperity of the places to which You carry us (Jeremiah 29:7);
  • That You will open doors in every land for the message of the gospel (Colossians 4:3), “that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1, NIV), and that as Lord of the harvest You will send out workers into the field (Luke 10:2);
  • That believers “may be delivered from wicked and evil men” (2 Thessalonians 3:2, NIV), that You will protect them from the evil one (John 17:15), and that we may all be one in Christ (John 17:21-23), increasing and abounding in love and in faith (1 Thessalonians 3:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:3).
  • We pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6), that You will establish Jerusalem and make her the praise of the earth (Isaiah 62:7), and that all Israel may be saved (Romans 10:1; 11:26).
  • And we groan with all creation for the return of Jesus, liberation from sin, and “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21, NIV), when “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2, NIV), and when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14, NIV; Isaiah 11:9) and every knee will bow “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11, NIV).  Come, Lord Jesus (Revelation 22:20; 1 Corinthians 16:22).

When even one person humbles himself or herself, prays, seeks God’s face, and turns from wickedness, He begins to heal the land.  So we ask for “a spirit of grace and supplication” (Zechariah 12:10, NIV).

 

(1) Here I am following the dates proposed by The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985): Solomon’s Temple dedicated in 958 B.C., Daniel’s prayer in 539-38, and the return under Sheshbazzar and the commencement of Temple construction in 537-36 (see pages 482, 485, 1313, 674).  Note that 1 Kings 9:1-2 and 2 Chronicles 7:11 suggest that the Lord’s promise to Solomon was made some years after the Temple dedication, when the royal palace was also completed; NIV Study Bible (489) dates this at 946 B.C. or later.

 

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Crushed

The Bible never minimizes pain. Even though, from an eternal perspective, our afflictions are “light and momentary” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NIV), and even though we’re advised to embrace them with joy because of the fruit that grows out of them (James 1:2; Romans 5:3), still, when the Bible speaks of pain, it uses strong words — like the Hebrew daka, “crushed.” It simply isn’t like God to say that we have an “owee” or a “boo-boo,” or that we are having a bad day. He remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103:14); He sympathizes with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). When we are hurting, God, and the people of God, say “crushed.”

If anything, it’s our translations that try to soften things. Some of our English versions render daka as contrite and contrition. It may be a good word, but for the life of me I don’t know quite what contrition is. And one thing I like about the Bible is that Hebrew seems to be a very visual language. At the root of almost every word, there’s a picture. “Crushed” means pulverized, ground up, reduced to powder or to dust. It’s what an old-fashioned pharmacist used to do with a mortar and pestle. It’s used to describe an extreme form of suffering that continues over time. It never speaks only of the body, but always includes as well the spirit, the emotions, and the mind.

In Scripture God’s people often use this word. Here’s David in Psalm 143:3: “For the enemy has pursued me; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead” (RSV). “Long dead” because his bones aren’t even bones any more; it feels as if they’ve crumbled away to dust. Psalm 38:8: “I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart” (NIV). Do you hear the pain of someone coping with a chronic or life-threatening illness, or with injury, or with loss? Similarly, in the New Testament, Paul writes that during one period of trial he was “so utterly, unbearably crushed” that he “despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8, RSV). More often than not, the One doing the crushing is God, as in Psalm 90:3: “You turn men back to dust” (NIV).

The word daka is used of Jesus twice, in Isaiah 53, in describing the Suffering Servant. Verse 5 says, “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities” (NIV). Most English translations say “bruised,” probably because what the Romans did to Jesus’ body seems more like bruising than crushing. (Not one of His bones was broken, John 19:36.) But bruising is far too slight a word; bruising is what happened when my older brother used to slap my arm with his bedroom slipper. Jesus’ spirit was crushed. “Gethsemane” means oil press; the name comes from big stone rollers, that took two people to operate, that crushed olives until every drop of oil was squeezed out.(1) Jesus was under intense pressure; we see this in His agony or anguish, His sweat like drops of blood (Luke 22:44), and His “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7, NIV and RSV). And in the Gospels the paraphrases do use this word. In the Living Bible, Jesus says to the three disciples, “My soul is crushed by sorrow” (Mark 14:34; “crushed with horror and sadness,” Matthew 26:38). In The Message He says, “This sorrow is crushing My life out” (Matthew 26:38).

But it’s the second occurrence in Isaiah 53 that takes my breath away: “Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer,” making Him a guilt offering (v. 10, NIV). We know that God is anything but cruel. The Book of Lamentations, written right in the midst of the worst divine judgment in the Old Testament, still affirms, “He does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men” (Lamentations 3:33, RSV). Isaiah goes further; speaking of God’s faithfulness to Israel, he says, “In all their affliction He was afflicted” (63:9, RSV). The pain we feel is as nothing to the pain that fills His heart. How then could He bear to crush His own Son, and how can He crush the Body of Christ even now?

When God gives Moses instructions for the tabernacle, He tells him to make a special incense by taking certain pure spices and — God specifies — grinding or crushing them into a very fine powder. Only then is the incense “most holy” (Exodus 30:36), ready to be part of the atonement offering in the presence of God in the Most Holy Place (Leviticus 16:12-13). The crushing releases something, a fragrance, that can’t be brought out in any other way.

Jesus is that pure offering. Proverbs 27:22 tells us that even grinding a fool in a mortar won’t separate his folly from him. Crush me into a powder, and every atom will still be stained with sin. But we see from Isaiah 53 that crushing the pure One, as a guilt offering, removes folly and guilt and redeems the fool.

As for us, we are like harvested stalks. When the people of Israel made bread, the grain had to be threshed; it was crushed under the feet of an animal or the wheels of a cart or the weight of a heavy sled.(2) This was the only way to break the hard outer shell or husk, and separate impurities. Even manna, which is called “the bread of angels” (Psalm 78:25), had to be crushed in a mortar (Numbers 11:8). Throughout the Bible, threshing is an important process, and some significant events take place at threshing floors. The temple itself is built on the site of a threshing floor (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21).

Threshing doesn’t continue forever (Isaiah 28:23-29). David is bold enough to pray, “[L]et the bones You have crushed rejoice” (Psalm 51:8, NIV). How can a bone that has been reduced to powder rejoice? Only in God — only in the One who raises the dead and commands the dust to arise. So too, the crushing is not the end of the Servant: “After the suffering of His soul, He will see the light of life and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11, NIV).

In the meantime, there are remarkable promises addressed specifically to those who are crushed:

  • Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (RSV).
  • Psalm 51:17: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is . . . a broken and [crushed] heart” (RSV).
  • Isaiah 66:2, where God is speaking: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and [crushed] in spirit, and trembles at My word” (NIV). Imagine being esteemed or valued or highly regarded by God.
  • My favorite is Isaiah 57:15: “For this is what the high and lofty One says — He who lives forever, whose name is holy: I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is [crushed] and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the [crushed]” (NIV).       Think of all the preparations that it took for the holy God to dwell among us in a tabernacle or a temple: blood and sacrifices, special clothes, separations, curtains, washings.       And here He says, For Me to come in and to stay, it takes all that — or it takes being crushed. The person who is crushed is walking through the valley of humility. God opposes the proud, but He gives to the humble the continuous grace of His presence, and He comes to revive and sustain the heart of the crushed.

Jesus went to the lowest place of all. Even though He had no hardness to break, and no sin to separate, He allowed Himself to be crushed by the weight of our sins. He dwells in the high and holy place, and also and especially in the place of shame outside the camp (Hebrews 13:11-13). He meets us there.

I ended up studying the word “crushed” because I wanted to study breakthroughs in the Bible. What I found is that, for every occasion when God “breaks forth” against His enemies, there seem to be three or four times when He “breaks out” against His own people or “breaks down” their walls. Because of our sin, because He is holy, because He disciplines those He loves, we get broken. Before He can build up, He must tear down (Jeremiah 1:10).

When it comes to intercession, the Bible talks about three groups, and they’re all connected with walls. There are the watchmen God posts on the walls to call upon Him and give Him no rest (Isaiah 62:6-7; Ezekiel 3:17; 33:7). There are those who repair and rebuild broken walls (Isaiah 58:12; 61:4; Ezekiel 13:5), like Nehemiah. And then there are those who stand before God in the gap, in the broken place; only of this third group does God say that He looked and found no one to take on the task (Ezekiel 22:30). Before anyone can rebuild the wall, before anyone can stand watch atop it, we need believers who are willing to stand in their pain, still trusting. The rest of us need to say to our brothers and sisters, “You are the breakthrough.” For the gap is not “out there” somewhere in our culture; rather, wherever brokenness is found, there God is working. Where strength and pride are already broken down, that is where breakthrough occurs.

(1) R.K. Harrison, “Oil,” in J.D. Douglas, ed., The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962, 1975), 906.

(2) J.L. Kelso, “Agriculture,” New Bible Dictionary, 19; Marvin R. Wilson and John H. Stek, note on Ruth 1:22, in Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 366.

God of Breakthroughs

When we pray for a breakthrough, what exactly are we asking for? We might start with an episode from the life of David:

When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over all Israel, they went up in full force to search for him, . . . So David and his men went up to Baal Perazim, and there he defeated them. He said, “As waters break out, God has broken out against my enemies by my hand.” So that place was called Baal Perazim [“the Lord who breaks out”]. The Philistines had abandoned their gods there, and David gave orders to burn them in the fire. (1 Chronicles 14:8, 11-12, NIV; compare the parallel account in 2 Samuel 5)

The Lord “breaks out” or “breaks forth,” revealing His power, routing the enemy, vanquishing false and demonic gods. The comparison with surging waters is striking. The power associated with water is not often called divine in Scripture; more frequently, it rises in opposition to God (for example, “bursting forth” from the womb of its creation in Job 38:8). Water is “unstable” (Genesis 49:4), the home of a thrashing, chaotic monster (Ezekiel 32:2; Psalm 74:13; 89:9-10). The Lord is often praised for delivering from the raging, overwhelming, engulfing floodwaters (e.g., Psalm 124:2-5); but He also constrains and releases the flood, memorably at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:26-28; 15:8-10). His wrath is “like a flood of water” (Hosea 5:10, NIV), “like water rushing down a slope” (Micah 1:4, NIV). Ultimately, it is our sin that releases this explosive force; we foolishly make a breach or crack in a dam established by God (Proverbs 17:14).

Only on rare occasions is water both forceful and life-giving. Water “gushes” from the stricken rock at Meribah (Numbers 20:11; Psalm 78:20; 105:41; Isaiah 48:21). “Spring up, O well!” sing the desert wanderers (Numbers 21:17); and, centuries later, the Lord promises that, once again, waters will break forth in the wilderness (Isaiah 35:6; compare John 4:14).

Throughout the Old Testament, though, the Lord’s ability to “break out” is rarely connected with His redemptive acts. It is presented rather as the coiled force of His holiness, and thus a danger to all who are tainted by sin. So at Sinai, as the Lord reveals the Law of His covenant, the people and even the priests are warned to stay back, lest He “break out” against them (Exodus 19:22, 24). Plague “breaks out” when they provoke Him to anger (Psalm 106:29). During long centuries of relapse and rebellion, He repeatedly “breaks through” and “breaks down” Israel’s walls, leaving His people defenseless before their enemies (Psalm 80:12; 89:40; Isaiah 5:5). “You have rejected us, O God, and burst forth upon us,” the psalmist laments (Psalm 60:1, NIV). For Job, it is personal: “He breaks me with breach upon breach” (16:14, RSV).

In the very next chapter after David’s victory over the Philistines (according to 2 Samuel — or, in 1 Chronicles, the chapter before), we find another of these seemingly misdirected breakthroughs. The ark of God has been housed for many years at Kiriath-Jearim, at the house of Abinadab (1 Samuel 6:21-7:1), when David decides to bring it to Jerusalem on a new cart. This may have been a journey of as little as nine miles.(1) It begins as a festive procession. Abinadab’s son Uzzah is perhaps standing on the platform of the cart, using a stick or a cart-rope to drive the oxen:(2)

And when they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzzah put out his hand to hold the ark, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and He smote him because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there before God. And David was angry because the Lord had broken forth upon Uzzah; and that place is called Perez Uzzah [“the breaking forth upon Uzzah”] to this day. And David was afraid of God that day; and he said, “How can I bring the ark of God home to me?” (1 Chronicles 13:9-12, RSV)

If Baal Perazim is a glorious “breaking out” of the holy God, Perez Uzzah is a terrifying outbreak.(3)

Zerah: The Outstretched Hand

Long before Uzzah, before the rout of the Philistines, there is another Biblical “breakout.” Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob/Israel, unwittingly sleeps with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar, and she becomes pregnant:

When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.” But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, “So this is how you have broken out!” And he was named Perez [“breaking out”]. Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out and he was given the name Zerah. (Genesis 38:27-30, NIV)

Here we have another Perez, but this one comes with a twin brother — and a contrast. Unlike the earlier twins Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25:21-26), this birth doesn’t signal a lifelong struggle for the rights of the firstborn; generations later, when the people return from exile, the clans of Perez and Zerah each furnish a prominent leader (Nehemiah 11:4, 24). Still later, the brothers are both named in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:3).

Instead, the emphasis here falls on the midwife’s observations. Initially, it appears that the son who stretches out his hand will “come out first.” Then, contrary to expectations, the other twin bursts out, and even makes a way for his brother.

The imagery here is indelicate to us — I doubt that the Sunday school supply companies ever made a flannelgraph rendition of this scene — but the sequence has prophetic significance. We see, I believe, two very different approaches to life and salvation.

Baby number one puts out his hand. The hand symbolizes power, so that it is a terrible thing to be “delivered into the hands” of one’s enemies (Deuteronomy 1:27; Judges 2:14; and often). Encouragement “strengthens the hands” (1 Samuel 23:16; 2 Samuel 2:7; 16:21; Ezra 1:6; 6:22; Nehemiah 2:18; Job 4:3; Isaiah 35:3; Zechariah 8:9, 13), and discouragement weakens them (2 Samuel 4:1; 2 Chronicles 15:7; Ezra 4:4; Nehemiah 6:9; Jeremiah 38:4); this link is made explicit in Ezekiel 27:14: “Will your courage endure or your hands be strong in the day I deal with you?” (NIV). Indeed, when the Lord judges, “all hands will go limp” (Isaiah 13:7; Jeremiah 6:24; 47:3; 50:43; Ezekiel 7:17; 21:7).

Human beings do evil “because it is in the power of their hand” (Micah 2:1, RSV). The defiant man “has stretched out his hand against God” (Job 15:15, Amplified) — as Jeroboam is stricken for stretching out a hand against the Lord’s prophet (1 Kings 13:4), and as fallen Adam must be ejected from Eden, “lest he put forth his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22, Amplified). At one time or another, “He seals up the hand of every man, that all men may know His work” (Job 37:7, RSV).

In the Old Testament, the people of God struggle to learn when not to use and trust their own power. Obedient Abraham is restrained when he “stretches forth his hand” against Isaac, his only son (Genesis 22:10). Joseph’s brothers, though their jealous hatred is in full flood, are persuaded by Reuben and then by Judah not to “lay hands” on him (Genesis 37:22, 27). Most strikingly, David — though the Lord has “trained his hands” for war (Psalm 18:34; 144:1) — David steadfastly resists the temptation to “put forth his hand” against Saul, reminding himself that even this murderous and unjust king is the Lord’s anointed (1 Samuel 24:6; 26:9, 11; 2 Samuel 1:14). As Paul summarizes it, much of the Law boils down to setting limits on our hands: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Colossians 2:21; emphasis added).

But Tamar’s first baby instinctively puts out his hand. The midwife marks him with a scarlet thread: a sign of redemption and covenant inclusion. The kissable lips of the beloved are a scarlet thread (Song 4:13). A scarlet thread, tied in the window of Rahab the prostitute, saves her household when Jericho is destroyed (Joshua 2:18, 21); it echoes the Passover blood on the Israelites’ doorposts (Exodus 12:7, 13). Scarlet is also a sign of all that needs redemption, of sins bright as blood (Isaiah 1:18).

The boy is named Zerah, which means “to rise” or “to come forth,” like the sun.(4) It is a hopeful name; it speaks of the light that rises, even in the midst of darkness, for the upright (Psalm 112:4; Isaiah 58:10); of the glory of the Lord, risen upon His own (Isaiah 60:1-3); of the Sun of Righteousness, risen for and on us, with healing in its wings (Malachi 4:3).

But this child is not the one rising; he is the one who waits in darkness to be risen upon. He is the literal ancestor of Achan (Joshua 7:1, 17-18, 24), whose sin of reaching out his hand and taking (7:21) brings wrath upon the whole community (27:20). And he is the spiritual ancestor of all who draw back, turn back, and falter (Hebrews 10:38-39; Proverbs 26:11; Numbers 14:3-4).

Perez: The Breaking Forth

Then there is baby number two. He “comes forth” from the womb,(5) but this emergence is so sudden or (after his brother’s false start) so surprising that the midwife pronounces it a “breaking out” (Genesis 38:29), and this becomes his name.

Perez appears as the crowning rebuke to his “overreaching” father. “[Y]our hand will be on the neck of your enemies,” Jacob prophesies of his son Judah (Genesis 49:8, NIV), but there is some question as to how the hand will reach this triumph. Moses says of Judah, “With his hands he contended for himself; but may You be a help against his enemies” (Deuteronomy 33:7, Amplified).

No less than Zerah, Judah demonstrates ambivalence. He approves the attack on and betrayal of his brother Joseph, so long as the conspirators stop short of “laying hands” on him by taking his life (Genesis 37:27). He withholds his son Shelah from Tamar (38:11, 14) — his son Onan having withheld himself from her in another way (38:9). Judah has failed in his responsibilities as a brother, a son, and a father-in-law; next he fails even to honor his pledge to the woman he thinks is a prostitute. Tamar “disarms” him of the seal of his authority and the staff in his hand (38:18). Only after he acknowledges that Tamar — a Gentile and an apparent prostitute — “is more righteous than I” (38:26) does he receive a breakthrough: the births of Perez and Zerah.

While Judah contends or manipulates, Joseph is “in the hands” of others. He resists temptation, and is more righteous than the woman who takes his garment as a sort of pledge (39:12). Even though he endures unjust suffering, everything prospers in his hand (39:3, 23), and eventually he receives a ring of authority (41:42). As his father declares of Joseph, the hands of God make his hands strong (49:24). His elevation from prison is a Perez-like breakthrough: he is “brought hastily out” (41:14).

As Perez makes a way for Zerah, so Joseph helps to redeem Judah. When his family needs food, Judah takes Benjamin into his hand from Jacob. He himself becomes the pledge for his brother’s life (43:9; 44:32), and it’s when he honors this pledge — confessing before the man he believes is a Gentile, “God has uncovered your servants’ guilt” (44:16), and offering to take Benjamin’s place in bondage — that Joseph reveals himself as brother.

Perez bursts forth, and then Zerah comes out. Joseph is elevated, and Judah is saved. Joseph again — Ephraim, the northern kingdom — is preeminent for many years, but the kingdom of Judah prevails, and returns from exile.(6) The Jews are, humanly speaking, the conduits and custodians of salvation, but the Gentiles are included and redeemed.

Ruth and David

Generations after the birth of Perez, Naomi concludes, “. . . the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me” (Ruth 1:13, RSV). Like Judah, she has lost a spouse and two sons; and in her case there is no Shelah — she truly has no more sons to step in and marry her daughters-in-law. She advises them to “return home,” “turn back” — the same Hebrew word, shub, used of Zerah’s drawing back his hand — and Orpah does so, but Ruth refuses (1:11-12, 15-16). She is “determined” (1:18), with a strength of mind and fixity of purpose that recall Tamar, also a Gentile bent on redemption.

Boaz (perhaps “strength”) directs his workers to fill Ruth’s hands when she gleans, and buys both land and Ruth “from the hand of” Naomi (2:16; 3:17; 4:5, 9). The elders’ blessing on the marriage of Boaz and Ruth includes these rather surprising words: “. . . may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman” (4:12, RSV).

Why Perez? It may be that the villagers are thinking of a secondary, less explosive meaning of his name — not so much “breaking forth” as “increasing” and “spreading,” as when the Lord supernaturally multiplies Jacob’s descendants (Genesis 28:14; Exodus 1:12) or the flocks and lands of Jacob and of Job (Genesis 30:30, 43; Job 1:10).

Still, the reference is to Perez, and through Boaz and Ruth’s great-grandson, David, we see the beginning of breakthroughs. At last Judah’s hand appears to grip the necks of all his enemies. At Baal Perazim, David exults, “God has broken out against my enemies by my hand” (1 Chronicles 14:11, NIV; emphasis added).

Then the Lord “breaks forth” upon Uzzah. At first David is angry (1 Chronicles 13:11), and afraid (13:12). Later, he finds a solution he can live with: the Levites must carry the ark.

It was because you, the Levites, did not bring it up the first time that the Lord our God broke out in anger against us. We did not inquire of Him about how to do it in the prescribed way. (15:13, NIV)

Surely David is right to acknowledge the holiness of the Lord, but his anguished question — “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9, NIV) — signals a shift. He is more like the Philistines, enemies of a holy God, than he had realized. He is not the one who can redeem and make a way. He will experience great victories, but no further breakthroughs. Soon enough, he will reach for Bathsheba, and then command the army to draw back so that Uriah will be killed. The Lord will build him a house (7:11), but the creation of a house in which the holy God can remain forever in fellowship with sinful people must await the coming of a Son of David who will be “a man of peace and rest” (1 Chronicles 22:9, NIV).

Until the birth of this Son, the best that can be hoped for is an ongoing series of defensive actions. Stone by stone, obedient deed by deed, our communal life builds up a wall of righteousness that separates and protects the people of God. The Israelites cannot break through their enemies, but, by repenting and returning to covenant faithfulness, they can at least maintain the wall and the community. Surveying Israel’s princes, priests, prophets, and people, the Lord says, “I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before Me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found none” (Ezekiel 22:30, RSV). Observe the dual role: the restoration will never be complete, and the godly leader will still need to appeal to God to cover gaping brokenness.

The Lord is especially disappointed with the prophets: “You have not gone up into the breaches, or built up a wall for the house of Israel, that it might stand in battle in the day of the Lord” (Ezekiel 13:5, RSV). The example was set by Israel’s first prophet, following the incident of the golden calf: “Moses, His chosen one, stepped into the breach before Him to turn away His threatening wrath” (Psalm 106:23, Amplified).

David looks forward to a day when “[t]here will be no breaching of walls, no going into captivity” (Psalm 144:14, NIV), but in the Old Testament the walls are always down, signaling “trouble and disgrace” (Nehemiah 1:3, NIV). Solomon repairs breaches (1 Kings 11:27); so does Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 32:5). Nehemiah stirs the remnant of his generation to close every gap (Nehemiah 6:11), infuriating their enemies (4:7). But every lapse into sin creates new vulnerability: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28, RSV).

Moreover, we are apt to trust anything we build. “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and as a high protecting wall in his own imagination and conceit” (Proverbs 18:11, Amplified). The Lord must bring down the high and fortified walls in which we trust (Deuteronomy 28:52; Isaiah 25:12). He dwells with the one who is contrite, bruised, crushed in spirit (Isaiah 57:15) — the one whose walls have been breached, and who now stands in that gap, crying out to God. If we want spiritual breakthrough, we must stand in the gap, in the place where the Lord has already broken through in holy wrath and judgment.

Ultimately, God Himself must mend the broken places: “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11, RSV). Yet He holds out the hope of a holy people who will work with Him as ministers of reconciliation: “. . . you shall be called Repairer of the Breach, Restorer of Streets to Dwell In” (Isaiah 58:12, Amplified).

At the same time, there is a very different promise:

One who breaks open the way [Amplified has “The Breaker”] will go up before them;

they will break through the gate and go out.

Their king will pass through before them,

the Lord at their head. (Micah 2:13, NIV)

This at last will be Perez.

Jesus the Champion

“[F]rom the days of John the Baptist until the present time,” Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven has endured violent assault, and violent men seize it by force” (Matthew 11:12, Amplified). What does this mean? Most commentators agree that He is referring to a new and forceful faith. Thus, Marvin Vincent: He is not describing “a class of habitually and characteristically violent men”; rather, “the violence in this case is the result of a special and exceptional impulse.”(7) Sometimes this is misguided, as when the crowd, their stomachs miraculously filled, wish to use force to make Jesus king (John 6:15). But at other times we witness an impressive, dogged persistence, as when four men break through (or scoop out)(8) a roof in order to lower their paralyzed friend to Jesus — so convinced are they that He can heal any affliction (Mark 2:4; compare the single-minded determination of the woman with the issue of blood, who “kept saying” to herself that she would be healed if she touched Jesus, 5:28).(9)

In the parallel account in Luke, Jesus comments that, though people are forcing their way into the kingdom, “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law” (Luke 16:17, NIV). This sounds as if He is qualifying or even invalidating the radical changes at work. Just here, we must look more closely at His statement that He has come, not to abolish or loosen or destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill (Greek pleroo) them.

In Matthew 9:16-17, Jesus presents two metaphors to elucidate the contrast between life in Him and life under the Law:

  1. He is a piece of new cloth, that has never needed to be cleansed by human hands. He has not come to repair the rips in the Law — that was a garment given to cover man’s sin with God’s holiness (Genesis 3:21; Psalm 32:1; Ezekiel 16:8-14), but we have ruined it through continued acts of rebellion (Isaiah 64:6; Zechariah 3:3-4). If Jesus is simply tacked on to the Law, His very fullness (pleroma) will “lift away,” making the tear worse. So, when He dies under the Law, the temple curtain that separates sinful people from the holy God is torn in two (Matthew 27:51). Luke adds that the new and old garments won’t match or agree (5:36), and we see Jesus fulfilling God’s redemptive purpose by becoming, in the Law’s terms, accursed (Galatians 3:12-14) and even unclean or vile (Hebrews 13:11-13).(10)
  1. He is new wine, alive with a force that intoxicates as it transforms. This is “wine made from the first drippings of the juice before the winepress was trodden. As such it would be particularly potent.”(11) It must be stored in fresh skins, elastic enough to expand or “breathe” with it; inflexible old skins can’t contain it, and will burst under its power (though men may try to mend them, Joshua 9:4). These skins don’t represent forms and traditions (the Law itself), I believe, but people. This is part of the point of Jesus’ first miracle at Cana, filling people with fresh, heady wine from an inexhaustible supply (John 2:1-11) — and this is the good wine (verse 10).(12) We are the skins that need to be filled and then changed from within, and we can’t give ourselves wholly to this process if we are also striving to conform to a rigid system of rules. The psalmist, focusing on God’s decrees, fears that he is becoming shriveled and dried, unfit for use, “a wineskin in the smoke” (Psalm 119:83). But in the New Testament the skin that bursts is Judas. Although he receives Jesus’ Gospel, something about him remains stiff and unyielding. He is offended at Mary of Bethany’s extravagant display of love for Jesus, when she pours out her heart and her expensive perfume (John 12:3-6; Mark 14:3 tells us that she “broke” the jar).(13) Judas goes to Jesus’ enemies, the chief priests, and conspires to betray Him or hand Him over. Later, he changes his mind or is tormented by remorse (Matthew 27:3)(14) — as the chief priests never are (Matthew 21:32). His suicide is presented by Luke as a “bursting” that spills his entrails or internal organs (Acts 1:18), figurative in the New Testament for the heart or emotions.(15) When some Pharisees charge Jesus with allowing His followers to break or transgress (parabaino) Jewish tradition, He replies that they, in honoring tradition, break or transgress the command of God (Matthew 15:2-3); but Judas breaks or turns aside from his apostolic office (Acts 1:25). A wineskin that resists the love of God, he suffers unbearable pressure and explodes.

Jesus does not come to break even a bruised reed (Matthew 12:20). He doesn’t destroy the Law: the temple isn’t torn in two when He dies, but only one symbolic barrier within it. It’s true that the Law can’t contain Him or define Him, even as the nets tear asunder before the immense catch of fish (Luke 5:6), and even as chains fall (Acts 12:7) and “loose” (Acts 16:26) from His apostles. But, though He and we have died to the Law (Romans 7:4; Galatians 2:19), He leaves it in place to convict, warn, instruct, and testify.

His “breakthrough” power is directed rather at the separations made by sin. The heavens are torn open when Jesus is baptized (Mark 1:10), and the Holy Spirit descends — both signs of a restoration of intimacy and communication. When Jesus dies, the earth shakes, rocks are split, and graves open (Matthew 27:51). He rises “because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Him” (Acts 2:24, NIV). In the Exsultet, an ancient part of the Easter liturgy, believers rejoice because Christ has “burst the bonds of death.” And He is the “Breaker” who opens a way (Micah 2:13) by smashing the proud illusion of a life of perfect righteousness. We follow Him by going where there are no walls, bearing the shame of admitting that we are unrighteous (Hebrews 13:12-13) and our guilt is uncovered (Genesis 44:16).

Breaking through, the last Perez redeems and makes a way for Zerah. Steeped in the Old Testament, we can appreciate the breathtaking grace of Jesus’ invitation: “Stretch out your hand” (Mark 3:5). Where there is weakness, hesitancy, and paralysis, He restores reach and grip. When we, like Zerah, grow weak and falter, He strengthens us so that we do not “draw back,” draw in, contract (Hebrews 10:38-39).(16) And when, like Uzzah, we overreach, He gently corrects, guiding us toward faith (Martha in Luke 10:38-42 and John 11:20-27). He places a ring of authority on our finger (Luke 15:22); He equips our hands to bless, pray, ordain, heal, lift others’ burdens, and work. He only cautions that we should not be hasty in reinstating and ordaining (1 Timothy 5:22, Amplified).

He is the living ark of God’s testimony, covenant, and might. In Him are found the bread of life, priestly authority, and all that God requires of us (Hebrews 9:4). He is the atoning cover, the seat of mercy, where the cherubim-attended God is enthroned in all His fullness to dwell with us. And He has broken through: having taken away our sins, He brings the Presence outside the temple walls, to mingle with all who have faith.

Under the Law, sin is stronger than holiness. The Lord even sends His prophet to confirm this with the priests: a holy thing consecrates only what it touches directly, but an unclean thing defiles anything it touches and also whatever that touches (Haggai 2:11-14). And so, by all the expectations of the Old Testament, contact between Jesus and a leper should render Him unclean till evening. Instead, so great is the power of holiness in Him, over and over He cleanses skin and heart, releasing praise. The Law warns us back with “Do not handle! . . . Do not touch!” (Colossians 2:21), but Jesus invites our touch (Luke 24:39).

How do we receive breakthrough? We stop striving in our own strength, acknowledge our unrighteousness, and then stretch out the empty, ribboned hand of faith to persist in knocking (Matthew 7:7-8). We stand, with our Lord, in the gap, for that is where breakthroughs occur. And breakthrough has come already, decisively, in Jesus; as John exults, “our hands have touched . . . the Word of life” (1 John 1:1, NIV). Graciously, He continues to draw near, and to dwell with us, as we lift up His name.

(1) J.D. Douglas, “Kiriath-Jearim,” in J.D. Douglas, ed., The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962, 1975), 701.

(2) D.J. Wiseman, “Cart, Wagon,” New Bible Dictionary, 201, with illustrations. The 13th-century Crusader Bible has illustrations juxtaposing these two “breaking out” events on the same page, Folio 39r; see http://www.themorgan.org/collection/crusader-bible/77.

(3) Just as there are two breakthroughs in 2 Samuel 5-6, one exhilarating and one terrifying, so it is with fire coming out “from the presence of the Lord” in Leviticus 9-10: in the first case consuming a burnt offering and provoking joy and awe; in the second case consuming Nadab and Abihu. This juxtaposition is noted by Jerome M. Segal, Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible (New York: Riverhead-Penguin, 2007), 175.

(4) Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1907), rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 280; K.A. Kitchen, “Zerah,” New Bible Dictionary, 1359.

(5) See Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 95: yasa’ is a common Old Testament word, but can signify deliverance out of Egypt (Exodus 13:3) or into a spacious place (2 Samuel 22:20).

(6) We also see Joseph and Judah standing together in the account of Moses’ 12 spies. Only Joshua (a descendant of Joseph) and Caleb (from Judah) believe that the way is open into the land of promise, because the Lord has removed the Canaanites’ protection (Numbers 13:6, 8; 14:6-9).

(7) Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 2nd ed., 1888 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.], 1:64; emphasis in original.

(8) Vincent, 1:170.

(9) Vincent, 1:190.

(10) In Luke, it is the new garment that is torn — which of course is what happened to Jesus, His body torn to uphold or patch the Law.

(11) F.S. Fitzsimmonds, “Wine and Strong Drink,” New Bible Dictionary, 1331.

(12) Some of our translations (e.g., KJV, NIV) have Jesus saying in Luke 5:39 that no one who has tasted the old wine wants the new because they pronounce the old “better.” But the best texts have “good” (Vincent, 1:305). Jesus is not talking about a careful judgment but a biased preference for what is familiar. A knowledgeable and impartial connoisseur, like the master of the wedding feast at Cana, will always acknowledge the superiority of the wine only Jesus can provide.

(13) There is a matter of degree here; we read in Matthew 26:8 that all the disciples are indignant at an action they perceive as wasteful or destructive. Jesus stretches all of us.

(14) Vincent, 1:116-17.

(15) William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 4th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1952, 1957), 770.

(16) On hupesteilamen, see Vincent, 1:560.

The Idol of Serenity

I sometimes attend Al-Anon meetings. I’m grateful for them; the regulars are much better people than I am, and they work hard at cultivating spirituality and serving others, sometimes in the midst of very difficult situations. But they sure talk a lot about serenity.

The word “serenity” describes an emotional state, or a state so calm and composed that it has been drained of emotion. (The Greek root means “dry.”)(1) This is considerably narrower than “peace,” particularly Biblical peace (Hebrew shalom, Greek eirene), which signifies inner and outer wholeness, harmony, health, rest, reconciliation, and even salvation and prosperity.(2) The opposite of serenity is stormy weather or emotions, but the opposite of peace is nothing less than death.

When I first showed up at Al-Anon, I lacked both peace and serenity. In key relationships I tended to be frantic, agitated, controlling, and — ugliest of all — manipulative. I am a Christian, and I knew very well that the fruit of the Spirit in every believer’s life should include not only peace but patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). It must be some root of unbelief that causes me, when the going gets rough, to fail to walk by the Spirit and to fall back on legalistic thinking and strivings out of the flesh.

Al-Anon encourages new habits of mind and spirit. Acknowledge that I am powerless to change others; detach myself from chaos, and set boundaries; focus my attention and effort on my own defects of character. There is wisdom, strategic wisdom, in these disciplines. They are better by far than my old habits, especially the impulse to fix, and the fear that shouts that there isn’t time to wait on God. I once had a history of healing others’ wounds “lightly and neglectfully” (Jeremiah 6:14, Amplified). Now I mostly content myself with pointing others to the Physician, or to the hospital.

Yet when I join in praying for serenity, or listen as others speak of preserving it, I am often at a loss. Is this really something I should aim for? Or does the Bible in fact present “a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31, KJV)?

Let me emphasize at the outset that my purpose is not to tear down Al-Anon, but to try to think and pray and live Biblically. I shall close this essay with responses from some in the program.

A Grieving Spirit

It was, I like to imagine, a beautiful afternoon in Jerusalem, and everyone else was having a good day. The Passover crowds might be annoying, the Roman presence galling, and the prices of sacrificial animals exorbitant, but people were glad to be in the house of God. Like the disciples, they marveled at the stately and impressive buildings (Mark 13:1). Indeed, only one man was deeply upset. Jesus turned over tables, drove out buyers and sellers, and disrupted even the transportation of merchandise (Mark 11:15-17). On that day, He had less serenity than almost anyone else in the city. His disciples later described His spiritual state as a consuming “zeal,” or jealousy for the honor of God (John 2:17).(3)

Similarly, when Paul had some downtime in Athens, he didn’t carefully cobble together a sightseeing itinerary that would keep him in unruffled calm. Rather, “his spirit was grieved and roused to anger as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16, Amplified). The Greek verb paroxuno, the root of our English word “paroxysm,” suggests a sharp, convulsive, visceral reaction.

Now set these responses alongside the options presented in the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference. (4)

Jesus did not, in fact, put an immediate end to the temple trade in currency and animals, nor did Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill make much of a dent in Greek idolatry. On the prayer’s terms, it would appear that they lacked wisdom, since they gave up their personal serenity without bringing about any change. The better course would have been to admit that they were powerless over great spiritual and social evils. “There’s wisdom — and serenity — in accepting what can’t be otherwise. We can only be responsible for ourselves.”(5)

There is a logical fallacy here. To permit myself to be disturbed and affronted by evil need not entail that I take responsibility for it, nor that I commit myself to changing it — not if I believe in a sovereign God. It requires only that I cry out to Him.

One man who recognized this was Bob Pierce (1914-1978). Shaken by the poverty of mothers and children in Asia after World War II, he wrote on the flyleaf of his Bible what might be called an anti-serenity prayer: “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.”

Pierce wasn’t a Bill Gates, wondering what to do with his extra billions, or a Jimmy Carter, accustomed to power and familiar with world leaders. He was just an evangelist, an ordinary guy, powerless over geopolitical forces, natural disasters, entrenched poverty, mass starvation. Yet he went on to found the aid organizations World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse. At great cost to his family and himself, he did without serenity, acknowledging that he had “become a part of the suffering.” A journalist described him as “one of the few naturally, uncontrollably honest men I have ever met.”(6)

Which is the better prayer, to ask for courage to change only what one can, and power serenely to detach from the rest? Or to lay serenity on the altar, and make oneself available to the consuming zeal, compassion, and love of a God who is never powerless, but who may work slowly, and begin with groanings?

It isn’t our ability to change things that counts with God. Ezekiel, himself powerless and in exile, is shown that those people in Jerusalem who “grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done” in the city will be spared in the coming judgment (Ezekiel 9:4, NIV). Lot was ineffectual against all the wickedness of Sodom, and a poor father to boot (Genesis 19), yet he is remembered as “a righteous man . . . tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” (2 Peter 2:8, NIV). There is neither serenity nor detachment for those who serve the God who pours out “a spirit of grace and supplication” (Zechariah 12:10), whose priests are called to weep between porch and altar, rending their hearts and crying out that He might spare His people (Joel 2:13-17). Jesus commends those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6), who cry out to God day and night for justice (Luke 18:7).

Redemptive Metaphors

Prayers rise out of situations, and perceptions of situations. Today one metaphor has gained wide acceptance as depicting what we need above all:

 In Al-Anon we learn to put “First Things First.” Just as airline passengers are instructed to put on their own oxygen masks before helping their children or fellow passengers with theirs, we must learn to attend to our own well-being first. We owe it to ourselves to give ourselves the love, care, and attention we need and deserve, even if the needs of others sometimes have to wait. (7)

This metaphor serves to crystallize and even to justify a whole ethic of self-care. But is it, in fact, self-evident? A person who lives with an alcoholic or an addict may feel as if he or she is hurtling through space, trapped in a cabin from which the air has been sucked out. Most of us, though, most of the time, face circumstances that are not this dire. We at least have room to breathe.

Before the age of air travel, a popular metaphor for a disastrous and out-of-control situation was the shipwreck, and it bred a very different ethic. The limit lay not in one’s strength and stamina, but in external factors: time and lifeboats. Adult males were enjoined to place gallantry ahead of self-care, and to say, “Women and children first.”(8)

A still older metaphor is more Biblical: it suggests that we are bound together indissolubly. Moses didn’t want to find his name in the Lord’s book of life unless it was accompanied by the names of all the Israelites (Exodus 32:32). Paul said the same (Romans 9:3), and explained why, writing to one of his most difficult congregations, “you are (nested) in our hearts, . . . whether we die or live, it will be together” (2 Corinthians 7:3, Amplified).

Here there is identification with no thought of detachment, and sacrifice rather than serenity or self-care. We are not seated side by side on a damaged airplane; we are members of one body, with Christ as our head.

This is not to deny that separations occur or that boundaries and a measure of detachment are often necessary.(9) But these are not our resting-place, nor do we particularly pray for them. We seek the place where we may “spend and be spent” (2 Corinthians 12:15), “poured out like a drink offering” (2 Timothy 4:6, NIV).

I have no wish to return to frantic overinvolvement, yet I feel called to something more than self-care. Perhaps many of us, like Moses, begin by being too engaged, too identified, too sure of our power to save. Situations blow up in our faces, and we end up in the wilderness, watching sheep mostly fend for themselves. It is reasonably comfortable there, and we are afraid even to contemplate the resumption of efforts to change a church and a community. But God has other plans.

How Shall We Pray?

Should we pray for serenity? We can and must commit our emotional pain to God, but it seems to me that He does not so much dispel it as make it bearable. Serenity is more characteristic of other religions, as John Stott observed:

 In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. (10)

At the cross, as we contemplate Jesus, we exchange all hope of serenity for submission to the redemptive will of God. We pray, as Jesus did, “Thy will be done.”

Do we even pray for peace? In the Latin Mass, the petition Dona nobis pacem (“Grant us peace”) is part of the Agnus Dei; it has been set to music by some of the great composers. But in the prayers of the Bible, it is surprising to find how rarely peace is mentioned. A rare exception is 2 Thessalonians 3:16:

 Now may the Lord of peace Himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you. (NIV)

Even this statement (like Numbers 6:26) is as much a blessing or benediction as a prayer, and it indicates why we need not plead for peace: When Jesus is present, His peace naturally fills the room and our hearts (John 20:19, 21, 26; 14:27). So Paul can say, more simply, “The God of peace be with you all” (Romans 15:33).

It cannot be wrong to pray for the growth in us of peace as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).(11) But we must remember that this is shalom peace, not some “personal” emotional state. God’s peace comes to transform and sanctify (1 Thessalonians 5:23), to rule in the hearts of an entire congregation and unite us in obedience (Colossians 3:15). The prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi, “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace,” is better aligned with these realities than the simpler “Grant us peace.”

Lastly, from an earlier post on Biblical peace, I reiterate that it comes when we focus not on peace but on God Himself: “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You” (Isaiah 26:3, NKJV; compare Romans 15:13).

Al-Anon Responds

When I shared a synopsis of these concerns at an Al-Anon meeting, I heard a number of thoughtful responses. One was that we don’t simply detach from the difficult people in our lives; rather, we aim at “detachment with love.” The love means that we remain connected, working toward compassion.

A couple of people said that they don’t view serenity as a goal. One commented that we pray for “serenity to accept,” and suggested that the emphasis falls on acceptance. This is supported by one version of the Serenity Prayer, asking for “grace to accept with serenity the things I cannot change”; here, the object of our prayer is neither serenity nor acceptance, but grace.(12)

Perhaps, then, this is a tempest in a teapot; we are all seeking the same mercies, and I just lack the wisdom to discern the similarities. Privately, I normally pray the Lord’s Prayer; its petitions for daily bread, a practice of forgiveness, and deliverance from every temptation seem to me to sum up the basic relational needs of dependence on God as provider, committed love, and boundaries. But when I elaborate on relationships, my prayer is this:

 Lord, pour out the love of Jesus through me toward each creature I meet today. Give me His eyes of hope, to see them as one day complete in Christ. Release in me the groanings, cries, and words of His faith, committing both myself and them to Your care, submitting us to Your will, desiring above all else for us the grace of Your presence, now and always. Amen.

(1) Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA.: G. & C. Merriam, 1971).

(2) See, e.g., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 173-74, New Testament section, 464.

(3) Because John places the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while the synoptic gospels set it within Passion week, some scholars conclude that there were two cleansings. It seems more likely to me that John has altered the sequence of events in order to juxtapose this incident with Jesus’ first miracle, changing water to wine at the Cana wedding feast. For the sake of all who wonder why God would multiply wine, John suggests that every one of Jesus’ miracles both reveals divine glory (2:11) and upholds divine honor. So we encounter the God of life-sustaining abundance side by side with the God of life-stilling holiness. But this is, of course, conjectural.

(4) See, e.g., How Al-Anon Works for Families & Friends of Alcoholics (Virginia Beach, VA.: Al-Anon Family Groups, 1995, 2008), 79.

(5) Discovering Choices: Recovery in Relationships (Virginia Beach, VA.: Al-Anon Family Groups, 2008), 150.

(6) Tim Stafford, “Imperfect Instrument: World Vision’s Founder Led a Tragic and Inspiring Life,” Christianity Today, Feb. 24, 2005, available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/march/19.56.html; Steven Gertz, “Tsunami Catastrophe: ‘Let My Heart Be Broken . . .,’” Christian History, 2005, available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2005/jan27.html. Quotations are from the Stafford article, only part of which may be viewed online by nonsubscribers.

(7) How Al-Anon Works, 87. A quick search turns up two books entitled Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First.

(8) Among others, the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody embraced this metaphor, stating in 1877, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’” See William G. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (1959; Eugene, OR.: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 257.

(9) In Matthew 7:3-5, Jesus does urge us to step back temporarily from “helping” others, not to put on oxygen masks, but to attend to our blind spots; not to give ourselves the love we deserve, but to recognize that we ourselves are hypocrites who cannot see and judge clearly.

(10) John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (1986; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 326-27.

(11) In fact, the serenity I need is often not peace but another fruit of the Spirit, patience, as Thomas a Kempis recognizes: “Those things that a man can not amend in himself or in others, he ought to suffer patiently, until God orders things otherwise” (The Imitation of Christ I.16.1 [ca. 1471], ed, Paul M. Bechtel, Moody Classics [Chicago: Moody, 1980, 2007], 62).

(12) See Fred R. Shapiro, “Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Apr. 28, 2014, available at http://chronicle.com/article/Who-Wrote-the-Serenity-Prayer-/146159/. This essay makes a convincing case that the prayer was composed by Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, though the “grace” wording seems to have been one of his late revisions. Shapiro prefers a version in which Niebuhr asks for courage before serenity, but here my sympathies lie with Al-Anon: when one lives with chaos, one is all too apt to be bold and hasty, reaching out to steady the ark. A good argument can also be made that the Serenity Prayer is closer to Stoicism than Christianity in its essential division of phenomena into two classes, things in our power and things not in our power; see, e.g., W.R. Dynes, “Origins of the Serenity Prayer,” Nov. 10, 2005, Dyneslines, http://dyneslines.blogspot.com/2005/11/origins-of-serenity-prayer.html.

When Pain Prays

In Romans 8, Paul talks about our struggles in prayer. The Amplified Version says: “the [Holy] Spirit comes to our aid and bears us up in our weakness, for we do not know what prayer to offer nor how to offer it worthily as we ought, but the Spirit Himself goes to meet our supplication and pleads in our behalf with unspeakable yearnings and groanings too deep for utterance” (8:26).

Just before this, Paul has said that the whole creation groans, in hope and frustration, because of the Fall (verse 22), and that we “groan inwardly” because we’re weighed down by the heaviness and bondage of life in these bodies (verse 23; 2 Corinthians 5:2, 4).

So there’s a kind of prayer that’s inarticulate, wordless. It puts us in a position of weakness, but it also connects us with all of creation. And the Spirit Himself meets us and moves in us with groanings.

The best-known example in Scripture occurs when the Israelites are slaves in Egypt. We read, “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and He remembered His covenant . . .” (Exodus 2:23-24, NIV). The Lord says to Moses, “I have heard the groaning of the Israelites” (6:5, NIV; Acts 7:34). They may not have the strength or even the faith to pray, but it doesn’t matter. God hears their groaning, and counts it as a prayer. It’s as if, sometimes, faith begins as pain.

Later, throughout the period of the judges in Israel, “the Lord had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them” (Judges 2:18, NIV). In the Psalms, we read, “‘Because of the oppression of the weak and the groanings of the needy, I will now arise,’ says the Lord” (12:5, NIV) and “The Lord looked down from His sanctuary on high . . . to hear the groans of the prisoners” (102:19-20, NIV). And Jesus Himself, on one occasion when He heals a deaf man, looks up to heaven and sighs or groans before saying, “Be opened” (Mark 7:34; compare 8:12).

In addition to groaning, there is crying — both tears and calling out, not words but a loud cry of pain. God hears Abel’s blood crying from the ground (Genesis 4:10), and the outcry against the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:20-21; 19:13). When Hagar and Ishmael wander in the desert and run out of water, and Hagar gives up, the angel of the Lord says, “God has heard the boy crying” (21:17, NIV) — not an eloquent prayer, but wailing. The psalmist says, “He will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help” (72:12, NIV; compare Exodus 22:23, 27). The Lord raises up a king because, He says to Samuel, “I have looked upon My people, for their cry has reached Me” (1 Samuel 9:16, NIV). David testifies, “. . . the Lord has heard my weeping” (Psalm 6:8, NIV), and believes that the Lord prizes his tears, storing them up in a bottle (56:8). Even Jesus, we are told, while He was on earth, offered prayers “with strong crying and tears” (Hebrews 5:7, Amplified).

There is a balance here. When the disciples come to Jesus and say, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1, NIV), He doesn’t tell them to lie down and groan, or to start crying. He gives them the Lord’s Prayer; He teaches them words and attitudes. Paul says, “I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind” (1 Corinthians 14:15, NIV); Jesus instructs our minds. And yet, even with the Lord’s Prayer, as Paul says, we don’t know how to pray as we ought.

I suggest that there are times when something is being birthed in us, and we have no words, but we are interceding. When Nehemiah, far away in exile in Susa, heard about the miserable and ruined condition of Jerusalem, he says, “I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (1:4, NIV). From the dates that he gives, we know that this period of “some days” was four months long, roughly from November to March. At the end of it, he prays an eloquent prayer, in which he says, “Today, give me favor with the king” (verse 11). So he’s praying for four months, but, so far as we know, it’s only on the last day that he has any words. What does he pray with until then? Tears. Groans. Cries. Pain.

It’s often pointed out that the Book of Esther never refers to God, but the Jews — like Nehemiah — mourn and weep and fast (Esther 4:3). Only the fourth verb is different: where Nehemiah prays, Esther’s earlier contemporaries wail. Perhaps they lack the faith to pray, and perhaps their deliverance is one source of Nehemiah’s faith.

To be sure, not all pain is counted as prayer. The Lord warns some that they will cry out to Him and not be heard: His enemies (Psalm 18:41), those who rebel against His word (Deuteronomy 1:45) and break His covenant (Jeremiah 11:11; 1 Samuel 8:18), and wicked oppressors (Micah 3:4). He especially hears the righteous (Psalm 34:15, 17). In the Book of Job, it is axiomatic that He will not listen to the cry of the godless or the wicked (27:8-9; 35:12-13). Yet there is a sincere repentance that creates an exception (Hosea 8:2-3; 7:14): the Lord hears the entreaty of wicked King Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:33) as well as the weeping of good King Josiah (34:27). Always, we are brought back to Daniel 9:18: “We do not make requests of You because we are righteous, but because of Your great mercy” (NIV).

Throughout the Old Testament, there is an uncertainty — a sense, sometimes aggrieved and sometimes despairing, that one’s groanings and cries and tears have so far fallen on deaf ears (Job 23:2; 24:12; Psalm 6:6; 102:5; Jeremiah 45:3; Lamentations 1:21; 3:8). In the New Testament, this is transformed, because Jesus hangs on the cross and is not delivered. His pain is redemptive, and believers’ pain is so much His that we can be said to “fill up” or “complete” His afflictions (Colossians 1:24). Some, at least, are granted “the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10, NIV). Surely this number includes not only eloquent martyrs but many hidden “little ones” who groan with the pain of all creation.

I am brought to these reflections, in part, by observing my wife’s experiences following a stroke and severe aphasia. During her weeks in hospital, I often felt that my prayers were ineffective as I stumbled through the day. Not so with hers. Though she lacked all words at first, her complaints seemed to be a cry in the ear of God. For some time she was consumed by her own pain, but gradually she took in those around her. On good days we might visit another wordless patient, and they would embrace and weep together and hold hands. Then my wife would beckon to me to pray, and I would add words, declaring again the great and precious promises of God. But all the while I suspected that the words I prayed, like those we preach, are more obedient “foolishness” than persuasion (1 Corinthians 1:21), and that the real work of prayer lay in the loving, hopeful pain-sharing.

We love to quote the words of the Lord in Isaiah 57:15: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite [Hebrew dakka: contrite, crushed, pulverized, shattered, broken](1) and lowly in spirit” (NIV). But how does He dwell in such a vessel? Frequently, as pain.

We are not heard for our perfect words, or our many tears, or our deep groans. We are heard because God listens, and because He Himself stirs even our yearnings and cries. So we don’t give up; we say with David, “All my longings lie open before You, O Lord; my sighing [or “groaning”] is not hidden from You” (Psalm 38:9, NIV). And Isaiah assures us: “the Lord longs to be gracious to you; He rises to show you compassion. . . . How gracious He will be when you cry for help! As soon as He hears, He will answer you” (30:18-19, NIV).

(1) Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1907), rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 193-94.

Holy Hands

In Exodus 17:8-15, we seem to have a picture of intercessory prayer. The Israelites have just left Egypt and miraculously crossed the Red Sea when they are attacked by the Amalekites. Joshua musters and leads an Israelite army, but Moses, Aaron, and Hur go up a hill. Israel wins the battle as long as Moses holds up his hands, but they start to lose whenever he lowers his hands. He gets tired, so he ends up sitting on a stone, with Aaron and Hur holding up his hands, until the enemy is overcome.

This is a curious story.(1) In the first place, it stands alone. Though the Israelites take the field as a ragtag band of former slaves, this victory appears to have no lasting impact on their military strategy. Even when they are defeated in later battles (e.g., Number 14:45; Joshua 7), we don’t read of anyone saying, “It’s because we forgot to station someone on a hill with hands upraised.”

Moreover, on the face of it, the story doesn’t quite make sense. There are three men; why can’t they take turns lifting their hands? With 20-minute shifts, Moses would have a 40-minute rest break every hour. Aaron, after all, has been the human agent in some of the signs and plagues (Exodus 7:9-10, 12, 19-20; 8:5-6, 16-17), and he will be high priest. Why does it have to be Moses’ hands?

A Staff of Authority

So I went back to the text, and noticed a couple of points I had forgotten. Before the battle, Moses announces that he’ll stand atop the hill with the staff of God in his hands (Exodus 17:9). The staff isn’t mentioned again, but its presence would help to explain why his hands grow heavy.

This staff is the one Moses used as a shepherd. When God called Moses, He asked, “What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2). It represents the natural authority Moses had developed. For in the Old Testament, that is what happens: God takes a man as he is and empowers him for service. The Law can’t change what’s in him. So when the Lord tells Moses to throw his staff on the ground, it becomes a snake, and he flees from it (4:3); there is sin inside. God shows him how to master it, for a time: take it by the tail and it becomes a staff. But there is an uneasy relationship between the calling and the vessel — just as, in a central symbol, Moses wonders how a woody bush can burn and not be consumed. This is the great question for Israel under the Law: Can the divine Presence, aflame with holiness, rest upon and dwell among stiff and dried out men? Won’t fallen humanity inevitably be consumed (33:3, 5)?

The staff is used in five of the ten plagues (Exodus 7:19-20; 8:5, 16-17; 9:23; 10:13); it becomes a sign of the authority of Moses and of God. At the Red Sea, Moses is told to lift his staff and stretch out his hand to divide the waters (14:16, 21). Presumably, he must hold the staff for some time, and not just wave it once, but we don’t read that he grows tired as in the battle. When we assert the Lord’s authority over nature, it yields, but men resist.

Later, the staff gets Moses into trouble. Told to take the staff but merely speak to a rock in order to obtain water, he instead strikes the rock with the staff, twice. He is rebuked for not trusting, and told that he will not enter Canaan (Numbers 20:7-12; contrast Exodus 17:5-6). Natural authority not only becomes burdensome and weary; it also oversteps.

Echoes of Empty Hands

Yet the battle with Amalek is won. Moses’ actions do establish some small precedents:

  • He sits on a stone, a rich symbol of Christ. The stone of stumbling (Isaiah 8:14; Daniel 2:34-35, 45; Zechariah 12:3; Romans 9:32-33; 1 Peter 2:8), the stone rejected by the builders, becomes the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16; Luke 20:17-18; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:4-7). Moses rests on the intercessory work of Jesus.
  • Like Jesus, Moses is on a hill, lifted up. But Jesus is also Joshua, down on the plain in the heat of the battle. When Moses raises his hands, he is flanked by two men who support him. When Jesus’ arms are stretched out, He dies between two sinners (Matthew 27:38) who can’t support themselves or Him; He is “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).
  • After the battle, Moses sets up an altar and declares a new name for God, Jehovah Nissi, The Lord Is My Rallying Standard — because, he says obscurely, hands were lifted to His throne (Exodus 17:15-16). This may be echoed in Isaiah 11:10-12, where the Root of Jesse stands as a banner and nations rally to Him, while the Lord stretches out His hand to gather His remnant. Moses acknowledges that the Lord Himself acts to rally His people. “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself,” says Jesus (John 12:32, NIV). Like Moses, He summons our weakness, invites our weariness, solicits an offering of empty hands; “crucified in weakness” (2 Corinthians 13:4), He lays in the dust our strength and boasting (1 Corinthians 1:25-31).
  • This is almost the first time in the Bible when we read of prayer with upraised or outstretched hands. Abraham lifted up his hand to the Lord to make an oath (Genesis 14:22). Moses and Aaron have stretched out their hands (with or without the staff) over areas to be judged: Egypt’s waters (Exodus 7:19; 8:5-6) and land (8:16-17; 10:12-13), and the sky over the land (9:22-23; 10:21-22). Here, though, Moses lifts up his hands to God, toward His throne. He has done this before only once, asking the Lord to end a plague (9:29, 33).(2) The posture is an expression of utter dependence upon God, and at the same time it extends His authority — not man’s — over the situation.
  • Finally, in this passage we see the very first Biblical occurrence of an important Hebrew word, emunah: faithfulness, steadfastness, truth.(3) Aaron and Hur hold up or stay Moses’ hands so that they are emunah, steady. They help him become faithful.


Lifting Up Holy Hands

In the New Testament, we don’t have many staffs — the disciples are even told not to carry them (Matthew 10:10 and Luke 9:3; contrast Mark 6:8). But in 1 Timothy 2:8, Paul says, “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (NIV). Holy hands: the Greek word for holy isn’t the usual hagios, set apart, but hosios: righteous, undefiled, gracious. Our hands become holy, in part, as we empty them, laying down the staff of authority, ability, strength, pride. Paul asks us to pray without the strong passion of anger, and also without disputing or “reasoning,” relying too much on the intellect. Such men(4) sound more than a little detached, rather like the Old Testament image of watchmen on the wall (Isaiah 62:6-7; Habakkuk 2:1).

How can we lift up holy hands in prayer? I suggest that, like Moses, we need to be still and rest on Jesus. Empty our hands: let go of anger and authority; don’t rely on our own understanding. Our words are not the most important thing; sometimes what counts is that we persevere in an attitude of complete dependence on God.

And, finally, we can help each other to become faithful. The most vivid impression that I took away from this study is that I need to pray specifically for the prayer lives of others, especially the intercessors and the busy. I may never become a watchman on the walls, but I can help to steady someone’s hands.

(1) If we fail to be struck by this incident, it may be because it is part of an incredible sequence. Readers sometimes complain that the Biblical narrative is dull and repetitive, but the stories are bursting with signs and symbols that have shaped our culture and our expectations. We overlook them only because they are so familiar. In Exodus alone, we have the slaughter of the innocents, the virtuous lie of the midwives, the baby in a basket, the burning bush, the Name I AM, bricks without straw, the plagues, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, palpable darkness, Passover, the blood of the lamb, the destroyer, the spoiling of the Egyptians, the ransoming of firstborn sons, the pillars of cloud and fire, the parting of the Red Sea and the overwhelming of Egypt’s chariots, Jehovah Rapha (The Lord Who Heals You), manna, water from the rock, the Ten Commandments, the Tabernacle and the Ark, the golden calf, the cleft in the rock, the veil over the radiant face, and the great cloud of glory, among much more. Shakespeare and Dickens are not so fertile in powerful images within so small a space.
(2) The verb used in Exodus 9:29, 33 is paras, to spread out. According to Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 242, the word first occurs in this passage. “Such stretching of the hands probably reflected the characteristic posture of prayer in the Bible.” It is used, for instance, to describe the prayer stances of Solomon (1 Kings 8:22, 54; 2 Chronicles 6:12-13) and Ezra (Ezra 9:5); compare Job 11:13; Psalm 143:6; Isaiah 1:15. The verb does not appear in Exodus 17.
(3) See Vine’s, Old Testament section, 75-76.
(4) In 1 Timothy 2:8, Paul seems to be thinking primarily of males, since the next verse states his intention for women. Other passages (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:5; 11:5; Luke 2:36-37) clearly show women engaging in intercessory prayer. Paul’s point here may be that men often have more difficulty emptying their hands.

Stand

Every so often, I meet with an exhortation to “advance the Kingdom” or “take back the land.” There is a Biblical foundation for this idea in the conquests of Joshua and David. And the example of Caleb — at the age of 85, driving the Canaanites out of Hebron (Joshua 14:6-14; Judges 1:20) — shows that it’s not just a young person’s dream.

But for every reference to mounting an attack, there seem to be two or three that speak of standing — or, better, standing firm. (We also see cases in which it is right to run away,(1) but that is another matter.)

Standing Firm

This struck me recently as I read the famous passage about putting on the whole armor of God. As Paul explains it, we are not suiting up in order to attack the forces of spiritual darkness and take over cities for Christ. Rather,

Put on God’s whole armor [the armor of a heavy-armed soldier which God supplies], that you may be able successfully to stand up against [all] the strategies and the deceits of the devil. For we are not wrestling with flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the despotisms, against the powers, against [the master spirits who are] the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spirit forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) sphere. Therefore put on God’s complete armor, that you may be able to resist and stand your ground on the evil day [of danger], and, having done all [the crisis demands], to stand [firmly in your place]. Stand therefore [hold your ground], . . . (Ephesians 6:11-14, Amplified; emphasis added)

The habits, the Christian disciplines, involved in putting on God’s armor make us “strong in the Lord” (verse 10) so that, when (not if) the day of evil comes, the time when we are attacked and severely tried, we may stand our ground. The image is one of purely defensive warfare. At the same time, one of the reasons we are called “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37) is surely that what we have gained in Christ can never be lost to a counterattack, requiring reconquest. We can rejoice that we stand in grace through Christ, by faith (Romans 5:2).(2)

We have “taken our stand” on the Gospel and its truths (1 Corinthians 15:1). So to the Galatians, who dream of adding Law to grace, Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, RSV; emphasis added).

Standing is linked with ideas and images of steadiness, steadfastness, stability, and being established. After assuring us at length that our Christian hope is sure — that Christ has been raised, and our bodies too shall be taken up into life — Paul concludes, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58, RSV; emphasis added; see also Colossians 1:23). Because we stand in hope, we can resist discouragement.

The Steadfast God

We are able to stand only because we have been created in the image of a God who stands fast and stands over. At the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud “stood behind” the Israelites, screening them from Egypt’s army through a long night (Exodus 14:19-20; compare Numbers 14:14). The Lord has established His faithfulness (Psalm 89:2), His throne (Psalm 93:2), and the earth (Psalm 119:90); and He alone can establish us. The Hebrew word aman can mean to stand fast, to be established, and to believe, and these are all related. Abraham believes God (Genesis 15:16), and later it can be said that the Lord found his heart faithful (Nehemiah 9:8). Through young Samuel comes the promise, “I will raise up for Myself a faithful (aman) priest, . . . I will firmly establish (aman) his house” (1 Samuel 2:35, NIV). Isaiah warns, “If you will not believe (aman), surely you shall not be established (aman)” (Isaiah 7:9, KJV; compare 2 Chronicles 20:20).

In a way, it sounds good when Eliphaz solemnly declares that the Lord places no trust (aman) in anyone, even the angels (Job 4:18; 15:15). What a high view of His holiness! But this is an instance of Eliphaz failing to speak what is right about Him (Job 42:8). For the truth is far more glorious: He makes us trustworthy. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). When we are weak, He stands by us, strengthening us so that we can stand (Acts 23:11; 2 Timothy 4:17).

It is in Christ — in faith and sufferings like His — that we stand firm (Philippians 4:1). Therefore, we stand together: we “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind . . .” (Philippians 1:27, RSV). We stand by faith (2 Corinthians 1:24; Romans 11:20), and this can be precarious: “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12, RSV). By grace we can be steadfast and resist the devil (1 Peter 5:9); we can even “strengthen and establish” one another (Luke 22:32, Amplified).

Among these texts, one is a personal favorite. During a difficult period, fearful of missing God’s direction, I was dismayed by the apostle’s summary stating that he had written “encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it” (1 Peter 5:12, NIV; emphasis added). Which “this” did he mean? This what? Then it struck me: THIS. All this, the totality of the circumstances in which I’ve been placed. Stand fast, and trust. “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace . . . [will] establish and ground you securely, and strengthen (and settle) you” (1 Peter 5:10, Amplified).

Eleazar and Shammah

What does it look like to take a stand? Two of David’s Mighty Men provide helpful portraits:

Next to him was Eleazar son of Dodai the Ahohite. As one of the three mighty men, he was with David when they taunted the Philistines gathered at Pas Dammim for battle. Then the men of Israel retreated, but he stood his ground and struck down the Philistines till his hand grew tired and froze to the sword. The Lord brought about a great victory that day. The troops returned to Eleazar, but only to strip the dead.

Next to him was Shammah son of Agee the Hararite. When the Philistines banded together at a place where there was a field full of lentils, Israel’s troops fled from them. But Shammah took his stand in the middle of the field. He defended it and struck the Philistines down, and the Lord brought about a great victory. (2 Samuel 23:9-12, NIV; emphasis added)

To begin with Shammah, allow me to make a scientific observation: Lentils! Really? My wife sometimes makes lentil soup, and I turn up my nose at it, or gently inquire whether anyone has yet discovered the antidote. Were I in Shammah’s place, I would hand over the field, purely as a matter of strategy, hoping that those nasty beans would make the Philistines as sick and disgusted as they have made me. I’ll be down the street, defending the barbecue joint.

The point is, Shammah’s decision isn’t rational. The lentil field isn’t a military vantage point. It’s not even his land. One might risk death to defend one’s own farm; failing that, one might take one’s stand in the gates of Jerusalem, the city chosen by the Lord as a place for His Name to dwell; better yet, one might cede the city gates, and draw one’s line at the Temple. But Shammah chooses an arbitrary plot of ground. Something rises up in him, a sense that enough is enough.

This isn’t simply anger. People who have been given a gift of faith, and have made a stand, sometimes say afterwards that they got mad at the devil. I have never found this to be productive; rather, as James 1:20 warns, “the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (RSV). Neither is it stubbornness, for Shammah is not trying to prove a point, and it’s not himself that he is asserting. The Spirit of God stirs up in him a settled determination. He will not quit, give up, or run away.

Turning to Eleazar, we see what such a decision can cost, even if one lives: “his hand . . . froze to the sword.” The Hebrew is dabaq, “cleaved,” the same word used of a husband and wife cleaving and becoming one (Genesis 2:24).(3) Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the verb is used of people holding tight to God (Deuteronomy 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Joshua 22:5; 23:8; 2 Kings 18:6) or to others — Shechem to Dinah (Genesis 34:31), Ruth to Naomi (Ruth 1:14), the men of Judah to David (2 Samuel 20:2), Solomon to foreign women (1 Kings 11:2), one good friend to another (Proverbs 18:24); it also describes an unnatural attachment of sin to our hands (Deuteronomy 13:17; Job 31:7) or of disease to our bodies (Deuteronomy 28:60; 2 Kings 5:27; Deuteronomy 28:21). Affliction causes one’s soul to cleave to the dust (Psalm 119:25).

Eleazar’s hand fuses or freezes. Perhaps oil or warm water will soften it, restoring suppleness; perhaps he makes a full recovery. Or he may be permanently disabled and disfigured. At the very least, making a stand has probably ruined him for certain other pursuits. You won’t find him playing the piano or working the loom.

The stands we take may ruin us for other things. When Jacob wrestled with the angel, his hip was put out of joint, but he held on, declaring, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26, NIV). I think it was Jim Goll who said that Jacob failed to recognize that he had already been blessed, because up to that point in his life he had always run away when things got difficult. From this night forward, he limped (Genesis 32:31), but he also stood.

First and foremost, we are called to stand in prayer. The Lord looks for people to “build up the wall and stand before Me in the gap on behalf of the land” (Ezekiel 22:30, NIV; emphasis added). The watchers on the wall are to call on the Lord day and night, giving themselves and Him no rest, “till He establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (Isaiah 62:6-7, NIV; emphasis added). Abraham, Moses, and Aaron stood in the breach to intercede (Genesis 18:22; Psalm 106:23; Numbers 16:48; compare Exodus 17:9), and Habakkuk took his stand on a tower, watching till the Lord should answer (Habakkuk 2:1).

What would it mean if we took this calling seriously? What if we were ruined for anything else, if our hands froze to the sword, if we became the prayer?

It begins with a settled determination, the declaration of God Himself that the Philistines have wrought enough destruction, and that the tide must be turned. We stand in the foolishness of a field of trampled lentils, steadfast and immovable, in faith and hope and a fierce joy.

(1) See, for example, Matthew 2:13-15; 10:23; 2 Corinthians 11:33; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22.
(2) In his classic discussion of Ephesians, Sit, Walk, Stand (1957, 4th ed. 1962; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), Watchman Nee says well, “We do not try to gain ground; we merely stand on the ground which the Lord Jesus has gained for us, and resolutely refuse to be moved from it” (67). But I think Nee earlier (42-45) goes too far in insisting that we never attack, never fight for victory. Even though it is the Lord who fights for us, sometimes we are called to “stand” by marching forward (2 Chronicles 20:13-21; Exodus 14:13-15). Nee is commenting on Ephesians, yet right in 6:19-20 Paul speaks of his work as an ambassador: marching out, invading enemy territory, not as a warrior but as one proclaiming the peace that has been made.
(3) Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 37, notes that the modern Hebrew word for “glue” derives from dabaq.