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.


Steadfast Love, Not Sacrifice

Recently, I was brought up short — again — by the words of God in Hosea 6:6:

For I desire steadfast love [Hebrew hesed] and not sacrifice,

the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.  (RSV)

Here God is a wounded Husband, His hands heavy with unrequited love: “For your [wavering] love and kindness [again, hesed] are as the night mist or as the dew that goes early away” (6:4, Amplified).  His anguish waves an accusing finger, as He points out that our hesed is not hesed at all.  Our hearts are not steadfast, but fickle as melting mist.  Through Isaiah (40:6) He puts it a little differently: all the hesed of men is like grass, quick to spring up and quicker still to wither away.

I keep getting it wrong, on both counts.  I decide that God is all about sacrifice — that our relationship is one of awkward distance, punctuated on either side by occasional costly actions.  Or I ease myself into the warm bath of thinking that God is Unconditional Love, which essentially hands me a Get Out of Jail Free card; it means that what He desires and expects from me is . . . nothing.

What then is the hesed of God?  And how does it take root in me?

The Nature of God’s Love

Hesed appears in our English Bibles as loving-kindness, steadfast or unfailing love, mercy, kindness, favor, goodness, pity, loyalty.  One lexicon cites authorities who find its “primary meaning in eager zeal or desire” (1); another concludes, “Its semantic core is best expressed by ‘devotion’” (2); elsewhere it is summarized as “befriending.” (3)  Perhaps the most helpful suggestion is that we need three English concepts — love, strength, and steadfastness — to do justice to the richness of this word. (4)

Hesed is committed love, pledged within a covenant, and expecting a return.  The Lord is good [tob] to all, and His mercy or compassion [rahamim] extends to all creation (Psalm 145:9), but His hesed — and its attendant blessings of provision, protection, redemption — are for those who fear and obey Him.  The Lord’s “unfailing love” for His people may be shown through His destroying their enemies, who are not His people (Psalm 143:12).  So this love, though fierce, is embattled.  The earth is filled with the Lord’s hesed (Psalm 33:5; 119:64), yet the faithful can fear that it has vanished utterly (Psalm 77:8; 89:49).  At least at times, it can be said that men of hesed are extinct (Micah 7:2), or that God has taken them away in order to spare them (Isaiah 57:1).

When we simply say “love” or “mercy,” we miss all that God puts into the relationship.  Rather, we are invited to ponder or meditate on the Lord’s hesed (Psalm 48:9); the wise consider it and seek to understand it (Psalm 107:43).  We are enjoined to bind it round our necks and write it on our hearts, so as never to forget it (Proverbs 3:3); it is the very sign of the covenant, like a marriage ring given us by God.  It is marvelous or wonderful (Psalm 17:7), “precious” beyond all reckoning (Psalm 36:7).  We are to tell of it (Isaiah 63:7), proclaim it through song (Psalm 92:1-2), respond to it with thanks and praise (Psalm 31:21; 107:8, 15, 21, 31).  Certainly we are not expected to tire of it, take it for granted, or (like Israel, Psalm 106:7) forget it.

The chief characteristic of the Lord’s hesed is that it does not fade like the fickle devotion of men; it is no short-lived mist or blade of grass.  This is so much the case that, in the frequent refrain “His hesed [endures] forever,” (5) the verb is understood: enduring, remaining steadfast and unfailing, is what hesed does.  Everything the Lord does expresses hesed toward His own, as the refrain in Psalm 136 underscores: creation and its maintenance, the Exodus and the Conquest, the destruction of Pharaoh and the kings of Canaan.  The hesed of God surrounds His people (Psalm 32:10), rests upon them and crowns them (Psalm 33:22; 103:4), supports and sustains them (Psalm 94:18) like the “everlasting arms” described by Moses (Deuteronomy 33:27).  It is a guardian, appointed by God as a constant protector (Psalm 23:6; 40:11; 57:3; 61:7); we can put our trust in His “unfailing love” (Psalm 13:5; 52:8; 143:8), and also our hope (Psalm 33:18; 130:7; 147:11).  The Lord’s hesed is “better than life” (Psalm 63:3) — richer, more satisfying, and more enduring.

At the same time, God’s faithful love is not simply permissive.  Hesed can take the form of a corrective blow, a slap in the face (Psalm 141:5).  The Lord does not spare Israel from exile, but He goes with them and shows them kindness and favor (Ezra 9:9): “Though the Lord brings grief, He will show compassion [raham], so great is His unfailing love” (Lamentations 3:32, NIV).  Because His love or affection [ahabah] is everlasting, His hesed, like a rope, draws us where we don’t want to go (Jeremiah 31:3).

When we first encounter the Lord’s hesed in the Biblical narratives, it is set against the tit-for-tat loyalties of human hesed.  Lot recognizes the divine loving-kindness, based on God’s covenant with Abraham, that has come to deliver him from Sodom (Genesis 19:19), and Jacob acknowledges that he is “not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness [emet]” the Lord has shown him (32:10, RSV).  Abraham asks Sarah to do him the “kindness” of telling a lie (20:13), but it is God’s loving-kindness that protects them both (compare 21:23).  Joseph asks a fellow prisoner for the kindness of a good word (40:14); the man forgets, but the Lord never stops showing him loving-kindness, even when he is locked away and overlooked by people (39:21).  God’s hesed is threatened, obscured, called into question, only to be revealed; as with Naomi, who changes her name from Pleasant to Bitter, and tells the town that the Almighty has dealt bitterly with her, ­only to realize with a start that the Lord “has not stopped showing His kindness” (Ruth 1:20, Amplified; 2:20, NIV).

Occasionally, hesed even has a transformative effect, rubbing off on the people of God.  The Lord recalls a bridelike “devotion,” on Israel’s part, in the early days of the wilderness wanderings (Jeremiah 2:2).  David extends “kindness” to Jonathan’s descendants, and even to those who honor Saul (2 Samuel 9:1; 2:4-6).  During the long period of the divided monarchy, we think of the northern kings as a parade of rebels and idolaters, but among neighboring nations they apparently developed a reputation for being “merciful” (1 Kings 20:31).  The earthen pot could not entirely conceal the glory of the Lord’s unfailing love.

Love and Other Divine Qualities

What lies back of hesed, and what accompanies it? When the Lord reveals Himself to Moses, He passes before him in glory [kabod], parades His goodness [tub], and proclaims His character:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful [rahum] and gracious [hannun], slow to anger [erek ap], and abounding [rab] in steadfast love [hesed] and faithfulness [emet], keeping [nasar] steadfast love [hesed] for thousands, forgiving [nasa] iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear [naqah] the guilty, visiting [paqad] the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”  And Moses made haste to bow his head toward the earth, and worshiped.  (Exodus 34:6-8, RSV)

This passage is a foundational revelation, echoed throughout the Old Testament.  Moses appeals to these words in interceding for Israel (Numbers 14:18), and the psalmist in making a personal plea (Psalm 86:15); Nehemiah uses them to make sense of the nation’s history (9:17, 31).  This picture of God also serves as a basis for praise (Psalm 103:7-18; 145:8).  Because of it, Joel dares to hope for national pardon (2:13-14); and because of it, ironically, Jonah worries that the Lord won’t obliterate Nineveh (4:2). (6)

Here there is a procession, a piling up, and a clashing together of words fraught with meaning.  Hesed appears twice; it gathers clarity and definition from all the other terms, as a quick review may show.


The first adjective the Lord employs in this description of Himself is a deeply emotional word.  Rahum, compassionate or merciful, means being kind with the tender affection of a mother (Isaiah 49:15; 1 Kings 3:26), a father (Psalm 103:13), a brother (Genesis 43:30); it’s defined as “brotherly feeling, of those born from same womb.” (7)  We learn from Scripture that this feeling in human families is only a pale reflection of the heart of God: “He has compassion [rahamim] on all He has made” (Psalm 145:9, NIV).  Convicted of sin and presented with a choice of penalties, David declares, “Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for His mercies [rahamim] are many and great; but let us not fall into the hands of men” (2 Samuel 24:14, Amplified).  The King James Version sometimes translates rahamim as “tender mercies” (Psalm 25:6; 40:11; 51:1; 69:16; 77:9; 79:8; 103:4; 119:77, 156; 145:9; Proverbs 12:10), but on several occasions renders the word by saying that the Lord is “full of compassion” (Psalm 78:38; 86:15; 111:4; 112:4; 145:8).

This mercy or compassion is one of the great wellsprings of God’s heart: “our God is merciful” (Psalm 116:5).  Even when He is justly angry with His son Ephraim or Israel, “My heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him” (Jeremiah 31:20, NIV).  John Bright comments that the Lord “cannot utter his name without being filled with longing for him.” (8)  The Lord’s rahamim becomes the basis for hope in prayer: “We do not make requests of You because we are righteous, but because of Your great mercy” (Daniel 9:18, NIV).

Rahamim often appears side by side with hesed.  The Lord “crowns” His people “with love and compassion” (Psalm 103:4, NIV); He has dealt with them “according to His compassion and many kindnesses” (Isaiah 63:7, NIV), and He is asked still to remember His “great mercy and love . . . from of old” (Psalm 25:6, NIV).

Answer me, O Lord, out of the goodness of Your love [hesed];

in Your great mercy [rahamim] turn to me.  (Psalm 69:16, NIV)

Here unfailing love and abundant mercy are equal motives prompting divine intervention.

At other times, when human sin has harmed the relationship, hesed seems to provide the sure basis for emotional reconciliation:

In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid My face from you,

but with everlasting love [hesed] I will have compassion [raham] on you,

says the Lord, your Redeemer. . . .

For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,

but My steadfast love [hesed] shall not depart from you,

and My covenant of peace shall not be removed,

says the Lord who has compassion [raham] on you.  (Isaiah 54:8, 10, RSV)


The steadfast love [hesed] of the Lord never ceases,

His mercies [rahamim] never come to an end; . . .

Though He cause grief, He will have compassion [raham]

according to the abundance of His steadfast love [hesed]; . . .  (Lamentations 3:22, 32, RSV)

In Micah 7:18-19, God will again have compassion [raham] because He delights to show mercy [hesed].


Rahum calls to mind another emotional word often used of the Lord, though not in Exodus 34.  Ahabah is love, “affection both pure & impure, divine & human.” (9)  It comes naturally, and yet it is not easy for fallen humanity to direct or to sustain.  We have many “lovers” (Ezekiel 16:32-37; Hosea 2:13; 8:9); we love evil (Micah 3:2; Psalm 52:3), detestable things (Hosea 9:10), and shameful ways (Hosea 4:18); so far from valuing constancy in our affections, we even love to wander (Jeremiah 14:10).  So we must be enjoined to be watchful and attentive in our love to God (Joshua 23:11).  The Lord must circumcise our hearts, surgically changing our inner beings, if we are to love Him faithfully (Deuteronomy 30:6).

This process is difficult; we must curb and cultivate our affections.  Abraham must offer up the son he loves (Genesis 22:2); Israel must learn to love the neighbor, even the alien (Leviticus 19:18, 34).  There is an element of holy fear in our love for God (Deuteronomy 10:12); only so shall we cleave or hold fast to Him (Deuteronomy 11:22; 30:20).  Ahabah is not hesed; its hallmark isn’t constancy so much as strength; still, no futile or fleeting affection can equip us to love the Lord entirely, heart and soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5).

One time, indeed, God testifies:

I remember the devotion [hesed] of your youth,

your love [ahabah] as a bride,

how you followed Me in the wilderness,

in a land not sown.  (Jeremiah 2:2, RSV)

Remarkably, this appears to be His recollection of the wilderness wanderings — when, at least intermittently, the people feared His voice (Deuteronomy 5:23-29).  This would explain why He keeps taking them back there, commanding them to camp in booths (Leviticus 23:42-43; Nehemiah 8:14-17), alluring them and speaking to their heart (Hosea 2:14).  But Israel’s “devotion” ends with the honeymoon; she never learns to “love [ahab] mercy [hesed]” (Micah 6:8).

With people, natural affection appears to be primary: because the king loves [ahab] Esther more than other women, she receives his grace [hen] and favor [hesed] (Esther 2:17).  Often, it seems to work similarly with the Lord.  His affection for Israel is simply there.  It is a strong attachment (Deuteronomy 7:7-8; 10:15); it persists even when the people are unfaithful (Hosea 3:1).  Because of this love, He redeems and ransoms them (Deuteronomy 4:37; 7:8; Isaiah 43:4; 63:9).

Yet there is a fundamental conflict.  Naturally, the Lord loves [ahab] righteousness and justice (Psalm 33:5; 37:28; 11:7; 99:4; Isaiah 61:8); therefore, He loves the righteous (Psalm 146:8) and those who pursue righteousness (Proverbs 15:9).  He loves those who love Him (Proverbs 8: 17), and His covenant of hesed love is particularly for those who love [ahab] Him (Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10; 7:9; Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4).

The Bible says remarkably little about God hating [sane], but it is clear that His hatred of wickedness (Psalm 45:7; Hebrews 1:9) and abominable idols (Deuteronomy 12:31; 16:22; Jeremiah 44:4) extends to people who are ruled by these things.  His soul hates “the wicked and those who love [aheb] violence” (Psalm 11:5, NIV).  “You hate all who do wrong” (Psalm 5:5, NIV).  Most strikingly, of Israel:

I have forsaken My house,

I have abandoned My heritage;

I have given the beloved [yediduth] of My soul

into the hands of her enemies.

My heritage has become to Me

like a lion in the forest,

she has lifted up her voice against Me;

therefore I hate [sane] her.  (Jeremiah 12:7-8, RSV)


Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal,

I hated [sane] them there.

Because of their sinful deeds,

I will drive them out of My house.

I will no longer love [ahab] them; . . .  (Hosea 9:15, NIV)

The hatred is real and enduring; at times it eclipses ahabah and stifles rahamim.  We shall return to the problem of a steadfast, unfailing hesed that, like a beating heart, reverberates even in the midst of hot jealousy and spurning anger.


Grace [hen] is an elusive concept.  It is elegance, favor, acceptance; from one side yearning toward and seeking favor, and from the other inclining toward and showing favor. (10)

At least since B.B. Warfield, we have come to think of grace as “unmerited favor” — as “neither expected nor deserved.” (11)  Jim McClure points out that ancient notions of grace often emphasize reciprocity, (12) and we may add that some passages speak of merit.  When Bildad advises Job that his supplication [hanan] or plea to God for grace will be heard so long as he is pure and upright (Job 8:5-6), he is only echoing the psalmists, who ask for grace on the grounds of their integrity (Psalm 26:11), and who declare that the Lord always shows grace to those who love [aheb] His name (Psalm 119:132).  Malachi 1:8-9 warns that God won’t be gracious to a people whose offerings are poor.

Working mostly with the New Testament, James Ryle has redefined grace as the empowering presence of God.  Ryle makes the point that “unmerited favor” is practically synonymous with mercy, so that, if we accept Warfield’s definition, apostolic benedictions imparting “grace and mercy” (1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; 2 John 3) are redundant.  Moreover, “unmerited favor” makes little sense in a number of passages, including a key Old Testament verse:

He mocks proud mockers

but gives grace to the humble.  (Proverbs 3:34, NIV; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5)

Surely proud mockers need unmerited favor as least as desperately as the lowly and afflicted do.  But it is the humble, the crushed, who are in a position to welcome His empowering presence. (13)

McClure finds “empowering presence” helpful in defining grace, but still too narrow. (14)  Particularly in the Old Testament, he calls grace “a most inadequate word” to describe either hen or hesed.   At the heart of both, he believes, “is the concept of a kindly disposition.” (15)

This is not very satisfactory.  The God revealed in Scripture doesn’t stop at dispositions; as He is, so He acts.  When He “remembers” or calls to mind, it isn’t simply so that He can think fond thoughts.  Rather, He remembers Noah, and clears away the floodwaters (Genesis 8:1-3); He remembers Rachel, and intervenes to open her womb (Genesis 30:22).  In the same way, He gives or releases or sends forth [natan] grace (Genesis 33:5, 11; Psalm 84:11; Proverbs 3:34).  Even on a human level, we are gracious particularly when we give (Psalm 37:21, 26; 112:5; Proverbs 14:21, 31; 19:17; 28:8; Daniel 4:27).  So when human speech is called gracious (Psalm 45:2; Proverbs 22:11; Ecclesiastes 10:12), one suspects that it is not simply characterized by elegance but unleashed “for the cause of truth and to defend the right” (Psalm 45:4, RSV).

Though it is difficult to define, we instinctively recognize grace.  William Barclay writes:

What the ancient world longed for, as Seneca said, was a hand let down to lift us up.  And that is precisely what Grace is.  It is the hand of God to lift us out of frustration into victory, out of helplessness into power, out of defeat into triumph. (16)

The outstretched hand is brought vividly to life when Esther goes before the king, her husband.  Already, because of an affectionate attraction [ahabah], he has shown her grace [hen] and kindness [hesed] (Esther 2:17).  Now, though she is so bold as to appear unbidden, she finds favor [hen] in his eyes — and the sign is that he extends to her the scepter in his hand (5:2), sparing her life (7:3; 8:3-6) and inviting her to draw near (5:2).  So, too, Jacob the grasper wrestles with men and with God; he is still clasping the angel (Genesis 32:26) when he begs for grace (Hosea 12:3-4), and grace appears through more extended hands, the embrace of his wronged brother Esau (Genesis 33:4).  These stories prefigure the New Testament hands of Jesus, touching a leper (Mark 1:41) and lifting up Peter (Matthew 14:31), and the loving embrace of the prodigal’s father (Luke 15:20).

Still, the great sign of grace is not a touch from God, but His continuous presence.  Moses says as much just before and just after God’s great revelation that we are considering:

For how shall it be known that I have found favor [grace, hen] in Thy sight, I and Thy people?  Is it not in Thy going with us . . . ?  (Exodus 33:16, RSV)


If now I have found favor [grace, hen] in Thy sight, O Lord, let the Lord, I pray Thee, go in the midst of us, although it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Thy inheritance.  (Exodus 34:9, RSV)

Repeatedly in Scripture, even on a human level, the sign of grace or favor is that you stay with me (Genesis 30:27; 1 Samuel 16:22).  How much more we cry to God, “If I have found favor in Your eyes, my Lord, do not pass Your servant by” (Genesis 18:3, NIV).  “Turn to me and be gracious to me” (Psalm 25:16, NIV; compare 119:132).  “O Lord, be gracious to us; we long for You (Isaiah 33:2, NIV).  David, fleeing from his son Absalom, refuses to take the ark of God with him out of Jerusalem, but acknowledges that his flight is also a banishment: “If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, He will bring me back and let me see it and His dwelling place again” (2 Samuel 15:25, NIV).  The blessing “God be gracious” (Genesis 43:29; Numbers 6:25; Psalm 62:1) summarizes all blessings by inviting His presence.

The same verb hanan that describes the giving or showing of grace is also used to express the seeking for it: crying, begging, pleading, groaning.  When the Lord promises to pour out “a spirit of grace [hen] and supplication [tahannunim]” (Zechariah 12:10), we see that He is already present, and grace is already present, in the crying out.  Hunger itself is grace.  This also helps us to understand why Proverbs 3:34 says that the Lord mocks the proud but gives grace to the humble: those who have received the grace of humiliation are already crying out and seeking.  “Though the Lord is on high, He looks upon the lowly, but the proud (the haughty who are themselves lifted up on high) He knows from afar” (Psalm 138:6, NIV).  The heroes of faith are people who have pleaded and groaned (Genesis 42:21; Deuteronomy 3:23; Esther 4:8; 8:31; Daniel 6:11) — as, in the New Testament, grace is displayed when Jesus cries out with and for us (Hebrews 5:7), the merciful father pleads with us (Luke 15:28), and the Spirit of God groans in us (Romans 8:26).

In Psalm 77:8-9, during a true dark night of the soul, the psalmist wonders whether the Lord’s steadfast love [hesed] has ceased, whether He has forgotten to be gracious [hanan], and whether He has stifled His compassion [rahamim].  Normally, though, the hope for grace, like that for mercy, is founded on the Lord’s committed and unfailing hesed love.  The Lord is with Joseph in prison, and shows His hesed by granting him favor [hen] with the warden (Genesis 39:21).  In Psalm 51:1, a fallen David cries to God to be gracious [hanan] “according to” His unfailing love [hesed] and the multitude or abundance [rob] of His mercies [rahamim].  Though he is brought low in the pit of humiliation, his faith rises boldly, grace asking for grace: “Do not cast me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:11, NIV).

Mercy [rahamim] is often joined with grace [hen] in the Old Testament, but grace almost always is named first.  In the revelation of Exodus 34, the order is reversed.  Perhaps the Lord wished to lead with His heart, with an assurance of deep and abiding attachment.

Slow to Anger

At first blush, God’s announcement that He is “slow to anger” [erek ap] comes as something of a surprise.  Many readers of the Old Testament have concluded simply that He is angry, and have placed this characteristic first, ahead of “merciful” and “gracious.”  There are a dozen Hebrew words for “anger,” and they trip over one another when God voices His anger against His own people:

I Myself will fight against you . . . in anger [ap], and in fury [hemah], and in great wrath [qatsaph].  (Jeremiah 21:5, RSV)


He let loose on them His fierce [haron] anger [ap], wrath [ebrah], indignation [zaam], and distress [tsarah], a company of destroying angels.  (Psalm 78:49, RSV)

Scripture leaves no doubt as to the power of God’s anger.  “Who can stand before You when You are angry?” (Psalm 76:7, NIV; Nahum 1:6; Revelation 6:17).  The Lord’s indignation saps human health (Psalm 38:3).  Even the godly wish to be hidden away till His anger has passed by (Job 14:13; Isaiah 26:20; compare Revelation 6:15-16).  For His anger is “fierce” [haron]; it “burns” [harah] like an all-devouring wildfire (Deuteronomy 32:22; Jeremiah 21:12; Hebrews 10:27) or a furnace (Ezekiel 22:20-22; Psalm 21:9), at best subsiding to a continuous smolder (Psalm 74:1; 80:4).  His anger is an earthquake that overturns mountains (Job 9:5; Psalm 18:7; Isaiah 13:13; Nahum 1:5), and a violent wind bringing hailstones and torrential rain (Ezekiel 13:13).  It is floodwaters rising to engulf all flesh (Genesis 7:20-23), the charred and smoking devastation of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:28; Deuteronomy 29:23-24), the step-by-step ruin of Egypt (Exodus 10:7), the casting away of the ten tribes (2 Kings 17:18), the ravaging of Jerusalem (Lamentations), and the agony of Jesus in His trial and crucifixion (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9).

The word for “anger” that appears in Exodus 34:6, ap, comes from a root that refers to the human nose.  “Slow to anger” thus calls to mind the picture of a face, “long of nostril,” (17) not so very different from the British “stiff upper lip.”  In contrast, “quick to anger” is “short of nostril,” snorting, flaring.  This is the “face” the Lord sometimes shows, as at the Red Sea:

You unleashed Your burning anger; . . .

By the blast of Your nostrils

the waters piled up. . . .

You blew with Your breath,

and the sea covered them.  (Exodus 15: 7, 8, 10, NIV)

A single breath, a slight twitch of His nose, and the wicked perish (Job 4:9; Psalm 18:8, 15; 2 Thessalonians 2:8).

Often, as we read, the divine nostrils seem to be quivering.  Just after the incident of the golden calf, the Lord says to Moses, “Now leave Me alone so that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them” (Exodus 32:10, NIV).  We say with reason that He speaks in this way in order to call forth Moses’ love for his people and faith to intercede; nevertheless, decades later, Moses still sees it differently: “I feared the anger and wrath of the Lord, for He was angry enough with you to destroy you” (Deuteronomy 9:19, NIV; compare verse 8).

But the consistent testimony of Scripture is that the Lord restrains His anger, saving it as a last resort.  When the psalmist warns, “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for His wrath can flare up in a moment” (Psalm 2:12, NIV; “for His wrath is quickly kindled,” RSV), he is not describing a God who is quick-tempered and capricious.  Rather, this is the “suddenly” of God, when, after much correction and many pleadings, all at once He acts.  We see this, for example, when His anger burns against Moses only after He has patiently answered every objection to the prophet’s call, and Moses still asks Him to send someone else (Exodus 4:13-14).  Though His great heart feels more than we can imagine (Genesis 6:6), He never yields to the emotion of the moment in such a way as to forget His great and gracious purposes.  “For My own name’s sake I defer My wrath,” He declares (Isaiah 48:9, NIV).  Though His own people repeatedly and continually “provoke” [kaas] Him to anger (2 Kings 17:11, 17; Isaiah 65:3; Ezekiel 8:17), from the Exodus to the Exile (2 Kings 21:15), still we read, “Time after time He restrained His anger and did not stir up His full wrath” (Psalm 78:38, NIV).

We see this in numerous ways.  First, the Lord’s anger is just, a righteous and holy response to grievous sins.  We see His anger burn because we break covenant with Him (Deuteronomy 31:16-17), forsake Him (Judges 2:12-13), and go our own way (Deuteronomy 29:19-20); because He is jealous (Deuteronomy 6:15), and must watch as we refuse His gracious invitation (Luke 14:21) and turn our hearts away (1 Kings 11:9) to idols (Numbers 25:3; Deuteronomy 7:4); because we suppress His truth (Romans 1:18) and reject His Son (John 3:36); because His good law serves only as a catalyst for our sin (Romans 4:15); because we are proud (2 Chronicles 32:25) and greedy (Isaiah 57:17), stubbornly unrepentant, and self-seeking (Romans 2:5, 8); because we greet His words with mockery and scoffing (2 Chronicles 36:16) and His works with ungrateful complaints (Numbers 11:1, 10).  As if this were not enough, He is angry at our deeds and systems of injustice (Exodus 27:22-24), our hard hearts toward one another (Mark 3:5), our unforgiveness (Matthew 18:33-34) and insubordination (Romans 13:5) and deliberate efforts to block the extension of grace to those we despise (Mark 10:13-14).  Because the Lord’s anger is wholly aligned with goodness, it brings Him praise (Psalm 76:10, NIV).  There are fearful days of judgment when God not only clothes Himself with anger (Lamentations 3:43), but seems to be all anger, when His wrath sustains or upholds Him (Isaiah 63:5), when He is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29).  But the brightness at the heart of the flame is not anger as we understand it, but purity and holiness.

Vast and powerful though it may be, the divine anger can be deposited within a human being.  “I am full of the wrath of the Lord,” says the prophet; “I am weary of holding it in” (Jeremiah 6:11, RSV; compare 15:17) — and so he speaks it; he suffers, but isn’t consumed or driven mad (25:15-16).  Shortly after Saul is made king, “the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he burned with anger” (1 Samuel 11:6, NIV), yet he is later condemned for failing to carry out the Lord’s fierce wrath (28:18).  Compared with the “controlling” or “compelling” love of Christ, which governs Paul’s entire life and perhaps carries him out of his mind (2 Corinthians 5:13-15), this anger is weak.

Consider, too, how long God’s anger continues.  We are treated to different impressions on this point.  The psalm attributed to Moses — the very man to whom it’s revealed that God is “slow to anger” — struggles to see any end or change:

We are consumed by Your anger

and terrified [RSV “overwhelmed”] by Your indignation. . . .

All our days pass away under Your wrath;

we finish our years with a moan [RSV “like a sigh”]. . . .

Who knows the power of Your anger?

For Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due You. . . .

Relent, O Lord!  How long will it be?  (Psalm 90:7-13, NIV)

Indeed, throughout the Old Testament, during the many bad times, the people of God cry out in a dismay that borders on despair:

Will You be angry with us forever?

Will You prolong Your anger through all generations?  (Psalm 85:5, NIV; compare Jeremiah 3:5)


How long, O Lord?  Will You be angry forever?

How long will Your jealousy burn like fire?  (Psalm 79:5, NIV)

Yet the faithful also testify, “His anger lasts only a moment” (Psalm 30:5, NIV; compare Isaiah 54:8).  The Lord Himself declares:

I will not accuse forever,

nor will I always be angry,

for then the spirit of man would grow faint before Me —

the breath of man that I have created.  (Isaiah 57:16, NIV)

Here He sets a limit to His anger because He is conscious of our frailty.  Then He goes on to acknowledge that angers fails to accomplish the deep purpose of His heart, which is to bring about repentance:

I was enraged by his sinful greed;

I punished him, and hid My face in anger,

yet he kept on in his willful ways.  (Isaiah 57:17, NIV; compare 42:25; 1:5)

So He wields anger, above all, as a temporary measure.  The Assyrians may serve as the rod of His anger against Israel (Isaiah 10:5), but “very soon” His wrath will not only come to an end, but turn against the instrument (10:25, NIV).  It is because we are “created to be like God” (Ephesians 4:24, NIV) that Paul can urge us, “When angry, do not sin; do not ever let your wrath (your exasperation, your fury or indignation) last until the sun goes down” (4:26, Amplified; compare Psalm 4:4).  For it is people, and not God, who are quick to wrath (Proverbs 12:16; 14:16-17; Ecclesiastes 7:9), and who allow our fierce anger to become a murderous rage that knows no bounds (Genesis 49:5-7; Amos 1:11; 2 Chronicles 28:9).  With reason David asks to be spared the wrath of men, and instead to be given over into the hands of the Lord, “for His mercy is very great” (1 Chronicles 21:13, NIV, RSV).  His is the love that “is not easily angered” (1 Corinthians 13:5, NIV).

A final point: The Lord demonstrates, again and again, that He is willing to turn from His anger.  He turns from anger (or turns His anger away from people) when someone intercedes, reminding Him of His covenant promises (Exodus 32:11-14; Psalm 106:23, 29-30; Jeremiah 18:20) and His righteous acts (Daniel 9:16); or because of human humility and repentance (2 Chronicles 12:7, 12; Jonah 3:6-9); or when atonement is made (Numbers 16:46-48); or for the sake of the “holy buffer” of His consecrated people, their sanctuary, and their worship (Numbers 1:53; 18:5; 2 Chronicles 30:8); or because of a new or renewed covenant (2 Chronicles 29:10).  Though one sinner can bring wrath upon the entire community (Numbers 16:22; Joshua 22:20), we also see wrath turned aside when the offender or offenders are executed (Numbers 25:4; Joshua 7:25-26).  In the midst of acts of judgment, Isaiah warns repeatedly:

For all this His anger is not turned away

and His hand is stretched out still.  (5:25; 9:12, 17, 21; 10:4, RSV)

But this is not the final word; a day of redemption is coming:

And in that day you will say, “I will give thanks to You, O Lord; for though You were angry with me, Your anger has turned away, and You comfort me.”  (12:1, Amplified)

Over against this must be set the passages which speak of the Lord giving “full vent” to His wrath (Lamentations 4:11, NIV, RSV), of His anger not turning back (Jeremiah 23:20; 30:24).  His anger is a fire that will “burn and not be quenched,” forever (Jeremiah 7:20; 17:4; 2 Chronicles 34:25).  At a certain point, shortly before the Exile, He appears implacable:

Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did — with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.

Nevertheless, the Lord did not turn away from the heat of His fierce anger, which burned against Judah because of all that Manasseh had done to provoke His anger.  So the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also from My presence as I removed Israel, and I will reject Jerusalem, the city I chose, and this temple, about which I said, ‘There shall My name be.’”  (2 Kings 23:25-27, NIV; compare Jeremiah 4:8)

A passage like this one reminds us that the Lord’s wrath — the “permanent attitude of the holy and just God when confronted by sin and evil”; personal, but “not wayward, fitful, or spasmodic, as human anger always is” (18) — is never simply dropped.  Prompted by injustice, it turns aside only when justice has in some measure been satisfied.  So we bear wrath (Micah 7:9) and store it up for ourselves (Romans 2:5); it rests on us (2 Chronicles 28:11, 13; John 3:36), “lies heavily” on us (Psalm 88:7, NIV).  We can become “the people of [God’s] wrath” (Isaiah 10:6, KJV, Amplified, RSV), “a people always under the wrath of the Lord” (Malachi 1:4, of Edom), “by nature children [NIV “objects’] of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3, RSV).  Yet the desire of God is always to turn from wrath.  His wrath is a cup that can be drained (Jeremiah 25:15-16), a set of bowls that can be emptied out (Revelation 15:7; 16:1), a winepress that can squeeze out the last drop (Revelation 19:15); when this is accomplished, “God’s wrath (indignation) is completely expressed [reaches its climax and is ended]” (Revelation 15:1, Amplified).  Quite apart from this termination, He has made provision for us to be “saved from God’s wrath” through the atoning death and resurrection life of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:9-10, NIV; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9).

The Old Testament consistently portrays God as responding to sin with pure and perfect anger, and at the same time regarding His creation with mercy, grace, and steadfast love.  These aspects of His character are very much in tension; with our sin, we present Him with a wrenching dilemma, almost dividing Him against Himself.  Always He puts love first, tempering anger.  Even in wrath He remembers compassion or tender mercy [raham] (Habbakuk 3:2); He turns from anger to show mercy (Deuteronomy 13:17; Isaiah 60:10; Zechariah 1:12), because He is full of mercy (Psalm 78:38).  Elsewhere His steadfast love [hesed] sets a limit to wrath (Jeremiah 3:12); His anger will never choke off His committed, unfailing love (Psalm 77:9), by reason of which His gracious presence comes [hanan] to strengthen us (Psalm 6:1-4).  Because He delights in steadfast love, He will turn from anger and show mercy (Micah 7:18-19; Isaiah 54:8), even causing His people’s captors to be merciful (Psalm 106:45-46).

Jeremiah, who knows the divine indignation within and without, pleads:

Correct me, O Lord, but in just measure;

not in Thy anger, lest Thou bring me to nothing.  (Jeremiah 10:24, RSV)

The author of Lamentations, perhaps Jeremiah, asks whether “You . . . are angry with us beyond measure” (5:22, NIV).  The anger of God is always utterly overwhelming, impossible to fathom or long endure.  Job charges, “God does not restrain His anger” (Job 9:13, NIV), and while this is wildly inaccurate — later, he will complain that God is too soft on the wicked (21:17-21) (19) — we understand: he feels utterly crushed.  But the pledge of God’s character, as revealed to Moses in Exodus 34, is that anger, though strong, comes slowly; that mercy and grace come first; and that anger is followed by steadfast love.

Abounding in Love and Faithfulness

The next clause in God’s revelation to Moses in Exodus 34 offers the first of two statements about His steadfast love [hesed].  Here, it is linked with another quality, emet: His truth, reliability, or faithfulness.  Given our definition of hesed as unfailing covenant love, this term might seem redundant — of course such a God is trustworthy.  As Vine’s suggests, the pairing with emet underscores “the element of steadfastness (or strength)” in hesed. (20)

Emet is the word most frequently paired with hesed. (21)  In part, this is needed because human hesed is weak and fickle.  We see this in Rahab’s exchange with Joshua’s two spies, after she hides them and lies to their pursuers:

Now then, swear to me by the Lord that as I have dealt kindly [hesed] with you, you also will deal kindly [hesed] with my father’s house, and give me a sure [emet] sign, . . .  (Joshua 2:12, RSV)

Her act of hesed was immediate and risky.  In asking them to reciprocate — in effect, to include her within the Lord’s covenant — she recognizes that she is requesting a faithfulness whose expression lies in the future, when Jericho falls to the Israelites.  So, not content with the spies’ hesed, with a gratitude that may be short-lived, she demands as well their enduring emet.  And the spies agree:

Our lives for yours!  If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly [hesed] and faithfully [emet] with you when the Lord gives us the land.  (2:14, RSV)

Their “sure sign” or pledge to her is the scarlet cord that she binds in the window (2:18), symbolically placing her household “under the blood” of a past and coming Passover.

Rahab’s hesed was the bold act of a single hour, but, when human hesed must be maintained over time, and particularly when it extends into the future, it requires the sustaining power of emet.  When one Israelite enters into a covenant with another, or solicits a pledge, the partner is enjoined to “deal kindly [hesed] and truly [emet]” (Genesis 24:49; 47:29, KJV; RSV “deal loyally and truly,” NIV “show kindness and faithfulness”).

This combination is far-reaching.  Hesed brings into our relations with others the warmth and openness of the heart, while emet adds the integrity of keeping one’s word.  These are fundamental elements of godly character:

Let love [hesed] and faithfulness [emet] never leave you;

bind them around your neck;

write them on the tablet of your heart.

Then you will win favor [hen, grace] and a good name

in the sight of God and man.  (Proverbs 3:3-4, NIV)

The thought is echoed in the New Testament: “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) does not refer merely to softening our blunt criticisms and harsh judgments with tact, but calls for thoroughgoing integrity and committed love, as the Amplified Bible brings out:

. . . let our lives lovingly express truth [in all things, speaking truly, dealing truly, living truly].  Enfolded in love, let us grown up in every way and in all things into Him . . .

Among humans, emet represents trustworthiness.  Before revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph tests their words to see “whether there is any truth in you” (Genesis 42:16, Amplified).  We must be taught and reminded to speak truth from the heart (Psalm 15:2), to serve faithfully with all our heart and soul (1 Kings 2:4; 1 Samuel 12:24).

It seems natural, at first, to read statements about the Lord’s emet in the same light, and to interpret even His declaration in Exodus 34:6 as meaning simply that He is a God who keeps His word — or, as one commentary puts it, “that whatever he says is correct and reliable and may be trusted even to the extent of life and death issues, or indeed eternal life and death issues.” (22)

We do receive such assurances in Scripture.  The Lord’s words don’t need to be tested, because they are trustworthy (2 Samuel 7:28); indeed, they are true — they form the basis for all truth (Psalm 119:160; John 17:17).  The God who desires “truth in the inward being” (Psalm 51:6, RSV) is Himself never less than wholehearted.  With no layers of dissimulation nor lapses in awareness, He speaks as He is.  He cannot be false to Himself, or even to those with whom He has identified Himself, setting His name on them.

But I think the clause in Exodus 34 pledges something more.  We tend to misconceive the faithfulness, the emet, of God.  The Lord is reliable, to be sure, but we must not mistake this to mean that He is predictable.  He is not like the geyser dubbed Old Faithful; He does not conform to any formula or submit to any timetable.  He watches over His word to perform it (Jeremiah 1:12), but the fulfillment astonishes us, always supplying more than the words conveyed; and He gives much that was never even spoken, so that every believer confesses with Jacob, “I am unworthy of all the kindness [hesed] and faithfulness [emet] You have shown Your servant” (Genesis 32:10, NIV).  He is faithful, that is, to His purposes.

When Abraham’s servant sets out on a journey to find Isaac a wife, he doesn’t know quite where he is headed.  Later, he praises the Lord for leading him in the “right” or “true” [emet] way, because the road has brought him straight to marriageable kin (Genesis 24:48).  The road itself promised nothing, nor was it specifically mentioned in any word from the Lord; it is an emet road because of the destination.

In the same way, the Lord’s emet doesn’t look primarily to the past, not even to the promises He has spoken.  Rather, His faithfulness guides us forward (Psalm 43:3) into the future He has planned for us.  Together, like angels, His steadfast love [hesed] and His faithfulness [emet] protect and save us in our journey with Him.  They “continually preserve” us (Psalm 40:11, KJV; compare 57:3; 61:7).  This becomes a blessing in Israel: “Now may the Lord show steadfast love and faithfulness to you!” (2 Samuel 2:6; 15:20, RSV).

The love of God comes with a way to walk in.  We miss this, sometimes, with our talk of unconditional love.  The father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is not endlessly supportive, no matter what, in a vacuous way.  When he clothes his boy in the garments of a son, and places on his finger a ring of authority, he is restoring him to a long-planned calling.  The Lord is faithful to His purposes as well as His people.

The Lord reveals Himself as One “abounding” [rab] in hesed and emet.  In Numbers 20:11 this word is used of the water gushing from the stricken Rock, and in Genesis 16:10 of Hagar’s descendants, too numerous to count.  Though we have an abundance or “multitude” of transgressions (Lamentations 1:5) and iniquity or guilt (Jeremiah 30:14, 15), our merciful God “will abundantly [NIV “freely”] pardon” (Isaiah 55:7, RSV), for this is in accordance with His “abundant mercy [rahamim]” (Psalm 51:1, RSV).  Our sufferings abound (Psalm 34:19; 123:3-4), but He delivers us “many times [rab]” (Nehemiah 9:28; Psalm 106:43).  More than all, it is His hesed that abounds: “You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to You” (Psalm 86:5, NIV).  Though we fail to remember His “many kindnesses” (Psalm 106:7, NIV), He chooses to remember His covenant, and repents or turns from anger to comfort “according to the abundance of His steadfast love” (Psalm 106:45, RSV).  Because of His abounding hesed He hears our cry (Psalm 69:13), blesses us with “great goodness” (Isaiah 63:7, RSV), and brings us into His presence (Psalm 5:7).  Even in the worst of circumstances, we have this assurance:

. . . though He cause grief, He will have compassion [raham]

according to the abundance of His steadfast love.  (Lamentations 3:32, RSV)

There is nothing stinting about our God.

Keeping Steadfast Love for Thousands

The Lord who passes before Moses does not have empty hands.  He reiterates that He is a God of hesed: He delights to enter into covenants of love, even with creatures that have nothing to offer Him.

Nasar means to “guard with fidelity,” to “keep with faithfulness,” to watch, to preserve. (23)  It is the furthest state imaginable from making a pledge, only to neglect it.  Throughout years in the wilderness, the Lord guarded Jacob (and Jacob’s descendants) “as the apple of His eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10, NIV).  He preserves our life (Proverbs 24:12).  His vigilance often leads Him to intervene; nasar also means that He rescues or delivers — from bondage (Exodus 3:8; Judges 6:9; Nehemiah 9:28), from transgressions (Psalm 39:8), and from every trouble (Psalm 34:17, 19; 54:7); so sure is His grip that no power exists that can “rescue” out of His hand (Deuteronomy 32:39; Job 10:7; Hosea 2:10).

In theory, the Lord “keeps” those who keep His covenant (Psalm 25:10; compare Isaiah 26:3).  In fact, He finds ways to guard at least a remnant even when we are unfaithful, preserving the king (Psalm 61:7; Proverbs 20:28) or His righteous Servant (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6, 8).

Inevitably, the “keeping” that stands guard [nasar] shades over into the “keeping” that tends [samar], that watches over our every step, slumberless (Psalm 121). (24)  These two aspects of His care stand together and reinforce one another:

. . . for He guards [samar] the lives of His faithful ones [hasid]

and delivers [nasar] them from the hand of the wicked.  (Psalm 97:10, NIV)

His care is deeply personal; it is a daily expression of His hesed:

Do not withhold Your mercy [rahamim] from me, O Lord;

may Your love [hesed] and Your truth [emet] always protect [nasar] me.  (Psalm 40:11, NIV)


. . . because Thy steadfast love [hesed] is good [tob], deliver [nasar] me! (Psalm 109:21, RSV)

He has taken it upon Himself to become our Defender, and our Shepherd.  Yet the Lord who passes before Moses is not harried or encumbered.  There is no murmur of complaint in His declaration.  It is natural for Him to show Himself strong, and faithful — even to “thousands” [Hebrew eleph].

This word, “indefinite for a great number,” (25) is frequently used to sketch the extent of the Lord’s covenant love: to thousands (Exodus 20:6; Jeremiah 32:18; compare Isaiah 60:22) or even to “a thousand generations” (Deuteronomy 7:9; 1 Chronicles 16:15; Psalm 105:8; compare Luke 1:50).  It is worth pausing to consider it.

The Lord is magnificent in vision, vast in wisdom, great in mercy; His love and faithfulness reach to the skies.  He is, in every sense, a big God.  And yet, such is His humility that He loves to step down from the grand scale, to walk in His garden.  He never rests content with numbers; even when He blesses a crowd, He is not like a pope high on a balcony, but somehow manages to take each one, individually, in His arms (Mark 10:16).

He delights in being personal; He knows each of His chosen ones by name.  But so mighty is His hesed love that, each time He bestows it on one, it extends to a multitude.  He blesses Abraham, and one man’s descendants become more numerous than stars in all the galaxies or sands in all the seashores; He chooses David, and the one becomes a dynasty.

And so when He says that He preserves hesed for thousands, I don’t think He refers only to how many people He loves, but also and especially to how faithful His hesed becomes in each recipient.  He still watches over it long after a lifespan runs its course.  He is never done; His hesed continues forever to grow and to spread.

In the next clause, He will state just how far down hesed stoops, and will suggest how much it costs Him.

Forgiving Iniquity and Transgression and Sin

The Lord is not only slow to anger, but also forgiving of offenses.  The term used here, nasa, is not the main Old Testament word for “forgive”; that would be salah — which first appears in this very scene, when Moses responds to the Lord (Exodus 34:9).  The root meaning of salah may be related to pouring out or sprinkling, (26) and there is a connection: When the people sin unintentionally, through ignorance, the high priest sacrifices a bull, sprinkling some of its blood before the Lord and pouring out the rest (Leviticus 4:13-18).  “In this way the priest will make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven [salah]” (Leviticus 4:20, NIV).  The word may also suggest a releasing or a covering that puts the offense out of sight, as when the Lord promises, “. . . I will forgive [salah] their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34, RSV).

Moses has been introduced to the concept of blood atonement (e.g., in Exodus 30:10).  On the day after the disaster of the golden calf, he says to the people, “You have committed a great sin.  But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Exodus 32:30, NIV).  He then asks the Lord to “forgive their sin” (verse 32) — but he doesn’t yet speak of salah, of the outpouring that covers.  He uses the verb nasa, to lift up and carry. (27)

Nasa can mean to carry sin away.  Year after year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest is to confess all the sins of Israel over a live scapegoat, laying his hands on its head; the animal is then led away and released: “The goat will carry [nasa] on itself all their sins to a solitary place; . . .” (Leviticus 16:22, NIV).  In a less hopeful context, it is the sins themselves that do the carrying:

. . . in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?

. . . our iniquities, like the wind, take us away [nasa].  (Isaiah 64:5-6, RSV) (28)

Usually, though, nasa means to take up and carry — for a protracted period, perhaps forever.  When Cain cries out, “My punishment is greater than I can bear [nasa]” (Genesis 4:13), it is the Lord who bears it with him, though from a distance (verse 16).  Moses complains to the Lord that he cannot carry [nasa] the “burden” of “all this people” — a dead weight, like that of a heavy, squirming infant too young to walk (Numbers 11:11-15); “the weight and burden of you and your strife” (Deuteronomy 1:12, RSV).  At the very least, Moses needs elders to help him (Numbers 11:17).  But the Lord bears precisely this load:

. . . you have seen how the Lord your God bore [nasa] you, as a man bears [nasa] his son, in all the way that you went until you came to this place.  (Deuteronomy 1:31, RSV)


. . . how I carried [nasa] you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.  (Exodus 19:4, NIV; compare Deuteronomy 32:11)

Sometimes nasa seems to refer to a forgiveness that is a setting aside:

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” —

and You forgave [nasa] the guilt of my sin.  (Psalm 32:5, NIV; Amplified “[instantly] forgave”; compare Psalm 85:2; 99:8)


Who is a God like Thee, pardoning [nasa] iniquity

and passing over [abar] transgression

for the remnant of His inheritance?

He does not retain His anger [ap] for ever

because He delights in steadfast love [hesed].  (Micah 7:18, RSV)

In many contexts, though, it is clear that such “forgiveness” is costly, difficult, and ongoing.  When the Lord agrees to Abraham’s plea to “spare” [nasa] Sodom and Gomorrah if a critical mass of righteous inhabitants can be found (Genesis 18:24, 26), it’s evident that the flagrant sins of the majority will not cease.  Similarly, when the prophet Ezekiel lies first on one side, then the other, bearing [nasa] the iniquity of Israel and Judah, a day for each year (Ezekiel 4:4-6) — or when the high priest bears [nasa] before the Lord the iniquity of the holy things on his forehead, and the names of the tribes on his shoulders and over his heart (Exodus 28:38, 12, 29) — these symbolic actions only hint at the commitment that the Lord willingly takes upon Himself every day.  He has made us and carried us from the womb, and will carry us even to old age (Isaiah 46:3-4); other nations must shoulder and carry their dead gods, but the living God carries His people (verse 7).  He carried them all the days of old, to the point of sharing their afflictions (Isaiah 63:9); and in days to come, like a strong and gentle Shepherd, He will gather His lambs and carry them close to His heart (40:11).

Is there a limit to what the Lord will bear?  Job doesn’t seem to think so, exclaiming with pained incredulity, “. . . why do You not pardon [nasa] my transgression and take away [abar: pass over, as in Micah 7:18] my iniquity?” (Job 7:21, Amplified).  But the Lord warns Israel that the angel of His presence “will not pardon [nasa] your transgression; for My name is in him” (Exodus 23:21, Amplified, RSV).  Joshua warns:

You cannot serve the Lord, for He is a holy God; He is a jealous God, He will not forgive [nasa] your transgressions or your sins.  (Joshua 24:19, Amplified, RSV)

Much later, the stunned remnant of Judah is told:

The Lord could no longer bear [nasa] your evil doings and the abominations which you committed; therefore your land has become a desolation and a waste and a curse, without inhabitant, as it is this day.  (Jeremiah 44:22, RSV)

Yet our God continues to carry, even when He appears to have cast off a burden once and for all.  He has provided a Servant who “took up [nasa] our infirmities” (Isaiah 53:4, NIV; “all our griefs,” RSV) and “bore [nasa] the sin of many” (verse 12).  And this time, He bore it away.

There is uncertainty in Moses as he goes to the Lord following the golden calf, “perhaps” to make atonement (Exodus 32:30).  He knows that he is asking God to “bear with,” and he bravely presents an ultimatum:

But now, please forgive [nasa] their sin — but if not, then blot me out of the book You have written.  (Exodus 32:32, NIV)

The Lord pointedly rejects both alternatives, refusing to blot out Moses while at the same time promising further punishment for Israel and immediately sending a plague (32:33-35).  He does not appear to forgive.  Then, passing before Moses, He declares that He is a God who forgives [nasa] “iniquity and transgression and sin” (34:7).

Moses responds with a brand new verb:

. . . let the Lord, I pray You, go in the midst of us, although it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon [salah] our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your inheritance.  (Exodus 34:9, Amplified)

He is asking that the offense somehow be covered and atoned for, while acknowledging that the people still must be borne with.

Again, there is no direct reply.  But see what happens after a later instance of rebellion.  Moses reminds God of His character (of His “power” or strength, verse 17), and then goes on:

“Pardon [salah], I pray You, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your mercy and loving-kindness [hesed], just as you have forgiven [nasa] [them] from Egypt until now.”

And the Lord said, “I have pardoned [salah] according to your word.”  (Numbers 14:19-20, Amplified)

In this passage, the Lord is represented as consistently forgiving [nasa] His covenant people — bearing and bearing with them, bearing and bearing away their sins — because of His steadfast love; consequently, He forgives [salah] ­— provides atonement for, covers, puts out of sight — each particular infraction.  And then He goes on to say that this generation, though “forgiven,” will die in the desert without entering Canaan (14:21-23), after bearing [nasa] their iniquities for 40 years (verse 34).

There is thus a “but” that follows closely upon the Lord’s forgiveness.  We shall look at it more closely as we turn to the next clause.  Now, it remains to be said that the Lord holds nothing back when He declares that He forgives or bears “iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:7).  Iniquity [awon] is the fundamental perversity or “bentness” in our nature that results from the Fall, as well as every sort of evil craving; transgression [pesa] is willful deviation from and rebellion against known standards; and sin [hattat] is a broad term for any missing of the mark. (29)  He refers, then, to “evils and sins of all sorts.” (30)  He does not commit Himself only to first offenses or minor and unintentional lapses.  He shoulders it all.

Not Clearing (the Guilty), Visiting Iniquity

The Lord may forgive, but He does not “acquit” or “hold innocent” or “leave unpunished” [naqah]. (31)  In His justice, He has a high regard for the innocent [naqi], and is their Champion (Exodus 23:7; Proverbs 6:16-17).  King Manasseh cannot be pardoned [salah] because he’s filled Jerusalem with innocent blood (2 Kings 34:4; compare 21:16; Jeremiah 19:4).

What the Lord does not “acquit,” He eventually “visits upon” the offender.  This verb, paqad, is a trumpet call of divine intervention; (32) the Lord announces to Moses and to all that He’s no watchmaker god, sitting back to observe, but a God who actively involves Himself in human lives.  Sometimes He “visits” in great mercy, as when He remembers His promises to Sarah and to Hannah, and acts to fulfill them (Genesis 21:1; 1 Samuel 2:21).  But often His remembering is a reckoning, a nightmare punishment that continues through successive generations.

This is wonderful news for the innocent and the oppressed.  When Moses makes known to the despondent Israelites that the Lord has “visited” them in their bondage, they bow in worship (Exodus 3:16; 4:31).

And yet . . . how often are we innocent?  As soon as the Lord begins to visit our sins upon us, we cry out with Job:

Thou has granted me life and steadfast love [hesed];

and Thy care [visitation, pequddah] has preserved my spirit.

Yet these things Thou didst hide in Thy heart;

I know that this was Thy purpose.

If I sin, Thou dost mock me,

and dost not acquit [naqah] me of my iniquity.  (Job 10:12-14, RSV)

The golden calf, though a “great sin” (Exodus 32:30, 31), was still a discrete offense or series of offenses; but when Moses asks the Lord to “forgive” by bearing it [nasa], He replies instead that, in due time, He will surely visit the sin [paqad] upon the offenders (32:32).  How much more, when the issue is our iniquity — our “bentness,” the crook in our fallen natures that causes us to crave darkness and death — do we summon a visitation of judgment.

Still, this is not the last word.  Naqah means “to acquit,” but also “to cleanse.”  We who have ruined our innocence may yet be taught to seek cleansing, even from confused and impaired moral judgment (Psalm 19:12).  Though the Lord wonders aloud, “How long will it be before they attain purity [niqqayon]?” (Hosea 8:5, Amplified), still He remains determined to “cleanse and hold as innocent [naqah]” even the bloodguilt of His people (Joel 3:21, Amplified).

Forgiveness is no magic wand to bear away, wash away, or cover.  Yet such is the steadfast love of the Lord that even iniquity cannot contain it.  What He may not forgive, He will cleanse, visiting us again and again until this is accomplished; as He says to Israel:

You only have I known (chosen sympathized with, and loved) of all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your wickedness and punish you for all your iniquities.  (Amos 3:2, Amplified)

Individually, this cleansing process extends beyond my lifetime; corporately, the Church will not be pure in my generation.  But the hesed love of the Lord, which is His glory, hides us in safety and passes before us, marching toward His fulfillment.

Like Moses, we acknowledge that we have glimpsed the goodness of the Lord (Exodus 33:19); we bow and worship, entreat the grace of His presence, and seek a deep-cleansing atonement.

How Much Has Changed?

Someone may object that this picture of God is too “Mosaic,” too “Old Testament.”  Haven’t we now come to a different and more gracious mountain — to heavenly Zion rather than nebulous Sinai (Hebrews 12:18-24; Galatians 4:24-31)?  Indeed, we stand in a better place, but the Lord has not changed:

  • We have been “saved” (2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5) and we shall be saved (Romans 5:9-10; 1 Corinthians 15:2) — even saved “to the uttermost (completely, perfectly, finally, and for all time and eternity)” (Hebrews 2:25, Amplified) — but saved with difficulty, with much toil, at great cost (1 Peter 4:18), by a narrow escape (Jude 23; 1 Corinthians 3:15); through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13), we continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), and sometimes this requires deep sorrow and repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10).
  • Through Jesus, God has made atonement or propitiation for sin (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17), and has brought about reconciliation (Romans 5:10-11; 2 Corinthians 5:18; Colossians 1:20-22), but the effect is that the redeemed are deeply and radically identified with their Redeemer.  As He died, so we are dead (Romans 6:8; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Colossians 2:20); we live as dead beings restored to life (John 5:24; 1 John 3:14), but our life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3, NIV); His life in us requires that we die daily (Luke 9:23-24; 1 Corinthians 15:31).  Jesus was “sacrificed” once for all, bearing and bearing away sin (Hebrews 9:28), but in Him we become living sacrifices (Romans 12:1; Ephesians 5:2); we are commanded to persevere (Hebrews 10:26) in the only “new and living way” to dwell in the presence of God, the way that is literally the body of Jesus (10:20).  It is “in Christ” that we are made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:6-7; 2 Timothy 1:1); paradoxically, this life entails showing or manifesting His death (1 Corinthians 11:26) and bearing it about (2 Corinthians 4:10-11).  We share His sufferings (Philippians 3:10; 1 Peter 4:13) and His shame (Hebrews 13:13).
  • We have been washed clean (1 Corinthians 6:11; Revelation 1:5), but not like a mindless pig eager to run back to the muck (2 Peter 2:22).  We are cleansed like a temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and if we are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit we shall be inhabited by unclean spirits (Matthew 12:43-45).  Without His holiness we shall not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
  • We are forgiven of all sins (Colossians 2:13), but must walk in forgiveness (Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:32; Matthew 6:12-15); we have received mercy (1 Peter 2:10; Romans 11:30; 2 Corinthians 4:1), but must either learn to show mercy (Matthew 5:7; Luke 10:37; James 3:17) or one day experience judgment without mercy (James 2:12-13).
  • We have been showered with abundant grace (John 1:16; Romans 5:2), but it is incumbent on us not to set it aside, frustrate it (Galatians 2:21), or fall from it (5:4).
  • There is no condemnation for those in Christ (Romans 8:1), but — to save us from condemnation (1 Corinthians 11:32) — there still are discipline (Hebrews 12:5-11) and pruning (John 15:2), and even bruising struggles to subdue our bodies (1 Corinthians 9:27; compare 11:31).  We shall be saved from wrath (Romans 5:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:10), the wrath that abides on all who reject the Son (John 3:36), but we must put to death all those aspects of our “bent” selves that invite wrath (Colossians 3:5-8).
  • He has visited His people with salvation (Luke 1:68, 78; 7:16), but there are still visitations to come (1 Peter 2:12), especially for those who fail to welcome Him (Luke 19:44).  He dwells in us (Ephesians 3:17; James 4:5), but, if we grieve Him away (Ephesians 4:30) — if we outrage the Spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:29) — He will come back to visit us.  If we do not reckon ourselves dead to sin (Romans 6:11), there will come a reckoning (Matthew 18:24; 25:19).  The Lord will judge His people (Hebrews 10:30; 1 Peter 4:17).
  • All Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26), but we are members of a remnant chosen by grace (11:5), standing in fear (11:20) lest our unbelief and arrogance invite a hardening (11:20, 25), and lest our “bent” hearts turn away (Hebrews 12:25).  For God is both kind and severe (Romans 11:22) — cutting, sharp, ready to prune — though His mercy triumphs (11:32) and His grace suffices (2 Corinthians 12:9), superabounds (Romans 5:20; 1 Timothy 1:14), and overflows (Romans 5:15; 2 Corinthians 9:8).

From Hesed to Agape

In the New Testament, the Hebrew word for the emotional divine compassion, rahamim, is matched by the Greek splanchna.  “It is the strongest word in Greek for the feeling of compassion,” (33) and it is used especially of Jesus — even though, in Greek thought, a divine being must be beyond feeling, impervious to pain. (34)  Jesus is “moved with compassion” when He sees blind men (Matthew 20:34), a leper (Mark 1:41), a grieving mother (Luke 7:13), and again and again when He sees ordinary, spiritually helpless “crowds” of humanity (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 15:32).

Hesed is reflected in two New Testament words.  Eleos is mercy: a commentary describes it in emotional terms, as God’s “attitude toward those who are in distress,” (35) but we see especially acts of mercy, often prompted by splanchna (as when the blind men appeal to Jesus for eleos and He feels splanchna, Matthew 20:30-34).  Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, rejoices at the “tender mercy [splanchna eleos]” of the divine visitation in Jesus, a glorious act of mercy that is filled with compassion (Luke 1:78).

Hesed also appears as agape.  This “love” is “the characteristic word of Christianity,” (36) “the very key word of NT ethics”; (37) it is also easily misunderstood.  Like hesed, it does not spring from emotion, but is the love of choice and selection, (38) a deliberate and settled choice to seek another’s highest good. (39)  A definition such as “unconquerable benevolence, invincible good will” (40) can even strike us as formal and cold.  But affection, though distinct, accompanies agape; in fact, closed affections [splanchna] are a sure sign that the agape of God is absent (1 John 3:17).  When He looks upon our need, even our iniquitous “bent,” Jesus is “moved with compassion [splanchna],” but it is agape that prompted Him to come close in the first place.  The prodigal’s father is “filled with compassion [splanchnizomai]” at the sight of his boy (Luke 15:20, NIV), but he has been steadfastly watching for him, and the memory of the father’s consistent, loving goodness invites the repentant return.  The good Samaritan by his actions shows mercy [eleos] to the helpless after his feelings of compassion [splanchna] are aroused, but the entire episode serves to illustrate agape love (Luke 10:37, 33, 27).  Many of Jesus’ parables are parables of agape: the hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44), the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46), the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7; Matthew 18:12-14), and the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) all show the high, even absurd value God places on some one particle of creation, and the great, even obsessive and sacrificial lengths He goes to in order to bring it near and keep it safe.

The great difference between hesed and agape concerns the covenant foundation.  We have said that hesed is a covenant commitment, expecting a return.  Throughout most of the Old Testament, the Mosaic covenant is in view, and so the Lord’s hesed is for Israel (Ezra 3:11; Psalm 136:10-21), even if we are occasionally reminded that He has compassion [rahamim] on all He has made (Psalm 145:9, NIV).  The surprising good news of the New Testament — a scandal to Pharisees — is that His agape love embraces even His enemies: tax collectors, sinners, Gentiles (Matthew 5:43-45; Luke 6:27-36; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:4).  Part of “the mystery which was kept secret for long ages” (Romans 16:25, RSV), now revealed in Paul’s gospel, is the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation (Ephesians 3:6; Romans 11:25); a related aspect is that our glorious life is “in Christ” (Colossians 1:27; 2:2-3; Ephesians 1:9-10).  The Lord has stepped back to an older covenant, with Abraham or with Noah or even with Adam; “in Christ” we are dead to the requirements of the Sinai covenant (Romans 7:4-6; Galatians 2:19), even as, “in Christ,” His agape works in us to satisfy the law’s requirements (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14).

We may picture this in terms of dimensions.  The Lord’s hesed is primarily vertical: as high as heaven, as deep as sin; it also persists through time.  Horizontally, it is more circumscribed; to Job’s friend Zophar, it is the wisdom of God that is long and wide as well as high and deep (Job 11:7-9).  In contrast, agape extends in all directions; as Barclay suggests, “Christianity needed a much more inclusive word” than philia. (41)  Paul prays that believers, themselves “rooted and established” in agape, may “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love [agape] of Christ” (Ephesians 3:17-18, NIV).  The Lord has thrown open His arms, and the “immeasurably more” of His powerful work in us (Ephesians 3:20, NIV) renovates and transforms us accordingly.  We acquire width [platos] as we open our hearts to others (2 Corinthians 6:11, 13), length [mekos] as the seed of faith and obedience grows (Mark 4:27), height [hupsos] as we are humbled and crucified and exalted with Christ (John 12:32; James 1:9; 4:20; Ephesians 4:8), and depth [bathos] as our sins are rooted out and our lives become founded on the words of God (Luke 6:48).

So Is God’s Love “Unconditional”?

Our English-language discussions of the “love” of God are often frustrated by our tendency to confound Hebrew ahabah, hesed, rahamim, and Greek agape, splanchna, and eleos.  We say that God loves all people “unconditionally,” no matter what.  This is clearly not the case with His affectionate ahabah love.  Occasionally His affection for Israel is said to be “everlasting” or “forever” [olam] (Jeremiah 31:3; 1 Kings 10:9); it is “as strong as death” and cannot be quenched by many waters (Song of Songs 8:6-7); but, even with Israel, we find Him saying in Hosea 9:15 that because of their sins, at least for a time, He will withdraw His affection, and they will experience His hatred.

It is much more accurate to say that the Lord’s hesed endures, that He maintains a steadfast commitment to loving-kindness, even when His affection is taken away.  Dozens of times, His hesed is declared to be “everlasting” or “forever” [olam]. (42)  But even this love is not the unlimited benevolence we have in mind when we speak of “unconditional” love.  He says of David:

I will not take My steadfast love [hesed] from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.  (1 Samuel 7:15, RSV; 1 Chronicles 17:13)

And He warns Jeremiah not to lament,

For I have taken away My peace [shalom] from this people, says the Lord, My steadfast love [hesed] and mercy [rahamim].  (Jeremiah 16:5, RSV)

These instances are rare, but they serve to remind us that the love of God is not literally without limit, without end, without condition.  “A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed — without remedy” (Proverbs 29:1, NIV; see also 6:12-15; and especially 2 Chronicles 36:15-16).  There is a mystery here, and it is not for us to attempt to define the boundaries of mercy, or to cause anyone to despair; but, equally, it is wicked to presume on endless tolerance of hearts and lives that grieve the soul of God.

Very tentatively, I suggest that both of these withdrawals of hesed are temporary and disciplinary.  The word to Jeremiah is part of an announcement of the Babylonian Exile, and the Lord quickly adds that Restoration will follow (Jeremiah 16:14-15).  The overall message of this prophet, in keeping with the rest of the Old Testament, is that the Lord’s faithful hesed endures (3:12; 9:24; 31:3); His restored people will celebrate precisely this aspect of His character (33:10-11).

As for King Saul, his story does not end with his death in battle, but continues for at least two more generations.  Saul is one who values occasional, extravagant sacrifice over steady, faithful, loving obedience (1 Samuel 15:22-23).  When the Lord rejects him as king and withdraws His hesed love, the prophet Samuel’s grief over Saul (16:1) surely reflects some measure of the Lord’s own sadness (15:10-11, 35).  The Lord’s Spirit departs from Saul; he is tormented by an evil spirit (16:14) and ultimately deserted in battle (28:5-6, 16-19).  Yet the Lord has not completely abandoned his family — not when he has a valiant son like Jonathan, who is convinced that nothing can stop the Lord from saving (14:6), and who knows how to strengthen or encourage a man in God (23:16).  Jonathan is drawn to David by natural affection [ahabah] (18:1, 3; 20:17; 2 Samuel 1:26) — like Saul himself for a time (1 Samuel 16:21) — but he also learns from David to value loving-kindness [hesed] (20:8, 14-15), unlike his cousin Abner, whose loyalty [hesed] is to the house of Saul (2 Samuel 3:8).  Saul brings a curse on Jonathan (1 Samuel 14:24-28), and the son dies with his father (31:2-6), and the same calamity results in the crippling of Jonathan’s young son Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 4:4).  Later, though, the question on the heart of David, the man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), becomes, “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness [hesed] for Jonathan’s sake?” (2 Samuel 9:1).  He restores property to this broken man, this “dead dog,” and elevates him to dine at the king’s table (9:8-9).  Later, Mephibosheth’s own loyalty to David is called into question (16:3-4); his name is never cleared, but, as if in echo of his selfless father (1 Samuel 18:3; 23:17), he consents to be stripped of all, rejoicing in the king’s triumph (2 Samuel 19:24-30).  When we last see Mephibosheth, David spares him from judgment for a sin committed by his grandfather Saul (21:7).

We all wish to be strong like Jonathan, and instead we all err and rebel like Saul.  But it seems to me that the withdrawal of hesed is intended to make Mephibosheths of us, to bring us into a kind of death.  Not mighty warriors but weak and dependent, we are willing to live by and for the hesed of God.  We come out of the wilderness leaning upon our Beloved (Song of Songs 8:5).

The case is similar with agape.  Human agape is weak and unstable, growing cold (Matthew 24:12), diminishing from what it was at first (Revelation 2:4); Paul pronounces a blessing on all who love the Lord Jesus with “an imperishable and incorruptible” (43) love (Ephesians 6:24).  In contrast, the agape of God “never fails [never fades out or becomes obsolete or comes to an end]” (1 Corinthians 13:8, Amplified); no power exists that can divide or separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:35-39).  Still, it can be withheld: this much is implied in Paul’s injunction to the Corinthian Christians to “reaffirm” their agape love for one who has been consigned to discipline (2 Corinthians 2:8, RSV, NIV).

It has become fashionable to say, “God will never love you any more than He does right now.  And God will never love you any less than He does right now.”  Undoubtedly, there is comfort in this.  And there are times, when we have sinned, and condemnation comes against us, when we truly need to be assured that God will not forever take away His love.  But this statement, using the broad English word “love,” is confusing and misleading.  Ultimately, despite its good intentions, it robs us of an incentive to press in to know Him more.

It is true that the Lord’s hesed and His agape tend to be steady, neither growing nor changing — though “God will never love you less” misleadingly suggests that He will never withdraw them, no matter what we do.  But unvarying sameness is just not the nature of emotional ahabah and splanchna love.  Ahabah affection is mother- or father-love: right from the beginning, it wells up.  “When Israel was a child, I loved him” (Hosea 11:1, NIV, RSV).  The Lord loves the newborn Solomon, so much so that he is renamed Jedidiah, “Loved by the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:24-25).  This is unconditional love, strictly defined: baby Solomon has not fulfilled any conditions to earn or deserve this love; in fact, he comes out of a union that began in adultery and murder.  The divine ahabah catches up the undeserving.

This is mirrored by some uses of agapao in the New Testament.  Jesus looks upon the rich young man and “loves” him (Mark 10:21).  This doesn’t mean that He didn’t love him a moment before; but there’s an emotional upsurge, as well as an intention and an engagement.  At the same time, the young man is not instantly promoted to the depth of affection, the intimate bonds, the shared memories and burdens, that Jesus cultivated with dear friends, even though the same verb is used: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5, RSV).

There are degrees of affection, and of the settled seeking of the other’s good that completes agape, as we all know when we stand in simplicity.  Paul challenges one prickly congregation, to whom he has given much, “If I love [agapao] you more, will you love [agapao] me less?” (2 Corinthians 12:15, NIV).  The runaway slave Onesimus, in coming to know the Lord, becomes a “beloved [agapetos] brother” (Philemon 16), “very dear” to Paul and “even dearer” to his owner (NIV).  Paul, at least, presumably “loved” Onesimus from the first, but something has changed.  In a similar way, do we not become dearer to God as His love increases and abounds in us (1 Thessalonians 3:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:3), is perfected or made complete in us (1 John 2:5; 4:12, 17)?  If God’s heart toward us does not change, let us at any rate acknowledge that our hearts and capacities do change.  Abraham becomes the “friend” [ahab] of God (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23) by walking for many years in His affection [ahabah].

What if, instead of proclaiming God’s unconditional love, a relief from failure and an excuse for never having to mature, we learned to meditate on His steadfast love, faithful and gracious, compassionate and everlasting?  What if, instead of seeking consolation in the thought that His affections are unchanging, we dared to believe that we can spend eternity exploring the depth and height, the length and breadth of His passion for us?  The character of God is not a blanket to wrap ourselves up in, sins and insecurities and all; it is a multicolored flame that calls forth everything we are, heart and soul and mind and strength.

The Myth of Sacrifice

We keep embracing the lie that says that God particularly prizes sacrifice.  Look at the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  He’s working in the fields, hoping that his performance will be noticed.  When the father expresses his hesed for the good-for-nothing younger brother, the elder explodes, “angry [with deep-seated wrath]” (Luke 15:28, Amplified):

Look!  All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!  (15:29-30, NIV)

He is aggrieved.  He has shown his loyalty by giving up some of his time, and by adhering to the letter of the father’s expressed will (if not his heart).  His service should be rewarded, though he doesn’t ask for time together — truth be told, he’d rather have a party with his friends.

He is upset particularly because an animal has been killed, sacrificed.  In his scheme of justice, it was rightfully his, in recognition of all his sacrifices.  Isn’t that what love is?

But the father answers:

My son, . . . you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.  (15:31-32, NIV)

The slaughtered calf is indeed an indicator of the father’s love, but not in the way that the elder son supposes.  It is not a reward, but a redemption.  In his spirit, the younger brother was lost, dead (Luke 15:24, 32); he had “joined himself” to a harsh master (verse 15).  In the Old Testament, the Lord shows His love (His deep affection, ahabah) for Israel by redeeming the people from bondage in Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:8).  During the Passover darkness, in the very shadow of the Angel of Death, He makes it clear that redemption requires a sacrifice, a death, a covering of blood (Exodus 12:23; Romans 3:24-25; Ephesians 1:7).  And as Abraham discovered long before, God Himself provides the sacrifice for us (Genesis 22:8, 13, 14).

After the first Passover, the people of Israel could be called “the redeemed of the Lord” (Psalm 107:2; Isaiah 62:12).  But the covenant includes a special provision for the redemption of firstborn sons (Exodus 13:11-16).  In the parable, the elder brother has long since been redeemed.  The father gladly paid a price, not because a reward was due, but because he planned an ongoing relationship: “In Your unfailing love [hesed] You will lead the people You have redeemed” (Exodus 15:13, NIV).  In this communion there is life, hope, security, identity, and intimacy:

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;

I have summoned you by name;

you are Mine.  (Isaiah 43:1, NIV)

But the elder brother prefers to think of himself as “special,” not as redeemed.  He wants recognition and reward — just for himself; he refuses to see a gift that is shared with anyone else, especially a “sinner.”  The father gives the best gift of all, himself: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31, NIV).  But the son would rather have a dead goat plus bragging rights than a living father and unfailing, unmerited love.

Pride erects barriers, creates distance.  The younger son squandered his father’s money, and hired or joined himself to a master; but the elder son, no less, has squandered the father’s hesed and joined himself to a lie.  By the very fact that he no longer sees himself as redeemed, he shows that he too needs redemption.  As God says of Israel, “I long to redeem them, but they speak lies against Me” (Hosea 7:13, NIV).  The calf and the party are for both boys, but when the parable ends we are in suspense, waiting to see whether the elder son will choose steadfast love or lies.  Jesus and the Father wait to see which you and I will choose.

The same lie is at work in the Parable of the Talents or Minas.  One servant misses the opportunity to show himself trustworthy by exercising his faith, investing the hesed that he has received.  He is overcome by fear because he is convinced that his master is hard or merciless [skleros] (Matthew 25:24), severe or strict [austeros] (Luke 19:21). (44)  Incredibly, even though the master has entrusted him with seed money, the servant persists in believing that the master demands a harvest where he hasn’t sown.  In fact, the Master of hesed is always sowing; every good gift comes from Him (James 1:17), and He desires to sow in and through the least of His servants.  But this man misses the hesed and mistrusts the Giver.  Paralyzed by fear of failure, he buries the gift.  He has allied himself with the strangers surrounding the estate, who hate the master and reject him as king (Luke 19:14). (45)

It is easy to become the elder brother, toiling in a barren field.  It is easy to think, as the servant does, that our God leaves the sowing and tending to us, and only shows up for the harvest.  (Is He not preoccupied, staring down the road after the lost?)  Paul, delivered from Pharisaism, sees more clearly: God always works with us, and He alone can create growth (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).

What’s Wrong with Sacrifice?

On two occasions, Jesus challenges the Pharisees to learn what Hosea 6:6 means — that God desires steadfast love rather than sacrifice.  One episode involves His fellowship with sinners, the other His alleged low regard for the sanctity of the sabbath.

Jesus associates with sinners, befriends them, heals them, shares their food (Matthew 9:9-13).  This all expresses hesed, with the added surprise of agape — for, yes, God’s steadfast love extends even to these, who have been told that they are enemies of God, outside His love, because they have broken His covenant.

The Pharisees are bewildered by this.  Though they would not have recognized the problem before they encountered Jesus, for them the “steadfast love” of the Lord clashes with His holiness — and loses.  Holiness is understood especially as separation from all that is unclean, and so as a form of sacrifice, “giving up” anything less than wholesome.  If the Lord is too pure to look on evil (Habakkuk 1:13), surely His people must abstain from contact with the ungodly.  We can’t afford to love anything that might defile us.

Jesus turns this outlook on its head.  Hesed, the heart of God, is primary.  Sinners, viewed through the eyes of love, are “afflicted” (Matthew 9:12), and the holiness of God is not a sore spot to be guarded, or a gift to be buried, but a positive power that can work through love to heal and transform.  Sacrifice stands at a distance, disapproving and waiting for applause, but love embraces and unites.  As a teacher of the law acknowledges in Mark 12:33, loving God and neighbor “is much more than” (Amplified, RSV) sacrifices; it is abundantly and excessively greater.

In the other incident, the Pharisees condemn Jesus’ disciples for plucking and eating grain as they pass through a field on the sabbath.  According to their statutes, two separate sins — two different forms of “work” forbidden on the sabbath — have been committed: “reaping” the grain and then “threshing” or “sifting” it by rubbing. (46)  Jesus replies that no guilt attaches to the disciples (Matthew 12:7), and He again quotes Hosea 6:6 to the Pharisees.  The sabbath of rest was not enjoined by God so that it might become a sacrifice, a yardstick to measure our spirituality and others’; paradoxically, that would be work, like the elder brother’s toil in the fields, away from the father.  The sabbath is another gift, an expression of the divine hesed.  The Lord invites us to enjoy His bounty, and He encourages us to gather strength so that we may serve others and do them good.

Summarizing the gulf dividing the Pharisees and Jesus, Alfred Edersheim says well:

They knew no mercy that was not sacrifice — with merit attaching; He no sacrifice, real and acceptable to God, that was not mercy.  (47)

Sacrifice stops short of service; it becomes an end in itself.  Or it saves its energy for the one great noble and heroic act, and then takes a long vacation, and proves itself to be surly and ill-tempered all the rest of the time, especially when divine and human applause are not forthcoming.  These considerations help me toward an understanding of Proverbs 12:10, at least as it applies to my own heart: “. . . even the tender mercies [rahamim; NIV “the kindest acts”] of the wicked are cruel” (Amplified); that is, their root is not kindness at all, but pride and a desire to manipulate.

But Jesus, even when He becomes a sacrifice, practices steadfast love.  At the supper, though He knows what lies ahead for Him, He washes the disciples’ feet: “Having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love” (John 13:1, NIV).  After the agony of Gethsemane, He is not a man on a mission, too busy for His friends; He makes time to consider their safety (John 18:8-9).  Even on the cross, He shows love and mercy to others (Luke 23:34, 42-43; John 19:26-27).

When I focus on sacrifice, it becomes a duty; my mind isn’t on it and my heart isn’t in it.  No wonder, then, that the Lord frequently says that He isn’t pleased with sacrifices (Psalm 50:8-13; Isaiah 1:11; 66:3; Jeremiah 6:20), particularly those of the wicked (Proverbs 15:8; 21:27; Hosea 8:11-13).  He prefers obedience (1 Samuel 15:22; Jeremiah 7:21-24) and the offering of heartfelt thanks (Jonah 2:9; Psalm 50: 14, 23; 107:22; 116:17), especially when these are signs of inward change: “My sacrifice [the sacrifice acceptable] to God is a broken spirit; . . .” (Psalm 51:17, Amplified).

In the New Testament, Jesus is our great and final sacrifice (Hebrews 10; 1 Corinthians 5:7).  Paul is poured out like a drink offering (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6), and every believer is called to be a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1), offering sacrifices of praise, doing good, and sharing (Hebrews 13:15-16).

But there is a lightness in the laying out.  We offer ourselves with our eyes on the mercies or compassion [oiktirmos] shown to us by God (Romans 12:1); Paul is glad and rejoicing as he is poured out (Philippians 2:17-18; 1 Corinthians 12:15), and Jesus “gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” because He loved [agapao] us, because we are “dearly loved [agapetos] children” (Ephesians 5:1-2, NIV).

If we attend to sacrifice, we falter and fall away, but if we set our hearts and minds on steadfast love, receiving it and remaining in it and giving it rule in us, we can be faithful even in sacrifice, following in the steps of our Lord, whose love “stands firm forever” (Psalm 89:2, NIV).

At one point, Paul prays, “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness [NIV “perseverance”] of Christ” (2 Thessalonians 3:5, RSV).  Just for a moment, for the sake of training us in godliness, a distinction is made in the Godhead: in the Son we see all the strength of faithful endurance, and in the Father all the seeming weakness of unfailing love.  The Son became a sacrifice for us; the Father offered Him up.  He is giving still, even to us, the broken and rebellious:

He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all — how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?  (Romans 8:32, NIV)

Islam famously declares that God has no son, and Christians reply that this is wrong, that the Lord Jesus is indeed very God, become incarnate, Son of God and Son of man.  Sometimes, though, we forget the magnitude of the error and of the grace; for Father and Son have sacrificed in order to bring “many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10, NIV, RSV).  God has an abundance of sons; His house is thronged.  Daily, still, we receive “His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves” (Ephesians 1:6, NIV).

God is the longest-suffering of unrequited lovers.  If He gave way to bitterness, He could outlast any country song in listing all that He has sacrificed for the unworthy.  Yet when He reveals Himself to Moses, when He comes near in the person of the Lord Jesus, He makes no complaint.  He pours out love, and the love is a gentle, persistent current, washing away defenses and lies, drawing us out into the great ocean-heart of our God.

O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;

for His steadfast love endures for ever.


(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), 338; emphasis in original.

(2) J.W.L. Hoad, “Mercy, Merciful,” in J.D. Douglas, ed., The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962, 1975), 809.

(3) John H. Stek, note on Psalm 6:4, in Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 791.

(4) Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 142.

(5) See 1 Chronicles 16:34, 41; 2 Chronicles 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21; Ezra 3:11; Psalm 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1-4, 29; 136:1-26; 138:8; Jeremiah 33:11.  This list of references is probably not complete.  Note that Ezra 3:11 is unique in explicitly restricting the scope of the Lord’s hesed: it is forever “toward Israel.”

(6) See also 2 Chronicles 30:9; Psalm 111:4; Nahum 1:3.

(7) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 933; emphasis in original.

(8) John Bright, Jeremiah, 2nd ed., The Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), 282.

(9) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 12.

(10) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 335-36.

(11) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 100.

(12) Jim B. McClure, Grace Revisited (Geelong, Australia: Trailblazer Ministries, 2010; online preview at, 39-40; see 48 on Warfield.

(13) On “grace” in Proverbs 3:34, see Brother Lee, “Grace, NOT Unmerited Favor,” Thoughts from God Ministries,  James Ryle’s definition is set forth in an undated audio series, Amazing Grace: Experiencing the Fullness of God’s Empowering Presence, available also on DVD (  See also Ryle’s blog,  McClure (49) refers to a book by Ryle, The Empowering Presence of God, but I have not been able to locate this.

(14) McClure, 49.

(15) McClure, 46-47.  But he goes on to emphasize the divine power associated with grace (56-65), and to make other helpful points.

(16) William Barclay, In the Hands of God (New York and Evanston: Harper Chapel, 1966), 157.

(17) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 161-62.

(18) R.V.G. Tasker, “Wrath,” New Bible Dictionary, 1341.

(19) Elihu notices this flaw in Job’s reasoning (Job 35:15); Jonah echoes it (Jonah 4:1-3).

(20) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 142.

(21) In addition to the passages cited in this section, see Genesis 24:27; 1 Kings 3:6; Nehemiah 9:32-33; Psalm 25:10; 26:3; 40:10; 57:10; 69:13; 85:10; 89: 14; 108:4; 115:1; 117:2; 138:2; Proverbs 14:22; 16:6; 20:28; Isaiah 16:5; Hosea 4:1; Micah 7:20; Zechariah 7:9.

(22) Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, The New American Commentary Vol. 2, gen. ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B & H, 2006), 716; emphasis in original.

(23) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 665; Vine’s, Old Testament section, 126-27.

(24) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 127.

(25) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 49.

(26) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 86.

(27) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 200-01, 189; Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 671.

(28) Nasa has been read in different ways in Hosea 1:6.  KJV translates, “. . . I will no more have mercy [raham] upon the house of Israel; but I will utterly take them away [nasa]” — that is, into exile.  But modern versions take nasa here as “forgive”: “. . . I will no longer show love to the house of Israel, that I should at all forgive them” (NIV; compare RSV, Amplified).  In Hosea 14:2, the prophet expresses the hope that the Lord will “take away” [nasa] not the people but all their iniquity.

(29) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 231, 232, 266.

(30) Stuart, 716.

(31) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 667; Vine’s, Old Testament section, 103.

(32) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 164.

(33) William Barclay, New Testament Words (1964; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1974), 276.

(34) Barclay, New Testament Words, 277-80.

(35) C.F. Hogg and W.E. Vine, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, with Notes Exegetical and Expository (1922), 340-41; qtd. in Vine’s, New Testament section, 404.

(36) C.F. Hogg and W.E. Vine, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians, with Notes Exegetical and Expository (1914), 105; qtd. in Vine’s, New Testament section, 381.

(37) Barclay, New Testament Words, 19.

(38) Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 2nd ed., 1888 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.), 2:225, 135.

(39) Barclay, New Testament Words, 21.

(40) Barclay, New Testament Words, 22.

(41) Barclay, New Testament Words, 20.

(42) See, e.g., Psalm 18:50; 25:6; 52:8; 89:2, 28; 1-3:17; Isaiah 54:8; 55:3; as well as all the references in note 5 above.

(43) Vincent, 3:412.

(44) 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), 763, 121.

(45) In Romans 11:22, Paul finds both “kindness and severity [apotomia]” in God.  He is severe in that His word is sharp [tomos] (Hebrews 4:12) and cuts deeply.  But He is not hard.  He waits long and tries everything before He cuts us off.

(46) Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883, 18860, new updated edition (1993; n.p.: Hendrickson, 2012), 512.

(47) Edersheim, 360.

Toward a Biblical Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

At first glance, the Bible might seem like a great guidebook for bigots and isolationists of all stripes. One nation chosen, all the others spurned. Idolaters destroyed; intermarriage with them expressly condemned.

Read a little further, though, and all chauvinisms are shaken. Repetitively, inescapably, God “loves the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:18, Amplified; compare Psalm 146:9). He wants Israel to see themselves as a nation of pilgrims passing through (Genesis 23:4; 1 Chronicles 29:15; Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11); thus, the foreigner in their midst holds up a mirror, serves as a reminder, and they are instructed to “love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34; compare Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Deuteronomy 10:19; Ezekiel 47:22-23).

To be sure, the resident alien must abide by Israel’s laws (Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 24:22). But — and this is remarkable — he or she is equal to the Israelite before the law (Deuteronomy 1:16; 27:19; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5). In dispensing equal justice, Israel rehearses for its deepest calling: “. . . I will also give you for a light to the nations, that My salvation may extend to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, Amplified).

In every generation of Biblical history, God uses the stranger to teach His people a fundamental lesson: that we are not possessors, established on a homeland, standing and defending our ground. Rather, we dwell in tents and booths: “. . . the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Leviticus 25:23, RSV). The Lord is the God of the uprooted. In one passage, Jeremiah even suggests that God Himself is “like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who stays only a night” (14:8, NIV).

The picture hardly changes in the New Testament. Jesus, God Incarnate, is the ultimate Stranger on earth. He comes to pitch His tent among us (John 1:14); He has nowhere to lay His head (Luke 9:58; compare 1 Corinthians 4:11). To a radical, deeply troubling degree, He identifies Himself with every outsider. His is the face of every refugee. “Lord, when did we fail to invite You in — ?” “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, . . .” (Matthew 25:41-46).

Yes, But . . .: Precedents

In recent months, we have seen a weary world greet its first sight of Syrian refugees largely with a collective shrug. A photograph of a dead child on a beach softened hearts and opened doors, but they slammed shut again after an act of terrorism.

Truth be told, we should never have expected governments and politicians to welcome the stranger with bold love. This is the calling of the company of believers, themselves sojourners and exiles on earth; it can never be delegated to the world. Nor can we protest that we are asked only to embrace the worthy. Jesus Himself closed that door in our faces: “But I tell you, Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44, Amplified).

It has always been thus. When a notorious persecutor of Christians professed conversion and claimed the status of a brother, he was shunned — until a believer named Barnabas, who loved not his life unto death, took a big risk (Acts 9:26-27). It may have been his example that first showed Paul a love that believes and hopes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Around A.D. 250, an epidemic spread through much of the Roman Empire. Pagans mostly deserted the sick, but Christians in several cities organized care for the living and burial of the dead — and this in spite of the fact that the persecution of the Emperor Decius was under way, and Christians were even being blamed for the plague. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, urged Christians to care for all the afflicted without distinction, and also specifically to extend aid to their persecutors.(1) This episode was one of many steps leading up to the establishment of the first hospitals, “a distinctively Christian institution.”(2)

Almost from the beginning of European exploration of the New World, Native Americans were portrayed predominantly as “wild savages,” “dumb brutes,” and worshipers of the devil. They were also described as treacherous and untrustworthy.(3) One who disagreed was “Apostle” John Eliot (1604-1690). Aided by Thomas Mayhew and others, his evangelistic labors resulted in the establishment of 14 towns of converted “praying Indians” in Massachusetts. Particularly during King Philip’s War in 1675-76, Eliot was called a traitor and received death threats, and many of his translated Bibles were confiscated and destroyed. But he continued undeterred: “Our Indian work yet liveth, praise be to God,” he wrote in 1686.(4)

In 1956, five young American missionaries were killed by Waodani people (also called Auca, “savage” or “naked,” and Huaorani) of Ecuador. Incredibly, some of their family members continued the work, eventually leading many Waodani to Christ. In 1965, Steve Saint, the 14-year-old son of one of the martyrs, was baptized by two of his father’s killers.(5)

These are stories that show the power of God. The apostle Paul concluded that his own dramatic conversion occurred so that others might see the “unlimited patience” of Christ (1 Timothy 1:16, NIV), and draw hope. So with other converts, age after age; but always the patience of Christ is extended through the boldness of His ambassadors.

Stranger and Neighbor

Today we may be witnessing the start of a great move of God. For years, Muslim countries have banned or severely constrained Christian missionaries. No churches may be built, no sermons preached, no Bibles handed out; and any citizen who converts “blasphemes Islam” and is subject to extreme penalties, even death.

We have prayed for walls to crumble and gates to open. But what if God has chosen rather to bring people out — to turn them into the uprooted as a first step in making them His own? (6)

What if it falls to Christians, more than countries, to welcome and serve these strangers — taking them in if this is permitted, or, if need be, sojourning with them in temporary camps, showing them the love that Christ has shown us? If we cannot go, what if it is our calling to adopt a displaced family, sending them personal words of encouragement as well as practical assistance, even if this offends some who accuse us of giving aid and comfort to our enemies?

It is not hard to find grounds to decline this invitation; some days, every news cycle supplies a new reason. But we’ve been told to peer intently into strangers’ faces, expecting, as we serve them, to meet our Lord.

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus puts it another way: We can choose to love the stranger, any stranger, because of a deep conviction that he is in fact our neighbor. He may be unconscious of this connection, and of much else; and we, like the Samaritan, have no assurance that he will ever wake up. But we know the transformative power of the love of God. For when He found us, we were not merely hurting, unresponsive; we were active enemies (Romans 5:10; Colossians 1:21). We “came to ourselves” not only through the shock of pain and degradation, but also through the piercing hope of a Father’s love (Luke 15:17). And we will learn, someday, that in the Father’s house the only celebration is over the homecoming of the hopeless; the only reason to toil in the fields is to share the joy of the One who has stood for ages, staring down the empty stretch of Repentance Road. Though He sags with grief and yearning, still He stands, tensed, ready to run to them before they speak a word. Must we always find another field to tend? Or are we willing to be His flying feet, His reaching arms, His kiss that covers, and His voice that uplifts?


(1) Gary B. Ferngren, Medicine & Health Care in Early Christianity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2009), 118-19.

(2) Ferngren, 124.

(3) Richard Tetek, “Relations between English Settlers and Indians in 17th Century New England,” Diploma Thesis, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic, 2010, 22-27; available at

(4) Linford D. Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford and New York: Oxford, 2012), 24-29.

(5) Steve Saint, End of the Spear (Carol Stream, IL.: Tyndale, 2005); Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (1957; revised ed., Carol Stream, IL.: Tyndale, 1996). See also Rebecca Barnes, “The Rest of the Story,” Christianity Today, Jan. 1, 2006 (available at

(6) A dear friend comments that I seem, in this sentence, to make God the author of a great evil.  Such is not my intent, but it is helpful and humbling to be reminded just how difficult it is to talk faithfully about world events.  A Syrian Christian, identified only as Brother John, expresses a similar point of view much more eloquently in the June 2016 Voice of the Martyrs newsletter (“Interview with a Syrian Field Worker,” 11):

Before the war, our church prayed for revival in our nation.  We prayed that every individual or heart would receive a copy of the New Testament.  We had no idea how to accomplish the goal of giving every Syrian a New Testament, but the war is how God answered the prayers of the church.

God allowed this evil that took place in Syria to spread the Syrian people all over the world so the church around the world can step into action and reach out to Syrians and spread the gospel to them.  That is how we need to look at refugees; we don’t need to look at them as a threat.


Two Tables

Thomas a Kempis points out that Noah labored 100 years to build the ark in which God would save him (perhaps taking Genesis 5:32 with 7:6). Solomon spent seven years building a temple to honor the Lord (1 Kings 6:37-38), and devoted seven or eight days just to its dedication (8:65). How then, a Kempis asks, can I in half an hour or less prepare myself for communion, prepare my heart “to receive with reverence the Maker of the world?”(1)

I can’t, of course. But at least I can pause to remind myself where I am, and what I am engaged in.

God has two tables. Actually, He has a great many more — including some in heaven that serve as models or patterns (Exodus 25:9, 40; Hebrews 8:5) — but on earth He has two that He especially talks about. When we prepare for communion, it helps to be clear which table we are approaching.

The Table of Holiness and Hunger

The first table stood in the tabernacle and, later, the temple — not in the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies, where the ark of the covenant was placed, but outside the curtain, in the Holy Place, with the altar of incense and the lampstand. The table was made of acacia wood,(2) overlaid with gold (Exodus 25:23-30). (In Solomon’s temple, the table seems to have been made of solid gold, 1 Kings 7:48. According to 2 Chronicles 4:7-8, Solomon also multiplied the furnishings, setting up 10 tables and 10 lampstands.)

The entire purpose of this table was to hold 12 loaves of bread, one for each tribe in Israel. This was called the “consecrated bread” (KJV “showbread”) or, more precisely, the “bread of the Presence,” ordained by the Lord “to be before Me at all times” (Exodus 25:30, NIV). In the days of the tabernacle, even when the table was taken down and moved, the bread wasn’t taken away; rather, the Kohathites spread special coverings over the bread, dishes, bowls, and jars, and carried the table — very carefully! — with its offering still in place (Numbers 4:7-8). Each sabbath, the loaves were replaced with fresh bread, and the priests ate the old ones (Leviticus 24:8-9). Abimelech the high priest famously shared this bread with David, the anointed fugitive (1 Samuel 21:6; Matthew 12:3-4).

As bread made from grain (“fine flour,” Leviticus 14:5), the loaves have been interpreted as agricultural, Israel offering to the Lord “the fruits of her labors.”(3) (Contrariwise, it is also said to signify “the fact that God sustained his people.”)(4) I am not so sure. I am tempted to argue, instead, that, as unleavened bread, these loaves or crackers share with the bread of Passover the designation “bread of affliction” (Deuteronomy 16:3). On this view, the bread recalls all of the sufferings of Israel’s slavery in Egypt and of the redemption (compare Exodus 12:39). If you’ve ever felt that your pain is the only thing you have to offer to God, this constant memorial is for you.

In fact, though, such an interpretation seems unwarranted. We do not even know for certain whether the bread of the Presence was made with or without yeast. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus says that it was unleavened,(5) but it is striking that the Biblical texts themselves — which take great pains to specify that yeast must be removed during Passover (Exodus 12:19; 13:7; Deuteronomy 16:4) and kept out of burnt offerings to the Lord (Leviticus 2:11) — never bother to address this point.

What is emphasized is that this is bread of the Presence — literally, the face — of God. Adam and Eve, once they had fallen, hid from God’s Presence or face (Genesis 3:8), and Cain feared that he was permanently driven from it (4:14, 16). The great promise to Israel is “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14, NIV); the great blessing is that He will turn His face toward them, beaming with grace (Numbers 6:25-26). The great threat is that He will hide His face, and withdraw His favor and protection, because of covenant-breaking wickedness (Deuteronomy 31:17-18; 32:20). Though gracious and compassionate, mindful of His covenant, and unwilling to cast His people from His Presence (2 Kings 13:23), in the end He does precisely that (24:20; Jeremiah 52:3). So Isaiah complains, “You have hidden Your face from us and have delivered us into the [consuming] power of our iniquities” (64:7, Amplified), and the Lord acknowledges, “In a surge of anger I hid My face from you for a moment” (54:8, NIV).

At this table, there is always the danger of losing His Presence. This covenant is all about faithfulness, His and ours. His face is toward the bread that must continually be refreshed — just as the fire on the altar must never be allowed to go out (Leviticus 6:12-13). He sees our obedience. On this basis, during the divided monarchy, King Abijah of Judah defies King Jeroboam of Israel:

As for us, the Lord is our God, and we have not forsaken Him. The priests who serve the Lord are sons of Aaron, and the Levites assist them. Every morning and evening they present burnt offerings and fragrant incense to the Lord. They set out the bread on the ceremonially clean table and light the lamps on the gold lampstand every evening. We are observing the requirements of the Lord our God. But you have forsaken Him. (2 Chronicles 13:10-11, NIV)

Just about 200 years later, King Hezekiah acknowledges before the Levites that Judah has done no better than the northern kingdom:

Our fathers were unfaithful; they did evil in the eyes of the Lord our God and forsook Him. They turned their faces away from the Lord’s dwelling place and turned their backs on Him. They also shut the doors of the portico and put out the lamps. They did not burn incense or present any burnt offerings at the sanctuary to the God of Israel. Therefore, the anger of the Lord has fallen on Judah and Jerusalem; . . . (2 Chronicles 29:6-8, NIV)

The lamps are lit daily, the bread replaced weekly, the sacrifices offered according to a precise schedule. If the 12 precious stones on the high priest’s breastplate (Exodus 28:15-21) represent the permanence and perpetuity of the Lord’s covenant with the tribes of Israel, the 12 loaves are a vivid reminder of their frailty and mortality, and of the covenant’s vulnerability. Sabbath by sabbath, generation after generation, the relationship must be renewed. So the loaves are set out with incense (Leviticus 24:7), a symbol of fervent prayer and faithful devotion (“Let my prayer be set forth as incense before You,” Psalm 141:2, Amplified; “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints,” Revelation 5:8, NIV and RSV).(6)

A few times, the bread and the sacrifices are referred to as the Lord’s food (Leviticus 21:6, 8, 17, 21, 22; 22:25; 3:11, 16; Numbers 28:2). This is a bit shocking when one considers how painstakingly the Bible distinguishes the Lord from the needy, dependent gods of the nations. But it underscores the reciprocal nature of the covenant. Because the Lord is Israel’s God, He feeds them. In return, so to speak, we “feed” Him by hearing and obeying. Jesus makes this clear in John 4:34: “My food (nourishment) is to do the will (pleasure) of Him Who sent Me and to accomplish and completely finish His work” (Amplified). Unlike the crowds seeking blessings and full bellies (John 6:26-27), Jesus draws His deepest sustenance from devotion, from living to “feed” His Father.

This first table, then, is a place of serving and not eating, of labor and not rest, of standing rather than sitting or reclining. Though the face of God is toward us, all but a handful of Levites are kept at a distance; we are represented, not intimate. There is no real communion, only, at best, an invitation to walk in God’s Presence. And without our constant vigilance, this table fails; its symbols cease to point to anything beyond themselves; the relationship disappears; and being always in the Presence of the holy God becomes, not a sheltering wing of protection, but a dreadful eye of judgment.

The Table of Brokenness and Grace

Almost from the first, we read of a second table, of God feeding His people. The covenant with Adam and Eve includes the provision of plants and fruits as food, even for the animals (Genesis 1:29-30), and the covenant with Noah provides plants and animals as food for people (9:3).

“I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging bread,” testifies the psalmist (Psalm 37:25, RSV). These realities are linked: if the righteous were reduced to begging bread, it would indicate that the Lord had forsaken him, and violated a key provision of the covenant.(7)

This aspect of the covenant displays the power of God. There is an instructive exchange during the wilderness wanderings, when the people complain, and the Lord announces that He will give them meat for an entire month:

But Moses said, The people among whom I am are 600,000 footmen [besides all the women and children], and You have said, I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month! Shall flocks and herds be killed to suffice them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be collected to satisfy them?

The Lord said to Moses, Has the Lord’s hand (His ability and power) become short (thwarted and inadequate)? You shall see now whether My word shall come to pass for you or not. (Numbers 11:21-23, Amplified)

Asaph the psalmist sums up the people’s (and Moses’) unbelief in this way: “They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’” (Psalm 78:19, RSV). This is the second table: not enclosed, restricted, limited to priests, furnished by human hands, and doled out in specified quantities, but supernatural, miraculous, bounteous, displayed for all to see and lavished upon everyone in or with the community. It is a mark of the surpassing greatness of Israel’s God that His provision is universal: “The eyes of all look to You, and You give them their food at the proper time” (Psalm 145:15, NIV). Yet people and creatures outside the covenant have no assurance that this kindness will continue:

Taste and see that the Lord is good;

blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him.

Fear the Lord, you His saints,

for those who fear Him lack nothing.

The lions may [this tentative “may” is not in RSV and Amplified] grow weak and hungry,

but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. (Psalm 34:8-10, NIV)(8)

The promise is especially for the covenant community. Out in the world, He spreads a table, at times even granting us “the grain of heaven,” “the bread of angels” (Psalm 78:24, 25, NIV), “spiritual food” (1 Corinthians 10:3). During other periods, He makes us eat “bread of affliction” (Deuteronomy 16:3), “bread of adversity” (Isaiah 30:20), “bread of tears” (Psalm 80:5; 42:3), “bread of mourners” (Hosea 9:4). We stumble at this, perhaps even complaining that His provision is not bread and not good (Numbers 21:5),(9) until we learn to raise our eyes, to wait and hunger for the food that truly nourishes. So Moses says:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. . . . Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. (Deuteronomy 8:2-3. 5, NIV)

Seasons of spiritual hunger concentrate our desire and promote singleness of heart, so that we become eager to hear God’s word (Amos 4:6; 8:11-12). We have tasted the goodness of the Lord and His words (Psalm 34:8; 119:103), and no longer wish to settle for the “bread of wickedness” (Proverbs 4:17) or “bread of idleness” (Proverbs 31:27).(10) As we continue in this confidence, even our enemies become “bread for us” (Numbers 14:9, KJV, Amplified, RSV). And leaders like Gideon, raised from obscurity, steeped in weakness, appear as “bread” to their foes, but are given divine power to defeat armies (Judges 7:13).

Over time, we see a shift in Scripture: The people hungering for God, and being fed by Him, are no longer the ones in charge of “feeding” the Lord in His Holy Place. There are two separate paths: God lives “in a high and holy place” (the temple on Mount Zion) AND in the one who is crushed and lowly (Isaiah 57:15, NIV). Indeed, the broken and crushed heart is His acceptable sacrifice (Psalm 51:17, RSV). Though David eats the holy showbread (1 Samuel 21:6), Elijah is fed in a wilderness area far from Jerusalem, and ultimately outside the land of promise, among the Gentiles (1 Kings 17:2-9; Luke 4:25-26). The Lord’s covenant is now with the one who is righteous but rejected, who undergoes privation, hunger, trials, separation from the community, and persecution.

Increasingly, the prophets announce that God is not pleased with the first table:

I hate, I despise your feasts, . . . Even though you offer Me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, . . . (Amos 5:21-22, RSV)

What to Me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; . . . I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats. . . . Bring no more vain offerings; . . . I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. (Isaiah 1:11, 13, RSV)

The first table easily becomes an empty ritual; the baked goods set continually before the Lord no longer signify lives lived in His Presence and in fellowship with Him. New Testament worship is not exempt from this danger: “. . . your meetings do more harm than good. . . . When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat” (1 Corinthians 11:17, 20, NIV). Now as then, “The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked” (Proverbs 15:8, NIV; compare 21:27). We bring our sins along with our offerings (Amos 4:4; Hosea 8:11); unclean ourselves (Hosea 9:4), we defile His table and profane His Name (Malachi 1:7, 11-12). Yet we congratulate ourselves for being observant! This is “the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong” (Ecclesiastes 5:1, NIV).

Legalistic observance misses the mark in three ways:

1. The sacrifices, instead of being the sign of an all-encompassing devotion, become the sole area of obedience. The Lord says pointedly through Jeremiah:

Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey Me, and I will be your God and you will be My people. Walk in all the ways I command you, that it may go well with you. But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward. (Jeremiah 7:21-24, NIV)

This rebuke echoes Samuel’s word to Saul, who redefines “obedience” so as to follow his own best judgment:

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices

as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord?

To obey is better than sacrifice,

and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

For rebellion is like the sin of divination,

and arrogance [“stubbornness” in RSV and Amplified] like the evil of idolatry. (1 Samuel 15:22-23, NIV)

Both passages anticipate Jesus’ charge that the Pharisees and teachers of the law use human traditions (including rules about offerings) to “nullify” God’s word (Mark 7:5-13).

Obedience is more than scrupulosity; it requires a “prepared” ear to hear what God is saying (Psalm 40:6; Hebrews 10:5-9). Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who hear and obey the word of God, and calls them His family (Luke 11:28; 8:21). He insists that most fail to obey because they cannot even hear with comprehension:

Why is My language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. . . . . He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God. (John 8:43, 47, NIV)

His appeal is to those who have “ears to hear” (Matthew 11:15; 13:9-16, 43) — those who have been given a gift of faith, those who are too devoted (perhaps too desperate) to rebel by redefining God’s words and by trusting their own judgment.

2. Whenever we focus on our sacrifices, on what we have done for God, we adopt a skewed perspective. It is not only that He continually does far more for us. Like a good marriage, the covenant is meant to be a relationship of intimacy, not one in which either partner tracks how much each has done. A “sacrifice” mentality emphasizes what can be measured — such as God’s 10 percent:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (Matthew 23:23, NIV)

“To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3, NIV).

In Hosea 6:6, the Lord packs all of this into a frustrated cry:

For I desire and delight in dutiful steadfast love and goodness, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of and acquaintance with God more than burnt offerings. (Amplified)

The single Hebrew word expanded here as “dutiful steadfast love and goodness” is hesed, a rich and important word variously translated as loving-kindness, steadfast or unfailing love, mercy, kindness, goodness, and favor. It expresses all that the Lord pours out in abundance at His second table. And as we see in Hosea, His plan is that we should learn to return His love. But we stop at sacrifice, and turn our hearts elsewhere. Our hesed is not steadfast at all: “. . . your [wavering] love and kindness are as the night mist or as the dew that goes early away” (Hosea 6:4, Amplified).(11)

The Lord craves nothing so much as intimate table fellowship:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears and listens to and heeds My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will eat with him, and he [will eat] with Me. (Revelation 3:20, Amplified)

Mary of Bethany grasps this, choosing “the good portion,” sitting rapt at Jesus’ feet, but Martha almost misses it, precisely because she is distracted with serving and wants to call attention to her sacrifice (Luke 10:38-42). Her attitude gives the food a bitter taste, and the table nearly becomes a snare and a trap to her (Psalm 69:21-22; Romans 11:9).

3. Our hearts are bent (Hosea 11:7; 7:16) and apt to twist the grace of God. When we sacrifice, we easily come to think that we have seized the initiative, and that our little gifts bind God to us. We are quick to obscure the fundamental fact of our utter dependence on Him. We are helpless, and yet so blessed that we become stewards and have enough to give back. Asaph sees clearly that our every sacrifice is a response to grace that has gone before, and that the acceptable sacrifice acknowledges this with thanks:

Hear, O My people, and I will speak,

O Israel, I will testify against you.

I am God, your God.

I do not reprove you for your sacrifices;

your burnt offerings are continually before Me.

I will accept no bull from your house,

nor he-goat from your folds.

For every beast of the forest is Mine,

the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know all the birds of the air,

and all that moves in the field is Mine.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you;

for the world and all that is in it is Mine.

Do I eat the flesh of bulls,

or drink the blood of goats?

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,

and pay your vows to the Most High;

and call upon Me in the day of trouble;

I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me. . . .

He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors Me;

to him who orders his way aright I will show the salvation of God! (Psalm 50:7- 15, 23, RSV)

We sacrifice thank offerings, tell of His unfailing love, and continue to call on His Name (Psalm 107:21-22; 116:17; Hebrews 13:15).

This is why the second table, the one that God prepares, is not only out in the open; it is set up in the presence of the believer’s enemies (Psalm 23:5). The first table holds the bread of the Presence, placing me, in my frailty and my striving, under the eye of God; the second table, later in redemptive time, crowns me with blessings of salvation and casts me into the faces of my enemies.

Reading the Shepherd Psalm, we experience a natural reaction: we don’t want our enemies present when our table is spread. They will steal our peace and spoil our festivity. We should think again. They must be there; the Lord requires it and will ensure it, for this is our vindication. The Lord declares us righteous in the very presence of our accusers (Psalm 35:26-27), as Haman is compelled to proclaim that the king delights to honor Mordecai (Esther 6:6-13).

Then, indeed, our cup overflows (Psalm 23:5).

Jesus the Living Bread

The second table isn’t sheltered by the sanctity of a temple. God spreads it in the desert (Psalm 78:19; Hosea 2:14-15), amid desolation. It is set for those who are desperately hungry, even for scraps, like the beggar Lazarus in the parable (Luke16:20-21); and for those, like the Canaanite woman, who are willing to take the lowest place, even the hidden and degrading position of a dog begging under the table, because they are convinced that the food at the Lord’s table has power to save, and is given in cascading abundance (Matthew 15:26-27).

Jesus Himself is the bread set out on this table:

. . . it is My Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. . . . I am the bread of life. . . . I am the living bread that came down from heaven. . . . [T]he one who feeds on Me will live because of Me. (John 6:32-33, 48, 51, 57, NIV)

To receive this Bread, we turn our backs on the first table, leaving the temple behind, acknowledging that we are sinners and that our sacrifices cannot save us: “Let us, then, go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore” (Hebrews 13:13, NIV). My life isn’t spread out for God to approve; rather, I say again that I am only a famished beggar, aching for the one Bread that can feed my spirit and my soul.

In coming to this table, we bring nothing — only our God-given faith, which Luther well describes as a “passive righteousness”: “For in this we work nothing, we render nothing unto God, but only we receive and suffer another to work in us, that is to say, God.”(12) We are like the woman at the well: Jesus asks her for a drink only in order to draw her attention to the living water that He is offering (John 4:7-15).

When we come in the simplicity of faith, we become the flock that He tends and feeds (Isaiah 40:11; Ezekiel 34:11-14; Zephaniah 2:7; 3:13). Under His care, we become one body, one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:17). We become bread for a dying world, seed sown into others’ lives (Ecclesiastes 11:1-2; 2 Corinthians 9:10-11). We are set forth in the Lord’s Presence as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). We are not only poured out like a drink offering (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6), but crushed and crumbled like a grain offering (Leviticus 2:6, 14; 6:21); in the words of Oswald Chambers, “God makes us broken bread and poured-out wine.”(13)

And so in heaven there will still be two tables. The results of our sacrifice will be on display, though this will take us by surprise: “Lord, when did we ever feed You?” (Matthew 25:37). We will wear these righteous acts of service as wedding clothes (Revelation 19:8; Matthew 22:11-12), but I suspect we will hardly be aware of them. Our eyes will be on the Lamb’s wedding feast (Revelation 19:9), a table spread by a gracious God whose love never fails:

Come, all you who are thirsty,

come to the waters;

and you who have no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to Me, and eat what is good,

and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. (Isaiah 55:1-2, NIV)

My people will be filled with My bounty. (Jeremiah 31:14, NIV)


(1) Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), The Imitation of Christ, IV.1.3-5, ed. Paul M. Bechtel (1980), Moody Classics, gen. ed. Rosalie De Rosset (Chicago: Moody, 1980, 2007), 326-27. The figure of 100 years is probably too long for the ark, since the text says only that 100 years pass between the birth of Noah’s sons and the completion of the ark (Genesis 5:32; 7:6). But 1 Peter 3:20 does say that “God waited patiently . . . while the ark was being built” (NIV).

(2) “These thorny trees, found in desert wadis, are probably the only ones in Sinai likely to produce pieces of wood of sufficient size.” F.N. Hepper, “Trees,” in J.D. Douglas, ed., The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962, 1975), 1294.

(3) Ronald Youngblood and Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., note on Exodus 25:30, in Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 125.

(4) R. Laird Harris and Ronald Youngblood, note on Leviticus 24:8, NIV Study Bible, 178.

(5) Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, III.6.6. Cited at Hope of Israel Ministries, “Mystery of Mysteries — What Is the Showbread?,”

(6) Revelation 8:3-4, where incense is added to the prayers of the saints, seems to point to something further — perhaps the prayers of Jesus. However, Robert Mounce observes, “The Greek for this phrase also allows a translation that takes the incense ‘to be’ the prayers (‘incense . . . consisting of the prayers’)” (note on Revelation 8:3, NIV Study Bible, 1935).

(7) Ironically, Psalm 37 is a psalm of David, and David is a leading example of a man chosen by God who on several occasions must beg for bread. Instead of preventing such humiliation, the Lord uses these incidents to exalt His servant — by providing exceptional bread (1 Samuel 21:6) or by confounding his enemies (1 Samuel 25).

(8) Similarly, Psalm 36 celebrates the Lord’s “unfailing love” that preserves “both man and beast” through the “abundance” of His house and His “river of delights” (verses 5-9), but shifts to rejoicing in His justice that eventually overthrows rather than preserves evildoers (verses 10-12); and Psalm 104 shows Him first feeding, sustaining, and satisfying all creatures (verses 27-28) and then withdrawing, terrifying them and causing them to die (verse 29).

(9) In sharp contrast, a passage in an apocryphal book imagines that God’s manna was always and only a delight, and never a trial: “. . . Thou didst give Thy people the food of angels, . . . providing every pleasure and suited to every taste. For Thy sustenance manifested Thy sweetness toward Thy children; and the bread, ministering to the desire of the one who took it, was changed to suit every one’s liking” (Wisdom of Solomon 16:20-21, RSV).

(10) Compare a Kempis, Imitation of Christ, IV.16.2, 377: “Turn Thou for me all earthly things into bitterness, . . . Be Thou only sweet unto me from henceforth for evermore; for Thou alone art my meat and drink, my love and my joy, my sweetness and all my good.” The spirit here is the exact opposite of that in the Wisdom of Solomon passage (note 9 above): God is not accommodating our corrupt tastes, but changing them.

(11) Confusingly, the NIV uses “love” in Hosea 6:4 and “mercy” in 6:6.

(12) Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535), tr. rev. Philip S. Watson (London: James Clarke, 1953); excerpts in John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor-Doubleday, 1961), 101.

(13) Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest: Selections for the Year (1935; Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, n.d.), 33 and often.


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

(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; Steven Gertz, “Tsunami Catastrophe: ‘Let My Heart Be Broken . . .,’” Christian History, 2005, available at 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 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,