God of Breakthroughs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zerah: The Outstretched Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perez: The Breaking Forth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth and David

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

they will break through the gate and go out.

Their king will pass through before them,

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

This at last will be Perez.

Jesus the Champion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(8) Vincent, 1:170.

(9) Vincent, 1:190.

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

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

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

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

(14) Vincent, 1:116-17.

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

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

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Holy Hands

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

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

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

A Staff of Authority

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

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

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

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

Echoes of Empty Hands

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

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


Lifting Up Holy Hands

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

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

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

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

Stand

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

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

Standing Firm

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

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

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

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

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

The Steadfast God

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

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

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

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

Eleazar and Shammah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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