Psalm 18: holy warfare for today

With your help I can advance against a troop;
    with my God I can scale a wall.

Psalm 18

As one who is either a pacifist Christian, or almost completely so (see Miroslav Volf for his change, and why), warfare passages in scripture, specifically in the Old Testament can seen counter Jesus, and in a sense might well be considered so (though read the book of Revelation, but also see Michael Gorman’s book on it which I haven’t read). Tremper Longman in this lecture defends well the teaching of holy war in the Old Testament, countering Greg Boyd’s recent work.

Judgment is both present and future, and I let some of the hard questions go. What I’m settled in is that for the people of God today, holy warfare amounts to spiritual warfare. The apostle Paul’s words seem to address this for me:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

2 Corinthians 10

Nevertheless all scripture was written for us, even if not to us. I find Psalm 18 completely encouraging and inspiring for the real life I have to face. We are not called to a passive existence where we do nothing, unlike what some advocate, as if anything else is opposed to God’s grace. No. In Christ we are given strength from God to do what we must. And any holy war today would never be physical:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

Ephesians 6

We are in a battle no less. And like Longman points out for the actual physical warfare that went on in the Old Testament (and I would highly recommend listening to this lecture), we engage in spiritual warfare in the context of worship and submission to God as prescribed in God’s word.

Find your way to Psalm 18 in your own Bible. Read slowly, meditate, and pray. That is what I’m doing.  So that I can find my strength, what I need in God, and what God gives us, in and through Jesus.

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a God-ordered undertaking

For the director of music. Of David the servant of the Lord. He sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said:

I love you, Lord, my strength.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
    my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
    my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
    and I have been saved from my enemies.

Psalm 18:1-3

I ran across a lecture by one of the best Old Testament evangelical scholars, Tremper Longman III, entitled, “God is a Warrior: Coming to Terms with Divine Violence in the OT.” If you have any interest in this subject at all, it’s well worth your time. And it grapples with something of the heart of the same issue which Greg Boyd works on in his The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and the concise version of that, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence.

A major point I took away from it, was that the violence undertaken in the Old Testament was limited in scale and quite purposeful in intent, ordinarily God’s judgment. The main point for me being that those of Israel engaged in such, had to prepare themselves according to what God prescribed, so that in a certain sense they were set apart by God to participate in something of God’s work (my own way of expressing it).

Of course in this age the only warfare Christians can be involved in, as Tremper Longman III made clear is spiritual, against forces and entities not human, opposed to God, to the gospel, and to humankind.  Although Longman sees an argument for Christians serving in the police force and the military. And how when Christ returns, something of that ban will be lifted, when Christ subdues all the enemies of God and humanity, perhaps even with just the breath of his mouth.

The main takeaway, or direct application for me here is this: We are in a spiritual battle and undertaking, for sure. And we need to go about it according to what God prescribes for us in scripture, for us in Jesus, in the New Testament. But how we need all of scripture, the Old Testament as well, maybe in ways we can’t understand at times, but like here, in ways which can help us understand what God’s people should do, what we’re to do. And it encouraged me to see the Old Testament, and specifically passages which we may not easily track with as “a message to be understood,” rather than “a problem to be solved.”

Psalm 18 therefore is not to be relegated to some lesser status, even if supposedly inspired scripture, according to Boyd. While it was of a different era, it has direct bearing on us today. In and through Jesus.

God’s warning and provision in the face of temptation

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation[c] has overtaken you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted[d] beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted,[e] he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:11-13

1 Corinthians 10 is an interesting passage in considering how the Old Testament relates to us today. It is pretty drastically direct, actually. Of course there are important differences. The baptism of God’s people of old was through the Red Sea, their God-given escape from the Egyptians through that miracle. Our baptism is by water accompanying our faith in Jesus, or in infant baptism, anticipating such faith. They also ate the same spiritual food and drink, probably meaning all of them at that time, but maybe including us to some extent, since Christ is said to have been with them. But God was not pleased with most of them because of their sin. And they suffered the consequences of that sin.

And then our passage quoted above: We are not above this possibility, even though we live in a different time, and we could say the time of grace as opposed to law. But while the law was given during that time, grace most certainly was with God’s people as well. And it’s not like we live without boundary lines set, if I read the New Testament correctly, even considering Paul’s letters alone.

The crux of the matter is that we need to not only take sin seriously, but refuse to think we’re above giving into whatever temptation may come our way. Of course God could block every such occasion, but chooses not to. We would have to be removed from the world, or lose our respect from God as being moral agents at least as it seems required at this present time, for that to be the case.

But the promise seems to be that God won’t let it become unbearable, but will provide the way of escape for us, that we might be able to endure such. This suggests to me that escape is an important, even critical way of dealing with temptation, if we are to avoid falling into the sin that would ensnare us. We look to God, to God’s faithfulness, and while doing so, find our escape from that the allure of that temptation. And not just once, but the rest of our lives.

Nothing fancy here, but clear enough I think. And critical for us. As we remain in the word and press on together in the grace and truth that is ours in Jesus.

God’s promise of strength for the day

and your strength will equal your days.

Deuteronomy 33:25

In Moses’s final blessing for Israel before he died, these words are noteworthy in his specific blessing for the tribe Asher. And we are told that all of the promises of God are yes and amen for us in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). In other words we can somehow lay claim to them, either directly or indirectly. The original promise was given to a people, but surely individuals are included in that blessing.

In my case, I’m facing a new work schedule which for me so far has been challenging due to its longevity, and the short window of time I have in between work days during that time frame of the week. Necessary sleep at any age, but perhaps especially at my age is important. We have to take care of ourselves. We are physical beings, as well as spiritual. It is one thing to have a sleep deprived night for a good reason, such as an emergency, but even then some recovery is called for. But when we do this night after night, young or old, we’re setting ourselves up for either poor health, or an accident, perhaps both.

I haven’t slept enough in my life, and I’ve probably drank more than my share of coffee. But I’m realizing, especially after I talked with one of my sisters who struggles with her sleep as well, that I really have to make getting adequate sleep a priority the rest of my life. Which for me at this time means trying to get 6 or more hours of sleep, and when I can, more.

So God’s promise here is not an excuse for us to fail to take care of ourselves. The promise here is not only physical, but spiritual, and perhaps primarily so. Physical and spiritual were essentially one in the Hebrew way of thinking, the former derived from the latter, as we see clearly in the strange story of Samson.

For us in Jesus, we find the Lord’s strength in our weakness, to be sure. And that might include not getting enough sleep now and then. But we do our best to be good stewards of the life God has given us, which includes taking care of our bodies. And we have God’s promise that our strength will equal the days God gives us, a part of his blessing to us that we might be a blessing, in and through Jesus.

dependency on teachers

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

Acts 17:11-12

As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.

1 John 2:27

As it is well said, it’s better to teach a person how to fish than make them dependent on someone who fishes for them. The best teachers in the church are those who help the listeners grow up into maturity in the faith through the gospel, and be not only students of the word, but lovers of God and people. Of course that love rooted in the gospel which is the expression of God’s love to us and to the world in and through Jesus.

Poor teaching and teachers make people dependent on them and their books. The older I get, the less I take notes. I used to be a big note taker. At the same time though, the older I get, the more I appreciate teachers who make one think, and challenge their faith in ways which build us up toward being more like Jesus, and knowing God better. In the ways of faith and love.

The passages quoted above tell us to keep searching the scriptures, and that means all of them, the Old Testament as well. And to trust the Holy Spirit to help us right now, today, and in the long haul as well.

We need understanding for life, which scripture is meant to give us. Life in community in Jesus, and for others for whom Jesus died, which means everyone.

But again Jesus makes himself and God’s good news and will known by his Spirit, using teachers, but not dependent on any one of them.

understanding scripture’s story

One of my favorite biblical scholars and theologians, N. T. Wright has explained scripture in terms of a five part story:

  • Creation
  • Fall
  • Israel
  • Jesus
  • Church

I would like to add a sixth part which would would have to do with Jesus’s return, sometimes called the Second Coming, and maybe a seventh part could be added (to make it seven parts in all?) which would have to do with the final outcome, the eternal state.

To understand any part of scripture, one needs to see it in context, its immediate context, certainly, but also in the context of the whole, the entire Bible and witness of scripture.

I am leery of simply writing off any scripture as completely irrelevant for us today, since the New Testament, including the letters written to the churches clearly suggest otherwise. At the same time, we obviously don’t read the story well when we read it in what has been called a flat way, as if all of it has precisely the same application as when it was written. For example the rules in Leviticus 14 about mold in homes certainly do no apply in the same way for us today.

The cross, Jesus’s death is certainly a “game changer”, but what leads up to it does impact what follows. For our application today, we may need to especially emphasize what follows, but to understand that well, we need to see what preceded it. There is so much here that Christians don’t quite see or apply in the same way. But it’s a grave mistake on the one hand to think for example that the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t have profound meaning for our understanding of the faith today, and even how we understand the letters written to the churches. Jesus was speaking mainly to Israel, but he was pointing out to them just what kind of kingdom he was bringing, certainly clearly anticipating what was to follow. On the other hand, it’s also a grave mistake to think that the cross in Jesus’s death did not make a profound difference in what followed: no less than the beginning of the new covenant of course in Jesus’s blood.

We have to keep working at, which means taking it all seriously, but seeing it in the context of the whole. The fulfillment coming, of course, in and through Jesus and through his death, the resurrection following.

biblically based? yes, but…

In this year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, though I prefer to think of myself as simply Christian, and one with all who name the name of Christ, though my heritage, beginning with the Anabaptists- Mennonite, falls more along those lines, I don’t hesitate to say that I try to be biblically based. Like most things in life, that’s complicated, and doesn’t mean at all that the church doesn’t have authority, nor that the ultimate authority isn’t God himself. It does mean that a certain kind of practical authority is invested in the Bible, but only when read contextually, and as a whole. And that opens up another important set of questions.

One of the keys in Christian thinking is to attempt to end up reading scripture the way Christ did. Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of scripture, and not only with reference to a copy and paste approach, which highlights passages in the Old Testament about him, but in terms of being the completion of God’s working in bringing in a reign that is saving both from and for. And so while we need to read all the scriptures as if in their original context, insofar as that is possible, we also need to think of them in terms of their fulfillment in Jesus. Seeing how he fulfilled them in an abundant, overflowing and to some extent even unanticipated way.

A key aspect to remember in the First/Old Testament is that while the groundwork was indeed laid, some of its aspects were provisional for that time, and I think in a sense, an accomodation. But to think that somehow lessens its authority is a failure to understand the Final/New Testament. Jesus again refers to the First Testament as speaking of him, and Paul wrote that all of the First Testament was written to instruct, warn, and encourage us. So we need to read the New/Final in light of the Old/First.

And so, I remain a Bible person from which I want to understand the gospel, God’s good news in Jesus, the heart of it, and all that proceeds and goes out from it. The church by the Spirit is very much a part of this. To do so, we have to go back to the Book again and again. Asking for God’s help. And believing in its message to us, as the very written word of God. Everything in and through Jesus.