When Life Gets Tough

If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses? If you fall down in a land of peace, how will you do in the thicket of the Jordan? (Jer 12:5)[1]

     When life gets tough, sometimes God reassures and comforts us (Psa 23:4; 2 Cor 1:3-5; 2 Th 2:16-17), sometimes we comfort each other (Eph 6:22; 1 Th 4:18), and sometimes we comfort ourselves with His Word (Psa 119:50, 52; Lam 3:21-23). But there are times in Scripture when God does not give comfort—at least not in the way we might expect—but informs His people that things will get worse, and that they need to prepare themselves for the challenges and suffering ahead (Matt 10:16, 23; John 15:20; 16:1-2; Acts 9:15-16; 20:22-23). A good example of this is found in Jeremiah 12:1-6, where Jeremiah was experiencing suffering and went to the Lord with his complaint, seeking a solution; however, rather than comfort His prophet, He warned him that things would get worse. Let me give some background to Jeremiah’s situation before explaining the Lord’s answer to him.

     Jeremiah was a prophet to Judah, and his ministry began in 627 B.C. (Jer 1:1-2) and lasted approximately forty years until Judah and Jerusalem were destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. (2 Ki 25:1-21). Jeremiah’s ministry spanned the reign of five kings, namely: Josiah (640-609 B.C.), Jehoahaz (609), Jehoiakim (609-597), Jehoiachin (597) and Zedekiah (597-587).[2] Josiah was a good king who “did much to clear the land of idolatry, sacred prostitution, child sacrifice, and pagan altars not only in Judah but also in some formerly Israelite territory. He also reinstituted the Passover.”[3] However, after Josiah’s death in 609 B.C., the next four kings resorted back to pagan practices and the majority of Israelites followed. These were difficult times.

     Throughout his life Jeremiah walked with God and this heightened his spiritual sensitivities, making him deeply aware of the spiritual and moral decline of his nation (this is true of believers today). Most of Jeremiah’s contemporaries had shut God out of their lives—though many kept a veneer of religion (Jer 12:2)—and were desensitized to their own impiety and the sinfulness of others. Jeremiah faced constant opposition from Judah’s rulers, false prophets and corrupt priests (Jer 2:8, 26; 5:31; 6:13; 8:10; 14:18; 20:1-2; 23:11, 16; 26:7-8). The nation was spiritually corrupt, through and through, from the leadership down to the citizen (Jer 9:1-6), and idolatry was rampant (Jer 8:19; 10:8, 14; 16:18). Because of his suffering, Jeremiah has been called the weeping prophet (Jer 9:1; 13:17). In all this God was in total control, and He would raise up the Babylonians to destroy the Judahites because of their sinful rebellion against Him (Jer 5:15-17; 21:1-10).

     In Jeremiah 12:1-4 we see God as a righteous Judge in a courtroom, and Jeremiah as one who comes before Him to plead his case. Jeremiah states, “Righteous are You, O LORD, that I would plead my case with You; indeed, I would discuss matters of justice with You” (Jer 12:1a). The specific charge was, “why has the way of the wicked prospered? Why are all those who deal in treachery at ease?” (Jer 12:1b). What Jeremiah wanted, what he requested, was for God to act and bring justice upon the wicked. Jeremiah said:

You have planted them, they have also taken root; they grow, they have even produced fruit. You are near to their lips but far from their mind. But You know me, O LORD; You see me; and You examine my heart’s attitude toward You. Drag them off like sheep for the slaughter and set them apart for a day of carnage! How long is the land to mourn and the vegetation of the countryside to wither? For the wickedness of those who dwell in it, animals and birds have been snatched away, because men have said, “He will not see our latter ending.” (Jer 12:2-4)

Running Horses     Jeremiah wanted God to render justice, and he wanted it now. But the Lord replied to Jeremiah in an unexpected way, for rather than coddling His prophet, He informed him things would get worse and that he needed to prepare himself. The Lord said, “If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses? If you fall down in a land of peace, how will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?” (Jer 12:5). Another translation reads, “If you have raced with people and are worn out, how will you compete with horses? If you fall down in an open field, how will you survive in the forest along the Jordan?” (Jer 12:5 CEB). The horses are likely an allusion to the Babylonian riders that would invade the land of Judah in the days ahead, and the thicket of the Jordan was where fierce animals lived (Jer 49:19) and probably referred to Babylonian exile. If Jeremiah could not handle the difficulties of his countrymen, bad as they were, then he would not be able to handle the greater difficulties that were coming; difficulties which included the invading Babylonians who would destroy the city and temple, massacre tens of thousands and take many into captivity. What Jeremiah needed was great faith and courage in order to cope with present and future problems.

     Jeremiah could not even rely on his own family during this difficult time, for they would turn on him, as the Lord stated, “For even your brothers and the household of your father, even they have dealt treacherously with you, even they have cried aloud after you. Do not believe them, although they may say nice things to you” (Jer 12:6). Jeremiah was in a spot where he had nowhere to turn but to God. The Lord’s prophet would succeed by trusting in God and not himself or others (Jer 17:5-8). Warren Wiersbe states:

As most of us do when we’re suffering, Jeremiah was asking, “How can I get out of this?” But he should have been asking, “What can I get out of this?” God’s servants don’t live by explanations; they live by promises. Understanding explanations may satisfy our curiosity and make us smarter people, but laying hold of God’s promises will build our character and make us better servants. God’s reply revealed three important truths to Jeremiah. First, the life of godly service isn’t easy; it’s like running a race. (Paul used a similar figure in Phil. 3:12–14.) Had he remained a priest, Jeremiah probably would have had a comfortable and secure life, but the life of a prophet was just the opposite. He was like a man running a race and having a hard time keeping going. Second, the life of service becomes harder, not easier. Jeremiah had been running with the foot soldiers and had kept up with them, but now he’d be racing with the horses. In spite of his trials, he’d been living in a land of peace. Now, however, he’d be tackling the thick jungles of the Jordan River, where the wild beasts prowled. His heart had been broken because of the attacks of outsiders, but now his own family would start opposing him. The third truth grows out of the other two: the life of service gets better as we grow more mature. Each new challenge (horses, jungles, opposition of relatives) helped Jeremiah develop his faith and grow in his ministry skills. The easy life is ultimately the hard life, because the easy life stifles maturity, but the difficult life challenges us to develop our “spiritual muscles” and accomplish more for the Lord.[4]

     Troubles are a part of life, and we should expect them to rise and fall. We’re all running a race, facing battles and dangers at every turn. God uses the trials of life, the injustices of this world, to develop our characters and help form us into the spiritual adults He wants us to be. At times He comforts us, but other times He gets tough with us, lest we fall into self-pity and become useless. Jeremiah’s hurt was nothing compared to God’s, whose beloved people were being given into the hands of their enemies (read Jer 12:7-12). Greater hardship requires us to maintain our spirits by laying hold of God and His promises, to walk by faith and keep our eyes on Him. As Christians, we can’t control the troubles that come our way, but we can choose how we respond to them. And, we can “run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:1b-2a).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

 

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New American Standard Bible Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[2] Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry began in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign (Jer 1:2), which was 627 B.C. Josiah was a good king who reigned for 31 years (2 Ki 22:1-2; 23:24-25), and he committed himself to serve the Lord and to remove the deep-seated idolatry that had been implemented under the previous leadership of King Manasseh (2 Ki 21:1-6). Though Josiah worked diligently to lead spiritual and national reforms, destroying the pagan altars and places of worship, he could not dislodge the idolatry from the people’s hearts, and they quickly returned to their evil ways after his death in 609 B.C. Judah’s national instability continued for several years as the Babylonians rose to power under the leadership of Nabopolassar, who defeated the Assyrians in 612 B.C., and then his son, Nebuchadnezzar, who defeated the Egyptians in 605 B.C. at the Battle of Carchemish. Judah became a vassal state under the dominion of Nebuchadnezzar, who took many captives to ensure their loyalty. Daniel as among the captives (Dan 6:1-6). Jerusalem suffered another attack by the Babylonians in 597 B.C., during which Jehoiachin and the leaders of Judah were taken captive, ten thousand in all, and only the poorest were left in the land (2 Ki 24:12-16). Ezekiel was taken into captivity at this time. Nebuchadnezzar replaced Jehoiachin with Zedekiah, who was a spiritually weak king and did evil as his forebears had done (2 Ki 24:12-16). Eventually, Judah and Jerusalem were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C., which Jeremiah personally witnessed and lamented (read Lamentations).

[3] Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Is 66:24.

[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Decisive, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 62–63.

Posted in Christian Theology, Inspirational Writings, Living by Faith, Suffering & Persecution | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Guard Your Heart

Guard     Our life is a reflection of what fills our heart. Good in is good out, and garbage in is garbage out. We determine what fills the heart. Solomon said, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Pro 4:23).[1] Other translations read: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Pro 4:23 NIV), and “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life” (Pro 4:23 NLT). The Hebrew concept of the heart (לֵב leb) is the total inner person; it includes the mind, the will, and emotions. It is the base of operations which determines the course of life. I believe Solomon is here talking to believers, for the heart of the unbeliever is bent only on sin (Jer 17:9; Gen 6:5; 8:21; Psa 53:1; Matt 15:19).

The text assumes that one can and should control that upon which his mind dwells. Evil thoughts must be barred or expelled. The “issues of life” are the impulses, the choices, the decisions that affect the nature of man’s existence in this world. If the heart is pure, the life will be pure. Conversely, if the heart is corrupt, the life will be corrupt. In Hebrew psychology the heart is the center of moral consciousness and the seat of the affections.[2]

     All we say and do flows out of the heart. This is true both for the righteous and the wicked. David wrote, “The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice. The law of his God is in his heart; his steps do not slip” (Psa 37:30-31). But this is not so with the wicked, for “sin whispers to the wicked, deep within their hearts” (Psa 36:1 NLT). Jesus captured both ideas when He said, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45).

     To find and keep good mental health, I carefully select the literature I read, the music I listen to, the TV shows I watch, the conversations I engage in and the friends who will help advance me spiritually in my walk with the Lord. The condition of my heart is paramount, for what I sow is what I will reap, and this determines the outcome and quality of my life. “There is not a more portentous predictor of your ultimate end than what you expose your heart to. Above all else, guard your heart!”[3]

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, 1995.

[2] James E. Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms, Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1996), 499–500.

[3] John A. Kitchen, Proverbs: A Mentor Commentary, Mentor Commentaries (Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Mentor, 2006), 113.

Posted in Christian Theology, Inspirational Writings, Living by Faith | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rejoice, Pray, and Give Thanks

     I’m generally happy; but that’s because I work at it, especially when I don’t feel like it. Being happy starts with my choice to be thankful. It is a discipline of the mind to force myself to find something to be thankful for, and to focus on that rather than the negative thing that can tear me apart inside if I let it. It is an act of faith in which I force my mind to think on Scripture, in which I am “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). The battle is constant, and I usually win; but that’s because I’ve been working at it for years, meditating on Scripture, all day, every day, and applying what I’ve learned.

     If I’m not careful, I can easily fall into a pattern of complaining, and this can prove harmful, not only to me, but those around me, for my life influences others, for better or worse. Scripture states, “Do all things without complaining or arguing” (Phi 2:14). That’s a big order. How do I do this? By an act of faith; that’s how. Though the pressure can be great at times, I consciously make the choice not to complain; instead, I choose to “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; and in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you [me] in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:16-18). In these verses Paul uses three verbs in the imperative mood, which is the mood of command. A command assumes intellectual capacity to comprehend, the ability to obey, and present or future opportunity. The verbs are rejoice (χαίρω chairo), pray (προσεύχομαι proseuchomai), and give thanks (εὐχαριστέω eucharisteo). The first two commands relate to time: rejoice always, and pray without ceasing. The third command relates to circumstances: in everything give thanks. In short, these are to be executed all the time and in every situation. And to make the commands emphatic, Paul adds, “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:18b). These divine expectations appear elsewhere in Scripture, as we are called to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phi 4:4a), “Devote yourselves to prayer” (Col 4:2a), and “Give thanks always for all things” (Eph 5:20a).

In Everything Give Thanks     These commands are relatively easy to accomplish when life is good, and we should certainly praise God for His many blessings. But what about those times when life is difficult; such as when we’ve lost our health, work is overly stressful, or we’re experiencing unjust persecution? Are we to rejoice, pray, and give thanks even during those times? Yes! Especially during those times. It’s in difficult moments that we need to operate by faith, not feelings. In fact, feelings can work against us when we’re experiencing difficulty. When feelings rise up, faith must rise higher. As we commit to obeying the Word, our feelings will eventually get in line. It’s only when we understand and obey these commands by faith that we rise above our difficult circumstances. Though we aren’t physically removed from the hardship, mentally we’re lifted above it and experience a joy that is free from it. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:11-12). This is exactly what the apostles did when they were persecuted and flogged, for Luke tells us, “So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). And when Paul and Silas had been beaten and thrown into jail, we’re told they “were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Act 16:25). In places Paul wrote, “we exult in our tribulations” (Rom 5:3a), and “I rejoice in my sufferings” (Col 1:24). And James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (Jam 1:2). One of the reasons we can rejoice in suffering is because we know God is using it to develop our character in order to mature us spiritually (Rom 5:3-5; Jam 1:2-4).

     This may seem impossible to do, especially if we’re accustomed to living by our feelings and reacting to circumstances. However, living by faith is possible, and is the only way Scripture can be obeyed, especially in difficult circumstances. Living by faith is quit liberating, because it frees us from the tyranny of difficult circumstances over which we have no control, and from the knee-jerk reaction of hurt feelings that naturally rise up in such situations. If we stay the course of learning God’s Scripture and living by faith, we will reach a place in our spiritual development where God’s Word becomes more real than our circumstances and feelings, and this is the place of freedom and joy, as long as we remain there. 

Prayer

     Dear Father, thank You for the many blessings you have bestowed on me that have enriched my life, and thank you for the difficulties that help develop my character and advance me toward spiritual maturity. Thank you for Your Word which defines reality and equips me with the viewpoint, commands, and promises I need to walk with You; all of which liberates me from the tyranny of difficult circumstances over which I have no control.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

Posted in Christian Theology, Inspirational Writings, Living by Faith, Righteous Living | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

A Song of Ascent – Psalm 126

A Song of Ascents. When the LORD brought back the captive ones of Zion, we were like those who dream. 2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting; then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” 3 The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad. 4 Restore our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the South. 5 Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. 6 He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psa 126:1-6 NASB)

    This psalm of ascent is a praise, a prayer, and an expectation of restored blessing. It praises God for the return of His people back to the land; presumably from Babylonian captivity (vss. 1-3). It also requests the Lord restore even more captives (vs 4). Finally, those who struggled to cultivate the land were encouraged to be persistent, knowing they would eventually experience the joy of harvest (vss. 5-6).

     The psalm opens with a temporal clause that sets the mind on “When the LORD brought back the captive ones of Zion” (Psa 126:1a). Babylonian captivity is likely in view. Those who came back to Judah and Jerusalem were among the exiles who had experienced captivity and suffering, and having returned to the land, they had difficulty believing it was true and “were like those who dream” (Psa 126:1b). The result was, “Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting” (Psa 126:2a). Even the Gentile nations recognized something miraculous had happened, and they declared, “The LORD has done great things for them” (Psa 126:2b). The returned Israelites agreed, saying, “The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad” (Psa 126:3).

The Lord has intervened to restore Israel from its exile to its land (cf. Ezra 1:1–4), but more significantly the return from captivity signaled a restoration from divine judgment to blessing. This unexpected change for the captives totally amazed them so that the people of Israel felt as though they must be dreaming, as did Peter when he was delivered from prison in Acts 12:9. They had experienced the surprising grace of the Lord, who exceeded their greatest hopes, as only he could (cf. Eph 3:20).[1]

     The Psalm then shifts from praise to prayer as they ask, “Restore our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the South” (Psa 126:4). Other translations read, “Restore our fortunes, LORD, like watercourses in the Negev” (Psa 126:4 CSB), and “O LORD, restore our well-being, just as the streams in the arid south are replenished” (Psa 126:4 NET). The NASB translates the Hebrew noun שְׁבוּת shebuth as captivity, whereas the CSB and NET translate it fortunes and well-being. This is likely a request for more Israelites to return from Babylonian captivity to help with the restoration. For just as dry rivers beds could suddenly be filled with water when the rain comes, “as the streams in the South” (Psa 126:4b), so the psalmist prays the empty highways from Babylon to Judah would flow with returning Israelites.

The streams in the South of Israel, the Negev, dry up in the parched summer months but become raging torrents during the rainy season. The psalmist used these streams as a figure of what the highways from Babylon could become with God’s further blessing. They could become flooded with travelers moving back into the land God wanted His chosen people to occupy.[2]

    HarvestThe joy the Israelites knew when they’d returned from captivity did not last long, for they faced the daunting task of restoring a nation and society rooted in the Mosaic Law, with its rebuilt temple and festivals (read Ezra 3:1-13). In addition, they faced opposition and discouragement along the way (Ezra 4:1-4, 24), which delayed the temple reconstruction for sixteen years, until 520 B.C., when God raised up the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to encourage the Israelites to finish the work (Hag 1:1, 14-15; Zec 1:1, 7). Part of the struggle the Israelites faced included cultivating the hard land which had not been tilled for decades. It is in this context the psalmist seeks to encourage his readers, saying, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psa 126:5-6). The challenge for them was to remain faithful in the routine and not let impatience or discouragement get them down. Perseverance would eventually bring reward, for the seed would sprout, the harvest would come, and the tears would be replaced with celebration.

Summary

     God’s people were amazed and filled with laughter when He restored them from captivity to the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem (Psa 126:1-3), and they prayed the Lord would restore even more (vs 4). But the joy was dampened by the hard work of cultivating the land which had laid dormant for decades; however, they were encouraged to be persistent, knowing their labor would result in a harvest.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] Daniel J. Estes, Psalms 73–150, ed. E. Ray. Clendenen, vol. 13, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2019), 475.

[2] Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Ps 126:4.

Posted in Christian Theology, Psalms | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

God’s Imputed Righteousness

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. (Rom 4:3-5)[1]

     Like most people in the world, I work for a living. I work for an agency that agrees to compensate me for my labor. Each day I work, I put the agency into debt. The agency relieves its debt every two weeks when it deposits money into my checking account. For a brief moment, my employer owes me nothing. However, when I go back to work, I put the agency back into debt, and we repeat the process. In this arrangement, my paycheck is never considered “as a favor, but as what it due” (Rom 4:4). I do the work and my employer pays me. That’s it. There’s no grace between us. My paycheck is NEVER considered a gift, but what is owed to me. Sadly, many apply this same way of thinking to their relationship with God. The assumption is that if they do good works, God will compensate them with salvation. And, as long as they continue to do good works, He keeps them saved. This is a works-salvation. There is no grace here, only the repetition of work, work, and more work. And if they stop working, the pay ceases. There’s no more salvation; only the fearful expectation of judgment.

     But there’s good news. The Bible reveals that God offers salvation, not by good works, but by grace. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9), and, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Tit 3:5). The amazing truth of Scripture is, “the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom 4:5). Did you catch that? Don’t miss it. God gives something to “THE ONE WHO DOES NOT WORK.” Do you want what God has for you? Stop trying to work for it! It’s a gift. Freely given and freely received. How is it received? By faith. We simply trust God at His word. We believe God when He tells us our salvation was accomplished in Christ, who died for our sins, was buried and raised again on the third day (1 Cor 15:3-4). And who receives it? Not the good person, but the ungodly; the one who deserves it the least. That’s me and you. And what is given? What is credited to our account? Righteousness. God’s own righteousness is given to the ungodly person who does not work for it, but simply believes in Him. That’s grace!

The gift of righteousness     But some might raise the question: how can a holy God justify unworthy sinners? How can He give something to someone who deserves the opposite? How is this just? Well, I’m glad you asked. The answer is found in Jesus and what He accomplished for us at the cross. At the cross, God judged our sin as His righteousness requires, and saves the sinner as His love desires. At the cross Jesus voluntarily died a penal substitutionary death. He willingly died in our place and bore the punishment that was rightfully ours. Our guilt became His guilt. Our shame became His shame. The result of the cross is that God is forever satisfied with the death of Christ. There’s no additional sacrifice or payment needed. Jesus paid it all. When we believe in Jesus, we are forgiven all our sins (Eph 1:7; Col 1:14; Heb 10:10-14), and then God imputes His righteousness to us. The apostle Paul calls it “the gift of righteousness” (Rom 5:17; cf. 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9). God’s righteousness is not earned; rather, it is freely gifted to us who believe in Jesus as our Savior.

The Meaning of Imputation

     The word “imputation” itself is an accounting term used both in the Old Testament and the New Testament (Gen 15:6; Ps. 32:2; Rom 4:3-8; Gal 3:6).[2] Moses wrote of Abraham, saying, “Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned [חָשַׁב chashab] it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). David writes, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute [חָשַׁב chashab] iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Ps 32:1-2). Moses and David both use the Hebrew חָשַׁב chashab, which in context means “to impute, reckon to.”[3] Moses uses the verb in a positive sense of that which God imputes to Abraham, namely righteousness, and David uses the verb negatively, of that which God does not credit to a person, namely iniquity. Allen P. Ross comments on the meaning of חָשַׁב chashab in Psalm 32:2 and Genesis 15:6:

Not only does forgiveness mean that God takes away the sins, but it also means that God does not “impute” iniquity to the penitent: “Blessed is the one to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity.”  The verb (חָשַׁב) means “impute, reckon, credit”; it is the language of records, or accounting—in fact, in modern usage the word is related to “computer.” Here the psalm is using an implied comparison, as if there were record books in heaven that would record the sins. If the forgiven sins are not imputed, it means that there is no record of them—they are gone and forgotten. Because God does not mark iniquities (Ps. 130:4), there is great joy. The same verb is used in Genesis 15:6 as well, which says that Abram “believed in the LORD, and he reckoned it (וַיַּחְשְׁבֶ֥הָ) to him as (or, namely) righteousness.” The apostle Paul brings that verse and Psalm 32:2 together in Romans 4 to explain the meaning of justification by faith: when people believe in the Lord, God reckons or credits them with righteousness (Paul will say, the righteousness of Jesus Christ), and does not reckon their sin to them.[4]

     The apostle Paul cites Abraham’s faith in God as the basis upon which he was declared righteous before Him, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited [λογίζομαι logizomai] to him as righteousness’” (Rom 4:3).[5] Paul uses the Greek verb λογίζομαι logizomai, which means “to determine by mathematical process, reckon, calculate, frequently in a transferred sense.”[6] Abraham believed God at His Word, and God reckoned, or transferred His righteousness to him. After pointing to Abraham as the example of justification by faith, Paul then extrapolates that we are justified in the same way, saying, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited [λογίζομαι logizomai] as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited [λογίζομαι logizomai] as righteousness” (Rom 4:4-5; cf. Gal 3:6). Paul then references David, saying, “David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits [λογίζομαι logizomai] righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. ‘Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account [λογίζομαι logizomai]’” (Rom 4:6-8). 

     Paul twice uses the Greek verb ἐλλογέω ellogeo to communicate the idea of an exchange between persons (Rom 5:13; Phm 1:18). The verb ἐλλογέω ellogeo means “to charge with a financial obligation, charge to the account of someone.”[7]  Paul tells his friend, Philemon, concerning his runaway slave Onesimus, “if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge [ἐλλογέω ellogeo] that to my account” (Phm 1:18). Paul has not wronged Philemon, nor does he owe him anything; however, Paul was willing to pay for any wrong or debt Onesimus may have incurred.  

Paul is giving us an illustration of that which God has done for us in Christ Jesus. As the Apostle assumed the debt of Onesimus and invited Philemon—who had been wronged—to charge that debt to him, so the Lord Jesus Christ took the debt that we owed to the injured One—to God—and He charged Himself with our debt and set His righteousness down to our account.[8]

     In a similar way, Jesus paid for our sin so that we don’t have to, and in exchange, we receive God’s righteousness. This idea of an exchange between persons means that one person is credited with something not antecedently his/her own. Our sin is our sin, and Christ’s righteousness is His righteousness. When Jesus took our sin upon himself at the cross, He voluntarily accepted something that belonged to another, namely us. Jesus took our sin upon Himself. On the other hand, when we receive His righteousness as a gift, we are accepting something that belonged to another, namely Christ. By faith, we accept that which belongs to Jesus, namely, His righteousness. Jesus’ righteousness becomes our righteousness. Paul references the exchange that occurred at the cross when Jesus died for our sin, saying, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21), and he personally spoke of the righteousness “which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil 3:9).[9] Once we receive God’s righteousness, we are instantaneously justified in God’s sight.

Justification is a divine act whereby an infinitely Holy God judicially declares a believing sinner to be righteous and acceptable before Him because Christ has borne the sinner’s sin on the cross and has become “to us … righteousness” (1 Cor 1:30; Rom 3:24). Justification springs from the fountain of God’s grace (Titus 3:4–5). It is operative as the result of the redemptive and propitiatory sacrifice of Christ, who has settled all the claims of the law (Rom 3:24–25; 5:9). Justification is on the basis of faith and not by human merit or works (Rom 3:28–30; 4:5; 5:1; Gal 2:16). In this marvelous operation of God the infinitely holy Judge judicially declares righteous the one who believes in Jesus (Rom 8:31–34). A justified believer emerges from God’s great courtroom with a consciousness that another, his Substitute, has borne his guilt and that he stands without accusation before God (Rom 8:1, 33–34). Justification makes no one righteous, neither is it the bestowment of righteousness as such, but rather it declares one to be justified whom God sees as perfected once and forever in His beloved Son.[10]

     It is sometimes difficult to accept this biblical teaching, because our behavior does not always reflect our righteous standing before God (even princes sometimes fail to live by the royal family code). However, God’s Word defines reality, and we are justified in His sight because of His righteousness that has been gifted to our account. The righteousness of God that is credited to us who have trusted in Jesus as our Savior.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

  1. Biblical Righteousness: A Word Study  
  2. The Righteousness of God  
  3. Theological Categories of God’s Righteousness 
  4. God’s Righteousness at the Cross 
  5. The Righteous Lifestyle of the Believer
  6. A Dispensational View of God’s Righteousness 
  7. God’s Righteousness in the Future 

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995).

[2] Biblically, there are three major imputations that relate to our standing before God. First is the imputation of Adam’s original sin to every member of the human race (Rom 5:12-13; cf. 1 Cor 15:21-22). Every biological descendant of Adam is charged/credited with the sin he committed in the Garden of Eden which plunged the human race into spiritual and physical death. Jesus is the only exception, for though He is truly human (Matt 1:1; Luke 3:23-38), He was born without original sin, without a sin nature, and committed no personal sin during His time on earth (2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:22; 1 John 3:5). Adam is the head of the human race and his fall became our fall. This is the basis for death and for being estranged from God. Second is the imputation of all sin to Jesus on the cross (Isa 53:4-6, 10; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 2:9; 1 Pet 2:21-24; 1 John 2:2). God the Father judged Jesus in our place (Mark 10:45; 1 Cor 15:3-4; 1 Pet 3:18), cancelling our sin debt by the death of Christ (Col 2:13-14; 2 Cor 5:18-19). This was a voluntary imputation on the part of Christ who freely went to the cross and took our sins upon Himself (John 1:29; 10:11, 15, 17-18). Third is the imputation of God’s righteousness to those who believe in Jesus for salvation (Rom 4:3-5; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:8-9). The righteousness of God imputed to the believer at the moment of faith in Christ results in the believer being justified before God (Rom 3:22, 24, 28; 4:1-5).

[3] Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson, et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 360.

[4] Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, Mich., Kregel Publications, 2011), 710-711.

[5] The translators of the Septuagint use λογίζομαι logizomai as a reliable synonym for חָשַׁב chashab both in Genesis 15:6 and Psalm 32:2. Paul then uses λογίζομαι logizomai when making his argument that justification is by faith alone in God (Rom 4:3-5; Gal 3:6).

[6] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 597.

[7] Ibid., 319.

[8] J. Dwight Pentecost, Things Which Become Sound Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1996), 40.

[9] Though the word “impute” is not used in some passages, the idea is implied. Isaiah writes of the Suffering Servant Who “will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (Isa 53:11), and of God as the One Who “has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness” (Isa 61:10). And Paul writes of “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (Rom 3:22), and of being “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24; cf. 5:17; 9:30; 10:3-4; 1 Cor 1:30; Gal 2:16; 3:11, 24).

[10] E. McChesney and Merrill F. Unger, “Justification,” ed. R.K. Harrison, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 729.

Posted in Christian Theology, God's Grace, Hot Topics, Righteous Living, Salvation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Song of Ascents – Psalm 123

A Song of Ascents. To You I lift up my eyes, O You who are enthroned in the heavens! 2 Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, until He is gracious to us. 3 Be gracious to us, O LORD, be gracious to us, for we are greatly filled with contempt. 4 Our soul is greatly filled with the scoffing of those who are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud. (Psa 123:1-4 NASB)

    A SongPsalm 123 is one of fifteen songs of ascent (Psa 120 to 134), of which four are attributed to David (Psa 122, 124, 131, 133) and one to Solomon (Psa 127). The Mishmash states these psalms were sung on the fifteen steps that led up to the temple; however, it is more likely they were sung by pilgrims as they traveled up to Jerusalem, as stated in Psalm 122:1-2 and 125:1-2. Whether Jerusalem or the temple, these psalms were intended to prepare the worshiper’s mind to look to the Lord in faith. Spurgeon states, “Yet we must use our eyes with resolution, for they will not go upward to the Lord of themselves, but they incline to look downward, or inward, or anywhere but to the Lord.”[1]

     The opening verse is singular, “To You I lift up my eyes” (Psa 123:1a), whereas the second verse is plural, “so our eyes look to the LORD our God” (Psa 123:2b); this makes the prayer both individual and corporate. And where is the focus of their attention? It is to God who is “enthroned in the heavens!” (Psa 123:1b). This anthropomorphic language pictures God seated upon His throne and is a recognition of His sovereignty, for “the LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all” (Psa 103:19). It is God who reigns supreme and has the authority to effect change in His creation. He cares about what happens on the earth. His people know that it is He who “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of His people” (Psa 113:7-8).

     These humble worshipers approach the Lord with a servant’s heart, singing, “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, until He is gracious to us” (Psa 123:2). Here is a picture of humility and submissiveness; for just as servants cannot act on their own initiative or authority, and constantly watch for their sovereign’s gesture, so these humble believers look to the LORD their God, until He is gracious to them. And what is their desire? They twice request, “Be gracious to us, O LORD, be gracious to us” (Psa 123:3a). The repetitious appeal for God to be gracious underscores their desire to meet some pressing need. Though God is the sovereign Lord of the universe, He is no tyrant to be feared by those who are humble. These worshippers confidently approach God because they know something about Him; they know He is a God of grace. On numerous occasions the Bible reveals the LORD is “compassionate and gracious” (Exo 34:6a), “a God merciful and gracious” (Psa 86:15a), “a gracious and compassionate God” (Jon 4:2a), and “a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate” (Neh 9:17a; cf. Psa 103:8, 116:5; 145:8). This gracious disposition is true of all three Persons of the Trinity. God the Father is described as “the God of all grace” (1 Pet 5:10), who sits upon a “throne of grace” (Heb 4:16), who “gives grace to the afflicted” (Prov 3:34), and provides salvation “by grace” through faith in Jesus (Eph 2:8-9; cf. Acts 15:11; Rom 3:24). Jesus is said to be “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), and the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of grace” (Heb 10:29). Grace is undeserved favor. It is the kindness and goodness that one person freely confers upon another who does not deserve it. There is a common grace that God extends to all, in which “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). This blessing is upon all people and is rooted in the goodness and open-handedness of the Giver, not the worthiness of the object. However, apart from common grace, there is special grace that God gives to the humble, for “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5b). God’s grace will meet their needs, and their humility is the open hand that receives it. 

     Why do they need God’s grace? Because they “are greatly filled with contempt” (Psa 123:3b). The word filled is a translation of the Hebrew verb שָׂבַע saba, which means to be sated, filled, satisfied, have enough. The word usually refers to something positive, such as being filled with food (Ex 16:8; Lev 25:19; Psa 132:15), but here it has a negative connotation of being filled with something hurtful, namely “contempt” (בּוּז buz), which refers to the despising or belittling that one person verbally casts into the ear of another. And the afflicted are described as being “greatly” filled (רָב rab), which means they are overflowing with contempt. Other translations read, “we’ve had more than enough contempt” (CSB), and “we have had our fill of humiliation, and then some” (NET). Their souls were injured by “the scoffing of those who are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud” (Psa 123:4). Those who are at “ease” (שַׁאֲנָן shaanan) live secure lives, free from the affliction that often accompanies those whom the Lord is perfecting through some trial. The “proud” (גָּאֲיוֹן gaayon) are those who see themselves as self-sufficient and who operate independently of God; they see no need for grace, and have none to give. Theirs is the hand of oppression and they cannot abstain from violence; they care little about the harm they inflict. Unfortunately, when others think little of us, we are all too quick to think little of ourselves and to reject the consolations of a friend. “Scoffing” (לַעַג laag) is the ridicule, mocking, or derisive speech they use to poison the souls of their victims. It is deeply hurtful to be regarded as unimportant or insignificant by others, and the wicked have no consideration of those on whom they trample verbally. “The reason people ridicule what they oppose, aside from it being so easy, is that it is demoralizing and frequently effective. It is effective because it strikes at the hidden insecurities or weaknesses that almost everybody has.”[2]

Summary

     These worshipers ascended, not just to Jerusalem or the temple, but to God who is enthroned in heaven. And as a watchful servant looks to his/her master, so these persecuted believers look to the Lord until He is gracious to them; and they need His grace, for the scoffing of the proud has greatly wounded them. Overall, there is intentionality in their mindset as they look to the Lord, for their natural proclivity—and ours as well—is to look anywhere and everywhere other than to the One who sustains in times of trouble.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

  1. God’s Grace is Sufficient  
  2. Living by Grace  
  3. The Basics of Grace  
  4. The Lord is My Shepherd – Psalm 23 
  5. Choosing the Faithful Way – Psalm 119:25-32 
  6. God’s Word Sustains Us – Psalm 119:89-96 
  7. Establish Our Footsteps – Psalm 119:129-136 
  8. Seek Your Servant – Psalm 119:169-176 

 

[1] Charles H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vol. 3 (McLeon, Virginia, MacDonald Publishing Company, ND), 41.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, Psalms 107–150: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 1090.

Posted in Christian Theology, God's Grace, Psalms | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

They Will Suffer for Your Unfaithfulness

     I struggled with how to title this article. I prefer to be positive, but many sections of the Bible reveal things that are negative, and an honest preacher will not ignore those sections. The title is actually a partial quote from Numbers 14:33, which reveals that Israelite children suffered because their parents were unfaithful to the Lord. The article ends on a positive note and call to action, but we must look at the difficult section first.

Twelve Spies     The concept of blessing and cursing by association is biblical. When Israel was advancing spiritually, walking with the Lord, and obeying His will, they experienced His blessings which spilled over into the lives of others. But, when they failed to grow spiritually and live by faith, they became their own worst enemy and experienced suffering, which negatively touched the lives of those near them. An example is found in the book of Numbers where God commanded Moses to send a dozen Israelites to spy out the land of Canaan. After forty days in Canaan the spies returned and gave an account of what they saw; but ten of the spies—who operated by human viewpoint—gave a negative report that discouraged the people (read Numbers 13:1-33). The fearful reaction lead to complaining and irrational behavior, as the Israelites concluded it would be better to return to Egypt than continue onward (Num 14:1-3). The people were ready to reject Moses’ leadership and elect new leaders, “So they said to one another, ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt’” (Num 14:4). Moses, Aaron, Caleb and Joshua tried to reverse the impact of the negative report by calling the people to see the situation with eyes of faith, not fear (Num 14:5-9), but the people would not listen and “all the congregation threatened to stone them” (Num 14:10a). When God and His Word are absent in our stream of consciousness, it’s very easy for fear to set in and dominate our thoughts, and fear is very difficult to dislodge when it becomes deeply seated in the human spirit, as it leads to psychological disequilibrium, which in turn can birth irrational and harmful behavior. Unfortunately, the people chose fear, not faith, and what followed were the consequences of their choice, as the Lord appeared and pronounced judgment upon them (Num 14:10b-29). He said, “Surely you shall not come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. Your children, however, whom you said would become a prey—I will bring them in, and they will know the land which you have rejected” (Num 14:30-32).

     I understand God judging His people because of their sin; He certainly disciplines me for mine. But what follows in the next verse is very sobering, as the Lord states, “But as for you, your corpses will fall in this wilderness. Your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they will suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness” (Num 14:33). Choices have consequences, and those Israelites who chose to live by fear and not faith were making decisions, not only for themselves, but for their children, who would either be blessed or cursed by those decisions. The opposite would have happened if the Israelites would have lived by faith, obeyed the Lord and walked with Him; but they did not, and their children paid the penalty for it.

How should we live?

     First, understand how we live impacts the lives of others, either positively or negatively for God; not only as a model for good behavior, but with the realization that our choices bring blessing or cursing into the lives of those near us, both in the moment, and for many years to come. The Israelites who accepted the negative report from the spies chose fear over faith and brought cursing into their lives as well as the lives of their children. Joshua and Caleb chose to operate by divine viewpoint and tried to unseat the fearful choices of their contemporaries, unfortunately, without success. Though Joshua and Caleb lived by faith, and would eventually enter the Promised Land, they too had to wait forty years.

     Second, choose to live by faith, learning and living God’s Word in all aspects of our lives. As Christians, we will be confronted with negative reports and behavior, even from other believers. Though we cannot control the negativity, God expects us to choose faith over fear, obedience over defiance. In fact, this is exactly what God wants from us, to “Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness” (Psa 37:3), “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Pro 3:5), and “Trust in the LORD forever, for in GOD the LORD, we have an everlasting Rock” (Isa 26:4). This means we “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7), for, “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb 11:6), and “My righteous one will live by faith, and if he shrinks back, I take no pleasure in him” (Heb 10:38).

     As I wrote this brief article, I thought about my grandmother and how she blessed me when I was young. Much of her life was focused on God as she modeled right living in conformity with God’s Word, whereas all others around me were focused on themselves and advancing worldly agendas. She feared the Lord, read her Bible, obeyed His Word, prayed often, sang praises, shared the Gospel, and sprinkled Scripture into her daily discussions with others. She was not perfect, but she owned her failures, confessed them, accepted consequences, sought forgiveness and moved on. That’s integrity. She was a light in my darkness. The seeds she sowed have come to life and are bearing fruit; not only in my life, but the lives of others. I want to carry on that noble Christian legacy, realizing how I live my life touches others. It touches family, friends, coworkers, students, and people I meet along the way. I realize the greatest blessing we can give to others is a life that communicates and models faith in God. Will you live that life? Will you leave that legacy for others to follow? Please do. Please, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Mat 5:16).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

Posted in Bad Behavior, Christian Theology, Hot Topics, Leadership, Living by Faith | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment