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When the glory of God grows dim in our eyes, bodily appetites become gods. When we lose sight of a big purpose for our lives, sexual urges become too big.
What if this world was full of dragons? The question opens important windows into reality, even for those who care nothing for dragons.
I first asked the question while watching The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings again (after who knows many times). As my mind wandered to more exciting worlds than my own, Would I be happier, I asked myself, if God wrote orcs and hobbits and rings of power and dwarves and dragons into the pages of history? Would an earth filled with fantastic creatures — with talking trees, singing elves, grumbling dwarves, and firedrakes flying overhead — finally satisfy? I often answered, yes.
In this new world, normal life wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t spend as much time on my phone. Life, I thought in honest moments, would be more thrilling, more heroic, more throbbing with that elusive something I had taught myself not to expect anymore. There — if there was ever possible — I would find what I had been searching for.
As I wondered about better worlds than God had made, and a more fulfilling life than God had given, the temptation of dissatisfied wishfulness came upon me. And this wishfulness comes to us all, for every human heart is prone to create its own make-believe worlds. On one planet, the perfect wife is found. On another, the doctor confirmed you were pregnant. And still another, the voice which has rested silently for years again calls your name. Each one beckoning like that ancient planet where man first ate in hopes of becoming like God.
We all have fantasies tempting us away from life as God has authored it, to some other life we think would satisfy. In those worlds, our restless longing for more (we imagine) would go quiet for good.
In considering worlds where dragons roam, we come to observe a shared fiction: somewhere else seems to be the place of true happiness.
What perpetuates this lie for so many? Our imagined realities so rarely come true. We spend a lifetime pursuing a shadow of which we never see the face. If we actually found that perfect spouse, if our doctor had confirmed our pregnancy, if we had heard that lost loved one calling out affectionately to us, we might be happier, but not decisively happy. Even if our dreams came true, we would still ask, “Is there more?”
C.S. Lewis marks this after his own temptation to wishfulness. Apparently, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes) claimed to have photographed a fairy. Considering that fairies had invaded earth, he says,
Once grant your fairy, your enchanted forest, your satyr, faun, wood-nymph, and well of immortality real, and amidst all the scientific, social, and practical interest which the discovery would awake, the Sweet Desire would have disappeared, would have shifted its ground, like the cuckoo’s voice or the rainbow’s end, and be now calling us from beyond a further hill. (Preface to Pilgrim’s Regress, 236)
Sweet Desire hides just beyond the horizon. When the hoped-for is found, the sweet (and haunting) desire would not satisfy, but shift. It would find another hill to call from. Eventually, we would set out again for another hill, in another world, somewhere else.
Test man’s heart with new and wondrous pleasures, make the imagined real, and he will need more. God has written a message above all the real (and imagined) wells of this life, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again” (John 4:13).
This is confirmed by the few who have lived to secure what they chased after. They have the supermodel spouse, the acclaim and celebrity, the money and career, and yet they come to say with Tom Brady, “There has got to be more than this.”
Or, they say the same with the Prince of Pleasures, King Solomon, who after sampling each golden challis as we sample foods at Costco, found them all wanting.
Solomon tested his heart with the rare pleasures most spend their lives pursuing (Ecclesiastes 2:1). He tested his heart with abundant laughter (verse 2), wine and folly (verse 3), amazing careers (4), the beauty of nature (verses 5–7), servants to meet every need (verse 7). Anything he desired, he possessed (verse 10). He filled treasure rooms of silver and gold, hired singers to follow him with song, and filled his palace with beautiful women and sexual satisfaction (verse 8). As the resplendent king, he “kept [his] heart from no pleasure” (verse 10).
Solomon traveled to the rainbow’s end, tried earth’s choicest goods, but nothing satisfied his heart. He leaves us with a whole book summarized in three haunting words describing every well under the sun: “All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). He remarks that all was but a striving after the wind, nothing to be gained but vanity and vexation. Everything, that is, but a life lived for God (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).
What we love and long for apart from God will leave us unsatisfied in the end. God has fashioned the human heart this way: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10). What we love will fail us as our hope. “Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
We began with a question: What if this world was filled with dragons? Or, in other words, would our alternate realities — a world of fairies, elves, and granted wishes — bring us to that cool stream of ultimate satisfaction?
They would not. Even in a world of dragons, the human heart would grow cold and yawn and wonder, Is this all?
Christianity alone explains why our best imaginings after satisfaction inevitably fail: Man is too high a creature for even his greatest imaginings. He is made for communion with something greater than giant talking trees; made for greater dominion than taming dragons. He is made for God (Colossians 1:16), and remade and forgiven through Christ to enjoy relationship with God. Redeemed man is destined to rule with Christ into eternity (Revelation 5:10). Man will never find enduring happiness apart from his Lord. Branches exist to be united to vines; Jesus is the true Vine (John 15:1). All branches detached from him wither, die, and burn (John 15:6).
Or, to finish with Lewis in the realm of imagination, consider yourself before the Lion beside his eternal stream of life and satisfaction, as he warns you about every other stream:
“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I am dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion. Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion. (The Silver Chair, 22–23)
“The child of God has two great marks about him . . .” So writes J.C. Ryle in his classic book Holiness. How would you finish the sentence?
Faith and repentance? Love and hope? Praise and thanksgiving? Humility and joy? I’m not sure what I would have said before reading Ryle, but I know I would not have finished the sentence as he does:
The child of God has two great marks about him. . . . He may be known by his inward warfare, as well as by his inward peace. (72)
Warfare and peace. Combat and rest. The clash of armies and the calm of treaties. The Christian may have more marks about him than these two, but never less. He is a child in the Father’s home, and he is a soldier in the Savior’s war.
That sentence would play no small role in saving me from despair.
When I entered the Christian life, I had no idea I was walking into war. I felt, at first, like a man parachuting over the glories of salvation — finally awake to Christ, finally safe from sin, finally headed for heaven. But soon I landed in a country I didn’t recognize, amid a fight I wasn’t ready for.
The conflict, of course, was within me. I had never felt such inner division: my soul, which for a few months had felt like a land of peace, became a field of war — trenches dug, battle lines drawn. I found myself assailed by doubts I hadn’t faced before: How do you know the Bible is true? How do you know God is even real? The more I killed sin, the more I seemed to discover hidden pockets of sin — subtle, camouflaged sins crawling through forests of tangled flesh: self-flattering fantasies, knee-jerk judgments against others, unruly and sometimes wicked thoughts, fickle affections for God. I still enjoyed a measure of peace in Jesus, but it felt now like peace under siege.
Something must be wrong, I thought. Surely a Christian wouldn’t face darkness this black, division this deep. Surely, then, I’m not a Christian. For a season, I no longer called God Father, fearful of presuming that such an embattled one as I might belong to him.
Then came Ryle. In a chapter simply and aptly titled “The Fight,” he proved to me, with arresting intensity, that “true Christianity is a fight” (66), and every saint a soldier. “Where there is grace, there will be conflict,” he wrote with his manly matter-of-factness. “There is no holiness without a warfare. Saved souls will always be found to have fought a fight” (70).
A battery of biblical texts followed — texts I had known on some level, yet clearly hadn’t known on another.
The same gospel that brings peace with God brings war with sin. For to say, “Jesus is Lord” is also to say, “And sin is not” — and to follow Jesus is to walk in high-handed rebellion against the devil. So, the same Spirit who wraps us with heavenly comfort also clads us with the armor of God.
Ryle’s chapter filled me with strange comfort. For months, I had felt like a civilian who had somehow walked into battle; now I felt like a soldier deployed. My war was a normal war — and more than that, a good one.
If “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17), then what could be more normal than for Christians to feel divided, split, torn asunder in our inner being — or as Ryle says, to feel that we have “two principles within us, contending for the mastery” (72)? As long as we carry both Spirit and flesh, war will be normal.
We should not be surprised, then, when we find within us a dreadfully strong pull not to pray when we know we need to pray. Or an aching longing to satisfy some craving — for food, sleep, drink, sex, entertainment — that we know we should refuse. Or a heavy lethargy when the Spirit bids us to share the gospel or serve our family. Or a fickle forgetfulness that dulls the morning’s zeal by early afternoon. Or a driving compulsion to lean on our own understanding rather than the revealed word of God.
We should not be surprised in such moments, any more than an army should be surprised by enemy fire. Rather, we should take courage. “We are evidently no friends of Satan,” Ryle writes. “Like the kings of this world, he wars not against his own subjects” (72). The presence of inner division and opposition does not mean we’ve lost; it means the war has begun.
The Christian fight is not just any war, but the best war the world has ever known. “Let us settle it in our minds that the Christian fight is a good fight — really good, truly good, emphatically good,” says Ryle (80). Yes, the war is fierce. The battle sometimes beats and bloodies us. At our lowest, we can feel tempted to despair. Even still, oh how good is the Christian fight.
Good, because God assures us that he will tread down our foes (Micah 7:19). Good, because he has promised to strengthen us in the thickest parts of the battle (Isaiah 41:10). Good, because all who fall can find forgiveness (1 John 1:9). Good, because we slay only sins and devils, not men (Romans 8:13). Good, because this war restores rather than ruins our humanity (Colossians 3:5, 9–10).
And most of all, good, because we fight under, with, and for Christ. He is our great Captain and our fellow Soldier, who won us to himself by dying for us, and who vows now never to leave our side (Matthew 28:20). “Would anyone live the life of the Christian soldier?” Ryle asks. “Let him abide in Christ, get closer to Christ, tighten his hold on Christ every day that he lives” (76).
Today, then, we march forth under the banner “Christ is better,” unsurprised and undaunted by battle, swords drawn against everything within us unlike him. And we look to the day when “the two great marks” of the Christian become one, and war gives way to Jesus’s endless peace.
The second half of the nineteenth century was not kind to Victorian evangelicals.
Darwin’s ideas, which first appeared in print in The Origin of Species in 1859, began to undermine the faith of some, just as German higher criticism of the Old Testament reached British shores in Essays and Reviews. Meanwhile, the Ritualists were busy unprotestantizing the Church of England, as men of “broad views” were insisting that sincerity — not truth — was the “one thing needful.” To make matters worse, relations between evangelical churchmen and dissenters reached new lows, and attacking (or defending) the establishment became a near-universal ecclesiastical obsession.
But in the 1870s, a renewal movement imported from America seemed to offer new spiritual life to embattled evangelicals. It promised full salvation and complete deliverance from all known sin — essentially a second conversion experience — and all one had to do was simply “let go and let God.” A series of popular meetings was held throughout England to promote this new vision of the Christian life, and the Keswick Convention was born.
J.C. Ryle (1816–1900), the “Anglican Spurgeon” and undisputed leader of the evangelical party within the Church of England, was entirely unsympathetic with Keswick spirituality. He, along with other evangelical leaders of the old guard, attempted to redirect this new interest in personal holiness into more orthodox channels. Articles were written. Speeches were made. A rival conference was even held in 1875 to promote scriptural holiness. Even so, the Keswick Movement continued to gain steam, especially among younger evangelicals. So, Ryle published his own response in 1877, which was then enlarged in 1879.
Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots proved to be one of Ryle’s most popular works. It is one of the best presentations of Puritan and Reformed spirituality ever written, and thanks to the simplicity and forcefulness of Ryle’s writing style, it is certainly one of the most accessible. Think of Holiness as The Pilgrim’s Progress stated propositionally. And like Bunyan’s masterpiece, it has proved to be remarkably enduring. It went through five editions during Ryle’s lifetime, and it has been republished regularly since the prompting of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in 1952.
The enlarged edition of Holiness (1879) contains twenty-one papers, as well as an excellent introduction. The first seven chapters are the heart of Holiness and form a book within a book (this was the original edition of 1877). Here Ryle explains “the real nature of holiness, and the temptations and difficulties which all must expect who follow it” (xiii). The rest of the book consists of a series of holiness-related sermons that are arranged thematically: biblical character studies (chapters 8–12), the church (chapters 13–14), Christ (chapters 15–20), and extracts from Robert Traill and Thomas Brooks (chapter 21).
Rather than discussing each chapter, allow me to introduce you to some of the great themes of this spiritual classic.
Holiness takes holiness seriously. Personal holiness is essential for final salvation. Such a claim is neither legalism nor a threat to the precious doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is the clear and sobering truth of Scripture: “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). If Holiness accomplishes anything, it reminds the reader of this critical and potentially uncomfortable truth. Read the chapter on Lot’s wife (chapter 10), or consider this question Ryle poses to the indifferent:
Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment could you feel there? To which of all the saints would you join yourself, and by whose side would you sit down? Their pleasures are not your pleasures, their tastes not your tastes, their character not your character. How could you possibly be happy, if you had not been holy on earth? (53)
Expect to be convicted. Expect to be challenged. And expect to be encouraged if you are determined to pursue holiness with greater zeal.
Holiness takes sin seriously. Ryle argues that he who “wishes to attain right views about Christian holiness must begin by examining the vast and solemn subject of sin” (1).
Sin is a vast moral disease that affects the whole human race. It consists in “doing, saying, thinking, or imagining anything that is not in perfect conformity with the mind and law of God” (2). It is a family disease that we all inherit from our first parents, and it infects every part of our moral constitution. Its guilt and vileness — the very sinfulness of sin itself — must be viewed in light of its remedy: “Terribly black must that guilt be for which nothing but the blood of the Son of God could make satisfaction” (8). But in a deft pastoral move (which is typical for Holiness), Ryle pivots from the guilt of sin to the grace of God:
There is a remedy revealed for man’s need, as wide and broad and deep as man’s disease. We need not be afraid to look at sin, and study its nature, origin, power, extent, and vileness, if we only look at the same time at the almighty medicine provided for us in the salvation that is in Jesus Christ. Though sin has abounded, grace has much more abounded. (11)
Holiness takes doctrine seriously. In the first seven chapters of the book, Ryle treats the doctrine of sanctification systematically, beginning with sin (chapter 1) and ending with assurance (chapter 7). These chapters are undoubtedly the most theologically sophisticated of the book. Ryle defines terms, exegetes Scripture, makes important distinctions, discusses church formularies, quotes authorities, and refutes opponents. Yet at the same time, he never loses sight of the pastoral purposes of the work. I’m not aware of anything comparable in terms of theological depth and pastoral sensitivity.
The same is true of the chapters that make up the rest of the work. Because they were originally sermons, they necessarily contain more exhortation and practical application than the first seven chapters, but they are by no means theologically anemic. Ryle has no problem discussing the person of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, or the nature of the church when the sermon text calls for it.
Ryle’s works are well-known and well-loved for their combination of solid doctrinal content and practical pastoral wisdom. In this respect, Holiness is probably Ryle at his very best.
Holiness takes growth seriously. Christians must grow in holiness, for sanctification is a progressive work. Holiness will force you to come to terms with this reality. True Christianity is a fight: “To be at peace with the world, the flesh, and the devil is to be at enmity with God, and in the broad way that leads to destruction. We have no option. We must either fight or be lost” (67).
Ryle reminds the reader that it is costly to follow Christ. It will cost a man his sin and self-righteousness, his love of peace and ease, and the favor of the world. Long before Dietrich Bonhoeffer criticized cheap grace, Ryle noted, “A religion that costs nothing is worth nothing! A cheap Christianity, without a cross, will prove in the end a useless Christianity, without a crown” (86).
Moreover, the Christian must “grow in grace.” Ryle explains,
When I speak of a man “growing in grace,” I mean simply this — that his sense of sin is becoming deeper, his faith stronger, his hope brighter, his love more extensive, his spiritual-mindedness more marked. He feels more of the power of godliness in his own heart. He manifests more of it in his life. He is going on from strength to strength, from faith to faith, and from grace to grace. (101)
And how do Christians grow? “He that would grow in grace must use the means of growth” (109), which include the private means of grace (prayer and Bible reading, meditation and self-examination, and habitual communion with Christ) and the public means of grace (the preached word and worship, the sacraments and Sabbath rest).
These chapters are challenging, to be sure, but I find Ryle’s realism refreshing. There are no rose-colored glasses here. Ryle’s description of the Christian life is one that most of us can recognize and identify with. It is a fight. There are costs. Growth is essential and difficult. And there is an urgency here that is palpable. Even so, I emerge from these chapters more encouraged to pursue holiness than when I begin reading. There are resources as well as challenges. True Christianity is a good fight. Ryle reminds us that we have the best generals, the best helps, the best promises, and assurance of victory. It will cost you to follow Christ, but those costs pale in comparison to the reward that awaits those who persevere. And growth is necessary, but there are means available within the reach of all believers that will help them to “grow in grace.”
Finally, Holiness takes Christ seriously. The person and work of Christ is, perhaps, the greatest theme of this work. Ryle certainly intended it to be so.
Christ is “the sun and center” of Christian piety. “What the sun is in the firmament of heaven, that Christ is in true Christianity” (377). Communion with Christ is “the one secret of eminent holiness. He that would be conformed to Christ’s image, and become a Christ-like man, must be constantly studying Christ Himself” (234). Moreover, Christ is the “mainspring both of doctrinal and practical Christianity. A right knowledge of Christ is essential to a right knowledge of sanctification as well as justification. He that follows after holiness will make no progress unless he gives to Christ his rightful place” (370).
The last chapter sums up the place of Christ in Holiness — “Christ is all.” It is one of the most outstanding chapters Ryle ever wrote, which is saying quite a lot. Instead of describing it, let me just encourage you to read it, along with the chapters that precede it. It is a moving reminder that personal holiness is Christocentric and cruciform. Ryle closes Holiness with these words:
Let us live on Christ. Let us live in Christ. Let us live with Christ. Let us live to Christ. So doing, we shall prove that we fully realize that “Christ is all.” So doing, we shall feel great peace, and attain more of that “holiness without which no man shall see the Lord.” (389)
J.C. Ryle’s Holiness certainly can help you along in this great pursuit.
When we only unify over an intellectual assent to truth, we miss out on the true beauty and benefit of biblical unity.
You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told. (Psalm 40:5)
As with so many of our favorite hymns, “The Love of God” was born in adversity. Frederick Lehman (1868–1953), who wrote the hymn with his daughter, had experienced the failure of his once-profitable business, which left him packing crates of oranges and lemons in Pasadena, California, to make ends meet. Again and again throughout history, deep and enduring trials seem to have a strange and beautiful way of swelling the waves of worship.
Perhaps the most memorable lines in the hymn, however, were not Lehman’s, but words someone had found scribbled on the walls of an insane asylum a couple hundred years earlier, words that had been passed along to Lehman and held profound meaning for him.
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every tree on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
The lyrics, it turns out, were a translation of an old Aramaic poem (now almost a thousand years old). And while no one knows the name of the insane asylum patient, the circumstances of his suffering, or how he came across the poem, the lines sparkle with surprising clarity, hope, and, well, sanity. A kind of spiritual sanity that often eludes us.
That Lehman treasured the lyrics is hardly surprising. Living just a handful of miles from the Pacific Ocean, he would have known, with acute awareness, the roaring vastness of the sea, the tall and swaying elegance of palm trees, and the bursts and hues of California sunsets. Day by day, he held the brilliant orangeness of its oranges and smelled the lively tartness of its lemons. The ocean, the trees, the sky, the earth were enormous and familiar friends of his — and yet each so small next to the love he had come to know in Christ.
When Lehman looked at the sky, he saw a hint of something wider still. He sang, like David, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3–4). The sky above him awed him, and then humbled him. If God could stretch out heavens like these with his hands, why would he pierce those hands in love for me?
When Lehman looked out over the ocean, he heard a hint of something deeper still. “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). The ocean taught him of forgiveness, of a dark, far-off, forgotten place where God submerged our canceled sins. How could God possibly forget what we had said, and thought, and done? Well, he could bury them beneath the sea. And so he does.
“O Lord, how manifold are your works!” the psalmist sings. “In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great” (Psalm 104:24–25). The ocean is big, and crowded, and wild, and yet you, O Lord, are bigger still, and your love, wilder still. And while the ocean sang its choruses, the sand beneath his feet would occasionally interrupt: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand” (Psalm 139:17–18).
When Lehman stared at the towering trees above him, he tasted a hint of something higher still. He surely could not count the trees that surrounded him, and their numberlessness reminded him of the unsearchable greatness of God. He may have read of math like this in the Psalms: “You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told” (Psalm 40:5). More than can be told. Is there any better summary of the love of God?
Were we to fill that ocean with ink and stretch out scrolls to cover those skies, and were every tree, of every kind, a pen, and every one of us a scribe, we still could capture only hints and whispers of the boundless love of God. We would drain the ocean dry. And then still have so much more to say.
Let that never keep us from saying as much as we can. We ought to thank God for those, like Frederick Lehman, who help us taste and see and feel realities we will never fully grasp. We ought to thank God for the poor soul clinging to faith in that asylum. If he had not scrawled those words on that wall, from his embattled memory, would we have ever heard them? We ought to thank God for the pen that crafted those original lines, in Aramaic, so many years earlier. Who could have imagined just how far his words would float, like a letter in a bottle, and how many hearts they would brighten and strengthen over centuries?
And we ought to ask God for fresh words that might open worlds like these for others. How might we help others feel the love beyond expressing? If words fail us, we could start by writing the beloved lines where someone might someday see them.
At what point should a Christian woman keep encouraging her spiritually lethargic boyfriend — and at what point should she call it off?
In ancient rabbinic literature, the Psalms were referred to as tehillîm, which is Hebrew for “praises.” One of the most remarkable features of this sacred collection of praise songs is that at least one-third of them are laments. These are songs that passionately express some kind of emotional distress, such as grief, sorrow, confusion, anguish, penitence, fear, depression, loneliness, or doubt.
This is remarkable because the presence of so many praise laments implies that God knew his people would frequently be called to worship him in agonizing circumstances. The Holy Spirit inspired poets to craft “praises” that would provide us worshipful expressions of our diverse experiences of pain.
If lament psalms are Spirit-inspired praise songs for our painful seasons, we should look at them carefully, because they teach us important lessons about the kinds of worship God receives. Some of the ways these inspired poets worshiped God in their agony might make us uncomfortable. Psalm 89 is a good example.
Psalm 89 is attributed to Ethan the Ezrahite. According to 1 Chronicles 6:31–48, Ethan was one of three clan chiefs of the tribe of Levi — the other two being Heman (Psalm 88) and Asaph (Psalms 50; 73–82) — “whom David put in charge of the service of song in the house of the Lord.” He was a high-profile leader to whom thousands looked for social and spiritual instruction and counsel. His words had gravitas.
And in this psalm, Ethan led the people in lament. Over what? Over God’s apparent unfaithfulness to his covenant with David — apparent being the operative word here.
In 2 Samuel 7, the prophet Nathan delivered a stunning promise from the Lord to David about how long his descendants would sit on Israel’s throne: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). This became a crucial part of Israel’s self-understanding: God had planted them in the Promised Land and had given them a promised governance that would last forever.
However, something terrible happened (perhaps Absalom’s rebellion of 2 Samuel 15–18), which made it appear as if God had “renounced” his covenant and “defiled [David’s] crown in the dust” (Psalm 89:39). And in this moment of crisis, Ethan composed a psalm that gave worshipful voice to the confusion and grief that all who trusted in God’s faithfulness were experiencing.
In the first eighteen verses, Ethan exults in how bound up God’s steadfast love and faithfulness are with his very character.
Ethan reminds God,
You are the glory of [Israel’s] strength;
by your favor our horn is exalted.
For our shield belongs to the Lord,
our king to the Holy One of Israel. (Psalm 89:17–18)
The stakes were high. If God’s people could not hope in his steadfast love and faithfulness, how could they continue to exult in him like this?
Then in verses 19–37, Ethan at length beautifully reminds God of the promise he made to David, on which the hope of his people rested:
I don’t know how much Ethan discerned the Messianic dimensions of the Davidic covenant, but this section is full of prophetic pointers to Jesus, each worthy of our lingering meditation. But during this moment of crisis, it looked like God’s promise had come to an abrupt end.
Had the promise of God really failed? In verses 38–45, that’s exactly what Ethan described — to God. And he did so in no uncertain terms.
It’s this section that might make us feel most uncomfortable. Can we really speak to God like this?
The answer is yes — and no. It’s yes if we, like Ethan, take God’s faithfulness with utmost seriousness and truly love his glory. The answer is no if we, like Israelites after the Red Sea crossing, are just “grumbling against the Lord” (Exodus 16:7).
Ethan is not shaking his fist at God in rebellion. Rather, he’s setting forth his case that God must act for the sake of his name. Ethan is interceding, not accusing. He has not lost faith in God; he’s exercising bold faith in God by calling on him to do what he promised. He still believes in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
That’s precisely why Ethan doesn’t end his psalm with a poetic “Forget you, God!” but with a passionate plea: “Remember, O Lord!” He devotes verses 46–52 to pouring out his heart’s desire. It’s worth reading them in full. And as you do, listen (as God does) for the heart’s desire behind the anguished words.
How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire?
Remember how short my time is!
For what vanity you have created all the children of man!
What man can live and never see death?
Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Selah
Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,
which by your faithfulness you swore to David? Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked,
and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations,
with which your enemies mock, O Lord,
with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed.
Blessed be the Lord forever!
Amen and Amen. (Psalm 89:46–52)
Do you hear his heart? Ethan longs, for himself and his people, to experience the joy of the glory of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. He knows how short life is, and does not want himself or his people to die before experiencing it again. This man is jealous for God’s fame. He does not want God’s good name, or the faithful who trust in him, to be mocked. That is what drives Ethan’s lament.
As we read Psalm 89 now through the lens of the new covenant, we no doubt see clearer than Ethan did how broad the scope of God’s faithfulness to David has been. For in Jesus, this promise to David found its incredible yes (2 Corinthians 1:20).
Like Ethan the Ezrahite, however, we too experience crisis moments when it appears to us as if God is not being faithful to some promise. And it’s in such moments when we discover just how precious lament psalms like this are. Not only do they give us inspired language to pray in our pain, but they teach us what acceptable worship can sound like in our suffering.
In Psalm 89, God invites us to be bold in our prayerful laments. If our heart’s desire is God; if we long, for ourselves and our people, to experience the joy of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness; if our words are not the grumbling of unbelief but the expression of grieved faith, then it’s good to be direct with God. He hears, and receives as worship, real faith expressed in a cry of pain.
And we can trust that, at the same time, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
When the pastors equip the saints and the saints do the work of ministry, the body of Christ builds itself up into maturity.
When do we experience the love of God most deeply? Not when we get whatever we want, but when he does whatever it takes to satisfy us in himself.
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