The valley of the shadow of death

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Psalm 23

When his son Absalom briefly usurped his throne, David withdrew from Jerusalem.  He crossed the Kidron valley, ascended the Mount of Olives and escaped to safety.

“And all the country wept with a loud voice, and all the people passed over: the king also himself passed over the brook Kidron, and all the people passed over, toward the way of the wilderness. (2 Samuel 15:23)

Here was the King after the LORD’s own heart, but now he passes through the valley of deep shadow (Kidron is related to words for blackness and mourning).  It is a walk of shame as he passes through this valley at the people’s head.  He is heading towards the summit of the Mount of Olives (where the garden of Gethsemane stands).  And he seems to be abdicating his throne forever.

Some contend that David had the Kidron Valley in mind as he wrote Psalm 23:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

Perhaps though it’s the other way around.  Psalm 23 is, originally, the words of the Messiah’s sufferings and glories which are placed on David’s lips.  David’s own typological experiences in the Kidron Valley are foretastes of Christ’s ultimate valley.

Jesus is the King who takes that great and fearful walk of shame.  He enters into the darkness of death itself.  And John felt it was necessary to add this detail as he recounted Christ’s final hours:

“Jesus went forth with his disciples over the brook Cedron, where was a garden, into the which he entered, and his disciples.”  (John 18:1)

Where David crossed the Kidron and then passed through the garden of Gethsemane, Christ stopped at the garden.  Christ could have kept going to safety, just as David had.  He could have used this ancient escape route.  Instead He pauses, prays and accepts the cup of suffering from His Father (Matthew 26:36-46).  Jesus awaited arrest in this garden that He might be brought back to Jerusalem and face death’s darkest valley.

Christ has chosen to walk our path and to do so at our head.  Like a needle piercing the black shroud of death He passes through, bearing the brunt of its terrible curse.  And we trail behind Him like the thread, pulled through in union with our suffering King.

We cannot pray the twenty-third Psalm by ourselves.  Hebrews 2:15 reminds us that we are naturally slaves to our fear of death.  As we contemplate this valley we fear much evil.  And so we should – death is our ultimate enemy.

Yet we do not pray Psalm 23 alone.  First of all Christ prays it.  First of all He walks that path and comes through into feasting, victory and joy.  But He does it as our Forerunner.  If we belong to Him, His victory is our victory.  Today He still prays this Psalm for us and in us as our Intercessor, High Priest and Friend.  As we hear His song, we allow His voice to tune our hearts.  And soon – imperfectly but no less really – we will find ourselves joining in:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me!

The LORD is my Shepherd

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Psalm 23

In between the Psalm of the cross (Psalm 22) and the Psalm of Christ’s ascension back to heaven (Psalm 24) we have the 23rd Psalm – a Psalm of resurrection.

“1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.  6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”

If we assume that the Speaker remains unchanged throughout this section of the Psalms, we can see this song firstly as the prayer of the Messiah as He faces “the valley of the shadow of death.”

Indeed many clues within the Psalm would confirm this.  The whole song is intensely personal – there is only one blessed man here.  And He is contrasted with the many enemies in whose midst He will be vindicated.   He seems to be uniquely hosted at this celebratory table beyond death.  There He is “anointed” (another way of saying christed).  And the final verse could most literally be translated “I will return to the house of the LORD for ever.”

Believers certainly look forward to entering the house of the LORD forever.  But the only Man to return to heaven is the One who came from heaven – Christ Himself (John 3:13).

So this Psalm is, originally, the song of the Messiah who would suffer and then be glorified.  Seeing how He handles death, we can gain much comfort as we walk through that valley with Him and in Him.

And the first comfort Christ confesses is this opening phrase: “The LORD is my Shepherd.”

There’s an oft-repeated biblical phrase that first appears in the book of Numbers: “sheep without a shepherd.”  It describes a leaderless rabble who need a loving and strong ruler to guide them.  Sheep are notoriously foolish creatures.  They require much closer attention than most animals.  And the LORD pictures His care for His people as Shepherd.  Not as a Coach or Instructor, as though He simply issues commands from a distance.  He is a Shepherd who gives hands-on care.

As we read this Psalm we get a sense of that “hands-on care.”  Everything the Psalmist experiences in life, death and beyond is due to the intimate guidance of the LORD.  This Psalm is a counterfoil to the cry of godforsakenness we heard two days ago.  The Messiah declares that his experiences – up to, including, and beyond “the valley of the shadow” – are all the result of the intensely personal shepherding of the LORD.  He is guided through death and back to the table by a loving Shepherd who can be trusted to know best.

As we hear the warmth of Christ’s descriptions of His Father we gain courage for our own walk.  There are times when we can sing the 23rd Psalm with quiet confidence and trust.  Yet sometimes “the rod and staff” of the LORD do not comfort us.  Instead they anger us or make us despair.  Many times we do fear evil, especially in that dark and terrible valley.

Yet this is a path which Christ has walked.  And He has walked it for us.  He has walked it as the trusting and obedient Son of the Father.  He has submitted to the rod and staff.  He has submitted to the deep darkness and come through to glory. Our hope is not in our own “dying well”.  Our hope is in the fact that He has died well.  And if we trust Him, we are in Him, carried through to share a place at the table.

Yet, as we walk our own path, let us allow Christ’s vision of the Father to be our own.  He could trust the LORD even as He headed for Jerusalem, even in Gethsemane, even at Calvary.  He could see that, on the other end of the rod and staff, there was a loving Shepherd.  He had faith that the feast would make the valley worthwhile.

As we face our own sufferings and death let’s allow His song to sink into our hearts.  May His faith in the Father be ours.  And then we too will sing with confidence “The LORD is my Shepherd.”

Laughed to scorn

Psalm 22:1-31

When Jesus cried out “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” He was referencing the whole of Psalm 22.  Before chapter divisions were inserted into the biblical text (in the 12th century AD), a person would refer to a Psalm by quoting its first line.  And when we study the whole of Psalm 22, we get a unique window onto the horrors of Christ crucified.

The Psalm that begins “My God, My God” continues with an extended, first person account of the Messiah’s sufferings.  In verse 6 He says:

“I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.  All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.”  (Psalm 22:6-8)

A thousand years before Good Friday this Psalm predicts the whole experience of crucifixion – even quoting in advance the words of the crowd at Calvary (Matthew 27:41-43).

The phrase “laughed to scorn” is the KJV’s consistent translation of a single Hebrew word which carries both senses of laughing and scorn.  Nowadays we would call this an amplified translation.  If such a policy is employed too often it can make for onerous reading.  Yet when deployed sparingly and with a poet’s ear, it enriches a translation.

The King James Bible cannot claim the credit for this turn of phrase – it appears in Miles Coverdale’s (1540) and John Rogers’ (1549) translations.  The saying caught the attention of William Shakespeare, who perhaps knew the phrase from its use in the Bishop’s Bible of 1568.  He thought it eloquent enough to use in a key passage of Macbeth:

“Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth”. (Act 4, scene 1)

Shakespeare has caught the Bible’s meaning.  To laugh something to scorn is to deride it – to laugh at and deem it as nothing.  That’s how Macbeth considered “the power of man.”  And it’s how the power of man considers the Messiah.  We laugh Him to scorn as He dies in apparent weakness.

Yet there is a profound irony here.  Whilst the mockers felt superior to Christ, their derision only proved His Messiah-ship.  As they laugh Him to scorn they prove that Jesus is the Messiah of Psalm 22.  It’s just one of several striking fulfilments of the Psalm on Good Friday.  The Messiah continues…

“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.  My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.  I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.  They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture”.  (Psalm 22:14-18)

The One who appeared so laughable on that cross is seen – in the light of Scripture – to be in complete control.  As they pierce His hands and feet, as they mock Him and gamble for His clothes, they are in fact establishing His identity.  Jesus is the Messiah, promised of old, the One who must suffer, must die and must rise again.  He will endure the scorn for now.  But He will have the last laugh.

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

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Psalm 22:1-2; Mark 15:21-39

We’ve seen how the Psalms proclaim Christ.  These songs show the interplay of four main characters:

1) God

2) The Ideal King (Christ)

3) Those who trust in Him

4) The wicked

Some of these songs are the words of God to His King (His Christ).  Some of them are the people’s words to God about the King.  Some of them are comparisons of the wicked and the true King.  And many of them, like Psalm 22, are the words of the King to God.

David knew  that the very words of the Lord were on his lips as he wrote these Psalms (2 Samuel 23:2).  He was voicing the prayers of the Ideal King – the Messiah.

And incredibly, these prayers take in a whole range of emotions – from joy to anger to utter despair.  So when Christ was born into our situation – full of joy, anger, despair etc – He naturally uses these prayers that He had prepared for Himself and takes them on His human lips.  He enters into the fullness of our predicament.  He sings all our songs

And that includes even this one:

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  (Psalm 22:1; Mark 15:34)

Jesus cries out His own Psalm 22 while on the cross.  This thousand year old prayer had been prepared for this very occasion and now He prays it to a black and silent heaven.

Is it possible that the Lord of heaven has so descended into our plight that He experiences godforsakenness?

If we are reluctant to affirm this fact, we are doubting the fullness of Christ’s identification with us.  Yes, He is fully God – the eternal Son of the Father.  But He also became fully human – our Brother, bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.

And since He enters our situation, who can deny that our experience of life is indeed “godforsakenness”?

Godlessness is one of the most keenly felt aspects of our humanity.  Where is He?  How can He feel so remote when “in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28)?  How can we be so estranged from the Source of our life?  Why does God seem so far off?

Jesus enters into all of that.  And into more than the feeling of godforsakenness.  On the cross, He shares our alienation from God due to our sins.  He doesn’t have a bungee cord wrapped around Him, descending only so far but no further.  No, He plumbs the depths.  The Lord of heaven endures hell.

This means that Christianity has a surprising response to the age-old question: “Where is God when it hurts?”

The Christian can say, “I know a God who asked that question Himself!”

Which means that the experience of hurt can never disprove this God.  He has been the godforsaken God.  He has so identified with you in your plight that He has asked that question with you and for you.

And if God takes even godforsakenness to Himself, then there simply is no situation in which we need to despair.  Because Christ was godforsaken, we need never be.  Even the most profound experiences of abandonment can be a participation in the suffering of Christ – and therefore an experience of the deepest divine fellowship!

Whatever depths you’re plumbing, Jesus has gone deeper.  And He’s done it for you. Call out to Him now.

The heavens declare the glory of God

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Psalm 19

It’s a beautifully symmetrical phrase.  The first five syllables perfectly mirror the last five.  In each, the stresses are on the second and fifth syllable.  This is the work of the translators.  And we should remember that the King James version was written to be read aloud.

Yet the poetry in the underlying Hebrew comes from a slightly different source.  The whole of the first verse of Psalm 19 goes as follows:

The heavens declare the glory of God
and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” (Psalm 19:1)

This is a terrific example of Hebrew poetry.  Its distinctive feature is not rhyme or even rhythm but rather “parallelism”.  Two statements are made in parallel so that they reinforce each other.

The second half of the verse answers the first.  It’s a good guess that the author, King David, wrote this call and response format for public worship. This is how many of the Psalms work.

So much for the poetry, what of the meaning?

David says that the heavens are saying something.  In fact they are continuously and strenuously saying something:

Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. (Psalm 19:2)

According to David, we live in an all-embracing and inescapable sermon.  Creation preaches.  In particular David points to the “heavenly bodies”, “the heavens and “the firmament”.  Later he will narrow down his concerns to “the sun”.

What do you think of astrology?  Literally it means “the word of the stars.”

As post-enlightenment people we respect “astronomy” because it tells us “the law of the stars.”  Yes, yes, we say, that’s a worthy discipline.  We’re comfortable trying to discover the law of the heavenly bodies.  What’s not acceptable is to imagine that those heavenly bodies are saying anything.  That’s crackpot nonsense peddled by tabloid newspapers and premium rate phone services, right?

Well much of it is.  But the Bible endorses a form of astrology.  And Psalm 19 is a prime example.  The problem with modern astrology is not its supposition that heavenly bodies communicate truths.  The issue lies in what the heavenly bodies are saying.

According to the Bible, the heavens are not declaring whether I’ll be “lucky in love” this week.  They seem completely uninterested in my financial affairs, my career path and the number of strangers I may meet.  Instead, the heavens are declaring “the glory of God.”

And what is the glory of God?

David gives us a concrete example.  He says, think of the sun:

“Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.  His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof”.  (Psalm 19:5-6)

The sun is like a “bridegroom” who is also “a strong man.”  Psalm 45 will speak more of the Bridegroom Warrior who is Christ.  The “race” which the sun runs, goes from the east to the west.  In the tabernacle, that was the path that the High Priest would take from estrangement from God and into His presence.  The sun is also the light of the world and the source of life – chasing away the darkness and bringing warmth and vitality.

Every day the sun preaches the gospel to us.  Every day, the sun rises on a dark world and banishes the cold lifelessness of the earth.  None of us deserve this grace.  Yet the Father bestows this gift on the righteous and the wicked alike (Matthew 5:45).  As we gratefully receive this blessing we are experiencing a gospel presentation.  The love of God shines out in Jesus (Hebrews 1:3) and it is as free as the sunshine.

This is what the heavens are declaring.  Not some abstract glory – as though God is best known in displays of naked power.  The heavens preach gospel truth.  We live in one gigantic evangelistic sermon.

The reason we don’t automatically see it, is because we need the Scriptures to open our eyes to what’s already there, (this is what the rest of the Psalm is all about: v7-14).

But let’s close by thinking about this sermon of creation.  When you look into the heavens what do you see?  Empty blackness?  Vast expanses?  Naked power?  Stars in mechanical motion?  Or the glory of the Radiant Bridegroom, whose greatest joy is to bring light and life to the world?

We live in a gospel world, proclaiming a gospel God.

“Jesus is Lord, creation’s voice proclaims it!”

Blessed

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Psalm 1:1-2:12

The Book of Psalms has been called the Hymn Book of the Church.  150 songs that encompass the whole range of human experience.  There are songs of love and hate, of joy and sorrow, of deep intimacy and of profound disillusionment with God.  We love the Psalms because we can find a song to sing for every occasion.

But God doesn’t want just anyone to pick up His song book – just as the Royal Opera House would be displeased if you decided to join in. .  Only certain people are invited to sing at the Opera House, and similarly, only certain people are allowed into the Psalms.

That’s why Psalms 1 and 2 are often called “the gateway to the Psalms.”  Before we start singing these songs for ourselves, we’re stopped at this checkpoint.  And these two Psalms will instruct us in the basics.  Only certain people can proceed.  And Psalms 1 and 2 will tell us, who’s in and who’s out.

The person who is ‘in’ is called “blessed.”  (Psalm 1:1; 2:12)

It’s just like the sermon on the mount.  As Jesus begins to preach, He uses the beatitudes as a gateway, explaining the kind of person who is in God’s Kingdom (Matthew 5:1-12).  They are called “Blessed.”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 5:3)

The one who’s blessed is the one who belongs.  In both Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament) and Greek (the language of the New), it’s a word that means “happy” or you might say “flourishing.”

So who is blessed?  Who is allowed to sing these songs?  The book of Psalms opens like this…

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.  But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.  And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.  (Psalm 1:1-3)

You might think that the Psalm is “blessing” all those who say “no” to peer-pressure and “yes” to Bible study.  You might think it’s promising prosperity to those who keep their noses in the Scriptures and out of trouble.  But look again.

Only one person is described here: “the man.”  What a title!  I rarely venture to call myself a man.  But here is the man – the definition of man, the one to whom all other men are only relative.

In the Bible, “the man” is often used to refer to a ruler (e.g. Joseph, Genesis 42:30).  And in many parts of the English speaking world we’ve maintained  that same sense: “Stick it to the man”, “the Man is keeping me down.”  In Northern Ireland (where my wife is from) they will often refer to “your man” as a reference to your boss or your head of state.

Well “the man” of Psalm 1 meditates on the Bible day and night.  That’s something that was the particular provenance of the King. (Deuteronomy 17:18-20).  For instance, Joshua is told to meditate on the Bible day and night so that he would prosper (Joshua 1:8).  In the Bible trees, vines and branches are particularly associated with kings.And here in Psalm 1 “the man” will be a prosperous tree.

So, by now we should get the idea, “the man” is a king.

And when we turn to Psalm 2, we encounter a king who is called the Christ (Anointed One), the Son of God.

So when you put all this together, you start to see that “the Man” of Psalm 1 is in fact the King of Psalm 2.  The Man of Psalm 1 is Psalm 2′s Anointed One (or Messiah or Christ, it’s all the same word).  The Man is the Christ, the Son of God.

In both Psalm 1 and Psalm 2 we have a contrast – but not between one group of good guys and another group of bad guys.  In both Psalms we have one man, the King – who is God’s Righteous, Anointed, Blessed, Beloved Son and then we have the wicked – the other kings of the earth, the sinners, the mockers, the rebels.  The message of these Psalms is not ‘Don’t belong to the bad guys, belong to the good guys.’  The message of these Psalms is ‘Don’t belong to the wicked, belong to the Blessed Man.’  Belong to the Christ, the Son of God.

If we take the beginning and end of these two Psalms together we see the whole message of the Bible in a nutshell:

Blessed is the Man” (Psalm 1:1) and “Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.” (Psalm 2:12).

Before the world began, the Father was blessing His Son – anointing Him with the Holy Spirit.  Now the invitation goes out to all the world – “Put your trust in the Blessed Man and find God’s blessing in Him.”

Once we get beyond the gateway, the rest of the Psalms will preach to us this same message.  In all the Psalms there are 4 basic characters:

1) The LORD / God / the Father

2) The Man / The Christ / The Son of God / The Righteous King

3) Those who put their trust in the King

4) Those who refuse the King / the wicked

Some Psalms are prayers of the Christ to God.  Some are the declarations of God to the world about His King.  Some are the prayers of sinners, asking for refuge in the Christ.  But in all these interactions, all the Psalms are proclaiming the gospel to us:  Blessed is the Man, and blessed are all they that put their trust in Him.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.”  (Ephesians 1:3)

Old and full of days

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Job 42:7-17

Everyone remembers the sufferings of Job.  Few people remember how it all turns out.

And the LORD turned the captivity of Job… the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before…  So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning…  After this lived Job an hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, even four generations. So Job died, being old and full of days.  (Job 42:10-17)

Job is the story of man.  And the story of man has a happy ending!  To be more precise, it has a happy beginning, a terrible middle and a glorious ending.

This ending seems to come from nowhere.  Nothing in Job’s circumstances suggests or precipitates this turn-around.  It’s simply that the LORD shows up and ushers in a dramatic “happily ever after.”

First there is a righting of wrongs, then there is a restoration.

The righting of wrongs comes as the LORD confronts Job’s miserable comforters, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar:

the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath. Therefore take unto you now seven bullocks and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you: for him will I accept: lest I deal with you after your folly, in that ye have not spoken of me the thing which is right, like my servant Job”.  (Job 42:7-8)

These fools who have tormented Job will be forgiven by the LORD.  How?  Through sacrifice and through the intercession of righteous Job.  As Job prays for his friends He plays the part of our Friend in heaven, the One who:

pleads for a man with God, as a man pleadeth for his neighbour! (Job 16:21)

As he does this for his friends, Job is called the LORD’s “servant” four times.  He is playing the part of Christ who intercedes for fools like us and brings us acceptance with the Father.

And now with the righting of old wrongs completed, the LORD turns to restoration.

Job has more sons and daughters – beautiful children, whose children and grandchildren he lives to see.  His wealth is also restored – twice over.  In the beginning Job had 7000 sheep, 3000 camels and 500 she asses (Job 1:3).  At the end he has 14000 sheep, 6000 camels and 1000 she-asses (Job 42:12).  And he lives for 140 years – twice a normal life-span.  This is not merely “paradise regained.”  Through suffering, Job is brought out to an even greater glory.  This is the story of man also.  We won’t simply return to the garden – we will be brought, through suffering, to a city.  We won’t simply be “men of dust” but will partake of Christ’s resurrection humanity.  The end will be far greater than the beginning.

Job is never given an explanation for his suffering.  He’s never told that suffering X was caused by Y and intended to achieve Z.  Instead he’s given something so much better.  He’s given an experience of the LORD, a promised righting of wrongs and a miraculous restoration.

We, like Job, are headed towards prosperity, feasting, comfort and consolation.  We are headed towards riches and blessing and fruitfulness and beauty and fullness of life.  This happy ending is not a fairytale.  It is a certain future hope guaranteed by the resurrection.  Our Redeemer liveth.  He redeemed even His own death.  At that first Easter, even deicide is redeemed.  What will He not redeem?!

Our bodies, our wounds, our circumstances, our sufferings, even the whole universe – nothing is beyond His resurrection power.  Which means that there is no senseless suffering.  Whatever we face – whatever wounds we are enduring – Christ will redeem them.

On Good Friday as people watched the murder of the Messiah, they may have returned home thinking, “There’s no way any good could come from that!”  Yet the greatest good imaginable came from precisely that.  Easter is not just an example of redemption but the engine of redemption.  It’s the pattern, the prototype, the power of redemption.  There’s nothing the resurrection won’t fix.  And not just fix.  As with Job, we too will receive a double portion.

Repent in dust and ashes

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Job 42:1-7

From the first verse of the book, Job is presented as a blameless and upright man.

The LORD is proud of Job’s matchless virtue (1:8; 2:3).  Job fears God and shuns evil.  And even when calamity falls he does not sin by cursing God (1:22; 2:10).  Instead, through all his laments and complaints, the LORD is still able to conclude in chapter 42 and verse 7 that His servant Job has spoken what is right.

And yet, in chapter 42 verse 6, Job says

“I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes!”

Uh-oh, we think.  Someone’s got self-esteem issues!

But no.  In fact Job hasn’t been esteeming himself at all.  He hasn’t had the chance to think of himself really.  This self-appraisal is not the fruit of lengthy meditations upon his sins or sufferings.  Job has not been sat in a spiritual sulk cursing himself because he’s stupid, fat, ugly, unpopular, or any of the labels we hang on ourselves.

In fact, for four solid chapters,  Job hasn’t had a single thought about himself.

That’s because from chapter 38 to 41, the Almighty has been answering Job out of the whirlwind.  So in chapter 42 and verse 5 Job summarizes exactly where his self-appraisal has come from:

I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes”.  (Job 42:5-6)

“I abhor myself” says Job.  By comparison with the LORD – upright Job falls flat on his face and confesses his total unworthiness. And that’s a good, right, true and psychologically healthy thing to do.  Not that Job wondered to himself “What would be the correct response to meeting my Maker?” It was a natural response – but a healthy one too.

There is a wrong despising of self.  You can fail to look at the LORD but instead be self-absorbed in your despair.  We’ve all been there to some degree or another.  And it’s wrong.  But mainly it’s wrong for where the self-hater is looking.  Yet when we truly see Christ we have a very different self-appraisal to those recommended by popular psychology.

Think of the prophet Isaiah.  In Isaiah 6, he sees Jesus in the temple seated on the throne (cf John 12:30f).  He is “high and lifted up,” the angels are calling out ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, the temple is shaking, smoke is everywhere and Isaiah cries out:

“Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.

Isaiah wasn’t feeling particularly sinful that morning.  No-one was reminding him of past sins.  He felt no guilt at all … until he saw the King.  Then he said “Woe is me, I am undone!”

Or think of Peter fishing with Jesus in Luke chapter 5.  He’s in the boat with the LORD of Isaiah chapter 6.  They have a miraculous catch of fish. And Luke 5 verse 8 says:

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

Peter confesses to being a sinner when he sees the glory of Jesus.  Peter hasn’t just remembered some sins from his murky past.  He’s not even thinking about his sins, he is simply looking at Jesus and saying “I do not match up.”

This is how to get a true estimation of yourself.  Don’t look at yourself.  Don’t look at your achievements, don’t look at your failures.  Look at Christ!  When we see the awful chasm by which we fall short of Him, then we hear Him say to us:

“They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”.  (Mark 2:17)

Gird up thy loins

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Job 38:1-41

“Brace yourself.”

“Get ready to take it like a man.”

“Roll up your sleeves, there’s work to be done.”

These are all rough modern equivalents to “gird up thy loins.”  Essentially it’s a command to gather up your loose hanging robes (etc!), in a belt because action is called for.

But perhaps we’re surprised at its use in the book of Job.

In chapters 1 and 2, the reader gets a glimpse into heaven.  From the outset we see what lies behind the sufferings of Job.  But from chapter 3 onwards the camera pans down to earth.  And for the next 35 chapters, all we hear are earthly opinions about the workings of heaven.  Job and his miserable comforters debate the whys and wherefores of suffering.  But suddenly in Job 38:1 “the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind.”

“Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.  Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding”.  (Job 38:3-4)

This line of questioning continues for four chapters.  It is intense, unanswerable and relentless.

Is this what we expect after all the sufferings of Job?

If we were writing the story, surely we’d conclude things with Job and the LORD having a lovely cup of tea while angels give the poor man a back-rub.

But instead, Job gets an earth-shattering experience of the LORD Almighty.  His eyes are dramatically lifted from himself and his situation and  fixed instead on this Warrior, Creatorand Commander who speaks from the midst of a tornado.  Job experiences the LORD’s incomparable wisdom in surround sound. After a heck of a lot of speeches in the book, the LORD has the last word and Job is rendered speechless.

You might call this, putting Job in his place.  And actually it is absolutely for Job’s good.  The whole point of the LORD’s rhetorical questions — Did you make this world?  Do you know how it works? — is to lift the burdens of deity from his shoulders.

You see, whenever we try to balance the scales of sufferings and blessings, we put ourselves in the place of God.  If we imagine that we can justify X amount of suffering because of Y amount of sin or  its beneficial outcome, Z, we are overstepping our limitations as creatures.  We must trust to the Lord the redemption of all evil.  And we can trust to the Lord the redemption of all evil.  That’s because at Easter, He has suffered the ultimate evil and turned it into the ultimate good.

We cannot make sense of suffering by doing some kind of double-entry accounting.  If we do that we play God and we’d better gird up our loins for His response!

No, we leave the redemption of evil in the hands of our Redeemer.  It’s not our job to rationalize good and evil – in fact doing so sounds very much like our original sin.  But the tree on which good and evil is really known is the cross.  There Christ doesn’t just “make sense” of evil, He makes good.

In the course of the book, Job asks God “why” he’s suffering 20 times.  He never gets an answer.  But he does get an experience of the LORD Almighty.  And that’s better.  In our suffering, do we want the reasons or do we want the Redeemer?  The reasons aren’t promised.  The Redeemer is.

I know that my Redeemer liveth

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Job 19:21-29

What phrases do you use in consolation?  Imagine that you have some bad news to tell:

“My credit cards have been stolen, they’ve cleared out my bank account…”

How do you finish that sentence?

…still, worse things happen at sea

… serves me right for being so careless

… I suppose I’m just cursed

… oh well, mustn’t grumble

… I guess I should count my blessings

… but people in Africa are starving

… at least I have my health

… such is life

Whatever we tack onto the end of our stories of suffering gives a little window onto our theology of suffering.  Yet none of the lines above are a Christian response to suffering.

Recently, though, I heard a wonderful line.  It came from a woman suffering from terminal cancer.  How would you finish a sentence that begins “I have 6 months to live”?  She said, “…Still, nothing a resurrection won’t fix.”  Now that’s Christian consolation.

And it’s the very heart of the book of Job.  In amongst all the suffering there is resurrection hope:

“I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.  Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25-27)

Let me highlight four words from this.

First Redeemer.

Who does Job look forward to seeing?  Not just his Saviour – someone who would rescue him out of suffering.  Job looks forward to seeing His Redeemer.  That’s different.  A Redeemer won’t just pull me out of the pit.  A Redeemer will join me in it and transform the pit to paradise.  That’s very different.

Jesus is not a Replacer, snatching away the old and giving us something entirely different.  He’s a Redeemer who comes into our suffering and transforms it.

Think of Doubting Thomas.  When Thomas finally confesses Jesus to be “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28), what was he looking at?  He was looking at scars!  Jesus had bared His wounds to Thomas and told him to “behold” his hands and side.  And beholding the wounds of Jesus, Thomas sees the glory of his Lord and God.

Here’s the point: Jesus did not cast off his wounds in the resurrection. His wounds were redeemed in the resurrection.  They were transformed into badges of divine glory.  And what Jesus did with His wounds, He will do with all our wounds.  Through His resurrection He will not sweep aside our frailties and failures – He will transform them.

Often when we suffer we simply want rid of the situation.  But Jesus wants to do something better.  He doesn’t waste our suffering.  He never considers it a dead loss.  Somehow he will redeem the situation.  Somehow He will redeem every situation.  The scars we bear will become scar stories and testimonies to His grace.  If Jesus can redeem the suffering of the cross then He can and He will redeem any suffering – yours included.

The second word to highlight is earth.

Job is not looking forward to escaping this nasty planet and wafting around in some spiritual dimension.  Only the very pious can derive comfort from the prospect of clouds and harps and eternal prayer meetings.  But Job knows that God’s future is here on planet earth.  Earth is not going onto the trash heap.  No, Christ is going to redeem this suffering world and raise it to new life.

So on Easter Sunday, after Jesus rose from the dead, what did He do to give us a picture of resurrection life?  He went for country walks, spent time with His fishing buddies, He cooked breakfast on the beach and He ate many meals.  Resurrection life will be very earthy life.  Because the future is here on a redeemed planet earth.  Our hope is earthed which makes it a hope that can sustain sufferers.

The third word to emphasize is flesh.  Job’s skin will be destroyed, but in his flesh he will see God.  There would be a bodily perishing, but a no-less bodily resurrection also.  And he testifies that his own eyes will see God.  That’s a stunning thought.  The eyes with which you read this sentence – they are the eyes which will see Jesus.  It is these hands which will cling to Him.  These vocal cords will sing in His presence.  They will first perish, yes.  But after passing through death, they will be redeemed, resurrected.  In this flesh I will see God.

Which means Job won’t just know his children in some kind of afterlife – he will hold them.  He will walk with them.  He will eat with them.  We have a physical future to look forward to.  What a precious truth that is, especially for those incapacitated by their sufferings.  As Isaiah  prophesied:

The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.  Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing.  (Isaiah 35:5-7)

Finally, let’s think about the word see.

As wonderful as our physical future will be, the centre of our hope is this: we shall see God.

Job has endured terrible suffering and he’s never known why.  The reader knows – we see into heaven – Job does not.  But one day Job will see God – face to face.   He will know God even as He is known (1 Corinthians 13:12).  All God’s ways will be transparent to Job.  And they will be transparent to us also.  Then we will happily look on Beauty Himself.

Whatever you’re going through today, allow these words from Handel’s Messiah to shape your hope for the future…

I Know That My Redeemer Liveth
And that He shall stand
At the latter day
Upon the earth

And though worms destroy this body
Yet in my flesh shall I see God

For now is Christ risen
From the dead
The first fruits of them that sleep

I know that my Redeemer lives
I know that Christ is risen
Yes, I know my Redeemer lives