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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Tick Tick Tick …

In my Bible, Psalm 114 has only sixteen lines, but it makes a powerful point: Where God is personally present, big events inevitably follow.

Now, it’s obvious that in one sense God can be said to be present everywhere. David asks, “Where shall I flee from your presence?” The answer: Don’t bother. You can’t. God is present in the realm of the dead, in heaven and in the uttermost parts of the sea. Holding the universe together requires that sort of presence.

But that’s not the sort of presence I’m talking about.

God’s Personal Presence

Scripture also speaks repeatedly of a local, immediate “presence” of which God’s people cannot easily remain unaware. The very same David says, “Cast me not away from your presence.” That’s a specific place, or at least a definable set of human experiences. And Moses can say, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.”

That’s what we might call personal presence. That’s what I’m talking about. When God is present in THAT way, expect consequences in short order.

When God is personally present, stuff happens, the psalmist says. The sea flees. Rivers turn back on themselves. The mountains and hills are said to “skip” like proverbial ovines. There is a measure of poetic license taken here, of course, but the psalmist is not simply pulling imagery out of the air. There is a historical basis for every bit of it.

Mountains, Rivers and Seas

The waters of the Red Sea were repelled by a strong east wind so that Israel could cross on dry land. To say the sea “fled” may ascribe emotions and intentions to the inanimate, as poets often do, but it’s not wrong. And with respect to the Jordan River crossing forty years later, the book of Joshua records that “the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap.” The Jordan literally turned back.

The “skipping mountains” image is a little more florid, but it also comes out of real life source material. The image here, I think, is of rams and sheep fleeing for safety, not leaping for joy. The book of Exodus records that when the Lord descended on Sinai, “the whole mountain trembled greatly” to such an extent that the people of Israel thought they were going to die.

“Writhe in Anguish”

Indeed, the ability to part the great waters or shake the mountains ought to be a source of healthy fear and reverence. Thus the psalmist finishes with:
Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
who turns the rock into a pool of water,
the flint into a spring of water.”
A casual reader might picture the water from the stricken rock of Meribah as a jet of pressurized H₂O. That’s not it. Exodus tells us there were “600,000 men on foot” in the wilderness, so there may have been as many as 2.5 million Israelites in need of a drink in that moment, along with all their animals. Even a fire hose wouldn’t have met the needs of a thirsty nation in time. This was a major event. So the psalm speaks of a pool, or “fountains”. The Numbers account says, “water came out abundantly.”

No wonder the psalmist concludes the earth will tremble in the presence of such power. The word for “tremble” here means to twist or writhe in anguish. His emphasis is warning, not celebration. When God is personally present, big things happen. Miracles. Wonders. Dynamic events that reshape geography and get written down for posterity.

Deliberately Overlooking the Facts

But if these events are so memorable, why does our psalmist make such a point of reminding Israel — now enjoying the benefits of the land God had given them — of something that should surely have been common knowledge?

Well, if miracles on a grand scale seem to be surpassingly rare today, they were almost as rare for Israel. Between the two pairs of major eye-popping events detailed in Psalm 114 (Red Sea + Sinai, then Meribah + Jordan), something like 38 years went by, meaning that for anyone under forty, all these things were part of someone else’s experience, not theirs. They were mere stories. More of those years were spent stationary or wandering than were spent being blown away by concrete evidence of the personal presence of God.

Then, between the last of these events and the writing of Psalm 114, another 400 years or so trickled away. God certainly accomplished many miraculous things in those years. The Old Testament is full of them: the fall of Jericho, Gideon, Samson and so on. But few of these were on such an epic scale as to be memorialized in the Psalms of Israel. Few were of such magnitude as to make the unbelieving fall on their faces.

And then there’s another issue: unbelievers tend to deliberately overlook inconvenient facts, as Peter tells us.

Rationalizations and Unbelief

We hear a whole lot these days about “primitive societies” and their superstitions. That line is designed to sell a particular secular narrative, and it’s quite effective. But the hard truth of the matter is that even the most spectacular miraculous events don’t have any sort of lasting effect on the unbelieving heart. Our normal tendency is to logically reconcile even the most unusual occurrences by attributing them to natural causes wherever possible. That is unarguably Israel’s track record. As Paul puts it:
“Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.”
All. All. All. Believers and unbelievers alike saw exactly the same things, and yet Hebrews tells us that, at least nationally, “they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” The faithful had to wait patiently for the faithless to meet their fate.

And indeed, some of God’s chosen people dismissed his miracles as flukes, convinced the manna that had appeared overnight in the wilderness was a natural phenomenon and that “God’s wrath” was nothing more than a convenient device used by leadership to keep them in line. Why else would they go out to gather it on a Sabbath? Perhaps they also said to themselves that the quail were just an unfortunate off-course flock grounded in bad weather. In a later generation, to resolute unbelief, even the collapsing walls of Jericho might plausibly be passed off as a dominos-style disaster cascade attributable to flawed engineering.

The Power of Denial

That’s the same attitude I see today, and it’s almost understandable.

To start with, we humans are creatures of habit with a very time-and-space-limited perspective and a colossal capacity for denying the reality of anything scary. We prefer our routines predictable, and we like to delude ourselves this gives us a measure of control over our world. We assume things will go on indefinitely as they always have. In fact, we insist on it.

To compound the problem, our current generation is absolutely unmoored from its historical roots. Public schools no longer teach their charges anything about the past unless its purpose is to chide us over the bad behavior of white men to blacks and indigenous peoples. It is inconceivable to most that God could be moments away from intruding yet again into human history to accomplish his purposes.

It should not be inconceivable to those of us who know history. God has kept his distance from humanity for the last two millennia out of sheer grace, maximizing every opportunity for repentance. Scripture assures us this will not always be the case.

Tick tick tick …

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