Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Vain Salvation

These days, when we read that we are to “love our enemies”, many Christians in the West find ourselves thinking long and hard to find anyone in our lives to whom that word genuinely applies. We are just a bit short in the enemy department ... or at least that’s my personal experience.

There are notable exceptions, but the sorts of foes modern Christians encounter are more along the lines of surly relatives, ungrateful children or fellow employees with a tendency to step on others to get ahead. And I suppose not too many of us are overly disappointed with that arrangement.

There were times when foes were common, and there are still numerous places in the world where enemies are not metaphorical, and challenges to faith are of a life-and-death nature. But even if the daily lives of modern Christians are largely devoid of active hostility and genuine peril, many statements made by Old Testament saints with more serious problems may legitimately be applied more broadly than their original speakers intended. Here’s one:
“Oh grant us help against the foe, for vain is the salvation of man!”
This is a truly useful truth to internalize. Believers have been reflexively adopting man-made solutions to problems both genuine and perceived since the garden of Eden. The “salvation of man” was the most frequent place of resort in ancient times, and still remains a great temptation to believers in times of difficulty.

David says such solutions are “vain”. If we are tempted to inquire why this might be, scripture provides plenty of illustrations of their vanity:

The Salvation of Man is Unreliable

For instance, one day a king of Israel named Hezekiah looks out over his city walls to discover that he is under siege. An emissary of the king of Assyria is standing outside his gates with something like 200,000 soldiers behind him. That view may have been a little daunting. This emissary accuses Hezekiah of rebelling against Assyrian rule and of making a deal with the Egyptians behind the back of his master to provide chariots and horsemen to aid in the rebellion.

As a great man in the greatest kingdom of the day, the Assyrian gives his assessment of what he believes is Hezekiah’s plan for defending his city. He says:
“Behold, you are trusting now in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.”
He makes the point that Egypt has an established track record of failing to deliver on its promises and letting down its allies, and that trusting Egyptians for deliverance is poor strategy destined to fail miserably.

He is undoubtedly correct. And if that has ever been Hezekiah’s plan, it goes right out the window. Instead he takes the emissary’s written declaration to the temple where he spreads it out before the Lord and prays for deliverance.

Perhaps by some standards this doesn’t seem like a sensible response. It may seem impractical, or unlikely to address the hard reality of the circumstances.

After all, there are real-world possibilities here: (1) Egypt, though unpredictable, still seems like a political option worth pursuing in a climate of absolute desperation; (2) there may be other alliances available to Hezekiah if he can only hold the city long enough for relief to arrive; or (3) there is the very plausible suggestion of surrender in the hope that their enemies might be merciful if they grovel sufficiently. The Assyrian emissary has already offered Hezekiah’s people mercy if they capitulate.

But Hezekiah is a man of faith who understands the character of God. His response to being forced to choose between options (1), (2) or (3) is “None of the above”.

The result? 185,000 Assyrians are struck down in their camp by the angel of the Lord overnight, their goods and arms left to be plundered by Israel.

In this case, the impractical, less-apparently-sensible response is the right one. It appeals to the one Person who is both reliable and also capable of dealing with the situation.

Hezekiah refused to indulge the impulse to seek the “salvation of man”, and the result was, no doubt, beyond his wildest expectations.

The Salvation of Man Produces Unintended Consequences

Let’s wax metaphorical for a moment and think about salvation from a different kind of “foe”, one a little less literal but no less intimidating. In this case the foe is age and fear of disappointment.

The package of promises God made to Abraham a full ten years after our current retirement age was a pretty impressive one:
“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation.’ ”
That was just the beginning of the list. So Abraham goes. Later, God gives him an even more impressive set of promises:
“The word of the Lord came to him: ‘… your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ ”
One can understand Abraham eagerly looking forward to the fulfillment of these promises, or at least hoping for a hint that some aspect of God’s plan is underway. But another whole decade passes and no children are forthcoming. Both Abraham and his wife Sarah are getting concerned. After all, in their mid-eighties they are now ancient even by the long-lived standards of the day.

How does God expect his promises to be realized if Abraham has no children?

It is Sarah who comes up with the dubious idea of having her husband sleep with her servant Hagar. As the wife of a great Eastern man, the child can officially be hers and God’s agenda for Abraham and his heirs can go forward unimpeded. Best of all, she and her husband won’t have to sit day after day and year after year, anticipating something that seems to Sarah (and possibly Abraham too) as if it will never happen.

It’s not generally the wisest strategy to try to help God along but Abraham accedes to this and a son, Ishmael, is subsequently born.

If you ever need evidence to convince yourself that the salvation of man is vain, this decision was the perfect example. The list of unintended consequences that result is almost as impressive as God’s list of promises (at least in its length, and in the ongoing impact of at least one consequence). It surely should remind us that when we rely on our own plans and manipulations to get what we want — or maybe even what we think God wants — we are often in for a rough ride.
  • Hagar, having successfully produced an heir for a rich and powerful man, becomes arrogant and impossible to deal with;
  • Sarah becomes jealous and unhappy with Hagar;
  • Abraham is forced to choose between the two women in his life (temporarily at least) and naturally chooses Sarah;
  • Sarah abuses Hagar and she runs away;
  • An angel appears to Hagar and announces that Ishmael will become a great nation as well, so she returns to Abraham and Sarah; and finally
  • When Isaac, heir of the promise, is eventually born to Abraham and Sarah a full 25 years after God’s first promise, Abraham finds himself in conflict again as Sarah insists that Ishmael be sent away and not become an heir with Isaac.
And there’s almost surely more fallout to that particular moment of reliance on the “salvation of man” that I’m failing to mention.

So, want to talk about unintended consequences?

If my point is unclear, as per God’s promise, Ishmael fathered twelve sons whose descendants are the modern Arab nations. Isaac had only two, though his son Jacob also had twelve. But even that single generation’s head start on the competing “seed of Abraham” helps to explain why the nation of Israel is, today, absolutely surrounded by enemies.

When Sarah and Abraham resorted to the “salvation of man” instead of trusting in the promises of God, they set in motion the current conflict over Palestine, worldwide anti-Semitism, Islam, numerous wars, death, bloodshed, misery and perpetual aggression against the people of God destined only to be settled by the return of Christ to this earth.

To be fair, Abraham and Sarah hadn’t the slightest clue they were doing this.

We rarely do.


  1. It always boils down to something like "Can God be trusted?" "Is God's Word reliable?" From the garden with with trusting the serpent's words instead of the Word of God to the decisions we make today in our own lives. How much sorrow has been caused because we think we somehow know better than what the Word says? If there is a deviation from the Word on our part, the best thing that can be done is agree with God and confess it. The damage may be reverse-able or we may have to live with the consequences (let alone others) but the right thing is still to humble one's self in the sight of the Lord and He will do right according to His righteousness. And that is something great, every time. We learn again His forgiveness, we say not my will but Thine will be done, and we put Him ahead of ourselves where He ought to be daily. Start the day with the prayer, "Your will be done this day by your Spirit in my life" and that will make the best start to this day he has given us, to live for His Glory.

  2. This calls for doing the numbers.
    There are 3600 seconds in an hour and therefore 36000 seconds in 10 hours. Hence, assuming the time period during which the Angel of God took care of the 185000 Assyrians was about 10 hours and that he used a sword (submachine guns still had to be invented) then he killed about 5 Assyrians per second by sword. He therefore moved lightning fast to do his job. Assuming that witnesses were left to observe and pass on what happened then it stands to reason that there should be a tremendous amount of history, even besides the biblical accounts, that should easily have been passed on even to our days through public records (e.g., Assyrian, not just biblical) just because of this totally amazing, unprecedented and phenomenal spectacle. Have you come across anything like that? Naturally, if that's not the case it would justify the assumption that there may be quite a bit of spin and story telling making up the Bible.

  3. Numerous biblical events have been confirmed by archeologists, including what is commonly referred to as "Amos's earthquake" in the mid eighth century B.C. (I'll be posting about the secular-sourced evidence for that earthquake this coming Saturday.) Admittedly, many such events remain to be verified by secular historians, which does not surprise me given our distance from the events and the limited data set we have to go on.

    The fact remains that though Sennacherib had marched his armies into Judah and besieged Jerusalem, he inexplicably withdrew and went home. Jerusalem was never taken by the Assyrians. That honor went to the Chaldeans of Babylon a century and a half later.

  4. On this incident, anyone who has never read this short poem really should:

    That last couplet is a heck of a closer.