Thursday, July 23, 2015

Vain Salvation

Many of us, especially those living in the western world, find ourselves disappointingly short in the “foe” department, at least in the literal sense of the word. When told to love our enemies, we have to think long and hard to find anyone in our lives to whom that word genuinely applies. At least that’s my experience.

There are notable exceptions, but the sorts of foes Christians generally encounter in North America 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 all that disappointed with that arrangement.

But there was a time when foes were common, and there are still numerous places in the world where foes are not metaphorical, and challenges to faith are of a life-and-death nature.

Even if our lives are currently largely devoid of literal foes and genuine peril, it’s good that many statements made by Old Testament saints with more serious problems are more broadly applicable. Here’s one:
“Oh grant us help against the foe, for vain is the salvation of man!”
(Psalm 108:12)
This is a useful principle to really embrace. Believers have been reflexively adopting man-made solutions to perceived and very real problems since the garden of Eden. The “salvation of man” is our most frequent place of resort in times of difficulty.

David says these sorts of solutions are “vain”, and if we remain a little 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.”
(2 Kings 18:21)
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.’ ”
(Genesis 12:1-2)
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.’ ”
(Genesis 15:4-5)
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.

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