Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Leaving Something on the Shelf

“Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands ...”

What is that all about, you ask?

Well, let me tell you what it’s not all about. It ain’t about taking the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and quoting it to the unsaved in hope of touching an unregenerate conscience and stirring it to life.

Some battles are not between people’s ears.

Allegorizing the Psalms

That doesn’t stop Matthew Henry, of course. He loves his allegory:
“With this two-edged sword the first preachers of the gospel obtained a glorious victory over the powers of darkness; vengeance was executed upon the gods of the heathen, by the conviction and conversion of those that had been long their worshippers, and by the consternation and confusion of those that would not repent (Rev. 6:15); the strongholds of Satan were cast down (2 Chr. 10:4, 2 Chr. 10:5); great men were made to tremble at the word, as Felix; Satan, the god of this world, was cast out, according to the judgment given against him. This is the honour of all Christians, that their holy religion has been so victorious.”
Now, full credit to Henry here: this particular application is only one of several possible meanings he posits for Psalm 149, and he is so poetic he almost pulls it off.

It still seems a bit of a stretch to me.

The Two-Edged Sword

To be fair to the man, there is indeed a legitimate biblical analogy drawn by the authors of New Testament between the physical, material battles in which Israel engaged in ancient times (and will one day engage again) and the spiritual warfare of the Christian era. It’s fair play in opening up God’s word to point out that the former is usually intended to inform the latter ... at least for modern readers. Nevertheless, we must remember that these verses surely served other purposes for other audiences at other times in the history of God’s dealings with his own.

The New Testament metaphorical “sword” is indeed two-edged, and it is given to the Christian to pierce the hard heart, draw out its thoughts and intentions, and expose them to the light, just as the very literal piece of steel referred to in this quote from Psalm 149 exists to enable the Israelite soldier to “execute vengeance on the nations and punishments on the peoples”, its haft greasy with enemy blood, its wielder’s arms and shoulder muscles burning with lactic acid as he cries out the high praises of God in Hebrew and swings his lethal blade. Throughout the New Testament, the deadly seriousness of the Christian’s spiritual struggle against the powers of darkness is emphasized by comparing it to the bloody and very literal task of taking Canaan from its wicked inhabitants and holding it against the onslaught of enemies determined to overrun it and extinguish Israel as a nation. We couldn’t grasp the gravity of what we are doing when we preach the gospel without the combat analogy drawn from Israel’s wars with the surrounding nations, and we are grateful to the Holy Spirit for providing it.

The Gospel and Vengeance

But I do not believe victory obtained through preaching the gospel is what we are looking at in this particular psalm, even allegorically. When we appropriate the military language of the psalmist here or elsewhere to describe our own efforts at either sharing a testimony or rebuking a wicked person, we must be extra careful to allow the primary meaning of the text to remain relentlessly Jewish in character and Old Testament in spirit. While we may legitimately feed our spirits from the Old Testament pantry when the food we find there is appropriate to our present needs, we need to be sure we leave something on the shelf for believers of past and future generations.

The psalm continues:
“... to execute vengeance on the nations and punishments on the peoples, to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron, to execute on them the judgment written! This is honor for all his godly ones.”
It is difficult to miss the fact that employing this particular psalm as an illustration of the Christian witnesses’ struggle to bring light to the darkness of unbelief is a singularly poor fit.

The Christian is not “executing vengeance on the nations” when he shares the word of God with an unbeliever, and no amount of evocative poetry or convenient conflation of the nations themselves with the gods they worship can convince me he is. Vengeance is not “conversion” and “conviction” designed to bring you into the camp of the saints, and “consternation” or “confusion” are hopelessly inadequate as would-be-synonyms for revenge.

Rather, God is acting in vengeance when he carries out of his righteous judgment against those who brazenly and persistently resist his will despite his calls to repentance. Vengeance is punitive, not remedial. Its purpose is not to persuade but to pulverize. Sometimes throughout history God has indeed taken vengeance on the wicked through the agency of other men; however — and this is important — vengeance is not a feature of our present Christian age.

Not Limited to the Spiritual Realm

Whether we are speaking of past or future, not all “godly ones” are Christians, and not all struggles are limited to the spiritual realm. Some battles are not between people’s ears. If the dancing and tambourines of verse 3 are literal, then the sword of verse 6 is very likely intended to be taken just as literally.

While we must always recognize that the Holy Spirit is entitled to apply his word as he deems appropriate, I believe Psalm 149 is not really inviting us to think about the Church Age at all. If we are looking for something in the Old Testament to describe our personal experience, there are better fits to be found both in the rest of the Psalms and elsewhere.

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