Psalms of… Vengeance?

Watterson Imprecation
Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

This post is an adaptation of a sermon I preached a few weeks ago, with Psalm 55 (read it here) as my preaching text.


Can we pray them? Yes, we can!

Recently the The New York Times published an Opinion piece called “The Mosquitoes Are Coming for Us.” The subheading was: “They are our apex predator, the deadliest hunters of human beings on the planet.”

An opening line was innocent enough: “It has been one of the most aggravating sounds on earth for 190 million years — the humming buzz of a mosquito.”

But the article shared some alarming facts. It described mosquitoes as “a swarming army of 100 trillion that kills (some) 700,000 people annually…” and “…research suggests (they) may have killed nearly half of the 108 billion humans who have ever lived.”

Even the most humane among us have no trouble swatting or smushing a mosquito. We might have some choice words for them.

Were mosquitoes to become a topic of prayer, we’d have no trouble praying against them: may they die a thousand deaths; may they leave no progeny behind; may they burn in the unquenchable fire. Even as I was looking over this sermon in the cool quiet of the morning, I found myself praying for a wretched fate for the crows that loudly feasted on our compost.

But when it comes to praying against other people or institutions, we might be a little more reluctant. We might wonder: can I pray that? We hear David pray, “Let death come upon them; / …for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.” We wonder what to do with this verse and others like it, that are right here in our holy book.

Psalm 55 is a prayer of vengeance—an “imprecatory” Psalm is the category interpreters put it in. We have Psalm of thanksgiving, Psalms of confession, Psalms of trust, Psalms of lament, royal Psalms, and others. But the imprecatory Psalms may be the hardest ones to know what to do with. These are Psalms that, in short, call on God to take swift action on enemies, even to the point of their destruction (HT: Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies).

Imprecatory prayers can be as specific and harmless as, “Dear God, I pray that that person who is texting while driving would get into the slightest of fender benders as a harmless but effective wake-up call so that they never text and drive again.” And imprecatory prayers can be as broad and intense as, “God, destroy these your enemies, so that they never see the light of day again!”

Some commentators say we should not pray these Psalms, as Christians. The verse “Bless those who curse you,” they say, is reason to no longer ask God to curse those who curse us.

Some of these commentators—including ones with a high view of Scripture—have described these Psalms in less than favorable terms, like:

  • “defective prayers”
  • “cold-blooded”
  • prayers of “malignant cruelty” (SOURCE)
  • “terrible” / “contemptible”
  • “barbarous and revolting”
  • “a disgrace to human nature” (SOURCE)

C.S. Lewis reacts to these Psalms this way: “The hatred is there—festering, gloating, undisguised—and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves” (Reflections on the Psalms, 22). Lewis said, the imprecatory Psalms—Psalms of vengeance—“are indeed devilish” (25).

He’s entitled to his interpretation, of course, but in recent months I have come to view prayers of vengeance in a different way. I’ve made it my practice—given myself permission, really—to pray like the Psalmists do when they’re praying God’s vengeance would come to earth.

Thinking of the haughty and proud who abuse their power, I’ve prayed words like these ones in Psalm 59:

For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter, consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob.

For those that lie serially, and who incite violence, I have prayed words like these ones in today’s Psalm, Psalm 55:

Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech; for I see violence and strife in the city.

I’m far from alone in reading the Psalms this way. Readers and interpreters of these Psalms have argued that just like we need Psalms of lament, we need imprecatory Psalms—prayers of vengeance. This is especially true when we consider the church across the world, and Christians who may live under a kind of duress or oppression that we may not know in our contexts. One commentator says, “A diet of upbeat songs and positive testimonies does not meet the needs of those suffering disappointment, ill health, or persecution.”

To be clear, no one in this worshiping community has been the subject of my recent imprecatory prayers. But as I’ve tried to inhabit Psalms like the one we read—as I’ve tried to pattern my own prayers after them—I’ve been reminded that God is a God of mercy and a God of judgment.

This is not just an Old Testament characteristic of God, either. Even the New Testament features words of imprecation, on the lips of Paul and even on the lips of Jesus himself. Martyrs in Revelation 6, killed for the sake of Jesus, cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

In my own praying, I’ve found myself feeling more vulnerable and more honest in God’s presence when I pray a prayer like Psalm 55. That honesty has led me to a greater sense of intimacy, or at least to feel like I’m doing something.

The big question about imprecatory Psalms—with a nod to Bob the Builder—is: Can we pray them? Yes, we can!

Still, I think the Psalms suggest some important parameters, if we’re going to take the plunge and pray prayers of vengeance.

1. Leave vengeance to God

First, imprecatory Psalms leave vengeance to God. They leave vengeance to God.

This is hugely important, noted by many readers of the Psalms, and gives us a reason to pray a prayer we might otherwise be uncomfortable with.

Our Psalm ended like this:

But you, O God, will cast them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days. But I will trust in you.

It did not end like this

But I, O God, will case them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days, because I will make sure of it myself. I will trust in myself.

Fundamentally, a prayer calling God to take action against his enemies is an affirmation of trust in God. It’s to say, “This is God’s job; not mine.”

Deuteronomy and Romans and Hebrews all quote God as saying, “Vengeance is mine; I shall repay.” Vengeance is not ours. We do not repay. God does.

When Psalm 55 and others like it pray for vengeance, it’s an affirmation that God judges in a way we cannot and should not. Better to ask God to exact justice—even destruction—on a serial evildoer, than for us to go rogue try to do it ourselves.

Prayers of imprecation pray for vengeance to come from where it should come from—from the Almighty and just God, not from ourselves.

2. Know “your” enemies

A second parameter seems important to Psalmists who prayed against others: knowing who “enemies” really are. Prayers of vengeance are not for that kid in your class who just bugs you; they’re not for someone who looks at you funny; they’re not for New York Yankees fans.

Imprecatory Psalms are chiefly reserved for those who are enemies of God, who set themselves up against God’s righteousness and justice, and who persist in doing evil in the world. They are those who harm precious ones created in the image of God.

Think of our Matthew passage today. Jesus says:

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Or consider Psalm 139, powerfully rendered in the King James Version:

O that Thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God; depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed. For they speak against Thee wickedly, and Thine enemies take Thy name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate Thee, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against Thee? I hate them with the utmost hatred; they have become my enemies.

As we say in my family sometimes, “Hate is a strong word.”

We’re probably hesitant (rightly!) to even use the word “enemy.” And we know Jesus calls us to love our enemies, whoever those may be.

But whatever else we make of this part of Psalm 139, the point of the pray-er is that he’s calling on God to silence and put an end not to those who speak against him, but who speak against God.

Prayers of vengeance are not for personal vendettas. They’re prayers that God would deal justly with God’s enemies. And if we want to know who those are, we’d do well to spend lots of time reading Scripture and praying and connecting with other Christians, so we don’t mistake our enemies for God’s enemies.

Further, we want to keep in mind, as Ephesians says, that

(O)ur struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

If you’ve got pent up energy and frustration when you see injustice and wickedness in the world—pray first “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Those are the invisible powers animating the visible powers of this world.

3. Imprecate yourself?

Psalmists who prayed imprecatory prayers (1) were leaving vengeance to God and (2) were defining as “enemies” those who set themselves up specifically as God’s enemies.

A third parameter that’s important, if we’re going to pray like this, is that we be ready to turn this kind of prayer back on ourselves.

In Psalm 139, David confesses in prayer to despising those who despise God, calling down judgment and destruction on them.

But we know how that Psalm ends:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

I trust I’m not the only one who has read that Psalm and skipped from, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” and, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!” to, “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” But those intense imprecations come in between. And they cause the ending to make even more sense.

David says, “See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Because he knows that there may be others who could rightly pray prayers of imprecation against him! Bathsheba certainly could have. His daughter, whose rape David did not take seriously, certainly could have. He at least has the self-knowledge to pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. See if there is any offensive way in me….”

We might consider a similar ending to our prayers, as we pray for God’s justice and judgement to be enacted on the wicked.

For example, we might pray against racism, and those who advance it. In the same prayer, we might also pray, “Lord, show me any racist thoughts—however minor!—in my heart. Reveal to me, God, if there are any ways have I benefited from and perpetuated systems of racism.”

And we pray against those who harm others day after day, we might also ask, “God, help me to see: how have I hurt others with my words and actions, perhaps causing them to want to pray prayers of imprecation against me?”

One interpreter cautions about these Psalms: “Those who pray them are inevitably faced with the question of their own complicity in the web of violence.”

That makes praying imprecatory prayers even harder—we maybe already feel uncomfortable praying them, but to do so in good conscience before God, we need to be ready to point the prayers back on ourselves.

“Surely there is a God”

Psalms of imprecation, at their best, leave vengeance to God; they define “enemies” less as their own enemies and more as God’s enemies; and they are ready to implicate themselves.

It’s helped me to see this kind of prayer as a more detailed expression of lines in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

If God’s kingdom is going to come, if God’s will is going to be done, that means there will be judgement for the wicked.

One interpreter and modern-day prayer of these Psalms said it like this:

As poetic prayers, the psalms of vengeance are a passionate clinging to God when everything really speaks against God. For that reason they can rightly be psalms of zeal, to the extent that in them passion for God is aflame in the midst of the ashes of doubt about God and despair over human beings. These psalms are the expression of a longing that evil, and evil people, may not have the last word in history, for this world and its history belong to God.

Psalm 58, another one of these “Psalms of zeal,” we might call them, ends like this:

The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

If God lets evil go on forever, what hope is there for us? If God cannot stop and will never stop evil, how can we have faith?

As with lament Psalms, imprecatory Psalms are a way for us to keep showing up in God’s presence, even when seemingly unchecked evil might otherwise shut us down and keep us quiet.

“Surely there is a God!”

We need to see—the world needs to see—God in all power, exercising mercy and judgment, so that we can all say, “Surely there is a God!”

New (and Very Big) Introduction to the Septuagint

There are already good introductions to the Septuagint: see Will Ross’s list here. I’ve reviewed a couple of them: T. Michael Law’s When God Spoke Greek and Mogens Müller’s First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint.

Baylor University Press has announced a Septuagint introduction (728 pages!) coming in November: Introduction to the Septuagint, edited by Siegfried Kreuzer.

I can personally attest to Prof. Kreuzer’s graciousness and meticulousness as an editor. No doubt this book will be good.

Here’s the description from Baylor’s product page:

The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible created by Jews seeking a place of legitimacy for diaspora Jewishness and faith among the traditions of Hellenistic culture, was a monumental religious and cultural achievement.

This Greek Old Testament, in its original form and revised versions, provided the scriptural basis for Judaism in the Greek-speaking diaspora, enabled the emergence and spread of Christianity, and influenced translations of the Bible into African and European languages. Over time, however, the Septuagint’s relevance faded for Jews, and the Hebrew text eventually reasserted its dominance within Judaism. This led many to neglect the Septuagint as an authentic witness to the biblical tradition. But the Septuagint remained important, inspiring biblical writings and further translations into Latin, Coptic, and Armenian. In combination with the Qumran biblical texts, it provides yet further indication of the multivocal state of the Hebrew Bible around the turn of the eras and proves to be a text of continuous interest for biblical scholarship and cultural-historical studies.

Siegfried Kreuzer’s  Introduction to the Septuagint presents, in English, the most extensive introduction of the Septuagint to date. It offers comprehensive overviews of the individual biblical writings, including the history of research, current findings and problems, and perspectives for future research. Additionally, this survey presents a history of the Septuagint in its Greco-Hellenistic background, theories of its genesis, the history of its revisions, its lore in antiquity, and an overview of the most important manuscripts and witnesses of the convoluted transmission history of the text. The text includes extensive bibliographies that show the ongoing interest in Septuagint studies and provide a reliable basis for future studies.

A collaboration representing multiple nationalities, professional perspectives, and denominational traditions, this dependable guide invites newcomers and experts alike to venture into the rich world of one of the most influential works of literature in history.

Especially useful will be the book-by-book treatment, which will be interesting to compare to the T&T Clark Companion to the Septuagint, which also takes a book-by-book approach.

You can learn more about the book here.

Bonhoeffer’s Last Words, Before He Was Hanged (74 Years Ago Today)

 

Source: German Federal Archive
Source: German Federal Archive

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in the Nazi concentration camp of Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the U.S. military came to liberate it.

John W. de Gruchy describes the lead-up to that day in his Editor’s Introduction to Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, volume 8):

On October 8 [of 1944], Bonhoeffer was taken to the cellar of the Gestapo prison on Prinz-Albrecht-Straße, where he stayed until February 7, 1945. From then on, all correspondence came to an end, and contact between Bonhoeffer and the family and [Eberhard] Bethge was broken. From there Bonhoeffer was taken first to Buchenwald and then, via the village of Schönberg in Bavaria, to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he arrived on April 8. That evening he was tried by a hastily rigged court and condemned to death. Early the next morning Bonhoeffer was executed along with several other coconspirators.

He was hanged April 9. His family would not learn about it for several months.

The July before he had written to his trusted friend (and later biographer) Eberhard Bethge, one day after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. He wrote:

How should one become arrogant over successes or shaken by one’s failures when one shares in God’s suffering in the life of this world? You understand what I mean even when I put it so briefly. I am grateful that I have been allowed this insight, and I know that it is only on the path that I have finally taken that I was able to learn this. So I am thinking gratefully and with peace of mind about past as well as present things. …

May God lead us kindly through these times, but above all, may God lead us to himself.

His final recorded words before his hanging are especially appropriate in these days that lead up to Easter Sunday:

This is the end–for me the beginning of life.

 


 

This post is adapted from a post I wrote around this time five years ago, as part of the “Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer” I was doing. See other gathered posts here.

In the Mail: Updated Zondervan Greek and Hebrew Grammars

Zondervan has just released updated editions of Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar and Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, as well as related aids for students working through those textbooks. Behold:

 

 

Zondervan Academic has sent these for review. It feels like a long time ago (though it was only 10 years) that I began learning biblical languages. I spent hours and hours combing through the previous editions of these Greek and Hebrew textbooks, filling out almost every page of the workbooks, and learning the vocabulary with the cards. So I’m excited to work through these resources and report back.

In the meantime, you can click the links below to learn more. When I post I’ll point out differences in the new editions, but please also leave comments or questions if you’re wondering about a specific aspect of these new resources, and I’ll do my best to address them in the reviews.

Basics of Biblical Greek: Grammar / Workbook / Vocab Cards / Compact Guide (not yet released)
Basics of Biblical Hebrew: GrammarWorkbookVocab Cards / Compact Guide (not yet released)

“Who Am I… that You Have Loved Me Forever?” Another Reason to Love the Septuagint

I’m already finding Will Ross’s LXX Reading plan rewarding. My Greek is improving again, and it’s been a rich devotional practice.

Here’s another reason to love the Septuagint: a beautiful, praise-inducing textual variant one would never see when reading the Hebrew text or its English translations.

This comes in a passage where David responds to God’s promise of an eternal throne, a message given through the prophet Nathan.

Here is 1 Chronicles 17:16, in the Masoretic text and the NRSV:

מִֽי־אֲנִ֞י יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהִים֙ וּמִ֣י בֵיתִ֔י כִּ֥י הֲבִיאֹתַ֖נִי עַד־הֲלֹֽם
“Who am I, O LORD God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?”
Here it is in the Septuagint, with the New English Translation of the Septuagint:
Τίς εἰμι ἐγώ, κύριε ὁ θεός, καὶ τίς ὁ οἶκός μου, ὅτι ἠγάπησάς με ἕως αἰῶνος;
Who am I, Lord God, and what is my house, that you have loved me forever?

“You have brought me thus far” (Hebrew) vs. “you have loved me forever” (Greek). Both beautiful, but the latter is simply arresting.

Okay, so you would learn about this if you were reading the Hebrew with the BHS and its apparatus, which notes the variant by back-translating the Greek into the Hebrew the translator might have been looking at:

𝔊 ἠγάπησάς με ἕως αἰῶνος = אֲהַבְתַּנִי עַד־עוֹלָם

In other words, the Greek translator could have been looking at the same Hebrew and just transposed a few letters.

Interestingly, the Tov/Polak MT-LXX parallel picks up the difference between “thus far” (MT) and “forever” (LXX) but not “brought me” (MT) vs. “loved me” (LXX). Even the parallel 2 Samuel 7:18 (LXX) doesn’t fully mirror this Chronicles verse. It has instead:

ὅτι ἠγάπηκάς με ἕως τούτων = that you have loved me thus far (lit., until these)

Regardless of which reading has the most support (and I just don’t have access to original manuscripts!), the LXX of 1 Chronicles 17:16 is certainly beautiful!

Who am I, Lord God, and what is my house, that you have loved me forever?

Memorize Weekly Verses in 2019

Open Bible by Petr Kratochvil

I’ve made a plan for memorizing verses of Scripture each week in 2019.

I intend, with God’s help, to follow this weekly plan. So far, so good! I have shared it with my congregation and wanted to share it here, in case any others have interest in joining me, or would otherwise find it helpful.

Each week there is a suggested verse or verses, spanning the whole sweep of the Old and New Testaments. There are never more than three verses to learn per week, except for the Psalm 23 week and the 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 week. Many weeks suggest memorizing a single verse.

You can find a printable/downloadable PDF of the plan right here. You’ll also find (on the first page) some notes about reading in context, as well as “16 Ways to Memorize” that could be helpful, should you choose to take this on.

Let me know if you’ll be memorizing (or reading) along!

My Sermon This Morning: The Light Shines in Our Hearts

It’s been a while since I posted one of my Sunday sermons here. Below is what I preached this morning, the Second Sunday of Advent, on 2 Corinthians 4:1-6.


 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4044
This photo taken at 4:14 p.m.

Until recently I’d forgotten that the sun could even set before 5:00. Last night the sunset was at 4:08 p.m. 4:08! 

My six-year-old asked me this week if it was true that there were only four hours of daylight each day in December. 

Not quite, but it feels like it. 

These short, dark, cold days seem to linger on. We await a later sunset, the buds of spring, and warmer days. 

What are we to do with all of this in-between time? 

That’s the question of Advent. Christ has broken into our world, but so much remains untransformed by his power. We are waiting. We are hoping. We are longing for Jesus to come again and make everything right.

The stand-up comic Mitch Hedberg once disparaged instant oatmeal. He said:

I get up in the morning, and I make myself a bowl of instant oatmeal, and then I don’t do anything for an hour… which makes me wonder why I need the instant oatmeal… I could get the regular oatmeal and feel productive!

Advent calls for our patience in dark days where God’s kingdom (still) isn’t here. It doesn’t come in an instant. 

But it’s not a passive waiting that we do. And there’s nothing hopeless about Advent. It’s not a season where we throw up our hands and say, “Welp, I guess we just hang out until Jesus comes back.” 

On the contrary, in Advent we remember and re-activate that hope within us that believes—that knows—Christ will come again. We proclaim with Zechariah:

Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.

In these dark, cold, in-between days, “the light shines in the darkness.”

And the light shines right into our inmost beings.

That’s what Paul says to the Christians in the city of Corinth: 

The [same] God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

There’s the miracle of God’s love… the all-powerful creator of the universe who could bring light from darkness, has sent his light right into our hearts, so that we could know Jesus. The one who created worlds could be bothered to shine light into my dark heart, and yours. God even delights in shining light into our hearts. 

 

What does the light do?

The light shines in the darkness, and that includes the darkness of our inner world. 

I think Paul has something in common with us. None of us wants to just talk in platitudes or generalities. The light shines in our hearts, yes, so now we want to know: what exactly is the light doing in us? What does the light-of-Christ-in-our-hearts do?

Paul suggests a few things. As it shines in your heart, here is what the light does. 

First, he says, the light illuminates what is hidden. 

Here is the first part of verse 2: “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides.”

That’s because Paul and his fellow believers have the light of Christ in their hearts. That light has illuminated what is hidden—shameful things. 

Paul models a response to the shameful things the light has shown him in his heart. “I renounce them.” 

It’s a line you’ll hear in the baptismal liturgy: “I renounce them.” The light illuminates my hidden, shameful things, shows me what and where they are… and I renounce them.

evolving_google_identity_shareI’ve always been glad no technology exists to Google our brains. Think about what that would be like. All our memories, experiences, hopes, wayward desires, and hurts. Your search for envious thoughts toward others returned 13,849 results.

Thank God we can’t Google our brains. But in a sense, that’s what the light of Jesus does. As the Psalmist David put it, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. 

The light of Christ in us illuminates what is hidden.

Second, Paul says the light of Jesus is a floodlight on lies. The light of Christ shows lies for what they are. 

After verse 2 says, “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides,” it goes on: “we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word.” 

Because the light of Christ shines in his inmost being, Paul and his co-laborers in ministry commit to be truthful, especially when it comes to the revealed word of God. “We refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word.” 

The light shines on lies in the darkness. It points at them and calls them what they are. Where the light of Christ shines, there can be no lies. 

 

image
TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

 

I’m reading a book right now by James Clear called Atomic Habits. The author describes a process that train conductors in Tokyo practice. It’s called “Pointing-and-Calling.” He says:

As each operator runs the train, they proceed through a ritual of pointing at different objects and calling out commands. When the train approaches a signal, the operator will point at it and say, “Signal is green.” As the train pulls into and out of each station, the operator will point at the speedometer and call out the exact speed. When it’s time to leave, the operator will point at the timetable and state the time. Out on the platform, other employees are performing similar actions. Before each train departs, staff members will point along the edge of the platform and declare, “All clear!” Every detail is identified, pointed at, and named aloud.

The author concludes: 

Pointing-and-Calling is so effective because it raises the level of awareness from a nonconscious habit to a more conscious level. Because the train operators must use their eyes, hands, mouth, and ears, they are more likely to notice problems before something goes wrong. 

This is great for habit development. But good habits aside, here is the light of Christ, practicing the same method of Pointing-and-Calling in us! That’s what the light of Jesus does!

The light of Christ illuminates what is hidden, even shameful things. And it’s a floodlight that shows lies for what they are. The light of Jesus points-and-calls in our hearts.

Eugene Peterson translates verse 2 this way:

We refuse to wear masks and play games. We don’t maneuver and manipulate behind the scenes. And we don’t twist God’s Word to suit ourselves. Rather, we keep everything we do and say out in the open, the whole truth on display, so that those who want to can see and judge for themselves in the presence of God.

Paul also says more generally: the light of Jesus guides our inner life. 

The word Paul uses for light is more expansively defined as “illumination for the inner life.”

Are you confused, or torn up inside? The light of Christ can guide you. 

Are you anxious, scared, uncertain of what the coming days and weeks will hold? The light of Christ doesn’t make all your problems go away, but it will illuminate your inner thought life, as you try to make sense of it all. 

Things become more visible, clearer by the light God gives us. 

The light of Jesus guides our inner life. 

Finally, and most important, the light that God shines in our hearts reveals “God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

This is more than just your run-of-the-mill illumination. Verse 4 says it’s the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Verse 6 says the light God shines in our hearts is the light of the knowledge of his glory. 

Paul is not talking about “the light within” or whatever light or goodness or hope you can generate yourself. 

There may be a place for that, but it will only take you so far. 

The Episcopal preacher Fleming Rutledge says, “(I)f Christian faith is going to have any guts, it simply cannot be satisfied with exclusively human hope.” 

This isn’t just any light. It’s Jesus light. 

One poet put it like this: 

It gets so dark it stays dark,
Even when I turn on the light.

We need more than ourselves to turn on the light. We’re prone to error, prone to despair, prone to exhaustion if we try to face and fight the darkness all on our own. 

Thank God, we don’t have to. 

The [same] God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

For light to truly shine in our hearts and illuminate our paths, it needs to come from an external, inexhaustible source. 

That light source is Jesus. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.”

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer waited in prison for a release that would never come, he wrote, “Only the coming Lord can prepare the way… the end (goal) of all preparing the way for Christ must be the recognition that we ourselves can never prepare the way.” 

To that let’s add: we ourselves never shine enough light to dispel the darkness.

 

The light persists

Paul begins this passage thus: “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

Paul and company knew deep in their bones that the mercy and love of God were essential to their doing ministry. 

We show mercy, he would say, “just as we have received mercy.” 

And that’s how the light works—it’s received, it’s given, just like grace. It’s not all up to you to do the shining.

You know that your light alone, will burn out. Maybe it already has. 

Your batteries will expire. 

The flame will extinguish. 

The wick will run out. 

And you’re not just contending with yourself here: Satan will try to keep you from living in the light. 

But as Paul says, “the god of this world” may try to keep people from “seeing the light of the gospel,” but he can’t actually touch the light itself. The so-called god of this world can’t stop or prevent or even reduce the shining of the light of Jesus. 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4012Jesus’s light is eternal… limitless; it forever burns bright. 

And that light is yours. It’s ours. 

So with the beleaguered apostle Paul, “we do not lose heart.” We wait in hope; we wait in power. 

We have the light of Christ already in part, and lean forward, eagerly awaiting the day when we’ll have Christ’s light in full. 

God has shined the light of Christ in us. 

NOTHING can darken the light of Christ. 

May God shine that light, brighter and stronger and warmer, in our hearts this Advent season.