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Occasional Letters - The Most Dangerous Enemy

D Newell, Glasgow

It’s extraordinarily easy to jump to the wrong conclusions. When I first encountered Stephen Bungay’s fascinating and beautifully written analysis of the Battle of Britain, The Most Dangerous Enemy, I assumed its title alluded to Hitler’s air force as the great threat to the British Isles during the early days of the last war. But I soon discovered my mistake. The phrase was in reality a quotation from a Luftwaffe intelligence report of 1939 which, of all things, identified Britain as the most significant obstacle to German success in a European conflict. The book turns upside down the usual assumptions about the first great aerial battle in the history of warfare. Now, although World War Two has been over for nearly seventy years, the spiritual struggle in which every believer is engaged will not terminate until the Lord returns or we are taken away in death. All who seek to live for God are front line warriors. And we face three implacable foes – the world, with its insidious anti-God peer pressure seeking to squeeze us into its mould (Rom 12.2), the Devil, "the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience" (Eph 2.2), and the flesh, that indwelling principle of evil located in the very fabric of our sin-damaged bodies (Rom 7.18). But which is the most dangerous enemy? Experience has taught me that it is the third. Each believer has to recognise that the greatest single menace is what Solomon calls "the plague of his own heart" (1 Kings 8.38); in other words, I am my own worst enemy. Deep within me is an inexhaustible reservoir of wickedness, evil thoughts, unbelief, and pride, a reservoir so vast that it prompted Paul’s account of the battle: "the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Rom 7.19-24). Yes, there is a terrible enemy within.

On a recent summer trip I discovered that a young friend had been investing his time studying the Old Testament kings of Israel and Judah. His research was impressive. Among other things, he drew my attention to three monarchs whose spiritual flaws were reflected in the physical diseases with which the Lord afflicted them. I have his permission to use them as a practical picture of the terrible dangers of the flesh. Two were good men who towards the end of their lives went badly and sadly wrong. The examples in Scripture seem to warn us that we are often at our most vulnerable as we grow older, when the enthusiasm and self-discipline of youth give place to the tired complacency of age. David was at his best when as a young man he was pursued by Saul, because his very peril cast him upon the Lord. Once established in the security of his kingdom his eyes and thoughts wandered, with tragic results both for himself and his family. 2 Samuel 11 makes salutary and sobering reading. The third king was an out and out unbeliever with no concern for God. But they all illustrate the hazards to which we are exposed in our sinful bodies.

The first is King Asa. He started off so well: "Asa did that which was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God: For he took away the altars of the strange gods, and the high places, and brake down the images, and cut down the groves: And commanded Judah to seek the Lord God of their fathers, and to do the law and the commandment" (2 Chr 14.2-4). But in the 36th year of his reign he suddenly went wrong. Earlier, facing an Ethiopian army of a million men he had steadfastly relied on the Lord; but now, to stave off the aggression of his northern neighbour Israel he resorted to hiring Syrian mercenaries, trusting for military victory in men rather than God. He was duly censured, but would not accept correction. "Hanani the seer came to Asa king of Judah, and said unto him, Because thou hast relied on the king of Syria, and not relied on the Lord thy God, therefore is the host of the king of Syria escaped out of thine hand…Herein thou hast done foolishly: therefore from henceforth thou shalt have wars. Then Asa was wroth with the seer, and put him in a prison house…And Asa oppressed some of the people the same time…And Asa in the thirty and ninth year of his reign was diseased in his feet, until his disease was exceeding great: yet in his disease he sought not to the Lord, but to the physicians" (2 Chr 16.7-12). The decline was obvious and inexorable. The man who hitherto steered a straight course had gone astray, becoming unreliant upon Jehovah, unrepentant under rebuke, and unjust toward his own people. His infirmity was apposite: the man of the wayward walk contracted a foot disease. In Scripture the walk is often a metaphor for the lifestyle (Ps 1.1; Eph 4.1); believers are exhorted to walk before God by faith (2 Cor 5.7), in love (Eph 5.2), and truth (2 Jn v.4). As we grow older may we not stumble in our steps, but rather "walk humbly with [our] God" (Micah 6.8).

The second is King Jehoram, a thoroughly bad man with a wicked wife who was the result of a godly father’s unwise marital arrangements. From the start he proved himself remorseless in evil, cementing his position as king by murdering his own brothers: "Now when Jehoram was risen up to the kingdom of his father, he strengthened himself, and slew all his brethren with the sword, and divers also of the princes of Israel…And he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, like as did the house of Ahab: for he had the daughter of Ahab to wife: and he wrought that which was evil in the eyes of the Lord" (2 Chr 21.4-6). After such an unnatural act at the beginning of his reign it is hardly surprising to read that "the Lord smote him in his bowels with an incurable disease. And it came to pass, that in process of time, after the end of two years, his bowels fell out by reason of his sickness: so he died of sore diseases" (2 Ch 21.18-19). In Biblical physiology the bowels were seen as the seat of the affections and compassions (Phil 1.8; Col 3.12-13; 1 Jn 3.17). When in Dickens’s Christmas Carol Scrooge meets the ghost of his former business partner Marley he can see right through him to the buttons on his coat behind: "Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now". Marley had been a man without sympathy. So too Jehoram’s fatal disease removed his bowels. Having known the kindness of God, believers are to be marked by "bowels and mercies" (Phil 2.1), that practical compassion which should be exercised in particular towards the Lord’s people. Although today we do not physically massacre our brethren like Jehoram we may well be guilty in the privacy of our homes of assassinating their characters. Malicious slander and gossip are serious sins which will eventually be dealt with, for "every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment" (Mt 12.36). A true heart for God will always manifest itself in a compassionate, tender concern for His people.

The final example is King Uzziah. Like Asa this good man faltered in the final lap, for "he was marvellously helped, till he was strong. But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction" (2 Chr 26.15-16). God-given success so went to his head that he believed nothing was beyond him and therefore determined to intrude into the priestly office. As a result he was struck with leprosy in the forehead. The man who wanted more than kingship ironically ended up with less, living in isolation until his death (2 Chr 26.21). Whatever spiritual gifts we may have received, an enlarged ego should never characterise those who belong to One who "made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant" (Phil 2.7); rather, in "all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering" (Eph 4.2) let us put others before ourselves. Let’s face it – saved sinners of the Gentiles have nothing whatever in themselves of which to boast.

But in conclusion let’s turn from sinful men to a sinless Saviour. Judah’s kings are far more than uncomfortable case studies in the folly of the flesh. They all point forward, if only by stunning contrast, to the ultimate sovereign, "Jesus Christ, the son of David" (Mt 1.1). And where men fail Christ is gloriously faithful, for His lifestyle, His compassions, and His mind were always pleasing to God (Mt 3.17; 9.36; Phil 2.5). Instead of looking inside and getting depressed we must look to Him, seeking to walk worthy of such a Redeemer (1 Jn 2.6).

To be continued.


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