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Occasional Letters: Air Raid Shelter Verses

D Newell, Glasgow

The centenary of the beginning of the Great War means that global conflicts are back in the news. It is often forgotten that there was a blitz in the 1914-18 war as well as in that of 1939-45, with zeppelins dropping destruction on London. When, by the late 1930s, it became obvious a second European war was imminent, the government of Britain endeavoured to provide security for the civilian population by constructing underground air-raid shelters in cities, and distributing domestic shelters to householders. The received wisdom of the day was that "the bomber will always get through". Certainly, only those who have experienced it can know the terrors of aerial bombardment. But long before modern warfare God graciously provided for saints living in a hostile world an impregnable place of safety from the storms of life. The Old Testament is scattered with what I call "air raid shelter verses", designed to offer comfort for feeble believers under attack.

One passage establishing the basic principle of spiritual shelter is right at the heart of our Bible: "The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe" (Prov 18.10). The first tower recorded in Scripture remained an unfinished monument to man's sinful ambition (Gen 11.4), but this stronghold never fails. The breath-taking revelation is that Jehovah Himself is His people's "place of defence…so deeply founded, no enemy can work under it; and plant a mine to blow it up; so highly built; no scaling ladders can reach it; so fortified, no cannon balls can break through it, or demolish any of its walls and bulwarks" (John Gill). The righteous man may be very much alone (the noun is singular) but fleeing to Christ he finds a safe retreat in which to meditate upon the excellences of his God.

Appropriately, Biblical shelters tend to be located amidst frightening descriptions of judgment and devastation. There's a famous one in Lamentations 3. For twenty verses Jeremiah speaks of himself as a representative Jerusalemite, the object of Jehovah's disciplinary anger, but then comes a change as the prophet steers his thoughts away from his circumstances to the glorious attributes of God: "This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord" (Lam 3.21-26). Since name signifies nature, as it often does in Scripture, Jeremiah finds solace in dwelling upon what he knows of God: He is merciful, compassionate, faithful, good, the source of salvation. This is how the name of the Lord becomes a strong tower.

But there are other examples. Nahum 1.7 stands in the middle of an announcement of impending destruction on the wicked city of Nineveh, as the Babylonians, God's instrument of wrath, draw near: "God is jealous, and the Lord revengeth; the Lord revengeth, and is furious; the Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies…Bashan languisheth, and Carmel, and the flower of Lebanon languisheth. The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein. Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? his fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him. The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him. But with an overrunning flood he will make an utter end of the place thereof, and darkness shall pursue his enemies" (Nahum 1.2-8). Passages like this remind us that our God is terrible in His anger. Such language couldn't be further removed from the cosy non-judgmental god of political correctness who conveniently affirms man's preferences and tolerates his failures. And the Babylonians, who would overwhelm the Assyrian empire, would also make incursions further south; those geographical references to Bashan, Carmel and Lebanon bring us uncomfortably close to Judah. Nevertheless, for God's people there was security. Nahum meditates upon His name, that is, His revealed attributes. He is good, He is strong, He is omniscient, He is trustworthy. We today can do something Nahum couldn't – trace all those reassuring features in the earthly life of the Lord Jesus Christ, God manifest in flesh.

The book next door relates Habakkuk's distress over the moral and spiritual failure of Judah. His first chapter falls into three sections, recording Judah's iniquity (vv.1-4), God's penalty (vv.5-11), and the prophet's perplexity (vv.13-17). True, the nation had departed from the Lord, but how could a God of infinite purity use as His rod of correction a people even more depraved and barbaric than those who were to be chastened? Right in the middle we find Habakkuk's place of shelter: "Art thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, mine Holy One? we shall not die. O Lord, thou hast ordained them for judgment; and, O mighty God, thou hast established them for correction" (Hab 1.12). Poor Habakkuk may have been bewildered by God's programme, but he had no doubts about His person. In his mind he chews over nourishing truths about Jehovah. He is the approachable God, for the whole verse is a prayer; never forget – however dark the day, we can still pray. He is the everlasting God. Empires may rise and fall but the Lord is eternal, ever the same in His unchanging majesty. And because He is "the Lord" He is self-existent and self-sufficient. One whose name is "I am" has no needs of any kind; rather, He is uniquely able to meet ours. Nor is He remote or unconcerned. The God addressed by the prophet is distinctly personal in His relationship: Habakkuk can speak of "my God, mine Holy One". Further, He is holy, utterly set apart from sin and indescribably awesome in His splendour. At this point I think Habakkuk calls to mind the great covenant promises of the Old Testament in which God pledges Himself to bless and preserve Israel despite their sins: "we shall not die". "Yes", says Habakkuk, "disciplinary judgment will fall on Jerusalem and many will be wiped out, but the nation cannot be utterly annihilated for God has committed Himself to its eventual restoration". Truly, God is faithful to His word. How much believers today can rejoice in that! He is of course sovereign in His ability to use the ungodly as His unwitting tools, and fatherly in His wise correction of His wayward child-nation. "Judgment" and "correction" were to be the fate of Judah. As the "mighty God" (literally, "the rock", as in Deuteronomy 32.3-4) He is immovably steadfast in all His ways. Despite the confusion outside, Habakkuk, deep in his spiritual bunker, could occupy himself with nine divine attributes guaranteed to lift his soul. And if you ask where he got these doctrinal truths about God, may I suggest that he had been reading Deuteronomy, the book that predicts both Israel's captivity and final restoration? Here's your homework: see if you can find a verse in Deuteronomy for each of those nine divine features.

During the Second World War, Londoners sang in their shelters to keep their spirits up. Believers, nestling safe in their enjoyment of God, can also sing songs of adoration and worship. It is no surprise that Jeremiah's appreciation of Jehovah's faithfulness produced one of our best-loved hymns. To be taken up with what God is will always stimulate His people's praise.

To be continued


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