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Occasional Letters: A Knotty Verse

D Newell, Glasgow

One of the great tribulations of childhood was having my hair washed at the sink. This involved a great deal of water and splashing, a goodly quantity of eye-stinging soap, vigorous rubbing with a towel, and then that remorseless combing which I so dreaded because of the intractable knots which seemed always to tangle my infant tresses. My mother's answer to knots was simply to comb them out with brute force, a painful business leading to much verbal remonstrance. J C Ryle, author of the invaluable Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, in 1877 published a book interestingly entitled Knots Untied, in which he endeavoured to explain and justify the beliefs of evangelical Anglicans. His title suggests a neat, effortless untangling of all knotty difficulties, but he did not always succeed. His chapter on baptism, for example, a desperate attempt to defend the error of infant sprinkling, is a salutary reminder that good men in bad systems can find themselves constrained to support unscriptural practices.

But the knots in which I am interested at this moment are found in the fascinating prophecy of Zephaniah. The book as a whole is devoted to an exposition of the calamities to fall upon the earth during the coming "great day of the Lord…[which will be] a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness" (1.14-15). Its three chapters may be summed up in three simple words: sin, seek, and save. The first word explains why God will intervene in judgment: "I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord: and their blood shall be poured out as dust, and their flesh as the dung" (1.17). The second is the gracious exhortation to those who long to be sheltered from God's wrath: "Seek ye the Lord, all ye meek of the earth, which have wrought his judgment; seek righteousness, seek meekness: it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the Lord's anger" (2.3). The third is what God promises to do in the future for the regathered and restored nation of Israel: "The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest [or, 'be silent', as Newberry's margin] in his love, he will joy over thee with singing" (3.17). This is that wonderful verse where we learn that the Lord's delight in His redeemed people is so tremendous that it defies expression: He will be silent in His love, yet He will sing aloud for joy. Replacement theologians and anti-Semites will get a resounding shock when they see how much His ancient people mean to God. Israel's glorious future is secure. But proper interpretation doesn't hinder application. The words also make plain the order of blessing today as people hear and respond to the gospel of God's grace: to confess one's sins and seek the Lord is to come into His salvation.

In chapter two the prophet makes a round tour of the lands surrounding Israel, announcing the breadth of divine judgment upon godless Gentile nations. He starts to the west: "Gaza shall be forsaken, and Ashkelon a desolation: they shall drive out Ashdod at the noon day, and Ekron shall be rooted up. Woe unto the inhabitants of the sea coast, the nation of the Cherethites! the word of the Lord is against you; O Canaan, the land of the Philistines, I will even destroy thee, that there shall be no inhabitant" (2.4-5). These cities were notorious in Israel's history as the power base of the hostile Philistines who had been such a thorn in the side of King Saul. The prophet then moves east: "I have heard the reproach of Moab, and the revilings of the children of Ammon, whereby they have reproached my people, and magnified themselves against their border. Therefore as I live, saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, Surely Moab shall be as Sodom, and the children of Ammon as Gomorrah, even the breeding of nettles, and saltpits, and a perpetual desolation" (2.8-9). Moab and Ammon, the sad product of Lot's incest on escaping from the destruction of Sodom, would ironically suffer a similar devastation. The focus now shifts south as "the day of the Lord's anger" (2.2) embraces "Ethiopians also…[who will be] slain by my sword" (2.12), after which Jehovah "will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and will make Nineveh a desolation" (2.13). West, east, south and north – all come under the solemn judgment of God. As so often in the Old Testament prophets, the language goes far beyond any short-term historical fulfilment to anticipate the terrible day of the Lord when the entire earth will experience the outpouring of His wrath in preparation for the establishment of Messiah's glorious kingdom of righteousness and peace. Guilty Gentiles will not escape the fierceness of God's indignation.

But nor will Israel miss out. Perhaps it felt rather smug and secure as the prophet targeted its enemies, but God has left His sternest indictment until last. Of Jerusalem, His earthly capital, He says, "She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord; she drew not near to her God" (3.2). And here is my knotty verse. Israel obeyed not, received not, trusted not, drew not near. Such words could only be used to berate a nation in a special, privileged relationship with God. But if we turn them back to front, these four criticisms become a description of what every believer today ought to be. God's people should be marked by obedience. As the Lord said to Israel at Sinai, "if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me" (Ex 19.5). But in order to obey God's voice we have to listen to it, and that necessitates a regular, systematic, unabridged, careful exposure to Scripture. If I am not reading the Bible I am not tuned in to God's voice. And this is vital, because saints must always be open to correction. Some years ago a young friend proudly announced that, according to his school teacher, he was absolutely perfect. I was incredulous. "Are you sure that's the word he used?" "No", admitted the youthful genius, "he used a long word I didn't understand, but I looked it up and it meant I was beyond correction". The word, of course, was incorrigible, which means not flawlessness but hopelessness, not impeccability but incurability. Israel was like that – its sinful heart was resistant to God's word, and stubbornly unwilling to be put right. Scripture, however, is "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim 3.16-17). As we read, we must submit. Says wisdom personified, "Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold" (Prov 8.10).

God's people should also be characterised by implicit trust. This is not that naive gullibility which unthinkingly swallows everything it hears; rather, it is a deliberate surrender to the God who cannot lie. That is why the believer will always check platform or magazine ministry against the one source of infallible truth. All speakers at best are fallible; Scripture alone is inerrant. Therefore we are told to "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding" (Prov 3.5). Those we trust we are happy to approach: believers will therefore cultivate the joy of nearness to God. Writes the psalmist, "it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord God" (Ps 73.28). The particular blessing of the present era is that people who were by nature far off from God have been, because of the person and work of Christ, brought into a position of unbelievable intimacy (Eph 2.12-13). Let's be sure, then, to comb out these "nots" from our tangled lives so that we are people who habitually obey the Word, submit to its correction, trust in the Lord, and consciously draw near to our God.

To be continued.


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