Christianity 201

February 27, 2015

The Eagle in Your Living Room

As I scan various online writers, a recurring theme in the last few months has been making a mid-course adjustment to our simplistic understanding of key Bible verses. Author and blogger K.W. Leslie addressed this recently at his blog More Christ. In visiting his blog I was reminded of the wealth of material he has. Some of the pieces are longer than what we do here, or I would consider stealing more of them! To read this at source, click the link contained in the title below.

“Those who wait on the Lord…”

But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings as eagles;
they shall run, and not be weary;
and they shall walk, and not faint.

Isaiah 40.31 KJV

When I visit fellow Christians’ homes, a lot of ’em have a painting of an eagle hanging somewhere. Some of ’em are of an American bald eagle, and meant to express their patriotism. Others were purchased at the local Family Christian Stores, and are meant to express their trust in God, and are universally captioned with the Isaiah verse about mounting up with wings as eagles. And some try to blend the two sentiments—a patriotic American eagle, plus the Isaiah verse. God ’n country.

The eagle picture appeals to a lot of Christians because of the idea Isaiah expressed: The LORD, our creator, has inexhaustible strength, Is 40.28 and empowers the weak. Is 40.29 Even the strongest of us may fail, Is 40.30 but God can renew our strength. Indefinitely. Is 40.31

It’s great encouragement for those of us who have energy-draining jobs or lives. When our own batteries are dead, God can recharge ’em. When our resources are taxed, God always has more. Many’s the time I’ve told the kids, “I ran out of patience with you long ago. I’m drawing on God’s patience now.” Tapping God’s dýnamis power,” his dynamo of endless cosmic supply, is possible for every Christian.

Possible. Not promised. That’s where Christians wind up taking this verse out of context.

“Isn’t this a prophecy?”

True, Isaiah was a prophet, and Isaiah is a prophetic book. But Christians—mostly because they don’t read their bibles, and are unfamiliar with prophetic literature—don’t always understand what prophetic literature means.

Prophecy is anything God tells his people secondhand—though his prophets, like Isaiah or Moses or Elijah or John. He can, and does, speak directly to us. But sometimes we’re not listening, or too dense to understand him. Or sometimes we understand him quite well, but in order to be sure it’s really him, he’s gotta say the same thing to somebody else as confirmation.

But let me reiterate: Prophecy is anything God tells his people. Not just predictions of the future. Not just promises. Not just commands and declarations and instructions. Sometimes—as is the case of this scripture—it’s wisdom. Morsels of God’s profound understanding of the human psyche, or statements about life which, all things being equal, tend to be true.

Those who don’t read their bibles, tend to claim everything God says in the bible is a promise, is a “yes” and “amen.” As if God can’t speak in any other genre but wish-granting, foretelling, and thunderous divine decrees. Sometimes all he’s doing is telling us what he likes. How to behave. How to love one another. How to love him.

And that’s what a lot of prophetic literature consists of. It’s not just rants and threats for the wicked, and glories evermore for the righteous. It’s God talking to his people, about whatever’s on his mind. Treating it all like promises means we’re not trying to understand the mind of God… we’re just looking for things we can hold God to, like a contract we wish to manipulate in our favor. It means our relationship with God doesn’t have a whole lot of trust to it.

This particular part of Isaiah falls into the category of wisdom literature. They’re not commands; they’re not guarantees. (No matter how often people misquote them as if they are.) They’re situational. All things being equal, they’re true. Sometimes things aren’t equal, and there are exceptions.

“…They shall renew their strength.”

People read that word “shall” in the King James Version, and leap to the conclusion this passage isn’t just generically describing God’s followers. It’s not that when we trust in God, he tends to renew our strength when we’ve run low. It’s that he shall renew our strength. Isaiah says so. “Shall” turns it into a guarantee.

It’s really not. The verb yakhlífu/“changing,” which the KJV renders “shall renew,” isn’t a future-tense verb. Biblical Hebrew actually doesn’t have future-tense verbs. This is what we call a hifíl verb, which means the subject didn’t do the action so much as make it happen. Those who wait on the LORD haven’t changed their own strength from empty to full—they didn’t achieve it. But waiting on the LORD is what contributed to it happening. If we depend on God, he’ll strengthen us.

Usually. Like I said, wisdom literature is situational.

I point you to Samson. (He’s always a good example of what not to do.) Dude took God for granted, figuring God would always come through for him, no matter what. No matter how many commands and vows he broke. He trusted God to always provide him with supernatural strength to smite his enemies, and God did… till he didn’t, and let Samson’s enemies take him. Jg 16.20-21 Renewing Samson’s strength didn’t suit God’s purposes.

And sometimes renewing our strength doesn’t renew God’s purposes either. It just encourages us to take him for granted, and expect him to keep us away from burnout. Even though our lifestyles have no time management, no limits, and take no sabbaths. God commanded his people to rest, remember? Ex 20.8-11

Yet Christian ministers are regularly guilty of working seven days a week, with no breaks—and no surprise, we burn out. We figure we do wait on the LORD—we take little breaks for prayer, like Jesus did, Mk 1.35-37 and we’re doing the LORD’s work; shouldn’t he come through for us in return? Doesn’t he owe us one?

That’s why so many Christians like to reinterpret this verse to mean God will strengthen his followers. It justifies all the exhaustion, all the overwork, all the stress: “God will replenish me. He promised he would.” Worse, it justifies all the commitments we demand of those under us. Many a church has burned out its volunteers by promising them, “God promises to reward you for your dedication”—and he promised no such thing. (He did promise stress, though. Jn 16.33)

Fact is, if we’re not wise with our strength, if we’re depending on God to make up for the lack of self-control (which he wants us to practice), he may renew nothing. We’ll burn out. We’ll learn our lesson the hard way.

Really wait on the Lord.

Qoye/“one waiting for,” which describes those who wait on God, describes those of us who “trust in the LORD” (NLT), who wait for his help (NET), who put their hope in him (NJB). They’re following God. They’re not running ahead of him, and looking back to him once they get tired and are wondering why the guy with the water bottles hasn’t kept up. They’re running alongside. They’re stopping when he stops. They start when he says go.

It’s about closeness, intimacy, relationship. It’s not about working our hardest, then turning to God once our motor runs down. It’s about following him as far as he goes. And when we feel we can’t go any further, his strength (yeah, it’s another hifíl verb) causes us to rise up, like the wing of an eagle—it’s not about gliding or soaring, but about the way eagles raise their wings when they’re about to take off—and off we fly. When we’re doing the Lord’s work, we’d better be doing it with the Lord. It’s not the Lord’s work any other way.

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