Author: Thomas Cosmades
The Creator’s most valuable endowment to man, i.e., our planet, is perpetually tarnished as outrageous acts envelop the earth in alarming proportions. The wailing of the wounded human heart is universal anguish. When David received the news of Absalom’s murder on the tree, he wailed, “Oh my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!” Similar wailing is heard continuously all over in our grief-stricken world: “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). While thoughts concentrate on universal human agony, it befits us to think about God’s lament. Three incidents in the Bible remind us of the Divine wail.
I. The Looming Destruction of the City (Matthew 23:37)
Jacques Elul in his best-seller “The Meaning of the City,” calls cities “counter creation with anti-redemptive tendencies.” This critical observation has never been truer than in our day. Approximately two-thirds of the total world population are city dwellers. Megalopolis is a term widely used nowadays. Large cities exist with a growing fear of terrorism. Mafia infiltration into many areas, high criminality, drug trafficking, prostitution–including exploitation of young boys–, homeless children and adults, professional robberies, earthquakes and other natural disasters are a potent mix for imminent disaster. If man’s fallen, depraved nature is treated lightly by some in our so-called post-Christian era, they need only to look at the total disarray of exploding cities. Ever since man built his first city on the plateau of Babel, cities haven’t had much to be proud of in moral-ethical attainment. True, many millennia have given rise to brilliant cities. Disappointingly, however, they failed to produce exemplary conduct. Man’s sinful condition is particularly evident in places where humans are concentrated.
Cities scattered around the globe vary in their sum and substance. Jerusalem’s thrust was on religion. When King David conquered this hill city of the Jebusites three thousand years ago, naming it after himself, he pledged to make it a place where YAHWEH would be remembered and honored. The stage set in Jerusalem is a disconsolate picture of the God-man relationship. All intrigue and decadence common to cities could be seen in this city. A great number of prophets were killed here. Finally, Jerusalem became the scene of the deliberate execution of the only holy person ever born into this world. Incidentally, Jesus had performed most of his miracles here.
Prior to His crucifixion, Jesus Christ expressed with profound pathos one of his most agonizing pronouncements over this religious city: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matt.23:37; Lk.13:34). In a few short days, He was to be crucified in the same city. And within forty years, His arresting prophecy was to be realized in full, with the utter destruction of Jerusalem. Only Matthew and Luke record this unmistakable utterance of the One who was to atone for the sin of both Jews and Gentiles.
What are the points of identification of our own city with Jerusalem? Our personal response to the divine lamentation? They killed some prophets and stoned others. And lastly they rejected the only One who had come to gather men and women under His wings of mercy and love. Could there be a harsher indictment by the Lord against Jerusalem whose credentials were based on religion – and revealed religion at that?
It was the sin of men and women that carried Jesus Christ to the cruel cross in this very city, and they did it on religious grounds. Alas, its citizens could not fathom the abyss of sin and the extent of their refusal of divine grace for their transgression. The Savior was wailing over this religious city while its citizens were in the ordinary routine of a selfish, hateful, disdainful mien of presumed religiosity.
Put your own life under Christ’s scrutinizing eyes. Identify yourself with Jerusalem’s mien. Human self-deception operates in many areas. We imagine ourselves to be something, while we are nothing much. But the Savior’s all-seeing, all-discerning eyes gaze into every aspect of our religious lives, which are often divorced from practical experience. Jerusalem’s religiosity was legendary. As they saw fit, they carried out acts hostile to the norm and conduct of proper living in the name of religion. The quandary was the same from the religious zenith to the nadir of professing adherents. All practices in the name of religion denounced by Christ had worked themselves into the warp and woof of the rulers and the ruled.
Roman hegemony was decisive and a certain segment such as the zealots was resisting it. But little did they realize that the one who came to set them free from present and future bondage was being spurned or benignly ignored. Many aspects of bondage resembling Rome’s shackles have firmly gripped men and women everywhere today. The adversary like a preying vulture, holds many a blinded prisoner fast, such as Samson of Zorah, not allowing him to rethink his plight. Jerusalem’s picture was a sad one – a dillydallying past, a duped present, a dreadful future. There stood one who held the whole spectrum of time and eternity pleading with the rebellious city and wailing over it. Man’s indifference to his sad predicament is depressing. On another occasion, Jesus Christ said to the Pharisees, “yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:40).
Adam and Eve thought that the ideal life would come from the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, while the tree of life was available to them. Many vacillate by tasting another fruit as our ancestors did. The prodigal son would have enjoyed the husks, but he was not allowed to have even those. Demas was lured by the glamour of Thessaloniki. How long was his enjoyment in the rich metropolis to last? God wailed for His first creatures, the father with constant tears waited on the road; Paul at his execution thought of Demas and wept. “You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20).
II. The Engulfing Transgression of the Land (Jer. 22:29)
Jeremiah, whose name loosely translated means YAHWEH EXALTS, was constantly weeping over the low estate of his people. An exalted master does not deserve a parochial people. But sadly, this was exactly the condition of those whom Jeremiah was endeavoring to lift to the sublimity of princely lifestyle. YAHWEH wailed, and His faithful prophet followed the same order.
With a burdened heart and profound agony Jeremiah cried, “O land, land, land, hear the Word of the LORD!” This was the essence of his cry: “Hear, O earth; behold, I am bringing evil upon this people” (Jer.6:19). The Hebrews term their land ‘erets’. Until today the people living there are called to bear witness to YAHWEH’s faithfulness and productiveness. The earth is always present to vouch for YAHWEH’s wail: “Cursed is the ground because of you. Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you” (Gen.3:17, 18). What an obvious witness to the awful consequence of human transgression!
God saw everything he created as good. Following man’s disobedience and rebellion, God’s curse fell on earth. That which had yielded good produce at the creation became ugly, bearing thorns and thistles. Could there be a more vivid witness than erets to verify the divine cry? After sin entered, the beautiful, unpolluted earth became a testimony to the corrupting effect of sin. That unspoiled earth on which our race was to enjoy life in peace and balmy ambience immediately suffered man’s transgression.
Fallen man passed on his sinfulness to the land and the affected land its debasement to depraved man. “For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but by the will of him who subjected it in hope” (Rom.8:20). The Almighty Creator travails for creature-man’s disheartening state with all its repercussions. “Likewise, the whole creation groans in travail together until now” (Rom.8:22). None of us lives to himself. Sin’s chain-reaction was immediate and absolute. And it displays itself ever increasingly. The Creator’s most valuable endowment to man is continuously tarnished as our race’s outrageous behavior affect the earth in alarming proportions. “Cursed is the ground because of you.”
“Hear O earth; behold I am bringing evil upon this people… O land, land, land, hear the Word of the LORD.” When Cain murdered his brother, he was cursed from the ground. You opened yourself to receive Abel’s blood shed by Cain’s hand. Bloodguilt has become one of the chief offenses of man since that time. Prior to the flood you became corrupt in God’s sight. You were identified with man and filled with violence. The just Judge said, “I will destroy them with the earth (Gen.6:11, 13). Murder and crime and a lot of other horrifying acts brought further judgment on the earth.
Is there any iniquitous, heinous human act that doesn’t affect our cursed earth? Hatred, war, destruction, conflicts of all dimensions, pollution of every sort, nuclear waste, BSE (Mad Cow Disease), bird flu, human exploitation, slavery, poverty, drought, forest fires, famine, and many more displays of agony. Aren’t natural disasters part of the earth’s bondage to decay? The land over which man exercises authority could not divorce itself from our plight (cf. Hab.2:17). The depraved condition of man will lead to ultimate judgment: “The nations raged, but thy wrath came… and for destroying the destroyers of the earth” (Rev.11:15).
The LORD, man, the earth. YAHWEH summons a most solemn litigation: The Judge, the accused, the aggrieved. In this grave case the even-handed Sovereign is the judge and the earth the complainant. Severe and equitable is the judicial case: “Hear, you peoples, all of you; hearken, O earth, and all his holy temple” (Mic.1:2). How can man, bearing the tag of destroyer and corrupter, acquit himself? Where is the lawyer to assume such a formidable defence? Who is in a position to transform man from destroyer to preserver? Human sin has sullied the spotless earth. The beautiful land has become unsightly as a result of my ugly behavior. Sinful man disfiguring so many meticulous sites with graffiti is increasingly marring the face of the earth. Our sins cry out against us.
While many people listlessly carry on their affairs, the darkened earth is groaning and its Maker wailing. “The wages of sin is death.” Death’s embrace grips the offended earth. The effect of death has penetrated the waters and the air. Death’s sway is ubiquitous. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of God’s children… Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom.8:19, 24). Only the Person from above is in a position to transform both man and earth: “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation… Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… (2 Cor.5:17; Rev.21:1). His unmistakable utterance, “It is finished” heralded the good news for both man and earth. He took on Himself the curse of both.
While man is seeking ways to recycle his rubbish and other waste, God has provided a way to recycle wasted man. There can be no renewal or regeneration apart from this for either man or earth. God’s summons is to hear: “He who has an ear, let him hear!” Depraved creatures’ prime defect is ineptitude to hear. Nevertheless, the whole human race must hear the LORD’s grave summons. A clear responsibility rests on the person who has esteemed Christ’s high calling for salvation to proceed in awakening his fellow-men to God’s momentous call, “O land, land, land, hear the Word of the LORD.”
III. The Abhorrent Desecration of the Altar (I Kings 13:2-32)
Man’s propensity to religion is universal. Religious convention knows no limit. Its most common attenuations are sacred sites, cherished relics, endless altars and shrines. These revered locations or artifacts fascinate endless streams of people. The renown of any shrine always generates deep devotion, commitment and attachment such as few other objects can match. Altars are known to have gripping power over nations, regions or religions, stimulating consecrational dependence or penitential solace.
Such was Jeroboam’s altar at Bethel, inaugurated by himself. It rivaled the temple in Jerusalem, thus securing the adherence of those in the northern kingdom. One day while the king was standing at the altar to burn incense, suddenly a man of God appeared, hailing from the land of Judah. He cried, “O altar, altar, thus says the LORD, ‘Behold a son shall be born to the house of David… Behold the altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are upon it shall be poured out’” (I Kings 13:2, 3). The rest makes for an engaging account: The king’s anger, his stretched-out and then dried-up hand, tearing down of the altar and its ashes poured out, the plea to restore the hand and entreaty by the prophet of the LORD for favor, recovery of the hand.
Altars and shrines proliferate in this wide earth and all of them have an unimaginable pull on the sick, afflicted, poor, distressed, unmarried, childless, beggars, business persons, athletes, you-name-it. The amount of cash flowing into these places often equals the capital of big-time businesses. The bondage to altars has no parallel. Belief in their adequacy supersedes devotion to the living, loving, saving God. Since the first-recorded altar erected by Noah, ensuing altar-building has often gone awry and deteriorated into meaningless performance. Many altars fall in the category which was denounced by that unnamed man of God and numerous other prophets. In Amos’s and Hosea’s day, altars which multiplied in Israel were termed as ‘inducing to sin’ (Hosea 8:11; 10:2). The fearless Old Testament prophets were undaunted in denouncing all altar practices.
Hosea ridiculed the seat of altars by calling the site Beth-aven (House of Iniquity – cf. 4:15; 5:8; 10:5, 8). He pled with those running to makeshift altars, “Enter not into Gilgal, nor go up to Beth-aven.” On the other hand, Amos disparaged altar fans, “Come to Bethel and transgress to Gilgal, and multiply transgression…” (4:4). He then related his vision: “I saw the LORD standing beside the altar and He said, ‘Smite the capitals until the thresholds shake and shatter them on the heads of all the people'” (9:1). Both Hosea’s and Amos’s somber alarm is God’s absolute reminder to everyone, “Keep away from altars.” “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
Micah enters into rationale with his people as to the proper manner of approach to God: “With what shall I come before the LORD?” (6:6). Following his rebuffing of altar-oriented observances and hollow ritualism, he summarizes the Lord’s absolute requirement: “To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Long before Micah, Moses established the unalterable dictum (cf. Deut. 10:12, 13). Samuel’s irreversible truism recited to Saul is the message of all (cf. 1 Samuel 15:22). Jeremiah stresses the same maxim (cf. Jer.7:22, 23). David in the deep intensity of his heinous sin cries his heart out (cf. Psalm 51:16, 17). Go to Isaiah (1:11-15) and to Hosea (6:6). The emphasis of each is the same, as was the scribe’s self-discovery who came to reason with the Savior (cf. Mark 12:33).
The Pharisees were very scrupulous against altars or shrines erected to false gods. On the other hand, every domain of their arrogant hearts was full of cherished shrines. To detect these one must read Christ’s pronouncements against them in Matthew 23. They had long forgotten to read their own prophets or meditate upon what YAHWEH was saying. The One presaged by the unnamed prophet to altar-building Jeroboam was in their midst. He came to tear down every false altar they were cherishing, pour out the blackened ashes and institute the only valid altar in Golgotha.
These people enjoyed their wealth, position and reputation. While the land was full of oppressed and deprived folks, whose sufferings the leaders were obliged to alleviate through the solace of religion, they instead exploited religion to bolster their own privileges. They were not actually worshipping the only true God whose authority they were championing; conversely, they were embracing a multitude of altars in their unregenerate hearts and were following a self-made religion. The very orthodox rules and regulations which they were protecting with scrupulous zeal had already become altars governing their hearts. The origin of the rules they venerated no longer held sway over their pitiful lives. The Son from the house of David stood up to their insipid behavior, tearing down all their self-constructed altars and exposing their infamous nature. This is why they hated him with intense malice, paving the road to the Cross.
Similar altars are sneering from religiously-oriented, but spiritually impervious lives. The Pharisees are a warning to us all. Jesus Christ said, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” Then He proceeded to enlighten his disciples concerning the nature of the molesting leaven: “It is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1).
In these times, while billions are running to makeshift altars disregarding God’s revealed pronouncement, others are engrossed by diverse altars or shrines which captivate heart, mind and spirit: self-esteem, self-promotion, self-congratulation, striving for reputation, covetousness, pursuit of wealth and mirth, passion, achieving status, craving for recognition and so on. Add to these national pride or religious importance… “O altar, altar, behold a Son shall be born to the house of David.”
In view of the awful abuse of the altar concept, the divine affirmation comes to the person willing to tear down his false altars and pour out the ugly ashes: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat” (Hebrews 13:10). This altar is the Cross where my altar-prone life must be crucified. Turn to the exalted Christ who is interceding for you as high priest in heaven.
Thomas Cosmades © 2005