21 June 15
Series: The Book
Standing in the Breach
This is a useful tool for small group discussion, personal reflection or in a one-on-one conversation. We believe that if the Sunday teaching is discussed outside the morning services, it will be an opportunity to go deeper and build community because God's Word needs to be discussed in community.
We continue our Spring and Summer series called The Book. Over the next several months we are going to be teaching out of all the sections of the Bible and seeing how it’s put together, seeing common threads that connect the books of the Bible to make up The Book.
I’m a psychiatrist, and sometimes in my clinic distressed patients will wonder why God is doing this to them, or say God doesn’t care. I might then ask how they imagine God and what He is up to. Invariably, the view of God is one-dimensional and quite nebulous – a receptacle to pour anger and bitterness and blame into, but nothing more. He is, then, a God who serves an immediate purpose but is otherwise not real or relevant.
The Big Idea in the sermon this Sunday is the opposite: God is real and relevant. And, perhaps paradoxically, we’re going to use some of the more unusual and obscure parts of the Bible – the prophets – to emphasize the relevance and reality of God.
The world of the Old Testament prophets is a different world from ours. Isaiah walked around Jerusalem naked and barefoot for 3 years to illustrate how the Assyrians would carry off the rebellious. Jeremiah strapped a wooden yoke on to represent Judah’s oppression by Babylon. Ezekiel burned and scattered his hair and lay 390 days on his left side and 40 days on his right to bear the guilt of the people.
Question: How do we make sense of this? Can this be relevant to the 21st century? Think of a time in history you have either lived through or know about that seems so foreign as to be seemingly irrelevant now.
Many of us might think of a prophet as someone who foretells the future. That isn’t much of the story here. Or we might think of an Old Testament prophet as someone who is given a message by God to give to the people at large – the prophet as intermediary between God and the people. Usually this message is one of warning and coming judgment because of the people’s behaviour. This view is accurate and certainly a major role of most prophets.
Question: Think of examples in the OT of prophets and their messages. The delivery system goes, God-prophet-people. (Think: Jonah)
The prophet has another major role, however; one that is often overlooked. It’s when the delivery system goes in reverse: people-prophet-God. The prophet delivers his message of warning to the people, but then turns to face his boss and, as an intermediary in the opposite direction, asks, prays, persuades, and urges God Himself to change His mind. The Jewish scholar and theologian, Yochanan Muffs, has written brilliantly about this in Love & Joy (1992).
Read Genesis 20:1-7 and 18:22-33.
Abraham was a prophet (Genesis 20:7) and prays in this way for Abimelech. He then boldly petitions God about destroying the city of Sodom, and gets God to say He’ll relent if there are 50, then 45, then 40…right down to 10 righteous people within its walls.
Read Exodus 32:7-14 and Numbers 12:1-13.
The prophet Moses’ whole life was seemingly one long series of prayers, petitions, cunning arguments, and pleadings for God’s wrath to be withheld. He’s quite good at it. Psalm 106:23 records, “Therefore he [God] said he would destroy them – had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him.” Samuel is another prophet who does this often.
Question: What do these concrete and gritty stories tell us about God? Is He a nebulous and amorphous being who is unknowable? Or is He only too real?
Question: How can a human seem to change the mind of God?
When we come to the “major” prophets, a slight change occurs. After a list of His people’s sins, God says to Jeremiah, “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me…” (Jeremiah7:16). Don’t attempt the usual petitions, God says. In fact, abandon that prophetic role, don’t try it. “Do not pray for the welfare of this people” (Jeremiah 14:11). Poor Jeremiah.
Even later, in Ezekiel, God says, “And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none” (Ezekiel 22:30).
When defending an ancient city, when the wall had given way to the enemy’s onslaught and a hole – a breach – appeared, someone would stand in it to defend those inside from the attackers. The wall for Israel was their faithfulness in keeping God’s law. If that gave way, God’s wrath could be expected to pour through. The prophet stood in the breach and protected the people with his petitions. He did not argue their innocence; he argued their guilt, but asked for God’s mercy. See Thomas Leclerc, Introduction to the Prophets (2007), p45.
Finally, after so much failure and sin, in Ezekiel 22, God cries out, rhetorically, “Who will stand in the breach?” An answer is hardly expected. But then a hand goes up at the back of the class and quietly these words come in response: “Lo, I come to do your will, O God.” (Psalm 40:7-8/Hebrews 10:7).
Read the parable of the vineyard and the tenants in Luke 20:9-16.
The “heir,” the beloved son of the vineyard’s owner is finally sent, and He stands in the breach once for all. In the parable he is killed. In history, He is, too. He stood in the breach to protect the sinners from God’s punishing wrath. The petitions and arguments of the prophets were over. Judgment had been delayed over and over because of the prophets, but justice never served. So then Jesus stood in the breach.
Does the God of the prophets sound real? Yochanan Muffs writes this of Moses’ petitions on behalf of the Israelites: “Other gods would not have been moved by such…a human argument. But a God who turns toward man and is interested in man’s destiny and in man’s reaction to His commandments leaves Himself open…” (12-13).
Does the God who stood (and died) in the breach sound relevant? A God who is interested in the destiny of human beings did indeed leave Himself open – to the possibility that His own Son would willingly stand in the breach.
If interested in joining or starting a small group contact our Director of Worship and Discipleship Amanda Van Halteren firstname.lastname@example.org
While we don’t know a huge amount about Ezekiel, here is one way the venerable International Standard Bible Encyclopedia sums him up… Ezekiel was one Busy Man(!):
- Mystic and Visionary (his book opens with his “visions of God”; see also ch. 8-10. 37:1-10, Ch. 40-48)
- Member of the Elijah School – could Elijah have been carried away by a fiery chariot similar to the one described by Ezekiel (Ch.1)?
- Sound in body and mind: this was no recluse, but a man preaching in his time and place, among the exiles (Ch.1)
- Herald of individualism: this prophet not only calls for repentance, but repentance for personal sins (Ch. 18)
- Deuteronomic reformer: he emphasized the need for worship at the Jerusalem temple (Ch. 20) and denounced leaders for allowing the people to go astray on hilltops with occult shrines (Ch. 34)
- Priest: he condemned the nation for despising the “holy things” (Ch.22) but also spoke of a renewed temple and sacrifices (Ch. 40-48)
- Internationalist: why condemn your own people when you can also let ‘er rip again Tyre and Egypt as well, and remind Israel that aliens will have rights they are not being given now (Ch. 28, 29, 47)
- Herald of National Renewal: he proclaimed God’s gracious plan to bring back his dispersed people (Ch. 11, 34, 36)
- Poet and Dramatist: his vivid message was created using many literary forms, dramatic devices, allegories and poetry (Ch. 4, 5, 15, 17…)
- Prophet of the Word: he was told to “eat” the very words of lamentation and woe which he would speak to the people, absorbing them into his very being (Ch.2)
Not too shabby for a young man initially carried away to Babylon at the age of 25, just one in a crowd of thousands!
NEW Leclerc, Thomas L. Introduction to the Prophets: Their Stories, Sayings, and Scrolls. (New York, 2007)
NEW Muffs,Yochanan. Love and Joy: Law, Language, and Religion in Ancient Israel. (New York, 1992)
Arthur, Kay. Teach Me Your Ways: The Pentateuch (New Inductive Bible Study Series) Harvest House Publishers, 2002. ISBN: 978-0736908054. Begin at the beginning - Creation, marriage, sin, civilization. Then learn about God's continuing lovingkindness and faithfulness to His covenant people, even when they let Him down.
Geisler, Norman L., and Thomas A. Howe. When Critics Ask : A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992.
Grudem, Wayne et al. Understanding the Big Picture of the Bible: A Guide to Reading the Bible Well (p. 40). Crossway. Kindle Edition.)
Koukl, Greg. How Does the Old Testament Law Apply to Christians today? Available at the Stand to Reason website at http://www.str.org/articles/how-does-the-old-testament-law-apply-to-christians-today#.VTpOJSFVikp
Longman III, Tremper. Making Sense of the Old Testament. Baker Books, 1998. Answers 3 questions: What are the keys to understanding the OT? Is the God of the OT also the God of the NT? How is the Christian to apply the OT to life?
Redford, Douglas. The Pentateuch. (Vol. 1, Standard Reference Library: Old Testament). Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing, 2008.
Schreiner, Thomas. 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law. Kregel Publications, 2010. (ISBN 978-0825438912) – all that Law… what still applies to us? What doesn’t? Why or why not?
Zacharias, Ravi and Vince Vitale. Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn't Make Sense. FaithWords, 2014.