Sing About It!

For the week of February 4, 2023 / 13 Shevat 5783

Message information over an image of a man performing in song

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4 – 5:31
Revised version of message posted the week of July 2, 2011 / 30 Sivan 5771

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Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Shemot/Exodus 15:1)

The Bible has several examples of songs that were written to commemorate significant events in the lives of the people. The main purpose of singing such songs was to help the community remember the character and power of God. The retelling of an event’s details helps us to get in touch with very specific elements of God’s character and power. It is one thing to proclaim that God is good and strong in general terms; it’s another to recount specific good things he did and exactly how he did them. While it is good to be aware of God’s characteristics in an abstract way, we connect with those abstract realities more effectively when we have actual examples to remember.

Retelling events through song has several other advantages over merely speaking or reading about them. The process of writing the song provides the opportunity for the writer or writers to carefully ponder the details of the event and their significance to others. This results in more than the cold recalling of facts, but also allows for the retention of the meaning of the event for generations to come. Songs are a lot easier to remember and have the tendency to get passed on to future generations. The poetic nature of songs, especially well-written ones, give future generations the opportunity to not only relive the original event, but ponder its significance all over again, while reflecting upon how past lessons can be applied to the present. Due to the nature of song, some of this happens unconsciously.

In most cultures throughout history song has held a very important place. Our own day is no exception. In fact, there may have never been a time when song has been as prevalent as it is today. But when I think of the content of most songs, very few are of the nature of those which we find in Scripture. Most contemporary songs (and there are exceptions) are about feelings and desires of the moment. These songs are highly emotional and subjective. This is not to say that there is no place for this kind of song – the Psalms include examples of such, though the perspective of the Psalms is very different from most contemporary songs. The tendency of much of today’s songs reveals the current state of most people, which is obsessed with self and the pursuit of pleasure. This tendency has spilled over into much of what may be considered as spiritually minded songs as well.

Another difference between songs in the Bible and songwriting today is the influence of commercialism and social media. If making money isn’t our motive, then at least we want to garner as much attention as possible. The result is that our songwriting motive has become more about self and popularity than God and our and future generation’s need to remember who he is and what he has done.

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we began to write and sing songs simply about the great works of God as they are happening in our lives today? Have you, your family, or community gone through some significant event the recounting of which would benefit generations to come? Perhaps you or your loved ones have survived an ordeal of some kind? Did God see you through financial hardship, serious illness or accident? Maybe you are part of a congregation that almost dissolved but has seen a remarkable rejuvenation. Maybe your community is recuperating from a natural disaster. Maybe something terrible has happened to you or your loved ones, and there are some important lessons that should never be forgotten. Whatever it might be, it deserves a song. It might be sad or happy or both, but it needs to be sung.

Since it is always important to be true to one’s own words, I recently recorded and posted to YouTube an updated version of a simple song I wrote in my first year as a believer. You can view it here:

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Why So Negative?

For the week of January 28, 2023 / 6 Shevat 5783

Message info along with a photo of of a man who just endured a self-caused explosion

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28

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Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD.” (Shemot/Exodus 10:1-2)

I have been told on more than one occasion that I am too negative. You may think the glass is half-full, while I may not even see a glass! That’s an exaggeration, I hope. But I would be careful about drinking that water, since it might be poison. One of my roles at a high-tech firm some years ago was quality control. I don’t know if that was a good idea for someone like me. Not that I wasn’t good at it. I may have been too good as I would find all sorts of problems that the designers never dreamed of. I was a natural. Is it my fault that when I walk into a room, I immediately notice the one picture frame that’s a bit off? Not to mention wondering what that squeaky noise is. And do I smell something burning?

This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the positive. I love it when things work well. Perhaps it’s possible that the reason why I am so sensitive to the negative is because I love the good so much. Where I need to be most careful is in relating to people in the process. I need to choose when, how, and with whom to mention negatives. Sometimes negatives should be overlooked for the sake of relationships and various life priorities. But it may not surprise you to learn that I am concerned that overlooking the negative for some greater good is happening far too often in our day, as we are, in my opinion, not taking the negatives seriously enough.

God called Moses to confront a great negative. Pharaoh, king of Egypt, enslaved the people of Israel in order to prevent them from ever joining forces with an enemy army. God sent Moses and his brother Aaron to demand Israel’s release. Pharaoh’s refusal to heed God’s word resulted in another negative – a set of negatives – the ten plagues. The Hebrew words for plague, are better translated as “strike.” God pummeled Egypt over and over again until Pharaoh gave way. Even then, after Israel headed out, he attempted to bring them back, resulting in his army drowning in the sea. So much negative.

A previous job I had was that of a business college instructor. As I was starting out, I was informed by one of the veteran instructors that she preferred to correct students’ papers in green ink, since the traditional red was deemed to be too negative. At the time, as the new guy, I went along with it. But looking back, we weren’t highlighting the correct answers but pointing out the errors. We did that to show the students where they needed to improve in order to give them the best chance of succeeding in the workplace. I, like anyone else, don’t find pleasure in having my mistakes highlighted, but there’s a time to unambiguously point out mistakes.

Pharaoh was making a huge mistake. People were unjustly suffering due to his selfish motives. He could have simply acquiesced to God’s demand and saved himself and his people from needless suffering, but he didn’t. According to the design of the world which God made, Pharaoh’s arrogance was destined to lead to terrible consequences unless he changed course. Welcome to Planet Earth, Pharaoh.

Welcome to Planet Earth, everyone! How much longer can society pursue its current course before God’s judgment is poured out? Pharaoh and company went years and years thinking they could get away with treating their fellow human beings as a commodity. But it was only a matter of time before God would say, “Enough is enough.” The same is true for our day. We mistake God’s patience for either his non-existence or his disinterest. Worse, many in the name of faith in Messiah, put a positive spin on his intentions, ascribing to God love for humans not that different from that of a child for his puppy. God indeed yearns for us to know his goodness for all eternity. He longs to rescue us from our misguided and selfish behavior. Yet, he will only wait so long before millions will finally and permanently suffer the consequences.

Am I being too negative? Then I guess a physician diagnosing cancer is also too negative. It is not positive spin on my part (I wouldn’t do that!) to say the cancer diagnosis is an expression of goodness despite its negativity. Heeding the negative appropriately is the pathway to an enduring positive outcome. Unless we begin to see the negatives for what they are, we will not experience the positives in the way God desires for us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


The Dynamics of Arrogance

For the week of January 21, 2023 / 28 Tevet 5783

Message info over a photo of the Nile River bordered top and bottom with colored maple leaves

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21

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Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will bring a sword upon you, and will cut off from you man and beast, and the land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste. Then they will know that I am the LORD. “Because you said, ‘The Nile is mine, and I made it,’ therefore, behold, I am against you and against your streams, and I will make the land of Egypt an utter waste and desolation, from Migdol to Syene, as far as the border of Cush. (Ezekiel 29:8-10)

This week’s haftarah (excerpt from the Hebrew prophets) was most likely selected due to its references to Egypt and, particularly, Pharaoh, Egypt’s king. Both are concerned with God’s judgment on Pharaoh and his land even though the circumstances addressed by Ezekiel are very different from those faced by Moses. In Moses’ day, Israel had witnessed God’s heavy hand of judgment upon Pharaoh for refusing to heed God’s demand to let his people go. Centuries later Ezekiel prophesied an even greater devastation upon Egypt. It isn’t clear if the “desolation and waste” mentioned in the verses I quoted occurred around that time or if it is yet in the future. That doesn’t concern me as much as the reason stated by God for his harsh judgment.

Pharaoh’s arrogance in Ezekiel’s day is captured by God’s rebuke of Pharaoh’s saying, “The Nile is mine, and I made it.” The Nile River played a most essential role in Egypt. The country’s agriculture and economy were dependent on the Nile. The Land of Israel had relatively little fresh water and was thus utterly dependent on rain for survival. If sufficient rain didn’t fall at the right time of year, drought and famine would be the result. The Nile, on the other hand, functioned as a reliable, continual water source for Egypt despite its being surrounded by desert.

The presence of such a water resource would naturally lead the Egyptians to have a great sense of security. They were aware of their special possession especially in contrast to the intense water needs of their neighbors. It is understandable that such a culture would regard themselves as specially favored by their gods. One might think that the events of Moses’ time would have cured them of such a perspective but evidently not. In fact, not only would Egypt take pride in their gods, Pharaoh also eventually regarded himself in divine terms, identifying, or more correctly, overidentifying with his gods to the extent that he took credit for creating the Nile. I would expect most moderns to react to such a claim as rooted in a misguided worldview of foolish superstitions. However it was that Pharaoh came to assert such a claim, God deemed it worthy of devastating consequences.

How did Pharaoh come to think of himself in this way? Did he really and truly believe he made the Nile? Perhaps it was common in his culture to regard the king as the incarnation of a deity. Perhaps there are countries today that still think this way, but could you imagine in Canada where I live, for example, having a special ceremony where a priest or holy man waves his hand over our Prime Minister to transform him from a normal human being like the rest of us into the personification of some god or other? From that point on, whatever he says is the god’s word, while everyone else must obey or be killed. When he walks by, his people must bow in deference as he proclaims, “The maple syrup is mine, and I made it!”

I trust you’re chuckling. But think again. While world leaders generally don’t speak in such deified terms, they and those who support them are increasingly regarding themselves as the great benefactors of their people. I cannot remember how many times in the past three years our Prime Minister has said that it is his responsibility to keep Canadians safe, warming the hearts of an apparent majority of the population. Without getting into the technicalities of our parliamentary system, when did that become his responsibility? When a country’s leader begins to assume the role of ultimate parent, assuming he or she has the authority and power to determine what constitutes safe and healthy behavior, it isn’t long before they have taken the role of God.

This kind of arrogance, with or without replicating Pharaoh’s type of wording, is becoming more and more common among all sorts of authorities in traditional democracies. As God himself is neglected by a growing number of people, human authority naturally takes his place. Such a course will not end well.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Enduring Futility

For the week of January 14, 2023 / 21 Tevet 5783

Message info along with a leaky water bucket

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13, 29:22-23

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So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. (Shemot/Exodus 1:13-14)

The embryonic nation of Israel was preserved via God’s providence by migrating to Egypt through the unusual and painful circumstances that led to Joseph’s rise to prominence there. For some time, not sure exactly how long, the growing nation prospered in their temporary home. Eventually, an Egyptian king arose who became suspicious of them. He was concerned Israel would one day ally themselves with Egypt’s enemies, leading to Egypt’s demise. In an attempt to undermine such a possibility, the king imposed an oppressive policy to enslave Israel. As this failed to weaken the growing Hebrew nation, life for Israel got a lot worse before it got better, as the king decreed the murder of the Hebrew baby boys at birth.

From what we can tell, Israel suffered a long time, hundreds of years in fact, as slaves in Egypt before God sent Moses and his brother to rescue them. That this was foretold to Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:12-16) is little consolation for what must have been an unbearable situation. Later biblical history informs us that the vast majority of Israel’s suffering was due to its failure to live up to its covenantal obligations. There are several occasions when repentance brought almost immediate relief. But that’s not the case here. There is no indication whatsoever that Israel’s suffering was due to anything on their part, good or bad, except for their simply being there, a situation that had been originally determined by God for their welfare.

As I was preparing this message, I struggled to find meaning through Israel’s centuries-long oppression in Egypt. I was on the brink of deeming this period as utterly futile. I hate futility. I get very unsettled when I lose grasp of meaning. I don’t think I am alone. Even materialistic naturalists (those who believe the universe came into existence through nothing more than energy and matter plus chance), who reject that there is any objective meaning to life, can’t seem to live like that and so seek to find meaning anyway they can. Then, there’s the typical, “Everything is for a reason,” line that seems to make people feel better even if the mysterious reason is beyond comprehension.

In the case of Israel in Egypt, I do believe there is a futility aspect to it at least for the individuals who lived through it. There were innumerable Israelites, who were born into, lived through, and died in that most oppressive state. Perhaps the expectation of returning one day to the Promised Land provided some relief. We don’t know. We also don’t know how faith in the God of their fathers encouraged them day by day. If the behavior of the wilderness generation later on is any clue to the depths of their faith, then it was pretty shallow. I will come back to the futility in a moment.

From a big-picture viewpoint, Israel’s experience in Egypt wasn’t futile. God used their hardships there as a pressure cooker to develop Israel as a nation. Note that Israel didn’t come into being through the normal processes experienced by other people groups, but rather by God’s particular design. The Promised Land, likely due to its geographical peculiarities as a land bridge connecting Africa, Asia, and Europe, was home to a wide variety of people groups and influences. It’s possible that the clan that arose from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, would not have been able to become the substantial nation it did without the Egypt years. Also, if the political establishment in Egypt would have remained friendly to Israel, they may have been absorbed into the Egyptian people and would have not wanted to leave. The antagonism they experienced served to ensure their distinctiveness and their acquiring the Promised Land. Moreover, Israel’s experience in Egypt serves to illustrate the oppression all people are under. This sets up the great redemption God desires for all people through the Messiah.

All that might satisfy our yearning for meaning. It makes us feel better when reading about their hardships to see that there was a grand purpose behind it all. But what about them? They wouldn’t have been aware of any of this. The best they could have done was endure. In fact, some may have preferred an early death rather than continuing to go through such painful futility.

And that might be exactly how you are feeling right now. Like the Israelites, we may not know the grand purposes we are serving. Moreover, I am not convinced that everything that happens is for some precise intentional reason. And yet, we do know that according to the New Covenant Writings, based on stories like Israel in Egypt, that God uses everything for the good of his people (see Romans 8:28). This may not completely alleviate the pain we feel when confronted by apparent futility, but, if we let it, it will help see us through.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version