The Scriptures are full of places where people say they believe in the Lord, or think they believe in the Lord, and yet fall under the judgment of God. Perhaps best known are Jesus words concerning the day when many will come and say “Lord, Lord” only to hear the words “Depart from me, I never knew you!” (Matthew 7). The prophet Zephaniah gives a similar warning. Below are two practical ways in which we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are walking with God when we are not.
The first has to do with worshipping other gods, the Lord declaring impending judgment upon “those who bow down and swear to the LORD and yet swear by Milcom” (Zephaniah 1:5). Notice that the Lord is not explicitly rejected, for the people swear by the Lord. Yet another god is given place alongside him. In the end, regardless of how we might think, this is a wholesale rejection of the Lord. Israel learned this early and in dramatic fashion when the Lord judged Israel for making and worshipping a golden calf, despite Aaron the priest’s declaration that “tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD” (Exodus 32:5). As always, the commandment holds—“you shall have no other gods before (or alongside) me” (Exodus 20:3). It is easy, and common, to believe we are trusting the Lord when in fact we have other trusts alongside him. This is why Paul calls covetous idolatry (Colossians 3:5), for the covetous heart can claim to love God while desiring what God has not given us to have. It can claim to trust God while really trusting in mammon (Matthew 6:19-24). Herein lies the deception, and thus the danger. As a husband insists that his wife trusts him (and not another man) and desires him (and not another man), so the Lord insists upon the trust and affection of his people. The Lord is a jealous God.
The second has to do with what we might call practical atheism, when the Lord will bring judgment upon “those who say in their hearts ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill’” (Zephaniah 1:12). It is entirely possible to believe in the Lord theoretically, while denying him practically. The main reason that we will allow ourselves to sin in secret in ways that we would never allow ourselves to sin in public is precisely this—we don’t believe in the end that the Lord will do anything about it. In other words, it is entirely possible to be a theoretical Christian and a practical atheist, forgetting that “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
The great danger of both of these is that the people did not outwardly reject the Lord, even as they practically denied him, either by having other gods alongside him or by living practically as if he did not exist, or was not paying attention. The wayward heart is easily (and willingly) deceived, happy to maintain the form of godliness while knowing nothing of its power. Yet, by our fruits we shall be known.
But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fee and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord (Jonah 1:3).
The precision with which the prophet writes of his disobedience speaks to a deep truth. Jonah fled, not from Nineveh, but from the presence of the Lord. Not once, but three times in this first chapter does the prophet record the direction of his flight—from the presence of the LORD (1:3, 10).
For Jonah, the reason for his flight from the Lord seems to be the Ninevites, the people to whom he was called to preach. As is common in the Old Testament, the Lord sends the prophet with a word of judgment, with the hope that such a word will lead to repentance, thereby allowing the Lord to relent and extend mercy to a wicked city. But Jonah knew the merciful character of God, and therefore, wanting nothing but judgment for Nineveh, he fled from the Lord.
In the end, disobedience is not flight from a particular calling or task, but a flight from God. This is true whether the calling is something seemingly great, such as preaching to the Ninevites, or seemingly small, such as determining to speak kindly to one’s angry neighbor or irritated spouse. Our disobedience, in the end, has little to do with the Ninevites or the neighbor, but God—the God whose character is to forgive, and who calls his people to love their enemies. We will either run toward God or away from him, and our flight will have much to do with our willingness to obey. But we deceive ourselves if we believe that our disobedience—in the seemingly small or great—is anything less than running from God.
The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore (Psalm 121:7-8).
When this psalm was written is not entirely clear. But didn’t the psalmist know of Joseph, who was separated from his family and unjustly sold into slavery? Did he know of the sufferings of Job, who was blameless and upright, fearing God and shunning evil? Was he aware of the heart-wrenching cries of Jeremiah, who the Lord told beforehand that he would suffer at the hands of those to whom he spoke? What of the other Old Testament prophets killed for bearing the word of the Lord? Would he have thought it strange to hear Jesus tell his disciples that some of them would suffer death, and yet not a hair on their heads would perish? What would he have made of Peter’s words, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). What would he have made of Jesus’ cries “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”
There are two ways to look at the acclamation of Psalm 121, both of which are important. The first is that the Lord does keep his own from all evil: “In all this Job did not sin… (Job 1:22). In other words, being kept from evil may not mean being kept from suffering, but rather being kept from evil as one goes through suffering. The second is that the Lord really does keep the lives of the faithful, even in death. For the Christian, death is passing. Resurrection is the end. Jesus of course knew this, for it was the joy set before him that gave him the strength to endure the cross. For his God would keep him from all evil, even as he hung on a cross. God would keep his life—forever. Easter morning is a testimony that his God did exactly that, and further a testimony that God will do the same for those who are in Christ.
If we are not careful, and if we don’t read it in light of the rest of the Bible, then Psalm 121 can sound unrealistic or pie-in-the-sky. Yet each one mentioned above was kept from evil. The Lord kept their lives. He kept their goings out and comings in, whether by life or by death. This is crucial, for unless we believe that the Lord keeps our lives, we will succumb to discouragement in the midst of suffering, of whatever variety, thinking that the Lord has left us. Furthermore, unless we believe that the Lord keeps his people—their goings out and their comings in—we will live fearfully and too cautiously, and never confront the darkness of this evil world that desperately needs light.
In the end, Psalm 121 testifies to the promise that the Lord makes to all his children—“I will be with you.” This is the blessed hope that strengthens the church to live faithfully in a world bound by evil.
Depart from me, you evildoers, that I may keep the commandments of my God (Psalm 119:115).
The deepest desire of the Christian is to walk faithfully in the ways of the Lord. Because this is so, there are times he will make difficult decisions. Included in those decisions is the company that the Christian keeps, for he knows his own heart, and he knows the real possibility, even probability, that keeping the wrong company will lead him away from faithfulness.
This danger is well expressed in the Scriptures. Examples are legion, but let me give two. In the Old Testament, God’s call to the Israelites to wipe out the inhabitants of the land was not only as a judgment against the Canaanites for their sexual sin, murder, oppression and child sacrifice, but also because “they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods” (Deuteronomy 7:4). The danger of Israel associating with evildoers was real. Likewise, Paul wrote for the Corinthian church not to associate with the sexually immoral who called themselves Christians, so that the sinner might repent and find life and so that the Christian community would not be led into sin. As Paul asks, “do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:6). For Paul, refusing to separate from evildoers leads not just to the possibility of unfaithfulness, but to its inevitability.
There are several things worthy of note in the psalmist’s words. First, the psalmist is proactive. He calls for the separation from evildoers. He does not wait, or hope, that evildoers will depart. Rather, he calls for it. Secondly, he is clear why he is so doing—he is determined to keep the commandments of God. There is no sanctimony here, no holier-than-thou attitude, no thought that “I am better than you.” Rather, the psalmist recognizes that the company of the wicked will hinder his ability, or perhaps more accurately his willingness, to keep the law of the Lord. Thirdly, the psalmist doesn’t mince words, or try to soften the blow to those to whom he speaks. This is grace in its own way, for doers of evil need to understand that they do evil. In other words, it appears that the psalmist is walking out Paul’s command given centuries later: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11).
There is, of course, a danger of sanctimony. We see this often in the attitude of the Pharisees, so zealous of remaining separate, toward those they deemed to be sinners, perhaps most starkly expressed in the prayer of the Pharisee who prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” (Luke 18:11). But sanctimony is not a danger for those who know their own weakness. The psalmist does not act out of pride or an inflated sense of self, but out of his own understanding of his weakness. As he prays in the following verses “Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope! Hold me up, that I may be safe and have regard for your statutes continually!” (119:116-117).
Jesus sends his disciples into the world, even as they are not to be of it (John 17). May the Lord grant us wisdom to know what that looks like for us, and the courage to carry it out.