(Manuscript basis of a sermon preached to the congregation of Ikthus Bacolod on 22 February 2022. Please note that the sermon actually delivered may vary from the contents of this manuscript.)
I hear, and my body trembles;
my lips quiver at the sound;
rottenness enters into my bones;
my legs tremble beneath me.
Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
to come upon people who invade us.
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.
To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. (ESV)
We are nearing the end of our series of messages on the book of Habakkuk although not just yet. I do hope to wrap up everything by next Sunday. I would like to thank you for your patience, attention, interest and appreciation all throughout.
A key theme in our studies is the just shall live by faith. We have been learning from the book of Habakkuk how we can live by faith in difficult times. We have learned that in order to do that we have to know our God, because the people who know their God will stand firm. Indeed, we have studied about God’s sovereignty as well as God’ sagacity. And finally, we will be meditating on God’s sufficiency – God is more than enough.
Just a brief remark about last Sunday’s sermon before we proceed. Some of you will remember that I mentioned a third point regarding God’s underlying purposes in everything he does, and that is, he intends to deliver or save his people completely. I realized however that that point overlapped a lot with the second point on God’s intention to demonstrate his mercy to his people in everything he does. For that reason, I am foregoing preaching on that point.
To proceed: Let me make a few brief comments on our text. It easily lends itself into three divisions, namely,
(1) We should be ready for suffering (v. 17).
(2) We should rejoice in God’s salvation (v. 18).
(3) We should rely on God’s strength (v. 19).
Today I will be discoursing on the first point: Though the fig tree should not blossom, etc.
In order to understand verse 17, we will have to go back to verse 16. In this verse, we find that Habakkuk is terrified by the terrible prospect that awaits his people, including himself. The cruel Chaldeans will soon be invading Judah and will certainly inflict terrible suffering on them. But in spite of this terrible prospect, Habakkuk is resolved to wait for God’s vindication and even to rejoice in the Lord.
By way of application, I observe here that feeling afraid is not necessarily a sin. As I have mentioned in a previous sermon, we are human beings, we are not made of stone; it is alright to feel fear in the face of that which is truly fearful, as long as we do not let it overcome our trust in God. It has been said, Courage, or in this case, faith, is not the absence of fear. It is the willingness and resolve to face your fears in the strength of the Lord.
Verse 16 is a picture of one of the terrible consequences of war: Famine. No food, no sustenance, no nourishment. Instead, widespread hunger. What we find here is what we call today an existential threat, a threat to our very existence. And it is a threat that threatens to sweep away both the righteous and the unrighteous. Which leads me to our point: We should be ready for suffering.
I am reminded of the point I made a few weeks ago in my very first sermon here at Ikthus Bacolod, that Christians are not exempted from the troubles that are common to man. In times of war, both righteous and unrighteous are swept away. And as I argued before, the same thing applies in times of plague: In a sense, this pandemic is no respecter of persons. The righteous can be infected and die of it while the unrighteous, on the other hand, may be spared. In support of this, I cited Ecclesiastes 8:14.
“There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous.” (ESV)
To this I must now add —
But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. (ESV)
In sum, we do not really know what is in store for us. In spite of our faithfulness, the worst things can still happen to us. It is all in the hands of God.
But this give rise to a very serious spiritual and practical problem: What happens now to God’s promise to protect and care for his people? If one event happens to all, if Christians are not exempt, where now is the distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous?
Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name. “They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. (ESV)
As early as during my first sermon here, the thought did cross my mind that that question could have arisen in the minds of many of you. And it is only right that I should both anticipate and address it, because it could cause a lot of doubt and uncertainty. Our goal therefore is to try to understand the true meaning of God’s promise to protect his people, especially in light of what we have learned regarding the non-exemption of the righteous from the worst that could happen.
In this regard, I intend to examine Psalm 91:10.
No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. (ESV)
Why this particular verse? I think the answer to that is obvious: It is probably the one verse most of us have relied on during this time of pandemic.
As you can see, on the surface it seems that what we have learned regarding the non-exemption of the righteous seems to contradict the clear meaning of this verse. But regardless of how you understand this verse, I think it is undeniable that covid-19 has in fact taken away the lives of many faithful believers who have sincerely and perseveringly claimed this promise of protection. What shall we make of this?
I think that in light of our experience during this pandemic, it is high time that we really examine this verse and search out its true meaning. On the one hand, we do not want to dilute the force of this promise and in the process make God a liar. On the other hand, we do not want to give people false hopes based on a misunderstanding of what this verse really means, as that could lead to disaster.
In order to search out the true meaning of this promise, there are a number of things we must consider.
1. Preliminary consideration.
There’s no question that we ought to trust in God’s promises and claim them especially when they’re very much applicable to situations we find ourselves in. But are we sure we really understand what these promises mean? You see, faith is not taking an isolated passage of scripture and taking it to mean what we want it to mean. Faith involves understanding the Scriptures according to the whole counsel of God, according to the balance of Scripture. Scripture interprets scripture. We shouldn’t interpret Scripture in a way that is repugnant to other verses of Scripture that bear on the same topic. We should see how they relate to one another, how they connect to each other, and how they can be reconciled with one another, so that we can have a balanced and correct understanding of what that particular Scripture or promise means. Otherwise, we will misinterpret it and misuse it. Just like what Satan did: he misused Scripture to tempt Jesus.
And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to guard you,
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’
And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (ESV)
2. Practical consideration.
We must take note of the fact that many of God’s promises are conditional in nature. Such is the case with respect to Psalm 91. The condition here is clearly that indicated in verses 1 and 2.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.” (ESV)
Thus, we must ask ourselves: Have we fulfilled the conditions laid down here? If not, we are not entitled to claim the fulfillment of this promise.
3. Spiritual Consideration.
God of course can and does fulfill his promises in a literal and physical manner. He’s not prevented from doing that. But many, if not all, of God’s promises have in view a far greater spiritual and even eternal fulfillment, rather than just a literal, temporal fulfillment. If you read Psalm 91:10 you will notice that before the Psalmist says, “No plague shall come near your tent (or your home or dwelling),” he first says, “No evil shall be allowed to befall you.” As I said, I do not deny that God may and does fulfill this promise literally, but I do not think that is the main point of this passage. In a devotional that he gave, Tim Keller pointed out that in interpreting Psalm 91 we must take note of its literary genre. Psalm 91 belongs to the genre of Hebrew poetry. Poetry makes use of figures of speech to communicate a point. The main point of this verse is not so much that a plague will literally not come near your home, but the spiritual point that no evil will befall you. In other words, the words “no plague will come near your tent” is not really the main point of this verse. It is a metaphor, a figure of speech, intended to illustrate the more important spiritual point that no matter what happens to you, at the end of the day no harm will come to you. It is as if no plague can come to your home.
Tim Keller makes the same point using another passage.
You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (ESV)
Obviously, it will be absurd to interpret verse 18 literally. Jesus has already said that some of you will be put to death. In which case, it does not make sense for him to say that “Not a hair of your head will perish,” unless he intended it as a metaphor to convey the more important spiritual point that even if you die you are safe in the Father’s hand.
4. Motivational or Psychological Consideration.
Incidentally, we should search our hearts and ask ourselves whether our insistence that this promise be always fulfilled literally and never spiritually is actually motivated not by faith based on a proper understanding of God’s Word, but by fear of suffering. What do I mean?
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. (ESV)
Clearly, this passage was intended to prepare the hearers or the disciples for the possibility of being put to death by their persecutors. But their comfort and their strength in the face of that terrible prospect is the fact that the Father loves them, even though they are not exempted from the worst that could happen. And interestingly, Jesus mentions once again “the hairs of your head,” although this time the emphasis is not on their hairs not perishing but on their hair being numbered. But the point remains the same as that which Jesus made in Luke 21:18: God cares for you, regardless of the worst that could happen; so, do not be afraid.
5. Theological Consideration.
Even if we assume that Psalm 91:10 is a promise that must be literally fulfilled, God reserves the right not to fulfill it in the way we expect, so that he may fulfill it in a much better way.
For example: You ask God for a bicycle. He gives you a brand-new Tesla. Will you complain that he did not give you exactly what you asked for?
In the case of Daniel’s three friends, they believed with all their hearts that God would deliver them, but they put in this qualification, “But if not.” In other words, they recognized God’s right to fulfill his promise in a way that exceeded their expectations. And that is exactly what happened. God fulfilled his promise of deliverance in a better way: He allowed them to go through the fire but all along they were safe in it because his presence was with them. And this was better than being simply not put in the fire in the first place. They were delivered in an unexpected manner and at the same time they got to enjoy the Son of God’s glorious presence with them. God fulfills his promises in a way that is contrary to our expectations because it is much better that we have intimacy with him than mere immunity from life’s pain.
In fine, God reserves the right not to fulfill his promise in the way we expect in order to fulfill it in a much better way, in a way that far exceeds all our expectations. What is that better fulfillment?
2 Corinthians 1:20
For all the promises of God find their “Yes” in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. (ESV)
Christ himself is the better fulfillment of all the promises. If you have Christ you have everything you can ever desire and everything you need.
Think about it: Will you exchange the riches of your salvation in Christ for the riches of this world? Will you exchange the eternal life and security you have in Christ in favor of exemption from covid-19?
And think about any promise you want to claim from the Scriptures, or any prayer request you want to make to God:
Health? When Christ returns, we will be given glorified bodies that will never get sick, never feel pain and never die.
Wealth? In Christ we have eternal mansions and treasures that neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, reserved in heaven for you. We will be walking on streets of gold and residing in an eternal city whose gates are made of purest pearl! And above all, Christ himself is our wealth.
1 Corinthians 1:30–31
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (ESV)
And above all because we have Christ, we have God himself – He who has seen me has seen the Father – and if we have God, we have everything. The point of all the promises is not really health and wealth. It is God himself. And the only way to have God is through Christ. Therefore, the sum of all the promises, the fulfillment of all the promises, the gist, the essence of all the promises, whether it be health, wealth, protection, safety, joy, happiness, life, salvation, family, love, is God in and through Christ. That is why all the promises find their “yes” in Christ.
So, at the end of the day the more important question is not: How can I make sure that Psalm 91:10 will be literally fulfilled in my case? How can I make sure this plague will literally not come near to my house? It is, Am I in Christ in whom all the promises find their Yes and Amen? Am I covered by the blood of the lamb so that even if the plague of physical death were to overtake me, I am still truly and eternally safe in God’s hands? Do I dwell in the shelter of the Most High? Do I abide in the shadow of the Almighty through faith in Jesus Christ? Christ is that shelter, Christ is that shade and shadow of the Almighty and our refuge and fortress. Christ is the fulfillment of Psalm 91. He is all the protection you need. Are you in him?