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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Occupy Till He Comes

Mar 25, 2020

In a sense we Christians carry on as normal, even in a time of crisis:

The other day I wrote a piece about no more business as usual. In it I mainly had in mind two broad concerns: One, that non-Christians cannot keep living selfish, greedy lives as if God does not exist. In dark times like this the wisest thing they can do is start thinking about eternity, and the God with whom they have to do. With this crisis we have had panic food buying and panic alcohol buying. I await the proper response: panic Bible and Christian literature buying.

Two, much of what the West has been doing may well need to change or be radically reconsidered. The ideology of globalisation, porous open borders, over-reliance on places like China for pharmaceuticals, medicines, and cheap labour, and so on, hopefully will all start to change.

But here I want to talk about how the Christian might respond. And in many ways we might argue that it IS to be business as usual. That is, if we have a strong faith in our Lord, we will not be panicking, we will not be living in fear, and in many ways we will carry on as usual.

Thus with some obvious exceptions, I am carrying on as normal: I am spending time with family and friends, reading, praying, studying, writing articles, thinking theologically, walking the dog, making meals, washing dishes, taking out the garbage, engaging in the culture wars, seeking to encourage others, etc.

Unless I get some sort of clear word from the Lord to head for the hills, I will keep doing what I have been doing. As Jesus put it, “Occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13). And as a case in point, I just recently penned my 60th article in my Difficult Bible Passages series: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/03/22/difficult-bible-passages-1-corinthians-215/

I will keep on with what I have been doing – with some minor adjustments – unless something convinces me to make really radical changes. Sure, if 85 per cent of the global population dies in the next month, then I might get a bit more radical in some key areas, such as evangelising everyone I see. (At the moment of the 422,000 cases of COVID-19, we have had 18,900 deaths. That is 4.5 per cent.)

But in the meantime let me pick up on what I have written about recently. I have looked at earlier times of crisis and how Christians have responded. I mentioned Spurgeon for example and how he dealt with being a pastor in the midst of a cholera outbreak: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/03/15/dealing-with-disease-disaster-and-discipleship/

And I looked at how some believers are misusing a psalm like Ps. 91: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/03/10/difficult-bible-passages-psalm-9110/

Here I want to bring these two things together. What did Spurgeon have to say about this particular psalm? We of course have his classic work, The Treasury of David. So I pulled my copy off the shelves and found – as expected – plenty of gems.

Psalm 91 is certainly a wonderful psalm in times of crisis. In my article above I did not mean to imply it is of no use to the believer today. It most certainly is. Yes, we must be cautious about appropriating covenantal curses and blessings that Yahweh had made with ancient Israel, but there is much that can comfort us in this psalm. For example consider v. 7:

A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.

Or vv. 14-16:

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
    I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble;
    I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation.”

Again, this is not some ironclad promise to Christians today that they will NOT get coronavirus. The simple truth is plenty of Christians have got it, and a number have already died from it. So we must read and interpret such texts carefully and wisely. But they still provide great comfort and inspiration nonetheless.

So let me turn to what Spurgeon had to say about this psalm. If you have this terrific work, you will know that for each psalm he discusses he has a “EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS” section. This is what he said on verse 7:

Verse 7Ten thousand. The word myriad would better represent the exact idea in the original, as the Hebrew word is different from that which is translated “a thousand.” It is here put for any large number. Albert Barnes.

Verse 7It shall not come nigh thee. Not nigh thee? What? when they die on this side and on that, on every hand of a man, doth it not come nigh him? Yes, nigh him, but not so nigh as to hurt him: the power of God can bring us near to danger, and yet keep us far from harm. As good may be locally near us, and yet virtually far from us, so may evil. The multitude thronged Christ in the Gospel, and yet but one touched him so as to receive good; so Christ can keep us in a throng of dangers, that not one shall touch us to our hurt. Joseph Caryl.

Verse 7It shall not come nigh thee. Not with a view of showing that all good men may hope to escape from the pestilence, but as proofs that some who have had superior faith have done so, I have collected the following instances from various sources. C. H. S.

Before his departure from Isna (Isny), the town was greatly afflicted with the pestilence; and he, understanding that many of the wealthiest of the inhabitants intended to forsake the place, without having any respect or care of such as laboured with that disease, and that the houses of such as were infected, were commanded to be shut up by the magistrate, he openly admonished them, either to continue in the town, or liberally to bestow their alms before their departure, for the relief of such as were sick. And during the time of the visitation, he himself in person would visit those that were sick: he would administer spiritual comfort unto them, pray for them, and would be present with them day and night; and yet by the providence of God he remained untouched, and was preserved by the all powerful hand of God. From the Life of Paulus Fagius, in T. Fuller’s Abel Redevivus.

In 1576, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, the worthiest of all the successors of St. Ambrose, when he learnt at Lodi, that the plague had made its appearance in his city, went at once to the city. His council of clergy advised him to remain in some healthy part of his diocese till the sickness should have spent itself, but he replied that a bishop, whose duty it is to give his life for his sheep, could not rightly abandon them in time of peril. They owned that to stand by them was the higher course. “Well,” he said, “is it not a bishop’s duty to choose the higher course?” So back into the town of deadly sickness he went, leading the people to repent, and watching over them in their suffering, visiting the hospitals, and, by his own example, encouraging his clergy in carrying spiritual consolation to the dying. All the time the plague lasted, which was four months, his exertions were fearless and unwearied, and what was remarkable was, that of his whole household only two died, and they were persons who had not been called to go about among the sick. From “A Book of Golden Deeds,” 1864.

Although Defoe’s history of the plague is a work of fiction, yet its statements are generally facts, and therefore we extract the following: — “The misery of the poor I had many occasions to be an eyewitness of, and sometimes also of the charitable assistance that some pious people daily gave to such, sending them relief and supplies both of food, physic, and other help as they found they wanted… Some pious ladies were transported with zeal in so good a work, and so confident in the protection of Providence in discharge of the great duty of charity, that they went about in person distributing alms to the poor, and even visiting poor families, though sick and infected, in their very houses, appointing nurses to attend those that wanted attending, and ordering apothecaries and surgeons… giving their blessing to the poor in substantial relief to them, as well as hearty prayers for them. I will not undertake to say, as some do, that none of those charitable people were suffered to fall under the calamity itself; but this I may say, that I never knew anyone of them that came to any ill, which I mention for the encouragement of others in case of the like distress, and, doubtless, if they that give to the poor lend to the Lord, and he will repay them, those that hazard their lives to give to the poor, and to comfort and assist the poor in such misery as this, may hope to be protected in the work.” Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague in London.

Horne, in his notes on the Psalms, refers to the plague in Marseilles and the devotion of its bishop. There is a full account of him in the Percy Anecdotes from which we cull the following: — “M. de Belsunce, Bishop of Marseilles, so distinguished himself for his humanity during the plague which raged in that city in 1720, that the Regent of France offered him the richer and more honourable See of Laon, in Picardy; but he refused it, saying, he should be unwilling to leave a flock that had been endeared to him by their sufferings. His pious and intrepid labours are commemorated in a picture in the Town Hall of Marseilles, in which he is represented in his episcopal habit, attended by his almoners, giving his benediction to the dying… But perhaps the most touching picture extant of the bishop’s humane labours, is to be found in a letter of his own, written to the Bishop of Soissons, Sept. 27, 1720. `Never,’ he says, `was desolation greater, nor was ever anything like this. Here have been many cruel plagues, but none was ever more cruel: to be sick and dead was almost the same thing. What a melancholy spectacle have we on all sides’, we go into the streets full of dead bodies, half rotten through, which we pass to come to a dying body, to excite him to an act of contrition, and to give him absolution.'” Notwithstanding exposure to a pestilence so fatal, the devoted bishop escaped uninjured.

While France justly boasts of “Marseilles’ good Bishop,” England may congratulate herself on having cherished in her bosom a clergyman who in an equally earnest manner discharged his pastoral care, and watched over the simple flock committed to his charge, at no less risk of life, and with no less fervour of piety and benevolence. The Rev. W. Mompesson was rector of Eyam in Derbyshire, in the time of the plague that nearly depopulated the town in the year 1666. During the whole time of the calamity, he performed the functions of the physician, the legislator, and the minister of his afflicted parish; assisting the sick with his medicines, his advice, and his prayers. Tradition still shows a cavern near Eyam, where this worthy pastor used to preach to such of his parishioners as had not caught the distemper, Although the village was almost depopulated, his exertions prevented the spread of the plague to other districts, and he himself survived unharmed.

Amen. A time of crisis is a time for Christians to shine. While on the one hand we must take necessary precautions and care, on the other hand we also are to be a source of help and compassion to others. Francis Chan, who is now a missionary in Hong Kong, has the right idea:

Francis Chan encouraged the Church to view the coronavirus pandemic as “one of our greatest opportunities to reach a lost world and show them we haven’t lost our love, joy, and peace” instead of succumbing to fear and anxiety. “We can do all things through Christ, and that means even during this time,” Chan said in a March 20 video message posted on his Crazy Love YouTube channel. “There needs to be this resilience in us as believers. I think that is what the world, in the church, is being shown right now is how vulnerable, how volatile we are that one little thing could mess things up.” www.christianpost.com/news/francis-chan-tells-church-coronavirus-is-one-of-our-greatest-opportunities-to-reach-a-lost-world.html

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