In hopeless times we need to put our trust in that which is fully reliable:
We live in exceedingly dark times. It seems wherever you look, wickedness and evil are in the ascendency, and it seems that this darkness is covering the whole earth. It can be overwhelming at times. One wonders if there is any way out of all this. One seeks for respite and a reprieve, but that seems to elude us.
The Christian is realistic. We know that sin abounds in this fallen world. Evil will always be with us. But we also know that there is hope, because God is not finished with us yet. God is working out his purposes, and one day all evil will end, and all darkness will disappear.
But right now we live in between the first and second coming of Christ. What Christ initiated 2000 years ago is now being partially realised, but will not be fully realised until he comes again. So we will see some victories, some breakthroughs, some real encouragement now, but we will also experience some losses, some setbacks, and some disappointments.
And as things get darker, it is so easy to concentrate on that darkness, and get our eyes off God. I know this is true for me. One of my main prayers of late has been to actually repent of my lack of faith, my lack of trust. I feel so overwhelmed at times, and the encroaching evil seems so palpable. I can focus too much on what is happening around me, and not on the one true God.
So I am asking God to help me increase my trust and my faith. I am praying the prayer of the father of the child healed by Jesus who said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). It is so easy to get discouraged and to lose all hope. And at times like that, when we take our eyes off the Lord, we can too readily look to other sources of hope.
We can look to the next election, or another politician, or a different set of laws, or a reformed education system, or a cleaned-up media, or a better country, or a more godly culture, and so on. Now do not get me wrong: all these things are important indeed. I have been working in all these areas, and we need to be engaged in this way.
But the trouble is, if we put all our hope and faith in these things, instead of God himself, then we will get our spiritual priorities all wrong, and we will end up looking to men and not God to be our deliverer. As I say, fighting in the culture wars and the like is vital, but at the end of the day we must put our full trust in and dependency on the only one who is worth leaning on: God himself.
This was a lesson ancient Israel kept needing to learn afresh. They so often found themselves in a real bad way, but instead of turning fully to Yahweh for help, they looked to others for their deliverance. That is why we have so many passages such as the following:
Psalm 20:7 Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
Psalm 33:16-17 No king is saved by the size of his army;
no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
despite all its great strength it cannot save.
Psalm 118:8-9 It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.
Psalm 146:3 Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.
Yet Israel so often did just this: they looked to other nations to help them out. They tried to make foreign alliances to keep them safe. In Isaiah 31:1-3 we read about this very thing:
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
who rely on horses,
who trust in the multitude of their chariots
and in the great strength of their horsemen,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
or seek help from the Lord.
Yet he too is wise and can bring disaster;
he does not take back his words.
He will rise up against that wicked nation,
against those who help evildoers.
But the Egyptians are mere mortals and not God;
their horses are flesh and not spirit.
When the Lord stretches out his hand,
those who help will stumble,
those who are helped will fall;
all will perish together.
Raymond Ortlund’s comments on this passage are worth sharing here. He opens his chapter with these words:
Heartbroken people gathered in a field in Pennsylvania where United flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001. It was a memorial service. Lisa Beamer, widow of one of the men who led a revolt against the hijackers, was among them. She later wrote:
“I couldn’t help but compare this service to the one in Cranbury the day before. Todd’s memorial service had been so uplifting, so inspiring, because the emphasis had been on hope in the midst of crisis. On Monday, as I listened to the well-intentioned speakers, who were doing their best to comfort but with little if any direct reference to the power of God to sustain us, I felt I was sliding helplessly down a high mountain into a deep crevasse. As much as I appreciated the kindness of the wonderful people who tried to encourage us, that afternoon was actually one of the lowest points in my grieving. It wasn’t the people, or even the place. Instead, it struck me how hopeless the world is when God is factored out of the equation.”
Sincere clichés are not enough. We need God. If we factor him out of the equation, we strip ourselves bare before the blast of life’s cruelties. But if we factor God in as our hope, we can face anything.
The prologue in 31:1-5 is the key to the whole passage. And the question here is obvious: What’s wrong with going down to Egypt for help? Why is God offended? The Assyrian army was threatening little Judah. Why not form an alliance with Egypt?
The first problem is that Judah was not looking to their Holy One or consulting the Lord. They believed in him, in their way; but they weren’t looking to him. Their real faith was in human power. Isaiah understands that some “helps” are inconsistent with God. If you need money, for example, it isn’t wrong to get a job. But it is wrong to steal. You can work and trust God at the same time. But you can’t steal and trust God at the same time, because stealing factors God out, as if he doesn’t care. And God wants us to trust him in ways that count, so that he can prove himself to us in ways that count. He wants reality with us. But any so-called help that diminishes our experience of God always turns out to be just another Egyptian slave-master.
We can think of “Egypt,” then, as a cipher for anything I think I need outside the promises of God. And that’s why Judah was wrong to go down to Egypt for help. God had declared his commitment to them. Their Biblical creed was, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7). But now, going down to Egypt for the help God had already promised them, they were going back to the bondage he had saved them from in the first place. They were throwing their salvation into reverse gear and holding God’s love in contempt. They expected nothing from him. He was a theory — a beautiful theory — while their modus operandi for real life said in effect, “Whatever gain I have in Christ I count as loss for the sake of the world. I have suffered the loss of Christ and count him as rubbish, in order that I may gain the world” (cf. Philippians 3:7, 8).
We all feel vulnerable. But Christ means it when he says, “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1). He means it when he says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). What do we need to understand to experience his serenity? We need to understand that the “Assyria” threatening us is not our real crisis. Our real crisis is our own unbelief in God. Our real danger is not when we’re exposed to the brutalities of life; our real danger is when our hearts are not filled with a sense of God. What we most need is not to find a way to cope with our distress. What we most need is reality with God, so that we can live out of the inner fullness he gives, whatever life may bring.
Judah’s first problem, then, is that they weren’t living by faith in God. They didn’t sense that “the battle is the LORD’s” (1 Samuel 17:47). The second problem with Judah’s alliance with Egypt is the flip side. They were trusting in chariots “because they are many” and in horsemen “because they are very strong” (Isaiah 31:1). In other words, they were impressed with what human minds and human skills can control, manage, and understand. But trusting in many chariots and strong horsemen never works. It only compounds our feelings of nakedness because we’re always left wondering who has more chariots and stronger horsemen. When we step outside the promises of God, we only find more uncertainty.
Quite right. And I repeat: seeking to make our culture, our laws, and our governments better is not in vain, and we should all work toward such things. But we dare not put all our hope in this. At the end of the day our only hope is God. Without him we are toast. No amount of cultural transformation will get us very far if God is not in the very centre of all our efforts.
I trust that the words found here will be of help to my readers. But the truth is, I wrote this piece mainly for myself! I for one need to keep learning these truths over and over again. My faith is far too weak. I am far too overwhelmed by the diabolical darkness sweeping over the whole earth. I need to learn to trust God more fully. I need to learn to keep my eyes on him alone.
I need some hope right now. Please pray for me that I will be a man of faith and trust.