I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself…Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and Amen. (Psalm 89:1-2, 52)
“Willing and Able”
There have been lots of stories in the news lately about the serious lack of medical personnel and first responders in areas hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. In some countries, doctors and nurses are coming out of retirement to help with the crisis; in other areas, medical personnel and first responders from less affected areas are being sent across state lines or even around the world to meet the need. Medical students and residents are being fast-tracked through exams. There are even hospital ships anchored in New York Harbor! There is no question about the need for mobilization and globalization at this time. But two things are required of any would-be responders—they need to be WILLING to go, and they need to be QUALIFIED to go. It does no good to have the willingness to respond without the requisite medical skills. On the other hand, a person’s expertise and experience is worthless if they refuse to help.
In order to make a real difference on the front lines of any crisis, you have to be willing AND able to respond. So, is God ABLE to change what is wrong with the world—the suffering, injustice, and evil? Is God WILLING? Philosophers and theologians call that question, theodicy. Most of us simply ask ourselves, “How can an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God allow this to happen?”
The writer of Psalm 89 carefully poses that kind of theodical question, directly to God. He is identified as Ethan the Ezrahite, who with Asaph and Hemen (author of Psalm 88 last week) served as some of King David’s chief musicians. As worship leaders, they were charged not only with offering songs of praise to God, but also with interceding on behalf of the people, and giving expression to their frustrations and laments. This song does just that—not only acknowledging God’s sovereignty, authority and power, but also appealing to God’s compassion, goodness and faithfulness. There is no question in the psalmist’s mind that God is ABLE to come to the aid of His people…but is God WILLING?
Ethan the Ezrahite begins by declaring God’s love and faithfulness (vs. 1) and claiming God’s promises to David the king (vs. 3-4). He acknowledges God—not just as a distant Lord of the heavens and earth (vs. 5-13), but also as the personal and present Lord of his people Israel (vs. 14-18). He recalls in detail the covenant that God Almighty had made with David when He chose him and anointed him, when He adopted and exalted him, when he swore by His own holiness that David’s throne would endure forever (vs. 19-37).
But then the song takes an emotional turn. Having just reminded us (and reminded God) of God’s eternal covenant with David, the psalmist accuses God of “rejecting, spurning, renouncing and defiling” David and his people. God has exalted His enemies, abandoned His people, and covered His chosen one “with a mantle of shame” (vs. 38-45). It’s a serious accusation! How can an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God allow this to happen to the people He has chosen? “How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? Where is your former great love?” (vs. 46, 49) Theodicy!
Many people are asking this same theodical question today. How can God allow this to happen to the world He died to save? There must be some reason for it. Is this some sort of punishment for our sin and our inattention to God? Is God maybe even making this happen? It’s the same question Ethan the Erzahite was asking…the same question Job and his friends struggled with.
As Jesus travelled, he encountered people with every sort of problem, every sort of disease, every sort of need. Once a man with leprosy came to Jesus, fell on his knees and begged, “If you are willing, you can make me clean!” (Mark 1:40) Another man, whose son was demonized, told Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Was Jesus WILLING? Was he ABLE? The answer in both cases was “yes.” So, if God is willing and able…why is there still such suffering in the world? Another time, in John’s gospel, Jesus and his disciples saw a man who had been blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus a theodical question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind.” There must be a reason for his suffering, right? Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” And with that, Jesus healed him (John 9:1-7). Jesus didn’t focus on the reason for the suffering; he pointed to the purpose—that God might be glorified in it.
What if we were to take our questions and frustrations and laments to God in that same way? What if, rather than seeking an explanation for the suffering we went seeking the Holy Spirit’s life and growth in it? What if we focused less on who’s to blame for all of this right now and focused instead on how Christ can be glorified in all of this…in all of us…right now? Then, perhaps, we would end up in the same place as Ethan the Ezrahite and simply declare in faith, “Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and Amen!” (vs. 52). There are many things we can’t understand, but there is one thing we can be certain of—we may not get to walk this road without hardship, but we never have to walk it without our loving Lord. His name is Jesus, and he is the Living Water. Stay thirsty for him!