For the director of music. With stringed instruments. Of David.
Hear my cry, O God;
listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you,
I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent forever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings
For you, God, have heard my vows;
you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.
Increase the days of the king’s life,
his years for many generations.
May he be enthroned in God’s presence forever;
appoint your love and faithfulness to protect him.
Then I will ever sing in praise of your name
and fulfill my vows day after day.
This Psalm echoes some sort of unknown problem. We don’t actually know that there was a problem present, even though there’s a cry for help. It’s just a general cry for distress. But the psalmist knows the faithfulness of the God he calls on. He has experienced the sheltering presence of the LORD, the God of Israel. And as he makes his request for being hidden under the wings of this God, he knows that if he’s hidden there, he will be able to fulfill his vows, the king will be enthroned forever, and God’s reign will go on. And that’s good news.
Here’s the deal: in case you didn’t know it, your God has wings. This is not like a Marvel series. Your God has wings, and that’s something to be excited about. Your God has wings. “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings” (Psalm 61:4).
Numbers 15 is a message from the LORD through Moses while the children of Israel are still in the desert.
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the LORD your God.’” (Numbers 15:37-41)
Now this is a weird, obscure text, just like the idea of God having wings is weird. These are two things that seemingly aren’t related. Tassels at the four corners of clothes. If you travel to Israel, you’ll see a little fringe hanging outside of Jewish jackets. Orthodox Jews to this day still wear these four tassels.
Why? The sign of the covenant for Israel was circumcision. Since there is no way to appropriately check if people are circumcised, there is an outward testimony that one is a faithful covenant member of God’s people. It is four tassels that serve as a constant reminder, not only to that person, but to everyone who sees them, that this person belongs to the LORD.
Now what does this have to do with taking refuge in the shadow of the LORD’s wings? The Hebrew for wing (kanaf) can either be translated as wing or corner. It just depends on the context. And these texts collide because of this word. “Take refuge under the kanaf of the LORD.” “Wear on the kanaf of your clothes a testimony of your faithfulness to the LORD.” This is a super weird command. As we read the text, we just don’t understand why it’s here. In fact, just so you get the point, it gets repeated in another list of weird rules in Deuteronomy 22 about not blending your clothes, not boiling a goat in its mother’s milk, etc. It’s the kind of stuff you love in your daily devotional. It’s a command that gets repeated 40 years later as the people are about to go into the Promised Land: Don’t forget the tassels on the kanaf/corner of your garment as a testimony of your faithfulness; as a reminder of faithfulness.
Now we get this interesting story in the book of Ruth; Ruth, who is shockingly repeated as the Moabitess. According to Deuteronomy 24, anyone who marries a Moabitess excludes themselves and all of their generations up to ten generations, from ever entering the tabernacle or temple of the LORD. This is the word of the LORD. In the story of Ruth, several Israelites go down to Moab because there is famine for disobedience because it is the days of the judges when everyone does what is right in their own eyes. They go down to Moab, which is experiencing more fruitfulness than Israel. There they hook up with a couple ladies except all the men die, and one of the Moabitess’s, Ruth, remains with her mother-in-law, as they hear that the LORD has returned favor back to Israel. And when she goes back, she goes out into a field to work and get some food for herself and her mother-in-law. She just happens to run into a certain man named Boaz. And Boaz just happens to be the closest relative, and the closest relative was the one who could redeem back all the fields, houses (anything that had to be sold because of impoverishment).
Here, she receives a blessing. Ruth 2: she’s harvesting the field, and she meets Boaz because she wants to know who Boaz is. Ruth 2:11-12: “Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” In other words, you have found yourself hidden under the wings of the LORD. Because of your faithfulness, He will be faithful.
Now the story actually unfolds. I’m not sure if Naomi hatches this as a plot or not, but Naomi tells Ruth one night, “Here’s the deal. You should put on your finest dress. Then wait. Boaz is going to work hard all day, and at the end of the day, he’s going to have a feast and drink a lot. And when he’s had as much as he can eat and has drunk all he can, he’s going to feel really good. He’s going to take a nap. I want you to go in to him, and let him take care of what is supposed to happen next.”
As it turns out, he eats, drinks, passes out, and Ruth comes in, finds him, uncovers his feet, and lies down by him. In the middle of the night, he wakes up and sees her by his feet.
Chapter 3 verse 9: “Who are you?” he asked. “I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are the kinsman redeemer.”
He has spoken blessing, “May the LORD cover you for your faithfulness.” Now she says, “Cover me with your faithfulness.” Now we already know Boaz is a faithful follower of the LORD. So what does he have at the corner of his garments? Tassels. He is faithful to the core. And she says, “I see the symbol of your people. You are faithful to the covenant. Be faithful to keep your part of the deal. Be faithful to the LORD. What he has commanded do.”
So the story unfolds, and sadly, while this should be a story about women, it’s not. It ends with David, who is the great grandson of Ruth. Because of the faithfulness of Ruth and Boaz, the LORD is faithful to raise up for himself one who would be king in Israel.
Reread Psalm 61
David does not become king. Saul becomes king and is not faithful. He tries, but he keeps messing up. He tries to kill David a few times even though David works for him. David runs for his life, and Saul uses the kingly resources to actually chase David down and kill him because he believes David is trying to replace him as king. He goes and he finds a cave to relieve himself, and it turns out in the course of the story that David and his men are hiding out in the back of the cave. David’s men think this is a great opportunity to kill King Saul. “The LORD has given him to us today. He’s going to fulfill the promise he made to make you king.”
1 Samuel 24:4: “The men said, “This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’” Then David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe.”
The corner was likely the tassel. If Saul is trying to be faithful, he has signs of faithfulness. David just makes a little snip, and takes the tassel. He has just challenged the faithfulness of Saul as a true Israelite. Saul leaves the cave, and he goes to look for David. David is suddenly conscience stricken. He comes out and tells Saul that he could have taken his life but didn’t, and shows him the proof. Then he is repentant and says that the LORD should be the judge. The LORD will be faithful. And he throws himself under the shelter of the wings of God. David does eventually become king. The LORD shows himself faithful to David.
Matthew 9. Jesus is on his way to raise a dead girl. Verse 12: “Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak.” (I’m not pretending the original translation of this uses the word kanaf, but the Hebrew translation done later does use kanaf.)
13-14: She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment.
This is a beautiful story. She’s trying to get a secret healing. She sneaks up through the crowd that she is making unclean by her contact. In fact, she will make Jesus impure by touching him. Unclean passes, but clean never does. You don’t get accidentally clean. He’s defiled. His faithfulness is challenged and questioned by her laying hold of it, and this testimony is exactly where she touches it. The same place David challenges Saul (the corner of his garment), the woman says, “I know he’s faithful, and if I could only lay hold of his faithfulness, I will be clean.”
She’s healed! She’s cleansed! 12 years, and the faithfulness of this Jew is what sets her free. And that’s not it. In Matthew 14:36, this becomes a trend. “All who touched it (the kanaf) were healed.” There’s nothing magical about his clothes, but at the corner of his clothes are four tassels because he is a faithful Jew. He fulfills everything that the LORD has commanded, and at the shadow of his wing, a woman is healed and others are healed. At the corner of his garment, the corner of his faithfulness begins to cover all the needs of those who reach out for it.
So what’s the point? Here’s the deal. Some of you have a better way of being faithful than others. But here’s the good news: your salvation never rested in your faithfulness to begin with. The fact of the matter is you can’t say enough prayers, cry enough tears, confess enough sins, do enough right, or be faithful enough. It doesn’t work that way. You experience the goodness of our God because his faithfulness covers over you, because you know where to run, hide, and put yourself. It is under His faithfulness, and not your own.
But some of you think it is your faithfulness that has somehow earned His faithfulness. Some of you think, almost as Ruth could get that notion that Boaz said it’s because I’m faithful. But what is Ruth? A Moabitess. Under no circumstances should she experience the faithfulness of the LORD, but she does, because it never depended on her faithfulness, but always on His. Some of you are carrying around this weight of perfectionism, because you think it will make you a better follower of Jesus. Some of you need to know the faithfulness of your God. He covers you not because of your faithfulness, but because of His. And like this woman and these others who get the idea, you seek Him and find yourself laying hold of His faithfulness. Let Him cover you with His wings.
The readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for this coming Sunday, January 7, 2018 offer an intriguing correlation for a Pentecostal hearing of these texts in harmony.
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11.
The Genesis text describes the hovering of the divine Spirit over the waters at creation leading into the calling of “light” as “day” for that first day of creation.
The Psalm (being a Canaanite hymn cast into Yahwistic adulation) imagines Yahweh enshrined above the waters as king of all: in power and majesty.
Acts finds Paul leading the Ephesian water-baptized converts into Spirit inundation that Jesus might be demonstrated as Lord.
And the Gospel reading is Jesus’ water baptism leading to the Spirit alighting upon him with the Father’s blessings.
In each of these texts it is the Lord (as Spirit) who oversees the watery baptisms and leads from the abyss of cleansing into the life of the blessed Son who reigns supreme as the glorious light of Heaven. These texts intersect one another pointing to something which a Pentecostal hearing might enjoin as demonstrating the Full Gospel message of Jesus saving, sanctifying, baptizing in the Spirit, [and healing?] as king.
Today in our Adult Sunday School* we were discussing prayer and my mind was taken to how we as the Church might pray well. We seem to have a penchant for and pride in our “free” prayers as Evangelicals (and particularly as Pentecostals). However, it seems such “free” prayers may more often than not tend toward unguided babbling, self-centeredness, or even childishness over genuinely praying well in accordance with the will of God. (This is by no means to denigrate “free” prayers which form a significant part of my own prayer life).
Three ways in which we might be delivered from such tendencies and pray God’s will better would be to (1) pray with the Church, (2) pray with the Scriptures, and (3) pray with the Spirit.
We can pray with the Church by joining our prayers to those of the Church which goes before us (for example, by following the prayers of The Book of Common Prayer, praying with the prayers of saints of old, etc). We can also join our prayers to those of the wider body of Christ in the world today.
We can pray with the Scriptures by praying the Psalms (properly called the “prayerbook of the Bible”). It has been said that while most Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us. We can pray the prayers of David, Daniel (Dan.9), and Nehemiah (Neh.9). We can pray with the prophets of old, we can pray with the apostles. We can pray with John the Revelator, and we can pray with our Lord Jesus (John 17; or our Lord’s Prayer Matt.6:9-13/Luke 11:2-4).
Finally, we can pray with the Spirit even when we do not have the words to pray. We can pray with inexpressible groanings and know God hears His Spirit’s intercessions (and that of His Son’s) on our behalf being in and through and for us (Rom.8:26-27).
Such helps to our prayers are given that we might know we pray according to God’s will…and when we do, we know we are heard. And we are being shaped more and more after the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord.
* Originally blogged at bluechippastors.org on February 10, 2013.