November 11, 2014.
When I am reading through the bible, there is a phrase that usually sticks out to me when I come across it. It is a phrase that cry for a change in action or situation, one that embodies emotion and makes a statement to whatever audience it is addressed to. The phrase is simply “How long…?” How long will you do this or that? How long will I be in this situation? How long before you hear my cry? These statements often come at pivotal points (or at least points that are meant to be pivotal, though sometimes the point is missed) in a walk of faith. I would like to examine a few examples of “How long…?” statements that are made in the bible and draw some application to our lives today. Perhaps we are even being asked some of these questions without even realizing it. I have categorized it into three different sections. Those statements made by man to other men (usually through God), those made by man to God and those made by God to man. Each has its own defining characteristics in tone and message, and I believe we can examine each to see if the statement is being made (or needs to be made) in our life as well.
Appeals from man to man (usually through God)
This category is very interesting to me. The how long statements made here are usually in the midst of key speeches given to a crowd that has to make a decision of wether or not to follow the Lord. They are statements to draw the audience’s attention to the fact that they are meandering in a sea of indecision and it is time to either step up, or step out. The Lord does not take too kindly to lukewarm spirituality (ref. Rev. 3:14-16).
My favorite how long statement in this category probably comes time the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Elijah is a powerful and bold prophet (most of the time) who says what he thinks and relays the message of God without a second thought about how it will turn out for him if he says what he is told to say. In this context, there are 450 prophets of Baal (and another 400 prophets of Asherah) have gathered at a great challenge with the prophet Elijah. The people of Israel had been double dipping, so to speak, following after multiple gods who were not the Lord. But they were also trying to serve the Almighty. This did not work with God, for He would have no other gods before Him. So, as the prophets gather, Elijah makes this statement:
“So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word.”
(I Kings 18:20-21)
“How long will you halt between two opinions?”, as some translations word it. And then there was silence. I can just feel the tension in the air, and the magnificence of this statement. How long were they going to try to serve multiple gods? Either God was God, or Baal was God. It was time to choose. The story continues where Elijah challenges them to call down fire from heaven onto an alter, which they could not do. Then, after they had cried out to Baal for hours, Elijah has them soak his alter in water three times, prays to the Lord and then fire comes down and consumes the whole alter, water and all. What a display of His glory!
Before Elijah enters the scene, another bold leader of the children of Israel took a stand to get his people to stop messing around and make a decision to do the will of the Lord. Joshua was chosen to be the leader of the children of Israel after Moses died. He certainly had some big shoes to fill. If you know the story, Joshua took the people and led them in to the land that was promised to them by God in times past. They had been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years because of their lack of trust in the Lord that they could enter the promised land and drive out the inhabitants as God told them He would do for them. Fast forward 40 years to the point where they have subdued the land, and they are just messing around. They had their foot in the promised land, but they were doing nothing to take possession of it. When Joshua sees this problem, he addresses the congregation with this statement:
“There remained among the people of Israel seven tribes whose inheritance had not yet been apportioned. So Joshua said to the people of Israel, “How long will you put off going in to take possession of the land, which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you? Provide three men from each tribe, and I will send them out that they may set out and go up and down the land. They shall write a description of it with a view to their inheritances, and then come to me.”
What I would like to point out here is that Joshua doesn’t only address the congregation with a “How long…?” but he also immediately gives a plan to fix their problem. He says “you aren’t taking the land like you are supposed to be doing, so appoint some men to the task of sectioning off the land and then go do it.” And thus they did.
So what about us? How long are we going to sit back and dilly dally? How long before we take up the call of the Lord and make a decision to walk in His will, going out to spread the gospel to a lost and dying world? Sometimes I think people just need a push. These “How long” statements were a push for the people in bible times. They can still serve as a push for us today.
Appeals from man to God
“How long…?” statements that come from man to God take on a different feeling usually when we read them in scripture. This tone is different mostly because we are human and God is God, therefore our minds don’t really understand what He is doing all the time. They often come in times of distress when the writer felt that God had abandoned them. These statements are usually more desperate in nature, calling on the name of the Lord to save from a bad situation. A lot of these statement are found in the Psalms. Perhaps one of the most evident one comes from the 13th psalm.
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
In times of distress, I have often went to this psalm to empathize with the psalmist. I know his pain, I have felt the same way. Where is God? Where is my Lord? Why am I suffering? I think deep down we all know why bad times come about, and we know the character that they produce. Without suffering, where would be our endurance? Without trials, where would be out patience? Without the opportunity to overcome temptation, where would be our crown of glory? We can often see these things when we are out of the situation, but during the situation, it is very hard to understand and see the bigger picture. Maybe it’s comforting to know that we are not alone in this. Many godly men and women have gone through the very same emotion. We are not alone. Let us bear one another’s burdens.
There are many other similar statements in the psalms that all go along with this rationale, so I won’t go over all of them on here. I would encourage you to look some up if you are interested. When times of trouble come, these can often be very comforting passages. Just remember that usually when the psalmist starts out with this phrase, he often ends with praising God. We too should do the same, praising Him in every situation, even if we are overwhelmed.
Habakkuk is somewhat of unique in his writing style in that he starts out with a complaint to the Lord. Habakkuk is a minor prophet that we honestly don’t really know much about from what is given in scripture. I find it unusual for a prophet to start his oracle by making this statement to the Lord:
“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.”
It is obvious that the children of God were in distress at this time point, and Habakkuk could not help but grieve for their situation. All hope seemed to have been lost, and where was the Lord? If He loved His people, why wasn’t He doing anything about it. Well, the answer was that He was doing something about it, but this thing was just not seen, nor would it be believed if God told Habbakuk (ref. verse 5). I think the point that we can draw from this story is the fact that even when hope seems to be lost, that doesn’t mean God isn’t working on something so big that we wouldn’t believe it if He told us. Just because we are suffering does not mean the Lord has abandoned us. This is where patience and trust comes into play.
Much like Habakuk’s complaint, we find a “how long…?” statement near the end of the biblical cannon, but not one that is from this earth. This is a very intriguing passage to me:
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.”
It’s almost eerie if you think about it for too long. The martyred souls that were under the alter of God were crying out for their fellow Christians still on the earth, asking “How long, Lord? How long will you let this evil last before you judge it?” They were told to rest a little longer, and that the number of martyrs was yet to be complete. There was a plan, even a specific number, of when the evil would end. God is in control, and we must trust His plan, even when we don’t understand what He’s doing or how He is going to work everything out. He does.
So, how do these statements fit in to our lives for application? I personally draw a lot of comfort from the answers that are given by God and the fact that I am not alone in this line of thinking. The psalmist poses the questions, but then praises God. Habakuk got an answer that God was indeed working a big work in his day. The souls were reassured that God was in control and that there was a plan to end the present evil. All of these are comforting things to me. God, our God, is in control of everything. We must but wait a little longer and keep our trust in Him.
Appeals from God to man
This section is perhaps the most profound, not surprisingly, of the “How long…?” statements. These questions are often sounded from God in times of utter frustration of His people. In times where they have missed the point. In times when they have gone astray. These statements are here to call His people back by making them realize what they have done and the bigger picture. It was one of these statements in Exodus that inspired me to write this post. The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a story of ups and downs for the people. It seems like God would reveal Himself over and over to the people, yet they would always find a way back to fear and distrust in the Lord. This must have been divinely frustrating, as He makes statements such as:
“And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.”
“And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?”
I’m not sure that we really take it to heart that we can grieve the Lord by our actions and unbelief. The Lord had given the people so many signs. He had let them out of Egypt with ten plagues on the land and then split the red sea so that they could walk across on dry ground. Yet they still turned back at the first sign of trouble! This grieved the Lord, and frustrated Him to the point where He was ready to destroy the people. Fortunately for them, Moses was there to plead on behalf of the people that He would not destroy them. This is a common theme in the Old Testament, where the Lord pleads with the people by asking them how long they will remain in their denial and wandering from Him.
Another interesting question that the Lord poses, specifically to the prophet Samuel, comes after He has rejected Saul as king of Israel and was about to appoint David, a man after His own heart, as king. Obviously Samuel was distraught about the rejection of Saul, for the Lord says this to him:
“The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.”
(I Samuel 16:1-3)
There is a time for grieving, but that time had past. The Lord had a job for Samuel, and it was time for him to go complete the mission. God says, “How long are you going to wait here in grief over Saul? He has been rejected, no go.” Go. That was the message. There was no time to wait, as a new king needed to be appointed. How often do we wait around in grief before we get up and go out to do the will of God?
As God on earth, Jesus experienced some of the same frustration that had been with the children of Israel throughout the Old Testament. Sometimes things just don’t change. In this particular instance, there was boy with a daemon that the disciples of Jesus could not cast out, apparently for their own lack of faith.
“And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon,and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly.”
Jesus had been with them for some time now, long enough for them to really start grasping the big picture of what was happening. They saw the signs and wonders that Jesus was doing, and they were even given the power to do some themselves. But they still went through cycles of faith, and this was one time where their faith was not strong enough to heal the boy. Jesus, in what I see as frustration from love, asks them how long He is to be with them, foreshadowing His coming death. There was going to come a time when He was no longer with them. If they didn’t have enough faith now while He was physically present, where would their faith be then?
Is God asking us the same questions today? Are we still refusing to keep His commandments? Are we waiting around when we should be out in the field working? Are we lulling in a plateau of faith that is lacking? I believe that these are all very relevant questions that we need to consider. Perhaps we are being asked these very questions, rhetorically implying that it is time that we step up and do the work of the Lord. Have we become too comfortable? Are we waisting the time that has been given to us? How long will we go before we submit fully to the Lord?
How long will we stay in a state of complacency?
Suggested Daily Reading: Numbers 14, I Kings 18, Psalm 74, 79, Proverbs 1.
Let us not wait until it is too late.