Sunday, May 26, 2024

Gifts of the Godless

What a wild week! To get to our conference, my wife and I traversed artificial paths in an automobile, a self-moving device of pistons and wheels, sometimes faster than the fastest horse can run. There at the conference, the presenters struggled with their efforts to disseminate images and sounds over great distances, prompting one to offer the curious remark, “The devil hates technology.” Meanwhile, in the evenings, I read articles about the new European efforts to regulate artificial intelligence (AI), and the indictment of a political consultant who used AI to make robocalls impersonating the president's voice. At breakfast on Friday, I listened in as a group of truckers complained about the effects that computer models have on their labor, now that an algorithm is effectively their boss. Then I went to conference again, where I heard a church planter describe his use of technology to preach to churches around the world without leaving home. Finally, I heard our bishop recite a litany of all the ways we as Evangelical Christians might ill fit the culture around us, insisting we live differently than our neighbors.

We can't get away from it – culture, technology, civilization. We and our neighbors negotiate with it daily. One author observes that “all but the poorest among us dwell in climate-controlled buildings, wake up to digital alarm clocks, prepare meals with devices powered by a vast interconnected electrical grid, transport ourselves with vehicles fueled by internationally shipped petroleum, and ingest several thousand advertisements on billboards and screens scattered throughout our cities and homes. Not a single one of those devices or behaviors existed just over a century ago, and yet all of us treat them as if they were as normal as the water we drink or the air we breathe.”1 Does the Bible have anything that could have prepared us for such a different world as we're now in?

I'd put to you that it does, but to appreciate it, we ought to spend a bit of time in ancient Sumer. The Sumerians, the world's first civilization as we measure such things, had a list of five cities – Eridu, Badtibira, Larag, Zimbir, Shuruppag – they believed were the first cities on earth.2 In the beginning, they said, “all lands were sea..., then Eridu was made.”3 But the Sumerians were convinced that these cities were not built by the hands of man. They held that the first cities on earth, including Eridu, had actually been built by gods for gods.4 Theirs was a deep conviction in “the divine origin of cities.”5 And the Sumerians insisted that “when kingship had come down from heaven, kingship was at Eridu” – that human political life began in a city of gods.6

Now back to the Bible. And there we read: “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son...” (Genesis 4:17). There's some debate as to if the original text said the city was named not after Enoch but after Enoch's son Irad, in which case this city would actually be Eridu itself.7 Either way, a Sumerian finding Genesis would be blown away and maybe horrified. The first city was built, not by gods, but by a man devoid of honor? Our cities aren't divine after all?8 Here in Genesis, we meet their Sumerian city, no doubt centered around some shrine and ruled by kings, but not founded by gods.

The Sumerians had been wrong about Eridu being founded by gods, but were right it was the oldest city around, its foundations having been laid over three millennia before Abraham. Eridu was one of their first cities, raised up on a sandbank in a lagoon to savor and sanctify the abundance.9 But cities elsewhere went back farther still. Archaeologists tell us some of the first walled settlements were already sophisticated in the late Stone Age.10

But how should we view cities? It's an important question for the church, since by the year 2050 they say two of every three humans on earth will live in cities.11 To the Sumerians, the city was invented by the gods and was an unqualified good, “the center of authentic human existence,” “the ideal social context..., the pinnacle of the ordered cosmos.”12 But in Genesis, not only was the city invented by men, it was “fallen man's idea.”13 Genesis pictures the first city rising out of the swamp of violence, hatred, and curse. Cities have a knack for intensifying sin by bringing sinners together in darksome ways.14 Cities we meet in Genesis are “dangerous places of hubris and impiety.”15 And historically, cities often have been “deadly killers,” filled not only with disease but with stress; those raised in large modern cities have shrinkage in the emotion-processing parts of the brain, leading to higher rates of anxiety and mood disorders.16 Worst of all, as the prophet says, “as many as your cities are your gods” (Jeremiah 2:28). The Sumerians would enthusiastically agree, but don't see the horror in that.

So the city is evil, right? Ah, but no sooner did Israel enter the promised land than they began to settle in some of the cities they conquered (Numbers 21:25), “cities fortified with high walls, gates, and bars, besides very many unwalled villages” (Deuteronomy 3:5). Moses himself approved, saying God had intended to give them “great and good cities that you did not build” (Deuteronomy 6:10), “cities which the LORD your God is giving you to dwell there” (Deuteronomy 13:12). Israelites didn't start out as city-builders like Cain, but by God's grace they were given cities. By the time of David, not only had these come to be called “the cities of our God” (2 Samuel 10:12), but the Ark of the Covenant moved into one (2 Samuel 6:16-17). There's still a risk for the city to be full of violence and injustice (Ezekiel 7:23; 9:9), but the city can also be a site of divine presence and human flourishing (Psalm 72:16). That's true today, as well: God can provide for the city (Jeremiah 33:9).

Although human culture stretched back before the first cities, once cities began, it's said that “the dynamic interaction of people in the dense, cramped metropolis has generated the ideas and techniques, revolutions and innovations that have driven history” – the city brought a “rapid series of inventions and refinements,” so that “innovation begat innovation.”17 The city is the precondition for what we know as civilization. But, just like with the city, the Sumerians didn't believe that civilization or its technologies came from human know-how. The Sumerians developed a tradition about seven superhuman beings called apkallus, custodians of the order of the world, who were entrusted by the gods with teaching primitive humans how to be civilized. The apkallus – the first of whom was sent to Eridu – were responsible for “cultural relations, political relations, occupations, sciences, crafts, arts, deeds, etc. – in short, all the human characteristics that are connected to civilized life.”18 It was the gods, the Sumerians said, who invented; we just received them as gifts.19 Most ancient civilizations agreed: these tools came from gods, but mere humans couldn't make much of anything.20

But Genesis gives its own “account of the origins of human civilization.”21 And here the “inventors of skills” aren't gods or angels, but ordinary human beings “endowed with free will and gifted with knowledge.”22 This would shock the Sumerians, that “from the perspective of Genesis, civilization is a human accomplishment,” and so all these cultural goods “originate from human inventions and efforts.”23

Here we meet “Jabal, the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock” (Genesis 4:20). Abel already had been a shepherd, but Jabal (whose name sounds a lot like Abel's) is distinguished by domesticating larger animals than sheep or goats: he's got cattle, he's got donkeys, maybe he's aiming for camels and horses – beasts who can be put to work, beasts who represent wealth.24 Animal domestication, selective breeding, and trade between people groups are features of the settlements of the late Stone Age.25 Not only does Jabal domesticate and employ more animals, but his emphasis is on his possessions and his mobility – maybe here we have a glimpse of a traveling merchant, whose wheels set the stage for the birth of the money economy.26 In Jabal's steps follow lines of capitalists and industrialists, communications pioneers and factory managers, automobile and airplane manufacturers; in Jabal we see Eli Whitney and Alexander Graham Bell, we see Ford and Ferrari, we see Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, all of whom had a bit of Jabal in 'em.

Here also we meet “his brother Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (Genesis 4:21). He's a master of musical instrumentation, of string instruments and wind instruments.27 Without music, you've got many things, but culture's not one of them. He brings the art, he brings the parade, he brings the party. The oldest surviving Sumerian lyres come from 2500 BC, with pictures of them a couple centuries before that; flutes you'll find mentioned at the same time, though we have flutes made of bone from long before the first city. All of it is summed up in Jubal. In his wake stand pop musicians and skilled sculptors, artists and actors and entertainers, pioneers of the intellect and imagination, purveyors of pleasure for eyes and ears. From Mozart to Monet, from Descartes to Dostoevsky, Jubal makes them possible, he paves the way for their delights.

Then we meet their half-brother “Tubal-cain; he was the sharpener of every craftsman of bronze and iron” (Genesis 4:22). With him, the tribe of Cain says goodbye to the Stone Age and hello to the Copper Age, to the Bronze Age, and waves to the Iron Age on the distant horizon. The mere use of natural metal appears at the tail end of the Stone Age, but archaeologists find the first evidence of copper smelting around 5000 BC, with bronze artifacts a couple centuries after that, and meteoric iron artifacts from before 3000 BC.28 Metalsmithing became “the center of the ancient tech industry.”29 Tubal-cain brought us to the Bronze Age, and it's said that “from the Bronze Age onward, the quest for knowledge, better technology, and sophisticated living propelled humankind forward and established the building blocks of civilized society that remain recognizable today.”30 In Tubal-cain's footsteps walk masters of every tool and trade, and the tech titans behind Google and Apple and Amazon. His sister Naamah was in Jewish tradition “the inventor of dirges and songs,”31 dubbed by some “an early leader in developing vocal music, as her half-brother Jabal was in the development of instrumental music.”32

Genesis helpfully condenses a long story into one generation of one family for our ease of understanding.33 To us, the things these folks come up with seem so basic as to feel natural as air and water. To the Sumerians, these were the foundations of civilization; these were cutting-edge ideas, things that changed the world. But Genesis dares to tie this great history to the story of the first murder, devastatingly reminding us of “a dark side to civilization,” that these marvels are capable of “increasing human strife, oppression, and suffering.”34 After all, what a family! These inventors are cast as sons of a violent and vainglorious 'big man' in the city. If Jabal domesticates animals, it's to build up Lamech's wealth and status; one early Christian pictured Jabal using his meats to buy people's loyalty for Lamech.35 If Jubal crafts a musical instrument, it's to manipulate the people's passions. And if Tubal-cain masters metals, some Jewish writers judged that his work led inevitably to idols,36 while others saw him as a weapon-maker using his invention “to distinguish himself in the art of war.”37 No doubt for Lamech, these foundational “arts and sciences” become “a means of self-assertion and violence.”38

It'd be so very convenient if we could consider violence and science, or technology and tyranny, as nice, neat opposites. But that's a lie. As one writer puts it, “intellectual, technological, and aesthetic development... does not necessarily bring with it moral advancement.”39 The Philistines weren't just more tech-savvy, they were also more artistic: Goliath would've spent his downtime sipping wine from fancy pottery decorated with delicate swans. Lamech's family was smart and sophisticated, more civilized and cultured and creative, better dressed and better adorned than their neighbors. They were technologically advanced. They were genteel, but hardly gentle. Lamech lived to breathe hell on earth. World history only proves the point: intellectual or technological or artistic refinement are no guarantee a nation won't elect a monster or bomb villages off the map, that they won't use their grand prowess to build concentration camps or abortion clinics, that they won't power their inventions with the tears of slaves or raise their towers high on the stolen lands of the poor. As then, so today.

In this light, we could walk away with the lesson that civilization, culture, technology are irrevocably “tainted” by their roots.40 These cultural goods were, after all, “invented by the children of the curse,” as one medieval monk put it.41 And this reflects the fact that Israel lived in the shadow of more advanced civilizations.42 But then Israel ends up adopting these same cultural goods. The Israelites lived in Jabal's tents in the desert (Numbers 1:52), and even the holy ark dwelled in a tent (2 Samuel 7:2). The same bronze Tubal-cain brought would eventually overlay Israel's altar of sacrifice (Exodus 27:1). The same harp Jubal strung would fall into the hands of David (1 Samuel 16:23). “All these activities plainly feature in the life of Israel's worship.”43

The redemption of these technologies didn't make them forever safe, lest Israel follow the clan of Cain in their use. With the metal of Tubal-cain, “now they sin more and more and make for themselves metal images” (Hosea 13:2). With the music of Jubal, “they have the lyre and harp and tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts, but they do not regard the deeds of the LORD or see the work of his hands” (Isaiah 5:12). And yet early Christian leaders described Cain's family here as offering “things necessary for the well-being of the human race,”44 much like “the Greeks and their contributions in the areas of art and philosophy, and the Romans and their legal and political institutions.”45 That's why early Christians, too, held that Christians were free to plunder cultural goods from Greece and Rome, for any truth or beauty or goodness was “mined, so to say, from the ore of divine providence, veins of which are everywhere to be found.”46

So what do we learn? What do we take away? First, don't be surprised when – like Cain's kids – non-believers excel at making cultural goods of all kinds, and perhaps use this excellence as a pretext to preen and sneer, as if God's people were backwards simpletons. It's to be expected. Jesus cautions us that “the sons of this age are more shrewd in their own generation than the sons of the light” (Luke 16:8). Today, too, a lot of the innovative work is being done by unbelievers. But no inventor or innovator can succeed without God being the ultimate teacher: “I have created the smith who blows the fire of coals and produces a weapon for its purpose,” says the Lord (Isaiah 54:16).47 God can provide good gifts even though those who are most unlike him.48 And don't be surprised when, now and then, God raises up believers to cultural excellence, as he did for “Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the LORD has put skill and intelligence” (Exodus 36:1). That's why the Christian Middle Ages were “a period of enormous advances in science, technology, and culture.”49  It's also why there are so many Christians today doing excellent work in the sciences, in the arts, in all sorts of branches of culture and engineering and technological innovation; pray for them, too.

But even though “good servants of God sometimes worked hard at things of this kind,” that medieval monk said, “the wicked delighted in such things as if they were their highest good, but the elect either renounce these things entirely or use them in passing for the sake of some proper purpose of this life until they reach eternity.”50 The Sumerians were wrong: “civilization is not an undiluted good,” not divine, not ultimate, because it's all touched by both natural limitations and human sin.51 Nothing we invent can take us back to paradise.

Given those limitations and our sin, the same discovery or invention or idea can often be taken two ways. There was a German chemist named Fritz Haber. A hardline nationalist, when Germany kicked off the Great War, he used his knowledge and talent to become the father of chemical warfare. After the war, his institute pursued powerful insecticides based on cyanide gas; and, to his dismay, the Nazis upgraded it and put to use in the gas chambers. That's evil technology. On the other hand, Haber also invented a clever process to synthesize ammonia from common ingredients. While that process was used in the war to make explosives that killed millions, the same process can produce fertilizers on a large scale. Today, nearly half of all people on earth have food to eat because of Fritz Haber's invention: rip it out of history, and four billion starve.52

There are two schools of thought about technology: instrumentalists say it's neutral, and what matters is how you use it: 'guns don't kill people, people kill people'; determinists say technology nearly forces itself on you, and to engage it is to give it control. The truth is somewhere in between.53 We start by shaping our tools, and “the act of making things always results in an embedding of values and meaning into that thing.”54 But then our cultural goods return the favor and start shaping us back, since each now comes to us with “certain biases and tendencies.”55 If we aren't careful, “we can find ourselves overcome and mastered” by any one of the cultural goods we use.56 But with care, we remain free to change their use or set them aside.57 A sword may accustom us to slaying, but with grit and grace we can turn them to plowshares (Micah 4:3).

New technology presents people with a different set of choices than they had before,” pushing people “in a certain direction, giving them benefits while also presenting them with new problems.”58 Every cultural good, every tool, every idea has a trade-off; and we all know that a bigger range of possibilities isn't always a positive thing. So “we must listen carefully to creation.”59 Machines made from Tubal-cain's bronze and iron have “balefully harmed the earth's ecosystem.”60 Good culture, good technology, should “always fit within a larger ecosystem” and help us “properly care for and cultivate creation.”61 (In this light, it's worth remembering the environmental costs of mining the earth for the rare-earth minerals essential to many of our computerized devices, and the outsized water and electricity usage required for some of our experiments in 'artificial intelligence,' and the myriad other ways in which our technologies can deplete the earth or contribute to its pollution.) 

That mandate to care for God's creation goes for ourselves as part of that creation. What does it do to our communities and our spirits to live in an artificial world of our own design? It's perhaps part of the reason for the rise of secularism, nihilism, atheism in our day, as we “rob ourselves of those experiences that... make our lives real.”62 (Consider especially young brains, yet in formation, which all experts agree are deeply vulnerable to social media use, which is often associated with ever-higher rates of numerous psychiatric illnesses.) Trade-offs that cost the robust dignity of our humanity, that treat us as though body and place and time were dispensable, that “undermine our engagement with reality” – such trade-offs would surely “diminish us” and are “at odds with God's purposes for his world.”63

Four centuries ago, England was rocked as the Luddites began smashing the machines of the Industrial Revolution. We've often believed their enemies that they were frightened retrogrades, but actually the Luddites were a workers' rights movement objecting to the way new machines were used to disrupt society, put them out of work, destroy communities, and endanger children.64 Today they remind us to ask whether new ideas or tools or cultural goods are being adopted fairly, with first thought to the vulnerable; whether things are going at a pace society can handle; whether we remember that humans should never be slaves to culture or its machines. That medieval monk warns us to be “resourceful in taking care, lest the last day find us entangled beyond measure in things of this kind.”65 Wise men today agree that it's “often only after we've been forced to go without our devices for a period of time that we realize how dependent upon them we have become, as well as what we may have missed in giving so much of our time and attention to them.”66

But if it respects God and his creation and is implemented justly, most any cultural good or technology can be ours. We're licensed by the authority of our Lord, wherever the cultural good comes from (even if it began as a 'gift of the godless'), “to take over and convert [these things] to Christian use,” and most especially “to take these things... for the proper use of preaching the gospel.”67 All the beauties and bounties of human culture shout “the Creator's extravagance,” and for that we owe him our gratitude and our worship.68 In the end, the final rule of thumb when it comes to the ideas we hear, things on the TV and the radio or in the written word, all the cultural trends, the technologies and the gadgets, is that only if we can thank God for it, in knowledge (fairly) full and conscience clear, should we embrace it.69 Or we may freely abstain, in many cases, for no one person's life will ever use every cultural good or tool that any given civilization might afford, and each of us may conscientiously exercise prudence even toward good things.

The Bible's end sums up human civilization with a “mighty city... in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints” (Revelation 18:10, 24). This is where Cain's labors have reached their climax: in civilization as relentless and bloody oppressor of all the heirs of Abel.  But as urbanism collapses, this picture adds, down with it fall technology and culture. Sorry, Jubal, but “the sound of harpists and musicians, of flute players and trumpeters, will be heard in you no more” (Revelation 18:22). Sorry, Tubal-cain, but “a craftsman of any craft will be found in you no more” (Revelation 18:22). It's “a fiery end to the legacies of Cain's children.”70 God “frustrates the devices of the crafty so that their hands achieve no success” (Job 5:12). 

But while the tents of Jabal have fallen, there's a “more perfect tent not made with hands” (Hebrews 9:11), a “city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). The Sumerians were half-right: there's a city built by a god, only it's not Eridu and Cain's fingerprints are absent. The “holy city Jerusalem,” sent from above, has “its great high wall, with twelve gates..., and the foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel..., and the street of the city was pure gold..., and I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:10-22). There in its midst will stand saints “with harps of God in their hands” (Revelation 15:2), making music Jubal never heard.71 “The kings of the earth... will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations, but nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable and false” (Revelation 21:24-27). To whatever measure our inventions and cultures aren't impure or false or rendered simply obsolete in a new creation, they're destined for the holy city, in the hands of the saints, before the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, world without end. Hallelujah! Amen.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Rejoicing Where the Flames Burn: A Pentecost Sermon

It was in their third month of liberty when they got where they were headed. “In the third month, after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came to the Wilderness of Sinai” (Exodus 19:1).1 Not quite two months had passed since the Passover that bought their redemption. Now, in this third month, on some significant day, they reached the plateau at the foot of Mount Sinai. And there they camped while Moses went up to confer with the LORD God Almighty, who spoke to him out of heaven (Exodus 19:2-3). God made Israel an offer: if they'd accept and obey his covenant, he'd make them a priestly kingdom to all the nations of the world, his special treasure (Exodus 19:4-6). For this, they claimed to be willing.

For several days, then, they consecrated themselves, preparing to meet their God on this holy mountain (Exodus 19:12-13). For soon, on the chosen day in this third month, “the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” (Exodus 19:11). And that's exactly what happened. Can you picture what it must have looked like? One day, the skies were clear. But then, as a new morning dawned, “there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended on it with fire; the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly” (Exodus 19:16-18).

As Moses summed it up forty years later, “you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom” (Deuteronomy 4:11). There, on that day the mountain was set ablaze, “the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire..., and he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform – that is, the Ten Words; and he wrote them on two tablets of stone” (Deuteronomy 4:12-13). “On earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire” (Deuteronomy 4:36). We're told “all the people saw the sounds” (Exodus 20:18), which later Jews understood to mean that when God spoke the Ten Commandments, the audible words took on the visible form of fire which, in front of their eyes, was then burned into the stone tablets.2

But when they beheld this fire on the mountain, “the people saw and trembled, and they stood far off” (Exodus 20:18). Moses tells us why: “You were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up to the mountain” (Deuteronomy 5:5). “While the mountain was burning with fire..., you said: 'Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire... Now, therefore, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us! If we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, we shall die!'” (Deuteronomy 5:23-25). To meet God, to hear his own voice, was too frightening. “For the LORD your God,” Moses comments, “is a Consuming Fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24). Therefore, Israel backed away from the blaze. They knew they were but flesh and could not dwell with the Consuming Fire.

So Moses ascended on their behalf. “Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21). Moses braved the flame and, like a bush he once saw, was not consumed. Until “the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands,” said Moses, still “the mountain was burning with fire” (Deuteronomy 9:15). In the meantime, Moses heard other burning commands, including that Israel was to “keep the Feast of Harvest of the firstfruits of your labor,” on which “all of your males shall appear before the Lord GOD (Exodus 23:16-17).

This holiday ritually marked the wheat harvest for Israel, and Moses explained that, after seven sets of seven days from the time they first began to harvest grain – or from waving the firstfruits of the barley harvest on the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:15) – they would keep this Feast of Weeks by offering “the tribute of a free-will offering from your hand, which you shall give as the LORD your God blesses you” (Deuteronomy 16:9-10).3 Israel would mark the day with special sacrifices, keeping a holy convocation and not doing any ordinary work – because this Feast of Weeks, was special (Leviticus 23:21).

The Feast of Weeks was their sole third-month holiday, a day Jews came to identify as the anniversary of God appearing in fire and making a covenant and giving them the Law.4 On that day, it was seen how “Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest” of the world (Jeremiah 2:3). Not only was the Feast of Weeks a choice chance to confirm their covenant commitment year after year,5 but as a pilgrimage feast it gathered Israel again and again to “the LORD whose fire is in Zion and whose furnace is in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 31:9).

Long after Moses, there came the Messiah. God's own eternal Son took on human flesh and human blood from the Hebrew tribe of Judah, and on Passover in the most important year of all, he himself became the sacrificial Lamb. Rising again to life during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, he spent the ensuing weeks with his disciples, opening their minds and the Scriptures to each other (Luke 24:45). Then, just as Moses had ascended the mountain into the cloud, Jesus ascended heaven behind the cover of the same cloud (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9).6

And so Jesus' disciples worshipped (Luke 24:52-53). And they waited. A group of 120 disciples, including not just the apostles but also Mother Mary and other followers of Jesus, prayed and waited under Peter's leadership in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12-26). Because it wouldn't be long until the Feast of Weeks had come, the day when the wheat harvest had finished and the covenant was remembered at the holy convocation. Greek-speaking Jews had a special nickname for the Feast of Weeks. Since it was fifty days after Passover, they called it 'Pentecost.'

That amazing year, “when the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place, and suddenly there came from heaven a sound” – not unlike the thunders and trumpets heard on Sinai (Acts 2:1-2). And just as “the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder” (Exodus 19:19), now the sound of a mighty rushing wind “filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2).7 And then came the flame. “Divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them,” on each of these first Jesus-followers, on Mary and Peter and John and James and Thomas and all the rest (Acts 2:3). It was the dawn of the Feast of Weeks, and as pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem to bring their offerings to the Lord, God returns in fire on the mountain! Only now, each apostle is like a mini-Mount Sinai, his head ablaze with the holy fire their forefathers feared!

As Jewish pilgrims from not only the Promised Land but also the diaspora among the nations gathered around, standing amazed at the foot of this new mountain, they heard the announcement of “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:5-11). Peter preached to them about “the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories,” just as the prophets had previously been led by the same Spirit to foretell (1 Peter 1:10-11). Peter and the apostles showed that, though Moses had mediated a covenant on Sinai's scorching summit, Messiah had now ascended the heavenly mountain to mediate a far greater covenant “enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). And Israel could “know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36), for it was none other than Jesus who “poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33), certifying his apostles as “ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit [who] gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). So just “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; for the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39)!

That was why the apostles and disciples, there in their place in the holy city, had been anointed and bathed and crowned with fire, the fire of God, the fire of the Holy Spirit. “That fire did not burn them up,” said one saint, “but stirred them up instead.”8 Jesus had hurled down from heaven to them a greater gift than Moses' hands had carried down Sinai's slopes,9 and Peter and the others were burning to let the whole world hear about it, starting with those already gathered from near and far to faithfully celebrate the joys of the old feast and seek the Lord!  Here, at this feast, there was set apart a new chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [the Lord's] own possession, as these Spirit-gifted disciples commenced to proclaim the excellencies of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light, the light of the Spirit of the Living God (1 Peter 2:9).

Pressing forward from Pentecost, the apostles – and those who then carried their ministry forward through time, generation after generation in succession – have now “preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12). It's in descent from Pentecost that the fiery words of the gospel reached your own ears, and that was a work of the Holy Spirit himself: “The gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45).  And that you efficaciously received the gospel is no less his doing: “No one can say 'Jesus is Lord!' except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). “When you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13), so that now “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19). In fact, “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body... and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

But what's that good news? What have we imbibed from the one Spirit who overflows the temple? That “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13); that God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who are by God's power being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5), when “you will be visited by the LORD of Hosts with thunder and... with whirlwind and tempest and the flame of a devouring fire” (Isaiah 29:6).

And this living hope, a hope that's born in us and that we're born into, is what sustains our joy when the days get hot, when the pressures are on, when the flames shoot high. In this life, we are quite likely to contend with “the fiery trial when it comes upon you,” and yet it isn't “something strange” to catch us by surprise (1 Peter 4:12). What are these fiery sufferings we endure, if not evidence that we live on this side of Pentecost? The Spirit of the Living God may come as our Comforter, but he isn't always comfortable. Who ever said the Pentecostal fires weren't hot on the apostles' heads? I've never heard a promise that Pentecost don't cost, that Pentecost ain't a pain, that Pentecost brings no burdens and summons no sufferings. Pentecostal fire can be frightfully fierce. To the extent we're in Christ, we've each “received the fire of the Holy Spirit.”10 The flames that burn us, the heat that scorches us and scalds us – aren't they this very fire? God always promised he'd put his chosen ones “into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested” (Zechariah 13:9).

You have been grieved by various trials,” then, to unveil “your faith, more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:6-7). But the end goal of this fiery testing is “praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7). It's through the fire that tests and tries us now that we prepare for that imperishable inheritance stored away in heaven for us. And that's why we have Pentecostal joy. From the beginning, on the Feast of Weeks, not only were you to offer a measure of God's blessing, but “you shall rejoice before the LORD your God” – no matter who you are or what you're enduring, Pentecost always called for rejoicing (Deuteronomy 16:11). Now, on account of our hope, we rejoice where the flames burn! To us, Pentecost is “not of burning but of saving fire, which consumes the thorns of sins but renders the soul radiant.”11

Though you do not now see [Jesus], you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith: the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9). “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). Salvation for the soul, redemption for the body – no wonder we believe despite the gap between what we see and what we hope! The firstfruits of the Spirit in us is a promise, “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14), provided we do not “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” by turning fatally and finally away from God's love, God's joy, God's glory (Ephesians 4:30).

But what a strange thought – that the fire of the Holy Spirit should be crackling and hissing in each of us, and yet here we sit, here we stand, and we are not destroyed! How is it that we can rejoice while being burned from the inside out? How is it we can bear to bear the Spirit of the Living God? How is it we can dare to look for the Day of the Lord to be light and not darkness, and brightness with no gloom in it (cf. Amos 5:20)?

Malachi had that question: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire!” (Malachi 3:2). Isaiah tells us that the godless themselves fret inwardly, “Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?” (Isaiah 33:14). Yet the prophet goes on to say that one who “walks righteously and speaks uprightly” can somehow indeed “dwell on the heights,” even the heights of the holy mountain ablaze (Isaiah 33:15-16). How could that ever be?

I've heard a strange thought on that matter. I've heard it suggested that the agonies of hell and the brilliance of heaven are actually nothing but one and the same fire: the exuberant love of God.12 This is the consuming fire, these are the everlasting burnings, with which the godless are incapable of dwelling, and “night and day it shall not be quenched” (Isaiah 34:10) – for how could the love of God ever be quenched? But those in it who can see transparently their own incompatibility with God's goodness, those who are forever unsettled and pained and frustrated by God's love, those who can't help but flee from omnipresent beauty, can't escape the “spiritual frustrations and restlessness” that come from an eternal effort to avoid the unavoidability of love.13 God's love inevitably burns sin, so those who ultimately become their sin – by clinging to it immutably and irrevocably, by identifying with it to the bitter end – are in the end choosing to be eternally flammable.14 Therefore, they are agonized by being so ferociously loved as God always loves. To those in hell, love is so unbearably strong and fierce that it can only be suffered as unremitting violence, as a source of burning shame, as a wound of fiery wrath, “and you shall be melted in the midst of it” (Ezekiel 22:21).

But the difference in heaven is that, by the time you get to heaven, everything in you that was incompatible with God's fiery goodness has been surrendered, boiled and burned away. The fire of God's love is all around them, and yet to them it can be said, “When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2). They'll be “unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt” (Daniel 3:25). Why? They've become fully compatible with the heat of the Spirit, they're entirely penetrated by and united to the fires of God's love.15 And what's already all fire is forever fireproof. So the faithful pray for “that time when I flow into you, purged and rendered molten by the fire of your love.”16

So think “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness” now, the scripture urges, “waiting for and hastening the coming of the Day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn; but, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:11-13). Yes, this whole universe is due for a Day of God, the final harvest at the end of days (Matthew 13:39), “for behold, the LORD will come in fire..., for by fire will the LORD enter into judgment” with his creation (Isaiah 66:15-16). On that day, as Daniel foresees, “a stream of fire issued and came out from before him” (Daniel 7:10). It'll be a day when the Spirit of God surges forth in flame, when the galaxies shall be baptized in the blazes, when the laws of physics will be put to the test like gold in the forge, when the outpouring will melt out of creation every impurity that cannot bear the burning, smoldering, penetrating gaze of Eternal Love. That's what judgment means: seeing what will melt away and what will prove itself compatible with the fiery love of God. That's what we groan inwardly for, that's what we wait eagerly for, that's what the redemption of not only our bodies but creation's body will mean!

A cosmic Pentecost – that's what we're waiting for, that's where our hope rests! On that final day, “your eyes will behold the King in his beauty; they will see a land that stretches afar” (Isaiah 33:17). Built of gleaming flame all around us, filling the universe, “behold, Zion, the city of our appointed feasts..., an untroubled habitation!” (Isaiah 33:20). There we'll celebrate our Pentecost forever! There we'll rejoice to dwell with the everlasting burnings of God's love, of God's irrepressible joy and delight (for God is himself his own Joy), when we too are all flame! So “let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29). Hallelujah in the Spirit! Amen!

O Lord our God and Father, we gather in holy convocation on this truly holy day, the Pentecostal feast that completes your Passover of the New Covenant, to celebrate with joy your bounty and your blessings natural and supernatural, under the Law and in the Spirit.  By the hands of your Son, you have poured out your Spirit upon his Body below and have filled heaven and earth with your awesome wonders.  From the first, you sent your Christ to cast fire upon the earth, and now we rejoice to see it kindled.  Give us to delight ever more joyously in your sacred inferno of unquenchable love.  'Lord, send the old-time power, the Pentecostal power, that sinners be converted and thy name glorified!'  May this holy fire rage ever wilder, smoking out all sin in us and all woe in the world, igniting all things to a red-hot perfection, until your creation is lit as one flame with you eternally.  Let your joy ever burn bright in us and in the world you even now are making new by your outpoured All-Holy Spirit, who lives and gives life as one God with the Father and the Son, world without end.  Amen.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

The Downward Spiral

Last Sunday, we attended the trial and sentencing hearing of Cain, who was convicted and punished for having murdered his own little brother Abel out of envy and anger (Genesis 4:8). Despite claiming to know nothing of Abel's whereabouts (Genesis 4:9), the victim's blood and the soil testified to God what had happened (Genesis 4:10). Therefore, the LORD pronounced a curse of separation divorcing Cain from the ground which he'd loved and relied on as a farmer (Genesis 4:11). It would no longer cooperate with his works, meaning that he would never find a stable place to call his own (Genesis 4:12). In a way, Cain was being sentenced to live out the life of Abel as he saw it. To Cain's protest that this was excessive punishment (Genesis 4:13-14), the LORD showed mercy, ensuring that Cain remained within a world of law and order, establishing Cain as still a legal person whose life would be vindicated from violence by God (Genesis 4:15). No one would hurt Cain with impunity, for God had claimed him.

And so, as we read, Cain went away from the LORD's face, he wandered off, and the fugitive traveled to a new land, an unfamiliar territory further east than the region of Eden where the garden was, further than where Adam and Eve had made their home (Genesis 4:16). If Genesis had cut away from Cain at this moment, letting him drop off the page and out of its world, we'd understand. Instead, though, we follow Cain eastward to this Land of Nod, this Land of Wandering. And we've got questions. What is Cain going to do? How is Cain going to live? How does an ex-farmer, the divorced husband of scornful soil, get by in the Land of Wandering?

He starts a family, for one. “Cain knew his wife” (Genesis 4:17). That's raised a lot of questions over the years – this is the first time we've heard Cain was married. Was she a sister, a niece? Was she someone or something else? Are there people lurking at the edges, under the surfaces, and between the gaps of the text? Genesis won't satisfy our curiosities, but as a sign of God's continued mercy, Cain isn't prevented from having a family. He's a husband, and now he's going to be a father. And as he becomes a father, he seems to make a decision. Already we heard that Cain “settled in the land of Nod” (Genesis 4:16). That verb, 'settled,' sounds like a odd way to refer to the unstable life of a wanderer. How do you settle down in the Land of Unsettling? What sense does it make, Cain? Cain's answer, it seems, is to begin building a city. For you and all of whom, Cain? A whole city?

It's a strange twist, this settling, this building. It doesn't match well with Cain's sentence. It feels a bit more like a jailbreak, as though “Cain refuses to accept God's verdict on his life.”1 A Jewish author of the first century pictured Cain's life this way: “His punishment... only served to increase his vice. He indulged in every bodily pleasure..., he increased his substance with rapine and violence, he incited to luxury and pillage all whom he met, and became an instructor in wicked practices. … He was the first to fix boundaries of land and to build a city, fortifying it with walls and constraining his clan to congregate in one place.”2

Cain, devising borders and claiming territory, at some point in his life begins to build a settlement. At best, it could've been “not much more than a primitive compound at first.”3 But so far as the Bible is concerned, this is the first city. We'll revisit it again in a few weeks when we comb through this passage again, but when the Bible gives you something for the first time, pay attention. What are cities, what are settlements, all about? Ask Cain, and he'll tell you. Cain settles down, in part, because even a sign couldn't make him trust God's promises. He's a man who's burned the capacity for faith out of his heart.4 Though a marked man, Cain was still dogged by fear and insecurity in the world, as well as a thirst for a legacy and a determination to escape the life to which he had been consigned by God's sentence. As one medieval commentator put it, “since Cain killed his brother and thus became a hated wanderer and fugitive upon the earth, he built a city in which he could be protected.”5 Not content to live exposed, he wanted to put up walls of defense, walls to keep danger away from him and his stuff.

The earliest known Stone Age enclosures are thought by archaeologists to have been mainly for community and ceremony, but they were also clearly fortified for defense when the circumstances called for it.6 Once true cities begin to surface in the archaeological record, we see things like stone walls, ditches, and watchtowers.7 And to the Hebrew mind, that was a defining trait of a city, a place where things were watched and walled in. Cain's aim is “an attempt to provide security for himself,”8 because Cain felt he could trust nothing but his own “human attempt to ensure security... independently of God's provision.”9 The idea of the city, then, is “founded on the fear of death.”10 That's what motivates Cain, at least in part, and it's a lot of what keeps people together. But it's also Cain's effort to establish something that can last, something to stand the test of time, some way to make his mark on the world, to prove to himself that he's still better than Abel who just floats on through.11

Is he, though? Does he though? The Hebrew probably doesn't actually say that Cain 'built' a city, but that he 'began to build a city,' or that he 'was building a city' – an ongoing project, and one that, as a wanderer, he may never have managed to finish.12 Don't think of it as a finished city, an accomplishment; think of it as his life's work which may not quite work out, his grand quest that meets with setback after setback, the stone of Sisyphus that keeps rolling back down that hill. Cain's project is perpetual, because Cain's project isn't fully possible.

And that's because Cain isn't just trying to build a landmark. He's creating a new social and political order, the City of Man. This idea resonated strongly with early Christians living in the Roman Empire, because Romans believed that, in the days when Uzziah was king in Judah, Rome was first founded by a man named Romulus – but only after Romulus had murdered his brother Remus.13 So when Christians read about Cain killing Abel and then starting to build a city, they saw Rome as an echo built on the foundations which Cain had first laid.14 And how many kingdoms since have been founded on war against those who should've been accounted brothers?15

One Jewish political scientist, reading Genesis, observed that “Cain was attempting to build an ordered society based on man's self-proclaimed law, without reference to the moral order emanating from the supreme authority of the Creator.”16 An early Christian bishop agreed that Cain's city represents “the earthly city which is not on pilgrimage in this world but rather rests content with its temporal peace and temporal happiness.”17 One scholar says Cain aimed to make “a place where people could live without God and disconnect from his creation.”18 The political scientist added that Cain's city “was, by definition and design, a godless society..., a humanistic civilization... without reference to the divine.”19 And another commentator glosses it simply as “godless human culture.”20 It's a secular state. A society founded on nothing transcendent must be founded instead on some earthly ideal, which ultimately reduces to some degree of creation's self-love.21

Cain names this project, this city, after his son Enoch, whose name in Hebrew means to introduce, to initiate, to dedicate; it comes from the same root where we get the holiday Hanukkah.22 Maybe he was born as Cain laid the foundation stone for his city.23 As a city-name, it also sounds suspiciously like the Sumerian pronunciation of a famous Sumerian city called Unug, several of whose kings were quite famous.

To Enoch was born Irad,” whose name sounds like another old Sumerian city, Eridu, and plays on the Hebrew word for 'city,' 'ir.24 “And Irad fathered Mehujael.” Now that's interesting, because 'Mehujael' seems to mean something like 'given life by God' – maybe Mr. and Mrs. Irad gave thanks to God for their baby boy's survival.25 See, it's not that the earthly city can't contain an acknowledgment of God, can't accommodate some religiosity; but the city of Cain is designed so that it's kept to private worship and public lip-service, not a foundation. And there's where the problem comes in, because when people – individually or as a society – prize the world more than higher goods, “then misery will necessarily follow.”26

And, sure enough, if Mehujael's name gave us a brief reason to hope, what comes next is grounds almost for despair. “Mehujael fathered Methushael,” and our best analysis of Methushael's name seems to be 'man of Sheol' – that is, a servant of the underworld, a devotee of the grave, a hero of hell!27 We're beginning to see that Cain's descendants took after him in a “downward spiral.”28 An old Jewish writer described how “the descendants of Cain went to depths of depravity; and, inheriting and imitating one another's vices, each ended worse than the last.”29 And so at last we hear that “Methushael fathered Lamech” (Genesis 4:18).

A medieval theologian pointed out that Lamech was “the seventh and worst descendant of Adam.”30 That is, this man Lamech is listed as the seventh generation from Adam along the line of Cain, so he represents the complete flowering of Cain's approach to being human. So what does that look like? Right off the bat, nothing too good: “Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah” (Genesis 4:19). Here is the first time in scripture somebody marries more than one person at once; here we meet the first man to change the marriage model of the garden, “a dismal departure from the divine norm.”31 So one early Christian pointed out that “plurality of marriage began with a man accursed,” for “Lamech was the first who, in espousing two women, made three in one flesh.”32

The phrase for Lamech taking 'to himself' wives is different from the usual Hebrew way a man 'takes' a wife.33 It suggests that, to Lamech, wives are collector's items – emphasis on 'item,' on 'object.'34 Adah's name seems to mean 'ornament' or 'adornment,' suggesting she exists for decoration; Zillah's name means either 'shade' or 'cymbal': where Adah looked good, Zillah sounded good and was refreshing.35 Like so many kings in ancient times who kept large harems, Lamech is all about status and pleasure.36 But in viewing women that way, he can't treat either Adah or Zillah as his equal; he takes initiate to degrade them and exalt himself as their master.37

St. Augustine pointed out that in the earthly city, those who think they're masters will inevitably be mastered by “the lust for domination.”38 But “since [the earthly city's] good is not the sort of good that brings no anxieties to those who love it, the earthly city is often divided against itself by lawsuits, wars, and conflicts, and by seeking victories that either bring death or are themselves doomed to be short-lived.”39 And that's what Lamech tells us: that he's a violent man, engaged in war and conflict, always seeking and gaining a victory. Because the biblical picture of Lamech is basically what made for a pagan hero. Some of the world's oldest stories are epics about the Sumerian kings of Unug, people like Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh. The eventual Babylonian epic of “Gilgamesh the great, magnificent and terrible,” sees him begin his story as a very overbearing and prideful king who gave his city no rest, who took the women he pleased, who fought any man who stood in his way.40

And that's who Lamech is: he's a Gilgamesh type, he's a hero in his own eyes. In pagan literature, a hero often was a strong man obsessed with his honor, his integrity, his clan, and his goals, and who was willing to kill for the sake of any or all of them without a second thought.41 In Lamech, we see “the flowering of the heroic ideal” as it existed in ancient paganism and, to an extent, a lot of modern action movies.42 And it's not pretty.

Whereas God's Law restrained justice to no more than matching harm – “wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:25) – pagan laws often made the parties' social status a factor in deciding how severe a punishment for an injury should be.43 Lamech refuses to limit his revenge to 'wound for wound, bruise for bruise': he boasts that “I have killed a man for wounding me, and a young man for bruising me” (Genesis 4:23).44 When a man dared to strike him and draw blood, Lamech didn't merely return the favor, he returned death for a wound. Not only that, but when a youngster so much as even left a mark on him, Lamech didn't bat an eye before putting the pipsqueak in a premature grave.45 Lamech lives by violence without qualm, refusing to hold back. “He cared,” it's been said, “only to assuage his wounded sense of 'honor' by inflicting measureless shame and pain on any opponent, for wrongs real or imagined.”46 In the end, his only principle is his pride.47

As if it weren't enough that Lamech kills without remorse, he not only “did not grieve over the murder he had committed, but even gloried in it as a righteous cause.”48 We know about Lamech's life of violence, not because he's caught sheepishly in the act, but because he brags about it! How's that whole 'knowledge of good and evil' thing working out for us? Cain killed without remorse but also without open pride: he tried to keep what he did quiet; but Lamech kills without fear or remorse or shame, because he's openly proud of what he does.49 Lamech outright says that his evil, his violence, is good and heroic and worth celebrating.

To that end, he couches his brutal violence in the form of exquisitely refined poetry. His song is a masterpiece, one of the most carefully crafted poems in the Bible, with rhyme, balance, attention to meter.50 Lamech is the seventh generation from Adam, and he sings his exploits in exactly twenty-one Hebrew words, which is three times seven, perfect from multiple angles.51 And so he concludes with sevens: “If Cain's revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech's is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24)! A perfect song about perfect retribution.

Lamech heartily endorses Cain's life and dirty deeds, only he thinks Cain didn't go far enough. Rather than sing of great deeds of ages past, Lamech – how typically progressive of him – will be the bard of himself, singing of his own accomplishments in the modern world.52 Lamech distorts God's mercy to Cain into a badge of honor, and he thus abuses the word of God to craft and compound this dark threat.53 Lamech claims to be so strong, so tough, that he's untouchable.54 No one can ever bring him to justice, no one can ever hold him to account – that's what Lamech is singing.55 His whole life is “the threat of murder upon murder.”56 He wants the world to know that men who challenge him will die and women who appeal to him will be taken.57

But he doesn't sing it simply to the world. He sings it to his wives, making Adah and Zillah the audience of his violent words. The first poem in the Bible was Adam's words when he laid eyes on Eve, marveling at her deep connectedness to him as his equal (Genesis 2:23). Lamech reverses Adam's gift of poetry to awe and overwhelm his wives with his unmatched power, either to impress him with how macho he is or to intimidate them into submission with thinly-veiled threats of how easily he could abuse them.58 I'd guess Lamech means to do a bit of both here.

In the end, his threats of massive retaliation, his insistence on defending his honor with overkill, his implicit demand for those around him to know their place – what do they add up to, if not that Lamech practically thinks of himself as a lord above the law, as a superman beyond good and evil, as basically a god on earth?59 For, on Lamech's account, he is “greater even than God in vengeance.”60 Here is where pagan heroism is revealed; here is where the secular society ends up; here is where the earthly city earns its condemnation. Or it should. But as Lamech shouts out this horrible song, heavenly in form and hellish in content, for the first time in Scripture we hear no voice to answer back the truth, we witness no judgment to set right this wrong end – not yet.61

Untold ages pass, and a man named Peter approaches his teacher. “How often,” Peter asks, “will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21). Surely, he's thinking, he's being generous, as generous as God was to Cain: if Cain is avenged sevenfold, then for Peter to forgive sevenfold is a great triumph, a way to be the anti-Cain and so to live in God's favor. But his teacher is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Peter well knows (Matthew 16:16). And this Messiah tells Peter it isn't enough to be the anti-Cain. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times!” (Matthew 18:22). In these words, Jesus gives at last the final divine answer to Lamech, turning that horrid song upside-down and inside-out.62 It isn't enough to be the anti-Cain, when it comes to forgiveness; you must be the anti-Lamech. In place of Lamech's “perfect bloodthirsty vengeance,” Christ asks us to answer it with “the perfect grace of forgiveness,” just as he does.63 For forgiveness is the manlier fight, the greater conquest, the truer victory than all Lamech has ever understood.

Peter learned from his Teacher. In his Teacher's death of love, Peter understood the proverb that Lamech never could, that “bruises that wound scour away evil, as stripes make clean the innermost parts” (Proverbs 20:30). “For this is a gracious thing,” Peter preached, “when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly” (1 Peter 2:19). Lamech would never do that; it's why he never became clean within. But “to this you have been called,” Peter says, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth; when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to the One who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:21-24). Peter at last understands the prophet, who foresaw what was to happen through Christ: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5), “so that even the cruel Lamechs of this world have the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.”64

Lamech refused to hear, calling back to him from the distant future, the words of Paul for husbands to “love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the Church to himself in splendor without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Lamech, a brutal and braggadocious bigamist who understood nothing of one love, is answered by the Christ who poured his whole self out to make his One Bride holy, better adorned than Adah, more enchanting than Zillah.

Lamech came from a line of names – the hero of hell spawned by one given life by God, the strong city born out of human dedication – but Christ offers them all to “be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give” (Isaiah 62:2), saying that to anyone who perseveres in loyalty and trust to him when staring down the Lamechs in our land, “I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God..., and I will write on him the name of my God... and my own new name” (Revelation 3:12), a “new name... that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). No more need Methushael serve the underworld, no more need Irad live and die by the strength of his city walls, no more need Enoch be dedicated to worldly things. We can all trade the names of the shames of the past and projects left undone for a new name, a new place, to stand tall in the Father's house.

For the earthly city, insofar as it loves temporary things, can never succeed. “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). We're taught that “the city of the saints is on high, even though it brings forth citizens here below, in whom it is on pilgrimage until the time of its kingdom arrives.”65 It's “the city of my God... which comes down from my God out of heaven” (Revelation 3:12). It stands as an eternal answer to the fearful sheltering of Cain and the wars of Lamech, because “by its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there” (Revelation 21:24-25). From these cities of Cain where we wander and settle, we may enter the unclosing gates of splendor, and find there what Cain's godlessness could never imitate. But “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable and false” (Revelation 21:27). “Outside are... murderers and idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood,” those who cling to the heroism of Lamech (Revelation 22:15). To set foot in the heavenly city, we must learn to be anti-Lamechs in the world, children of Christ and his One Bride, showing the love and justice and mercy Lamech knew nothing of, and being followers of the Lamb whose wounds heal us day by day. In this, and this alone, is salvation and song and endless praise. Let us be dedicated to the Lamb! Let us, in heart and in life, follow the Christ! Amen.