Psalm 107 was probably written during Judah’s exile in Babylon/Persia, that is sometime after 586 BCE (in the Persian period likely in the late 6th or 5th cent. BCE). The psalm shows different groups of Israelites who were awaiting the coming redemption from Yahweh. Psalm 107:10-16 is very similar to Isaiah 9:1-2 (and is probably playing off of it), which Matthew uses to illustrate the reason for Jesus’ coming to Galilee for his ministry (Matt. 4:12-16). Very interestingly, these three groups of people each experienced different shades of the shadow of death.
1.) Isaiah’s audience = the shadow of the Neo-Assyrian War Machine. Assyria would ultimately lay waste to the kingdom of Israel in two waves 732 BCE (Tigaleth Pilaser III) directed at conquering and deporting Transjordan and Galilee, including Zebulun and Naphtali and 722 BCE (Shalmaneser V/Sargon II) directed at wiping Israel/Samaria off the map and placing it under direct Assyrian rule.
2.) Psalm’s audience = the remnant of Judah’s inhabitants who had been exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. They were at times in the very “shadow of death” (e.g. Esther/Purim) and in need of deliverance from their Persian captivators.
3.) Matthew’s audience = the remnant of Judah/Levi that had at some point returned to the geographical area of Zebulun and Naphtali (i.e. “the land of the Shadow of Death”) after one of the returns from Persia (ca. 539 BC, 516 BC and 458 BC). This group which included Jesus’ maternal family was for a time, independent from a foreign oppressor and was ruled by the Davidic Hasmonean Dynasty (167-63 BC), however, that independence was brought to an end by Pompeii who brought Galilee, Samaria and Judea under the patronage of the emerging Roman Empire in 63 BC. Three different oppressions – Assyrian, Persian, and Roman. Each writer expresses that deliverance has only one source, Yahweh.
In the words of the Psalmist:
“Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love (Hebrew hesed – literally covenant-keeping faithfulness), for his wondrous works to the children of man! For he shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron.” (Psalms 107:13–16 ESV)
In the words of Isaiah the prophet and by citing the beginning of the passage,* Matthew:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:6–7 ESV)
This child would/will be the one who vanquishes the darkness with his light (John 1:1-5), who burst open the bonds of the prisoners, and who shows “covenant-keeping faithfulness” both to who his chosen physical offspring (Abrahamic and Mosaic covenant) and his chosen spiritual offspring (Jeremiah’s New Covenant – Jer. 31:31-33).
The Psalmist gives us the best response to such good news:
“Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.” (Psalms 107:1–3 ESV)
It is also interesting to think of the textual relationship between Psalm 107:23-32 and the calming of the Sea of Galilee (e.g. Matt. 8:23-27).
*New Testament writers that cite a portion of an Old Testament passage are bringing to bear the entirety of the passage that they are quoting and not just the specific references that they include in their writing. Therefore, when Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1-2 in Matthew 4:12-16 he is directing his audience to the entire passage – that is Isaiah 9:1-7. This is an important point to remember and can be helpful in understanding some seemingly inexplicable passages (e.g. Luke 4:16-30.)
Lost in our theological discourses on original sin and universal guilt, our evangelical calls to the unregenerate world and our Easter services is a basic teaching of Passover – the required death of the firstborn at the hands of Yahweh.
Our theological understanding of substitutionary atonement is so vital to the Gospel Message – it underlies the basic doctrine that both ontological and presumptive sin is forgiven, covered, and atoned for through the death of a substitute – usually an animal. Jews and Christians get this for the most part – where we often miss the mark is when we believe that the death of an animal actually covers or forgives the sinner. This coverage does not come merely from the death of the animal, nor the blood of the animal – rather it is that the lifeblood of the animal stands in place of the human sinner’s lifeblood. Which means that when the animal dies – God literally sees the blood of the human sinner – his justice demands that blood, but his mercy provides a substitute. When we talk about Jesus being the substitution for sinners – we are correct, but we should not forget what substitution means nor what it meant to ancient Israel.
But this is what substitution means from a composite look at all of the relevant Old Testament and New Testament connections that culminate in Jesus’ death being the ultimate sacrifice. But what of Passover in specific? What of the apex of Old Testament redemptive history? How does the Passover lamb fit in with the idea of substitutionary atonement? How do we understand Paul when he tells the Corinthians that “For Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7)?
The tenth plague against Egypt is all about Yahweh demanding his rights over the firstborn of the families of the earth – both in Israel and Egypt. In the case of Israel, his destroyer passes over the firstborn sons because when it sees the blood of the passover lambs it sees the blood of the firstborn of each family. In other words, each Israelite family had in effect already carried out Yahweh’s requirement of a ritual sacrifice of the firstborn male of the family (albeit through a substitute) (Exodus 12). Whereas in the case of Egypt, there was no substitute to be found and they were forced to drink from the unbridled thirst of Yahweh’s wrath through the death of their firstborns including the heir apparent to the ruler of the world (Pharaoh’s own crowned prince). This event resonated through each of Israel’s high feasts – Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, through the prophets, the psalmists, and the kings of ancient Israel. All of Old Testament theology and history ties its spiritual and physical life back to the Passover event which brought about the Exodus from Egypt.
Fast-forward 1,500 years to A.D. 33 – to the death of the firstborn son of David (via Joseph) and the firstborn son of God. By being put to death at the hands of God – Jesus’ death in the Passover sense was not literally a substitution – rather it is the ultimate expression of Yahweh’s destruction entering the world by cover of night and slaying the death of the firstborn of the ruler of the universe – it is Yahweh claiming his rights over the firstborn of the earth. But in another sense, it is a substitution, for by the ritual sacrifice of the Son of God comes covering for the rest of humanities firstborn sons. That is those who cover the doorpost of their hearts with the blood of Yahweh’s sacrificed Son. This eternal covering provides salvation from the destroyer who will pass through the night of our lives.
But let us not forget the object of the substitution – lest the power of the sacrifice lose its full bloody power. This is where it is the most critical that we maintain the picture of the Israelite Passover. The object substituted still remains our firstborn sons! We are so quick to say that Jesus dies instead of you – his death pays for yours – this is correct, but it is not the exact picture in Passover. The first-born requirement did not change since there was a substitute – remember God viewed the blood of the lambs as the blood of the firstborn of Israel – so in his just eyes Israel has paid the price by offering its sons to Him. So then, whenever Christ dies on the cross His death stands in place of your firstborn son’s death!
The stakes are high when we are talking about our own death for our own sins – they are higher still, reaching the maximum height of human understanding, whenever it is the firstborn son that is demanded as the sacrificial offering and not the individual father or the individual members of his family. So I would challenge you this Good Friday – whenever you sit with your family – either at church or at home – look at your firstborn son, your firstborn daughter, look at your firstborn brother or sister, look at your firstborn father or grandfather, look at your firstborn selves and realize that they were the cost of passing over. Yahweh demanded their life (my firstborn life, my son, Sam’s firstborn life) and His justice-driven wrath against you and your family was only quenched whenever he by cover of night offered his own firstborn (Matt. 27:45-47), covered the doorpost of your heart and passed over.
As I continue my research into the nature of Israelite child sacrifice in the Old Testament I am struck by the differences between the “Molech Cult” (e.g. Leviticus 21:1-5; Jeremiah 19) and the mysterious instances in which firstborn heirs were offered (or almost offered) as a sacrifice to Yahweh (Genesis 22; Judges 11).
The Molech sacrifice was carried out in a specific way (whole burnt offering by fire), to a specific deity (either Baal or Molech), in a specific place (Hinnom Valley, Jerusalem), for a specific purpose (divination/fortune telling), and with an unspecified type of offering (a son, a daughter or multiple children).
The rare instances of Yahwistic child sacrifice – Abraham and Isaac (almost), Jephthah and his daughter and possibly Mesha and his heir (2 Kings 3:27) were carried out in different places (Moriah, Gilead, and Kir-Haresheth), for a different purpose (obedience to and/or seeking salvation from Yahweh), and with a specified type of offering (the firstborn or beloved son of the family).
“They have turned to me their back and not their face. And though I have taught them persistently, they have not listened to receive instruction. They set up their abominations in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.” (Jeremiah 32:33–35 ESV)
Jeremiah explicitly shows that the Molech cult was against the regulations of Torah. In other places, Jeremiah prophesied that the Hinnom Valley would be so filled with the dead that there would not be any space to bury anyone (e.g. Jeremiah 19). This prophecy would later lead the Hinnom Valley/Cult of Molech to come to be identified with the entrance to hell itself (Talmud) and become the primary name for hell – Gehenna – in the New Testament (Matt. 5:22).
“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6–8 ESV)
Note the lesser to the greater argument – regular burnt offerings, calves a year old, a thousand rams, ten thousands of rivers of oil then the firstborn son. The point is that all of these things are acceptable for sacrifice – but even the sacrifice of a firstborn son, the highest form of sacrifice imaginable, is inadequate to please Yahweh without obedience.
The main academic reason that I point this distinction out is that so many treatments of biblical child sacrifice try to lump all of the related passages together into a monolithic system (e.g. Levenson – The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son 1993). Some even claim that there existed a regular practice of ritual child sacrifice (in the Molech sense) to Yahweh! This practice like many other idolatrous practices (e.g. Yahweh having a wife named Asherah) were all perfectly legitimate, they claim, until about the 8th or perhaps 6th cent. BCE in which the redactors of the Bible made the text come into conformity with their own singular (among many other strands), Yahwistic theology – effectively erasing the earlier more syncrestic, mainstream idolatrous practices (e.g. Dever and Stavrakopoulou). Besides the fact that this reeks of conspiracy theory – the texts can be better harmonized when we see distinction instead of similarity.
The main theological reason that I point to this distinction is that it has powerful implications when related to the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. The death of Jesus was a sacrifice – a fulfillment of various types of Levitical sacrifices. But can it also be seen as a fulfillment of the the highest type of sacrifice – the death of the firstborn, unblemished son at the hand of the righteous Father? If for the sake of argument, we assume that what I have argued above is correct, then we have a most interesting second temple development of the two types of Israelite first temple child sacrifice.
For the Molech cult – its bloody, desecrated topheth becomes the mouth of hell itself – the lake of fire, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth where all wicked souls reside eternally. Gehenna is its name and it receives the second death.
For the Yahwistic, firstborn, beloved son rite – its bloody, desecrated sacrifice becomes the gate of the kingdom of heaven itself, paradise, the “way” to the place of no tears and no pain where all redeemed souls reside eternally. The conquered tomb is its name, its death has no sting and it brings about the second birth.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NAS95)
Living in both the power of the Spirit and the truth of revelation (John 1:17) has been and will remain one of the most difficult balancing acts for God’s people. This is a lesson that is often forgotten despite constant examples from the Old and New Testaments. The tension between these two necessary axioms can be observed in the lives of the Patriarchs (e.g. Jacob – trusting in the truth of his father’s covenant with God, but not being believing in the promise himself until he met God), Judges (e.g. Samson – desire of Philistine women vs. his role as the covenant representative), Kings (e.g. Saul vs. David), and Apostles (Peter – anyone?!?).
In my estimation, their and our greatest difficulty in living in the power of the Spirit is that we trust in the “truth” of the reality around us more than we trust in the one who provides the Spirit that enables the accomplishing of the promised, revealed truth. Significantly, this latter truth is not merely based on a whimsical, ephemeral trust, but a belief in the fact that the God who has followed through on his plan and promise, often miraculously so, will continue to act according to his promise.
I was once again struck by this tension in the so-called “bad report” of the 10 spies.
“They (spies) brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit (the cluster – see below). However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.” (Numbers 13:26-29 ESV)
Two Israelite spies carrying a grape cluster (eshkol) from the area of Hebron to Kadesh-barnea, in order to show the wealth of the land
They came back with two truths – 1.) the land was extremely fruitful. 2.) its inhabitants were impossible to conquer. And here is the thing… They were not wrong – the land was/is fruitful and they had no chance against the Canaanite city states and their massive fortifications. Archaeological work over the last century have revealed huge earthen fortifications in the very places that the spies were said to have travelled (e.g. Hebron). Their reconnaissance mission was a success and they delivered a honest report from a strictly human perspective of wisdom (James 3:15), however, one of their number had a very different conclusion despite observing the same situation.
But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” (Numbers 13:30–33 ESV)
Caleb’s report, unlike that of the 10 spies, took into account the faithfulness of God as revealed through the miraculous salvation of Israel from Egypt and the ongoing physical sustenance of Israel by the direct, visible presence of God’s Spirit (via the cloud/pillar of fire). Therefore, Caleb’s suggested plan to attack was influenced by both the truth of the obstacles in their path (i.e. the Canaanites) and the reality of God’s supremacy over these obstacles. Unlike his peers, Caleb’s wisdom was “from above” (James 3:17) and his report was based on both the promise and faithfulness of God that he had witnessed with his very own eyes. This is the crux of the matter – do we trust in the physical, natural wisdom of the world and its assumed end-results or do we presently trust in the providential care and promise of God who has acted in the past and will continue to act in the future.