Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bewailing her Virginity

"So [Jephthah’s daughter] said to him, “My father, if you have given your word to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, because the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the people of Ammon.” Then she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity, my friends and I.” So he said, “Go.” And he sent her away for two months; and she went with her friends, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man. And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite." Jdg 11:36-40

For the last several weeks I have been writing an essay for the Omnibus V curriculum on a medieval English historian by the name of William of Malmesbury. William was a monk who lived in Malmesbury Abbey for most of his life, serving as the librarian there. He wrote a history of England in an attempt to continue the Venerable Bede’s story up to William’s own day – the middle of the 12th century and the reign of Henry I.

As always in reading an old book there is a refreshing breeze which blows through one’s thinking. William is decidedly un-modern. For example, he thinks the First Crusade was a grand endeavor and explains at length the benefits that it brought to the Christians. Another area where William reveals his un-modern stance is in his approach to the topic we discussed last week – virginity. He routinely praises women who preserved their virginity and in this honors the principles we discussed last week.

But one of the things that William reveals is a distortion that entered into the Church regarding this topic of virginity. Paul had written that it was good for a man or a woman to remain single so that he or she may be able to serve Christ more effectively. The medieval church took this and insisted that Paul’s words meant that perpetual virginity was the ideal state. One’s virginity was intended to be preserved entire for the Lord. Monasticism, of which William was a part, was the result.

Of course, as with any misuse of the biblical text, there is an element of truth in this medieval distortion. Paul’s comments continue to have application even now – there are ways that single people, who remain perpetually celibate, can serve Jesus that married people cannot. And praise God for those to whom He gives this gift. We need men and women who are able to devote themselves wholeheartedly to the advancement of the kingdom. However, this acknowledgement is a far cry from the medieval exaltation of virginity into the most blessed state. For men and women to marry and have children was, by and large, viewed as a compromise, a forfeiture of God’s ideal.

And this brings us back to our text today. Jephthah, you may recall, made a rash vow, swearing that if God granted him victory over the Ammonites, he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house upon his return. God granted him the victory. Unfortunately, however, Jephthah’s daughter was the first to exit the home upon his arrival.

Whatever happened to Jephthah’s daughter – whether she was actually offered up as a human sacrifice (which would have been an abominable thing) or whether she was dedicated to the Lord’s service in the tabernacle – I want you to notice the way his daughter responded to his oath. She insisted that Jephthah must fulfill his vow but requested that she be given a period of two months to go out to the hills with her friends. Why? So that she might bewail her virginity. Now why would she do this? Because she understood that virginity, in Scripture, is not normally a gift to be kept to oneself for a lifetime but is normally intended to be given to a man as a gift. And when a young woman gives this gift, that God has given her, to a man, God frequently gives back to her in the form of children and a family. Jephthah’s daughter, in other words, wanted to be a wife and a mother, and this was a good thing. Indeed, so good, that from this day forth, all the virgins of Israel would go into the wilderness for four days each year in remembrance that Jephthah’s daughter was unable to give her virginity as a gift.

Today is Mother’s Day – a day in which we celebrate that many virgins of the past gave the gift of their virginity to a man so that they might have children and raise a family. Let us praise God for this. And, praising Him, let us be reminded of our tendency to distort the Word of God and fail to remember that our mothers gave a gift to conceive us and that when we give away that which God gives to us, He gives us even more in return. So let us kneel and confess our sins to the Lord.

Virgins in Israel

Deuteronomy 22:13-19 (NKJV)
13 “If any man takes a wife, and goes in to her, and detests her, 14 and charges her with shameful conduct, and brings a bad name on her, and says, ‘I took this woman, and when I came to her I found she was not a virgin,’ 15 then the father and mother of the young woman shall take and bring out the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. 16 And the young woman’s father shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man as wife, and he detests her. 17 Now he has charged her with shameful conduct, saying, “I found your daughter was not a virgin,” and yet these are the evidences of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. 18 Then the elders of that city shall take that man and punish him; 19 and they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name on a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days.

This morning we continue our series of lessons taught by young women. As members of the body of Christ, young women have important lessons to teach the rest of us and it is prudent for us to learn these lessons that we might honor our Lord more fully. We have seen that one of the titles by which God’s people are called is the “daughter of Zion” revealing God’s affection, protection, and provision for us.

The text today reveals another title by which young women in Israel were called, the “virgins of Israel.” A virgin, as most of you know, is a woman who has never been sexually intimate with a man. And, in ancient Israel, one of the titles by which young women were called, in addition to the title “daughters of Jerusalem” and “maidens” (which we saw last week), was the Virgins of Israel. None of this innocuous “teenager” language. When God began developing a young man or young woman, He took note of his or her respective treasures. And one of the greatest treasures that a young woman possesses, which she can give only once to one man, is her virginity.

God takes this virginity, this sexual purity, seriously and so he honors young women in Israel by protecting their good name. For example, in our text today, if a man were to marry a virgin, have intercourse with her on their wedding night, and then charge her falsely the next day with failing to be a virgin, he was to be punished by the elders of the city – likely beaten with a rod – fined an enormous sum of money that would be given to the father lest his daughter have to return home, and forbidden by law from divorcing his wife ever for any cause. Why? Notice the rationale: “Because he has brought a bad name on a virgin of Israel” and that’s something you just don’t do.

The seriousness with which God takes this sexual purity is likewise evident in the way that young women who pretended to be virgins and were not were treated. The text goes on to describe what should happen if the charge were true. If a young woman were to contract a marriage on the assumption that she was a virgin and were to deceive her parents and fiancé into thinking she was still a virgin, only to be discovered the day after the wedding night that she wasn’t a virgin, then she was to be stoned to death with stones. Why? “Because she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel, to play the harlot in her father’s house.”

Young women, God takes your virginity seriously and acts to protect it in His law. So treasure and guard it well. Beware young men who would seduce you. Beware older men who would seduce you. Beware the pressure that will be put upon you to be sexually active by our current culture. You may be told that you haven’t fully experienced life if you haven’t had sex. You may be told that you are prude, naïve, silly. You may be mocked and scorned by the Hollywood crowd. But this is where the Word of God comes to our rescue by speaking very bluntly. What is a harlot? A harlot is a whore, a prostitute, a woman who gets paid to perform sexual favors. If we despise a harlot – which the Word of God says we ought – then how much more ought we to despise a woman who gives her sexual favors away for nothing? Who spreads her legs under every green tree and only demands “love” in return? Such a woman is both a harlot and a fool.

Young women, this is your charge. You are the Virgins of Israel, so be a Virgin of Israel – pure, unsullied, glorious, beautiful. Men, particularly young men, your task is to protect the purity of the Virgins of Israel. In relation to women, there are two types of men in the world: protectors and predators. To our shame, many, if not most, are predators – looking for yet another young woman they can defile, and, when they do, chalking up another victory on their achievement board. But your job is to be their protectors. Defend them and honor them even as Your God does.

And all of us should be reminded by these things the extent to which God values purity and chastity – both outside of marriage and inside. Reminded of this, reminded that we have been impure in our thoughts and often impure in our actions, let us kneel and confess our sins to God.

Maidens Playing Timbrels

Psalm 68:24-26 (NKJV)
24 They have seen Your procession, O God, The procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary. 25 The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; Among them were the maidens playing timbrels. 26 Bless God in the congregations, The Lord, from the fountain of Israel.

In the last couple weeks we have learned that two lessons young women teach us both highlight our identity. The Church collectively is called the daughter of Zion to indicate how beloved the Church is – God loves us just as a father delights in his daughter. In addition, we saw last week that throughout the Scriptures young women are frequently identified by the title, “daughters of Zion” or “daughters of Jerusalem” or “daughters of Judah.” All these titles assure young women – God claims you as His own; He loves you; He cherishes you; He delights to be called your God.

Precisely because God claims you, He simultaneously invites you into His house to worship. When Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden, they were given two tasks: to tend the garden and to cultivate it. This latter calling of cultivating the Garden relates directly to worship. In the ancient Hebrew, as well as in Latin from which we get our word “cultivate”, the idea behind the word is to offer up in worship. So in English we not only get the word “cultivate” from the Latin cultus, we also get the words “cult” and “culture” – both pointing to the product of our cultivation. Adam and Eve, in other words, were to guard and cultivate the Garden and the work that they did was to be offered up to the Lord as their service of worship. From the beginning, man and woman were not created first and foremost as homo sapiens (wise man) but as homo adorans (worshiping man). We were created to worship.

Consequently, when God claims you young women for Himself, He invites you into His presence to worship; he invites you to offer up your labors as sacrifices, a pleasing aroma, to Him. Listen again to our psalmist:
24 They have seen Your procession, O God, The procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary. 25 The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; Among them were the maidens playing timbrels. 26 Bless God in the congregations, The Lord, from the fountain of Israel.
Note that the psalmist is careful to note that in the assembly of God’s people, worshiping before Him, were the maidens, the young women. And note that these maidens are not there half-heartedly, not there disinterestedly, not there sulking or pining for some other activity, but there rejoicing. Their joy in worship was evident for they were playing the timbrels – and timbrels always draw the attention.

This description of young women is made an imperative in another psalm – the psalmist in the 148th psalm calls upon the whole creation, including maidens, to worship the Lord: Praise the Lord from the earth… Both young men and maidens; Old men and children. (Ps 148:7,12)

So, young women, you are exactly where you are to be this morning. God has invited you here, welcomes you into His presence, delights over you with songs of love. He has brought you here to assure you that you are welcome; he speaks to you and says to you, “You are mine”; He receives you at His table and says to you, “I will provide for you, I will protect you.”

So, having been invited, come into worship with all your heart. Do not come distracted; do not come half-hearted; do not come unwillingly. The Lord Himself calls you here – not your parents, not your friends, not your elders. And for all you saints of the Lord – learn this lesson from the young women in our midst – just as God delights over them, inviting them to worship before Him with all the congregation, so too the Lord delights over all of us and call all of us homo adorans, worshiping man, called to offer up all our labor in worship.

Reminded that we are first and foremost worshiping creatures and that we have frequently failed to come into the Lord’s presence with joy and gladness, but have instead been sulky and disinterested, let us kneel and confess our sins to God.

Daughters of Zion, Part Two

Zechariah 9:9-10 (NKJV)
9 “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim And the horse from Jerusalem; The battle bow shall be cut off. He shall speak peace to the nations; His dominion shall be ‘from sea to sea, And from the River to the ends of the earth.’

Last week we began to consider the lessons which young women teach us. The first thing we learn from young women is a matter of identity: the Church collectively is called the daughter of Zion, the daughter of Jerusalem. This title reminds us that we are near to God’s heart – the special object of His affection, protection, and provision. Even as a Father delights over his precious daughter, so the Lord delights over His people. So, young women, learn from the Lord’s decision to call His people His daughter how precious and valued you are.

Today I would like us to note that our text also teaches you young women about your identity. Who are you? This is a question which we all ask others and which we all want to know about ourselves. Who am I? There are, of course, numerous answers to this question. I am the child of certain parents, belonging to a particular father and mother either by birth or by adoption. I am the resident of a specific geographical area – perhaps a city, a county, a state or more than one of these simultaneously. I am a citizen of a particular country. But of all these identities, the identities that shape us and make us who we are, the most central and important is the one mentioned in our text today: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!” Young women, when you think about yourself, when you ask yourself, “Who am I?” the first answer that God wants to come to your lips is, “I am a daughter of Zion – in other words, I belong to Zion, to Jerusalem, to the Church. I am a Christian.”

Throughout the psalms and prophets, it is this language that is used frequently to identify young women. “Let Mount Zion rejoice, Let the daughters of Judah be glad…” (Ps 48:11). “Zion hears and is glad, And the daughters of Judah rejoice because of Your judgments, O Lord” (Ps 97:8). “I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem. Do not stir up nor awaken love until it pleases” (Song 8:4). And even our Lord Jesus used this language, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Lk 23:28).

Young women, God claims you as His own, claims you as His daughters. In the waters of baptism, He has identified you as members of His own people, as His special possession, separated out from the rest of the females in the world and devoted unto Him. You are daughters of Zion, daughters of Jerusalem, daughters of Judah, daughters of the Church.

So here’s the challenge that comes in the wake of that identity: because you are daughters of Zion, daughters of Jerusalem, the Lord summons you to act like it. You are a daughter of Zion; be a daughter of Zion. Why are you consumed with looking like the daughters of Philistia? Why are you enamored with the skimpy clothing of Pharaoh’s concubines? Why bedazzled by the glitzy glamor of Jezebel’s shrine prostitutes? Those aren’t your people, God declares to you, don’t act like they are. Be a daughter of Zion, act like your mothers in the faith – like Sarah, like Tamar, like Deborah, like Ruth, like Elizabeth, like Mary.

Reminded that we all are tempted to act like something we are not, to allow others to define who we are rather than God Himself, let us kneel and let us confess our sins to God.

Daughters of Zion, Part One

Zechariah 9:9-10 (NKJV)
9 “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim And the horse from Jerusalem; The battle bow shall be cut off. He shall speak peace to the nations; His dominion shall be ‘from sea to sea, And from the River to the ends of the earth.’

Two weeks ago we read this passage as we celebrated the Triumphal Entry, the entry of our Lord Jesus Christ into Jerusalem as King. Today I would like to return to this passage for a moment as we begin to consider the lessons which young women have to teach us as the body of Christ. For they do have numerous things to teach us and so we should be learning from them.

The first thing they teach us is about our own identity. Notice that Zechariah’s announcement this morning is of the arrival of the great King, the King who would bring salvation and righteousness to His people; the King who would be humble and upright, not susceptible to the injustice and corruption which were permeating Israel at the time; the King who would bring peace to Israel, delivering her from bloodshed and destruction; the King who would bring peace to all the earth. This King is, of course, our Lord Jesus the Christ.

So here’s the question: was this good news just for the young women in Israel or for all Israel? All Israel! So when Zechariah calls upon the “daughter of Zion” to rejoice, whom is he urging to respond in this way? All Israel. Notice, therefore, that all the inhabitants of Jerusalem collectively are called the daughter of Zion, the daughter of Jerusalem. Men, women, young men, young women, children – all are identified as the daughter of Zion. Indeed, this is a common figure of speech throughout the prophets. Why? Why are the inhabitants of Jerusalem collectively referred to as the daughter of Zion? Because, as any father should be able to tell you, daughters are our special objects of affection, protection, and provision. As glorious and important as sons are – they’ve got to grow up, become men, carry on the family name – daughters are much more special, much closer to our heart.

God calls the inhabitants of Jerusalem collectively “his daughter” to indicate how much He loves them, and how strong is His intention to provide for them and to protect them at the hands of the coming King. Notice how this is the heart of Zechariah’s call to rejoice. Rejoice, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem, for your King is coming to you, coming to protect you, coming to provide for you, coming to secure your favor and see you cared for.

So daughters – learn from Zechariah today how much you are beloved: how much you are beloved by your earthly father; but second, how much more you are beloved by Your heavenly Father. Even if your earthly father fails to love you as he ought, God never will. And He identifies you as a daughter of Zion, His daughter, to assure you of His care, His provision, His protection. And all you inhabitants of Jerusalem, you daughter of Zion, call to mind the Lord’s great love for you and His determination to provide for us and protect us. Rejoice, O daughter of Zion; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem, for Your King has come to You and shall come yet again.

Reminded that we have failed to trust God’s love, provision, and protection of us and have instead sought out the affection of other lovers, other providers, let us kneel and confess our sin to God.