The Bed Is Too Short in Your Covenant of Death

This is the message I shared as part of the opening devotion at today's quarterly meeting of the South Dakota Lutherans For Life board of directors.

“A Lutheran pastor, a Jewish rabbi, a Baptist minister, and a Roman Catholic priest walk into a hearing…” 

It sounds like the setup for a bad joke, doesn’t it?  But it was anything but a joke.  LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison joined the Most Reverent William E. Lori of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dr. C. Ben Mitchell of Union University, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Yeshiva University, and Dr. Craig Mitchell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in speaking in defense of religion and conscience before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington, D.C on Thursday, February 16, 2012.

Expressing concern over the January 20th U.S. Health and Human Services ruling regarding health-insurance plans and the recently required coverage of contraceptives, Harrison said, “I’d rather not be here, frankly.  Our task is to proclaim, in the words of the blessed apostle St. John, the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all our sin… We haven’t the slightest intent to Christianize the government.  Martin Luther famously quipped one time, ‘I’d rather have a smart Turk than a stupid Christian governing me.’  We confess that there are two realms, the church and the state.  They shouldn’t be mixed—the church is governed by the Word of God, the state by natural law and reason”

Harrison went on to say, “I’m here to express our deepest distress over the HHS provisions… While we are opposed in principle, not to all forms of birth control, but only abortion-causing drugs, we stand with our friends in the Catholic Church and all others, Christians and non-Christians, under the free exercise and conscience provisions of the U.S. Constitution.”

It was a masterful statement, a wonderful paradigm for us Lutherans For Life to follow as we strive to be “Always Prepared to Make a Defense for Life.”  It trumpeted the “two-realm theology” first put forth by Christ (Matthew 22:17-22), then St. Paul (Romans 13:1-7), and later emphasized by Martin Luther that properly informs our involvement with life issues in both the civil and religious realms.  It was also one of the most concise confessions of the Gospel you will ever hear proclaimed in the public square: “the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all our sin.”  

Echoing the apostles’ response to those who would force them to violate their consciences in Acts 5:29, Harrison concluded: “We fought for a free conscience in this country, and we won’t give it up without a fight.  To paraphrase Martin Luther, the heart and conscience has room only for God, not for God and the federal government.  The bed is too narrow, the blanket is too short.  We must obey God rather than men, and we will.  Please get the federal government, Mr. Chairman, out of our consciences.  Thank you”

With all that is said in a few short minutes, it’s difficult to catch everything in Pastor Harrison’s statement when you hear it; but there is one line in that final paragraph that I noticed when I read the transcript.  He said, “The bed is too narrow, the blanket is too short.”  It sounded strange, but vaguely familiar.  It should have.  It was an allusion to Isaiah 28:20, where the prophet writes: “For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on, and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself.”

Now, people in the public square often quote Bible passages or parts of Bible verses to make their point.  But all too often they’ll take the passage out of context, and it ends up saying something that was never intended by the prophet or apostle as he wrote.  I decided to look at the textual and historical context.  To do this is, I backed up a bit.  Let me share it with you, beginning with verse 14:

Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers, who rule this people in Jerusalem!  Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement, when the overwhelming whip passes through it will not come to us, for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter’; therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: “Whoever believes will not be in haste.”  And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plumb line; and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter.

“Then your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand; when the overwhelming scourge passes through, you will be beaten down by it.  As often as it passes through it will take you; for morning by morning it will pass through, by day and by night; and it will be sheer terror to understand the message.  For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on, and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in.  For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon He will be roused; to do His deed—strange is His deed!  and to work His work—alien is His work!  Now therefore do not scoff, lest your bonds be made strong; for I have heard a decree of destruction from the Lord God of hosts against the whole land” (Isaiah 28:14-22).

How subtle!  How refreshing!  How appropriate!  How profound!  How condemning!  How comforting!  When I first heard Pastor Harrison talking about the bed and the blanket I thought he was just saying this isn’t going to work.  That perhaps if he had grown up down South instead of Sioux City, Iowa, he might have said, “That dog ain’t gonna hunt.”  But the reference goes much deeper.

As the Lord spoke through His prophet Isaiah, the leaders of Judah had made an alliance with Egypt for protection against the Assyrians.  There was “hope” in Egypt—a hope that would never be realized.  Isaiah characterized the alliance as a “covenant with death,” an agreement with the grave.  No one, of course, publicly used those words.  But the political leaders, together with the drunken priests and lying prophets described earlier, were confident.  To them, it was an alliance that would protect them from death and the grave.

They had done everything to secure themselves and the nation against the coming of Assyria—except one thing.  They had not turned to the Lord for help and protection, but to their alliance and to their own political machinations. 

Isaiah called this alliance a lie and a falsehood.  It would not protect them at all.  In fact, the Lord would allow Jerusalem to be destroyed as a sign of His judgment upon their unbelief.  Their covenant with death would be annulled.  Their agreement with the grave would not stand.  Much like a whip, the Assyrian army would deal out a scourging punishment on Judah and Jerusalem.  They would be mercilessly and repeatedly beaten.  Thus Isaiah concludes the section with a little proverb: “The bed is too short… the covering too narrow.”  All their efforts would not be enough to bring protection or comfort.

Fast-forward about 2,600 years. Our nation has it own covenant with death.  Abortion on demand has stood as the law of the land for 39 years.  States protect the “right” to assisted suicide.  Health care professionals ignore the Hippocratic oath.  Organizations that supposedly laud parenthood make millions from the deaths of the innocent whose only crime is to be “unplanned.”  Political and religious leaders have allied themselves with such lies and falsehoods in order to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and the weak.  And the signs of economic, cultural, and moral decay are all around—even in the Church. 

Is the judgment of the Lord beginning in the House of the Lord?  Will persecution cause us to wake from our slumber?  Like the people of Jerusalem, we are often tempted to take refuge in pleasant sounding lies.  It seems so much easier to “go along” and “get along” than to hold fast to the truth and speak up for those who have no voice.  Have we fallen victim to the covenant of death?  The agreement with the grave?  The promise of hope that is not really hope? 

We must repent and believe the Gospel!  There is only one Hope.  There is only One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  There is only one Rock and Shield.  There is only one Redeemer.  There is only one precious Cornerstone.  His name is Jesus Christ!   Whoever believes and builds on this Foundation will find the power of sin and death annulled.

Jesus lived the perfect obedient life that you or I could not.  He died on the cross to pay for the sins of the world—yours and mine included.  Three days later, He rose from the grave.  With His very own life blood, Christ established a new covenant of forgiveness, salvation, and life.  All who trust in Him will be saved.  They will not be dismayed.

What a wonderful message you and I have to share as Lutherans For Life!  Unlike the world’s covenant of death, we have the Good News of God’s promises of eternal life.  Unlike the kingdoms of this world that will one day be turned to rubble, we, by God’s grace, have an eternal kingdom kept in heaven.  Faith in God, not in human resources, provides the only solid basis for hope.  Jerusalem, Israel, Egypt, Assyria—all earthly kingdoms, even our own beloved country, will one day be destroyed; but the Lord will not give up His plan to build an indestructible Zion, made up of living stones and founded on a precious cornerstone—Jesus Christ and His Church. 

Indeed, He already has!  Amen. 

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