“His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor His pleasure in the legs of a man.”
I can remember, as a young boy, sitting with my friends in church and, as part of the service, reading the Psalms responsively. The minister would read the first verse; we the congregation would read the next verse; the minister the third and so on back and forth. When it was the Sunday to read Psalm 147, we got to read verse 10, “He delighteth not in the strength of the horse, He taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man.” (KJV) As silly kids we would snicker at that and poke each other in the side and say “Isn’t that weird?” It did seem to be an unusual source of God’s displeasure, especially the “legs of a man” bit. But by poetic means, through the mouth of the Psalmist, God was making a point that, later in life, I came to understand. The point is that God does not require muscle and force to fulfil His objectives. In fact He has no pleasure when we try to do what He alone can do. We just get in His way.
Consider the story of Moses’ first attempt to free the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery. From the Book of Exodus, here’s part of that story: The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt but their birth rate was much higher than the birth rate of the Egyptians. The Egyptian Pharaoh was afraid that these Hebrews would eventually outnumber the Egyptians and rise up in rebellion against them. He decreed that all male Hebrew infants were to be killed at birth. One baby, threatened with death according to the decree of the Pharaoh, was hidden by his mother in a pitch-covered basket which she floated among the bulrushes in the Nile River. The daughter of the Pharaoh came down to the river to bathe. She found the baby floating in the basket and took him to the palace to be raised as her own son. By God’s arrangement, the baby’s mother was asked to come and be the child’s nurse. That child was Moses and he was brought up as a prince of Egypt.
But Moses knew that he was a Hebrew and not an Egyptian. As a young man, he was enraged at seeing an enslaved kinsman being brutalized by his Egyptian taskmaster. So he took things into his own hands. Moses killed the Egyptian taskmaster with his sword. Expecting to find gratitude from his oppressed kinsman, he found hostility instead. The rescued man sneered at Moses, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:13-14)
The young prince knew that he had failed in his attempt to do good by using his position, his muscle and his sword. His efforts to correct a bad situation had simply back-fired. The result was that he became an enemy of the Egyptians as well as an enemy of some of his own people. Fearing for his life, he fled into the land of Midian where he found work tending sheep. He laboured at this for forty years. One day while tending the sheep he encountered a strange sight – a bush which was burning, but not being burnt up. He was intrigued. As he came closer, he heard a voice. Out of the burning bush God spoke to him instructing him to return to Egypt and secure the release of the Israelites. It wasn’t something that Moses wanted to hear, but he did, reluctantly, head back to Egypt, getting his brother Aaron to help with the mandated task.
Moses was not very happy with God’s instructions to go back to Egypt and free his people from the hand of the Pharaoh. He may have complained to God, “I tried that once and it didn’t work.” God may have replied, “But you tried to do it by force. You thought that by your position and your human strength you could make it happen. Don’t you know that I, poetically speaking, take no pleasure in the legs of a man or the strength of his sword arm either? Let’s do it My way.” It was by methods that Moses would never have dreamed of that the release of his people was accomplished. God sent a series of curses and plagues on the Egyptians which caused Pharaoh to finally hustle the Israelites out of his sight. Humbled, Moses led them as they went.
The Israelites were happy to begin their exodus from Egypt. But, true to his nature, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his troops after them. Fleeing, Moses and his people came up against the waters of the Red Sea. When they looked back they saw the Egyptian armies in hot pursuit. About to panic, the Israelites heard Moses say, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you and you only have to be still.” (Exodus 14:13-14) So there they stood on the shore of the Red Sea. Nothing was happening except that the Egyptians were fast approaching. The people were getting nervous. Moses was getting nervous. He started to call out to God. Minutes later God said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the people to move on. Raise your staff and stretch your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through on dry ground.” He did, and they did. Moses couldn’t part the waters of the Red Sea with bulldozers and coffer dams, but he could, in obedience to God’s command, raise his staff over the waters for the Lord to part them. In delivering the people from the pursuing Egyptians, Moses had to do his part so God could do His. Cooperation is vital; timing is everything. The Living Bible puts it in a rather refreshing way as God told Moses, at that critical moment, “Quit praying and get the people moving.” (Exodus 14:15)
There is a time to exercise faith and watch the Lord work, and then there is a time when we, in obedience, have to do something. Our problems arise when we try to do what only the Lord can do, and stand idle when He is asking us to do something. God is pleased when we get the rhythm of the sequence. He is not pleased when we use our own methods and muscle in trying to do what only He can do. He takes no pleasure seeing us stand around doing nothing while He waits for us to do what He has asked us to do. The secret is finding out who does what and when.
The sequence of God’s actions and man’s obedience are well illustrated in the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus went with His disciples to the tomb of His friend Lazarus who had been dead for four days. At the grave Jesus wept. Then He, who had all power in heaven and earth at His finger-tips, told the disciples to roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb. Protesting about facing the odours of a dead and decaying body, they reluctantly did what Jesus asked them to do. Then Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus come forth,” and Lazarus came out of the tomb. When Lazarus shuffled out all wrapped in grave clothes, Jesus said, “Loose him and let him go.” The disciples set about removing the grave clothes; something they could certainly do. (John 11)
The story illustrates the rhythm of the human and the divine abilities working in sequence to bring about a glorious miracle. Jesus could have commanded the stone to roll away and it would have, indeed, rolled away. But that minor miracle would have distracted the disciples from what was to happen. The disciples could have yelled all day for Lazarus to get up and come out of the tomb, but the corpse would not have stirred. Jesus could have commanded the grave clothes to fall off and they would have but that, too, would have excluded the participation of the disciples. Without the willingness to do our part God’s plans are sometimes delayed. Without God’s participation, nothing of any consequence will happen.
Jesus illustrated this in His parable about the vine and the branches. He said, “I am the Vine, you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit. Apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) People find this offensive because there is, in all of us, a pride that says, “I can do it on my own.”
Of course we can do all sorts of things on our own. Human beings can build skyscrapers, amass fortunes, get elected to public office, sing arias, write books, organize church congregations and bomb cities. But God can, at any time, bring down a prince, a nation or any major human enterprise. He can bring to nothing great plans of men like those who tried to erect a tower to reach heaven, the Tower of Babel. (See Genesis 11:1-9) We can recruit people to form a church organization but unless the Lord is in it, it will simply be a religious enterprise which can produce no abiding fruit. No human being can create a miracle, no one can get another to heaven, and no one can ultimately stave off death. Eternal events are in the hands of the eternal God who alone can fulfil His eternal purposes.
I clipped the following tragic story from the Toronto Star, Dateline New York, February 8, 1975. I saved the clipping for all these years because the story so clearly illustrates the ultimate helplessness of a man. Here is the headline of the newspaper report: “Feared for Future ‘Humane Capitalist’ Jumps to His Death.” The article reads, “At 21, he was the valedictorian of his class at Yeshiva College. At 22, a rabbi in Woodmere, Long Island, N.Y. At 30, a stockbroker who re-organized a major railroad. At 35, the chairman of a $32 million corporation. At 46, a director of Security National Bank of New York. At 52, the head of a $2 billion conglomerate. But on Monday, at the age of 53, Eli M. Black went to work, bolted the door of his 44th floor office in the Pan American building in Manhattan and, as police said, ‘jumped through a window to his death.’ The ‘economic disaster’ that brought on what Black’s nephew called the first emotional crisis in Black’s normally serious, self-controlled life, was Hurricane Fifi which destroyed most of the banana crop of United Brands’ United Fruit subsidiary in November. ‘He was a man who believed in total human control of events,’ said a close business associate. ‘He applied logic and reason to everything and then a hurricane destroyed his banana crop.’” The article reported, “At Yeshiva College, Black was voted by his senior class ‘Most respected,’ ‘Most likely to succeed’ and ‘Handsomest.’ He also had the highest academic average.”
Black’s story is such a sad one. Here was a gifted, honourable, influencial and wealthy young man, but a man who, when he found out he could not control the universe, (nor even protect his bananas) felt that life was not worth living. Although they may not commit suicide, how many people are living lives of quiet desperation because they cannot control their circumstances? They have not learned to allow God to have an active part in their lives.
Much of our church work is done by human effort and control in which God has no place. Much of our religious activity is devoid of power because God is not allowed in or because it wasn’t His idea in the first place. The scripture is clear, “Without faith it is impossible to please Him.” (Hebrews 11:6) Jesus’ statement is still true, “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) The Psalmist declares of God, “His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor His pleasure in the legs of a man.” (Psalm 147:10
“Guru Wants to Build Heaven on Earth” was the headline to a story published several years ago in the Canadian press. It read: “Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, former guru to the Beatles, has asked Canadian business people to help him finance a $100 trillion ‘heaven on earth,’ a string of lavish cities around the world that would be sealed off to keep out crime, pollution, drugs, noise and other undesirable elements. Directors of Maharishi’s new company, ‘Heaven and Earth Development Corp.’ made sales pitches to some 200 architects, bankers and developers in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa in April 1988.” (That’s “possibility thinking” at a pretty high level.) However, there was never any sign of construction nor was the company ever listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The Maharishi died in 2008. His grandiose scheme had long since fallen off the radar. God took no pleasure in his proposal; nor did any prospective investors.
God doesn’t take any pleasure in man-made religious legalism either. I recall seeing, in a Christian magazine, an advertisement for a Bible School. The school was located in a rural area which, as the advertisement noted, was “eleven miles from all known forms of sin.” I presume that it meant the sins of the pool-rooms and pubs, movie theatres, drugs and brothels that might exist in the closest town. They were trying to distance themselves from the things that might tempt their students to sin. I can imagine the administration sitting down and drafting up a set of rules and regulations to keep their students pure. Then, on the wall at the entrance to the school, they would have hung this carefully crafted and framed list of “Rules and Regulations” with copies in every dormitory and classroom. The rules were probably prohibitions of carnal activities. Do you remember the old radio drama The Shadow? He could “cloud men’s minds so that they could not see him.” He was a good guy and his favourite saying was, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” He would have had an interesting time in that Bible school, (eleven miles from any known forms of sin) finding out what evil was lurking in the hearts of students or staff, even of those who never went into town.
Forget The Shadow; it is the Holy Spirit who knows what is in the hearts of all, including those who might externally portray a moral life. He would need to convict both students and staff of that Bible School that, bad as the sins of the flesh are, the sins of the spirit are worse. The one who caught a fellow student with a cigarette might exhibit more sin than the smoker by his pride in reporting the sinner. Look! There is no place on earth where one can locate a Bible School that is a measurable distance from “all known forms of sin.” Neither geography nor barbed wire fences; neither good intentions nor a multitude of rules can exclude sin from any corner of this earth. Schools and other institutions need to set standards of conduct, but righteousness, in the end, cannot be legislated. Legalism produces hypocrites of whom Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like white-washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27) Only the power of the Holy Spirit, working within a willing, yielded heart can keep sin at bay and bring forth godly conduct and attitude in school or in town.
Sam Shoemaker, one of the early leaders of Alcoholics Anonymous, and an American Episcopal priest, was an astute observer of the human condition. He was the rector of a large church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A man of the Spirit, Father Shoemaker knew his own heart as well as the hearts of his people. He was also very familiar with some of the frenetic activities carried on by his parishioners as they sought ways and means of raising the budget and keeping people interested in the programs of the church. Sam was troubled because many of the organized activities of the congregation were neither authored by nor were they fulfilling the purposes of God. One day he commented to a fellow parson, “You know, Fred, I think that if the Holy Spirit left the church, eighty percent of its activities would go on just the same.” Fred replied, “Sam, I think you’re being generous. It probably would be ninety percent.” It is a sad truth that much religious activity has little to do with the Kingdom of God; little to do with the Holy Spirit. Man’s mind and muscle will produce fruit of a kind, but God is looking for fruit that will last. It is His plan, His Spirit’s leading and our obedience that produces abiding fruit.
Jesus is the Head of the Church and we are the body. The body takes its direction from the Head.
Our text from the Psalmist may have brought a chuckle or two from us young lads in church, but life has proven it to be true. The scriptures give us instructions and illustrations of what pleases Him and what does not. And as we walk with Him and search out His heart in prayer we receive guidance for our own lives and learn to take God seriously. “He delighteth not in the strength of a horse; he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man. The Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy.” (Psalm 147:10-11, KJV) The Psalmist also wrote, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm.” (Psalm 20:7-8) Glory to God!
Questions for discussion
When did you last try to do something for God and fail?
Where have you seen God at work and joined in?
Where have you seen religious activity that produced no lasting Spiritual fruit?
Has there ever been a time when God wanted you to act, but you refused to do so? Explain.