When Israel was brought into the promised land, Joshua gave the tribes their inheritance. Among the laws governing their tenure was this one, “The land shall not be sold forever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).

Clearly they were receiving an inheritance which they could never own or possess: the land belonged to Yahweh and they were His tenants. There were important lessons which they were to learn from this provision, lessons which have the same relevance for spiritual Israel. I wonder if we understand what these are, and if we do, whether we take them seriously.

A “stranger” is a foreigner, and a sojourner is a “temporary dweller”, one who is passing through. Telling Israel that they were strangers and sojourners with Yahweh was intended to link the nation with their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We need to learn the lessons behind these facts, and this designation.

The fathers of Israel

In Hebrews 11 the first act of monumental faith mentioned concerning Abraham was his departure from Ur of the Chaldees: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went” (v8). His fathers were idolaters, and Stephen tells us that the God of glory appeared to him in Ur; on the strength of a promise he left his country, kindred and his father’s house (Gen 12:1). And remember that archaeologists have shown that Ur was a ‘modern’, comfortable, highly civilized city. It was a remarkable thing to do. But let us remember that Ruth did something similar (Ruth 2:11), and that the Lord calls on disciples to leave family and lands, “for (his) sake, and the gospel’s” (Mark 10:29).

The second thing Hebrews tells us about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was that they were temporary dwellers, the evidence being their tentdwelling status: “By faith he [Abraham] sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange [foreign] country, dwelling in tabernacles [tents] with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise” (Heb 11:9). Their dwelling in tents told a story; it proclaimed a fact that might not be immediately apparent. The rationale was, “For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (v10). Tent-dwelling, being mobile and not possessing land, made a clear declaration that their eyes were focused upon the eternal inheritance of the land under the seed of promise to come, whose day they saw and rejoiced in (v13, 14; John 8:56). It wasn’t that they could not have retraced their steps if they changed their minds, but they did not, such was their faith, their vision (v15).

Esau, Jacob’s twin, was a different kind of man, a profane person. He sought to maximize the present as he had no vision of the future. There is an intended contrast which the chapter break at the end of Genesis 36 obscures: we read the long list of the dukes of Esau and the concluding and telling words are these: “these be the dukes of Edom, according to their habitations in the land of their possession: he is Esau the father of the Edomites” (36:43), and reading on, “And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan” (37:1).

Before Pharaoh Jacob confessed, “The days of the years of my pilgrimage are …” (47:9). They are telling words spoken before one who possessed such visible and ‘permanent’ structures as were to be found in Egypt. A pilgrim is one who is en route to a sacred place and Jacob, that great old man, was surely this, for he made Joseph swear that he would not bury him in Egypt but in the promised land with his fathers (47:29–31).

For their monumental faith God was prepared to surname Himself by theirs, identifying Himself to Moses at the bush as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod 3:6). This was the ultimate compliment, that the God of heaven should surname Himself by these men! Jesus taught that this sealed the doctrine of theresurrection and in particular theirs, for He is not a God of the dead, but of the living (Luke 20:37–38). As we read these things we must put ourselves into the picture. It is not just academic head knowledge. As disciples of the Lord Jesus, we are involved. Abraham is the father of the faithful, our father. How closely do we relate to him, to his unworldly attitudes, to his belief in the permanence of things as yet unseen? Do we look for a city that hath foundations, the Zion of the Lord God of Israel (Psa 87)? Do we realise that we, too, are but tenants with God, that we, too, have in this life no enduring possessions? Or are we so attached to the present and the visible as to be incapable of walking away, not looking back like Lot’s wife (Luke 17:32)? The Hebrews were being warned that they would have to leave all and flee for the storm clouds of AD70 were gathering. Are we ready? Have we our loins girded, our shoes on our feet, staff in hand, ready to depart (Exod 12:11; 1 Pet 1:13)?

David’s last words

In his old age David gave himself over to preparing for the Temple he was not personally to build. Viewing the immense treasure and material devoted to this cause he made some salient observations. Among them were these, “Both riches and honour come of thee [God], and thou reignest over all … all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee”; and then directly on the theme of this editorial, “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding” (1 Chron 29:12–15). These are sobering truths which we need to think about to have the right, the godly perspective. They are also challenging truths for saints who live in the last days in the most materialistic age the world has ever known. How do we fare?

I remember a faithful brother who lived in humble circumstances coming to my newly-built home (not long after I was married), saying to me, “Are you going to be able to get up, walk away and leave all when the angel taps you on the shoulder?” I have not forgotten these words. We must not sink down our roots in this perishing world. The Lord is at the door. We brought nothing into the world and we will take nothing out. That’s the reality that is hard to come to grips with. The problem is that we tend to ape our contemporaries and the danger is that where our treasure is there will our heart be also. Let us make sure that the Truth, the ecclesia, the Lord and our loving Father are our consuming interests, our chiefest joys.

The Rechabites

These remarkable people in Israel’s midst set a great example. They adhered to the counsel of their father Rechab. When asked by Jeremiah to explain their abstention from wine they recounted the faithful words of their father, among which are found the following: “Neither shall ye build house, nor sow seed, nor plant vineyard, nor have any: but all your days ye shall dwell in tents; that ye may live many days in the land where ye are strangers” (Jer 35:7).

For their fidelity Yahweh told Jeremiah to say, “Jonadab … shall not want a man to stand before me forever” (v19). They were not going to be casualties of a materialistic world, or fall because of the love affair that the heart of man has for the material, the visible.

Recognising the vanity of all human foundations and achievements, David also said: “Surely every man walketh in a vain shew … surely every man is vanity … Hear my prayer, O Yahweh, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears: for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were” (Psa 39:6–12).

The greatest example

Of our Lord we read, “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

This is an arresting comment for we learn that if it was not for the Lord’s detachment from all earthly fame and possessions and his consequent “poverty” then we would never be rich. And rich we are in him with the prospect of glory and honour and immortality. There could be no entanglement in this world for him, for then would the quest for perfection not be accomplished. Not only was marriage out of the question, but he had no earthly possessions. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). He trusted in his loving heavenly Father to provide for him all things. We read that during his ministry there were certain women who gave generously to him and his twelve companions, who “ministered unto himof their substance” (Luke 8:3). Without a trace of hypocrisy he could say, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15).

Like the fathers he walked through the land, was a stranger, a sojourner, and a pilgrim. His eyes were firmly set on the joy that was set before him. This life was transient, a time for service and for witness to his Father’s ways, will and purpose. For this he was prepared to sacrifice all. The tempter’s sophistry was summarily dismissed (Luke 4); his affections were on things above.

Relevance today?

What are the practical outworkings in the lives of disciples today of our sojourner status? We are a separate people, or as the Apostle Peter said, “ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Pet 2:9). So while we are in the world we are not to be of it. We have been elevated to heavenly places in Christ Jesus: “our commonwealth [citizenship] is in heaven, and from it we await the Saviour” (Phil 3:20 rsv). This means that there are many things condoned by the world which are out of bounds for saints. Daily reading of the Word of God helps us to attune our minds to what is acceptable and what is not. Our minds are constantly being exercised as to what it means to be foreigners and sojourners. Whilst it is important for us to show by word and deed that we belong to Christ, we can have no part in the unbridled lust and indulgence of these last days: “what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” (2 Cor 6:15); we are called upon to “come out from among them, and be separate … and (I) will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (v17,18). Peter appeals to us, “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims [rsv ‘aliens and exiles’], abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Pet 2:11).

With our eyes firmly fixed upon the unseen, the city whose builder and maker is God, let us run with patience the race that is set before us, laying aside sins that may hinder us. Let us make the new year, 2011, one of resolution, dedication and service. As our beautiful hymn (389) puts it:

Pilgrims on the earth, and strangers

Like the fathers in the Land;

We in their one faith united,

In their city hope to stand.”