Theology Thursday

Yātôm Week 6: Parting words for the journey ahead

Today is the final leg of our journey to discover what the Bible actually says about God’s heart for the fatherless. Over the past 6 weeks we have been studying the Hebrew word yātôm, translated into English as ‘orphan’ or ‘the fatherless.’ As we have studied how the Hebrew Scriptures use the word yātôm, four key themes have risen to the surface. And each theme has contributed greater clarity to the beautiful picture of God’s heart for vulnerable children: 

Theme #1: God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm

Theme #2: God will bring blessing on those who protect and care for yātôm 

Theme #3: God himself provides for and defends yātôm 

Theme #4: God calls his people to do justice towards yātôm because they to were helpless as slaves in Egypt.

Today we will look at the last key theme regarding God’s heart for the fatherless. And as you will soon discover, it is the perfect way to finish our study on the Hebrew word yātôm. 

Jeremiah 7 is one of those passages that everyone who desires to know the Bible should be familiar with. Chapter 7 is often called “Jeremiah’s temple sermon” because Jeremiah preached this message on the temple grounds to the people of God. Unlike many sermons in our day, Jeremiah 7 is not a warm, upbeat and encouraging message of hope. It is rather a word of warning that God’s people need to amend their ways or the Lord will bring judgment on the people and remove His presence from the temple. For those familiar with church history, it was the ancient equivalent of Martin Luther calling the church to repent and amend their ways by nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of the catholic church. 

God’s core problem with Israel in Jeremiah 7 is their hypocrisy. Throughout the week, Israel would commit grave injustice and idolatry. Then they would head to the temple to sing worship songs and offer sacrifices as if everything was cool between them and God. Jeremiah’s task was to announce a message of warning and potential judgment on the people if they did not repent of their injustice and idolatry and turn from their wicked ways to practice justice and righteousness.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel… “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever” – Jeremiah 7:5-7

God’s problem with Israel was they were living a double-life. On Sunday they would sing songs to the Lord, then on Monday they would oppress the poor. One minute they are offering ritual sacrifices, but the next they are taking advantage of the widow and orphan. God had had enough. The warning was clear: change your ways or I will forsake you and your temple.

What is remarkable about this passage – and others like it in Isaiah 1 and Zechariah 7 – is how God details what true repentance looks like. It wasn’t enough for Israel to just say sorry and offer another sacrifice. Jeremiah says that the proof of a repentant heart is love and care for the poor. In other words, for Israel to truly amend their ways they needed to do justice for “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” Professor of Old Testament Theology Dr. Todd Chipman says it this way,

“Jeremiah was as concerned for the orphan as he was the state of the temple, prophesying that unless the people of Judah took up causes like justice for the orphan, God would come and remove not only the temple from Jerusalem, but them from the land.” (1)

This is a truly amazing reality! God was so committed to protecting yātôm that he was willing to forsake his own temple if Israel was unwilling to start loving and caring for the poor. God was unwilling to dwell with his people if they continued to oppress and take advantage of the marginalized. And what would be the evidence that Israel had truly repented and changed their ways? The sign of true repentance would be doing justice for yātôm. And this is our fifth and final theme: doing justice for yātôm is a marker of true repentance from sin. (2)

Jeremiah was not the only one proclaiming this message. Listen to how similar the prophet Isaiah’s call to the people of Israel was to Jeremaih’s, “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes.” And how was Israel to go about purifying themselves? “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Is. 1:16-17). With remarkable similarity, Isaiah defines repentance in the same terms as Jeremiah – to bring justice to yātôm! As we conclude our study on the fatherless, I want to point out two life-shaping implications from this doctrine of true repentance:

1. First, true repentance is a whole-life action that leads to whole-life change. Biblical repentance is not only saying “I am sorry”, it is also saying “I will change.” The Christian who claims they have been forgiven by God must in turn forgive other people (Lk 6:37; Eph 5:1). The Christian who claims they have been adopted by God, must in turn care for the orphan (Jas 1:127). This is the very nature of salvation! The grace of God has appeared to all who are saved, teaching them to live a life of godliness, imitating the work of Christ (Ti 2:11-13).

2. The second life-shaping implication of true repentance is that we are all invited to repent and begin to defend and care for the poor. In some way, all of us have fallen short of God’s command to love the poor. And instead of trying to justify ourselves before God with a list of what we have done, Isaiah and Jeremiah invite us to repent of what we have left undone. Repentance is the first step in living a life of justice and righteousness before God. God’s mercies are new every morning and he is quick to forgive and empower all who come humbly before him to repent of sin and ask for help. It is the Father’s joy to teach his children how to love and care for the poor, especially yātôm.  

So there you have it. Five key themes that not only paint a beautiful picture of God’s heart for yātôm, but each one better equips us to love and serve children and youth in foster care. 

  • Theme #1: Because God is the one who brings judgment on those who oppress yātôm, my anger and lament of oppression is justified and I am free to love knowing that vengeance belongs to the Lord. 
  • Theme #2: Because God will bring blessing on those who protect and care for yātôm, I am invited to enjoy the deep, soul-satisfying joy of being with God in the work he is doing, getting a front-row seat to God’s redemptive work in the lives of the fatherless. 
  • Theme #3: Because God himself provides for and defends yātôm, I am free to love and serve children and youth in foster care because my confidence does not lie in my own ability to save and to heal, it lies with the Great Physician, the ultimate father to the fatherless and defender of the vulnerable. 
  • Theme #4: Because I myself was once spiritually vulnerable and in need of rescue, I have great empathy for children and youth in foster care and I am safeguarded against thinking I am the savior and main character of the foster care story. 
  • Theme #5: Because God is gracious and his mercies are new every morning, even when I fail to love, serve and protect yātôm, God offers me unlimited second chances through the gift of true repentance. 

May God’s word continue to be a lamp unto your feet and a light unto your path as you follow him on this beautiful yet challenging journey of caring for children and youth in foster care. 

Ryan MacDonald
Regional Director, SoCal

(1) Todd Chipman, Until Every Child is Home p.54.
See Is. 1:17; Jer 7:5-7; 22:3; Zech 7:10.


Theology Thursday

Yātôm Week 5: Don’t forget where you came from

I love the movie Lion King – I think it’s one of Disney’s best animated films. And any fan of the movie will tell you that the most pivotal scene is not – contrary to popular opinion – when Scar convinces little Simba that his father Mufasa’s death was his fault. The most pivotal scene happens after adolescent Samba has run away from the Pride Lands and bumps into a strange shaman named Rafiki. Rafiki attempts to offer Samba guidance, but Simba immediately writes off the deranged mandril primate as crazy saying, “I think you are confused,” to which Rafiki responds, “I am not the one who is confused. You don’t even know who you are.” At this point Rafiki reveals that he not only knew Simba’s father but claims he is still alive! Rafiki then leads Simba to the revelation that his father is alive… in that part of Mufasa lives on through him. Simba, in a moment of vulnerability, confesses that it is painful to remember his father’s death. And Rafiki, without skipping a beat, responds by saying, Yes, the past can hurt, but the way I see it you can either run from it or learn from it.” This sage insight is just what Simba needed to realize he was the rightful King of Pride Rock and it was time for him to return and take back his kingdom from the evil rule of Scar.

What happened in this scene has been played out in a thousand movies and sung out in a thousand songs. It is the pivotal moment when a character understands that the hardship of their past is – in the words of Rafiki – not something to run from, it is something to learn from. The basic message of these profound moments can be simply summarized in the common expression, “don’t forget where you came from.” The principle behind this expression is that the pain of our past is often the door to our future. 

This was just as true for ancient Israel as it was for Simba. In the last 3 blog posts we have been unpacking some of the key themes regarding how the Old Testament uses the Hebrew word yātôm (which is translated to English as “orphan” or “fatherless.”) And this week we arrive at theme #4 which is that God calls his people to do justice towards yātôm because they to were helpless as slaves in Egypt (Deut 16:12; 24:18, 22). This is God reminding Israel, “don’t forget where you came from.” God expects Isreal to love and care for the fatherless because they themselves were in desperate need of defense and protection while slaves in Egypt. Listen to how the following passage from the book of Deuteronomy puts it:

“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.”

Deuteronomy 24:17-18

God redeemed Israel from their helpless state as slaves in Egypt. He listened to their cry for help and responded in compassion. Israel, more than anyone else, should empathize with the powerless and the oppressed because they were once in the exact same state. God’s love for his people is not only a blessing to be received, it is an action to be imitated. Being loved by God is a transformative action! When you are loved by God, you are changed by God. As God loves you, you learn to love others. And as God abides in you, you have the love of God to give away. 

Because of this, God expected – even demanded! – that Israel would follow His lead and take concert steps to care for the yātôm among them. The Lord even gave detailed instructions about how to harvest grain and gather produce in a way that nourished and provided for the vulnerable within the community. 

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.”

Deuteronomy 24:19-22

It is precisely because Israel was helpless and hungry in their bondage that they are now to be generous and compassionate in their freedom. And this “don’t forget where you came from” theme is not only found in the Hebrew Scriptures; it carries on throughout the whole Bible. In the Gospels when Jesus would heal, bless, redeem, and forgive he would often turn to his disciples and say, “go and do likewise” (Mt 6:14; Lk 10:37). And the apostle Paul exhorted the church in Ephesus to “be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:1-2). It is because Christ has given himself up for us that we are called to give ourselves away to others. 

This means for the Christian, foster care and adoption are simply a response to what God has done for them. Christians are the ones who were spiritually orphaned, yet now adopted by God into his family. And since God graciously brought them into his family, they are called to open their homes to children who need a family. 

The call to “not forget where you came from” has two significant applications that help to fortify and strengthen those who care for children and youth in foster care. First, it creates empathy. Followers of Jesus know first hand the experience of being vulnerable and defenseless. We too were those in need of defenders and advocates when Jesus, our great mediator, came to our rescue and spoke up on our behalf. It is only through the work and love of Christ that we have been reunited with our father in heaven. And second, it prevents us from feeling superior. The “savior complex” temptation is real. It is easy to feel like foster parents and advocates are the heroes of the social welfare story. But “not forgetting where you came from” provides the sobering and needed perceptive that apart from Christ we can do nothing! Every righteous impulse and kind act is simply the kingdom of God breaking out of a life submitted to Christ. 

Theme #1: God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm
Theme #2: God will bring blessing on those who protect and care for yātôm
Theme #3: God himself provides for and defends yātôm Theme #4: God calls his people to do justice towards yātôm because they to were helpless as slaves in Egypt. (Deut 16:12; 24:18, 22)

Ryan MacDonald