The Pyramids and Royal Mummies: Trust God Alone
My late uncle used to be big on so-called “bargains.” It’s not so much that he looked around for quality items at lower-than-average prices. Who doesn’t appreciate finding a genuinely good buy? Instead, my uncle frequented junk stores and bought cheap stuff and gadgets wherever he could find them. He reminded me of the man who just returned home from a trip to Japan and was complaining to a friend of his about a watch that he had just bought. “The stem fell out,” he complained, “the crystal cracked, and the second hand is dangling loose.” “Thank goodness,” he continued, “that I bought two of them.”
I’m not like that. I buy very little, but I don’t like junk. I want something that I can depend on, something that has a reasonable chance of lasting for a while. When I bought a car last year, which I very rarely do, I didn’t look for anything exotic or plush. I did pay close attention, however, to the customer satisfaction ratings over a period of several years. When we moved into our new house a few summers ago, I wanted to be certain that it was well built and that the foundation was solid. I checked to see what settling had occurred and what materials had been used. I want a house that will last.
I guess, as I think about it, that I feel pretty much that way about most everything. I want a marriage and family that will survive the ups and downs of life. I want friends who will stand by me through thick and thin. I want a degree from a school that won’t go out of business next year. I want to invest in companies that have passed the test of time. I want to read books now classified as “classics.” I want to pay attention to theories and points-of-view that have weathered the storms. I’m not easily impressed by the latest fads or newest gurus. I want stability and security, a sense of permanence. I want someone and something that I can count on. Don’t you? Do you want to take your car to a mechanic the first time you drive it? Do you want the zipper on your pants to break the first time you wear them? I don’t.
All of this, of course, begs a more serious question. If I care so much about the dependability of the car I drive, house I live in, schools I attend, and people I associate most closely with, why do I sometimes settle for less when it comes to the foundation upon which I build my very life? If I’m not willing to drive on old, bubble-ridden tires, why do I sometimes stake my future on cheap junk like wealth, power, and my own cleverness? Thoughts like these passed through my mind as I stood and stared at the great pyramid in Giza and as I walked slowly through the Hall of Royal Mummies in the Cairo Museum. Pyramids crumble, I realized, and pharaohs pass away, but God stands firm forever.
In this moving poem preserved for us here in Isaiah 31:1-3, we sense the intense frustration of the prophet over the destructive choices that the leaders of Judah were making. They were, in essence, settling for cheap junk. When Isaiah wrote these words late in the 8th century B.C, King Hezekiah and his advisors were leading the people of Judah in a rebellion against their Assyrian overlords. Isaiah had cautioned against such a move, but Hezekiah, no doubt pressured by many of his political advisors, opted to plow ahead anyway.
As part of the plan to rebel against Assyria and assert their own independence, King Hezekiah took a series of preparatory steps. He extended the walls around Jerusalem, redirected the water from the Spring of Gihon into the city and apparently enlisted the support of the surrounding nations for his cause. Chief among his allies were the Egyptians. The Egyptians, in the minds of many of Hezekiah’s political advisors at least, offered the strength and stability that the Judahites needed for their rebellion to actually succeed. In some ways, it’s not too difficult to understand why.
It is hard to imagine a symbol of strength and stability more impressive than ancient Egypt. The pyramids, for example, are virtually beyond description, and they were no doubt etched permanently in the Israelites’ minds. It doesn’t matter how many pictures of them you see or how many times you watch clips of Raiders of the Lost Ark, you just can’t prepare yourself for the first time that you stand at the base and stare at themthey take your breath away. The largest stands some 485’ high and measures 755’ on each side at the base. It covers 11 acres and is constructed out of 2.5 million stones, each of which weighs between two and ten tons. The stones are cut so precisely that a credit card will not even fit between them, and the entire pyramid is nearly perfectly squareit is an engineering marvel!
And what more can be said about the pharaohs who ruled for centuries over Egypt? These somewhat mysterious leaders, thought at times by their subjects to be semi-divine, paraded up and down the then-known world as though the entire universe belonged to them. Thutmoses III, Ramneses II, Seti Inames like these are forever enshrined in the power annals of world history. Is it any wonder that Hezekiah and his associates went down to Egypt for help? Is it any wonder that Hezekiah and his associates relied on Egyptian horses as one would lean on a cane or walker? Is it any wonder that Hezekiah and his associates trusted in Egyptian chariots and found a sense of security in Egyptian horsemen? Who could blame them?
Isaiah, for one. As you read this poem, you can’t help but be struck by the prophet’s anguish. He sounds like a broken father crying over a wayward son or daughter. He is distraught, on the one hand, at the extent to which his people depend upon the Egyptians. Like addicts seeking freedom in drugs or alcohol, they “cry out to Egypt for salvation, rely on her as a lame man leans on a crutch, and find in her chariots and horsemen their sense of stability and security.” But Isaiah is totally bewildered, on the other hand, by the way his people never even give God, the Holy One of Israel, a passing thought in all of this. The very one upon whom they can depend is standing in their midst, yet they ignore him completely. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Apparently, Isaiah knew something that Hezekiah and his advisors have either never learned or had totally forgotten. “The Egyptians are human,” he concludes, “and not God.”
…their horses are flesh, and not spirit.
When the Lord stretches out his hand,
the helper will stumble,
and the one helped will fall,
and they will perish together.
Isaiah had opened the cellar door of the Egyptian palace and noticed that the beams holding up the floor were rotting. He had looked beneath the royal garments and seen that the pharaohs were aging, just like everybody else. Isaiah knew that, while the pyramids crumble and the pharaohs pass away, God stands firm forever.
I thought a great deal about these words from Isaiah as I stood at the base of the pyramids. Today, the pyramids still stand, although the lovely limestone facing that once covered them has long since crumbled away. In addition, they are no longer surrounded by powerful chariots, countless horsemen, and world-class rulers, but by poverty, undrinkable water, buckets and buckets of filth, and a largely unresponsive government. 75 million people live today along the banks of the Nile, and some 44% of them earn less than $2 per day. If ever there was a country living on borrowed time, it’s Egypt. The great pyramids cast their shadow over a desperate and decaying civilization.
Much the same thoughts went through my mind in the Hall of Royal Mummies in the Cairo Museum. I could hardly believe that I was in the same room with Thutmose III, Seti II, Amenhotep III, Merneptah, and Queen Hatshepsut, just to name a few. Even the great Ramses II was there, the same Rameses II who I had been reading about and teaching about all these years. The same Ramses II who at least several scholars associate with the exodus, the same Rameses II who erected statues of himself all over Egypt. They were all right there in the Hall of the Royal Mummies. And they were all dead. “The Egyptians are human, and not God,” Isaiah said years and years ago. He was right. Even pyramids crumble and pharaohs pass away, but God stands forever.
What a powerful thought. What a potentially transforming thought. For if God outlives even the pyramids and pharaohs, I suspect that he will outlive Wall Street and its ongoing declines. I suspect that he will outlive the current presidential campaign and all of the confusion that it seems to be arousing. I suspect that he will still be around once the Capital Buildings in Moscow, Beijing and even Washington, D.C., topple. When you stare at pyramids and peer through the glass case at the royal mummies, you can hardly help but appreciate just how big and wonderful God really is.
Be sure to remember that this week when you notice again that your investments are slipping a bit. Remember that when you hear stories about wars and hurricanes or wonder whether McCain or Obama is best suited to serve as our next president. Remember that this week when your own personal life seems to unravel just a bit and you feel tempted to cry out to some imposter for help. Pyramids crumble and pharaohs pass away, but our God stands firm forever and ever.