Bulls of Bashan

October 11, 2009



Psalm 22:1-15

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

and by night, but find no rest.

3 Yet you are holy,

enthroned on the praises of Israel.

4 In you our ancestors trusted;

they trusted, and you delivered them.

5 To you they cried, and were saved;

in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

6 But I am a worm, and not human;

scorned by others, and despised by the people.

7 All who see me mock at me;

they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;

8‘ Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—

let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;

you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

10 On you I was cast from my birth,

and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

11 Do not be far from me,

for trouble is near

and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls encircle me,

strong bulls of Bashan surround me;

13 they open wide their mouths at me,

like a ravening and roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water,

and all my bones are out of joint;

my heart is like wax;

it is melted within my breast;

15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

and my tongue sticks to my jaws;

you lay me in the dust of death.


An exhausted young mother drug herself to a ringing telephone and listened with relief to the kindly voice on the other end. “How are you, sweetheart? What kind of day are you having?”

Oh, Mother,” said the woman, “I’m having such a bad day. The baby won’t eat, the washing machine broke down, the house is a mess, we’re having two couples over for dinner tonight and I haven’t had a chance to go shopping yet. And to top it off, I just sprained my ankle.”

The mother was overwhelmed with sympathy. “Oh, honey,” she said, “sit down, relax and just close your eyes. I’ll be over in half an hour. I’ll do the shopping, clean the house and cook your dinner for you. I’ll feed the baby, and I’ll call a repairman to fix the washing machine. Now stop crying. I’ll do everything. In fact, I’ll even call Sean at the office and ask him to come home and help out.”

Sean?” said the housewife. “Who’s Sean?”

Why, your husband, of course!”

You mean Jim, don’t you? You’ll call Jim at the store.”

Isn’t this Julie?”

No, it’s Lindy.”

Oh,” said the caller, “I must have dialed the wrong number. I’m sorry.”

There was a long silence. Then the desperate young homemaker asked, “Does this mean you’re not coming over?”

The psalmist says:

Many bulls encircle me,

strong bulls of Bashan surround me;

they open wide their mouths at me,

like a ravening and roaring lion.

I am poured out like water ... (vv. 12-14).

Bashan was a region of ancient Israel northeast of the Sea of Galilee, in what is today southern Syria. It was a cattle-raising region. During certain times of the year, the cattle were allowed to forage in free-range fashion. In the more densely populated areas, a herdsman might be employed to make sure the animals did no harm, but out in the countryside, the herds were left unsupervised, and some of the animals became almost feral. And remember a bull is a big animal with a nasty set of horns. An angry male could knock down people like bowling pins and trample them and then go back and gore them [Wight, Fred H. Manners and Customs of Bible Lands. Chicago: Moody, 1953].

To change the scene, in our esteemed state of Texas, the original cattle were Longhorns which were released into the wild by the Spanish. Later on when the cowboys took to herding such cattle for the markets in Kansas, they had a saying that when it comes to dealing with longhorns, a man on foot is a target. He is a liability who is probably going to be gored and trampled and killed.

The bulls of Bashan posed that same kind of threat and now take it a step further and imagine that you, on foot and alone, are surrounded by these big angry animals.

In ancient Palestine this was the kind of thing that could actually happen, but I think the Psalmist is using the bulls as a metaphor to represent any number of threats to our well being. The bulls represent demands we cannot ignore, obligations we cannot get out of, duties we cannot shirk, responsibilities we cannot evade. And the “cannot” part of that statement is real.

Take Josh for example. Josh is not rolling in money, but he makes a decent living, pays his bills on time and has some savings. He also has a brother-in-law who can’t seem to manage money and is always in financial need. Josh likes his brother-in-law and has a hard time saying no when his relative taps him for a loan, which he almost never pays back.

Further, Josh’s best friend from high school has gotten into some trouble and is now in prison. His friend’s family won’t have anything to do with him, so the friend reaches out to Josh, and Josh does what he can, but each time he visits his friend, he comes away feeling really depressed. He dreads receiving a letter from his imprisoned friend because each time, his friend asks him to do something that he really does not want to do—like talk to a judge or lawyer.

Josh is in good health himself, but his widower father is not, and because Josh is an only child, he spends a lot of time running his father to doctor’s appointments, getting his groceries, checking in on him and so on.

Josh is handy around the house and keeps his own place up pretty well, but his wife recently volunteered him to help a neighbor— without asking him. The neighbor does not do much of anything and that means Josh has to do it all.

A few years ago, Josh did a good job chairing a committee. As a result, any time any local group needs someone to head a committee, one of the first people they ask is Josh, and he usually accepts even though he does not particularly want to.

Then one Sunday, Josh went to church and heard the pastor insist that everybody should do more to fulfill Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor.” Josh found himself thinking that if he had any more neighbors to love, it would be the death of him.

Now you might say that Josh needs to learn how to say “no,” but that is not entirely it. Josh wants to be the sort of person who can be counted on, who doesn’t turn away from people in need, but the needs just seem to keep multiplying.

That is how it always is. One pastor tells of an elderly woman in his congregation who was troubled by the amount of mail she was receiving that solicited donations for various worthy causes. She said if she gave just $5 to each of them, she would use every penny of her limited retirement income. She understood she could not support them all, but she was a caring person, and it made her feel sad that she had to turn some away. But the way the system works is that because she had donated to a few causes, her name was sold to other mailing lists, and so the more she gave, the more lists she got on, and the more appeals she received. She felt surrounded by the bulls of Bashan with their mouths open.

Another group of people who have that “surrounded” feeling is the so-called “sandwich generation” — people, usually in midlife, who are caring for aging parents while still raising their own children. There is a movie documentary entitled The Sandwich Generation, and in 2006, Merriam-Webster officially added the term to its dictionary. Further, in the United States, July has now been designated Sandwich Generation Month, even though if you are in that generation—caring for both parents and children—you might not want to celebrate that, but at least there is some awareness of the stress the “sandwichers” face everyday. It is not that those folks want either their parents or their children to go away; they just want more energy and time to handle everything. They just want a little peace and order to their lives.

Now we can talk about some practical things they could do. The usual advice to a stressed out, beat up, tired, whipped Americans is, take some time off, take a vacation. So said American plans a vacation, plans it right to the hilt, is determined to get everything possible into that vacation, and comes back just as stressed out as when he left.

A better way is just to walk off alone for awhile and take a piece of nature and focus on that. Take the last rose of summer or a tree or a mountain or an ocean wave and look at it, really look at it, really focus on it. Most people go through their lives surrounded by their bulls and never really notice anything else. They see a tree, but they are thinking about all that they have to do that day, so they never really saw the tree at all.

We have a saying, “Take time to smell the roses.” It is a good saying. When was the last time you smelled a rose? Looked at a rose? Thought about a rose? Such a simple thing, a thing anybody can do, but so few people actually do it.

Now I know the stressed out person who feels surrounded by obligations and responsibilities will say, I have no time for that. I have got to do this and this and this, but they miss the point. When I say look at a flower or a tree, I am not talking about something you do in your spare time. I am talking about a priority.

Take a walk not when you have time for it, but push everything else back and make time for it. I used to know a businessman who told me he had a doctor’s prescription to take a walk everyday during his lunch hour. This is what he would do. He go into a cemetery that was near his office and he would walk along, and eat an apple, which was his lunch. This was not a power walk. You know what a power walk is? It is like this (demonstrate: arms pumping up and down, feet lifted high). Not that. Our businessman would walk at a slow pace through this old cemetery, read tombstones, think how many people were there who were just like him, trying desperately to get ahead and now they are dead and all their trying was for what? And he would think, I am going to be here permanently someday, and the things I am worried about now, will not seem so important then.

I think this business man has good advice for all of us. Maybe we ought to adjourn church right now and go down to Rosehill Cemetary and look at tombstones and think about what is going to be important to me when one of those tombstones is mine. But let us not do that at the moment. Wait a few minutes and then you can go if you like.

You might say, well that is good advice. We should take some time to smell the roses, we should also develop some perspective on life.

But (there is always a “but”) but having done all that we still have to come back to the here and now and deal with too many responsibilities and too many problems.

Well the Psalmist has an answer for us. the psalmist prayed, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near” (v. 11). Like the rest of us, the Psalmist has demands upon his life. The bulls are breathing down his neck. What the psalmist prays for, however, is not for God to make the bulls go away, but only for God to be as close to him as they are. Or, to put it in words that we might pray, “Be as near to me, o my God, as my troubles are.”

That is a good prayer, because for most of us, shooing the surrounding bulls away is not an option — at least shooing all of them away is not an option, and in some cases, we would not want it to be, but if we can sense the nearness of God, we have an additional source of energy for dealing with stress. It may sound odd to speak of God as a source of energy for us personally, but that is exactly the testimony of Scripture. Consider, for example, these words from Isaiah 40:

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:28-31).

That passage does not say that we will never feel weary or stressed out, but it is an assurance that we can find renewed strength in the Lord. Trust God then. God is the source of your strength. God enables us to meet the demands of every day. God helps us to deal with all the bulls of Bashan. Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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