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From Dragons to Banners

Mar 20, 2023

נָ֘תַ֤תָּה לִּירֵאֶ֣יךָ נֵּ֭ס לְהִתְנוֹסֵ֑ס מִ֝פְּנֵ֗י קֹ֣שֶׁט סֶֽלָה׃

Give those who fear You because of Your truth a banner for rallying. Selah.

na-TA-ta li-RE-ey-KHA NES l'-hit-no-SAYS mi-p'-NEY KO-sheT se-LAH

Psalms 60:6

I hate tests. I never understood the point of throwing a difficult problem at someone in order to see what they know or what they can do. As a teacher, I preferred to sit down with my student and discuss the material. In that manner, I learned more from my students than they learned from me.

Unfortunately, that is not the way life works. In real life, you might be walking down the street minding your own business when, all of a sudden, a huge ugly monster (or life problem) jumps out at you, demanding you deal with it. Few people actually go out looking for dragons.

For the person of faith, this can pose a difficulty. Why would God send dragons my way? I am a relatively nice guy who does my best to act in the way that God wants me to. Almost every day I do His will. Why does he need to test me?

King David responded to this very question in Psalms, and gave us a worthy answer.

Psalm 60 makes an enigmatic claim:

You have made Your people suffer hardship; You have given us wine that makes us reel. Give those who fear You because of Your truth a banner for rallying. Selah. That those whom You love might be rescued, deliver with Your right hand and answer me. Psalm 60:5-7

Understanding these verses requires a deep dive into Biblical Hebrew.

The word that is translated here as ‘banner’ is nes (נֵּס) which also means ‘miracle’. The word translated as ‘for rallying’, can also be explained ‘to be raised high’.

The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter Poland 19th century) explained that God performs miracles that are “raised high”, or above nature, for our sake. So too, we must rise above and overcome our own nature in order to serve God.

The dual meaning of the word nes (miracle and banner) can be understood this way: A banner is a conspicuous rallying point while a miracle is a conspicuous aberration in nature. Like a banner, we rally around a miracle, using it to acknowledge that God is the master of the world even when He isn’t performing miracles.

But the word nes has yet another meaning. The medieval commentator Rashi points out that nes is also the root of the word nisayon (נסיון), which means ‘a test.’ Rashi understands this verse in Psalms as praising God for testing his faithful with troubles. How can he say such a thing?

According to Rashi, God tests us with troubles to see whether we will stand up to them and remain in awe of God or not. He does this “so that when You show favor to the Jews, the nations will not criticize You, but they will praise Your laws and say ‘God has blessed them because they stood up under many trials’.”

The Artscroll commentary on Psalms explains further: “You have tested us in many trying and oppressive situations in order to provide us with the opportunity to be proven faithful under all circumstances. Each time we pass such a test we rise higher and higher, like a banner, which is unfurled on the highest mast of the ship.”

What David is hinting at is that the difficulties which seem to drag us down are actually trials that bring out our greatness. When we pass a test, it serves our benefit by raising us higher, and the benefit of others by revealing  God’s greatness.

No person should try to interpret the Divine intentions behind the Holocaust. But it is truly amazing that three years after the Holocaust, the Jews announced their independence in their ancestral homeland, an undeniable manifestation of prophecy!

The message of the verse from Psalms is to know that tests, though challenging, are really opportunities for growth and for revealing God’s greatness to the world. By rising up and passing these tests we become like banners that are raised high, demonstrating our own greatness and proclaiming God’s glory.

Related Names and Places:

Relate Bible Verses: Chapter 60

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