Today’s post is different. It shares my musings on Psalm 106, which recounts the story of how God worked through Moses to deliver the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. The passage uses an old-fashioned phrase to describe a timeless practice. Something that most of us need to do more often.
Today we’ll talk about what it means to stand in the breach. As well as why and how to make it a habit that will benefit you and others.
The golden calf story
Psalm 106 is a poem that retells how God parted the waters of the Red Sea so His people could escape Pharoah. It goes on to list multiple times when the Israelites disobeyed God during their time in the wilderness. And yet how, each time, God relented and saved them.
Moses stood in the breach between God and His disobedient people after they made an idol and worshipped it instead of God. There’s a vivid portrayal of this story in Cecil B. DeMille’s movie, The Ten Commandments. You can watch a five-minute clip of the scene here. Or read the complete narrative in Exodus 32.
Here are the main points of the story.
1. The Hebrew people make a golden calf
Moses went to Mount Sinai alone. While he was communing with God and receiving stone tablets God engraved with the Ten Commandments, the people worried that Moses might not return. His brother Aaron led them to fashion a golden calf from melted-down jewelry and other precious items.
The text doesn’t explain why Aaron decided to do something that he surely knew was wrong. But that’s not the point.
2. God’s wrath burns against His chosen people
The point is that the people sinned against God in a big way. They rejected the Lord who led them out of slavery in Egypt and put their faith in a man-made idol. Psalm 106 puts it like this:
They exchanged the glory of GodPsalm 106:20-21
for the image of an ox that eats grass.
They forgot God, their Savior,
who had done great things in Egypt.
God saw what His people did, and his anger burned against them. He wanted to destroy them.
3. Moses stands in the breach
But Moses implored God to remember the covenant He had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (a.k.a Jacob, Isaac’s son). He begged God to relent and not carry out this disaster.
Moses acknowledged the people had “sinned a great sin.” But he offered himself in their place. He told God that if He wouldn’t forgive His people, to destroy him (Moses) instead: “Please blot me out of the book you have written.”
4 God relents
Ultimately God decided not to destroy the Israelites. Nor did He destroy Moses. The story goes on to tell of more disobedience, more anger from God and from Moses. But the key point here is that God spared His sinful people after Moses stood in the breach.
Linguistic roots of stand in the breach
Breach derives from Old English, German and Dutch languages. It signifies a fracture or break. “Make a breach in” dates back to the 1570s.
Breach has also been long associated with “breach of contract” (1660s) and “breach of promise” (usually a promise of marriage, 1580s).
Shakespeare used the term to describe a break in the enemy’s walls or battle fortifications. Henry V contains a famous speech where the king encourages his troops to go “once more unto the breach, dear friends” as they fight the battle of Agincourt in France.
Here’s the speech as delivered by Kenneth Branagh in the 1989 movie rendition of Shakespeare’s play:
More recent usage
Although breach can still connote a military or contractual situation, Google Trends identifies a more recent use of the word: “security breach” or “data breach.” A term that even has its own Wiki page.
Data breaches are security incidents where confidential information is viewed, shared or stolen by people not authorized to do so. A data breach is a planned assault by an unknown hacker on your private information.
It’s a good use of the word, methinks.
Examples of standing in the breach
In addition to the scene from Henry V above, I couldn’t resist including this short clip from a favorite movies I must have watched a dozen times with my kids, A Few Good Men.*
The title track from Jackson Browne’s 2014 album, Standing in the Breach, talks about poverty, peace, love and our desire to change the world. The song’s lyrics refer to “the unpaid debts of history, /the open wounds of time.”
Rolling Stone’s review praised the singer-songwriter (who was 66 when this album was released) for his continued political activism. It quoted a line where Browne encouraged everyone to stand in the breach – whatever that might mean to the individual. “You don’t know why, but you still try/For the world you wish to see.”
Most mothers can think of a time when they stood up for their children. Maybe you had to confront an unfair teacher or defend your child against a bully. You may also recall a long-ago instance when your mom stood in the breach for you.
The following scene from the animal world illustrates the bond that leads a mother to stand in the breach for her child. It’s a little corny, but as one mama bear to another, I like it.
Why stand in the breach
In all senses of the term stand in the breach, you put yourself in harm’s way in order to save someone else. Family, friendship, belief, or a sense of duty compels you to risk your own safety for that of others.
Standing in the breach is an individual choice. But it’s something people do for one another. Mothers do it for their children. Friends do it for friends. Powerful people do it for the powerless.
It’s like the scene with the bears. Standing in the breach is something people do to protect others in their own species. To help other people survive and thrive.
You both end up stronger
Your choice to stand in the breach lets you share your strength to help someone else. And there’s a beautiful twist in the results – by standing in the breach, you lend but do not lose your power. Both you and the other person benefit.
My all-time favorite movie clip that illustrates this concept is where Gandalf stands in the breach so that his companions may escape the fiery demon Balrog in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring:*
People familiar with the LOTR trilogy will recall that Gandalf doesn’t disappear forever. He ceases to be Gandalf the Grey and comes back as Gandalf the White in the next movie. Where he possesses even greater wizarding power.
How to stand in the breach
Most of us aren’t military commanders, politicians, leaders of social causes or movie stars.
So how can you stand in the breach? There plenty of everyday ways to stand in the gap for others. Here are some ideas.
Notice the needs around you
As my tennis coach would say, “Turn the camera around.” Stop focusing all your attention on your own agenda, judging how you’re doing. Notice what’s going on with other people. Really listen when someone talks to you.
For example, I spend lots of time thinking about my next professional move. I want to “make a difference,” work on something that matters.
But in doing so, I neglect to pay attention to my lonely neighbor. Ironically, I could “make a difference” for her right now by taking a half hour to drop by for a visit. Maybe making a difference doesn’t require a long term plan.
Make cheerfulness your default mode
I’m not suggesting you adopt platitudes like “let a smile be your umbrella.” But there’s stress all around you. People are rushing out the door, speeding through traffic, hurtling their carts through the grocery store.
A person may not realize her natural expression has become a frown. But she’s showing on the outside how she’s feeling on the inside.
You can help brighten someone’s day by offering a smile as you wait for the elevator, or letting them pull in front of you at rush hour. It’s a small personal connection. It may not amount to much by itself, but it’s easy to do.
And small things add up. Chances are, you’ll end up feeling better, too!
Take part in your community
You don’t have to run for City Council – although if you’re inspired, go for it! But do keep an eye on local goings-on, know your neighbors, shop at your local farmer’s market. Help out people less fortunate than you.
Beyond your local community, stay informed about state and national issues. Vote. Advocate for changes you care about. Speak up, especially for people who can’t speak for themselves. Your voice can make a difference.
Speak up even when it’s hard
Sometimes standing in the breach requires you to hold a mirror up to someone you love when you know they aren’t going to like the reflection. For example, your friend may have said or done something that’s offended someone else. Something you disagree with, too.
You can step into the breach and ask the offended party to forgive your friend. You can try to calm people down on both sides. At the same time, you owe it to your friend to speak the truth.
So gently but firmly, tell your friend you love her, but you don’t approve of her behavior. Moses did this in the story of the golden calf – well, except for the “gently” part.
After pleading for God to have mercy on them, Moses went down from the mountain. He confronted the people with their sin and became enraged, shattering the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments, grinding up the golden calf into a powder and casting it into the water so the people had to drink it.
I don’t recommend you follow Moses’ example of an angry outburst! But there are times when standing in the breach will mean you’ll face conflict on both sides.
In Christian circles, people talk about the “ministry of presence.” What this means is that there’s value in being present with someone, even if you can’t solve their problem.
The ministry of presence is something you can do regardless of religion. Many problems we see around us are problems no one can solve. But showing up is something almost anyone can do.
For example, you can’t cure your friend’s cancer. You can’t force brothers to reconcile if they won’t forgive each other. You can’t undo the wrongs your sister’s ex-husband did to her and the kids.
But you can sit with them in their anxiety, sadness, and fear. Maybe they could use a hot meal, or you might help them with household tasks.
What they can’t use, and indeed don’t want, is your judgment and advice. Your presence alone tells them that you’ll stand in the breach for them.
Where can you stand in the breach?
It’s hard to stand in the breach. It can be especially hard when you have to just stand there, not step in and solve the problem.
You can feel as though you’re wasting your time: you’re not minimizing the gap with arguments, not repairing it with advice. Not even getting the person to adopt a new outlook on their situation.
But just by showing up, you make the gap a little smaller. Standing side by side in the breach, the two of you fill up more space in the brokenness than one person can fill by herself.
So go look for a breach where you can make a difference. I’m doing the same. Let’s compare notes down the road.
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