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"Go Set a Watchman"

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

Harper Lee's novel, "Go Set a Watchman," was published in 2015 amid some controversy. One thing that confused readers is that "Watchman" is essentially a sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird," but Lee apparently drafted it first.

Another concern was the treatment of beloved character Atticus Finch. In "To Kill a Mockingbird," Finch is a stalwart moral voice, bravely defending a black man in court against a false charge of raping a white woman.

In "Watchman," a grown-up Scout (Finch's daughter) is shocked when she finds a pamphlet entitled, "The Black Plague" among her father's things. She learns that her father is working with others to try to prevent federal expansion into states' rights and personally believes that southern blacks are not ready for full civil rights.

Lee chose the title of the book from Isaiah 21:

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

Isaiah 21 is primarily focused on a prophesy against Babylon (this time for for real. See an earlier post on Isaiah 13 and what is most likely a much more future-oriented prophesy:

It's a very poetic passage, and one that has Isaiah particularly emotionally distraught, with physical pains accompanying his vision. The Lord tells Isaiah to post a watchman to observe and report what he sees regarding the fall of Babylon. Isaiah does so and is also close to the action of the watchman's observations, and they do indeed see Babylon fall. The section concludes with an emotional response from Isaiah on behalf of the people of Judah.

Watchmen play an important role in the Bible. In the ancient world, watchmen were stationed in high towers to keep a lookout for warring parties on the horizon. It was their role to keep their countrymen informed and protected. There are beautiful passages about watchmen in Scripture, such as Psalm 130:

My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.

There are indicting passages of Scripture about watchmen, most notably Ezekiel 33:

Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, ‘You wicked person, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade them from their ways, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person to turn from their ways and they do not do so, they will die for their sin, though you yourself will be saved.

The message is crystal-clear, and modern Christians have taken this to heart. We have Christian sermons, podcasts, websites, books warning fellow Christians about a variety of concerns. Christians, and Christian leaders in particular, understand that the role of a watchman is an important one.

The question is, what have our watchmen been warning us about, and have they been speaking with the mind of Christ?

For example, we have been warned against the slippery slope of same-sex attraction. We have been warned against the pro-choice/anti-abortion movement. We have been warned against transgender people using bathrooms.

How is it, then, that we started out this year with "Jesus Saves" and "Appeal to heaven" banners waving during the capital riot this year? The resurgence of white nationalism and its connection to mainstream politics? The increase in anti-Asian violence in certain parts of the country? ( Are these behaviors seen as sins, or do we now only reserve the word, "sin," for sexual behaviors? And, if that's the case, why are there so many prominent heterosexual pastors and Christian leaders falling into sexual sin?

Could it be that our national Christian spokespeople solely recognized their role as watchmen in the historic sense, such as we see in Isaiah 21, with the watchmen looking out on the horizon for the dangerous people "out there?" And yet we neglected the more prophetic role described in Ezekiel 33, to be on the lookout regarding our own sins. Have we only been warned to fear and notice the sins of others, and did not realize the backdoor was already open for us to fall through? That if we truly believe our theology of a fallen sinful nature, that we have as much to fear regarding our own hearts as that of others?

These are some of the issues that Harper Lee grapples with in "Go Set a Watchman," although modern readers may find the narrative somewhat off-putting in a number of areas. Scout, who returns from New York to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her father, has to endure a "coffee" social with other women from the town. Casual racist conversation at a level that she doesn't recall ever having heard in her childhood litters the conversation. She thinks to herself, incorporating aspects of a sermon she heard the day before on Isaiah 21,

Blind, that's what I am. I never opened my eyes. I never thought to look into people's hearts. I looked only in their faces. Stone blind...Mr. Stone. Mr. Stone set a watchman in church yesterday. He should have provided me with one. I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference. I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.

Some of us are having a year of shock like the fictitious Scout. We were blind to what was underneath the surface in people's hearts. We have our own sins to grapple with, but we can't quite understand the very in-your-face non-sexual sins we see before us, particularly when they are being denied as sins and are paraded as good. We see a Christianity that is completely unrecognizable to us and seems completely disconnected to anything the Old or New Testaments declare but is completely connected to political and cultural agendas.

We need new watchmen. We need watchmen who are watching their own hearts and are using God's plumb line to help them to keep on track of what is and isn't a heavenly concern. As Trevin Wax writes for a Gospel Coalition editorial, we need leaders who alert to dangers from more than one (partisan) direction:

If Christians often see the United States as a New Israel, they often also warn against it becoming a Babylon. It would be mighty ironic if the very watchmen who have warned against "demonic" forces rising up against a particular former president were themselves influenced by supernatural forces that were trying up rise up against God Himself.

In Isaiah 21, the final fall of Babylon came in the form of images of its gods lying "shattered on the ground." May our man-made gods indeed lie shattered and may God see to the establishment of true watchmen and watchwomen who have eyes to see what the Lord is showing us.

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