When the heavens are brass?

by K.W. Leslie, 30 March

When it feels like God isn’t listening. But it’s just us.

Deuteronomy 28.23

When Christians start talking about how “the heavens are brass”—or bronze, depending on whether they grew up with the King James Version or the New International Version—they’re talking about unanswered prayer. The phrase comes from this verse:

Deuteronomy 28.23 KJV
And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron.

But the context of this verse isn’t actually about unanswered prayer at all. It’s about the sort of blight the Hebrews are gonna experience when they dismiss their relationship with God. Moses went into a bit of detail about it, too.

Deuteronomy 28.1-24 KWL
1 “If you happen to listen to your LORD God’s voice,
so as to observe and do every command I instructing you about today,
your LORD God will give you power over every country on earth:
2 All these blessings will come to you and overwhelm you,
for you listened to your LORD God’s voice.
3 You’ll be blessed in city, field, 4 the fruit of your belly, the fruit of the ground,
and the fruit of your animals—what your cattle drops, or your flocks produce.
5 You’ll be blessed in breadbasket, in yeast;
6 when you enter, when you leave.
7 The LORD will have your enemies which rise against you be struck down in front of you.
They’ll come at you from one direction, and run away from you in seven.
8 The LORD will teach you about blessing in your storehouses, in everything you undertake.
He’ll bless you in the land your LORD God gives you.
9 The LORD will raise you to himself: A holy people, as he swore you’d become.
So observe your LORD God’s commands. Walk in his ways.
10 All the earth’s peoples will see you call upon the LORD’s name, and fear you.
11 The LORD will give you a good surplus, fruit of your belly, beasts, and your ground,
in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors.
12 The LORD will open his good, heavenly treasury for you:
He’ll give rain to your land in its season. He’ll hand over every deed.
Many nations will owe you, and you’ll never borrow.
13 The LORD makes you the head, not the tail. You’ll go upward, not downward.
So listen to your LORD God’s commands.
Observe and do what I’m instructing you today.
Don’t dismiss any words I command you today.
Don’t go right or left, to follow or serve other gods.
15 “If it happens you don’t listen to your LORD God’s voice,
to observe and do all his commands and orders which I command you today,
these hardships will come upon you, and overtake you.
16 You’ll be screwed in city, field, 17 breadbasket, and yeast,
18 in the fruit of your belly, the fruit of the ground, what your cattle drops, or your flocks produce.
19 You’ll be screwed when you enter, when you leave.
20 The LORD will send you curses, frustration, and opposition in everything you undertake to do.
Till you’re wiped out, till you quickly die,
because of the evil actions you abandoned me to pursue.
21 The LORD will make plague stick to you till it wipes you from the land you’re entering to live in.
22 The LORD will smite you with illness, fever, hot flashes, high temperature, drought,
forest fires, mildew—all of which will chase you to death.
23 The skies over your head will be copper. The land beneath you, iron.
24 The LORD will rain dust and dirt from the sky. He’ll pour it on you till you’re exterminated.”

When Moses spoke of the heavens being brass, or nekhošét/“copper” (brass is made of copper, y’know) he was speaking of a sky which produces no rain. And the iron ground produces no crops.

So yeah: If you’re gonna talk about the skies being brass, and really mean unanswered prayer, don’t make the mistake of saying, “You know, like when the bible talks about when the skies are brass.” It’s not like when the bible talks about any such thing. It’s about when popular Christian culture talks about it. The bible does have passages about unanswered prayer. It’s just this ain’t one of them. Capice?

So if feels like God’s not listening. Is it ’cause we sinned?

Yeah, I know. Sometimes we’re praying and praying and praying, and it feels like our prayers aren’t making it to heaven. Just bouncing off the sky, like God’s turned it into a great big prayer-proof force field.

What we want is what Christians call an “open heaven.” Where the skies aren’t a wall between our prayers and our God. We want him to hear us. And answer us to our satisfaction. And pour out blessings like a fire hose full of beer milk and honey.

When we look up the “heavens are brass” scripture and find out it’s about blessings for following the LORD, and curses for not, even though the passage isn’t about prayer, Christians can easily read it and leap to precisely the wrong conclusion: We’re not getting our prayers heard because we must be sinning.

So how are we sinning? We gotta track it down and stop doing it. Otherwise God’ll keep up his big brass wall.

Okay, I remind you: The verse is about the curses that fall upon people when they’ve gone apostate. Not prayer. You didn’t abandon God, right? You didn’t denounce Jesus, quit Christianity, stop going to church, stop praying, right? You haven’t got yourself cursed, right?

Nope, you’re a Christian. And in your case, God doesn’t put up any shield to block prayers. True, there are instances where God doesn’t care to listen to us. Like when we’re insincere. Or when we ask for inappropriate things, like revenge or riches. Or when we have no relationship with him, have no plan to start any such relationship, and only wanna tap him like a spoiled child asking Daddy for an allowance. But those problems are easily fixed: Repent. Stop doing ’em. Seek what God wants.

The whole “God isn’t listening ’cause you’re bad” theory is the very same bad advice Job’s friends gave him:

Job 8.20 KWL
“Look, God doesn’t reject the pure. He doesn’t strengthen evildoers’ hands.”

Even though Job was pure, hadn’t done evil. Plenty of sloppy preachers are giving the same bad advice. We haven’t done evil—and we’re certainly not so far gone in the cycle as to merit God’s plagues—but it’s a handy platitude, and it fits karma so well. You do bad, God does bad right back to you. Ignore grace.

Feelings. Nothing more than feelings.

The actual problem stems from the word feel.

We never bother to ask ourselves this very simple question: How should it feel when God, a non-physical spirit, does something? Should it feel like anything? Should it produce a shivering or tickling sensation? Or feel like cool water poured over our heads? Or a burning-but-not-burnt warm feeling? Or should it trigger constant hiccups, coughing fits, spasms?

Should we feel joy? Peace? Excitement? Should God’s actions produce any emotional reaction from us?

Or—which is more likely—are we expecting these sensations because we want these sensations? Are they actually the product of guessing what God might do once he shows up? And what if we’re guessing wrong?

Try cramming this into your pocket.

Picture one of those old-timey telephones, where the microphone was on a stand, and the receiver hung from a cord. Now imagine it’s the first time you’ve ever used such seen one: Which end do you speak into? Which end do you listen to? Lots of novices will put the mic to their ear and talk into the receiver. Does the person on the other end hear them? Not well. Do they hear the caller? Nope. What happens when they persist in holding the phone wrong? Dysfunction.

Same deal with God. Some of us are asking him for stuff, and he’s answering—but we aren’t listening ’cause we’re expecting him to answer some other way. We’re looking to the heavens, expecting the answer to come from that direction; but God’s speaking into our hearts, and because we’re not getting the warm fuzzy feelings we assume are associated with God, we don’t “feel” him so he’s “not answering.”

Unless we psyche ourselves into feeling him. Then we can make ourselves feel like he’s answered us any which way.

My point is the heavens only feel brass. They’re not. God hasn’t stopped talking. We’re just immaturely expecting the wrong feedback from him. Time to grow up and learn better. Time to learn to listen.

And time to stop misquoting the “heavens are brass” idea. God does listen to his people when we call. The entire point behind his prophets in the bible is that he absolutely doesn’t give his people the silent treatment when they sin: His prophets are right out there, shouting at us to repent! When we turn to him, he’s not gonna abandon us. He 13.5 He might answer our prayers with “no,” but he does answer. The whole “heavens are brass” turned-off-the-prayers idea is our invention. Not God’s.