Night at the opera
Song of Songs 1: The Song — best of all — Solomon’s song!
I confess here and now that I don’t know what I’m going to do with Song of Songs. I can tell you this; my devotional journey through these eight chapters isn’t going to take long! As my beloved wife will tell you I’m not the most romantic fellow in the world so this portion of Scripture doesn’t really resonate very well with me. I can write about the technical side of things though. Song of Songs is, basically, an opera. There are different characters and they interact in telling of the passion of two lovers. The woman, the man, and a chorus sing to one another all through the opera. The KJV doesn’t make this very clear, so, for us who were introduced to this book by that translation, this was a very confusing book. The Message, and most current translations tell us who is singing when and that helps a bit. Some have “Christianized” Song of Songs by making it an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church. I’m not knowledgeable enough to debate the point but it seems to me that it’s more of a celebration of God’s gift of human sexuality than anything else. To be honest about it, I’m a lot more comfortable with the sexuality of Song of Songs when it’s left in that realm and not made into a spiritual allegory so I intend to leave it at that. Finally, Solomon is the writer and apparently the male character in the opera is based on him. Because of that, this book is also called Song of Solomon. When I remember how many wives Solomon had I have to smile and wonder which of his wives inspired this opera. However, I do understand that many of his marriages were political in nature, basically arraigned to seal some treaty between Israel and a neighboring nation. The actual identity of the woman is, so far as I can see, unknown to us.
Take Away: We believe this book of the Bible is the inspired Word of God, so we read it and consider it even when we don’t fully understand it.
In 2005 I was thinking about ways to enhance time I spent in God’s Word. Through the years I had read the Bible in various translations, used different devotional guides, etc. I felt that rather than reading several pages each day that I needed to slow down and reflect more on what I was reading.
Writing has always been a way for me to think through things. As I prepare sermons I don’t write a manuscript, but I do a lot of writing which helps me organize my thoughts. I decided I would read my Bible each day until something caught my attention. At that point I would stop reading and write my thoughts about it.
At first, these were strictly personal thoughts and I had no intention of making them public. However, I ultimately decided that by posting them online I would not only be sharing my thoughts but I would have a thumb in my back to keep writing. I ended up posting the devotionals to not only my blog but to Facebook and Google+ as well.
A few years later, I self published my devotionals, ultimately in four volumes. I basically gave them away, setting the prices at the minimum allowed. Several have bought the books, but many more read them daily online.
When I finally came to the end of Revelation I decided to go back to Genesis, repeating the devotionals day by day, sometimes editing them for clarity or just to fix a typo. I think all my devotionals have now been published on a daily basis three times.
This time, as I came to the end of Revelation I decided enough is enough. The daily publications have now come to an end. My writing is still available on my website and in the book forms, both e-book and print.
Thanks to all who have read, made occasional comments, and clicked on Facebook “like.” Your words of encouragement are a real blessing to me.
The curtain falls, but Act II is about to begin
Malachi 4: Remember and keep the revelation I gave through my servant Moses.
Did Malachi understand that these words were to become, for Christians across the ages, the closing words of the Old Testament? It’s highly unlikely. However, I believe God, the Holy Spirit knew it. The last two paragraphs of Malachi are an excellent ending for the Old Testament. For those of that day, still living under the Law, one of the last words is “remember.” They’re to keep the “rules and procedures for right living” given them by Moses. If they do that they’ll have done what the Lord requires of them. However, there’s another last word. It’s, “also look ahead.” The Lord isn’t finished working out redemption for them and all that has happened thus far has prepared the way for the really big deal that’s yet to come. As the curtain’s falling on this, the first act we’re told that the next act is going to be both interesting and surprising. They’ll know it’s starting when Elijah shows up to usher it in. For the people of Israel, that’s a long 400 years distant in the future. As for me, all I have to do is turn the page to see what has, up to now, been the black and white picture of God’s salvation plan displayed in living color.
Take Away: Even to this day we are wise to obediently remember what the Lord has told us while at the same time look forward to what he has promised us.
On the brink and not realizing it
Malachi 3: It doesn’t pay to serve God. What do we ever get out of it?
The message of Malachi is for people who are living in the broad middle, somewhere between the best and the worst days of life. They’re comfortable and secure, just going about the business of living. However, there’s hidden danger in that. When I’m living in the middle I’m tempted to take things for granted. Blessings that would have thrilled those who went before me are lost to me. God feels distant and that makes it easier for me to take spiritual shortcuts which make him feel even more distant. If I’m not careful, one day I look around and God is nowhere to be found. I think to myself, “Do I really need the hassle of religion? I don’t think it’s worth the effort I put into it. People who live as non-religious individualists seem to get along okay. Maybe that’s for me.” That’s where Malachi’s congregation is. Without a sense of desperation for God they’ve drifted away from him. Now, they’re on the verge of stepping off the cliff into the canyon of unbelief. The Lord responds that he’s well aware of what’s going on and that the day’s coming when they’ll be abruptly moved from the broad middle to the hard side of life. With all else ripped from their grasp, their faith will be all there is left to hold on to. There’s unseen danger for those of us living in the broad middle of life.
Take Away: We have to pay attention to spiritual things or they slip from our grasp.
Malachi 3: Return to me so I can return to you.
If my relationship with God is strained or even broken today there’s a remedy. When, like the Prodigal Son, I come to my senses, rise, and return to my Father I find that he’s been waiting for me all along. What a relief it is to know that the Lord doesn’t hold a grudge against me. Rather, he patiently reaches out to me, calling me to himself. When Malachi states this spiritual fact of life to his congregation, someone asks for more information on this “returning” business. Exactly how do they do that? The prophet has an answer ready. A sure sign that a person’s returning to God is honest repentance on their part. In Jesus’ parable, the Prodigal is honest with himself and with his father. He’s messed up and he wants to make things right. He knows he doesn’t deserve re-admittance into his father’s household as a son, so he’ll take what he can get. That, my friend, is honesty. In this passage, Malachi points out that they’ve been dishonest with God in the stewardship of their possessions. He tells them that, for them, honesty with God means admitting their failure in this matter. This business of bringing sick and blind animals for sacrifice has to be stopped, confessed, and made right. Their practice of shortchanging God with their tithes has to end and be corrected. That’s what repentance is all about: confession and change. Through his prophet, the Lord says, “If you’ll return to me in repentance, I’ll return to you and bless your life in wonderful ways.” When a nation as a whole makes things right with God, Malachi says, it’ll be voted “Happiest Nation” and be known as a “country of grace.” That’s a good place to live.
Take Away: A sure sign that a person’s returning to God is honest repentance on their part.
Who gets to define marriage?
Malachi 2: God, not you, made marriage.
During the exile their ancestors clung together, maintaining their national identity even in a diverse society. Now that Israel’s been reestablished in it’s own land the people have let their guard down and are breaking God’s command that they be a people set apart as his very own. They’ve married outside their own nation. They shouldn’t be surprised that when they blatantly disobey God that he withdraws his blessings from them. Beyond that, even those who haven’t mixed with other nations are treating marriage differently than God intends, making it relatively easy to toss a marriage aside if it suits them. Through his prophet the Lord declares that he’s the one who designed marriage and he hasn’t given them the authority to redefine what it’s all about. He tells them that he “made marriage” and that “his Spirit inhabits even the smallest details of marriage.” Then he adds, “I hate divorce.” I think the Lord’s speaking to the whole institution here rather than to individual situations. He isn’t denying the possibility of divorce in a specific situation so much as he’s stating his opposition to a culture that takes marriage vows lightly. Also, it goes without saying that the Lord insists that he’s the one who defined marriage and, as this passage says, an outcome of marriage is to be “children.” While there are circumstances in which children can’t be the product of a marriage at least the potential is to be there. That settles it. Marriage is between man and woman and no majority of voters or federal court or anyone else can define it otherwise. Don’t ever doubt it: God takes this kind of stuff very seriously.
Take Away: If we want to understand what marriage is all about we need to start with the Creator of it.
How to get a better preacher for your church
Malachi 1: You say “I’m bored – this doesn’t do anything for me.”
The people of Malachi’s day have lost the edge off of their religion. Worship services are a burden rather than a blessing. For them, righteous living is more about “have to” than “want to.” What should be the most satisfying part of life has become just another burden for them to bear. Malachi tells them why it’s like this: they’ve settled for a cheap religion. When they bring an animal to the Lord they don’t pick the finest they have. Instead, they pick one that’s probably going to die anyway. Even when they brag that they’re going to make some significant offering, at the last minute they just can’t bring themselves to do it and settle for a mere token offering instead. The result, according to Malachi, is a dull, boring religion. The less they put into their relationship with God the less they get out of it. Here’s the real kicker: God isn’t satisfied with their religion either. He says, “If this is how it’s going to be just lock the Temple doors.” Apparently, the Lord isn’t into playing church. I don’t think this concept gives us preachers a license to preach dull, sloppy, poorly prepared sermons or for singers and others to sleep walk through church. However, from years of experience I can affirm that the people who get the most out of worship services are the ones who put the most into them. Why not give it a try? Get up early enough to pray for the services and for yourself, arrive ahead of time, focus on the Lord, and give 100% to worship. Who knows? You might have a better preacher at your church than you think you do!
Take Away: The people who get the most out of worship services are the ones who put the most into them.
The challenge of living in the level ground days
Malachi 1: Worship of God is no longer a priority.
Anyone who’s gone through significant weight loss will tell you that the hard part of a diet isn’t the “cut-back-on-the-calories” weight loss phase. Instead, it’s the maintenance phase. At that time, the individual moves from trying to lose weight to living a healthy lifestyle that doesn’t result in regaining the weight that was lost. The problem is that there are constant temptations to give in a little here and a little there. Once one starts down that road the end result is a return to the former state of things. The people Malachi speaks to are at a cross roads. They’re secure and comfortable. The work of rebuilding the Temple was finished by their parents and grandparents. Now, it falls on them to live a spiritually healthy lifestyle as an every day people of God. Frankly, they aren’t doing a very good job of it. When they bring an animal to offer to the Lord, they’ve fallen into the habit of bringing one that they don’t want anyway. Worship, in general, is drifting to a lower and lower priority in their lives. They aren’t back at the stage of their idol-worshiping, baby-sacrificing ancestors, but, without even recognizing it, they’re gradually drifting away from God. It doesn’t take a big effort to connect the dots from this to my own life. I don’t hope a crisis will come to my life to remind me of my priorities, but, here on the level ground of life, I want to live a healthy, day-to-day spiritual lifestyle.
Take Away: Living for the Lord on the common days of life has challenges of its own.
The theology of the tee-shirt
Malachi 1: God said, “I love you.”
I saw a shirt with this message on it: “Jesus loves you…but then again, he loves everybody.” The Lord’s first word to Israel through Malachi is “I love you.” His second word, contrary to the wisdom of the tee-shirt, is that the Lord hates Esau (speaking of the nation made up of Esau’s descendants, Edom). Both of these concepts ought to get our attention. God loves people to the point that he pays an enormous price to reconcile people back to himself. At the same time, those who oppose God’s people are hated by God. Through the years, Edom has been the enemy of Israel. When possible, Edom opposed it’s “brother-nation” openly. Otherwise, Edom cheered when Israel fell on hard times. Because they insisted on being enemies of God’s people they made themselves into enemies of God. The Lord’s love for Israel is, therefore, not a warm, fuzzy kind of “God loves everybody.” Instead, it’s love with an edge on it; love that says to Israel, “Because I love you I make demands on you.” It’s love that also says to the enemies of Israel, “If you mess with Israel you mess with me.” Today, through his Son, Jesus, the Lord invites outsiders to join his family and thereby become heirs to all the benefits of being a part of the people God loves. It’s a terrific invitation and one every person can, and should, accept. As you consider responding to that offer, it might be wise to read these opening declarations from Malachi and be reminded that there’s more to the “Jesus loves you” message than is stated on the theology of the tee-shirt.
Take Away: We’re wise to remember that this “God is love” theology is theology with an edge on it.