Hard to pronounce names
Nehemiah 10: The sealed document bore these signatures.
The Book of God has been read and a song of invitation has been given. Now, the civil, religious, and family leaders line up to put their names on the dotted line. Once they finish, the people join in a binding oath to obey the Laws of God. It’s these signers who draw my attention today. I doubt they ever imagined that almost 2500 years later I’d be sitting here looking at their names: Mica, Bigvai, Hasshub; an entire page of names that mean only one thing to me: these are people who committed themselves to obey God. I don’t know what Adin or Beninu did for a living and I don’t know what became of their family tree. Hariph and Nebai might have built big businesses or designed impressive architecture but 2000+ years later that’s all lost to me. It’s their relationship to God that still resonates across the centuries. If the Lord tarries for 2500 more years I will, no doubt, be forgotten too and that’s okay. I’ll add my name to the only list that really matters and join these remembered people as a committed follower of the Lord.
Take Away: In the long run it’s your relationship to the Lord that matters the most.
Nehemiah 9: In your great compassion you heard and helped them again.
One result of the reading and study of God’s Word is a powerful reconnection by the returned exiles to their history. Nehemiah 9 is made up mostly of a song written to tell this story. In it, God’s grace and mercy is highlighted. The Lord is good to them, from Abram of Ur to the day when they occupied the Promised Land. However, there’s great spiritual failure as their ancestors reject God and his Law. There’s a lot of repentance in this song, but there’s also great hope. God is still their God and they rely on him to deliver them from their enemies and re-establish them in this place that was promised to Abraham so long ago. This song is not only a song of history but is a hymn of invitation as well. As it ends, the heads of the families are challenged to come forward to sign a binding pledge. From this moment forward they’ll be a faithful people of God. They’re sure of God’s grace, now they commit themselves to that grace. It’s a powerful moment. Without it, the story of Nehemiah is just about rebuilding a wall. With it, we have a story about God rebuilding a people.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his patient, merciful, transforming grace.
Doing a great work
Nehemiah 6: I’m doing a great work; I can’t come down.
I think this is my favorite quote from Nehemiah. His enemies have tried intimidation but Nehemiah refuses to be intimidated. Now they resort to the ploy of trying to lure him away from Jerusalem where they can do him harm. They suggest a meeting of the minds, a “friendly” get together where they can discuss their differences. Nehemiah sees it all for what it is: an attempt to stop him from doing what God called him to do. Four times they invite him to cease the work and come to their meeting and each time he sends word back, “I’m doing a great work; I can’t come down.” Not everything I do is a “great work.” Sometimes I’d be better off to put my agenda on hold and go to a meeting instead. However, if I’m sure it’s God’s work that I’m doing I too can respond in Nehemiah’s words. In fact, I ought to. This principle applies to pastors who are being used of God right where they are when the opportunity is offered to move to a more prestigious pulpit. It’s true of denominational leaders who ought to sometimes say, “Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I’m where God wants me to be right now.” It’s true of church people who, instead of saying, “That church down the road has a better music (children’s, teen’s, senor adult’s, etc.) program so we’re going to go there.” If you’re where God wants you to be there’s no better program or position or pulpit. Just tell ’em that you are “doing a great work and can’t come down.”
Take Away: The greatest place to be is right in the center of the will of the Lord.
What a wonderful promise!
2 Chronicles 15: If you look for him he will let himself be found.
The name “Azariah” appears often in the Old Testament, but I think this is the only incident in which we hear from this particular prophet of God. Asa has just won a miraculous battle and is returning home to celebrate his victory when he’s met by this man of God. Azariah has a message from the Lord for Asa. The Lord has good things in mind for Asa and for his kingdom. If Asa will keep his head screwed on straight and keep his eyes on God he’ll be blessed with the unfailing presence of the Lord throughout his reign. Asa takes this message to heart and goes all out for God. He calls his subjects to “seek God…wholeheartedly, holding nothing back.” The result is just what the Lord promised. God shows up bringing peace and prosperity to the kingdom. This is a wonderfully encouraging passage. God wants to bless us and help us and be with us. He promises to make himself available to those who seek him. A family, church, or nation that covenants to seek God wholeheartedly gets God’s attention and receives his blessings. I’m not thinking so much of health and wealth here as I am about spiritual well-being. Still, I think that living in an intimate relationship with God brings blessings that often spill over into our lives in unexpected, pleasant ways. Either way, the promise of God’s presence and his willingness to be “found” ought to excite us and stir us to action.
Take Away: The Lord isn’t playing hide and seek with us. Rather, he makes himself wonderfully available to all who seek him.
Leaving everything to follow
2 Chronicles 11: The Levites left their pastures and properties and moved to Judah and Jerusalem.
His subjects have requested that Rehoboam back off a bit and give them some breathing room but he foolishly promises more of the same. The result is that he loses half his Kingdom. From now on we’ll have twin kingdoms: Israel and Judah. Right off Israel enthrones an evil man who shuts down the worship of Jehovah God. However, not everyone in Israel is on his side and several relocate to Judah, not because they like Rehoboam all that much but because they want to worship the Lord. One group, in particular, is mentioned. Traditionally the Levites have served God, first in the Tabernacle and then at the Temple. Now, the Levites living in the new nation of Israel have a decision to make. Will they abandon their calling or will they abandon their property? Many, we’re told, decide for God. They leave home that they can be true to their calling and serve God in Jerusalem. I’m impressed by their decision as I’m impressed by stories of people who leave home to live in some distant place in response to the call of missions. The most many of us can say about following the Lord is that we’ve been inconvenienced at times. Here’s a group of people who abandoned everything to be faithful to God’s call on their lives. People who make that kind of decision are worthy of our admiration. The Lord’s impressed by it too. As Jesus says in Luke 18, “No one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”
Take Away: Thank the Lord for people who are willing to live out their faith even in the face of real personal sacrifice.
A chip off the old block, almost
2Kings 14: He lived the way God wanted and did the right thing. But he didn’t come up to the standards of his ancestor David.
When Joash is assassinated his son, Amaziah, becomes king of Judah. This young man picks up where his father left off: doing the right thing and honoring God. Because of that, he goes down in history as one of the good kings of Judah. This man rules for 29 years and, over all, does what is pleasing in God’s sight. Still, I can’t get past the statement that “he didn’t come up to the standards of David.” In other words, Amaziah does “okay” and receives a passing grade from the Lord, yet he could have been much more. You might say that David earns an “A” while Amaziah earns a “C+.” It’s too bad when a person has great potential yet, while things aren’t a complete disaster, never quite measures up. Do you know what really bothers me here? I’m not as concerned about Amaziah’s lukewarm reviews as I am of my own! Can it be said of me, “Well, he did the right thing, but he never measured up to his full potential.” I don’t want to live a lukewarm life.
Take Away: Oh Lord, set me on fire for you.
Little deals are sometimes big deals
2Kings 13: The king struck the ground three times and then quit.
The old prophet Elisha is nearing the end of life. Unlike his mentor, Elijah, he’ll not depart this world in a whirlwind. Instead, he’ll die from old age and illness. However, before he goes, he has good news for Jehoash, king of Israel. The king is instructed to fire an arrow in the direction of his enemies. Then Elisha instructs him to strike the ground with the remaining arrows. Obviously, this is supposed to be an action related to their struggle with Aram but the king only strikes the ground a few times and stops. Elisha tells him that what he does isn’t good enough and that his minimum cooperation is symbolic of the few times he’ll defeat Aram. Had he responded with enthusiasm and commitment things could have been different but his token response will result in only a token defeat of Aram. The wise man of Ecclesiastes says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Eccl. 9:10). Had Jehoash been ordered to actually go into battle he would have, no doubt, done it with “all his might” but since this was merely symbolic he just gave a token effort. With that, Elisha and, apparently God, is displeased. So as I read this story I’m reminded that things that appear to me to be a “little deal” are sometimes a “big deal” in God’s eyes.
Take Away: If the Lord says “do it” then do whatever it is with everything you’ve got.
Sitting on a barbwire fence
1Kings 18: How long are you going to sit on the fence?
No doubt, Elijah has everyone’s attention. The drought and resultant famine has seen to that. Now he calls for a meeting and a confrontation. Their divided loyalties have created a pitiful situation. Historically, they’ve worshipped Jehovah, but for generations now worship of Baal has grown like a cancer in their number. Now, it appears that Jehovah worship is going to be only seen in the history books as they align themselves with Baal. Yet, somehow, they’re having a hard time committing themselves to Baal. The recent drought has caused some doubts. Why couldn’t this fertility god answer their prayers for the rain necessary for them to grow crops? The result of their doubt is that they’re terrible followers of Jehovah God and not very good followers of Baal either. Elijah says it is time for a decision to follow the God who answers prayer, who has power in this world. Our nation has more in common with these ancient Jews than we might think. We too are on the fence. We sing “God bless America” and put “In God we trust” on our currency. We open sessions of Congress and the Supreme Court in prayer. At the same time, we ignore God’s Law and seek to isolate him from secular society. We tip our hat to God but really want to serve, not Baal, but ourselves, and in so doing, adopt a religion of materialism, secular humanism, and pleasure. Will God send an “Elijah” to challenge our nation? Does the Church even want that to happen?
Take Away: It’s rather unreasonable to sing “God bless America” while at the same time attempting to isolate him from all but a few corners of our lives.
Outsiders and insiders
2 Samuel 15: Where my master is, that’s where I’ll be — whether it means life or death.
Absalom has patiently prepared to betray his father, King David, and he decides the time has come to act. With the skill of a big business publicist he orchestrates things to make it appear that the public and the leaders of Israel have made him king. Earlier, David could have easily stopped all this. In fact, he could have kept Absalom in exile in the first place. Instead, David has believed the best in Absalom and turned a blind eye to his scheming. When word of the power grab reaches David he immediately retreats, believing that Absalom has the upper hand. It’s as he flees Jerusalem that we hear the pledge Ittai makes to David. Ittai is from the city of Gath, which means he’s a Philistine. Apparently, he’s deserted his native land to follow David. When David sees him he tells him to go home to Gath, but Ittai will have none of it. He’s committed to David and pledges to follow him even to death. This warrior’s words to David shine in the darkness of an otherwise bleak day. In a spiritual view of things, I am a Philistine, an outsider in the family of God. Like Ittai, the King, himself, has made me welcome. And like Ittai, I cast my lot with my King, all the way, life or death.
Take Away: What an honor it is for an outsider to be invited to the inside by none other than the King, himself.
Ruth 1: Where you go, I go; and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my god.
A family of refugees moves into her neighborhood and over time she falls in love with and marries one of the sons. Her in-laws often surprise Ruth. Their ways are different than hers. Most unique is their religion. They have but one God and they tell many stories of his deliverance of their people and his love for them. Their laws are just and intended to protect the weak. Even as Ruth is becoming a part of this family, the family begins coming apart. First, her father-in-law dies. Then her brother-in-law passes away and soon after that her own husband dies. In time, her broken-hearted mother-in-law declares that she’s releasing the wives of her two deceased sons. The young women can marry again and start life anew. As for her, it’s time she returns home. How sad: she left her homeland with a husband and two fine sons. Now she’ll return alone. Ruth is having none of this. In Naomi she has not only a mother-in-law but also a friend. Beyond that, going back to her old life, now that she’s had had a glimpse of something better, is unthinkable. So we come to her beautiful statement of commitment. She will cast her lot with Naomi. She will be her friend and she will make Naomi’s values and Naomi’s God her own. I wonder if my life, even in the face of heartache, has the potential to cause anyone to say, “I will serve and love the God you serve and love.”
Take Away: There’s something attractive about a God-centered life.