Beginnings and conclusions
Proverbs 20: A bonanza at the beginning is no guarantee of blessing at the end.
Last year we had a new restaurant open in our community. It seemed the whole town decided to try it out. The place was packed out and it looked as though the owners had a real winner on their hands. However, things didn’t work out that way. After that first couple of weeks things really dropped off for them. Finally, the doors closed. The promising start didn’t guarantee a continued success. I’ve seen that happen in people’s spiritual lives too. At the beginning I think that they’re going to be a productive, consistent disciple of Christ. But it simply doesn’t work out. The promise of their lives gets derailed and, in the end not only are we disappointed, but so are they. The tragedy here is that such failure never has to happen. That restaurant might have been doomed from the start. It might be that anyone who knows about such things could have predicted that it won’t work out. However, when it comes to living for Jesus there’s every reason for success. Sometimes it seems that the one who simply decides for Christ and just starts living for him has a better chance of seeing it through than the one who makes a big splash at the beginning. That’s not only the lesson in this proverb, but Jesus’ parable about the sower and the seed makes the same point.
Take Away: When it comes to living for Jesus there’s every reason for success.
Psalm 84: “A Korah Psalm”
This is one of the Psalms written by the sons of Korah. Actually, there’s a lot of information on Korah and his descendants. These psalm writing “sons” are really descendants of the Levite named Korah who challenges the leadership of Moses and Aaron way back in the book of Numbers. He dies at the hand of God in that rebellion, but it seems his descendants continue on and here we see that they’re among the Levites David assigns to be worship leaders. It’s good to remember that even though there’s spiritual failure in our past (or that of our family) that we still have opportunity to be well used by God. Great-great grandpa might have challenged God’s chosen leaders (or might have been a slave owner or been hung a horse thief) but that doesn’t make us of any less value in God’s sight. This kind of thinking sounds pretty old hat to me and my fellow Americans. We’re all individualists anyway and think it’s wonderful to be able to say, “I did it my way.” To people through most of history, the “my way” approach is unheard of. They see life from the group’s point of view and speak in terms of “our way.” That means that their culture sees grandpa’s failures as the failure of all those descended from him. In their way of thinking, the stigma of failure is passed down from generation to generation. Every time we glance at the top of a Psalm and see that it comes from Korah’s clan we’re seeing redemption at work! In more current terms, these psalms remind me that God forgives my past failure and is very willing to use me as a worker in his Kingdom today.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Telling it like it was
Psalm 78: He…commanded our parents to teach it to their children.
Asaph’s longest psalm tells the story of Israel’s failure and God’s faithfulness. In the opening part of the psalm he states that its purpose is to tell their story so that the next generation will learn to trust God. Honestly, from Israel’s point of view this isn’t a very flattering story. Each verse of the song describes a failure of Israel and how God responds with compassion to rescue them from some mess they’ve gotten themselves into. I don’t know about you, but when I’m telling the “next generation” about God I usually skip the “I failed” part and jump straight to the “God helped” part. Maybe that’s a mistake. It might be that I’m unintentionally saving face instead of teaching others to trust God more. Of course, there are things in all our pasts that must be told carefully and at the right time, but there’s likely a time for the telling. If I’m not careful I give the impression that I wised up and decided to give my heart to the Lord. In doing that, I make God into a concerned bystander in my story, wringing his hands, hoping I’ll turn it all around and then pleased that I’ve done so. It really isn’t that way. It’s God who graciously reaches down into the mess I’ve made, bringing redemption. Yes, I have to cooperate with him, but he’s the one who ought to get all the credit. I need to be sure that “my story” is truly “God’s story.” A part of that is my, at the appropriate time and place, honestly admitting my failure. That gives God the glory and also gives hope to that one in the “next generation” who already has some spiritual failures of his or her own.
Take Away: It’s God who graciously reaches down into the mess I’ve made, bringing redemption.
Doubling down on a losing hand
2 Chronicles 28: If I worship the gods who helped Damascus, those gods just might help me too.
Good king Jotham is laid to rest and his son Ahaz takes over. His years in power are marked by spiritual and national failure and he leads his people into idol worship and detestable practices. Darkness descends as God withdraws his blessings on Judah. Neighboring Damascus betrays Ahaz and grinds Judah into the ground, humiliating it by taking treasures from the Temple. Ahaz, who’s turned his back on Jehovah God, stupidly concludes that the gods of Damascus are preferable to the idols he’s been worshipping. He copies their idols and brings worship of them to Jerusalem. What’s wrong with this guy? He dumps the Lord God and then wonders why he and his nation are no longer blessed. Then, to add insult to injury, rather than return to the God of his father, he decides to try out the gods of Damascus. This guy is begging for judgment and he gets it. The old wisdom is that the first thing to do when one finds himself in a hole is to stop digging. Ahaz doesn’t get it, so when he finds himself in trouble for rejecting God instead of stopping and reconsidering his course of action he doubles down on it making matters doubly worse. The thing is that this is exactly what I see people do today. They ignore God and go their own direction. Then, when things don’t work out instead of repenting and returning to God, they double down and move even farther away from the Lord than they are already. There are a lot of young adults who were raised in the church and know better who keep adding one bad decision on top of another. Sad to say in them Ahaz has lots of company.
Take Away: Adding one minus to other minuses will never get us a “plus” result.
Visiting the graveyard, looking at tombstones
2 Chronicles 12: God was not important to him.
Here’s a story of the man who, because of pure stubbornness, split Israel into two Kingdoms. Under his grandfather, David (a man after God’s own heart), Israel became a united and successful nation. Under his father, Solomon (a man who asked God for wisdom), great things were accomplished and prosperity came to the land. Under Rehoboam (a man who thinks God is unimportant) there is civil war, invasion from Egypt, and spiritual decline. As his obituary is written this phrase stands out: “God was not important to him.” Such a charge states volumes. In fact, when the final story of any life is told, how a person responded to God is the most important fact about them. It remains true today. How I respond to God matters and honestly, God won’t be ignored. In every life, God has the last word.
Take Away: What will be the Lord’s last word on my life?
Starting at the end
1 Chronicles 10: Saul died in disobedience.
When we first read the story of King Saul in 1 Samuel we get the full treatment, so we know all about how he was anointed and how his rejection of God unraveled his kingship and his life in general. Here, we start at the end of his life. The writer seems to be in a hurry to get to King David and I think I know why. This book is being written to remind the people of Israel where they came from and who they are. The desire is to reignite their connection to one another and to God. Saul could have been the first and greatest king of Israel, but he failed, dying not in glory, but in disobedience. Later on, we’ll work through the failures that led to the exile, but here in the early going the idea is to inspire and ignite enthusiasm. Sad to say, Saul’s story might be good for warning people of pending failure but it won’t do much to unite and give a sense of pride. There’s a time to focus on such things. After all, spiritual failure is a real possibility. For now, though, the writer just wants to set up the story of David and give his readers something to cheer about. Know what? That’s okay with me too!
Take Away: While we know all about spiritual failure it’s good to be reminded of the very real possibility of spiritual success too.
1 Chronicles 7: Ezer and Elead [were] cattle-rustlers, killed on one of their raids.
The accounting of Ephraim’s family tree unearths the gem that some of the family were cattle-rustlers. Things got so bad that the natives of Gath caught them and killed them. Their dad was deeply grieved by their deaths and, when a baby was born to the family he named him “Unlucky” to reflect how he felt about things. The story is just thrown in with the continued listing of who was the father of whom, but it does spark the imagination a bit and it feels like we’re hearing about the old American west rather than about life centuries before Christ. I wonder how the original readers reacted to this bit of information. Did they hang their heads in shame or did they sheepishly grin at one another? I think there’s room for both reactions. It’s that way for us too. We can’t escape our connection to family. Sometimes we’re quite pleased with it and other times, well, not so much. At one level, I’m reminded that I’m not above the ups and downs, successes and failures of life. At another level, I don’t need to take myself too seriously. At least, so far as I know, I don’t have any ancestors named “Unlucky.” I’m not as sure about the cattle-rustling though.
Take Away: Don’t take life too seriously – sometimes it’s best to smile and move on.
Guilty as charged
2Kings 17: In the end, God spoke a final No to Israel and turned his back on them.
Second Kings 17 is a long chapter that burdens the reader with a heavier and heavier weight of despair and condemnation as its read. These are painful words: “God was fed up” – “God had had enough,” – “God spoke a final ‘No’.” There’s the feeling of hearing a guilty verdict read in a courtroom. The evidence for conviction is overwhelming and the conclusion is obvious. God’s only choice is to turn his back and to declare “no” to them and their sin as they’ve declared “no” to him. Reading this chapter not only condemns the people of ancient Israel and justifies God in his abandonment of them, but it also frightens me. How far can a nation push God? How many of his blessings can it forget? How many of his Laws can it break before the Almighty is fed up? My nation is foolishly testing the patience of God right now. Second Kings 17 is not before us as just some dusty old history lesson. It’s a warning that we’d better heed.
Take Away: If we say “no” often enough, the Lord will take us at our word.
The nation that ignores God
2Kings 17: They lived a “nothing” life and became “nothings.”
The 17th chapter of Second Kings is the epitaph of the Kingdom of Israel. After centuries of ups and mostly downs they exhaust the patience of God. The Lord hands them over to their enemies and the citizens are removed from their beloved land to live in exile the rest of their days. God’s verdict is clearly stated: “the exile came about because of sin…they had accumulated a long list of evil actions and God was fed up…God said, ‘Don’t!’ but they did it anyway.” For decades it has appeared that they can brush God Jehovah off and do things their own way. They’ve behaved as though his Commandments are mere suggestions that don’t really apply. Traveling that road has brought them to its only possible destination and now they’ve arrived: “they lived a ‘nothing’ life and became ‘nothings.'” What happens to a nation that’s been abundantly blessed by God but persistently chooses to ignore him and his ways? This chapter ought to really frighten us.
Take Away: The future is dim for a nation that ignores the Lord and his blessings.
A trophy of grace
2Kings 13: He never gave up on them, never even considered discarding them.
In spite of God’s patience and blessings and in spite of the difficulties the nation faces, Israel continues down a destructive path. When things are terrible they temporarily turn to God but before long they’re back in the old God-ignoring rut. Their future could have been bright, but that’s not how things are going to turn out. I know what happens over at the end of 2Chronicles when the twin kingdoms come to their official end. Then again, I know what happens on the next page after that where I see God’s faithfulness through the priest, Ezra. In fact, looking into their future as I can by simply turning the pages of my Bible I’m taken by the truth of this statement: “He never gave up on them.” Oh, the grace of God who clearly sees our failure yet declares, “I won’t even consider discarding you.” I’m a trophy of such grace. And so are you.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances…and third…and fourth…and….