Good old Agur Ben Yakeh
Proverbs 30: There is no God…I can do anything I want!
Some of the final pages of Proverbs are attributed to Agur Ben Yakeh. Aside from the name and that he is from a town or country called Massa we’re pretty much in the dark about him. The name, I’m told, doesn’t appear to be Israelite, but is more Arab sounding. Of course, Solomon rules a vast empire and has friendly relations with many countries. It may be that Agur Ben Yakeh is considered to be a very wise man in his home country and that Solomon agrees, collecting his sayings and including him in his book of Proverbs. However, there’s a bit of a problem with this idea because the nation of Israel alone worships Jehovah God at this time. Clearly, the words of Agur Ben Yakeh are those of a worshiper of God. I know these little things are often of more interest to me than to others, but it is kind of fun to think about this ancient mystery. If the identity of Ben Yakeh is mysterious, his opening proverb is pretty straight forward. He isn’t impressed by people who doubt the existence of God. They may think they can ignore God and his commandments but when they do it isn’t the commandments that get broken! The wise man says “every promise of God proves true.” He warns those who doubt that to reconsider, warning, “he might take you to task and show up your lies.” The day’s coming when everyone will believe in God. After all, we’ll stand before him in Judgment. Those who doubt will be convinced, but for them, it will be too late. The One they have doubted and ignored, will “take them to task.”
Take Away: Sooner or later everyone will believe in God – it’s better to be part of the “sooner” crowd.
Trust in trial
Psalm 94: God will never walk away from his people.
A friend, who’s in the middle of about five disasters, including a couple of big physical problems of her own, bravely says to me, “I know the Bible says that God won’t let us face more than we can bear.” The unstated side of that is, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take!” In this psalm, a person who trusts in God questions the seeming unending flow of painful events in life. He sees all that’s happening and asks God, “How long will you let this go on?” Then the song writer begins to answer his own question reminding us that surely the “Ear-Maker” hears what’s being said and the “Eye-Maker” sees what’s going on. He states, “God will never walk away from his people.” There are times in life when we’re left with nothing but our trust in God’s love. We believe that he hears our prayers, sees what’s happening, and that he loves us with a never-ending love. At times like that it’s perfectly acceptable for us, on one hand, to proclaim, “I know it’ll be okay because the Lord’s on my side” while, on the other hand to cry out, “Lord, how much longer before you act on my behalf?”
Take Away: It doesn’t offend the Lord when his people cry out to him in painful, dark days.
Better for our kids than Disneyland
Psalm 48: Then you can tell the next generation.
This Psalm is one in praise of the City of God, Jerusalem. This, I’m told, is a place where worship abounds, and with good reason. Within its walls is the place of worship, the dwelling place of God on earth. This city is protected by the Lord even when powerful enemies come to destroy it. Every time the song writer looks at Jerusalem, Zion, he’s overwhelmed with the goodness of God. Then he suggests a specific course of action. He says people ought to carefully measure the city and count its towers. He wants them to make careful record of everything about this City of God. Why? So they can recount it all to their children. In other words, it isn’t enough for them to simply rejoice in the here and now in all God has done for them; they’re to record it all and then tell their children and grandchildren about it. We Christians have our own stories of God’s grace in our lives and churches, our families and our nation. It’s good for us to rejoice when God delivers us from some near disaster. However, we need to be more on purpose in passing our stories along. Surely with all the technology available I can make a video or record a mp3 in which I tell the whole story, detail by detail. Of course, beyond that, we need to have such conversations with our kids. For instance maybe on vacation we can make a stop at the church where we attended as children and, there, in the sanctuary, tell our kids about what happened and why. It may not be the same as Disneyland, and it doesn’t have to replace such a destination, but it just might have a greater impact on our kids than we realize.
Take Away: Tell your story to your kids, and tell it often.
Job 38: And now, finally God answered Job.
Of all the losses Job suffered, his loss of contact with God may have been the most difficult. In Job’s life God has always been close by. In good times he’s praised the Lord and in bad times he’s cried out to God. At all times he’s felt his presence. Then, when a series of disasters that couldn’t possibly be coincidence come, God goes silent. Job cries out to God repeatedly; sometimes in pain, sometimes in fear, and even sometimes in anger but God remains distant and unresponsive. While Job’s story is out on the extreme edge of human experience, facing times when God seems to have withdrawn from our lives is not. David, in the Psalms, often complains that God is unreachable. Even Jesus on the cross says he’s been forsaken. Through the centuries Christians have talked about “the dark night of the soul” or “the winter of the soul.” These are times when God appears to leave us on our own. Why would our Heavenly Father do that? I think the answer is that he wants us to learn to seek him rather than seek the feeling we associate with his presence. Every worshipper likes it when God “feels” close. When life is hard we especially want to feel that God is near. One of the ways in which the Lord helps us grow in our relationship with him is by removing the emotional props and leaving us with nothing but our faith. There’s a big difference between “feeling” that the Lord is with us and simply “knowing” he is there. That’s the level of living he desires for us. Job’s winter of the soul is about to pass as “finally God answers.” Many thoughtful Christians have found that God puts us through times of darkness that we may learn to focus on him rather than on his blessings. Then, when the lesson is learned, “finally” God draws close to us once again.
Take Away: Experiencing a “dark night of the soul” doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve forsaken the Lord and that he has rejected us. It may mean he’s helping us to live without the “training wheels” of feeling.
Believing against the evidence in the justice of God
Job 24: If Judgment Day isn’t hidden from the Almighty, why are we kept in the dark?
One topic that surfaces often in the book of Job is that of “inequity.” Job considers how often it is that the innocent suffer while the wicked get away with their evil. Still, Job’s sure of this: God knows what’s going on. Job doesn’t understand why it is that God doesn’t immediately make things right (he says “God does nothing, acts like nothing’s wrong”) yet he believes God is a God of justice and that sooner or later the Lord will act. This is a huge statement of faith for a man who’s experiencing his own “fate worse than death.” Even though the wicked appear to get away with it all Job says that “God has his eye on them.” Even as Job suffers his own personal torment, he still trusts that, in the end, God will make things right. This is a powerful understanding of the nature of God.
Take Away: We may not understand the here and how but we can understand that, ultimately, the Lord will make all things right.
Our final refuge
Job 19: Still, I know that God lives.
There’s much that Job doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand why his children died in a terrible storm, or why his considerable wealth was taken away on that same day. He doesn’t understand why he’s suffering so and he doesn’t understand why he was ever born in the first place. One biggie is that he doesn’t understand why God won’t answer his plea for a hearing to straighten out this whole mess. There isn’t much solid ground for Job these days. So much of what he has thought of as firm has slipped away, including what he believes about God and how the Lord works in the world. In fact, there remains just one place of solid footing. It’s here that he takes his stand: “I know that God lives.” Thankfully, few people in history have faced the tragedy and loss Job did. However, for all of us, the day comes as we near our last breath when we’re left with only the bare essentials. On that day, I pray that I, too, will find that one remaining firm place to take my stand: “I know that God lives.”
Take Away: When we come to the crucial moments of life we have to decide what is and isn’t essential.
Paddling around in the shallow end of the pool
Job 19: Why do you insist on putting me down, using my troubles as a stick to beat me?
I think I can safely pick up speed in my journey through Job because the themes are now pretty well established. Job insists on his integrity and stubbornly holds to his faith even though he feels God is treating him unfairly. His friends have become his accusers. Ever though they can’t point to a single act of unrighteousness in his life, they point to his terrible afflictions as proof that there has to be unrighteousness. Job characterizes this as their using his “troubles as a stick to beat me.” By now we’re supposed to understand that the suffering has come to Job precisely because he is righteous. It’s this righteousness that sets this chain of events in motion in the first place. The question being answered is “does Job serve God out of love and commitment or is it because of the good things he gets out of it?” Is human righteousness a part of some kind of business arraignment between man and God or is there something deeper going on? Of course, all this is beyond Job’s friends and is beyond Job himself. His friends are so overwhelmed by the terrible scene of suffering before them that they can’t see anything else. I think we’re all in danger of living at that level. We like the easy way out, the conventional wisdom, and cling to easily held beliefs. Sooner or later, God will challenge such an approach to life, taking us deeper even, if necessary, over our groans of protest.
Take Away: Easily held beliefs are often the hardest ones to let go.
The most important thing
Job 9: I don’t understand what’s going on.
Job’s reply to Bildad’s lecture about how bad people have bad things happen to them and good people enjoy good things is not to disagree. He says, “So what’s new? I know all this.” Again, (and I know I can quit harping on this) Job’s complaint is that he’s done nothing to deserve all this and that somehow there’s been a mistake in heaven. However, Job is a clear thinker. He understands that the only way a man can be right with God is by God’s mercy. He trusts in God, but he understands that it’s only by grace and mercy that he has a standing before the Lord. The impressive thing about Job, however, isn’t that he has a firm grasp on spiritual truths that won’t be fully revealed until Jesus explains them. The impressive thing is that even when he feels he’s being treated unjustly by God, even when he doesn’t understand what’s going on, and even as he cries out for a fair hearing on this whole matter, he stands firm in his faith. In all this, we’re reminded that faith trumps even knowledge. That’s not only vital for Job, but it’s vital for me too.
Take Away: Faith trumps even knowledge.
With God’s help anything is possible
Nehemiah 2: The God-of-Heaven will make sure we succeed. We’re his servants and we’re going to work, rebuilding.
Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Nehemiah quietly inspects the walls of the city. Well, it might be better said that he inspects the ruins of the city walls. They were demolished decades earlier. He meets with city leaders and proposes that the next big project be rebuilding those walls and gains their enthusiastic support. As word of this project spreads, we meet Nehemiah’s three adversaries: Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. These men are leaders of the area’s non-Jewish residents and they oppose the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. There’s likely a power struggle here. At first, the returning Jews brought welcome capital and man power to the area, but now they threaten to become its dominant residents once again. Nehemiah’s reply to them is that in spite of the overwhelming task before them and even in spite of the opposition of these three men that he’s assured of success. The reason is that he is doing God’s work and that God, Himself, will bring them success. As I hear this declaration of faith from a man standing in the rubble of a city I’m impressed with his absolute trust in God. This isn’t some “pie in the sky” situation; this is real work in the most unlikely of circumstances and with real and powerful opposition. Nehemiah doesn’t think he can rebuild the wall because he’s going to try real hard or because he’s going to outsmart his enemies. He’s going to do it because God’s there to help them. There’s a good lesson here for me in all I attempt to do in the name of the Lord.
Take Away: If it’s up to me the chances of success are nominal. If I’m doing God’s work God’s way, the chances of success are 100 percent.
Putting your money where your mouth is
Ezra 8: I proclaimed a fast there beside the Ahava Canal.
Ezra tells us his own story starting in the middle of chapter 7. His desire to join the returned exiles in Jerusalem is infectious. Several Jewish families are ready to join him in this great adventure. Beyond that, Artaxerxes the king becomes excited about the project and gives Ezra all the support needed for him to go to Jerusalem, to rule there, and to oversee the worship of Jehovah God there. Even people who aren’t relocating to Jerusalem make generous donations. Ezra puts out word that the great caravan will be formed at the Ahava Canal and people begin to gather. At first a few, then more, and then a great flood of people come, all with their families and their belongings. Suddenly Ezra realizes what an undertaking this is. In some ways he’s like Moses about to lead the people to the Promised Land. They have hundreds of miles to travel across sometimes desolate and lawless territory. He knows he ought to ask for a military escort, but can’t bring himself to do that because he’s told Artaxerxes how God’s hand is on his people and how God blesses and protects those who serve him. At this point Ezra decides he must practice what he preaches. Instead of calling for soldiers he calls for a fast. Before beginning this possibly perilous journey, they’ll call on the Name of the Lord asking for his guidance and protection. I think that not only is the king impressed by Ezra’s trust in the Lord, but that God is pleased too. Decades earlier the ancestors of these exiles had turned to military alliances with Egypt and other nations when faced with great danger. Ezra gets this enterprise started on the right foot: he calls on God.
Take Away: Better to have the protection of the Lord than to be surrounded by all the armies of the earth.