Looking back, remaining faithful
Psalm 71: I’ll keep at it until I’m old and gray.
David’s story is one of the “complete” stories of the Bible. We know him as a child and then journey with him through his rich, eventful life to old age. This psalm is written in his later years and the long shadows of this evening portion of his life are evident in his words. The early part of the song is retrospective. David remembers his childhood and God’s blessings. Then, skipping his full life, David asks the Lord to continue blessing him in his senior years. There are no more wars for him to fight, no more giants to be slain, but David is now in a fight that he will not win. Is God only interested in young, energy-filled people? Will David, as his vitality slips away, be put on the shelf and forgotten by not only man, but by God too? David knows that’s not going to happen. Even as an old and grey headed man he enjoys the faithfulness of God. These days he isn’t out taking on the enemies of God in battle, but he has plenty to say. People need to be reminded of the story of God’s goodness and they need to know what it means to really worship. Gray headed or not, David sets out to lift the Lord, showing the way to praise and worship.
Take Away: The way to conclude life is to continue setting an example of trusting and praising the Lord.
Now who’s on the spot?
Job 38: I have some questions for you.
Job’s insisted that his ordeal is the result of some cosmic mistake and that if only he could get an audience with God he’d straighten things out. If nothing else, God would at least explain to Job what it is he’s done to deserve these horrible things. Now Job’s getting what he asked for. The Lord has shown up. The thing is God isn’t defensive in the least and he isn’t especially interested in explaining things to Job. Through these tragic events Job has held in there. He’s remained faithful to the Lord, refusing to “curse God and die” even when he’s no longer being blessed in his faithfulness and righteousness. However, that doesn’t mean that Job is 100% correct in what he thinks about all this. Several times he’s said things that are wrong. When God shows up he first concentrates on these things. He says to Job, not “I have some answers for you” but, instead, “I have some questions for you.” Then, God begins to remind Job of Who He is and who Job is. This is a humbling experience but Job will never get a handle on many of the questions he’s asked without this. That’s how it is for us too. We sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus” and that’s a wonderful truth. Still, it has to be balanced against who God is. His awesome power in Creation, his holiness, and his nature in general must humble us even when we’re struggling with issues in life. When God begins to move in Job’s life again, his first move is to bring Job back to these truths.
Take Away: Remembering who God is is the first step to understanding many of the questions of life.
Serving God for nothing
Job 30: What did I do to deserve this?
Job’s final reply to his friends is his longest speech. He doesn’t summarize so much as restate all he has already said. He’s cried out to God for justice, but can’t get an answer. He’s lived a just life, avoiding immorality, falsehood, dishonesty, and pride. He’s treated people with respect and honesty, caring for the poor and the stranger. Now, in the midst of the trial, all he’s wanted is an audience with God, an audience which has not been granted. Job, like his friends, believes that bad things only happen to bad people. He maintains that he’s lived a life pleasing to God, yet bad things are happening. If he could only sit down with God and work all this out! Were that to happen, he’s sure this mess could be straightened out. Among all the other losses Job has suffered is the loss of his comfortable understanding of God and life. However, even with that taken away (and maybe this is the last thing to go) Job continues serving God. And he does so, yes, for nothing! At this point, Satan’s accusation from the opening paragraphs of this story is proven false. In spite of the suggestion otherwise, a man will love and serve God even when he’s getting nothing out of it; even when it seems God, himself, is breaking the rules; even when all else is taken away. If the book of Job ended with chapter 31, the point of the whole story is made.
Take Away: Yes, it’s possible for a person to love the Lord and trust the Lord even when there appears to be no tangible gain in it.
Job one, Satan nothing
Job 1: God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed.
As round one of Job’s trials concludes we find Job a heartbroken man. Everything’s gone, including his children. Job’s in shock and deep mourning. In this midst of his pain, he falls to the ground — and worships! The test is to see if a man will serve God “for nothing” and, as this round of testing ends, we find Job still worshiping God! His worship doesn’t consist of his shrugging off all that has happened. After all, the pain is real. His actions declare the depth of his pain yet his words carry a philosophic tone. Job declares, “I entered with world with nothing and that’s how I’ll leave.” Does Job serve God for nothing? Job’s answer is “God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed.”
Take Away: Job trusts in the Lord even when everything falls apart. Does that describe us?
Taking it to the next level
Job 2: A human would do anything to save his life.
Everything of value has been taken from Job in one breathtaking, horrible day, yet Job continues in his relationship with God. Now the adversary suggests that the reason for this is that Job is still playing the game of serving God because he’s still getting something out of it; that is, his very life. The stakes are incredibly high. It’s been proven that Job isn’t serving God because he gets wealth and possessions out of it. Satan suggests that Job’s hanging in there because he gets out of it life itself. The Lord doesn’t hand his servant completely over to this accuser, but he does grant permission for Job to be afflicted physically. What Satan does to Job is intended to be “a fate worse than death.” This is all intended to answer the fundamental question of this book of the Bible: “Does Job serve God for nothing?” Will Job continue in faithfulness when he’s getting nothing out of it? Will he serve God when all the blessings are turned to curses and his very life is a living death? The remainder of this book answers this question.
Take Away: All else can be stripped away but nothing can rob us of our faith.
Just doing the right thing
Esther 2: Now there was a Jew who lived in the palace complex in Susa. His name was Mordecai.
The second character we meet in the book of Esther is Mordecai the son of Jair. Mordecai is a “Jew of the Jews.” He comes from the family tree of Benjamin and in this story he’s spoken of in only positive ways. He’s compassionate in taking his niece in and raising her after she’s orphaned. Clearly, he has a godly influence on her as this story shows. Mordecai doesn’t want the spotlight but he’s reluctantly brought into it by the unexpected circumstances that are revealed in the book of Esther. He stands up to the powerful Haman and shows himself to be a loyal subject to Xerxes. Mordecai is one of those people who quietly goes about living for God for many years, and then, at just the right time is used by God in some very specific, positive way. Mordecai does the right thing when the spotlight of history is turned upon him because he’s been doing the right thing all along.
Take Away: Do the right thing in the everyday events of life and it will be easier to do the right thing when the pressure is on.
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.
When the enemy throws everything at you
Nehemiah 6: I prayed, “Give me strength.”
As the rebuilding project nears completion the enemies of Nehemiah desperately try to stop it. Since Nehemiah doesn’t fall for their “let’s meet” ploy they try slandering him. Their rumor is that Nehemiah’s about to set up a private kingdom behind the walls of Jerusalem and they threaten to send this word to Artaxerxes, himself. Nehemiah can’t stop them from their lies, but he can pray. Their next effort is to hire Shemaish son of Delaiah to pose as a prophet of God. Shemaish comes to Nehemiah pretending to be his friend. He’s heard from God that this very night people are coming to take his life. According to Shemaish, Nehemiah’s only hope is to hide in the part of the Temple reserved only for priests of God. It’s there that he’ll be safe. In spite of the credibility of this warning, Nehemiah decides that this “prophecy” doesn’t add up. For one thing, he’s not a priest and his going into that part of the Temple would be an act of desecration. Nehemiah refuses to cooperate and continues rebuilding the wall. The effort of Tobiah and Sanballat to stop Nehemiah from doing what God called him to do serves as a sort of spiritual warfare field manual for us. The enemy of our souls uses all these ploys to distract us from serving the Lord. First, they mock Nehemiah and his crew, telling them that they’ll never be able to finish what they’ve started. When that fails, they threaten them with personal violence. Next, they pretend compromise. After that there are lies and insinuation. Finally, they pretend to be the Voice of God. Nehemiah’s defenses are: a firm belief that he’s doing God’s will, absolute commitment to the task, an abundance of common sense, and lots of prayer. Fifty-two days later, Jerusalem is once again a walled city.
Take Away: The more committed you are to doing the will of the Lord the more committed his enemies will be to stop you from doing just that.
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.
The real work
Nehemiah 4: We countered with prayer to our God and set a round-the-clock guard against them.
The enemies of Nehemiah and his rebuilding project first try to discourage the workers by making fun of their effort. When that doesn’t work they begin to prepare for more concrete action, or at least threaten an attack. Nehemiah takes this threat seriously and organizes two defense efforts. One is to post guards to keep watch. The other is to organize prayer. This reliance on prayer isn’t unusual for Nehemiah at all. Often we find him responding to problems by praying. While posting guards is a practical thing to do, I think the most practical thing he does is to pray. I tend to treat prayer as a last ditch effort to be used when all else has failed, or something to be done by people who are unable for some reason to get involved in the “real work.” Know what? It’s prayer that’s the real work. Nehemiah goes ahead and arms the workers for self-defense but the attack never comes. The reason is that he and his team first countered the threat with prayer. Thank God for prayer “warriors” who fight and win battles in prayer.
Take Away: Its prayer that’s the real work.