Better think twice before mocking bald men
2Kings 2: Elisha turned, took one look at them, and cursed them.
This story makes me uncomfortable. Some children mock Elisha, the man of God, so he curses them resulting in two bears coming out of the woods and killing 42 of them. What’s this all about anyway? Some Bible scholars I’ve read say that “children” is not the only meaning of the Hebrew word used. It can mean “servants” and can refer, not to 7-year-olds, but to young people and even young adults. However, reading that a group of 20-year-old servants mock Elisha and he curses them doesn’t do much to solve my discomfort with this incident. So what do I do with this passage? I think I have to just read it and go on, believing that there’s something happening here that I don’t get. I have to conclude that I’m missing some vital bit of information that would help me make sense of the passage. It isn’t unusual to have to deal with life issues that way. For instance, someone tells me that a person for whom I have great respect has done something totally out of character. I can’t defend what they’ve done but I can conclude that I don’t know the whole story. Perhaps, if I did, it would make sense to me. So, as I come to this passage I read something that doesn’t fit in with what I know about God: that “God is love,” holy and righteous. I can’t explain it, but instead of making me doubt God, it just reminds me that I don’t know the whole story about this or about another million or so issues of life.
Take Away: Sometimes I have to admit I don’t understand things and rely on the character of the Lord.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
1 Samuel 27: The best thing I can do is escape to Philistine country.
One thing about the narrative of the Bible is that we’re told the whole story, both good and bad. I think that David’s time in Philistine country is, for him personally, what the book of Judges is for the Israelite people as a whole. David does it and we’re told about it, but none of it’s to his credit. Right off, David says that he thinks sooner or later that Saul’s going to capture him, so he needs to escape the country. Where’s his faith in God who’s proven faithful to him across the years? Has he forgotten the incidents at the cave in En Gedi and at Hakilah Hill? Then we see him go to the enemies of Israel and of God, the Philistines, for refuge. King Achish foolishly thinks to himself that, “An enemy of Saul is a friend of mine.” That’s a major mistake on his part but David’s decision stinks to high heaven. It’s unworthy of one anointed of God. Once he settles in Ziklag, David starts raiding small towns. When Achish asks him where he’s been he lies and says he’s been raiding his own people, Judah. Instead, he raids Philistine towns and hides it by killing everyone living in them. When I read of mass killing during the occupation of Canaan I’m uncomfortable, but at least that they felt they were doing God’s will. In David’s case, he’s just making a living off of raiding villages and killing people. The writer of the Scripture just tells us what happened, but I come away from this passage thinking that this isn’t of David’s proudest moment. Later on, when David wants to build the Temple he’s told he has too much blood on his hands. I think this incident is an example of that. I understand that David was living in different times and that beyond that I’m not David’s judge. I also remember here that even biblical heroes (not to mention me) stand in great need of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
Take Away: Even heroes of the Bible need God’s mercy.
God moves first
1 Samuel 3: This was at a time when the revelation of God was rarely heard or seen.
The negative momentum of the book of Judges reaches beyond its pages to the books of Samuel. Although there are a few positive pictures: Ruth and Boaz and now Hannah, in general, the nature of spiritual life is in terrible condition. There’s a central place of worship, Shiloh, but the way in which things are done there is more discouraging than encouraging. Eli is the priest, assisted by his two sons. Eli is permissive and disconnected. His sons are dishonest and immoral. The fact that the people of Israel have a place of worship and that people are coming to worship there is somewhat positive. The fact that worship is led by the likes of these men tells us that things are still in a pitiful condition. But that’s about to change. The change isn’t coming because key people are deciding to seek and find God. It isn’t coming because someone is pushing the right religious buttons to bring fresh life to a dead worship experience. The reason that the spiritual sun is about to rise is because God is about to move and, in fact, is already moving. God is always the First Mover. He doesn’t respond to what we do. Rather, we respond to what he does. Revival will come to Israel because God’s going to bring it, and then, Samuel and others will respond in obedience.
Take Away: It’s a wonderful thing when the Lord begins to move in new ways in a life, church, or nation.
Ruth 2: God hasn’t quite walked out on us after all! He still loves us, in bad times as well as good!
A ray of sunshine in a dark place
Naomi and Ruth are destitute and alone as they return to Israel. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. They are two widows on their own. Ruth goes out to the fields hoping to find enough left over from the harvest to give her and Naomi something to eat. To her surprise, she finds herself talking to a wealthy landowner who welcomes her and treats her kindly. Upon returning home she tells Naomi of her adventure. It’s then that Naomi makes this wonderful statement concerning God’s grace. “God hasn’t quite walked out on us after all!” It seemed that way. Naomi has buried a husband and two sons. In Ruth’s surprisingly good day of gleaning, and especially in her encounter with Boaz, she sees God at work. “He still loves us, in bad times as well as good!” That, my friend, is pretty good theology from a widow woman living in the dark days of the book of Judges. I’m reminded today that my circumstances aren’t an indicator of God’s work, or lack thereof, in my life. Just because things get hard it doesn’t mean that God has stopped loving me. Naomi is wise enough to recognize this truth, and I need to realize it too.
Take Away: Even in the hard days the Lord, sometimes unseen, is at work bringing good to our lives.
The best thing to say to God
Exodus 4: God got angry with Moses.
Later on we’re told that Moses is the most humble man alive and knowing that I tend to cut him some slack when he keeps backing up on God’s call on his life. However, when I see the Lord getting angry in the face of all his objections I realize that humble or not, Moses is treading on thin ice with the Almighty. The Lord is appearing to Moses in a burning bush with the promise that, in spite of the king’s opposition that Moses will lead the people out of Egypt. Moses wants the Lord to give him a Name to use when he goes to the Hebrews and the King. The Lord obliges. Moses wants some kind of sign that will convince Pharaoh that it’s the Almighty he’s dealing with. The Lord gives him not one sign but three. Then Moses adds that he doesn’t want to actually do any of the talking and wants the Lord to name a spokesperson other than himself. At that point, he’s nearly found the end of God’s patience. The Lord promises Moses that he’ll give him the words to say and everything will be okay. When Moses persists in wanting someone else to do his talking for him, he nearly blows the whole deal with God. However, the Lord is merciful and tells Moses he’ll use his brother, Aaron, as spokesman. This, my friend, is a lesson in how not to deal with God. It’s not that exchanges with the Lord shouldn’t be open and honest. However, they should also be reverent and trusting. The best answer to God is just two words, “Yes, Lord.”
Take Away: The only reasonable response to the Almighty is: “yes.”
Road to ruin
Genesis 19: God was so merciful to them!
I really dislike the story of the destruction of the wicked cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. There’s almost nothing uplifting in it. Years earlier, Lot and his family had taken up residence in the vicinity of Sodom. Now, in spite of its reputation for sexual wickedness, we find him at home there. When the messengers of God warn him to take his family and flee he doesn’t want to go. His wife can’t bear leaving and his daughters have a warped view of morality. Even when he’s convinced to run he can’t bring himself to leave the area and, even though he later changes his mind about it, strikes a bargain to move to a smaller town in the area. I squirm a bit as I read all this and then, even though I’ve read the story many times, I want to turn my head as the fire and brimstone falls in judgment. I come away from this passage thinking I’d better be careful about the choices I make…that they may have more impact on me and those I love than I realize. I’m also reminded that I must never underestimate the seriousness of sin. As does Abraham, once in a while I need to glance out over the plain and see the smoke rising from the destruction and remember that Judgment is real and sure and serious. And, as I see Lot and his family being ushered away prior to that Judgment, I had better be reminded of God’s mercy. That was their only hope and it’s also my only hope.
Take away: I’d better be careful about the choices I make.
At the end of myself and at the beginning of God
2Corinthians 1: And he’ll do it again, rescuing us as many times as we need rescuing.
Since his first letter to the church at Corinth Paul has gone though some hard times. His words remind me of some of the Psalms of complaint when David thought it was all over for him. In words similar to what David used, Paul describes how he was crushed and sure that he was at the end. In his despair he realized he was out of options and that there was nothing he could do to save himself. At that low point, he remembered his greatest Resource. When he came to the end of himself he found himself at just the beginning of God. Throwing himself on the mercy of God is the smartest thing he ever did. After all, Paul reminds us, this is the God who even raises the dead. The Lord was equal to the challenge and, for Paul, the sun rose once again in his life, giving him a new lease on life. This journey to death’s door and back, Paul says, has turned out to be a positive event in his life. These days he’s quicker to stop struggling and to start trusting in God to bring about a rescue in his life. This is a lesson I need to learn anew. I serve a God who loves me and who has the power to, when necessary, raise the dead. I may not like it when life brings me my share of uncertainty and even pain. At the same time, I can remember that the same God who has brought me through difficult times in the past can “rescue me as many times as I need rescuing.”
Take Away: In an uncertain world the Lord remains my steadfast certainty.
A courtroom scene
Zechariah 3: Get him out of those filthy clothes.
In his vision Zechariah sees the high priest, whose name is Joshua, in a courtroom scene. Joshua represents not only himself, or the priesthood of Israel, but the entire nation. Their situation is a dire one. Even though they’ve been snatched from the consequences of their sin and returned to their homeland, they remain unclean before God. And that’s what the Accuser comes to declare. However, there’s a remedy. In the vision, the Lord removes the high priest’s uncleanness and outfits him in clean clothes. Then, the prophet asks that Joshua be given a clean turban as well. Now, remember that Joshua’s the high priest. The clothes he’s given aren’t just average clothes and the turban isn’t an average turban. They’re the robes and turban of the high priest: rich garments reflecting his high position. That hat, in particular, has meaning. The turban worn by the high priest has a gold plate on it that’s inscribed with the words “Holiness unto the Lord.” This is powerful symbolism. Although the people are redeemed they remain unclean in the sight of the Lord. Through the mercy and grace of God there’s a remedy. The Lord purifies their lives and then outfits them in his holiness. Believers of today can identify with this. After I put my faith in Jesus as my Savior I come to realize that there remains a basic uncleanness in my heart. It’s when I throw himself to the mercy of God that he takes action to graciously purify my heart and fill me with his Holy Spirit that I might be holy in his sight.
Take Away: Through the mercy and grace of the Lord there’s a remedy for the stain of sin.
Jonah 4: Why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh?
Let’s see: one shade tree killed by a worm verses 120,000 poor ignorant people repenting and being saved from destruction. Which should receive the greatest response? It’s a no-brainer, right? Not for Jonah. He retreats a safe distance from Nineveh to watch the fireworks of its destruction. When the Lord provides a miraculous shade plant for him it calms him down and he feels good about things for the first time in days. Then, overnight, the plant’s dead and Jonah’s mood dies with it. At this point the Lord decides it’s time for this pitiful man to change his attitude. If the short life cycle of a shade plant can cause Jonah to go through such a mood swing doesn’t it make sense that the Almighty change his thinking about a city full of repentant people? Of course it does. Like Jonah, I tend to get all wound up about stuff that isn’t worth a hill of beans: getting my own way in some unimportant thing, or the World Series, or buying some new gadget. If my team wins, I’m in a good mood and if they don’t…well, I’m not a happy camper. Meanwhile, God is focused on people. He’s already judged sin, and he very much wants people to let him change their lives so he can change their eternity. I really need to get on the same page as God.
Take Away: The Lord is focused on people.
What pleases God?
Ezekiel 33: I take no pleasure from the death of the wicked.
I love this insight into the heart of the Lord. We Christians are sometimes guilty of making the Lord out to be angry and vengeful. Here I am, reading a book of the Bible that’s full of words of condemnation and judgment and finding as compassionate a word as I could ever find. God hates sin but he loves the sinner. For the Lord to blink at sin — to call it something less than what it is — would be for him to deny his own nature. Rather than do that, he does everything he can to call us from our sin and to remake us into a clean people. If God’s remedy for sin was to wipe out the sinners, well, I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. Ezekiel’s ministry is to call sinners to repentance. Today, through Jesus Christ, that same call is heard. The thing that brings pleasure to God is not punishing sinners. Instead, it’s rescuing us from death to life. With God on our side like that, we have every reason to trust him and surrender to him.
Take Away: The Lord hates sin but he loves the sinner.