God has always had a people
Esther 1: This is the story of something that happened in the time of Xerxes.
Throughout history there’s been more than one attempt to destroy the people of God. It seems that the enemies of God’s think that if they get rid of his people they’ll get rid of him too. That’s mistaken in two ways. God is God, and killing his followers won’t kill Him, in fact, it will only make him angry. Second, God always has a people. Even when evil has the upper hand, by God’s mercy, there will be at least a remnant that will survive and extend his story to the next generation. In the story of Esther, we see God intervene and spare all his people. To this day, the Jews celebrate this event which is called “Purim.” One of the main characters in the story is Xerxes who rules Persia 465 years before Christ is born. Included in his vast kingdom is the exiled people of God. In spite of the pitiful picture of Xerxes in Scripture, he is, at least early in his career, a pretty successful king winning major battles and taking even more territory. Late in his reign history pictures him pretty much as he is said to be in the book of Esther: self-centered, drunken, and foolish.
Take Away: It’s such a privilege to be counted as one of God’s people.
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.
Do you see what I see?
2Kings 6: Don’t worry about it — there are more on our side than on their side.
The Lord has been revealing to Elisha the military plans of nearby Aram and Elisha has, in turn, told those plans to the King of Israel. Because of that, Elisha has become a prime target. In fact, on this morning in the town of Dothan Elisha awakes to find the whole town surrounded by his enemies. To Elisha and his servant this is more than an inspirational Bible story: its life and death. His servant is mystified by Elisha’s calmness in the midst of his pending capture. That is, he’s mystified until Elisha prays that this young servant will see what he sees. Surrounding the army that surrounds them is a “whole mountainside full of horses and chariots of fire.” With God’s army escorting him Elisha has nothing to fear from the army of Aram or anywhere else for that matter. God didn’t send the army of Aram that day, but he was prepared for it to come. Had Elisha been captured, well, that would have been an unwelcome thing for Elisha and company, but it could only happen if God allowed it to happen. Elisha might have been more aware of it than I am, but the Lord’s army is escorting me too. That doesn’t mean that everything always works out just the way I want. Still, difficult days only come if he allows it, and in the end, I have the assurance that victory will be mine.
Take Away: The Lord walks through life with us, even when we aren’t aware of his presence.
Get out of jail free card
Exodus 8: I’ll make a sharp distinction between your people and mine.
The first two plagues that fall on Egypt might be called “equal opportunity plagues.” That is, everyone, Egyptians and Hebrews alike, suffer from them. From the third plague on though, the area inhabited by the slaves, Goshen, is a sanctuary from all the bad stuff that comes. I can’t help but wonder why it happens like this. One thing that comes to mind is that from the third plague on the magicians of Egypt give up on duplicating the miracles. In fact, they tell Pharaoh that this is “God’s doing,” suggesting that he needs to give in. When the magicians drop out of the contest, the descendants of Abraham no longer experience the plagues. Maybe there’s a connection. Another thing I note is that, at first, these people are hesitant to believe that Moses is being sent by God to rescue them. Maybe the Lord allows them to experience the first two plagues to convince them that something beyond the ordinary is happening here. I’m sure there are other explanations but these two come to mind as I consider this passage today. Beyond that, though, is a reminder that sometimes God’s people go through the same hardships as everyone else. Being a follower of the Lord is no “get out of jail free” card. In fact, the unwelcome hardship might just be a part of God’s plan for us. The road to heaven isn’t always a pleasant stroll. Sometimes, there are portions of the route that we’d just as soon never travel.
Take Away: The Lord never promised us an easy journey, but he did promise to be with us on that journey and to deliver us to himself at the end of the road.
Revelation 12: She was giving birth to a Child.
John’s vision shifts to new images including that of a dragon and war in heaven. It’s my guess that his original readers better understand the symbolism than we do. Interpretations are all over the map but due to the fact this book is written to be read by first century Christians I lean toward understandings of it that keep their perspective in mind. Also, there’s such a strong parallel to the story of the birth of Christ that I tend to think that John’s using that well known story to illustrate something more. Mary, the most blessed of women, gives birth to the Son of God. Immediately, Satan tries to have him killed but, being warned in a dream, his earthly father, Joseph, takes them and flees to the desert, Egypt. Throughout his ministry there’s a war for the hearts of men, women, boys, and girls. Ultimately, though, Satan’s defeated as Jesus goes to the cross, winning the ultimate victory for all who will come to him. It all fits, kind of. The question for Bible scholars is “What does it illustrate?” Most say that the woman represents the Church and that the battle represents the war waged by the enemy of our souls in an attempt to defeat the Church. If that’s right the message here is one of divine protection and ultimate victory. Even readers like me, in spite of my struggles in understanding the passage, can conclude that, whatever the exact meaning here, God will protect his people and that ultimately, in Christ, victory is ours. I know I don’t get everything that’s going on here, but that’s a pretty good place to start.
Take Away: We don’t have to understand everything to have a firm grasp on the fact of the Lord’s provision for, and protection of, us.
A wonderful promise
Zechariah 2: A wall of fire around…and a radiant presence within.
When the exiles arrived at Jerusalem they found a city in ruins, uninhabitable. They went to work rebuilding their city and its protective wall. In fact, there’s a book of the Bible, Nehemiah, which is almost completely focused on the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem. Now, Zachariah is told that, due to the Lord’s blessing, Jerusalem’s going to outgrow its walls. There’s no need to fear though, because God, himself, is going to be a wall of fire around that city, protecting it from all invaders. The prophet adds that, even better, God’s presence is going to be burning inside the city as well. I know that these words are spoken to the Israelites as a nation and not as individuals. Indeed, it’s a wonderful promise to these exiles as they labor to re-establish themselves in this land that was promised to them centuries earlier. Still, I can’t help but internalize this promise. The Lord is with me. He surrounds me with his presence. Nothing comes into my life that he doesn’t allow. Meanwhile, in my heart, I enjoy the “radiant presence” of the Lord. He protects me and he blesses me. I know that in a Christian sense, the passage is rightly applied to the bride of Christ, the Church. Still, it’s a terrific promise to take to heart and I’m thankful for it today.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his protection and his blessings.
The only real security
Joel 3: God is a safe hiding place.
When the prophet describes God as a “safe hiding place” he isn’t talking about hiding from the natural disaster that’s struck the land. He’s moved forward in his sermon and is thinking about how the world as we know it will come to an end. He pictures a great final battle when God’s Judgment will fall over the earth. Joel says the forces of evil will come to do battle against the forces of God and that the Almighty will respond in full force, shaking the earth and sky in one unforgettable blow that will spell the end of all opposition to his Kingdom. Lest his own people fear that day, the Lord promises to, himself, be a “safe hiding place” for all who trust in him. We’re told that the end result of all this will be that “God has moved into Zion for good.” The fact is that natural disasters will come and go as the pages of history are turned. Most of the time, I’m merely a concerned spectator, watching from the sidelines. Some of the time, I can involve myself in some relief effort. Once in a while, maybe only once in a lifetime, I will find myself unhappily at the epicenter of it all. This passage reminds me that an event much greater than any of that is out there on the horizon of history. On that day everything’s going to come crashing down as Good and evil clash in a Creation-shaking battle. There’ll be no storm shelter secure enough and no place remote enough to protect me from it all. My only hope of safety is in God. As I live my life in him, I not only find strength for the unwelcome ordinary trials and tribulations of life, but shelter against this, the biggest storm of all.
Take Away: My only hope of safety is in the Lord.
Daniel 6: Your God…is going to get you out of this.
Darius’ ego trip has put one of his most loyal supporters in jeopardy. The command making himself the only object of prayer was a dumb one in the first place. Who does he think he is anyway? I see that when the trap is sprung that Darius works all day long trying to find a way to reverse it. I don’t get that one. Law of the Medes and Persians or not, he is the King after all. Finally, Darius gives up and prepares to toss Daniel into the den of lions. Darius gives Daniel a pep talk and in he goes. In this passage Darius is cut a lot of slack so I need to be careful in how I think about it. Still, I have to admit that Darius gets under my skin a bit. He makes a dumb law. Then, even though he is king and all, can’t figure a way out of it. He then tells Daniel, “Your God…is going to get you out of this.” If Darius has all this faith in God why did he issue his silly decree in the first place?” But, of course, he’s right. God is King of kings and he is King over the king of the beasts. The lions are under his authority and God controls them through the night. As I say, I don’t want to be too hard on Darius, but it’s not smart to place oneself or others in jeopardy through our own foolishness and then say, “God will take care of things.” I’m glad that the Lord is gracious to me in my silliness, but I don’t want to tempt the Lord either.
Take Away: It’s not smart to place oneself or others in jeopardy through our own foolishness and then say, “The Lord will take care of things.”
He’s still in the fire
Daniel 3: I see four men, walking around freely in the fire.
A “theophany” is the appearance of God in human forum, specifically in the Old Testament. Abraham and Jacob and Moses have such encounters and then there’s this incident: three men are tossed into the fire, but the king sees four. I understand that there are theological reasons to hesitate here, but I’m glad to hide behind the “devotional” aspect of my writing and leap wholeheartedly into this fire! The Hebrews are being executed because of their faithfulness to the Lord. Then, in the fire there’s a fourth man who, even the pagan king, can tell is “God-like.” On this day Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego experience a “theophany.” They meet the Lord in that furnace and he protects them from the fire! The furnaces of life might scare me to death, but it’s in those places that I find one who’s not only unafraid, but is in complete authority. Since he’s God he can appear in whatever form he wants, and because he’s God there’s nothing that’s going to happen to me there that he does not allow and can’t see me through.
Take Away: There’s nothing that can happen to us that the Lord doesn’t allow and that he can’t see me through.
My story of rescue
Psalm 107: If you are really wise, you’ll think this over — it’s time you appreciated God’s deep love.
Each verse of this song tells a story of God’s love and deliverance. In one verse I hear the story of those who wandered for years in the desert. When they called out to God he rescued them. In the next verse, the focus is on those locked up in prison. Once again, God saves them. Another verse tells the story of sickness and I’m told that God “spoke the word” and they were healed. Then I’m led to think about sailors out to sea and caught in a mighty storm. As in all the other verses, they call out to God and he rescues them in the nick of time. The psalmist sums it all up by saying I ought to think about all this and appreciate God’s deep love for us. I don’t have a dramatic story like those told in this psalm but, in a sense, not having a story is a story of rescue in itself. Which is better, to have nearly drowned in my sin or to be rescued early in life and not have the ugly scars of sin in the first place? My story is also a story of God’s deep love.
Take Away: Sometimes the Lord rescues us from the disaster before it ever has a chance to happen.