God and construction projects
Ezra 6: …you are to help the leaders of the Jews in the rebuilding of that Temple of God.
Orders to stop rebuilding the Temple brought the project to a halt for about 3 years. In time, two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, began to urge the people to get back to work. Now, the precise chronology of the letters and which king wrote what is a bit muddy, but that doesn’t diminish the actual story here. First, the king receives a letter that causes him to issue a stop order to the Jews who are rebuilding the Temple. Then, upon the urging of the prophets, the work is started again. The regional governor writes to the king to report what’s happening, and, upon review, the king finds that years earlier they had not only been given permission to rebuild, but were ordered to do so. He responds by directing the governor to allow the work to continue, and beyond that, to assist in any way he’s asked to. The temporary halt to the program actually results in the full support of the current king and speeds up the process. Even though there’s a bit of a mystery in these passages about who is king when there’s a clear message that God works even through what we see to be road blocks to our obedience to his will. This is a difficult lesson for us to learn, as we want green lights all the way before we even start. It’s hard to understand how God’s “go” and how the on-the-ground circumstances that force a “stop” can be working together, but, sometimes, that’s just how it is.
Take Away: The Lord works through circumstances beyond our control to accomplish his purposes.
God and “good old boy” politics
Ezra 5: Who issued you a permit to rebuild this Temple and restore it to use?
Years ago our small south Texas congregation was preparing for a building project. For a larger church, this would have been a drop in the bucket, but for us, it was a big deal. One key element was that we needed a city code variance to build a few feet closer to the street than was normally allowed. The whole project depended on that variance. We went to the city planning commission and presented our case. They took it under advisement and then turned us down. This put our project back to stage zero. Disappointed, we went back to the drawing board. A couple of weeks later I noted that the small grocery store across the street from our church was getting ready to do some remodeling. It just so happened that they needed (you guessed it) a zoning variance that was almost exactly the same as the one we had had rejected. No doubt, small town politics had a hand in it and their variance was approved. We went back to the city and asked to be put on the agenda for the next meeting. When our turn came, one of the members asked, in a perplexed voice, “Isn’t this the exact same plans that we turned down a few weeks ago? What makes you think we’ll accept them now?” I patiently replied, “We think you should reconsider in light of your giving the grocery store next door to us a variance to do the exact same thing.” There was a moment as the facts of the matter became apparent to the commission, then one of them said, “I think we should give the church its building permit.” Isn’t it interesting how the Lord can navigate through small town politics? In light of the passage before us, we see that he’s just as good in working through big government. Never count God out of the equation.
Take Away: The Lord can handle building permits, city ordinances, and such.
God on the world stage
2Kings 19: Did it never occur to you that I’m behind all this?
If Sennacherib’s threatening letter to Hezekiah is intended to frighten him, it’s a great success. However, in his fear Hezekiah runs, not away, but straight to God. Soon thereafter he receives an answer. As Hezekiah has spoken to God, now God has spoken to his man, Isaiah. Part of the message from God is directed to Hezekiah but part is addressed to Sennacherib, king of Assyria. God isn’t pleased with him and he’s about to take action against him. One of the statements in particular draws our attention today. God tells this powerful heathen king, this enemy of his people, that he’s been using Sennacherib for his own purposes. This must have been seen by him as an unbelievably naïve word out of Judah. Tiny and powerless Judah says that their God has been behind his military successes of this world superpower. It would have been absolutely laughable except for the fact that on that very night a hundred and eighty-five thousand Assyrian soldiers die without Judah lifting a finger against them. Here are some things to consider. First, I see that God used a heathen king for his own purposes. Just because a nation has success in some area it doesn’t mean that God is smiling on them and is pleased with them. Second, God moves quite comfortably in the international arena. As one of his people I need to be careful I don’t play, to use a baseball term, “small ball” all the time. I serve a God who’s interested in, and working through, events that are global in scale. Finally, no nation is bigger than God. Even if the whole world falls under the command of some conqueror, ultimately God remains Sovereign. Leaders of powerful nations had better remember that.
Take Away: Whether we recognize it or not the Lord is Sovereign; not only over our lives, but around the world and throughout the universe.
Finding God in unexpected places
1 Samuel 28: There’s a witch at Endor.
Life is terribly dark for Saul. Years ago when he failed God at Gilgal Samuel told him that God was finished with him. However for decades it has looked as though Saul can handle things on his own. He builds a strong army and successfully leads the people of Israel. However, through those years things are always going downhill for Saul. As we near the end of his story, he’s a fear-filled, pitiful man. Thus we come to this strange incident at Endor. Saul’s afraid of his enemies and with good reason. His past successes against the Philistines are forgotten as a coalition of forces is massing for the biggest battle yet. Saul’s only connection with God has been through Samuel, but now Samuel is dead. Prayer is an unknown thing for Saul, but in fear, he prays. There’s no answer. Then, with the same denial of God’s authority that was evident many years earlier when he decided to offer his own sacrifices rather than wait for Samuel at Gilgal, he again takes matters into his own hands. If God won’t answer, he’ll turn to witchcraft for answers. He knows God strictly forbids this, in fact, as king he’s enforced the abolition of witchcraft in Israel. Now, he goes looking for someone who can contact the dead for him, specifically Samuel. I know some view this as confirmation that witchcraft, mediums, séances, and the like can be genuine. However, I’m not ready to go there based on this passage. The “witch at Endor” is probably an old faker who’s told fortunes for years. Now, when she starts her act and Samuel appears she’s more surprised than anyone else: “When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out….” In other words, she dropped out of her mystic trance when something actually happened. My take on this is that Saul’s trying to bypass God by moving as far from God’s “territory” as possible. However, he runs headlong into God even there. Here’s the spiritual fact of life: even when a person tries to move out of the light of God into areas where no one is to go they find that God is God even there. This passage is a confirmation of His absolute sovereignty.
Take Away: There’s no way to bypass the Lord.
Hide and seek
1 Samuel 23: Saul was on one side of the mountain, David and his men on the other.
Saul and David are playing a deadly game of hide and seek. In spite of David’s continuing to be a defender of Israel Saul has made him public enemy number one. David’s band is growing, now numbering over 600, but Saul’s army vastly outnumbers them. Beyond that, David doesn’t want to fight Saul or any of his countrymen. The nation of Israel is divided. Some are loyal to Saul and others to David. In fact, one group, the Ziphites, betrays David to Saul. They report David’s whereabouts to Saul and help set up an ambush. It’s nearly successful. At one point Saul almost has David and his men cornered. If not for word of an attack from a real enemy that forces Saul’s attention elsewhere, David’s story would end right here. Because of this, this area is called “Narrow Escape.” So, was the attack by the Philistines at such a critical moment just good fortune for David? I think not. God’s fingerprints are all over this. Still, it’s interesting that God used the enemies of Israel, the heathens of the land, to deliver David. The lesson for me is that this is a reminder that God is truly sovereign. Even when godless people act in ways intended to destroy, God can give a gentle push in some particular direction and use their sinful act to accomplish good rather than evil. Even when it seems evil has won the day, God is still God, and he’s working in surprising ways in and through it all.
Take Away: When all is said and done it’s the Lord who has said the last word.
What God intended in the first place
Numbers 23: How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
Balaam is hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites. After the talking donkey incident, Balaam has had a change of heart. After all, part of that unusual event is that he saw the angel of the Lord with sword in hand blocking his way. Now as he arrives, Balak urges him to go ahead and curse the Israelites. Balaam agrees to do his thing, but warns Balak that he can only say what the Lord allows him to say. He enters into his “prophetic trance” and the words that come out of his mouth are a disappointment to Balak. Right off it’s plain that the pitiful prophet, who’s toying with stuff he would be better off leaving alone, isn’t going to do a very good job of cursing God’s people. Instead, Balaam hears himself blessing them. This whole blessing and cursing stuff is off the mark anyway. God’s people don’t believe in spells and magic. Rather, we believe in God. In this case the Lord used Balaam’s hocus pocus for his own purposes, but remember this: God already intends to bless Israel. That’s what he’s been saying all along. Even if Balak’s plan had worked and Balaam managed to state a mysterious, mystic curse on Israel it would have just been a lot of hot air. Beyond that, Balaam’s blessing doesn’t actually mean anything either. God didn’t hear this silly prophet state a blessing and think he had to obey. The Lord continued to do what he intended to do all along.
Take Away: The Lord is sovereign and all the hocus pocus in the world isn’t going to force him to do anything.
The stubbornness of Pharaoh
Exodus 9: But for one reason only I’ve kept you on your feet…
Things continue to go downhill for mighty Egypt. Dead animals and a plague of miserable boils have struck the land. As Goliath will stager before falling many years in the future, Egypt is near the end. All the wealth and power Joseph brought to Egypt is draining away. One has to believe that the people of Egypt and even the advisors of the king are practically begging him to end this by surrendering to the demand from God that the people of Israel be set free. As Moses promises yet another massive display of God’s power, he explains the absurd stubbornness of Pharaoh. This is God’s doing. Pharaoh hasn’t given in because he can’t give in. After centuries of seeming silence God is making himself known once again. When he’s finished with Pharaoh the whole world will know about the God of the Israelites. On one hand I squirm a bit in my spirit as I see Pharaoh stripped of his free will, suffering the consequences of his earlier stubbornness. On the other hand, though, I’m reminded that it’s the Almighty who’s doing it. Who has a right to question what the Creator of all things does? Pharaoh’s life is going to bring glory to God, not only throughout the world of his day, but throughout history as well. As I read about the plagues I’m reminded that every life will, sooner or later, bring glory to God.
Take Away: Ultimately, God is sovereign and ultimately, every life will yield to that truth.
“Does not work well with others.”
Exodus 7: Pharaoh is not going to listen to you
For a true blue “free-willer” like me, Pharaoh’s role in the Exodus is somewhat troubling. Before Moses and Aaron ever meet with him the Lord promises that he’s going to be stubborn. The reason for that stubbornness is because the Lord’s going to make him that way. That’s not how I see God at work in this world. Instead, I see him supplying sufficient grace to people to respond to his call in their lives if they will. In the story of the Exodus it appears that God not only sees Pharaoh’s stubbornness but actually stiffens it even more to create conditions for a spectacular deliverance. So what’s going on here? On the other side of this “free will” coin is “sovereignty.” God is God and he holds absolute authority over all Creation. The reason we have free will is that the Sovereign has granted it. If I abuse the freedom I’ve been granted I’ll answer to him. In Pharaoh’s case, I don’t think the Lord looked into the future and saw Pharaoh remain resolutely stubborn, but I do think the Lord saw his hard heart and, in his sovereignty declared, “So it shall be.” The Lord takes what Pharaoh does in his free will and hard wires it. From that point on he has no other choice. Pharaoh could have been an example of God’s grace. Instead, he becomes an instrument for God’s glory.
Take Away: It’s a dangerous thing to challenge the sovereignty of God.
I’ve been included
Romans 9: They were so absorbed in their “God projects” that they didn’t notice God right in front of them.
Big issues are in play here. Paul says that while the descendants of Abraham are the people with the promise of God that promise remains under God’s control. Even among Abraham’s descendants some are excluded and have no part in the promise. For instance, twin brothers (Jacob and Esau), before they’re ever born are treated differently from one another by God. One will be part of what God is doing in the world and the other won’t. Some Israelites have the idea that salvation is uniquely theirs because of their lineage. Paul says that’s not how it is. The only real decision maker here is God, so when some of Abraham’s descendants have tried to take the ball and run with it, making salvation their personal property, they’ve run head first into the Almighty who reminds them that this is his doing and not theirs. Israel doesn’t own salvation – God does. This is Good News for those of us who would otherwise be considered outsiders and ineligible for this wonderful plan of salvation.
Take Away: There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.
Trusting without understanding
Habakkuk 2: Look at that man…full of himself but soul-empty.
The prophet understands that sinful Babylon is God’s chosen instrument for punishing sinful Judah. As bad as Judah is, Habakkuk is having a hard time understanding how God could ever use such an evil nation as his tool against the Children of Abraham. Habakkuk reverently takes his concern to God and now God answers. A part of that answer is contained in chapter two of this brief book of the Bible. The Lord tells Habakkuk he’s well aware of the sin of Babylon. Although the language used suggests that the remarks are about only the King of Babylon, the context tells us that it’s the nation as a whole that’s being described. The Lord wants Habakkuk to know that he hasn’t underestimated the sin of Babylon and he isn’t about to overlook it. Babylon’s self-indulgent pride, its injustice, and its immorality will be dealt with. Just because God intends to use this nation for his own purpose doesn’t mean that he’s going to overlook its sin. The Lord remains sovereign and, in the end, he always has the last word. This godless empire is, indeed, a tool in the hands of the Almighty. At some point it may seem that Babylon is getting the benefit of this arraignment, but the real result will only be seen when the final chapter is written. Today, I’m reminded that all of Creation is in God’s hands. Anytime he wants, he can use whoever he wants for his purposes. The Lord doesn’t need for me to explain his actions or to make apologies for them. He does, however, insist that I trust him even when I don’t understand him.
Take Away: I’m not required to understand the Lord but I am called to trust him.