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.
Ready or not, here it comes
2Kings 11: Athaliah, oblivious to his existence, ruled the country.
Jehu’s purge nets both Joram, wicked king of Israel, and Ahaziah, the king of Judah who has become a partner with Joram in his sinful leadership. Ahaziah’s mother, Athaliah, takes her son’s place, not only on the throne but also as one committed to evil. Her first act is to kill anyone in her family who might contest her claim to the throne of Judah. It appears her plan has worked, and it would have, except for the bravery and quick action of Jehosheba who hides the infant Joash from his own grandmother’s murderous intention. Now, six years later, it’s time to act. Intrigue abounds as plans are made to dethrone the pretender Athaliah and elevate Joash to his rightful place as boy king. As this takes place we’re told that Athaliah is “oblivious” to it all. I think the Lord often works like this. Ordinary people and even the wicked pursue their goals, pressing on, thinking everything is working out as anticipated. Meanwhile, God is at work in the underground. Big things are coming and we’re “oblivious” to it all. For Athaliah it means that her hijacking of the throne of Judah is soon coming to a bloody end. For followers of the Lord, it means that we’d better keep our eyes on Jesus and be ready for — well, be ready for “whatever” comes next.
Take Away: Even when we can’t see it, the Lord is at work, preparing for the next big thing.
God, patiently working
2 Samuel 4: And so they anointed David king over Israel.
It’s been a long time coming. David remembers being called in from the fields as he cared for his father’s sheep to meet the old man of God, Samuel. In a private ceremony Samuel anointed him king of Israel. However, Israel already had a king and Saul wasn’t about to give up his position of power, so David waited. He faithfully served Israel, doing anything asked of him. He honored Saul, even as Saul became his enemy. It isn’t that David’s made no errors along the way; he has. The bottom line, though, is that he’s faithfully adhered to this philosophy: if God had him anointed as king, then he’ll be king in God’s own time. Now, the result of treachery in Ish-Bosheth’s camp, the door is finally open and all Israel comes to make David king. The deaths of both Saul and Ish-Bosheth were not by David’s hand. In fact, it isn’t the way he wanted it at all. Still, God works in all things, even things he doesn’t design, to accomplish his purpose. David isn’t the only one who’s been patient. God, Himself, has worked in and through and even around the events that have taken place to move history in the direction he desires. The end result is that, just as Samuel said years earlier: David is king of Israel. Here’s a picture of how God works: not orchestrating and micromanaging events to get his way, but directing the outcome of even bad things, like murder, to accomplish his purposes. He doesn’t motivate the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite to kill Ish-Bosheth, but when they do, the Lord uses it to accomplish his purpose of bringing David to the throne of Israel.
Take Away: As Sovereign God the Lord works in this world, even though poor choices made by people, to accomplish his purposes.
Back from the brink
1 Samuel 30: A gift from the plunder of God’s enemies!
The story of David’s rescue of the women and children of Ziklag is a companion to the events of the previous chapter in which David isn’t allowed to join the battle against Saul and the army of Israel. It takes him and his men three days to return to their base camp of Ziklag. When they arrive there all that’s left is smoldering ruins. Amalekite raiders have taken advantage of the fact that all warriors throughout the territory are massed at Aphek in preparation for a major battle. Ziklag and other area towns have been attacked and ransacked. The women and children have been carried away to be used as slaves or worse. David pursues them, driving his men to exhaustion. By the time he catches up to the Amalekites his forces are severely depleted with only 200 of the original 600 warriors still at his side. With God’s help, his band of 200 routs the much larger Amalekite force. They recover all the captives and a large bounty of goods taken, not only from Ziklag, but from the other towns as well. David insists that the spoils be equally shared with all, including those who were unable to fight. He also sends portions of the plunder to the towns of Judah, “A gift from the plunder of God’s enemies.” The coupled events of David being turned back from the battle at Aphek and his success against the Amalekites rescue David from the brink of personal destruction. In one case, he is stopped from becoming an enemy of Israel. In the other, he turns his trust back to God, and then acts in an honorable way in handling the plunder. Here we see God putting David back on track to lead Israel. Oh, the mighty hand of God, working through our stubbornness and human weakness. God works through a million and one circumstances to bring about his good purpose. It’s that way with David and it’s that way for us too.
Take Away: We don’t always recognize it, but quite often the Lord works through the circumstances of our lives to bring about good.
Hopefully, David wasn’t trustworthy
1 Samuel 29: He’s not going into battle with us.
How about that, wisdom from the Philistines! Fleeing from Saul (maybe said better: “getting away from Saul so he won’t have to kill him”) David’s living in Philistine territory, the town of Ziklag. Now the Philistines are uniting to take on Saul and the army of Israel in a major, decisive battle. Amazingly, David’s with the Philistines! King Achish, who mistakenly thinks that David has already been attacking his fellow countrymen in Judah, is confident that David has completely betrayed Israel. However, the other warlords of the Philistines aren’t convinced. They don’t know David, but they know his reputation. They think that in the heat of the battle he’ll turn on them. Achish reluctantly sends David and his men home. Are the other warlords right? I hope so. David has no business living in the land of the Philistines in the first place much less fighting on their side. I think this event is crucial to David’s future as king of Israel. In the story of Abraham and Lot, it’s Lot who mistakenly decides to live in the wicked city of Sodom. That decision changes his life. Had he not made this crucial mistake he might have gone down in history as a great man who walked in faith with his uncle, Abraham. Instead, his story is a mere footnote in the history of God’s people. In this incident, David’s at a similar crossroads. If he joins the Philistines in this battle he’ll never lead Israel. Instead, he’ll only be a minor player in the story of redemption. I hope these warlords are right and that David would have turned on them. If not that, I wish that it had been David, himself who decided to leave the battlefield. Instead, it’s the enemies of God and his people who wisely send him away. Is it possible that we can see the hand of God in this decision of the Philistine warlords?
Take Away: The Lord is sovereign and can use whoever he wants to accomplish his will.
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.
Being spiritual about things
1 Samuel 14: Saul did something really foolish that day.
It’s war. Saul’s army is in battle with the hated Philistines. Saul’s son Jonathan leads the way. Single handedly he’s killed about 20 of the enemy. God’s working here, bringing confusion to the enemy army. In addition to the damage Saul’s army is doing them they seem to be at war with one another. It’s now that Saul does a “really foolish” thing. He commands his army to fast while they fight. His men are in hand-to-hand combat all day but eat nothing. When the battle ends at the end of the day they’re so hungry that they’re eating raw meat, meat with the blood still in it, which is contrary to God’s Law. The writer tells us that it’s all Saul’s fault. He’s in charge and they depend on his leadership. He’s let them down by adding to their burden in an attempt to make their effort seem “more spiritual.” It’s important that leaders be spiritually sensitive. We’re not to dress things up to make them seem more spiritual than they already are, but at the same time, we’re to take the lead in recognizing God’s work in even supposed “non-spiritual” efforts. Saul overplays his hand here and the result is near disaster. I pray that God will help me to be sensitive to spiritual things and to be a leader who “is” spiritually minded rather than a person who is foolishly, like Saul, merely “acting” spiritually minded.
Take Away: Spiritual leaders don’t play the role of someone who is spiritually minded; rather, they ARE spiritually minded.
1 Samuel 10: Saul among the prophets! Who would have guessed?!
The young man Saul is not a leader and he isn’t especially known for his spirituality. On this day, after his meeting with Samuel, Saul is headed home when he encounters a group of prophets on their way to worship. Before he knows it, Saul falls in with them, and then to everyone’s surprise he joins them in their religious expression. This is an unlikely event and word of it spreads throughout his family and friends. People are surprised at “Saul among the prophets.” After he becomes king a saying based on this incident becomes common. Anytime a person is surprised at something they shake their heads in wonder and say, “Saul among the prophets! Who would have guessed!” I’ve seen God do some surprising things in people’s lives. When I was a kid I knew a man who had been the town drunk. He was wonderfully converted and became the Sunday School Superintendent in the church where I grew up. “Saul among the prophets! Who would have guessed!” Another man, who was raised in the church, got away from God. His mother never stopped praying for him, but for years he seemed distant. One night he came to revival and responded to the invitation. A few years later he was a terrific youth leader in the church. “Saul among the prophets!” I love it when God does stuff like that and look forward to more “Saul among the prophets!” events in the days to come.
Take Away: The Lord does wonderfully surprising things in the lives of those who cooperate with his purposes for them.
Caution, God at work here
1 Samuel 7: Throughout Israel there was a widespread, fearful movement toward God.
The enemies of Israel, the Philistines, have had enough of the Ark of the Covenant. Not only have they had to repair their idol Dagon, things are not going well at all throughout their territory. There’s general sickness and death and they know that it’s related to the captured Chest. They decide to send it back and be rid of it once and for all. It ends up at the town of Beth Shemesh, but not without incident. Some of the locals look inside this holy relic and are struck dead for their irreverence. This causes the fear of the Lord to fall on that place. It also reminds them that God is real and not just the product of old stories. The Ark is moved to Kiriath Jearim, where it remains for 20 years. It’s during that time that people become more and more “God aware.” It’s been a long journey from the dark ages of the book of Judges to this point, but, once again, these people are becoming a people of God. The words, “there was a widespread, fearful movement toward God” are the result of God’s faithfulness to a people who don’t deserve it. Even though they’re far from God, he’s at work and the boy Samuel is part of his plan. When they use the Ark as a good luck charm, and thus lose it, God is working. Even when the men at Beth Shemesh treat the Ark in an inappropriate way and lose their lives, God is working, setting things in motion to change the attitude of the nation. I pray that God is working in my nation too. I pray that he’s doing things in places and in ways that I don’t even see, changing attitudes, preparing the way for a “widespread, fearful movement toward” himself. And, if he can use me in any of that I want to be available to him, a willing partner in his gracious work in my society.
Take Away: The Lord sometimes works in ways unseen by us and only recognized after the fact.
Generation to generation
Judges 5: God chose new leaders, who then fought at the gates.
Following the defeat of the oppressor Sisera we hear a duet being sung by Deborah and Barak, the two people instrumental in the victory that has been won. It’s a war song, all about how God fought for them and how he empowered them to do what needed to be done. The book of Judges gives us history in 40 year or so chunks, so, while I earlier walked with Abraham year by year and traveled with the children of Israel in their wilderness journey at a much slower pace, each page of the book of Judges represents the rise and fall of an entire generation. In this song, I find a description of how “God chose new leaders” to fight for him in their generation. While there’s a lot of ugly stuff in this book of the Bible, I’m reminded that God continues to be active in Israel. Even though it’s sometimes hard to spot, I see the golden thread of God’s grace here. A set of leaders fail and Israel plunges into the darkness of sin. Then, the Lord graciously reaches down into that darkness and lifts a new leader to call his people back from the brink. This is far from ideal. It could and should be so much better. Still, the grace and faithfulness of God shines like a beacon against this bleak backdrop of sin and failure.
Take Away: God’s grace is seen in dark places. It fact, it shines there, bringing both light and hope.