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.
Guilty as charged
2Kings 17: In the end, God spoke a final No to Israel and turned his back on them.
Second Kings 17 is a long chapter that burdens the reader with a heavier and heavier weight of despair and condemnation as its read. These are painful words: “God was fed up” – “God had had enough,” – “God spoke a final ‘No’.” There’s the feeling of hearing a guilty verdict read in a courtroom. The evidence for conviction is overwhelming and the conclusion is obvious. God’s only choice is to turn his back and to declare “no” to them and their sin as they’ve declared “no” to him. Reading this chapter not only condemns the people of ancient Israel and justifies God in his abandonment of them, but it also frightens me. How far can a nation push God? How many of his blessings can it forget? How many of his Laws can it break before the Almighty is fed up? My nation is foolishly testing the patience of God right now. Second Kings 17 is not before us as just some dusty old history lesson. It’s a warning that we’d better heed.
Take Away: If we say “no” often enough, the Lord will take us at our word.
2Kings 10: God doing what, through Elijah, he said he’d do.
I don’t like reading the stories of uprisings, murders, and judgment found in the stories of Judah and Israel. Beheadings and assassinations somehow don’t make for good devotional reading! Still, there are some powerful themes in the story of Jehu’s uprising. God had judged Ahab’s sin years earlier, and even though he has, at times, blessed Israel with his help against her enemies, the Lord never overlooks what Ahab has continued doing. At the right time the Lord raises up Jehu to act in judgment on Ahab’s family. It’s bloody but it’s intended to give Israel a chance to return to the path that they left so long ago. Before Jehu’s finished Ahab’s family is destroyed and the altars of Baal are gone. In spite of all that, Jehu’s a disappointment. I see here that the Lord uses less than perfect vessels to accomplish his purposes. Also I’m reminded that no one has to fail. Jehu let a golden opportunity slip through his fingers.
Take Away: The Lord works in and through imperfect people to carry out his plans.
Weight of leadership
1Kings 15: He was openly evil before God, walking in the footsteps of Jeroboam, who both sinned and made Israel sin.
The writer of the books of the Kings gives us only snapshots of the parade of kings of both Judah and Israel. Sometimes there’s just one highlight (or “lowlight”) mentioned. Over in Israel, Jeroboam dies and his son Nadab comes to power. Nadab lasts for just two years before he’s assassinated and replaced by Baasha. Baasha knows that God rejected Jeroboam and his family because of Jeroboam’s sin but that doesn’t stop him from following the same road to ruin. He rules Israel for 24 years but his legacy is his spiritual failure and his leading of Israel farther away from God. We aren’t surprised when we see God rejecting him and sending word that he’s going to reduce Baasha and his regime to cinders. While I’m a firm believer in free will, I see that God holds Baasha responsible for the sin of all Israel. Leadership has privileges but it also comes with a hefty helping of responsibility. God expects leaders to not only be righteous themselves, but to influence those who follow them to greater righteousness as well. That’s true of pastors and churches, but, as I see here, it’s true for national leaders and their subjects too.
Take Away: Leaders who forget the responsibility side of their position are walking the road to failure.
One or the other got away with it
2 Samuel 19: You and Ziba divide the property between you.
On the day that David fled Jerusalem several came to offer help and encouragement. One of those people was Ziba, servant of Saul’s grandson, Mephibosheth. Normally, a new king would kill all of the previous king’s family but David did just the opposite. He invited Mephibosheth into his household and gave him all of his grandfather’s wealth. When David fled his son, Absalom, Mephibosheth was nowhere to be seen, it was his servant Ziba who came out to assist David. When David asked him where Mephibosheth was Ziba reported that Mephibosheth had said he was glad to be rid of David and that he was scheming to take his grandfather’s throne so that neither David nor Absalom would have it. David replied by granting all of Mephibosheth’s wealth to Ziba. Now that the battle between Absalom and David has ended in David’s victory and David is returning home, one of the people who come out to greet him is Mephibosheth who cheers David’s victory. David asks Saul’s grandson where he was when he was fleeing the city and he replies that Ziba tricked him, leaving him behind when he very much wanted to stick with David. In this case either Ziba or Mephibosheth is lying. It may be that Ziba gambled that David would win in the struggle against his son so he wanted to discredit his master and get on the good side of David. The other possibility is that Mephibosheth did think that he might somehow beat out both David and Absalom and take his grandfather’s throne. If that’s correct, then when David wins, we here see Mephibosheth quickly acting to cover his tracks and make up with David. Which one is it? I have no idea! Interesting isn’t it? If Ziba lied, he got away with it, and came away with half of Mephibosheth’s wealth. If Mephibosheth lied, he got away with it, losing only half of his wealth and remaining a very rich man. My devotional thought on all this? Not much, really; maybe a fresh realization that the bad guys sometimes win in this world. God will sort it all out in Judgment.
Take Away: Someday all wrongs will be made right. Till then, we just have to trust the Lord with the sometimes unfairness of life
Would you like to super-size that order? No thanks.
1 Samuel 16: God judges persons differently than humans do…God looks into the heart.
Saul’s failure weighs on Samuel. However, the Lord says it’s time to get on with selecting Saul’s successor. This is potentially dangerous because Saul’s still in power and certainly doesn’t want Samuel anointing someone else as king. Still, Samuel obeys the Lord and heads out to the town of Bethlehem to find God’s choice for second king of Israel. There he finds the young man he’s sure is the right one. It’s Eliab, son of Jesse. Tall and good-looking, in fact, you might say “regal” in appearance. But Samuel is mistaken. God reminds him that this isn’t a beauty contest and that God’s more interested in what is in the heart than he is in outward appearance. Eliab might be a fine fellow but he isn’t to be the next king of Israel. The search continues as Jessie brings one son after another before the revered man of God. Finally, all but one son has been interviewed. Young David is all that’s left. When Saul was chosen we were told that he stood a head and shoulders above the other men. Now, as David is picked, he’s called the “runt” of the family. Thus we gain an insight into how God works. He uses big, nice looking people, but he also uses those that others tend to overlook. Why? It’s because God looks on the heart. I pray that the Lord will find in me a person he can use for his purposes.
Take Away: Since the Lord looks on the heart, let’s do all we can to keep our hearts right with the Lord.
Judges 20: How did this outrageous evil happen?
The final story in the book of Judges is about as dark and evil as it can get. It concerns a man and his concubine. The story contains deviant sexual behavior, rape, and murder. The result is a civil war in which the tribe of Benjamin is practically wiped out. One question asked during the story should ring in our ears: “How did this outrageous evil happen?” How did the descendants of Abraham, this miraculously freed nation of slaves, these recipients of the Ten Commandments, these people chosen to be God’s very own come to this? The answer is “self and sin.” Their faith hasn’t been passed on to their children. Their heroes become more and more flawed. God is forgotten and their society begins to unravel. The writer of Judges concludes in the famous epitaph of the book: “At that time there was no king in Israel. People did whatever they felt like doing.” That, my friends, is a recipe for disaster. I’d better not read this with a detached sense of superiority. I live in a society in which “doing whatever one feels like doing” is the norm. We want a convenient God who does our bidding, but leaves us alone the rest of the time. When Israel tries that the result is disaster. Do we really think we can get away with it?
Take Away: Whether we’re talking about an individual or a nation, it’s foolish to attempt to live apart from God.
How’s your accent?
Judges 12: Say “Shibboleth.” But he would always say “Sibboleth” – he couldn’t say it right.
Following Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites the people of Ephraim are insulted that they weren’t called in to be a part of the army. Apparently, there was some kind of mix up in which Jephthah did call for their help but they didn’t get the message. The result is a skirmish and then all-out war between the forces of Gilead and those of Ephraim. Before long, Ephraim is routed by their foes. In disarray they flee and attempt to cross back over the Jordan to their own territory. However, Jephthah’s army has tasted blood and takes control of the most likely fords of the river. There are no uniforms, the soldiers on both sides look alike, and they speak the same language. It seems that the defeated Ephraimites will be able to claim to be with Gilead and escape. However, there’s one difference. The people of Ephraim, living across the river for several generations have developed their own accent. A challenged soldier is required to say “Shibboleth” (I think it means “river”). However the “h” sound is missing from their accent, so he says “Sibboleth” instead. For the lack of an “h” he is executed. On this day thousands of Ephraimites die at the hands of their relatives. As I read this I’m reminded of the New Testament statement that when Jesus comes back that “every knee will bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Everyone will say the right thing, but some will be commanded to “depart.” Why? The wrong accent of life! It takes more than lip service to be connected to the Lord.
Take Away: Just saying the right things isn’t good enough.
There, but for the grace of God….
Judges 9: Just then some woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and crushed his skull.
Not all the inhumanity of Israel’s “dark ages” of Judges comes from the belligerent peoples surrounding them. A lot of the bleakness comes from within. Gideon apparently makes himself into a sheik and fathers lots of children. When he dies there’s a power struggle that’s won by Abimelech, the son of Gideon and one of his maidservants. Abimelech seals the deal by murdering his seventy brothers. However, he’s better at murder than he is at leading and within three years there’s mounting opposition to his rule. Abimelech acts to quash the rebellion and arrives at Thebez, a town known for its fortified tower. As this wicked leader prepares burn alive those who have taken refuge there a woman drops part of a millstone on his head, thus bringing an end to the short and evil leadership of Abimelech. This is an ugly, if somewhat interesting story of a bad man who does bad things and then dies in a violent, unexpected way. No doubt, the detail of his inglorious death is told to us that we might see the judgment of God on Abimelech. In the larger view, I’m reminded that when God is removed from their lives just how much these descendants of Abraham look like the other heathen of that land. When I look around my community and see people doing stupid, self-destructive things to themselves and one another; when I see them blindly pursuing worthless things; and when I see them stubbornly traveling down the wrong road I’m wise to remember that without the Lord in my life that could easily be me. One response then, is to be thankful for what the Lord’s doing in my life. It’s not about me – it’s all about him. Another response is that, rather than feeling superior, I’m to be compassionate to them. These are people who are like me. They just don’t yet know the Life Changer I know.
Take Away: There, but for the grace of God, go I.
Sometimes God is a stranger to me
Joshua 11: It was God’s idea that they all would stubbornly fight the Israelites so he could put them under the holy curse without mercy.
It’s bloody with lots of death and destruction. Individual tribes and cities and also coalitions of previous enemies resist the onslaught of Joshua’s army. Now victory has come and war is over. I know that the book of Joshua gives a “marching to victory” view of the Canaan Conquest while Judges paints a less pretty picture, but frankly, even the positive view of Joshua makes me cringe. All the slaughter of entire peoples: men, women, and children — even, in some cases, animals. The Scriptures explain that it isn’t that God wants to give Canaan to the Israelites so he helps them exterminate those who live there. Rather, it’s that those who live there are so degenerate, so unholy, that God doesn’t want them or anything about them to contaminate the people he’s chosen. Still, I struggle with this because it seems so distant from “God is love.” I confess that sometimes God is a stranger to me. Still, that which is wrong humanly speaking isn’t necessarily wrong for the Creator. The “Giver of Life” has full authority to be the “Taker of Life.” Sometimes devotional lessons are hard to come by in passages like this, but here’s what I get today: there is an “other-ness,” a sobering, even a fear-generating side of the Lord. I love him and I trust his character but I definitely don’t always understand who he is and why he does what he does. I am glad God Almighty doesn’t need me to be his defender.
Take Away: Sometimes we simply have to trust and believe even as we struggle to understand.