I love it when God moves in
2 Chronicles 5: Then a billowing cloud filled The Temple of God.
Solomon’s building project is complete and it’s a great success. An impressive Temple is now the official place of worship for the people of Israel and all others who will come. The building is complete with the fixtures in place, the offerings ready, and the personnel standing ready to serve. Then God moves in. In a display of glory that hasn’t been seen since Moses climbed the mountain to meet the Almighty, the Glory of the Lord fills the Temple. The Presence of the Lord is so great, so real, that the priests can’t even carry out their assigned duties. Outside the Temple Solomon does the only reasonable thing: he begins to call on God in prayer. Today, I long for God’s glory to fall on his Church, for Him to come in such majesty that the order of worship is set aside and people begin to simply call on the Name of the Lord. Oh God, we seek, not so much the “billowing cloud” as we seek you. Pour yourself out upon your Church as you did upon the Temple so long ago.
Take Away: The people of the Lord need to seek and, yes, expect, the Lord to fill our worship services with himself.
The prayer of Jabez
1 Chronicles 3: Jabez prayed to the God of Israel.
Few people had ever taken note of the “prayer of Jabez” before a little book was written about it and this prayer became well known. Here’s the prayer from The Message: “Bless me, o bless me! Give me land, large tracts of land. And provide your personal protection — don’t let evil hurt me.” Then we’re told: “God gave him what he asked.” When everyone was talking about this prayer, I added it to my prayer journal and spent time meditating on it, finding ways to make it “my” prayer. The “Jabez prayer fad” faded and we don’t hear people talking about it anymore. I doubt that this prayer is intended take the place of the Lord’s Prayer or some of the Psalm prayers. We aren’t told to pray this prayer of Jabez but we are told to pray the Lord’s Prayer and we’re wise to keep that in mind. Also, I’m glad that The Message reminds us that Jabez is praying for more land. He wants to increase his wealth. In other words, the “more territory” he prayed for wasn’t a larger Sunday School class or greater spiritual influence. We’ve spiritualized the prayer but he’s asking for wealth. Before I make this into a model prayer I might want to spend some time with the words of our Lord who told us to seek his Kingdom and trust him with the material things of life. Finally, I think his prayer for protection from evil is right on. The reason I know that is that Jesus taught us to pray the very same thing. So, what do I do with this prayer? For one thing, I think I’m free to use it by filtering it through the teachings of our Lord. Jabez asked for wealth and when I ask for “spiritual wealth” I’m stepping away from Jabez but moving in direction of Lord. Also, I can remember that Jabez prayed out of absolute sincerity and faith and that pleased God. In fact, I’m told that God answered this man’s prayer. I learn here that God loves it when I pray in faith. Finally, before I start asking for “more” I might want to spend some time thinking about what it means for me to take up my cross and follow Jesus.
Take Away: Lord, teach us to pray.
I have a few questions
2Kings 20: I’ve just added fifteen yours to your life.
This incident gives us a lot to think about. Hezekiah’s sick and Isaiah comes to him with the news that God says he won’t recover. When Hezekiah pleads with the Lord, Isaiah returns with the news that God has heard his prayer and is going to add 15 years to his life. Also, Isaiah orders medicinal help in the form of a fig plaster. Hezekiah (foolishly brave if you ask me) asks for some kind of sign and Isaiah offers him a choice of the shadow on the sundial moving forward or backward. The king says, “Back” and that’s just what happens. As I said, there’s a lot to think about here. For instance, there’s the fig plaster. Did God give Isaiah a remedy for the illness or is Isaiah just having those caring for Hezekiah do something to bring relief until the healing takes place? These days the church often prays that God will “direct the surgeon’s hands” as an operation is performed. Is that similar to Isaiah saying God will heal but then ordering medicine as well? Then there’s the shadow of the sundial. When this happens it’s seen as a miracle, but now, with our knowledge of the nature of the world, it stands as one of the greatest miracles of the Bible. Talking about “moving heaven and earth” to accomplish something takes on a whole new meaning when I read this account! Then there’s the 15 years. Hezekiah, by my math, is probably 39 years young when this happens. The 15 years will take him all the way to the ripe old age of 54. His broken heart at the prospect of dying in the prime of his life is a very human response. The additional 15 years basically gives him a “normal” life span for that day and age. Is it reasonable for a person to plead with God for more time, a longer life? At what point does a person say, “God’s will be done – I’m ready to go if he chooses to take me”? We see in the story that later on, when emissaries from distant Babylon visit that Hezekiah foolishly shows them all the wealth of his kingdom. Isaiah tells him that he’s made a major mistake that will result in his own descendants being carried off as captives. Hezekiah more or less brushes it off. Had he died would this chain of events still happen? Does God answer one prayer that opens the way for disaster later on? Sorry, but I don’t have the answers. However, as you can see, I have plenty of questions!
Take Away: Some issues in the Bible that don’t make or break our faith are fun to think about.
What to do after God answers
2Kings 19: And Hezekiah prayed — oh, how he prayed!
Through Isaiah Hezekiah receives an encouraging word from the Lord. God is at work even as Sennacherib issues his threat against Judah. Things are going to be okay because God says they’ll be okay. Soon thereafter Sennacherib has to turn his attention to another battle line, but before doing so, he sends Hezekiah another message which is intended to scare him witless. Whether it succeeds in scaring him or not, I do not know, but it certainly gets his attention. Rather than running and hiding, Hezekiah goes to prayer. Taking the letter from the King of Assyria to the Temple he spreads it out before God and begins pouring his heart out to the Lord. The answer comes sooner and not later. A messenger arrives from Isaiah with word that God has heard his plea, and that God has an answer for Sennacherib; an answer that should scare him witless! Well, this all makes for good biblical drama; fine devotional reading from which I can glean lessons to apply to my life. However, today I’m reminded that on this day so long ago this isn’t just a story from out of a Book as far as Hezekiah is concerned. There’s a real and powerful enemy who intends to kill him and massacre his people. When I see him going to pray I see a man desperate beyond words, and when I hear God answer him through Isaiah, I know that the story isn’t all wrapped up with a neat bow at that point. Now that Hezekiah is hearing from God he must do what may be the hardest part of all: he must believe. It’s one thing to read stuff like this in the Old Testament but another to see it really work in our lives. What do I do when a sad doctor is saying that there’s nothing else to be done, yet some uncertain messenger from God is saying otherwise? Even when I want to believe it isn’t all that easy. Hezekiah cries out to God and God answers. The rest of the story is that, when God answers, Hezekiah believes.
Take Away: Believing takes effort and is an act of the will. We choose to believe.
What to do when you face a giant
2Kings 19: Maybe God, your God, won’t let him get by with such talk.
Even though Hezekiah has tried to mend relations with Sennacherib king of Assyria it’s too late. Having whipped into shape several other countries that attempted to break away, Sennacherib returns his attention to Judah. A representative is sent, not to broker a deal, but to call for complete surrender. That representative is named Rabshaketh and, in an attempt to frighten the people of Jerusalem into rebellion against Hezekiah he not only insults Hezekiah and his small army, but he insults the God Hezekiah serves. This situation is filled with military, political, and historical elements but we read the story from a spiritual viewpoint. Earlier Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, yielded to Assyria and even installed a new altar at the Temple modeled on one used for idol worship in Damascus. When Hezekiah comes to power he not only refuses to pay tribute, but he gets rid of that altar and all the shrines and altars to the pagan gods. Even when he agrees to resume paying tribute to Sennacherib, his removal of the pagan altar is seen as a refusal to be the lap dog to Sennacherib. Because of that, the insults by Rabshaketh focus on God Jehovah. Now, Hezekiah faces absolute destruction from the giant Assyrian army. He turns to the man of God, Isaiah, asking for prayer and direction. He thinks that perhaps God will take up his cause, especially in light of the way Rabshaketh has insulted the Almighty. Facing the impossible, he turns to the One who specializes in doing the impossible. And, he isn’t disappointed.
Take Away: We don’t want to make enemies but to, instead, live in peace with all people. However, if we have to make enemies, let’s make them for the right reasons.
Put that altar right back where you found it
2Kings 16: The old bronze Altar that signaled the presence of God he displaced from its central place.
The march of the kings of Israel and Judah continues as I read through this book of Kings. A few get passing marks, although no one earns an “A.” Most, though, are viewed as failures. Ahaz of Judah is singled out as an example of major failure. We’re told that he put his own son to death in a pagan “passing through the fire” ritual. When the country is under attack he never considers calling out to God. Instead, he pays the king of Assyria a “king’s ransom” to rescue him from his enemies. Much of the payment comes from stripping the Temple of its gold and silver. Once the war is over, Ahaz visits his new master in Damascus. The altar of pagan worship there really impresses him, so he has a copy of it made. He moves off to the side the old Altar that has served for many generations as the place for sacrificing to the Lord God and replaces it with his “new and improved version.” Of course, this isn’t told in praise of Ahaz. Instead, it’s told as an example of his spiritual failure. Today, I am not thinking so much about replacing the old church pews with new chairs or even replacing the old altars (mourner’s benches) with something more modern. Rather, I’m thinking that there are some basic elements to our relationship with the Lord that can’t be “upgraded.” Consider, for instance, the spiritual basic of prayer. It’s irreplaceable. We talk a lot about the importance of prayer and for good reason; it’s as central to spiritual life as is breathing to physical life. It’s not that big of a deal to change the type of songs we sing to something more modern, or to add some new technology to assist in worship. However, it’s a big deal to downgrade the importance of a spiritual discipline like prayer or the reading of the Word. We mustn’t push these fundamentals off to the side to make room for some new worship “innovation.”
Take Away: Be sure to keep central things central.
Praying when in pain
1Kings 19: Elijah, what are you doing here?
More than a month has passed since Elijah fled Jezebel and asked God to take his life. During this time the angel of the Lord has ministered to him and he’s traveled 40 days across the wilderness to Horeb which is the mountain range that includes Sinai where Moses met God and was given the Law. In other words, Elijah has retreated to holy ground. Here, even as Moses encountered God, Elijah has an encounter of his own. This meeting though, starts very differently. For Moses, there were earthquakes and thick smoke. For Elijah, things start with God asking him a question, “So, Elijah, what are you doing here?” With that, Elijah begins to state his discouragement, loneliness, and fear. The big stuff is still coming but I’m taken with just this today. I know that prayer should generally start with words of worship and reverence. Sometimes, though, we’re so broken and confused that we can hardly bring ourselves to pray at all. Sometimes we have to travel out into the wilderness for a while possibly ending up at some place that’s significant to us. And then, it isn’t us but God who starts a conversation that doesn’t begin with “Our Father who art in heaven” but instead with words of pain. Know what? That’s okay with God. Take note of just who it is that asks the opening question here.
Take Away: Our prayers are going nowhere if they don’t come from an honest heart.
Praying to exhaustion
1Kings 19: When Elijah saw how things were, he ran for dear life.
It’s been a banner day for Elijah, the man of God. First, he challenges the prophets of Baal to a “god-contest” and wins a decisive victory when, as a result of his prayer, fire falls from heaven. The people are now convinced that “the Lord is God.” Then, he turns his attention to the three-year drought. He prevails in prayer and, as a result, the rain comes in a great storm. Finally, empowered by the Spirit of God, Elijah outruns the chariot of Ahab, racing down the mountain into the city. Tell you what, I call that a good day’s work! Ahab arrives home in the midst of the welcome storm, but the news for his Baal-worshipping, God-hating wife Jezebel isn’t good. All because of Elijah Baal has been defeated and his prophets executed. Jezebel never hesitates; she sends word to Elijah that he’ll be next. In a surprising twist, her words terrify Elijah! This is the guy who prayed down fire on the altar and rain from the sky. This is the guy who saw to the execution of hundreds of false prophets. Now, because of the threats of one woman he runs for his life. I’d expect Elijah to just pray down a bit more fire and take care of this wicked woman then and there. Why on earth is Elijah scared witless by Jezebel? I think the answer is that he’s simply out of gas. Intense praying, especially intercession requires of us all our energy. Sometimes prayer is pictured as a tranquil respite from the pressures of life, and, happily, sometimes it is. Still, that’s not always the case. Sometimes prayer is the hardest work we’ll ever do. Such prayer is worth doing in spite of its emotional, spiritual, and even physical price. In this, we’re soldiers in the army of God who have an active, demanding assignment.
Take Away: Prayer can be the most rewarding, exhausting work we’ll ever do.
With Elijah in the school of prayer
1Kings 18: Oh yes, a cloud! But very small….
Revival has come to the famine, drought stricken land of Israel. The people have turned from Baal back to Jehovah God. Now Elijah, God’s man, turns his attention to the drought. He begins to pray for rain. Six times he stops praying and sends his servant to scan the horizon and six times there’s a negative report. Elijah never gives up and continues calling on God to send rain. Then, on his seventh reconnaissance mission, the servant reports a very small cloud rising out over the sea. That’s enough for Elijah. He stops praying and starts preparing for a rainstorm! This incident causes me to think about prayer. I wonder why it is that Elijah could pray one 30-second prayer resulting in fire falling from the sky, but then has to pray seven intense prayers to get rain to fall from the sky. My own prayer life, in much less spectacular ways, is like that. Some prayers are answered quickly and others, after years, are still unanswered. Then, this story reminds me of the power of prayer. Many years later James uses this incident as his example of what happens when just one man prays a fervent prayer. It’s interesting that Elijah doesn’t contact everyone he knows (the country is filled with newly committed followers of God) to ask them to join him in praying for rain. In similar circumstances I might have posted the need on the Internet and fired up the church prayer chain. Instead, Elijah just shoulders the task and starts praying this important prayer. Finally, there’s Elijah’s response to the cloud the “size of a man’s hand.” For me, that would be encouragement to hang in there and keep praying, but for him, it’s answer enough. In this case, his ceasing prayer is more of an act of faith than his continuing in prayer. For those of us who are “prayer learners” this is instructive reading indeed.
Take Away: The prayer of a righteous person avails much.
Centered on God
1Kings 8: May he keep us centered and devoted to him.
Solomon concludes his beautiful prayer of dedication of the new Temple. He then stands to bless the great congregation that has gathered. His words, “may he keep us centered and devoted to him” are important and powerful words in any setting. How we need God’s help in this! There are so many voices calling to us, so many distractions, so many opportunities to turn our hearts from God. If I’m not careful the Lord is pushed from the center of my life to some secondary role. Many things lay claim to “first” in my life. Some of those things are worthy in and of themselves: family, health, relationships. Others are merely pretenders: comfort, entertainment, security. The thing is that when my life is centered on God everything else tends to land in its proper place. That includes both those things that are pretty important and those that only seem to be important. My prayer for myself today is Solomon’s prayer for his people, “May he keep me centered and devoted to him.”
Take Away: When the Lord is at the center of our lives, the throne of our hearts, everything else tends to fall into their proper places.