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.
Listening and honoring
Haggai 1: In listening to Haggai, they honored God.
The drought has everyone worried. If rain doesn’t come soon the resulting famine will bring misery and death. Not only that, but there’s a general dissatisfaction among the returned exiles. Even when they do things that ought to satisfy they’re left feeling empty. Then Haggai brings his sermon. He says that the reason for no rain is that God’s getting their attention. They’re living self-centered lives and have failed to honor him by rebuilding the Temple. He also says that the reason for their general dissatisfaction is that they’ve been looking for satisfaction in the wrong things. Only the Lord can satisfy their lives and they can experience him only by putting him first. At this point the people stand where their ancestors stood many times through the years. Will they listen to the message from God or will they harden their hearts and become more entrenched than ever in their refusal to honor him? Their answer is a resounding decision to obey the voice of the Lord. Where their ancestors failed they succeed. This watershed moment is rewarded with a further message from the Lord who declares, “I am with you!” I love what happens here. As I’ve read through the Prophets I’ve encountered one instance of rebellion after another. How refreshing it is to hear God’s prophet declare God’s message to God’s people and see them listen and obey. It’s almost as though the sun breaks through the clouds to shine down on the words I’m reading. The people of Haggai’s day messed up, but when God got their attention and declared his intentions they responded in humble obedience. Personally, I’d rather not mess up in the first place but when I do, I want their “listening and honoring” to be my inspiration.
Take Away: Better to do it the Lord’s way all along, but if not, it’s good to at least humbly accept his correction and move forward from there.
The lion’s roar
Amos 3: The lion has roared – who isn’t frightened?
Amos is a shepherd and his message is filled with illusions to his livelihood. He talks about birds and cattle and snakes, of shepherds and their unending battle to protect their flock against the predators. Some things, he says, are as plain as the nose on your face and it doesn’t take a genius to recognize them. If one hears a lion growling in pleasure, for instance, you know that it’s killed its prey. This stuff, he explains, is just how it is. Then Amos makes his application. When people rebel against God the Lord will act to remedy the situation. It doesn’t take a degree in theology to know that God won’t put up with sin forever. As a prophet of God, Amos is responsible for speaking God’s message. His sermons aren’t made up fiction or the rants of someone who’s stuck in the past. When you hear a lion roaring nearby the sane reaction is to be frightened. When God’s prophet says God is tired of his people living in rebellion it’s time to straighten up. If the roar of a lion gets our attention, how much more should words of warning from the spokesmen of God.
Take Away: It doesn’t take a degree in theology to understand that when people rebel against God the Lord will act to remedy the situation.
Farther than you want to go
Hosea 4: That whirlwind has them in its clutches.
Hosea’s personal parable soon gives way to his prophecies concerning sinful Israel. The background of his own experience is especially evident in his constant references to the debauchery of Israel and descriptions of God’s disgust with their practices even as he loves them and calls them back. The experience of Hosea with his unfaithful wife is a reflection of all that. In this passage Hosea complains about their idol worshipping, sexually explicit religion. They think promiscuity and drunkenness is their ticket to happiness and satisfaction. Instead, as some wise people have said, “Sin will take you farther than you want to go.” They’re willingly giving themselves to something that won’t satisfy and will ultimately destroy them. What starts out as willful sin (“I can quit anytime I want”) becomes obsession and possession. What they thought they could control now controls them. People start down some foolish path thinking they’re in control. Before long, they’re where they never expected to be and bound by what they never thought could control them.
Take Away: Sin will take you farther than you want to go.
A sad love story
Ezekiel 16: Your beauty went to your head.
This section of Ezekiel isn’t uplifting. It’s graphic and weighty. The sin of Israel is described as adultery. The prophet is a rough and tough guy and his language is hard and attention getting. Ezekiel describes Israel as a baby abandoned at birth, destined to die without ever having a chance at life. Instead, the Lord rescues this pitiful infant and lavishes his love on it. Then the imagery changes as he describes this rescued one as a grown woman, beautiful and loved by the Lord as a devoted husband loves his wife. Ezekiel says that Israel, who should have never even existed, has become vain and disinterested in the God to whom she owes everything. Instead of being faithful to the Lord, though, she’s become an unfaithful harlot. Anyone hearing Ezekiel’s words should be disgusted with such betrayal and sin. None of this is intended to be a pretty picture. Instead, Ezekiel wants us to recoil at what he describes. Today, I’m reminded that my nation is a blessed nation too. In the early days our chances of survival were small, yet we survived by the grace of God. Now we’re a nation many others watch, and many watch with envy. And even as Israel began to take God for granted and rebel against him, so have we. This section of Ezekiel isn’t fun to read but it needs to be allowed to speak to us in this day.
Take Away: It’s a dangerous thing to forget the blessings of the Lord and take them for granted.
A broken yoke (and I’m not talking about eggs here)
Jeremiah 28: You’ve talked the whole country into believing a pack of lies.
The Lord instructs Jeremiah to make a wooden yoke for himself. We don’t see many yokes in our part of the world but they’re still common in many places. A yoke is a device used to harness an animal for the work of pulling something. Jeremiah follows the Lord’s direction and makes a yoke for himself. It’s used as an illustration for his sermons, calling for people to yield to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia and accept his authority. Those who do that will be allowed to live in their own land, although they’ll be under the dominion of Babylon. A competing prophet, Hananiah, has a very different message. “Everything’s going to work out just fine,” he says, “God’s going to rescue us.” When Jeremiah comes around wearing his yoke, Hananiah takes it off of Jeremiah and breaks it to pieces, saying that this symbolizes what’s going to happen to Nebuchadnezzar’s dominion of the region. This, of course, is the message many people want to hear. They want to believe that in spite of their sin and rebellion against the Lord they’re still his favorites. They believe they have the “trump card” of God’s promises to their ancestors Abraham and Moses and David and everything will be okay. Soon Jeremiah returns with a new message. “If you can shrug off a wooden yoke the Lord’s replacing it with an iron one. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.” It’s not smart to mess with God’s symbols.
Take Away: We might be able to shrug off unpleasant messages from the Lord, but doing so will ultimately just make things worse.