Some lessons are learned the hard way
Psalm 51: Going through the motions doesn’t please you.
This Psalm probably ranks in the top four or five best known psalms and it comes from the worst event of David’s life. He’s sinned against God in his affair with Bathsheba and then tried to cover it up by engineering the death of her husband. His evil plan never has a chance. All the time God is watching as the whole ugly thing unfolds. God sends his man, Nathan, to confront David and when he repents he writes this psalm as his prayer of confession. Its theme is “God’s loving grace.” David pleads for mercy and forgiveness and asks for a changed heart. There’s no, “I’ll try harder” in his cry to God. He realizes that his greatest need isn’t better performance but that he be made new from the inside out. I think the most powerful insight of the psalm is David’s realization that God isn’t nearly as interested in performance as he is in motivation. The Lord isn’t as interested in our behaving in some proscribed way as he is interested in our hearts. When the heart is right, performance (within human limitations) will follow. Otherwise, performance becomes for us, not a source of righteousness, but a source of pride.
Take Away: A changed heart results in changed behavior.
Not a very pious prayer
Job 11: Should this kind of loose talk be permitted?
When Job finishes responding to Bildad he addresses the Almighty, Himself. His words in chapter 10 are that prayer, but it isn’t a very pious one. Job, in his misery, cries out to God, demanding to know why his life has taken such a terrible turn. He complains that, apparently, he’s accidentally missed some step and is being punished for it even though he has no idea of why. If this is how things are, Job decides, it would be better to never live at all. Zophar, but not God, responds to this prayer of complaint. He’s scandalized; maybe backing away lest the bolt of lightning he’s sure is coming doesn’t hit him too. In his thinking bad things happen to us because we deserve it. This is no time to complain to God, it’s a time to repent and admit wrong doing so God will let up. Listen, Job’s prayer is the right prayer here because it’s his heart’s cry. God doesn’t want to hear us pray little fake prayers that pretend things about ourselves and our relationship with him. He’d rather hear an honest prayer of complaint than a dishonest prayer of contrition. It may be that we Christians have so narrowly defined how prayer should sound that we’ve defused it of much of its power.
Take Away: A dishonest prayer is more posturing than it is praying.
Nehemiah 9: In your great compassion you heard and helped them again.
One result of the reading and study of God’s Word is a powerful reconnection by the returned exiles to their history. Nehemiah 9 is made up mostly of a song written to tell this story. In it, God’s grace and mercy is highlighted. The Lord is good to them, from Abram of Ur to the day when they occupied the Promised Land. However, there’s great spiritual failure as their ancestors reject God and his Law. There’s a lot of repentance in this song, but there’s also great hope. God is still their God and they rely on him to deliver them from their enemies and re-establish them in this place that was promised to Abraham so long ago. This song is not only a song of history but is a hymn of invitation as well. As it ends, the heads of the families are challenged to come forward to sign a binding pledge. From this moment forward they’ll be a faithful people of God. They’re sure of God’s grace, now they commit themselves to that grace. It’s a powerful moment. Without it, the story of Nehemiah is just about rebuilding a wall. With it, we have a story about God rebuilding a people.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his patient, merciful, transforming grace.
From repentance to restoration
Ezra 10: Now get up, Ezra. Take charge – we’re behind you.
The response to Ezra’s prayer of confession is nothing less than transformational. Even as he cries out to God in his brokenness, God speaks to the hearts of those who’ve been in charge as things among the Jews in Jerusalem unraveled. They humbly come to Ezra confessing their sins but also confessing their faith that “all is not lost” and that there’s “still hope for Israel.” Now, all they ask is for Ezra to take charge and help them find their way back to God. That’s just what Ezra does, and the short book that bears his name is concluded with the route to restoration he lays out. Ezra’s broken heart over the sins of the people, including his willingness to embrace their sin as his own, is an incomplete story without this. For me to convince people of their sin and to even join them in confessing that sin as “ours” is a wonderful start. Still, most people need help in moving from repentance to restoration. To assume this role is a great privilege and responsibility.
Take Away: It’s such a privilege to help people find their way to the Lord.
The power of intercessory prayer
Ezra 9: My dear God, I’m so totally ashamed, I can’t bear to face you.
Ezra and his large caravan of returning exiles are very welcome in Jerusalem. However, it’s not long before Ezra learns that there’s a big problem. The Jews already in the area have intermingled with the other peoples of the area to the point of intermarrying. This is a clear violation of the Law of God and Ezra’s devastated by such blatant failure. He came to Jerusalem to teach people who he believed wanted to learn how to worship God. He assumed that they were already the “people of God” and that they only needed someone to teach them how to live as the people of God. Now he finds that they’ve broken the covenant with the Lord in the most basic way by allowing themselves to be absorbed into the cultures around them. Ezra mourns this situation and then begins to pray. Here’s the thing: his prayer isn’t for “them” as much as it’s for “us.” Their sin, in his eyes is shared by all of their people and his prayer is a cooperate prayer. How often do I pray that way? I pray about “those” bad people who are attacking and tearing down moral values in my society and I pray that I might be protected from “those” evil people who would do me and those I love harm. There’s a time and a place for such prayers, but, taking my cue from Ezra, there’s also a place for cooperate confession. Ezra isn’t married a heathen woman, yet he comes to God “totally ashamed” by this breaking of God’s Law. He tells the Lord, “We have thrown your commands to the wind” and confesses that “we” are “openly guilty.” As he prays this prayer of confession others began to weep and repent – others who have actually done the sinning! Here, I think, is the power of genuine intercession. Ezra identifies himself with their sin and then, they identify themselves with his repentance.
Take Away: There’s power in intercessory prayer.
Taking God seriously
2 Chronicles 34: The king stood by his pillar and before God solemnly committed himself to the covenant.
Josiah is just a boy when he’s made king of Judah. He’s a “seasoned” king, 26 years old and with 18 years of leadership under his belt when the Book of God’s Law is brought to him. Instantly, he realizes how much trouble his nation is in. They’ve broken all the laws in the book! The covenant his ancestors made with God had plenty of blessings in it but it had some very serious curses in it as well. Having “broken the law” they’re destined to face the consequences. Josiah, we’re told, takes this message seriously. He immediately prepares to approach God to ask for a stay of execution. His plan is simple: he’ll commit himself to the covenant that was made years earlier and broken repeatedly by the generations that went before him. The Lord’s impressed with Josiah and his people. The curse is put on hold and Josiah rules a total of thirty-one years. I’m taken today with the mercy and patience of the Lord. Think of God being so forgotten that the Temple which is to be the glorious center of worship is, instead, in a near state of ruin. Think of obedience to his laws being so neglected that that the book of the Law is simply “discovered” in those ruins. Then, watch as this young king reads, understands, and pleads with the Lord for mercy. Finally, rejoice as the Lord graciously extends that mercy. No matter how we’ve messed up there’s still hope if we repent and return to this gracious God of Second Chances.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Better late than never
2 Chronicles 33: As he prayed, God was touched.
Manasseh’s father, Hezekiah, made some mistakes, but his leadership of Judah was, by and large, pleasing to God and to his people. Now it’s Manasseh’s turn. He messes up – “royally!” Under his leadership the descendants of Abraham turn back to the idol worship of the past. He even brings disgusting idols right into the Temple his father had so carefully restored. It’s as Manasseh’s doing these stupid things that we find a chilling statement. The Scripture reports: “And God was angry.” Tell you what; if you’re doing your own thing and ignoring God you really don’t want to hear these words! The result is that God allows Assyria to accomplish what they were kept from accomplishing before. Jerusalem falls before this regional power. Manasseh, himself, is led off like a farm animal to distant Babylon, likely destined for execution. To Manasseh it seems that this just might be a good time to pray! Well, to be honest about it, it is way past time for him to pray; but pray he does. He falls on his knees and cries out to God, repenting “totally” of his sins. If one thing you really don’t want to hear about yourself is that “God is angry” the sweetest sound that can fall upon the ear is what we read here: “As he prayed, God was touched.” Manasseh shouldn’t have messed up in the first place. His life would have been vastly better had he been true to the God of his father. However, once he messed up, the next best thing was to pray a prayer of absolute, from-the-heart repentance. Such prayers always touch the heart of God. It’s true for Manasseh. It’s true for you and me.
Take Away: Better to not mess up in the first place, but if you’ve messed up it’s time to pray like you’ve never prayed before.
Doubling down on a losing hand
2 Chronicles 28: If I worship the gods who helped Damascus, those gods just might help me too.
Good king Jotham is laid to rest and his son Ahaz takes over. His years in power are marked by spiritual and national failure and he leads his people into idol worship and detestable practices. Darkness descends as God withdraws his blessings on Judah. Neighboring Damascus betrays Ahaz and grinds Judah into the ground, humiliating it by taking treasures from the Temple. Ahaz, who’s turned his back on Jehovah God, stupidly concludes that the gods of Damascus are preferable to the idols he’s been worshipping. He copies their idols and brings worship of them to Jerusalem. What’s wrong with this guy? He dumps the Lord God and then wonders why he and his nation are no longer blessed. Then, to add insult to injury, rather than return to the God of his father, he decides to try out the gods of Damascus. This guy is begging for judgment and he gets it. The old wisdom is that the first thing to do when one finds himself in a hole is to stop digging. Ahaz doesn’t get it, so when he finds himself in trouble for rejecting God instead of stopping and reconsidering his course of action he doubles down on it making matters doubly worse. The thing is that this is exactly what I see people do today. They ignore God and go their own direction. Then, when things don’t work out instead of repenting and returning to God, they double down and move even farther away from the Lord than they are already. There are a lot of young adults who were raised in the church and know better who keep adding one bad decision on top of another. Sad to say in them Ahaz has lots of company.
Take Away: Adding one minus to other minuses will never get us a “plus” result.
God taking us seriously
2Kings 22: I’m taking you seriously.
The clock is about to run out on Judah as the nation has drifted farther and farther from God. When the boy-king Josiah comes to power things have eroded to the point that even the priests at the Temple don’t know God’s Word to them. As Josiah grows up he wants to do the right thing even though he’s unsure of what the right thing is. Out of respect for God, he decides to renovate the Temple and it’s while that work is being done that Scripture is found. The message is not a pleasant, comforting one. Instead, its words declare the covenant made between God and Josiah’s ancestors. That covenant contains words of blessing but also states, in graphic terms, what will happen if they break that covenant. As Josiah hears these words the seriousness of the situation dawns upon him. He and his people are clearly candidates for the “curse” part of the covenant. He’s heartbroken and he’s frightened. He sends word to a woman of God asking for her intercession. The message she receives from God is both positive and negative. It’s negative in its confirmation that all the curses of the covenant will come true. Simply put, God will keep his word. It’s positive in that God is taking Josiah’s repentance and commitment to the Almighty seriously. Once again the curse is put on hold. As a result, Josiah will rule in peace throughout his life. Even as the Lord takes Josiah seriously he takes me seriously. That doesn’t mean my saying “I’m sorry” will stop events that are already in motion from happening. It does mean that the Lord’s willing to hear and forgive when I call out to him.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
2Kings 13: It didn’t make any difference: They didn’t change their lives.
Jehoahaz takes his father’s place on the throne if Israel but there’s no religious reform. Instead, he continues down the path of God-ignoring idol worship. As happened during the time of the Judges, God allows the enemies of Israel to come in and dominate them. For years the people are miserable in this sorry state of affairs. Finally, Jehoahaz humbly comes to God confessing his sins and the sins of the people. In his mercy, God answers, raising up a warrior who drives the invaders out. Of course, this results in a great revival of Jehovah worship. At least it should have. Without missing a beat they continue their idol worship with hardly a tip of the hat to God. Once again, I see here the mercy and patience of God. No question, he wants to care for us and to bless our lives. Also, there’s the truth that mere human freedom is not the ultimate need of man. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in freedom and thank God for it. However, the greatest need of humanity is not for liberty. Rather, the need is for changed hearts. Otherwise, everything else is just window dressing.
Take Away: Everything else comes up short when compared to the transformation the Lord brings to lives.