Summing up a good man’s life
Nehemiah 13: Remember me, O my God.
As I reach the conclusion of Nehemiah’s story I find myself reflecting on this man’s life. One thing that stands out is his leadership and vision. Even from far off Babylon Nehemiah envisions the great project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He organizes the work and stays on course through all kinds of distractions and discouragements. A second thing that comes to mind is his love for, and trust in, God. Nehemiah isn’t driven by desire for power or to leave some sort of legacy. Instead, his eye is always on the God he serves. Finally, I see the third outstanding thing about Nehemiah. That is his spontaneous prayer life. Nehemiah doesn’t wait until some specified time to pray, although it’s clear that he does honor the scheduled worship times. For him, prayer is like breathing; a natural and necessary part of life. In the final words of his story, written by his own hand, three times he inserts short bursts of prayer, asking for God’s favor in light of his faithfulness. I get the feeling that this is not just for the official record of his work but an example of what it was like to be around Nehemiah. Here’s a man who practices the constant presence of God in his life and it’s not unusual to hear him address the Almighty right in the middle of a conversation. This, I think, is the greatest lesson of all I can learn from this good man.
Take Away: Practice prayer until it becomes as natural for you as is breathing.
With God’s help anything is possible
Nehemiah 2: The God-of-Heaven will make sure we succeed. We’re his servants and we’re going to work, rebuilding.
Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Nehemiah quietly inspects the walls of the city. Well, it might be better said that he inspects the ruins of the city walls. They were demolished decades earlier. He meets with city leaders and proposes that the next big project be rebuilding those walls and gains their enthusiastic support. As word of this project spreads, we meet Nehemiah’s three adversaries: Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. These men are leaders of the area’s non-Jewish residents and they oppose the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. There’s likely a power struggle here. At first, the returning Jews brought welcome capital and man power to the area, but now they threaten to become its dominant residents once again. Nehemiah’s reply to them is that in spite of the overwhelming task before them and even in spite of the opposition of these three men that he’s assured of success. The reason is that he is doing God’s work and that God, Himself, will bring them success. As I hear this declaration of faith from a man standing in the rubble of a city I’m impressed with his absolute trust in God. This isn’t some “pie in the sky” situation; this is real work in the most unlikely of circumstances and with real and powerful opposition. Nehemiah doesn’t think he can rebuild the wall because he’s going to try real hard or because he’s going to outsmart his enemies. He’s going to do it because God’s there to help them. There’s a good lesson here for me in all I attempt to do in the name of the Lord.
Take Away: If it’s up to me the chances of success are nominal. If I’m doing God’s work God’s way, the chances of success are 100 percent.
Putting your money where your mouth is
Ezra 8: I proclaimed a fast there beside the Ahava Canal.
Ezra tells us his own story starting in the middle of chapter 7. His desire to join the returned exiles in Jerusalem is infectious. Several Jewish families are ready to join him in this great adventure. Beyond that, Artaxerxes the king becomes excited about the project and gives Ezra all the support needed for him to go to Jerusalem, to rule there, and to oversee the worship of Jehovah God there. Even people who aren’t relocating to Jerusalem make generous donations. Ezra puts out word that the great caravan will be formed at the Ahava Canal and people begin to gather. At first a few, then more, and then a great flood of people come, all with their families and their belongings. Suddenly Ezra realizes what an undertaking this is. In some ways he’s like Moses about to lead the people to the Promised Land. They have hundreds of miles to travel across sometimes desolate and lawless territory. He knows he ought to ask for a military escort, but can’t bring himself to do that because he’s told Artaxerxes how God’s hand is on his people and how God blesses and protects those who serve him. At this point Ezra decides he must practice what he preaches. Instead of calling for soldiers he calls for a fast. Before beginning this possibly perilous journey, they’ll call on the Name of the Lord asking for his guidance and protection. I think that not only is the king impressed by Ezra’s trust in the Lord, but that God is pleased too. Decades earlier the ancestors of these exiles had turned to military alliances with Egypt and other nations when faced with great danger. Ezra gets this enterprise started on the right foot: he calls on God.
Take Away: Better to have the protection of the Lord than to be surrounded by all the armies of the earth.
2 Chronicles 16: You were foolish to go for human help when you could have had God’s help.
These words are addressed to the man who prayed the wonderful prayer of 1 Chronicles 14. Now 26 years have passed and Asa’s nation is once again threatened. This time, though, he turns to the king of Aram for help, sending a “king’s ransom” to him in exchange for his support in the war. The combined force of Judah and their hired army is victorious and the enemy is defeated. As Asa celebrates this God’s man Hanani shows up. He tells Asa that God’s not pleased with him. In fact, the Lord’s insulted that Asa would trust in Ben-Hadad instead of himself. The consequence will be a series of wars, one round after another. I wonder if I, like Asa, insult the Almighty. Do I turn anywhere but heavenward in dealing with the issues of life? The very same God who saw me through in the past stands ready to see me through the issues of this day. In fact, that’s his preference! The Lord doesn’t say, “When you’ve tried everything else without success, I’ll help you.” Instead, his message is a wonderful word of commitment. He promises that if I call he’ll answer. God doesn’t want to be my last chance. Rather, he wants to be my Partner in every issue of life.
Take Away: Don’t make God your last resource…he wants to be your first.
On the solid rock I stand
1 Chronicles 28: Don’t be anxious or get discouraged. God, my God, is with you in this; he won’t walk off and leave you in the lurch.
The job David is leaving his son is a big one. He must lead Israel and he must build a Temple for the worship of Jehovah God. David wants his son to know that God is utterly dependable. Others will deliberately or accidentally let him down but God remains faithful all the way. With that in mind David wants Solomon to put his weight fully and firmly on his God, and for him to keep it there. That’s good advice to a young man who’s about to become king but it is also good advice for you and for me. Everything and everyone else in life is destined to disappoint us sooner or later. Only the Lord is fully trustworthy. If I look anywhere else, I’ll find plenty of reasons to be anxious and discouraged. In the Lord I find my Rock.
Take Away: We need to pass our faith on to our children – they will need it just as much as we’ve needed it.
There’s a time for simple faith
1 Chronicles 21: I want to know the number.
The story of David’s census of Israel has always been a bit puzzling to me. David is king and it’s certainly reasonable that a king have an idea of the population of his kingdom. After doing some reading about this, I’ve decided that it’s not the census that displeases God. Rather, it’s the purpose of it. Throughout his life David has been delivered by the Lord again and again. This census is designed to count the number of fighting men who are available to him. In other words, rather than trusting God to be his protector, David’s numbering his potential army. When I remember that this is late in David’s life I conclude that this might be an acceptable thing for someone less experienced with God but it’s not acceptable for David. Or put more simply, David’s old enough to know better. God expects us to mature in our relationship with him. For instance, in Matthew 16 Jesus reprimands his disciples for their lack of faith. He tells them that they’ve seen the 5000 and then the 4000 fed and it’s time to for them to get a handle on the fact that God supplies the needs of our lives, both physical and spiritual. As I read the story of David’s census I see that, as a person who’s seen his share of what God can do I’m expected to trust him more, and if I won’t do that, God will be displeased with me.
Take Away: The Lord expects us to grow in our relationship with him – to learn to trust him more – to be more and more secure in our walk with him.
I’ll just trust God anyway.
1 Chronicles 13: God erupted in anger against Uzziah and killed him because he grabbed the Chest.
The death of Uzziah is shocking to me even as it is to David in this passage. They’re doing a good thing, bringing the Chest of God back from obscurity to its rightful place of honor in Jerusalem. Everyone agrees that it’s “the right thing to do.” For transport they go so far as to build a brand new cart and David and others lead the way in a joyful procession. It’s at the threshing floor in Kidon that disaster strikes. The oxen pulling the cart stumble and Uzziah, who is, it seems, somehow involved in the mechanical part of the move reaches out and touches the Ark to steady it. That’s when the shocking thing happens. God strikes Uzziah dead for showing a lack of reverence for this holy object. If you expect me to explain all this away I’m afraid I must disappoint you. Even David who’s right there is frightened by what he’s just seen. He decides to put the Ark in the building there, unwilling to bring it to Jerusalem. It may be that Uzziah didn’t really need to steady the Ark and only used the incident as an excuse to reach out and touch it. After all, everyone knew that the Ark was to be carried with poles so that the Levites who were entrusted with the task wouldn’t ever actually touch it. However, that’s just speculation. Ultimately I’m left with my belief that God’s character is pure love and that he never acts in a way contrary to his character. This situation, like a million others, is beyond me. It’s another of those “I’ll just trust God anyway” situations we find in both the Bible and in our own lives.
Take Away: Happily, our salvation isn’t based on knowledge, but is, rather, based on faith.
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.
2Kings 4: “She said, “Everything’s fine.”
This is a surprisingly powerful story. Elisha the man of God promises a woman from the town of Shunem that she’s going to have a son. The child is born the following year. A few years later the little boy becomes suddenly ill and dies. His grieving mother seeks out Elisha. As she’s coming she encounters the servant of Elisha first. Clearly something’s wrong, but when Gehazi asks her how things are, her reply is “Everything’s fine.” It’s only when she gets to Elisha that she pours out her heart. Elisha goes to the lifeless child and performs a miracle, raising him back to life. While I see that this is another story intended to show me how powerfully God is working in the life of the prophet, I’m drawn to the Shunammite woman. If there’s ever an example of desperate faith it’s here. Her heart is broken as she lays her dead son on the bed. The only thought on her mind is to get to the man of God, the miracle worker who promised the son in the first place. She desperately wants to believe he can make things right, but looking into the face of such loss it’s nearly impossible. Knowing that, she realizes she has to get to Elisha as quickly as possible, and, instinctively, she knows that even saying the words, “my son is dead” will destroy the mustard seed of faith to which she clings. How is it that “it is well” in her life? It’s because she’s holding on to God with her last ounce of spiritual strength. This is miracle-working territory. Without a cross or an empty tomb she believed the impossible. God can do a lot with faith like that.
Take Away: All it takes is faith the size of a mustard seed to see miracles take place.