Gleanings from the Bible: 2 Kings

Second Kings continues the sorry tale of the decline of the Divided Kingdom, punctuated by a few bright spots in the southern kingdom of Judah and spectacular events surrounding the prophet, Elijah’s successor was Elisha. The schools of prophets seemed to know that Elijah was about to be taken and kept asking Elisha whether he knew. I can’t help smiling over the apparent exasperation of Elisha, “Stop reminding me!” It’s the trouble with godly prophets. They seem to know everything!

Sacrifice To The Gods

I had to think a bit about 3:27, where the battle is going against the king of Moab and in  desperation he offers his first-born son as a burnt offering to the god, Chemosh, on the city wall. The text tells us that as a result, “The fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land.” Some understanding of this seems to be that God was displeased with Israel’s King Ahab in some unspecified way and turned the tide back and/or that Israel were so disgusted by the sacrifice that they retreated. However, I have to say that it doesn’t read that way to me. Perhaps here we have one of those tantalising biblical glimpses into a spirit world where there is war going on, which is somehow linked in places with our physical world (Compare with Daniel’s vision in Daniel 10, especially verse 13). Could it be that the Moabite king’s heinous sacrifice did indeed energise evil in some way as to temporarily turn the tide? I don’t want to suggest that God was somehow overpowered, rather that individual battles, as part of the greater war on evil, may be more complex than we think. There is also an acknowledgment that behind Chemosh is Satan, who is powerful, though ultimately defeated in God’s overall purposes. It’s just a thought!

Naaman And The Servants

The story of the healing of Naaman’s skin disease is a reminder that grace comes without cost. Only the act of obedient response was required. The means by which Naaman receives the message of healing comes through an unnamed young servant girl, Elisha’s servant Gehazi, and Naaman’s own servant. It is still the servants of God who proclaim Good News and it is still God who brings it to effect in the lives of people.

Against The Odds

I like the story in chapter 6. First, Elisha’s statement in the face of impossible odds: “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then, Elisha’s servant enabled to see the hills full of horses and chariots (another glimpse behind the scenes!). Next, the Arameans are struck with blindness and led into their enemy’s capital. You can imagine the look on their faces when they could suddenly see where they were. But here, in contrast to so many other acts of cruelty and revenge in Kings, Elisha recommends an act of grace where they are fed and sent home. “So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory” – the cycle of revenge was broken, at least in the short term. We could do with more of Elisha’s wisdom!

The Purge of Jehu

Jehu is a contrast to Elisha. At one level he carries out a purge of much of the evil of Israel in response to an apparent prophecy from God, but at another (as I heard one speaker express it), he took far for more delight in his task than any sane man should. I note that you could see him coming from a great distance. He drove like a madman! I also note that afterwards he continued worshipping the golden calves that his predecessor, King Jeroboam, had set up. It’s one thing to do the will of God, it’s another matter how you do it.

Exile And The Judgement Of God

Israel’s Exile to Assyria and Judah’s later Exiles to Babylon are clearly explained by the writer and the prophets as the judgement of God…

“All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God… They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before them, as well as the practices that the kings of Israel had introduced…
…They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless” 17:7-8, 15

The catalogue of Judean King Josiah’s reforms is a catalogue of how far Judah had fallen. All the good things King Hezekiah had done were then undone by King Manasseh and the changes that Josiah instigated then unravelled under subsequent kings, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar was complete. Only a poor remnant remained in the Land.

We are usually reluctant to ascribe disasters and world events to the judgement of God. It should be noted that Israel and Judah had pledged a special covenantal relationship with God, which made them especially accountable for their idolatry. All I will add here is that God has revealed himself to the world through the things he has made and particularly through Jesus Christ. To ignore the Creator and his directions for life is to invite trouble at an individual, international and environmental level. The other message of Kings is, however, that when we do turn to God, he brings guidance and deliverance so that people may live in peace and enjoy his goodness in this life and the next.

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Gleanings from the Bible: 1 Kings

As a child I found one of the most impressive Bible stories to be that of Solomon. It taught me from an early age that God’s priorities are not that we should be rich, famous or powerful but that we should be wise and obedient in the things that God has given us to do. From an early age I asked God to make me wise, and I still do. Whether I am or not is for others to judge, but I do know that no matter how wise you may be, it is still all too possible to make atrocious decisions of commission and omission. Current affairs bears this out, as does history, particularly as Solomon’s reign progresses (or should that be, regresses?)

For all his initial good intentions, the ways in which God blessed and prospered him, his great building achievements and his undoubted great wisdom and acquisition of knowledge, Solomon went down the slippery slide into idolatry. It’s not how well you start in life, but how well you finish, for it is at the end of his life that Solomon handed on his legacy to his son, Rehoboam.

Rehoboam’s claim to fame, or rather claim to notoriety, was that instead of consulting God or even listening to the voices of experience, he took the advice of young and inexperienced men, provoked the northern tribes of Israel and caused a split in the kingdom, which set the scene for endless bloodshed, a loss of spiritual identity for the north and ultimate Exile and destruction for all the tribes. What was he thinking?!

Well here is an interesting twist. We read in 12:15, “So the king did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the LORD, to fulfil the word the LORD had spoken to Jeroboam…” which was, “See I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand… I will do this because they have forsaken me and worshipped Ashtoreth… and have not walked in obedience to me.” (11:31, 33). The implication is that God had prompted Rehoboam to cause division in the kingdom as judgement for the idolatry of Solomon and the people before him!

That God should do that doesn’t absolve Rehoboam or Jeroboam from responsibility for causing the split. It would seem that God uses the intrinsic evil in people to bring about his purposes as he does with people’s inclinations for good. ‘Our’ decisions may not always be conscious, but they accord with our inner character. In the Christian sphere, the person who has become a follower of Christ and received the Spirit of God, is born from above. Their spirit is changed and their bias is turned towards God. As they continue in that relationship they will want to do what is right, to obey God, and even though they will sometimes fail spectacularly, sense of guilt and conscience should quickly bring them to repentance. King Jeroboam’s bias went the other way. He is remembered as the one who set the ten northern tribes of Israel on a trajectory of idolatry. No king after him turned the tide “away from the sins of Jeroboam, son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.” (Incidentally, it makes you wonder what sort of a father Nebat may have been.)

The southern kingdom of Judah and Benjamin fared somewhat better with a mixture of good and bad kings, measured not by their power or earthly success, but on the ways in which they led the spiritual life of the country either towards or away from God. The Judean kings (with one queen), beginning with Rehoboam read, evil, evil/good, good, good, evil, evil, evil, good, good, good, good, evil, good, evil, evil, good, evil, evil, evil, evil.

The hero in the North is never the king, but the prophet Elijah (and behind him, God of course). Here are stirring acts of God for desperate times. Drought and rain on command, feeding by ravens, oil and meal that doesn’t run out and then the contest on Mount Carmel with fire from heaven.

It’s well known that it only takes one negative comment to undo a whole string of positives. Jezebel’s threat seems to indicate to Elijah that after all that he has been through and all that God has done, Jezebel continues to control the monarchy and the Baalistic religion of Israel. Elijah wants to die but (as we have noted in a discussion on suffering in the world) he doesn’t see the big picture, only his own bits of the jigsaw, which are looking decidedly dog-eared!

God’s answer to Elijah may help us to hang in when things look bleak and out of control.
It’s basically this…
Elijah, go and anoint the next kings of Aram and Israel, and then your own successor   – and              understand that you are not alone. I have 7000 faithful people in Israel.

God knows what will both cause and allow events to happen. He has taken it all into account. The knowledge encouraged Elijah to continue his given prophetic ministry and to again confront King Ahab.

The last book in the Bible, Revelation, is avoided by many, and yet it has a similar message. “Hang in there. God is in control. He has already won and when history has played out you will see it even more clearly.”      Finish well!

Gleanings from the Bible: 2 Samuel

Following the death of Saul at the end of First Samuel, Second Samuel takes up the reign of David. I used to think that David just took over the throne relatively smoothly but as we read the account we realise that the underlying tensions between the tribes supporting Saul (principally his own tribe, Benjamin) and David’s tribe (Judah), prolonged the process considerably and led to bitter civil war.

It reminds me of what can often happen in parishes that have several church centres. Each one has its own identity and its own powerful identities. The minister may bring unity to the groups and they may cooperate as things go well, but there exists an underlying rivalry rooted in property or status or some long-past fallout. When any stressful situation comes to the parish, usually in the form of change, the cracks between the centres become apparent and old rivalries flourish.

Even with the experience and wisdom of David and his reliance on Yahweh to guide him (2:2ff) we read that “war between the house of Saul and the house of David lasted a long time” (3:1). It took a weakened house of Saul and the realisation that at least David was dealing honourably towards them (3:36) to bring about a unified kingdom. Later, towards the end of Solomon’s reign and with Rehoboam’s distinct stupidity, tribal divisions would surface again, leading to permanent disruption.

Aber’s (Saul’s general) reality check to Joab (David’s general) continues to be relevant to warring nations, churches and families to this day,

“Must the sword devour forever? Don’t you realise that this will end in bitterness? How long before you order your men to stop pursuing their fellow Israelites?”  (2:26)

So it is chapter five before David rules all Israel and he mostly does it well. Most notably, he doesn’t rush into action without asking God first (5:19). God is pleased with him and makes a covenant promise that he will always have a successor on the throne, a promise fulfilled in his descendent, Jesus Christ (Christ or Christos, is of course the Greek for the Hebrew, ‘Messiah’ meaning ‘Anointed One’ or ‘King’).

David is commended because he sought God’s will and approval not because he was perfect. He would listen to wise advice but during his life he shed much blood, could be vengeful, made some poor decisions without consulting God and committed adultery and murder. Not a pretty picture!

A superficial reading of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and arrangement for Uriah to be killed in battle, may give the impression that David got off fairly lightly. After all we wouldn’t allow leaders to continue with that record would we? (Well maybe some would. We’ve seen leaders get away with some appalling deeds unchecked, haven’t we?)

As you read on you realise the dire consequences of David’s actions and the serious judgements God brings on him. Yes, he continues as king, but it all seems to go downhill from there. The child dies, Amnon rapes Tamar, Absalom kills Amnon. And David, perhaps diminished by his own sin, seems unable to mete out firm justice, thus enabling revenge and anarchy within his family. Absalom’s conspiracy seems to demoralise David further. This once decisive man of action cannot deal with Shimei throwing stones and dirt at him as he flees Jerusalem (16:5-14) and defers to the decisions of others (18:4). It is his general, Joab, who becomes the de facto leader in this period, calling David to order for neglecting those who fought for him during the coup.

And yet David returns to the throne. He still seeks God and he recognises his failure.

As we seek to learn from history it may be possible for church leaders who have erred to be restored to ministry at a later time, but cheap repentance won’t do. There is always a cost involved.

Let’s not take away from David his noble acts, his faith in God, and his recognition of his own sin. He is a towering figure in Israel’s history and the uniting of the nation. But let us also learn from his failures and not use them as an excuse for our own.

Gleanings from the Bible: 1 Samuel

 First Samuel has always struck me as a bit of a Boys’ Own Adventure story. From God speaking to the boy, Samuel in the night; the wayward sons of Eli and his untimely death and David and Goliath and the cat and mouse pursuit of Saul after David – a sort of 3000 year old version of a car chase sequence.

Despite Samuel’s objections to Israel appointing a king, you get the impression that it wasn’t altogether a bad thing. Yes, God had raised up deliverers in the time of the Judges (of whom Samuel is really the last) to unite Israel against their enemies. But the threat had grown (mainly from the Philistines) and a king could not only create a standing army but also ensure the spiritual direction of the nation (after all we’ve noted that a recurring observation in Judges was that there was no king and everyone did as they saw fit). Now of course the quality of the nation would depend very much on the quality of the king, and Saul wasn’t a great start. It was just as well that Samuel was still around. He was obviously the real leader, under Yahweh, when it came to spiritual direction.

Perhaps the real problem was the reason they Israel gave in her request for a king – “Then we will be like all the other nations…” (8:20). The laws given to Israel had made it clear that they were not to be like other nations. But Israel’s focus was more on winning battles than seeking the spiritual unity of the nation. It’s a cautionary tale for Christians today, who are set apart as a ‘holy nation’, to not forget where our identity and security truly lies!

The question of evil

Saul failed to set God’s priorities firmly in place. He was successful in the military field but failed as a leader of God’s people to the extent that he lost control of himself as well. 16:14 inserts that interesting and challenging comment, “Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him”

What it cannot mean is that God instigates evil. I think what it does indicate is that God is seen as being in control of everything. Nothing can happen unless he allows it. He is the one who gives life and existence. At the same time God does appear to allow evil spirits, suffering and the results of our own bad choices. It may also be convincingly argued that God can and does overrule our choices when it suits him to do so (I note for example that Cyrus was moved by God to allow the Jews to return from Exile. I know that I and others have found ourselves in places and at times, which we have not knowingly chosen, but which have ‘coincidentally’ fitted in remarkably with what turned out to be the will of God and in specific answer to someone’s prayer.)

Someone reading this may now be asking, “Well, if God controls even the evil spirits, why doesn’t he stop all the evil in the world? Why does he allow bad things to happen to good people?” There are many aspects in the answer to that question and I mention them briefly as I understand them.

The first is that God knows the big picture of life. We may only hold a few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and they don’t always make sense to us. The book of Job is the reference here.

Secondly, there are no good people in the world. We sometimes like to think we are but the biblical message is that all have fallen short of God’s standards. Without the forgiveness offered through the death of Christ on the cross, we all stand condemned.

Thirdly, the Bible assures us that God deals justly even though we may not understand it at the time. Sometimes we get to understand in hindsight but not always (I was once witness to the illness and slow decline of a child with a brain tumour. I didn’t understand why it should happen but I discovered from the child’s mother that she had witnessed the figure of Jesus talking with her daughter – a fact that the daughter confirmed with, “Mum, I told you that Jesus comes and talks to me!” In the midst of suffering Jesus was present. The girl later died without fear or regret. She was longing to be with Jesus.)

Fourthly, our relationship with God through Jesus Christ is more important than physical life.

And finally, God will indeed put everything right. The Bible promises a day when justice will be done and all wrongs righted. In the meantime God is giving us the time and opportunity to turn to Christ, to receive his Spirit and to allow a transformation to take place in our lives as children of God.

Saul followed his own instincts instead of God’s word to him. The evil spirit appears to have been a result of Saul’s own waywardness as well as an active judgement by God on him.

David emerges differently. He trusts God, usually enquires of God before he acts, and believes the promises of God – in particular that he would be king without forcing the issue and taking Saul’s life when he had opportunity. God blesses and preserves David’s life (despite his failures) and he becomes the greatest earthly king in Israel’s history.

Gleanings from the Bible: Ruth

What a relief and contrast it is to read Ruth after the relentless chaos and evil of Judges. Naomi, Ruth and Boaz stand out as people of character and wholesomeness.

Naomi, Orpah and Ruth are all widowed in the land of Moab. Naomi returns to Bethlehem and Moabites, Orpah and Ruth, are faced with a choice as to whether they too will return or stay in their native country. Ruth’s selflessness and love for her mother-in-law contrasts with Orpah’s desire for her own family. Ruth goes to Bethlehem and remarries, finds family and security and becomes the Great Grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus Christ. Orpah disappears into obscurity, remembered now only as the one who did what she thought was best for herself. Ruth’s faithfulness and dedication endures in those famous words, Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (1:16)

I like that in today’s world, where men are so often portrayed as incompetent, devious, irresponsible, juvenile and simply idiotic, we can read the story of Boaz, a kinsman-redeemer, who takes his family responsibility seriously and acts as a real man should, in providing for Ruth and Naomi. He contrasts with the other man, who had first responsibility towards Ruth but chose to protect his own property instead. He disappeared, unnamed, into obscurity along with Orpah. It’s not that they were especially bad people, but perhaps they could have been great people.

The witnesses to the interchange between Boaz and the other kinsman pray a blessing on Boaz and Ruth:-

 Then the elders and all the people at the gate said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the family of Israel. May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. Through the offspring the Lord gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”   (4:11-12)

… and it was, and even more so!

Gleanings from the Bible: Judges

Judges graphically presents the results of succeeding generations turning their backs on God. The repeated cycle includes judgement by invasion from neighbouring nations, Israel crying out to God, God raising up a charismatic leader to unite Israel against the enemy, victory at God’s hand, peace, and then falling away from God again. The period is summed up in 17:6, “In those days Israel had no king, everyone did as they saw fit.”

What is portrayed here, then, is not just judgement by warfare but the moral degeneracy that comes to a nation without God. There are repeated acts of extreme violence. The acts of Samson (for example) and the land-grab by the Danites (note 18:6 where the priest states that the venture has God’s approval but this is implicitly countered by 18:27ff, which elicits sympathy for a people who had lived in defenceless peace and goes on to state that the Danites immediately set up an idol in their new land). Next follows the taudry tale of the Levite and his concubine with echoes of Sodom and Gomorrah, where no-one comes out looking well. Civil war is the result with great losses on both sides, after which the keeping of a vow is seen by the Israelites as more important than the seizing of the virgins from a neighbouring city state while putting everyone else to the sword.

With this sad account Judges ends with a repeat of 17:6, “Everyone did as they saw fit.”

Judges presents an era crying out for some law and order. At one level it seems to be justifying the appointment of a king. But we know that that was no guarantee of peace and good morality, for many of the future kings led the people astray into all sorts of vile practices. No, Judges clearly shows us what happens when people abandon God and do whatever they want.

A warning for today?

As we look around the world we see many western nations still living off their Christian heritage and values (which is not to claim that they have always been lived out those values well). Today those nations are gradually becoming more secular and increasingly Christianity is being openly ignored, rejected or even vilified. When God’s law is rejected and people cease to seek God, then laws will change to accommodate popular opinion (often governed by those with the loudest voice in the media) and people will generally do as they see fit. In our western world individuality, my choice, self, and ‘what’s-in-it-for-me?’ are the catch-cries of a generation. Yet, as a buffer against decline, there are still many Christians regularly praying to God for their governments, children and grandchildren.

But what happens if the children turn their back on God? Who will pray for their children and grandchildren in the future? I believe that our society has not declined further simply because God, in the background, continues to respond to the prayers of Christian people (Judges 2:10ff). Unfortunately the fact of this decline will not be seen until it is too late and only by people who are able to compare their present to the way things were. (An unfortunate tendency here is for a society generally to be like the old ‘frog in the kettle’ where the heat increases so gradually that the frog doesn’t realise it until it’s too late.)

But cast your eyes beyond the western nations. See where godlessness reigns and law and order has broken down. See what happens when doing what you see fit prevails! Countries live in chaos and corruption as individuals seek what is best for themselves. And even more troubling, who can say they are wrong? Are they not merely following their inbuilt tendency towards the survival of the fittest?

After all, if the Creator is removed and the whole of life has just come about by chance, then there is no meaning to aspire to and the only guide to right and wrong is what generally works to bring about a reasonably happy community. But then again, who cares about the happiness of others (except for the people I like) if I can be strong or deceitful and get my own way?

History is strewn with the bodies of the victims of this philosophy. The book of Judges has sounded out fair warning for future generations, as had the words of Moses and Joshua before. Tragically it would seem that each generation would rather learn from its own experience.

Gleanings from the Bible: Joshua

Christians have drawn on military metaphors through the ages. Paul exhorts us to put on the “whole armour of God” and writes of the struggle against the “powers of this dark world” in Ephesians. Jesus promised persecution to his followers. Revelation graphically portrays spiritual war. And writers have penned such hymns as, “Onward Christian soldiers.” It would seem that, contrary to some teaching abroad in the world, the Christian life was not meant to be easy!

It is no surprise then, that Christians have often found personal spiritual challenge and encouragement in the words of the book of Joshua.

The Christian, fearfully embarking on a course that he or she knows to be right and ordained by God, has often read four times with renewed hope, “Be strong and very courageous” (1:6, 1:7, 1:9, 1:18) with the affirmation, “for Yahweh your God will be with you wherever you go.”

However, there is a condition to success before God and that is obedience to God’s law including his local, individual instructions to Joshua. Failure to obey incurs disaster and defeat at Ai and deception by the Gibeonites, where the writer notes, “but they did not inquire of Yahweh” (9:14).

The imperative to obey God also forms the challenge to Christian living as it did to those settling into the conquered Promised Land.

Joshua’s stirring words ring across the centuries…

 “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” 24:14-15

Other Notes

Joshua is an anglicised form of the Hebrew word for “Saviour”. It is also translated into Greek as “Yesus,” from which we get, “Jesus.” So Jesus could have been known as Joshua Ben Joseph. As Galilee had a large number of Greek speakers and Greek being the universal language of its day, perhaps he was also referred to as Yesus? Anyway the point is that it is possible to make spiritual links between Joshua, the successor of Moses and Jesus, both delivering God’s people to the Land of “Rest,” the first physical, the latter spiritual.

Joshua had a “Moses Experience” (5:13-15) which is intended to confirm that the mantle of leadership had indeed passed to him.

Rahab is an example of one who threw in her lot with Israel and found mercy. It is notable that she becomes an ancestor of King David and Jesus Christ.

It was not wholly unusual for the Jordan to dry up, with land slippages blocking the river upstream. The account is couched to parallel the crossing of the Red Sea by Moses, and the timing is what gives it significance as an affirmation by God of his presence with them. The stopping of the Sun is understood literally by some (ie there were extra hours of daylight) and poetically by others (ie the sun remained cool enough for the battle to continue) though the writer certainly portrays the occurrence as well out of the ordinary and an intervention by God.