Gleanings from the Bible: Psalms 77, 79, 80 and 84

Psalm 77: When God is Invisible.

Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters
though your footprints were not seen.

What do you do when you are in distress and you are crying out for help, but God does not seem to be there?

You do what the writer of this psalm did. To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand. I will remember the deeds of the LORD.

Yes, he remembered what God had done in the past, just as in the old hymn, Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done. You look back in the Scriptures and see how God delivered Israel; you notice the difference prayer makes to your day; you recall remarkable stories of God work in the lives of contemporary people; you observe how wonderfully you are made and the delicate balance of life in all its amazing complexity; you look at the stars and vastness of space, and you recognise the handiwork of God in it all, even though you do not see him physically.

This is why it is so important to, tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD (Psalm 78:4). Teaching God’s dealings with humanity so that our children and grandchildren may learn from history.

Psalm 79: The Nations, For Blessing or Curse.

O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance.

The Bible makes it abundantly clear that God’s people were blessed by God so that they could be a blessing to the nations, by revealing God to them. Their failure to do so and their descent into idolatry meant that instead of the nations coming to Jerusalem to hear about God, they came as invaders! This judgement on disobedient people is a predominant story in the Hebrew Scriptures (The Old Testament). But it should surely stand as a warning to Christians living today. We are commanded to take the gospel to all nations (Matthew 28).

Psalm 80: Restore us!

Restore us , God Almighty,
Make your face shine on us,
that we may be saved.

This refrain pleads over the desolation of Israel. It reminds us that when people pray to God Almighty then there is the expectation of change and new beginnings. It has been noted that the more recent great religious revivals, which swept through the people of God and transformed the communities in which they lived, began with people praying faithfully and fervently, sometimes over long periods of time. When you hear the accounts you can’t help but be inspired, but will you be inspired enough to commit to dedicated prayer for the revival of yourself and your own community?

Psalm 84:  God’s Presence vs The World.

I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

I have watched enough crime and action shows, true and fictitious, to know that the wicked, even when they are rich and powerful, are not to be envied!  They are never satisfied and while their lives may seem to be fleetingly exciting, they are most often filled with stress and conflict. Our world, with all its labour saving devices, seems to have paradoxically increased in the pace of life. We are saturated with information. People binge-watch, binge drink and apparently need to have city venues open most of the night to feel that they are getting the most out of life. I’m not saying that it is all “wicked” but where is the inner peace of being at one with our Creator, of experiencing his presence? Even in the action movies it seems that, beyond the mayhem of the main plot, a peaceful or resolved existence is the final goal. In today’s world though too many people seem to be stuck in the chaos. Better a menial job and a quiet life, walking with God, than a frantic existence which is going nowhere fast.

Gleanings from the Bible: Psalms 52, 57 and 65

Psalm 52: The Fool and Atheism

The fool says in his heart, There is no God.

It does not logically follow that every atheist is a fool or that all fools say there is no God. However the atheist position forms a foundational supposition on which that person’s worldview is then built. Life is analysed and ethical boundaries drawn through the lens of “There is no God.” Convinced atheists will admit that there is no meaning to life. There is no greater power who has given humans purpose. Life is an accident.

Of course atheists must then construct their own moral code and this usually arises from a utilitarian view of life. Basically they ascribe to what seems to work best for relationships and for the survival of our species. It assumes that the species is worth preserving but, because there is no overarching purpose, will easily accommodate such things as late-term abortion and euthanasia.

Because good relationships are deduced from what actually appears to work it may open up the position to the influences and whims of the majority, especially amongst unthinking atheists. Societal influences offer a strong incentive to get along with the crowd. New generations take different perspectives and it is often difficult to analyse those perspectives objectively from the inside of any generation.

Of course it may be objected that Christians take different positions on moral issues. It seems to me, though, that this largely occurs between those who hold to Scripture as God-inspired and those who do not, but who cherry-pick what they want to believe. In other words the atheist and the liberal Christian, both have moral codes, but the ultimate authority behind those positions lies within themselves.

The psalmist here links the fool, who says there is no God, who fails to seek God, with corruption. Unthinking atheists will eventually realise that if there are no consequences and no meaning to the way they live, then they might as well live for themselves (and isn’t self-interest what advertising in the media tends to promote?). Why should they live for others unless it benefits them, now. After all, there is nothing to look forward to after this life.

The psalmist also sees godless fools being overwhelmed with dread. Without God there is no refuge, no back up, no guidance. You are on your own.

The psalmist however does seek God. He calls out to him and finds strength and comfort. He delights in God’s law and follows his paths. In King David’s case, in particular, this was a known way and God had not failed him (55:16 & 22, 56:4 etc).

Psalm 57: The Chief Purpose of Humanity

I was recently challenged about my prayer life. Too much of what I pray for is related to myself and those I know. While it is important to pray for such things, I must not forget that the world needs to know about God. The Westminster Catechism asks…

     What is the chief end of man?

And answers…

     Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.

That is worth sharing. In fact Jesus’ Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 commands it! Israel’s purpose was to proclaim God’s glory, and the author of this psalm says…

      I will praise you, Lord, among the nations
I will sing of you among the peoples.

We are blessed by God in order to be a blessing to others (See Psalm 67 especially)

So I must pray more, for the nations to hear and respond to the message. To pray for people to be sent out. To pray for those who are already out there.  And to pray for opportunities to share the Good News wherever I am.

Psalm 65: Abundance

There are many examples of beautiful poetry in the Psalms. This is but one short passage that illustrates the overflowing abundance of knowing God and living in his ways…

 You care for the land and water it;
you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
to provide the people with grain,
for so you have ordained it.
10 You drench its furrows and level its ridges;
you soften it with showers and bless its crops.
11 You crown the year with your bounty,
and your carts overflow with abundance.
12 The grasslands of the wilderness overflow;
the hills are clothed with gladness.
13 The meadows are covered with flocks
and the valleys are mantled with grain;
they shout for joy and sing.

Gleanings from the Bible: Psalms 41, 42, 47, 49, 50 and 51.

Psalm 41: The Weak

“Blessed are those who have regard for the weak”

It’s one of those recurring themes; that God cares for the poor, the oppressed and the outcast and that he expects his people to do the same. Jesus mixed with and came to the aid of such, Micah wrote, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8.) and the ever-practical James states in his letter, Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (1:27)

It’s easy to de-emphasise the outworking of our faith if we only think about seeing people “saved” (important though that is!).

Psalm 42: The Suffering

      My tears have been my food
      day and night,
      while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

This is reminiscent of Job’s situation. In the face of disappointment, bereavement, disaster and human failure, victims and observers alike often ask the same question. The situation can either bring out the best in people or it can destroy their faith. The Psalmist finds solace in the refrain of verses 5 and 11 and 43:5…

      Why are you cast down, O my soul,
      and why are you disquieted within me?
      Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
      my help  and my God

Psalm 47: Awesomeness

For the LORD Most High is awesome.

It occurs to me that the word “awesome” has become so devalued in modern speech along with other superlatives such as “absolutely”. We can become desensitised to the intensity of meaning incorporated in the words.

During religious revivals it is reported that the presence of God was so evident that people hid under the church pews. The revelation of God as “the great king over all the earth… seated on his holy throne” commands utmost awe and respect. In the laidback worship which may only treat God as our best friend (not necessarily a bad thing), let’s not become so familiar that we forget how great he is and how small we are. Such knowledge should not of course continue to make us cower in fear but lift us up to praise with the Psalmist…

Sing praises to God, sing praises;
      sing praises to our King, sing praises.
      For God is the King of all the earth;
sing to him a psalm of praise.

Psalm 49: Resurrection

Some people doubt whether the idea of the resurrection of the dead is evident in the Old Testament. Certainly the Sadducees even in Jesus’ day didn’t believe in it. This psalm does seem to hint at it though. Consider this…

the ransom for a life is costly,
      no payment is ever enough—
      so that they should live on forever
      and not see decay.

Although that could refer just to this life, the following seems to go beyond. The context is speaking of the wealthy who reject God…

Their tombs will remain their houses for ever…
This is the fate of those who trust in themselves…

Their forms will decay in the grave,
far from their princely mansions.
But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead;
he will surely take me to himself.

The message here is; Don’t be jealous of the wealthy. They can’t take it with them. Nothing matters in the end but your relationship to the God who can raise you up.

Psalm 50: No Bull

      I have no need for a bull from your stall

At the heart of our relationship with God is our faithfulness to his Covenant with us. In New Testament (New Covenant) terms this is established through the life, death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ for our sins. It is entered into through placing our faith in Christ. In the words of the Baptismal/Confirmation rites of many Christian denominations, “I turn to Christ. I repent of my sins.”

In the Psalmist’s day and before, the Covenant was sealed with a sacrifice, but a sacrifice without a heart of faith and a willingness to obey God was, and is, empty ritual. Both Testaments of the Bible confirm as the writer does here…

      Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
      “Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
      fulfill your vows to the Most High,
and call on me in the day of trouble;
      I will deliver you,
and you will honour me.”

Psalm 51: Broken

David’s psalm of repentance echoes Psalm 50.

      You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it…
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise

From brokenness, comes forgiveness and from forgiveness comes praise and joy and the ability to teach others God’s ways (verses 12, 13, 15).

Gleanings from the Bible: Job

I am so glad that the book of Job is included in the Bible for a number of reasons.

It is great literature.
It helps people understand why there is suffering and how to deal with it.
It warns us not to jump to conclusions about those who do suffer.
It provides an example of faith in the face of suffering.
It helps us to get our relationship to God in perspective.

GREAT LITERATURE

The book of Job is part of a body of Wisdom Literature, which falls outside of the timeline of the biblical plan of salvation for all the nations. Job has a literary structure, which sets the scene and then open up into a dialogue between Job and his “Comforters” (who actually offer no comfort at all!) God speaks into the situation and the writer adds a conclusion. The dialogue is in moving poetic form, which, if it is impressive in English must be even more so in the Hebrew.

It strikes me that if students and educators could get past the paranoia about it being religious writing and appreciate it for its literary merit, it could be more regularly  included in curricula at high schools and universities. In fact the Bible as a whole is rich in its structure, storylines, allegories, allusions, idioms and vocabulary. It has contributed in often unrecognised ways to our language and common wisdom and has been regularly mined for its plots even in modern films and TV programs. In short, it is integrated into our culture, and for the better!

SUFFERING

Through the replies given by Job’s friends the book of Job answers part of the question about why people suffer. Their arguments amount to this:  All people have done something wrong and Job is suffering because he has sinned against God and needs to confess it. They are, of course, right that suffering exists because of sin, but the story makes it plain from the start that Job is a very righteous man and is suffering in spite of it. He is not suffering because he has sinned!

The reader already knows why Job is suffering. It’s something going on in heaven between God and Satan, but Job doesn’t know – and never finds out! It is at this point that faith is called for, both in Job and in the our contemporary world, where people suffer inexplicably.

Now saying, “We don’t know why you are suffering but you just have to trust God,” may sound both glib and a cop-out. But when you read God’s address to Job in chapters 38-41 and let the truth of it sink in, you cannot help but realise that the Creator knows immeasurably more than we do, and has the complete trillion-piece jigsaw of humanity, as we stand puzzling over a handful of pieces. There will, inevitably, be parts of that puzzle that we could not understand, even if they were explained to us. (I should note at this point that the reason given – almost a wager between God and Satan – would to me be most unsatisfactory if I were Job and God had explained it to me. It is why I think that this is just an example, serving the purpose to illustrate that we don’t know much of what goes on in the spirit world, as it affects our physical world.)

A WARNING

Too often we can be like Job’s friends, looking for someone to blame for why people suffer. Indeed sin may, alongside other explanations, be the reason. But the story of Job prompts caution. We cannot always know the real reason and should not jump to conclusions.

AN EXAMPLE OF FAITH

In the extremities of suffering Job is not entirely without fault. He is accused of discrediting God’s justice (40:8) and he admits to speaking of things he didn’t understand (40:3), but they were not the causes of his suffering. Job never turns his back on God. He never gives away his faith. He persists and argues and challenges God to front up and at least present the charges. He continues to engage with God, even while God appears to be totally absent!

In a world where many abandon their faith, blaming God, when something goes badly wrong, the story of Job informs and challenges us to hang in there.

But it’s not a blind faith. In fact blind faith is somewhat foolish. Faith depends on knowledge of the person in whom you place your faith and an understanding that they are indeed trustworthy. God has not left us without evidence of his character and faithfulness both in the things he has made and in the revelation of his dealings with humankind throughout history, recorded in the Scriptures. God has revealed himself most clearly in Jesus Christ, and his love for humanity is demonstrated in Jesus’ death on the cross for the sins of the World. It is the weight of this witness and the evidence in the lives of believers through the centuries, which provide the foundation for entrusting ourselves to the God who is trustworthy.

GETTING GOD IN PERSPECTIVE

To be true to the text of Job it would be better to consider ourselves in perspective. The thrust of Job’s and God’s statements lead us to see that God is so unimaginably great that he is unchallengeable.  His knowledge, wisdom and insight, his power and creativity leave us looking very, very small by comparison. I think of this when I hear people railing at God for one thing or another, confident that they have somehow, through their own philosophy, reduced The Creator to a figment of the imagination or at best a morally inferior failure. The book of Job teaches that we know hardly anything. And in fact scientists today tend to concur (to date we’ve only explored about 5% of the oceans and Caleb Scharf in an article called ‘This is what we don’t know about the Universe’ -Scientific American, 4th March 2014,- concluded, There’s an awful lot we don’t know (far more than just the examples here). But the point is not to get despondent, because this ignorance is a beautiful thing. It’s what ultimately drives science, and it’s what makes the universe truly awe-inspiring. After the hundreds of thousands of years that Homo sapiens has loped around, the cosmos can still elude our fidgety, inquisitive minds, easily outracing our considerable imaginations. How wonderful.

Wonderful indeed!

Gleanings from the Bible: Esther

Esther must be the most entertaining book in the Bible. It has it all: intrigue, conflict, racism, courage, irony, dark humour, coincidence and even a little gore (for those who like that sort of thing), all set against the background of the Persian Empire, during the Exile of the Jews from their homeland. I can imagine it being performed as an onstage melodrama. Cheers as Esther and Mordecai enter and boos for the evil Haman.

The overall purpose of the book seems to lie in explaining how the Jewish Festival of Purim came into being but it has often been noted that nowhere is God explicitly  mentioned. At the same time there is a request for fasting and throughout the coincidences are so remarkable that we should obviously understand that God is at work engineering events in the background.

There are films about Esther, but I recommend reading the book in one sitting. I’m not going to recount the whole story here, but there are some highlights which I must mention.

The first is Queen Vashti’s refusal to be at the beck and call of her husband, Xerxes. Could this be an early form of women’s lib unwittingly serving God’s purpose to have Esther in the right place at the right time?

Then there is the challenge of Mordecai as he enlists Esther’s help in approaching the king: “… and who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Would that we could all find the purpose God has for our lives and have the courage to follow it. Using our gifts for others rather than simply basking in the blessings that have come our way.

The third highlight is simply the delight in seeing events escalate and unravel to reveal the villain and see him get his just desserts.

Finally, when Haman’s edict was overturned and the Jews were given permission to defend themselves and plunder their enemies, the author notes, almost in passing, that many people of other nationalities became Jews. As you would!

As we admire the strength and courage of Esther and Mordecai, we also acknowledge that, as in the rest of the Bible, it is God who is the ultimate hero. As ever, he gives courage, turns the hearts of kings and weaves a rich tapestry of events that reveal his constant faithfulness and love for those who will rely on him.  

Gleanings from the Bible: Nehemiah

Great things seem to happen when people pray! Nehemiah, on hearing of the devastation of Jerusalem, and mindful of the failings of his people, set himself to fast and pray that God would remember their plight. When the Persian King, Artaxerxes then noticed the sadness of Nehemiah his cup-bearer, he asked, “What do you want?” Nehemiah prayed again, but presumably silently, with his eyes open – what is often referred to as an “arrow prayer” – I prayed to the God of heaven and answered the king. The amazing result was that the king facilitated Nehemiah’s journey to Jerusalem and the repair of the walls.

GOD WORKS plus HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY

Clearly you see in Nehemiah two sides of achieving God’s plans for his people. There is the work that God does, often behind the scenes in influencing and inspiring the hearts and minds of people. Then there is the work that the people themselves do. They also have a responsibility. So consider that, in the face of local opposition, the building progressed well, for the people worked with all their heart (4:6).

In a similar way, consider…
But we prayed to our God
and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat (4:9)

            Remember the Lord who is great and awesome
and fight for your families…  (4:14)

            Our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot
and that God had frustrated it
we all returned…each to our own work. (4:15)

It’s rather like the relationship between faith and works outlined in James’ New Testament letter.

MORE THAN BRICKS AND MORTAR

Rebuilding the walls was only part of Nehemiah’s task. Providing for the poor was another and rebuilding the people’s knowledge of God and his ways was paramount to a redeveloping and healthy society.

As a teacher, it’s music to my ears to hear that Ezra and the Levites read to the people from the law, making it clear and giving the meaning , so that people understood what was being read (8:8)…  …then the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words (8:12). Day by day Ezra continued to read from the Scriptures, and in chapter nine we read of an assembly at which there was repentance, an acknowledgement of all that God had done and corporate confession of the past failure of the nation. This in turn led to a re-confirmation of the Covenant vows!

We should never underestimate the value of faithfully expounding the Scriptures and the effect that has on the lives of people and even in the direction of whole nations!

Gleanings from the Bible: Ezra

You would think that Ezra and Nehemiah should really be towards the end of our Old Testament as they cover the return of the Jews from Exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. The scene is being set for the incarnation of Jesus Christ, albeit about five hundred years before the Nativity.

THE MIRACLE OF THE RETURN

The thing that stands out most is that the Return was a remarkable event. That the Persian king, Cyrus, would allow the Jews to go and rebuild the walls of their city is unusual. That he and his successors would actually help to finance the venture, acknowledging the “God of heaven”, is quite miraculous. It’s no wonder that Ezra records, Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honour to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favour to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials.” (8:27-28). It’s another reminder that God is King over all nations, that he controls their fate and that his mercy continues to extend to his people, despite their past failures. While we think of history being shaped by kings, politicians and wars (and perhaps currently by multi-national corporations), the witness of Scripture is that Yahweh is the mover and shaker who will encompass the good and bad decisions of all people into his overall plans for humanity.

THE DIFFICULTY OF DIVORCE

I found it hard to come to terms with Ezra sending away foreign wives and their children (See chapters 9 and following). It seems harsh against today’s social background and particularly when you try to imagine what it must have been like in their place. Was this a pre-pharisaical sort of response, which the coming of Jesus would change? An exclusiveness which he would challenge, as he often commended the foreigners of faith and finally commanded his disciples to take the gospel to all nations?

I had to remind myself that once again the Jews were at a precarious stage of regrouping and re-establishing all they had lost seventy years earlier. It would still be all too easy to fall back into idolatry, and there were still hundreds of years to go before the Christ would arrive on the scene. A lot can happen in that time – and it did!

Another point is that Ezra is claiming that the Jewish men should not have entered into these marriages in the first place. Today the application of this principle has less to do with race but as much to do with faith. I have had occasion in the past, based on New Testament Scripture, to warn Christian young people to be wary of who they became romantically involved with. Marrying an unbeliever has too often marked the ending of their relationship with God through Jesus Christ. At the very least it has made commitment to God’s work more difficult as one person is pulling in a different direction or not pulling at all. I’ve seen it happen too many times and heart-breaking though it may sometimes be I believe that God honours and blesses those who put him first as they seek a partner.

OT RESPONSE vs NT RESPONSE

I note here that to the New Testament Church Paul advises those who converted to Christianity, and were already married to an unbelieving partner, should not seek a separation. There was a chance that the partner could be converted through the witness of the Christian (1 Corinthians 7).

So what had changed between the people of God prior to Christ and those after? Why didn’t Paul insist that Christians divorce unbelievers as Ezra had done with the returning Jews?

There are probably other reasons but the one that stands out for me is that the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit created a generally stronger people spiritually. No longer held together by ritual observance, nor motivated by legal observance, Christians were in a New Covenant relationship, motivated by the Spirit from the heart. Those born of the Spirit had a new, natural bias towards God. The Kingdom of God was always a reality, but with the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, God’s Kingdom had come with power into the lives of all who truly responded with faith.

BACK TO EZRA

On re-reading Ezra I also realised that the business of sending away wives and children was not a hasty decision enacted over a weekend. There were actually one hundred and ten cases and they were dealt with by an investigative committee over seventy-five days with the names recorded. I can only trust that provision was made for all concerned under such difficult circumstances!

Gleanings from the Bible: 1 & 2 Chronicles

I can’t say that I relished reading 1 and 2 Chronicles at first, especially after completing 1 and 2 Kings. Chronicles covers much the same ground as Kings, but only deals with the Southern Kingdom (Judah) and is an abbreviated, sometimes sanitised, version of events, with the achievements of the good kings highlighted. Add to that copious genealogies and lists of people who occupied various positions in 1 Chronicles and you have an apparent recipe for tedium.

You can see why it was important though. Chronicles are the last books in the Hebrew Bible and were written for the Exiles returning to Judah. The books provided a who’s who of those who belonged and what they did. It helped to link the history of Israel prior to Exile to the returning remnant resettling the Land afterwards. Like many explorations into ancestry today Chronicles answered the question, “Who do you think you are? But also, “Why did the Exile happen to us?” and “Where do I belong now?”

WHY SAUL FAILED

Amongst all this there are still many instructive gems, such as the reasons why Saul failed as a leader (1 Chronicles 10:13). He was unfaithful, did not keep the word of the Lord, consulted a medium for guidance and did not inquire of the LORD. The last point contrasts with the success of David, who constantly inquired of the LORD (Yahweh) (1 Chronicles 14:10, 14. But also see 15:13).

CONSULTATIVE LEADERSHIP AND THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE

In 1 Chronicles 13:1-4 we see an example of David’s leadership. Over the movement of the Ark of the Covenant David conferred with each of his officers, then approached the whole assembly of Israel and said, “If it seems good to you and if it is the will of the LORD our God… let us bring the ark of our God back to us.” Sometimes we try to impose what we think is the will of God on people who are not ready to move. You remember that Samuel was reluctant to bow to the will of the people and grant them a king, but God allowed it even though the people’s will demonstrated a lack of faith in God’s power to deliver them. Ideally, of course, the people’s will and God’s will are in tune but if people are not on board it is usually counterproductive to force the issue. Willing cooperation is most often the way to go (Compare with Acts 15:28).

SACRIFICIAL GIVING

I think that David has the principle of sacrificial giving right when he said…
“…I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing.” (1 Chronicles 21:24)

MINISTRY OF PROPHECY

In 1 Chronicles 25 prophesying is accompanied by harps. It would seem that here at least prophecy had to do with praise and worship of God rather than messages from God. Presumably it is identified as prophecy because it is (intensely) inspired worship. It can probably be compared to 1 Samuel 10:5-7. (On singing see also 2 Chronicles 20:21)

SEARCHING FOR GOD

The Bible often assures us that those who seek God will find him. It is David’s advice to Solomon (1 Chronicles 28:9-10) and is preceded by the exhortation to acknowledge God and follow his commandments. Many people claim that they cannot see evidence of God and I wonder if they give up too easily, or whether they have, in waiting for him to post a sign, not really moved in God’s direction. Patience and perseverance are a hard lesson to learn in a society where instant gratification is the everyday experience, yet I think they are necessary in building a solid relational foundation.

2 Chronicles 7:14 outlines some conditions in seeking answers to prayer… humble yourself, pray and seek God’s face, turn from your wicked ways. And what will God do? He will hear, forgive, and heal the Land. (See also 2 Chronicles 15:15)

Incidentally I love the reference in 2 Chronicles 20:21, where Jehoshaphat, vastly outnumbered by his enemies, says, “We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

THE TEMPLE

The Bible asserts that God is not limited to a building, but the Temple did provide a ritualised place to meet with God via the priesthood. Prayer then was directed towards the Temple, (and during the Exile, in the direction of Jerusalem)(2 Chronicles 6:21). It is the way in which ritual should function to ideally enable people to focus their spiritual life and worship on God. In the New Testament we read that Christians are indwelt by the Spirit of God, that both the gathered Christian community and the individual Christian are temples of God (1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19), places where others may meet with God — and therefore a profound responsibility!

It is interesting that at the very end of 2 Chronicles, the end of the Hebrew Bible, has the Gentile King, Cyrus, declaring, “The LORD (Yahweh), the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah…”

God’s purposes are never ultimately thwarted! All people fall within his purposes.

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.

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!