Sunday, January 31, 2010

Who Can Say To Him, “What Are You Doing?” No. 6

As we saw with Samson in the last article, God can take even sinful actions and use them to accomplish His purposes and deliver His people from whoever, or whatever, oppresses them. While Sampson’s example is, I believe, an exceptional one, there is a story that is more familiar to all of us and it creates some special problems of its own.

5. Pharaoh and his hard heart. The slavery and exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt under Moses is certainly one of the most well known events in the Bible. Moses’ birth, his education under Egyptian tutelage, his flight from Egypt, his return, the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea—a wonderful account. Read the first half of the book of Exodus if you need to review. I won’t take the time to do so in this brief article.

The key for my purpose here is Pharaoh, the stubborn Egyptian monarch who refused to let Israel go until God finally, in effect, beat him to a pulp. It’s not terribly surprising that Pharaoh wouldn’t allow the Israelites to leave; they were providing him a massive amount of work—virtually free labor, all he had to do was feed them. Plus, he had a multitude of his own gods and Jehovah wasn’t one of them. And, further, Pharaoh, to the Egyptian people, was a god, so in effect, this was a contest between which god was more powerful—Israel’s or Egypt’s. We know who won.

God used Pharaoh for His objective, of course. “But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth,” (Exodus 9:17, a passage quoted by Paul in Romans 9:16). The Bible often says that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” although it also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and this appears to be the way it was eventually understood. I Samuel 6:6 quotes some Philistine priests who say, “Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts?” But we need to examine Pharaoh’s heart, because it does present an interesting dilemma.

Did God directly harden Pharaoh’s heart, so much so that Pharaoh could not do anything about it? That is, did Jehovah rob the Egyptian king of his freedom of choice? If God directly hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then the monarch lost his will to choose. This would be against every Scripture in the Bible which indicates that man does have control over his decisions. From Genesis 2, when God first speaks to man, to Revelation 22, the last chapter in the Bible, man is told by the Lord what he must do, thus implying humans have a choice in the matter. Indeed, Joshua 24:15 is explicit: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” Did God take this power and right away from Pharaoh, in effect denying the king moral freedom? Did God force Pharaoh to disobey Him? Well, do recall that the text does say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart—if I counted correctly, six times the Bible says God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and three times—not counting the I Samuel passage above—we read that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. I believe it is important to ask how God hardened the king’s heart. When God acted directly by sending a plague, then Pharaoh’s heart actually softened and he was going to let Israel have some freedom of action. But when God removed the plague, Pharaoh’s heart turned hard again. It appears that God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart by ceasing His miraculous interventions. And I think that’s why the Bible could accurately say both things, i.e., that God hardened his heart, but that Pharaoh hardened his own. I do not believe that God compelled a hard heart on the king. Again, that would have denied Pharaoh freedom of choice, something nowhere else taught or implied in the Bible. God, as we noted with the Assyrians, is simply using an already wicked individual (or nation) to accomplish a mighty purpose of His own.

But there remains a serious difficulty and that is found in Romans 9, and I must get a few verses before us: “For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion." So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth." Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?" But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, "Why have you made me like this?" Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?” (vs. 15-21). This is the sugar-stick passage of those who believe in predestination, that is, God determines everything that happens and humans have no freedom of choice at all. If everything we do is predetermined by God, and thus we cannot act differently than we do, then, indeed, “why does He still find fault?” It doesn’t seem that God can very justly blame us for doing things we have no control over. “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” It does sound a bit like, “Well, if you don’t like what God’s doing, that’s tough. He’s God. What are you going to do about it?” Not much…

It’s a difficult passage, but I do not believe Paul is teaching determination here, that is, that we have no freedom of choice. The context (always crucial) of Romans 9 is that God selected (or “elected”) the Jews, and no other people, to be His chosen people. That was simply a choice God made—and again, “Who can say to Him, ‘what are you doing?’” Was it unfair of God to select Jacob and not Esau, the Jews and not some other people? No, because it was a selection, not to salvation, but to bring His law, and eventually, the Christ into the world. By choosing the Jewish nation to do this, God did not rob the Gentiles of their moral freedom to opt for righteousness over wickedness. It is imperative to keep in mind that Paul is not talking about freedom of moral choice in Romans 9; he’s discussing God’s purpose in how mankind would be saved—through whom that would happen. That’s God’s decision and no one can accuse Him of injustice. Indeed, we should all be grateful that He gave us a chance for salvation, period. He didn’t have to.

Now, there are other matters here that do need consideration. Some things we simply do not have control over. For example, we cannot choose the time and place of our birth, the color of our skin, certain genetic traits we might have; those are beyond our management, and it could conceivably be suggested that “the potter” has formed us in ways that are beyond our ability to select. But again, this has nothing to do with salvation. Pharaoh could not help being born in Egypt, of the royal family. He was king, and he really had no choice in the matter. But did that mean he had to disobey God? No. It is certainly understandable that, at first, he would have grave misunderstandings due to his ignorance of Jehovah. But after awhile, there was no excuse. Pharaoh refused to submit to God until God forced him into submission—not by a deliberate manipulation of Pharaoh’s heart, but through His miraculous activity in the plagues. God did know what kind of man Pharaoh was, just like God knew what kind of man Sampson was, and what kind of people the Assyrians were (Isaiah 10, second article in this series). And Jehovah, in His infinite wisdom, can take what is there, can take what we are, and use it for His own objectives—the potter and the clay. If we do not honor and obey Him, that’s our fault; and if He uses us in that condition, then…”who can say to Him, ‘what are you doing?’” This whole series of lessons has been designed to help us understand that we will not always understand how God works in this world. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). Quit…trying…to figure…God…out. You aren’t going to do it. Your finite mind is incapable of comprehending His infinite ways. “The just shall live by his faith,” (Habakkuk 2:4). Our job is to trust our heavenly Father and then let Him take care of matters that are beyond our ability to control or understand.

Pharaoh was a wicked man and he was so by his own choice. God found him that way, and used him. Pharaoh certainly never intended for Jehovah to use him; but He did. We’d be wiser to freely place ourselves at God’s disposal rather than rebel against Him and have Him utilize us that way. Remember, “our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases,” (Psalm 115:3). And there isn’t a thing in the world we can do about that.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Who Can Say To Him, “What Are You Doing?” No. 5

The next two points, which I will consider in separate articles, are somewhat similar, but there are enough differences to divide them. If you have not done so, please read the previous four articles in this series in order to get a full understanding.

4. Samson—“it was of the Lord.” The strong man Samson is one of the most famous characters of the Bible, and he was a great man, being included in the “roll call of faith” in Hebrews 11. But from reading the material in the Biblical book of Judges about him, we realize that the Lord knew him a lot better than we do; and, of course, we have very little information about him, relative to his entire life. But, from what we do have, we see that this man was a gambler, liar, murderer, thief, fornicator—and those were his good traits—but he killed a lot of Philistines and judged Israel for 20 years. And obviously well enough that the Lord considered him a faithful man. Again, as noted in an earlier article on “David and Bathsheba,” it is very comforting to see God’s patience with godly people who could act very, very wickedly.

In the first anecdote we have about Samson in the Bible (Judges 14:1-3), he sins, and not one of those I recounted in the paragraph above. He sees a Philistine woman, and Samson demands his father get her for him for a wife. His father protested, but Samson was insistent: “She pleases me well.” Now, that is in flagrant disobedience to Deuteronomy 7:3 where the Lord commanded the children of Israel, regarding the idolatrous Gentile people of Canaan, “Nor shall you make marriages with them.” But here is the key thought for this article. It’s found in verse 4 of Judges 14: “But his father and mother did not know that it was of the Lord…” The verse subsequently says “He [God] was seeking an occasion to move against the Philistines. For at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.” So Jehovah will use Samson to strike against the Philistines, a wicked nation in their own right who had been oppressing His people. And Samson will certainly do a good job smiting the Philistines, although it will cost him his own life in the end when he couldn’t control himself around another woman. This guy had a female weakness deluxe, but, of course, he’s not the only man in history of whom that could be said.

Now, what’s the point? Notice again: Samson sins by marrying a pagan woman, yet “it was of the Lord.” Did God want Samson to sin? No, of course not, God never wants anyone to sin. But in His inexplicable, incomprehensible wisdom and might, God can even use sin to accomplish His purposes! I find that just short of amazing. In principle, I suppose, we’ve already seen this with the Assyrians—God employed this wicked people to do His bidding against Israel, but Assyria certainly had no righteous motive in mind (Isaiah 10, see the second article in this series). Yet we have it clearly stated here in Judges 14 that Samson’s marriage was “of the Lord”—again, not approved by Jehovah, but an act which, in His unfathomable and humanly inconceivable providence, He could use for the good of His people. The mind, wisdom, thoughts of God…again, “Who can say to Him, What are You doing?” Reader, please don’t try to understand; just stand in awe at the remarkable judgments of the Almighty.

I do trust the reader will not draw the conclusion, “Well, since God can use sin for good, I think I’ll go ahead and do it.” Such is obviously not the point of this article; again, God never wants us to sin. But the mind of God is so expansive and wise that it can take something that is even against His will and do what He wants to with it. Gentle reader, you aren’t going to defeat Him; “He does whatever He pleases,” (Psalm 115:3). Sometimes, as noted in the third article of this series, it pleases Him to answer our prayers in the affirmative; sometimes not. Sometimes we humans deliberately (or, at times, through weakness) seek NOT to please Him; Samson apparently didn’t care what God thought about him marrying a pagan woman: “she pleases ME well.” And God let him do it. Because it pleased Him well to punish the Philistines, to accomplish a purpose of His own, and Samson was the one through whom He was going to do it, sin or no sin. Amazing.

“Who can say to Him, What in the world are You doing?”…and I mean that only in the sense of scratching my head in awe at the wondrous works of God.

We shall see another example of this in our next lesson, one perhaps even more complicated and mind-bending than God’s use of Samson’s sin.

Who Can Say To Him, “What Are You Doing?” No. 4

I have four more Scriptural accounts I want to look at in this series, but I’m going to do it in four separate articles to keep them a bit shorter than the earlier posts. Before the last treatise on prayer, point one was Habakkuk, and point two was the Assyrians. We pick up from there.

3. Joel’s locusts. We don’t know exactly when Joel prophesied; fairly early, I believe, for a reason I shall duly note. But the context of his prophesy was a devastating locust plague: “What the chewing locust left, the swarming locust has eaten; what the swarming locust left, the crawling locust has eaten; and what the crawling locust left, the consuming locust has eaten,” (1:4—that’s the New King James Version translation. The exact identity of each of those little critters is uncertain.). The reader is perhaps aware of the devastation that locusts could cause in Middle Eastern societies; they ate everything and thus a severe famine always followed. “The field is wasted, the land mourns; for the grain is ruined, the new wine is dried up, the oil fails,” (v. 10). It was catastrophic.

And it was deliberately sent by God: “My great army which I sent among you” (2:25). This natural calamity was a warning from the Almighty, and the purpose was to encourage repentance: "Now, therefore,’" says the LORD, Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm,” (2:12-13). And herein lies the reason I believe this book is written earlier than most of the prophets (Isaiah, for example, wrote in the late 8th century B.C.; Joel wrote much earlier). In Joel, God sends the locust plague as a warning. Israel did not heed. So, the Lord then punished them more severely with captivity, which is the theme of Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and the later prophets. God gives us plenty of chances—and reminders—to repent. If we don’t heed those admonitions, it isn’t His fault when disaster overtakes us.

Now let’s consider an important thought in line with the overall theme of this series—“What are you doing, God?” Does He send natural disasters upon peoples and nations to warn and punish them? Well, yes, He does, that’s exactly what Joel said. But, are ALL natural disasters warnings and punishments to those specific people? For example, was the recent ravaging earthquake in Haiti sent by God, or simply allowed by God? That question I cannot answer; it is here we must be very careful in dealing with the mind and purposes of Jehovah. Was God punishing the Haitians? They do have some wicked, heathen practices down there. But why the Haitians and not Las Vegas? No idea. And again, I am not saying that the earthquake in Haiti was “God’s army,” as the locust plague in Joel’s day was. But I can say this: it would be a very good idea if we learned the lesson that natural disasters can happen anytime, anywhere and that we’d do well to always be prepared to meet God. We are not going to get out of this life alive; something will get us some day, whether it be catastrophe or illness, war or famine, or whatever. This world is not our home, and let Haiti—and Joel—instruct us that God is trying to get us to think about our relationship with Him, and get our lives right as quickly as possible. Perhaps a natural disaster is a warning from God, or a punishment from God; there’s no way of knowing. But, either way, it should remind us of the brevity of life, and the certainty of judgment. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment,” (Hebrews 9:27).

“What are you doing, God?” “I’m trying to get you to heaven,” would be His response. And if we don’t learn the lessons He’s trying to teach—through the Bible and events in our lives—then we have no one to blame but ourselves if we are separated from Him for eternity.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Who Can Say To Him, “What Are You Doing?” No. 3

Stoic Fatalism or Does Prayer Really Influence God?

If the reader has not already read the first two articles in this series, then I would strongly suggest you do so or understanding this one might be difficult. The point I’ve been trying to make in those first two articles is regarding the infinite wisdom and mind of God and that there is simply no way human beings can ever fully comprehend what Jehovah is doing or why He does it. "’For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,’ says the LORD. "’For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9). The finite has no hope of understanding the infinite.  "Who can say to Him, 'What are you doing?'" (Job 9:12).

But that’s not the same thing as fatalism, i.e., that things are going to happen the way they are going to happen and there is nothing we humans can do about it. I’ve had people say to me, “Well, if God is going to do what He wants to anyway, then why bother praying?” Imagine the following dialogue:

Satan: So, Mark, you want God to get rid of your depression, right?

Mark: Yes, of course, I do.

Satan: And you’ve prayed about it, but it hasn’t gone away yet, has it?

Mark: Well, no, but God works in His own time.

Satan: But if God works in His own time, and in His own way, when and where He wants to, then why are you bothering praying about it?

Hmmm. Satan sure is a sneaky devil, isn’t he.

Now, not understanding God’s ways and times is not the same as Him not being influenced by prayer. But it is a matter that I think does merit some consideration lest some fall into a fatalistic trap described by “Satan” in the dialogue above.

So, why pray? Let me briefly suggest a few reasons and then analyze a few fascinating passages of Scripture on the subject.

1. Why pray? Because the Bible tells us to. Frankly, I could end the article right here. God telling us to do something is sufficient reason to do it, and we don’t need to understand any more than that. The mistake humans too often make is wanting to understand why God commands X, Y, Z. But…isn’t a main purpose of this series to argue that we don’t need to, and certainly won’t always, understand why God does what He does? “Pray without ceasing,” (I Thessalonians 5:17). That’s really the only reason we need. So if you are bored with this article, then you can stop here and you’ve all the explanation you need on why to pray.

But if you are interested, then read on and I shall analyze a little farther.

2. Prayer teaches us dependence on God. Very necessary. Folks, prayer is not an information session for God; we aren’t telling Him something He doesn’t already know. Mark: “God, I sure would like for you to end this depression I’m going through.” God: “Oh, you would? Well, I didn’t know that…” No. Men need to be humble, contrite, and recognize their need for Jehovah to provide certain blessings, especially the most important ones like forgiveness of sins. That doesn’t come without asking, and we won’t ask unless we are humble and recognize our need for forgiveness and other blessings. We humans learn from prayer, not God.

3. Prayer and God’s providence. Ok, God will work in His own time, and do what He knows needs to be done. Sounds fatalistic again. But perhaps prayer is involved in that. Mark: “Well, if God is going to get rid of my depression when He wants to and not when I want Him to, then I’m not even going to bother asking Him.” God: “Mark, if you’d ask Me, I’d get rid of it in three months. Since you aren’t going to ask, I’m not going to get rid of it for three years.” Now, very important. I have absolutely no idea if that is the way God works or not. But I don’t know that He doesn’t work that way, either. He’s told me to pray, and from certain passages of Scripture we can gather that our prayers do influence His actions and decisions. Let’s look at some.

Matthew 7:7-8—“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” The words “ask, seek, and knock” in the original Greek are present tense verbs, meaning continuous action. In other words, Jesus is saying, “Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking.” Be persistent in prayer.

This idea, I believe, is taught even better in Luke 18:1-5—“Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: ‘There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, “Get justice for me from my adversary.” And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, “Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.”’” Now the point of this parable is stated in verse one: “that men always ought to pray and not lose heart.” God is not unjust, like the judge in the parable. What Jesus is trying to teach is, keep asking, be persistent, and eventually you may get what you ask for. I don’t think the idea is we ought to badger and pester God like the widow in the parable; we must always be respectful and reverent of Him. But Jesus does teach not to give up if you don’t get the answer you want the first time you ask. And the obvious import is that God will, somehow, some way, at some time, answer our prayer.

One last point about this parable in Luke 18:  If an unrighteous judge will give justice because he's being badgered and pestered, how much more will a righteous, loving Judge give what is right to those whom He loves when they humbly, reverently petition Him?  But...don't lose heart if the answer doesn't come immediately. 

Now, I love this next one. A real brain teaser. James 5:17-18—“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.” What’s going on here? Did Elijah want a drought because he was trying to wreak vengeance on some people he didn’t like in Israel, and God said, “Well, ok, Elijah, if that’s what you want, I’ll give it to you.” Or did God have the drought in mind anyway, and Elijah’s prayer simply harmonized with God’s intentions? Perhaps the best explanation would be Jehovah intending to punish wicked Israel and Elijah's prayer being part of that providential scheme.  But I Kings 17, where the story is found, doesn't say that. I really haven’t the foggiest, although I don’t buy the first suggestion, that we can use prayer for acts of personal retribution; I was being a little facetious when I put it forth. I’m clueless on the mind of God on this one, as far as His rationale goes.  He thought it was a good idea, and it happened. And I can say for sure that there was a correlation between A and B—Elijah’s prayer and the 42 month drought. James 5:16 says, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Exactly what went on in the mind of God in relation to Elijah’s prayer and the drought I know not; but I do know that prayer had some part to play in the matter. But, again, let’s don’t try to figure out exactly what God was thinking. Or why. That will be a failure every time.

One more section of Scripture, and this is one that definitely indicates God can be moved to act in our behalf directly because of prayer. It’s found in I Samuel 1. The passage is too long to directly quote, so let me just sum it up briefly. A godly woman named Hannah was barren and she wanted a child. She prayed to God, asking for a son, and saying that if He would answer her prayer, she would dedicate the child to His service. Verse 19 says, “The Lord remembered her,” and the next year, she bore a son, Samuel. She kept her promise to God, and of course, Samuel became one of the great men of the Bible.

Now, some thoughts. Would God have given Hannah a son—Samuel—had she not prayed about it? The implication is very strong in the text that He would not have, that Samuel was a direct answer to Hannah’s prayer. Well, but if Hannah hadn’t prayed, and thus God could not answer, then Samuel would never have been born. This exceptional godly man would have never graced the people of Israel—and us. What would have happened? I don’t know, of course, the question is moot, but we must realize that God could have raised someone else other than Samuel to do what he did. God is not limited by our prayers, that’s for sure. And if Hannah hadn’t prayed, and Samuel hadn’t been born…well, number one, we would never know it. But two, and more importantly, God could have worked in other ways to accomplish His purposes. In this case, a godly woman prays, God is moved to answer that prayer, and the world is better off because of it. Hannah, as she was praying, had no idea if God would answer her affirmatively or not. But He did. And the same can be said for our prayers. “Ask…seek…knock…” We don’t know how God will answer; we just know He wants us to ask and not lose heart when we don’t get an immediate answer. Believe me, I’ve been asking God to mitigate my depression for a long time. It hasn’t gotten noticeably better yet, but I’m not going to quit asking, either.   At times I'm afraid I am badgering Him...

Sometimes, of course, when we ask for something, the answer is simply “no,” just as when we asked our earthly fathers for things and often were denied. God is—usually--not going to give us something that isn’t good for us; hang on and I’ll explain the “usually” before I finish. I ask God, “Lord, make me a gazillionaire.” Um, probably not. Only the United States government can print that much money; I doubt even God could do it (forgive me, Lord…). So there are limitations to what God will give us and we need to accept the fact that sometimes we might just be asking for something that’s either not good for us, or that God simply doesn’t want us to have. But ask…seek…knock…He told us to do it, so He cannot condemn us for doing so.

The “usually” of the paragraph above? Psalm 106:15, regarding the fickle, ungrateful children of Israel in the wilderness: “And He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul.” Do watch out what you pray for. You might get it and end up in a huge mess.

I have, obviously, not exhausted the subject of prayer, I’ve simply tried to harmonize it somewhat with the first two articles in this series. No, we don’t know exactly what God is doing or when He intends to do it; but that doesn’t mean we cannot make our requests known to Him (Philippians 4:6) and trust His excellent, loving judgment. “The just shall live by his faith.”

Samson, locusts, Pharaoh, and Joseph coming up in subsequent lessons in this series. Stay tuned.

Who Can Say to Him, “What Are You Doing?” No. 2

God’s ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9), and it is important that we give that truth due consideration. Humans have very finite knowledge—very finite—and God’s wisdom is infinite. Think what it took to create everything in the universe—all the minutiae in the microscopic world, etc. etc. And think of the wisdom it takes to providentially oversee six and a half billion people every day. Reader, don’t be terribly surprised if you don’t always, or EVER, understand what God is doing in this world, or in your own life.

The Bible provides plenty of examples of God working in mysterious ways—mysterious to us. I’d like to provide several examples in this series of studies, based upon a verse in Job 9:12, “Who can say to Him, 'What are You doing?'”

1. Habakkuk’s enigma. We rob ourselves, literally rob ourselves, of spiritual treasure by our failure to study the Old Testament prophets. I’m seriously considering starting another blog, just to analyze those writings (anyone interested?). Habakkuk’s book is small, only three chapters, but very rich. He wrote in the late 7th century B.C. (that would be from 620-600 or so). He was a godly man and he was greatly distressed with the wickedness he saw around him in Judah. And he complained to God about it in verses 2-4 of chapter one. In effect, “Lord, how long are you going to put up with this wickedness?” A lot of us are asking the same thing about America today.

God replies in verses 5-11, telling the prophet that He is about to do something: “For indeed I am raising up the Chaldeans, A bitter and hasty nation which marches through the breadth of the earth, to possess dwelling places that are not theirs.” The “Chaldeans” are another name for the Babylonians, who, near the end of the 7th century, invaded Judah and began to haul the people off into 70 years of Babylonian captivity. In 586, Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, and razed the city itself. This is all recorded in other locations in the Old Testament. So, punishment, in the form of invasion, destruction, and captivity by the Babylonians, was indeed forthcoming upon Judah.

But this didn’t solve Habakkuk’s dilemma at all. It didn’t make sense to him. In verse 13, he said to God, “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness. Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, and hold Your tongue when the wicked devours a person more righteous than he?” In other words, “Now, wait a minute, Lord. We’re bad, but we’re not as bad as those people. How can you use a people, Babylon, who are more ungodly than we are to punish us?” It would be like some devout person in America asking God when He was going to punish the wickedness of, say, Nashville, Tennessee. And God responding, “I’m fixing to, I’m going to send San Francisco on them.”

This didn’t compute to Habakkuk, and it doesn’t compute to us. The Babylonians were in worse need of divine wrath than Judah was. How could God use Babylon for such a mission? And that’s what Habakkuk asked Jehovah.

And the answer? Habakkuk 2:4—“the just shall live by his faith.” In other words, “Habakkuk, you let Me take care of it. You don’t have to understand, your duty is just to trust Me.” God does go on to tell the prophet in that chapter that the Babylonians will surely be punished in the end, but for the moment, God’s plan is to use them in divine retribution on His people. It may be incomprehensible to us, but again, our job is to trust God whether we understand what He is doing or not. He knows what He is doing, and thus, “The LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him” (2:20).

The prophecy of Habakkuk ends with, to me, one of the most beautiful doxologies anywhere in the Bible: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (3:17-18). It doesn’t matter what happens, Habakkuk had learned his lesson—He will trust in the God of his salvation.

2. The ignorant Assyrians. About 120 or so before Habakkuk wrote, Isaiah told of the coming destruction on the northern kingdom of Israel by the then great empire, Assyria. In one sense it’s almost comical to read what the prophet writes in Isaiah 10:5-7: “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger and the staff in whose hand is My indignation. I will send him against an ungodly nation, and against the people of My wrath I will give him charge, to seize the spoil, to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. Yet he does not mean so, nor does his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy, and cut off not a few nations.” Notice, Assyria is the “rod of [God’s] anger,” Assyria’s “staff” is God’s indignation. Again, God is using a foreign power to punish His people (Isaiah, unlike Habakkuk, doesn’t question it). But what’s interesting here is that Assyria didn’t even KNOW God was using her (no doubt Babylon didn’t, either). Verse 7: “Yet he (Assyria) does not mean so, nor does his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy.” All Assyria wanted to do was plunder, kill, rape, expand its empire; those people had no idea that God was using them for His own purposes. Folks, we just don’t know what God is doing, when He is going to do it, or why He does things a certain way. We do know that God is just, that sin will be punished. But we don’t know God’s means or His time frame. As He told Habakkuk, “the just shall live by his faith.”

The aim of these first two points—and this series will continue—is to help us understand that we must not think we can fully comprehend the ways of God. We do not know what He is doing. Now it is important to understand that we can know certain principles of His actions—obedience will be blessed, sin will be punished. But the how, when, and where is totally up to God and totally beyond our comprehension. Many such blessings and punishments might be reserved for eternity. That doesn’t sit too well with us because we see so much injustice in the world and can’t figure out why God lets it happen. But “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).

“God, what are you doing?” We may never figure it out on this earth. And, truthfully, in many instances, it may not even be any of our business.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Who Can Say to Him, “What Are You Doing?” No.1

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith Jehovah. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

“Who can say to Him, ‘What are You doing?’” (Job 9:12).

It appears to me that, one reason so many humans reject God, is He does not fit their vision of what a “god” should be like. We are selfish, we want things our way, and we tend to be impatient when we don’t get them. But God doesn’t always work—indeed, He rarely does—according to our schedule. What we think we need, and what God knows we need are quite often two different things. God’s wisdom is far superior to ours; re-read the passage from Isaiah above. Let me ask: how high is heaven above the earth? That cannot be measured. But that’s how much superior God’s way and thoughts are to ours. It’s simply a matter of trust, and that can be hard to do sometimes, especially if things aren’t necessarily going the way we want them to, or think they should. People don’t like that; they blame God; and trust in their own way. Is there a more common reaction among mankind?

Let me use a personal, and current, illustration. I ask the reader—and more so the Lord—to forgive me of the coming boast, but I do think I speak with some degree of truth. I’m pretty good at what I do—teaching, preaching, writing—those are my best talents, and I’ve had a lot of people over the years comment on how effectively I do communicate. Of the 6.5 billion people on earth, not very many of them can do what I’m doing on this blog—write articles about the Bible which have depth and comprehensiveness. I’m very good in the classroom and I’m very good in the pulpit, and I know it (again, forgive my boast). I’ve plenty of faults, of course, but I do believe the Lord has blessed me with some talent. So…why can’t I get a job? I’ve been out of a job for a month and a half now. I’ve sent out résumé’s literally all over the country, and a few overseas, and—nothing. I’ve prayed about it frequently and diligently—“God, what’s going on here? I need a job. You’ve given me some talent, and yeah, I can write on my blog and help some people, but why are You wasting my time when I could be out preaching and teaching? This is waste of good talent, you know…”

“And, furthermore, God, this depression. How in the world do you expect me to do my best work for You when, half the time, I’m incapacitated with agony and distress? Get rid of this stuff and just think of how much more I can do for You…”

“What are you doing, God…?”

Now, before I proceed, I want to make it perfectly clear that I do NOT—EVER—talk to God in the manner illustrated in the paragraphs above. When I pray, I always, always try to be as humble and reverent as possible, and whatever I ask of Him, I do so with thanksgiving and appreciation. Or at least, I do so as much as my frailty allows. But my words above do express some of the frustrations that we all feel at times. I want to get to work and I want to do the best I can for Him; I don’t have that many years left, I do believe I have a lot to give, but I’ve done nothing for the past month and a half but run into roadblocks. Now, a month and a half isn’t necessarily that long, but I’m still a little impatient and I don’t understand what the Lord is doing.

Of course I don’t. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith Jehovah.” I really have no doubt—none—that in God’s own time, He will find what He wishes for me to do and send me there. Our whole purpose on this earth is to serve Him; I want to do that, so He and I are in full agreement on that matter. It’s just the time frame that He and I haven’t quite settled on yet. And, no matter how badly I’d like to have a job, or get out from under this depression, and whatever else I might want, I will not be able to rush God. And I really don’t want to, because as my Father in heaven, He knows better what I need than I do. I can, should, and do make my requests known to Him (Philippians 4:6). But then, my responsibility is to “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him” (Psalm 37:7). In Psalm 40:1-2, David wrote, “I waited patiently for the LORD; And He inclined to me, And heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, Out of the miry clay, And set my feet upon a rock, And established my steps.” And if I’ll do what David did, the Lord will hear my cry as well. In His own good time. “Trust in the LORD, and do good…feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the LORD, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass” (Psalm 37:3-5). These are wonderful promises. Again, not always easy to live by when the world isn’t turning our way. But God is faithful and He will keep His word. Every human being needs to believe that with all their heart.

If you will notice the title of this article, there is a “No. 1” at the end. I want to write a series on this subject, and give several examples from the Bible of God doing things in His own way, in His own time, and in a manner that we really can’t fully fathom. But hopefully, these examples will help us to comprehend that God’s thoughts and ways are not our thoughts and ways, and by doing so, develop a greater faith and trust in Him.

As hard as that might be when you’re out of a job and plagued with an agonizing depression.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why We Need To Study the Bible

A dear brother in Christ in Singapore mentioned to me in an email recently that he was going to be teaching the topic above in a class in the very near future. It got my wheels turning. It’s a good topic—a very good topic—and I’d like to make a few suggestions of my own in hopes of encouraging further Bible study by my readers.

Why study the Bible?

1. It’s the Word of God. I cannot think of a better reason than this. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17). The philosophies of man can, at times, be interesting. But frankly, most of it is junk. Men may have some good suggestions on how to live on this earth; but every “good” suggestion will have its roots ultimately in God’s Word. There is no Book more important than the Bible.

2. We will be judged eternally by that Word. “He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my sayings, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I spake, the same shall judge him in the last day” (John 12:48). When you stand before God on the Day of Judgment, your life is not going to be compared to what is written in “Mark’s Current Events Blog;” it will be compared to what Jesus said. Maybe my rantings on my blog will cause some to think about various current issues and make wiser choices for making our country better. But, ultimately, there’s only one thing that is going to be important to you and that’s not how you vote in the next election, but how you measured up to God’s Word. Eternity, not this world, is the truly the most imperative of all matters.

3. The Bible tells us how to live eternally. There indeed is a such a thing as eternal life. Life that never ends. It comes through Jesus Christ: “Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth on me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth on me shall never die” (John 11:25). And it is only the Word of God that can lead us to that final, glorious, everlasting life: “Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Thus, we should “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21). But if we do not study that Word, we will not know it.

4. We will be destroyed by sin if we do not know the Bible. Hosea 4:6 reads “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” The law of God was a “strange thing” to them (Hosea 8:12). Israel went into captivity for failure to know and keep God’s law: “Therefore my people are gone into captivity for lack of knowledge” (Isaiah 5:13). If we do not study the Bible, we will not know it. If we do not know it, we will not know how to live or recognize false teaching when we hear it. And thus it will be very easy to succumb to the deceit of those who love personal glory rather than the souls of men: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them that are causing the divisions and occasions of stumbling, contrary to the doctrine which ye learned: and turn away from them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Christ, but their own belly; and by their smooth and fair speech they beguile the hearts of the innocent” (Romans 16:17-18). The “innocent” are those who are unsuspecting, trusting, ready to believe, and unable to discern between truth and error. There are an awful lot of people in the world who can make error sound like truth. And if we don’t study the Bible, we will be destroyed for that lack of knowledge.

There are many reasons to study the Bible. The 119th Psalm gives almost 176 of them. Here are just a few mentioned in that marvelous song:

--The Word of God protects us from sin: “Thy word have I laid up in my heart, That I might not sin against thee” (v. 11).

--It protects our youth from sin: “Wherewith shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to thy word” (v. 9).

--It strengthens us in distress: “My soul melteth for heaviness: Strengthen thou me according unto thy word” (v. 28).

--It sets us free: “And I shall walk at liberty; For I have sought thy precepts” (v. 45; see also John 8:32).

--It gives us courage: “I will also speak of thy testimonies before kings, And shall not be put to shame” (v. 46).

--It enables us to have the greatest friends in the world: “They that fear thee shall see me and be glad, Because I have hoped in thy word” (v. 74).

--It gives us greater wisdom than the supposed “wise” of the world or of previous ages: “I have more understanding than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, Because I keep Your precepts” (vs. 99-100).

--It directs our path in this life: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, And light unto my path” (v. 105)

--It endows us with a healthy respect for God: “My flesh trembleth for fear of thee; And I am afraid of thy judgments” (v. 120).

--It sheds light and understanding onto our lives: “The opening of thy words giveth light; It giveth understanding unto the simple” (v. 130).

--It provides peace: “Great peace have they that love thy law; And they have no occasion of stumbling” (v. 165).

I have not begun to exhaust, in this short article, all the benefits of Bible study. But it is important to remember that we must be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). It doesn't do much good to wear out our Bible reading and studying it if, in the end, we aren't going to obey it.  Bible study is valueless without proper application. With proper application, it is the most valuable thing in the world, for it will lead us to eternal life.

Reader, how much time to you spend with your Bible? Truly, let us say with David, “Oh how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97).

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Just As I Am, or Just As God Wants Me To Be?

“And Peter said unto them, Remain just as ye are, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38. Or maybe not…)

The invitation song Just As I Am is a lovely song, very well-known and oft sung. I’ve led it myself in times past. But the more I think about that song, the more I have a little bit of a problem with it. Here’s why.

Yes, indeed, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). And we must come to the Lord Jesus for spiritual healing and forgiveness. But Acts 2:38 does not read the way it looks at the beginning of this article. What Peter actually said to them was “Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you…” There is a change of life that is involved, yea, demanded, if we are truly going to be accepted by God. I can’t come to Him “just as I am;” I’ve got to make some amendments in my life. I left God, He didn’t leave me. I’ve got to go back to Him on His terms, I can’t expect Him to come to me on mine. And I cannot stand before Him, “just as I am,” a sinner, and expect to close the distance between myself and the Almighty. Or even expect Him to forgive me because again, Peter’s first word in Acts 2:38 was “Repent,” which means a change of mind that leads to a reformation of life.

I do not want to be unfair to the song Just As I Am; it does express a coming to Jesus, and I’m not going to nuke the White House if somebody sings it in my presence (though I might do so for other reasons). But I do want the reader to think a little about who God is, how we should approach Him, and what we truly owe Him. I’m a little concerned—no, I’m a lot concerned—with some of the casualness I see in Christianity today. I don’t want to judge anyone’s heart, because I don’t know anyone’s heart, but I do want to remind us that we should not, cannot, expect God to accept us on our terms. “I’ll give to God whatever I choose, and He’s so loving, He’ll accept whatever I give Him.” That isn’t the way I read the teaching of Jesus. A few verses:

Luke 9:23—“And he said unto all, If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”

Luke 14:33—“So therefore whosoever he be of you that renounceth not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.”

Galatians 2:20—“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me: and that life which I now live in the flesh I live in faith, the faith which is in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me.”

Matthew 10:37-39--"He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.  And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.  He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it."

Romans 12:1-2—“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, and ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

Those verses just don’t sound, to me, like God will accept me “just as I am,” or that He’s pleased with just whatever I want to give Him. There are some radical changes to be made in most of us simply because not many of us start out our Christian journey living right next door to the Almighty.

How devout, pious, and reverent towards God are we? Reader, when was the last time you got down on your knees in prayer to God? Not that posture determines whether God hears our prayers or not, because it doesn’t. But…….when was the last time you were on your knees before Him…and you know what I mean. There does often seem to be a correlation between humility and looking at dirt.

When was the last time you turned off the television for the express purpose of studying your Bible, to learn what God wants you to do instead of Hollywood?

When was the last time you went to worship, even when you might not have especially felt like it, because you knew He wanted you to, that you wanted to show Him that you loved and adored Him more than yourself, that you knew it was your duty and responsibility to show the God of infinite grace that He is worthy of all glory and that you appreciate all that He has done for you and you want to let Him know that through praise and devotion?

When was the last time you “conquered thyself” and did something for Him, such as give up some sin, because you knew it would please Him, regardless of the sacrifice it might cost you?

Or did you go to worship last Sunday “just as you are” and expect Him to accept you that way, with your casual demeanor and dress (because we'd rather be "comfortable" than to show respect and look our finest at the throne of the Almighty), your “it’s convenient” mentality, your “look what I’m doing for you today, God” attitude? And then perhaps sung the hymn “Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way.” Or did you go to worship full of thanksgiving to Him for the honor of being in His presence, for a privilege you certainly don’t deserve, and with a determination to give Him the best you’ve got? And with a commitment to leave that period of worship and live as righteous and holy a life as you are capable of living?

Gentle reader, the aim of this treatise is not to be judgmental, but to get us to focus in on our relationship to God, to ask not “what can God to for me?”, but “what can I do for Him?,” to bring us to a razor’s edge sharpness, a second mile mentality, a realization that we should not expect Jehovah—or even have the unmitigated gall to ask Him—to accept us “just as we are.” Beloved, Christianity is about Him first, not us, about pleasing and serving Him not visa versa, about conforming our lives to His will, not requesting that He conform His will to our comforts, conveniences, and desires. We owe Him everything we’ve got, and we ought to give Him the most respectful and excellent service we can, and humbly thank Him for the unmerited opportunity and undeserved privilege of doing so. “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, And to be held in reverence by all those around Him” (Psalm 89:7). A little more reverence for God, and a little less casualness and self-absorption on ours, might go a long way in improving the spiritual condition of mankind today.

So, next time you are at worship, if the song leader leads Just As I Am, sing it with all the gusto you want, if that is what you wish to do. But try to remember as you are doing so, that the command was not “Remain as ye are,” but “Repent ye.”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Prophetic Moment

A man named Cyrus was king of the Medo-Persian empire from 559 B.C. to 530 B.C. We know quite a bit about him from historical records, but I won’t regale the reader with details that can be found in any number of history books; that’s not the purpose of this article. I will tell you that, for an Oriental despot, he ruled with some moderation and wisdom, and was so highly regarded by the Greeks that they tagged him with the adjective “the Great.” And thus, that’s how he is largely known in history—Cyrus the Great. He has a good name among Bible believers as well because he is the king who allowed the Jews, in 536, to return to Palestine from Babylonian Captivity to rebuild their city and temple.

We know all of this, hindsight, from historical records. The prophet Isaiah, if he, at present, has any knowledge of our knowledge of Cyrus, is probably not terribly impressed. Because he knew about Cyrus about 170 years before the Persian king issued his edict about the Jews.

Keep in mind that Cyrus became king of Persia in 559; he allowed the Jews to return to Judah in 536. Isaiah was writing his book in the late-8th/early 7th century B.C., around 700, give or take a few years—about 170 years before Cyrus permitted the Jewish return from exile. Yet, the prophet wrote about him: “[The Lord] says of Cyrus, 'He is My shepherd, And he shall perform all My pleasure, Saying to Jerusalem, "You shall be built," And to the temple, "Your foundation shall be laid." Thus says the Lord to His anointed, To Cyrus, whose right hand I have held-- To subdue nations before him And loose the armor of kings, To open before him the double doors, So that the gates will not be shut…For Jacob My servant's sake, And Israel My elect, I have even called you by your name; I have named you, though you have not known Me” (Isaiah 44: 28; 45:1, 4). 170 years before the act, Isaiah named by name the man who would allow the Jews to return to their homeland to rebuild their city and temple. But notice how minutely accurate this passage is. Cyrus said to the temple, “your foundation shall be laid.” Now, while Cyrus (according to Ezra) did allow the Jews to return to Judah to rebuild the temple, they never got it done during his lifetime. They only got the foundation laid! It wasn’t until several years after Cyrus’s death, spurred on by the preaching of the prophets Zechariah and Haggai, that the Jews began to build the temple above the foundation.

Now, somebody explain to me how Isaiah, 170 years in advance, knew that a man named Cyrus (who did not know Jehovah) was going to allow God’s people to return to their homeland and rebuild their city and temple. And that only the foundation would be laid during that time. There is only one way Isaiah could have known it—God told him. Man simply does not have the ability to minutely predict historical events 170 in advance. Anybody want to tell me what’s going to happen in the year 2180? We don’t even know, for sure, what’s going to happen tomorrow. But God does. And He can tell us if He wants to. And he told Isaiah about a man’s actions 170 years before they happened.

“Thus saith Jehovah, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, Jehovah of hosts: I am the first, and I am the last; and besides me there is no God. And who, as I, shall call, and shall declare it, and set it in order for me, since I established the ancient people? and the things that are coming, and that shall come to pass, let them declare” (Isaiah 44:7-8). God challenges man to predict “the things that are coming.” We can’t do it; He can. That’s one thing that makes Him God and us human. And such prophetic utterances, as Isaiah made regarding Cyrus, are all through the Bible.

Don’t try to tell me that Book wasn’t written by God.

Addendum:  Cyrus was the Medo-Persian king who overthrew and ended the Babylonian empire.  Read Isaiah 13:17.  Also read Isaiah 13:20 and tell me how many Babylonians you know today.  Compare that with what Ezekiel prophesied about Egypt in Ezekiel 29:14-15.  Open your own Bible, I'm not going to do all your work for you ;).

Addendum No. 2:  In Isaiah 13 and 14, the prophet predicts the destruction of Babylon, which wasn't even the major Middle Eastern power at the moment.  Assyria was.  Babylon won't rise for at another two generation, but Isaiah is already predicting its fall (who told him?).  Also, note very carefully the reference to "Lucifer" in Isaiah 14:12, still within the discussion of the overthrow of Babylon.  "Lucifer" is not Satan; he is some unnamed Babylonian king.  Context and historical background are absolutely crucial in understanding any Biblical passage.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

David and Bathsheba

Let me get this out, up front, unequivocally, without fear or favor: There is no excuse for sin. None. Period. We make our own choices, we do what we do deliberately, the devil doesn’t make us do anything, we decide our own course and we must accept the consequences of the choices we make. Oh, some might argue that sometimes people sin through ignorance. But that doesn’t work with God: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30, emphsais mine). Ignorance is no excuse. The Word of God has been on this earth for thousands of years now, Jesus died almost 2,000 years ago, and, while those with greater opportunity will be judged (and punished) more strictly (Luke 12:47-48)…there is no excuse for sin! And God will accept no excuses on the Day of Judgment (read Matthew 7:21-23).

Yet…yet…we all do sin. The world is full of examples of sin and we don't have to look hard to find them. And the Bible has many, many examples as well—including examples of great and godly people who fell short. And in one way, it is comforting to us to know that those saints of old had their weaknesses as well, and disobeyed the commandments of God.

One of the most egregious instances of a godly man sinning is David in his initial relationship with Bathsheba. Here was a man “after God’s own heart” (I Samuel 13:14), and yet he sinned in a most hideous manner. Compound sins, if you will. And it wasn’t for just one day.

The story is related in II Samuel 11. Briefly, it runs like this. David wasn’t where he should have been in the first place (v. 1). He sees a beautiful woman bathing (Bathsheba—this doesn’t speak well of her, either, for being unclothed where someone could see her). David lusts after her, sends for her, lays with her, and gets her pregnant, the latter which he obviously never intended (vs. 2-5). Now David’s got a problem because Bathsheba is married.

Bathsheba’s husband was a man named Uriah, a Hittite. He was a great warrior and he was fighting with the army. David calls him home, and twice tries to get Uriah to go home and lay with his wife so that they could say the baby was his; David even gets the man drunk one evening, hoping he’ll stumble home in ignorance. But Uriah doesn’t do it. So David must come up with another scheme (vs. 6-13).

To solve his problem, David sends a sealed letter, by Uriah’s hand, to the commander of the army, Joab. The letter said, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retreat from him, that he may be struck down and die" (v. 15). Joab, of course, will obey his king’s command; so Uriah is killed in a subsequent battle. David then marries Bathsheba: “she became his wife and bore him a son” (v. 27). No husband, David can have her, and the baby is legitimate. Situation resolved. Who’s going to argue with the king?

But the chapter ends with what might be the greatest understatement in all of Scripture: “But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD” (v. 27).

Yes, I would think Jehovah would be displeased; David broke about half the Ten Commandments—he coveted his neighbor’s wife, effectively stole her, committed adultery, lied, murdered, and that’s just the beginning of the list. Those are just most of the outward sins David committed; it says nothing of the condition of his heart. And it all started because he wasn’t where he should have been in the first place—leading his army. But here is a very, very key point to this whole article. This wasn’t a one-day happening in David’s life. It went on for nine months! David lusted, committed adultery, and the baby was born—that takes nine months. Here, a man after God’s own heart, for nine months was living in egregious, heinous sin. He knew it, but instead of repenting, he tried to cover it up by murdering Uriah, etc. It was horrible.

Now, there was absolutely no excuse for what David did. None. There is no excuse for sin! Yet…yet, there is a degree of comfort, for us, in knowing that such an otherwise godly man could be so ensnared in sin, and for such a lengthy period of time. Now, David, when confronted with his sin (II Samuel 12), repented, as best he could. Read Psalm 51 for a beautiful song of remorse. And he suffered for his iniquity, periodically, for the rest of his life. But God forgave him. Thanks be to the Lord for His breathtaking, and wholly undeserved, mercy.

I almost hate to write this article for fear that someone who reads it might be tempted with a thought such as “well, if David sinned for nine months and God forgave him, then if I sin for an extended period of time…” It is not the goal of this treatise to encourage the readership to rebel against the Almighty. Yes, if we do sin, like David did, and truly repent, God will forgive. But there is never any excuse for sin! Reader, do NOT try to use David’s example as an excuse for your own iniquities—I promise you, God will not buy it. And if you die deep in that iniquity, don’t be surprised if mercy is lacking on the day you stand before God. I'm not going to play eternal Judge here, but you sin, you take your chances. Better never to do it. There…is…no…excuse...for sin!

But once more, it is comforting to know that the great, holy men of the Bible struggled with sin, too, just like you and I do. And that God, as long as we’re breathing, will always accept us back, if we truly repent. What a wonderful God we have, and what a marvelous Book He has given us, a Book that shows us the way to eternal glory.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Most Agonizing Verse in the Bible

Jesus’ apostles, while He was on earth, never fully understood His mission. When He told them, without a figure, that He would be crucified (Mark 10:33-34), they didn’t comprehend. He also informed them (Mark 14:27) that they would all forsake Him for a time; Peter denied that he would ever do such a thing. Jesus then told him that before the rooster crowed twice that very night, Peter would deny Him three times (Mark 14:29-30). The whole situation was simply incomprehensible to men who had been raised under the Jewish cosmology that the Messiah would come conquering, not be humbled and die an ignominious death at the hands of Roman soldiers. It wasn’t until the Holy Spirit came upon them on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) that the apostles’ minds began to be opened.

Yet back to Peter’s denial. When Jesus was arrested, Peter followed Him to see what would happen, and sure enough, as the Lord had predicted, His impetuous disciple denied Jesus three times. After the third denial, Luke records (22:61) one of the most moving, gut wrenching verses in all of Scripture:

“And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.”

Can you imagine how Peter felt? Not surprisingly, he “went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62).

I suggest, in the title of this article, that Luke 22:61 is “the most agonizing verse in the Bible.” That’s a matter of opinion, of course, but anyone who can read that scripture and not be touched has something wrong with their heart. We aren’t told the nature of the look Jesus gave to Peter, but I have almost no doubt it was a look of tenderness, compassion, and love. The Lord never gave up on Peter, and indeed, that great apostle preached the first gospel sermon to both Jews (Acts 2) and Gentiles (Acts 10), and authored two wonderful books in the New Testament. Tradition holds that Peter eventually was crucified, and upside down, because he didn’t feel worthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord. Whether that tradition is true or not I don’t know, but it does seem to describe the man Peter came to be.

When Jesus was resurrected, the angel in the tomb told the women who were there to “go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee (Mark 16:7). Why was Peter singled out? I don’t know for sure, but do consider what might have been going through Peter’s mind. Three days before he had blatantly, openly, publicly denied Jesus, and the Lord had heard Him and looked at him after he had done it. It wasn’t impossible that Peter could have concluded that Jesus would never want to have anything to do with him again. So, the angel said, “make sure you tell Peter…the Lord wants him, especially, to know of His resurrection.” In other words, “don’t worry, Peter, Jesus still loves you and He still considers you one of His.” Jesus “loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Now, in John 21, Jesus confronted Peter—three times—forcing His apostle to focus in on, not only did he love Jesus, but how much did Peter love Him. Peter agonized over it again, but eventually came around to where the Lord could use Him in the greatest work in the world.

Christian growth doesn’t happen overnight. We all stumble, and we all, at times, have “denied” the Lord, though hopefully not as blatantly as Peter did. Yet, Christ’s love will not cease, regardless of what we do. It doesn’t matter how egregious we sin, how far we remove ourselves from Him, how long we ignore or reject Him, His love for us will never end. Now that doesn’t guarantee us a place in heaven; Jesus is “the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). But it does mean that nothing, absolutely nothing, “shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). We can always come back, and He will always accept us.

Remember, the next time you sin and thereby deny Jesus, the look that He must have given Peter on that dark betrayal night. The Lord is giving you the same look.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti—“Why, God?”

Among the most difficult aspects of human existence for man to harmonize with the existence of God are the various, seemingly capricious, acts of destruction and woe that befall apparently innocent people. A devastating earthquake arbitrarily hits an island; thousands die. Why would God allow such a thing? A variety of skeptics always materialize following such an event, denouncing the cruelty, fickleness, apathy, or helplessness of a supposedly benevolent Deity. Their inability to harmonize such happenings, in their own mind, with their own concept of God (not the Biblical description) is a good excuse to reject Him and to live the iniquitous life they desire, and intended to live in the first place. Humans will always find an excuse to disobey God if that is what they wish to do. A natural disaster killing people is simply one of those excuses which suits some people’s fancy.

I make no pretence to be able to explain to everyone’s—or perhaps anyone’s—satisfaction every instance of disaster, violence, or wickedness of man in which others suffer through no fault of their own. Why did the earthquake hit Haiti? For what purpose did God permit such? I have no idea. The mind of God is His and His actions are His own and He hasn’t explained His every operation to me. But let us consider a few things God has told us which I believe help, in part, to account for the seemingly unaccountable.

When man sinned (Genesis 3), God cursed the earth—man would have to live by the sweat of his brow. And, indeed, even before the fall, during the miraculous creation, God established natural laws to rule His universe; only now, after sin, those natural laws include a dying, deteriorating earth (Romans 8:22). And that means natural disasters. Yes, God could intervene and prevent earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, Hitlers, etc. etc. But then, what would be the purpose of natural law? There would be no such thing if God continually interrupted anytime something happened that some human somewhere didn’t like—you talk about capricious; there’s the perfect definition of it. No, we live in a world now governed by laws God established—and just as man grows old and dies as our bodies become subject to various breakdowns, even so the world is the same. Humans get cancer and have heart attacks because our flesh corrupts naturally. The earth, due to natural disintegration, is plagued with earthquakes, tornados, etc. This is the result of a now imperfect man existing in a now imperfect world.

And part of fleshly corruption is death. It is absolutely essential—crucial—for us to understand that, after the fall, God never intended for this earth to be man’s eternal home. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). We all have an inescapable appointment with death—and we know not the day, hour—or means—that event will take place. One of the major problems man has is viewing his existence from an earthly perspective, rather than a heavenly one. While God is not unconcerned with our lives on this earth, He is far more concerned with our lives after this earth. Humans will be in this world, in the flesh, at best, for a few decades; what is that compared to the spirit’s eternity? Which is the true reality here? We place so much emphasis on this world. Jesus came to try to focus our minds on the next one. Something will happen, some time—be it earthquake, heart attack, war, or other means—which will end our earthly being. Preparation for the eternal one is far more important than anything else we can do here.

The great lesson we must learn from Haiti is just this—the brevity of life and the abruptness—and surety—of death. We are not promised another day; indeed, we are not promised the end of this one. What happened in Haiti could happen anywhere, including where you live. How long we live is not as important as how we live—i.e., in readiness for the judgment, for that time when we will no longer be on this earth. And since we do not know the day of departure—it could be imminent, it might not be for decades—it behooves us to always be prepared. Those in Haiti who were prepared to meet God are in a much better condition now. Those who weren’t prepared to meet Him must suffer the consequences of their own failure to pay attention to His Word and the lessons of this life—lessons such as the possibility of a natural disaster killing them at any moment. If we don’t pay attention to what God is trying to teach, that isn’t His fault. If He warns, and we ignore, who’s to blame?

The Bible speaks of other rationales for earthquakes, etc., but I won’t go into them here. I believe the above is sufficient to give a general accounting and perspective of our earthly existence. As noted, I cannot begin to explain God’s rationale for every instance of natural disaster, such as what happened in Haiti. But I can understand--at least partly--the world as God created it, and as it has become, and man’s purpose during his pilgrimage while here. And that purpose does not include abiding here forever. We must be ready, at all times, for an event—death—that is sure to happen, but of which the exact time, place, and means is unknown to us. If God granted to every human being, with certainty, say, 80 years of life; if we knew we were going to live that long, then what would most of us do? We would eat, drink, and be merry, wait until we were 79, and then make our arrangements for the judgment. Uh uh. That ain’t the way it works, folks, that ain’t the way God intended it. And He told us so. It’s your own fault, reader, if you don’t pay attention to Him.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Doing Our Duty, Part Two

“And to them he said, Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you” (Matt. 20:4). Yesterday, I posted an article entitled “Doing Our Duty, Part One,” emphasizing that we owe God obedience and submission regardless of what happens in our lives. We should not serve Him primarily for the “rewards” He gives us but because “Jehovah is worthy to be praised” (Psalm 18:3. If you have not yet read that article, please do so before continuing this one. Scroll down.). But, while dutiful obedience is necessary, it isn’t the sum total of our relationship with God, because if we obey Him only out of duty, chances are our religion will be dry, mundane, and often onerous and taxing. While there is a comfort and peace in knowing we have done what we should, there is a greater joy in learning to serve God, not just from obligation, but from love.

Our God is beneficent and we need to trust Him for that, and also learn to love Him for the same reason. In the parable Jesus related in Matthew 20, the first group hired by the vineyard owner bargained with him—“ok, we’ll work for you, but what will you give us in return?” And indeed they labored and got what they agreed to. But the second group of workers, as related in verse 4, were told to go to work and the owner would give them “whatsoever is right.” In other words, they didn’t haggle with him, they simply trusted in the goodness of the master. And their reward was great. God is good to us, and He will give us what is right. And such is a thought upon which we must dwell continually because when we truly come to appreciate the goodness and beneficence of God, we will learn to love Him more deeply. Thus, our service to Him will become more than just duty, it will become a labor of love. And love is the greatest motivating factor in the world. There is nothing we won’t do for someone we truly love. We will not serve that person simply out of duty—though we might, indeed, have obligations to that individual. We will serve from the joy of love, of doing what pleases simply because it does please, of wanting to bring a smile to the lips and a glow to the heart of the one whom we adore. That is much easier, and a greater inspiration, than rote duty. Obligation often requires sacrifice, and truly Christians are to present their bodies as living sacrifices to our Creator (Rom. 12:1). But sacrifices are much easier to be made when performed with a heart filled with love than one which gives simply because it has to.

The greatest commandment remains to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 10:30). Let’s be honest; that’s not easy. We’ve never seen God. Many of our blessings from Him are intangibles. The pull of our fleshly nature is often against our spiritual nature. This world is filled with sorrows that we don’t often understand and God doesn’t immediately provide the answers to. Loving the unseen requires an effort greater than loving that which we have direct experience with. But God doesn’t ask the impossible. With proper study, meditation, and a pure heart, our love for our Savior can indeed grow and become a tremendous, sterling motivating factor in our submission to Him. Indeed, it can—and should—become the primary motive. And by doing so, our service to Him will only increase and be a joy rather than an often grudging duty. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (I John 5:3). Repentance can indeed be grievous; giving up something we love dearly (for example, the rich young ruler and his money) is never an easy thing. And it can only be done through a strong sense of duty—or, more easily, if we love something greater. When we love God above all else—again, not an easy accomplishment—but when we do, our service to Him will be the most important reason for our existence. And our obedience to Him will not be a burdensome matter.

I do not intend, in the least, to mitigate what I wrote in the first article of this series. We owe God obedience simply because of Who He is. It is our obligation to revere, respect, and indeed to fear Him if we aren’t living correctly because “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 12:13 that the whole duty of man is to “fear God and keep His commandments”; note he did not say “love God and keep His commandments.” We must understand that love is no excuse for presumptive behavior on our part. We still owe God obedience, whether we love Him or not. But if we can grow to the point where love becomes a greater motivator than rote duty, then our service to God will not only be easier, but more joyful and fulfilling. And He will still bless us with “whatsoever is right,” for He is, truly, the beneficent Master of the vineyard.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Doing Our Duty, Part One

“So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do” (Luke 17:11). It is normal for we humans, when we do something good, to want to be rewarded. We work for a living, and we want our employer to pay us wages. This is fair and just among humans. And certainly, one of the major themes of the Bible is that if we are obedient to the commandments of God, we will indeed be blessed by the Almighty. But if that is the sole reason we serve Him, we have not yet attained the spiritual height we ought to attain.

Beloved, “Jehovah is worthy to be praised” (Psalm 18:3) whether He blesses us in return or not. This is an absolutely crucial point in understanding our relationship with our Creator. He made us, He is God, we are human, and thus we owe Him allegiance and humble obedience—period. We pray, we worship, we study, we do good works because it is our duty, not just so God will give us something in response. Yes, again, let me emphasize that Jehovah does promise blessings upon our obedience. But such should not be our primary motive—if a motive at all—for our service to Him. “ This is the end of the matter; all hath been heard: fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, ASV, the italics are in the text). The purpose of life is not to be happy or joyous. The purpose of life is to “fear God, and keep his commandments.” That’s our duty, whether God blesses us as a result or not.

Think of it: if we only serve Him for the rewards we think we ought to receive, then what would we do if we did not receive those rewards? Reader, God doesn’t owe you a blasted thing—you owe Him everything. Indeed, we are most fortunate that we have a beneficent Lord Who will compensate our faithfulness. But whether He does or not, it is still our duty to obey Him. We have no “right” to expect anything from Him. We obey, and then we trust in His goodness to provide us whatever He believes is just and proper for us. We cannot make “demands” of God—“all right, God, I’ve done thus and so for you, now it’s your turn to give me something good in return.” Again, if that’s our motive for honoring and obeying Him, then if He doesn’t provide what we think we want or need, chances are we won’t be honoring and obeying Him for long. Serving God is not tit for tat. Honor and obedience are our duty, regardless of His response.

I would love for God to get rid of this depression I’m suffering through, and I ask Him to daily. But what if He doesn’t? Does that in some way mitigate what I owe Him? Should I pray, “Ok, Lord, get rid of this depression, and I’ll give you X, Y, and Z”? No. I should give Him X, Y, and Z, regardless of what He does for me. And if He pours it on even worse, that still doesn’t relieve me of my responsibility to Him. Jehovah is worthy to be praised. He is worthy of it and that should be a supreme motive for service.

God recompenses our obedience, not because He owes it to us, but because He is a wonderful and loving Being. Reader, get down on your knees in prayer to God—because you are human and He is divine and that’s what you should do. Yes, you can let your requests be made known unto Him; He wants you to do that. But whether He provides those requests or not is wholly irrelevant to your duty and responsibility. Worship God because you ought to. Do good works because you are commanded to. And when you’ve done that, remember “we are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” You take care of your end—dutiful obedience—and let God take care of His—blessing you as He sees fit. And be very thankful for what He does give you because you certainly don’t deserve it.