Monday, March 23, 2020

Obstacles and Opportunities Pt. 2

As recommendations to curb the spread of COVID-19 continue to be pushed back by authorities and experts alike, many might be left wondering, how long before we return to business as usual or when will things ever go back to normal? It is helpful to know that we aren’t the first people to be held in a forced holding pattern with a new set of rules. In fact, in Jeremiah 29, the people of God were in their own forced holding pattern called exile in Babylon. While the circumstances were certainly different then, one thing they had in common with many of us today is they were made to live in a new situation. Something else we have in common with many of them is that aching question: what is one to do as he/she waits for things to return to the way things were? What can one do? In light of these questions, I thought we’d look at three reminders God provides his people in Jeremiah 29:4-11 and see whether or not there might be anything we can apply in our lives today as we endure COVID-19 and all the implications appertaining thereunto.


The first statement uttered in this passage reminds readers (original readers and exile and readers today) of who is in charge—“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (29:4). In this short introduction, at least two things are made absolutely clear. First, God is large and in charge while his people are small and fragile. The Lord refers to himself as “The Lord of hosts” and the “God of Israel”—two labels that celebrate his divine power and authority over the audience to which this is addressed. The recipients are called “exiles”—a humiliating title complete with ancient connotations of weakness and vulnerability. It is healthy and sobering for God’s people to be reminded of his power and their weakness and this introduction does just that. The second thing this introduction reminds readers of is that regardless of what is perceived down below, God never forfeits his ultimate control of what is taking place. While many of the Israelites probably blamed their exile on Babylon and looked upon this regime as their enemy oppressor, God makes it very clear that he is the one who sent his people into this set of circumstances for his greater purposes-“I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (29:4). What may have looked like an overwhelming obstacle for God’s people was, in fact, an opportunity for God’s perfect will to navigate the next curve on the road to completion.

These reminders would do us well today. Though we have not be placed in exile, we are, through forces greater than ourselves, kept from doing what we are used to and waiting for, much as Israel was, a return to relative normalcy. While in this forced holding-pattern, God’s people ought to acknowledge that in spite of what we perceive around us God is still large and in charge and he has not forfeited his control of what is going on around us. Be it a virus or the many implications thereof, God has not taken his hands off the steering wheel and is still driving the car down the highway of his perfect will. He is not surprised by what we are going through and, in fact, he has allowed all this for his mysterious and mighty purposes. What may prove to be an obstacle is also an opportunity for his will to be carried out into its next phase. God’s people are to remember this in any age and in any circumstance.


But what were God’s people to do in the meantime? As they waited and lived amid their exile, were they now relegated to sit and sulk, paralyzed by the difficulties God had allowed in their lives? The answer to this is a resounding NO! In fact, the next statement—"What to do”—spells out at least three activities they could preoccupy themselves with as they endured their exile. First, God says “stay busy”! Busy with what? Busy investing—“build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce” (29:5). Both these behaviors assume some length of time spent in the present situation one finds himself/herself. If you are going to build a home, you can assume you are going to be in one place long enough to finish construction and live there awhile. If you are going to plant a garden, you can bet you’ll be around to see things grow and reap the harvest. This is an encouragement to invest right where they are. While many may have used their exile in Jeremiah’s day as an excuse to hold off investing in the things around them, God says no. Get busy and invest here and now!

Many today will hold off really investing in something (be it a church, job, opportunity, etc.) until this or that is achieved or a better set of circumstances surfaces or a better climate is reached. This is not how God’s people ought to live. It is always a good time to plant a proverbial garden or do something constructive. Self-quarantining and social distancing ought not be an excuse not to invest in something meaningful. As Martin Luther is credited with saying, “If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today!” Certainly, while we may not be able to invest in things around us as we are used to, that doesn’t mean we have a license to stay idle or sit on our hands. God’s people ought to run the biggest and most successful lemonade stands in this thirsty world with a surplus of lemons. This ought to be just as true today as it was for God’s people in Babylonian exile thousands of years ago.

One of the most powerful things in which one can invest is relationships. Listen to what is recommended in verse 6—“Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters” (29:6). One of the ways peoples garnered influence in the ancient world involved marriage and procreation. If your people were numerous and widespread, it was a sign of blessing and demonstrated that you were a force to be reckoned with. It is clear that even in exile, God wanted his people to project blessing and influence and this came by investing in those relationships that conveyed such in the ancient world (marriages and large families).

Certainly this call to marry and procreate was limited to the people in Jeremiah’s day for a specific season and reason. However, the principle of investing, particularly in relationships, still rings true. While we haven’t been called to marry and have lots of babies in Babylon, we have been called to make disciples of all nations and see the kingdom of God grow as we await the end. Certainly investing in relationships to that end is a worthy investment to make no matter what the season may be (be it in a season of social-distancing or when things are business as usual). These kinds of investments can’t wait for later or when things go back to the way things were. We are to invest in these ways now, right where we are.

All of this was requested so that God’s people, even while in exile, would “multiply there and…not decrease” (29:6b). While many may have thought it best to keep their families small or forgo marrying and having kids altogether given that they were away from their homeland and under foreign oppression, God says “NO! I sent you there and I want you to multiply even THERE! Even THERE!”

He says the same to us today. COVID-19 recommendations do not signal a time-out to on God’s part that temporarily terminates kingdom-building activity. Self-quarantining does not mean that we have permission to put off investing in the things and the lives of those around us in meaningful and redemptive ways. God has always been about multiplication, in every season, including this one, yes, even this one, and he wants you to be deliberate in doing just that. How might you invest now, even now, in the things and lives around you to multiply the kingdom of God during this difficult season? Maybe reach out to a neighbor, loved one, or friend to provide support or perspective—things that they might be more receptive to given all that is going on? Might you share those encouragements and presentations of the gospel uploaded on social media so that as people are seeing news updates, the latest memes, or funny video, they are also engaging the hope of Jesus Christ?

In addition to investing, God calls on his people to serve well. Serving well involved practically looking out for the welfare of the society around them—“seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (29:7a). While many in Israel were probably tempted to avoid the people around them (seeing that it was different, foreign, and primarily pagan), God intended for them to be a part of the surrounding context’s well-being. No longer did they have the benefit of comfortably tending to the needs and desires of the familiar people who looked and behaved just like they did. God led them into a new context (“I have sent you in exile”) and was asking them to be about the often uncomfortable task of contributing to the benefit of new people in a new location.

I wonder if this virus and the many implications thereof hasn’t reminded the church of its role not just to look out for the well being of its membership, but also those in their town or city. The truth is, in whatever season or situation we find ourselves, we are called, much as these Israelites in Babylon, to serve those around us in practical ways, no matter who they are. We ought not be considerate of those familiar to us, but to our neighbors as well. Who are our neighbors? Anyone and everyone that God has placed around us.

Another way the Israelites were instructed to serve the Babylonians around them was through prayer—“and pray to the Lord on its behalf” (29:7b). I imagine this would have caught many of the Jews off guard. So much of their regular routine was inwardly focused and Jerusalem-centered. One might assume that what preoccupied their prayer lives were those considerations that contributed to their own well being and their own land. Now, removed from business as usual, their prayer lives suffered alterations. They were instructed to pray for a new place and to ask the Lord for things on behalf of its well-being.

The same kind of prayer is encouraged often in the New Testament.

1 Timothy 2:1-4-“I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth.

I mentioned this quote from S. D. Gordon last week, but I’ll repeat it here: “Prayer strikes the winning blow; service is simply picking up the pieces.” Regardless of where you align politically with those authorities or personalities around us in our city, state, or country, we are called to look out for the well-being of our context both practically and prayerfully, much as Israel was instructed to do while in exile in Babylon. Why?—“for in its welfare you will have welfare” (29:7). Loving and serving people in general certainly is good not just for the community at large, but for the people of God at work in that community as well. This was true in Babylon and is true today.  

In addition to investing and serving, the people of God were to be committed to the truth. This admonition is given by means of a prohibition—“ For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream” (29:8). Israel was now living in a land run by pagans that celebrated pagan ideals and worshiped pagan Gods. In their ancient climate of disinformation, the people of God needed to vigilantly guard the truth of God and not be misguided or influenced by falsehood. This, I imagine, was a full-time job.

Such proves to the case today in our present information age. Amid all the noise that would seek to work us up, discourage us, or mislead us, the people of God must stand firm in what they know to be true of God and his word.

After all, as it was in Babylon, so is it the case today—“they prophesy false to you in My name; I have not sent them, declares the Lord” (29:9). It is true, as then, that God’s people cannot always trust those who say that they have a message from God. How can one know the difference? The test hasn’t changed for thousands of years and it only has one question—Is what is being said compliant/consistent with what God has revealed in his revealed word? God’s word must be the measure and standard by which the people of God judge the information they hear and the response that they make.

It is incredible to see that those activities God encouraged his people to take while in a forced-holding pattern of exile all those years ago in Babylon can be applied in appropriate ways today as we are made to deal with this new set of circumstances that we face of self-quarantining and self-distancing. Our situation, much as Israel’s was then, is no cause for idleness, but meaningful investment (in things, relationships). The obstacle we face is no reason to sit and sulk; it provides a new opportunity to serve our context practically and prayerfully. COVID-19 ought not have us and tossing and turning based on every message being broadcast; it should encourage us to stand firm in the unchanging truth of God’s Word and the hope that it provides.


After reminding God’s People who is in charge and what to do, the Lord reminds them of his promise. It is important to remember that the promise of Jeremiah 29:10-11 is for the Israelites who are in exile in Babylon. Therefore, what it means must be understood in principle and in context before it can be applied to our situation today. With that said, the promise that God shares with his people involves a timeline—“for thus says the Lord, ‘when seventy years have been completed for Babylon…” (29:10a). Here lies the answer to the question many in Jeremiah’s day were probably asking: “how long? How long will we need to be building houses, marrying and having kids, and seeking the good of those around us in this new set of circumstances?” The answer for God’s people in exile was 70 years. Think of that! The promise about to be made would not be fulfilled until many if not most of the people alive to hear it were already dead! This meant that God’s story was bigger than any single person, his plan broader than any individual’s lifespan. God is a multi-generational God and the things his people might be made to go through could suffer implications for many years to come.

This point, at the very least, is consistent with things today. Though we haven’t been given a timeline for exactly how long we will be made to self-distance or remain quarantined, or how long the next trial or tribulation we will be made to go through may last, we can trust that God’s plan is bigger than this season and what is done now will pave the way for his broader purpose moving forward. We may or may not see the fruition of what is in store for this chapter of God’s book, but we are invited to play an integral role in his story nonetheless, a role that includes doing what we know to do regardless of the circumstances.  

For God’s people in exile, following seventy years, the Lord says, “I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place” (29:10b). “This place” was their homeland and relative normalcy. Following their exile, God would restore his people back to their previous context of blessing. Again, very few if any of the people listening here would be alive to see this happen, but they could at least take comfort in the fact that God is not finished with them and has a future planned for their people.

This promise and planned future is crystallized in the famous statement of verse 11—“For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope’” (29:11). For the original recipients of this promise, the plans for welfare and the future hope included returning to the land of promise and from there blessing the world. The greatest expression of this would be realized in the person and work of Jesus Christ who was born of the Jews to bring salvation for the world and the hope of heaven. What a promise!

However, in what appropriate ways might this apply to the people of God today? Can it be applied today? If this promise was offered to a people in exile and forecast for them a return to the promised Land, what principle might we glean and take comfort in right now? While we aren’t in exile and certainly don’t believe in the prospect of returning to the literal Promised Land, God’s people today are referred to as “sojourners” or “pilgrims” who are “just passing through this world” on their way to the Kingdom of God. Certainly, our rest is not about returning to a land we once left, but about reaching heaven in the end. That is the ultimate welfare, future, and hope for God’s people today. It is this promised hope that ought to inform what we are supposed to do and remind us who is in charge as we await the fulfillment of this going forward. It is this hope that ought to carry us through any season and spur us on to business regardless of the circumstances we face.

So What?

How long before things go back to normal? I don’t know and I also don’t know if “normal” is as easy to determine or define as we might be led to believe. In fact, to be honest, things haven’t been “normal” since sin entered the world in the beginning. Ultimately our sin is the reason we have discord, strife, oppression, and plagues to begin with. Things won’t be truly right until God’s kingdom comes and provides his people with real and lasting rest. Until then, remember who is in charge, remember what we are supposed to do: invest in redemptive ways, serve practically and prayerfully, and remain committed to the truth, and remember the promises of God.

Obstacles and Opportunities Pt. 1

Last week the Lord led me to make a change to the preaching schedule that I had planned for today. I know it was the Lord’s doing because my stubborn self is not keen on replacing what has been carefully thought through for just anything. That said, with what is going on in our world with COVID-19 and the many implications thereof (including, but not limited to, how it is affecting our congregation and church), I am convinced it is incumbent on me as a pastor and shepherd to provide much-needed perspective in the midst of all the noise. I must admit to you that this perspective did not come easily or naturally to me. It was only after God literally left me awake into the wee hours of the night and patiently guided me that I was able to confront a couple of convicting and powerful realizations that I am compelled to share with you now. While many of us are quick to recognize the very real obstacle that COVID-19 is to our every day lives and the life of our church, I’m convinced that this virus and the many consequences that come with it also presents us with opportunities to grow both as individuals and as the body of Christ. This we will learn by looking at two stanzas of an instructive psalm David wrote after God had delivered him from his own threat in Psalm 34:1-7.


A little background on be drawn today. This song of praise is attributed to David and was penned after he escaped from Abimelech by feigning insanity (1 Sam. 21:11). In reflecting on how God saved him in the midst of his trial, David in this psalm calls on the congregation to praise the Lord for their salvation and in this call celebrates unchanging truths about how God is a good deliverer for those who seek and fear him.

At the beginning of this psalm David spends extended time celebrating who God is. One can hear the excitement in his voice when he says, “I will bless the Lord at all times” (24:1). Consider what “all times” included for David. At this point in his life, he is promised to be king and yet has not assumed the throne.  He is actively hunted by Saul (the existing King) and in the process of fleeing for his life. David is not yet in power nor has he yet brought Israel to its golden age. He is young man in a very precarious situation. Even in this situation (which would certainly be included in the domain of “all times”) he proceeds to “bless the Lord” (24:1a).

I admit to you as a pastor that there have been times this past week where I have not felt like blessing the Lord. All that is going on in our world to curb the spread of and deal with this virus has proven to be an annoyance, a discouragement, and a real distraction. The dangerous prospect that this virus poses to those most at risk is a real concern and the many implications –economic, social, relational, etc.—are a frustration. The campaigns, efforts, and events our church has planned for to accomplish what we believe will help grow the kingdom of God have been altered, cancelled, or put on hold. Rather than prove quick to bless the Lord, I’ve been guilty of questioning what he could possibly be up to and grumbling that I don’t have better answers and complaining that I can’t move forward with what I want to do or what I think is best. In moments of weakness, I haven’t been a man after God’s own heart. I haven’t blessed the Lord AT ALL TIMES like David is said to do here.

This idea of perpetually blessing the Lord regardless of circumstance is repeated in the next phrase—“His praise shall continually be in my mouth” (24:1b). In this familiar synonymous parallel structure found in the Psalms, the second phrase repeats the major sentiments of the first in a slightly different but altogether similar way—“I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall continually be in my mouth,…” (24:1b). The addition of the mouth here draws the readers attention to David’s words. Blessing/praising the Lord for David wasn’t just something that he did inside the privacy of his own mind, it was there for all to hear as it included what he said. If it is out of the mouth the heart speaks (Luke 6:45), then David’s speech revealed that his heart belonged to and loved the Lord God.
What I’ve heard from myself and from those around me over the last week has been all kinds of things—anxiety, confusion, despair, anger, selfishness, etc. Oh that I and the church would take a cue from David’s life and interject the societal discussion and the noise around us with the praise of almighty God. This we should always do, but especially now when such is so needed. Let’s demonstrate what we claim to be true in our hearts by the praise of our Lord that continually pours forth from our mouths.

David doesn’t stop with praise; he brags—“My soul will make its boast in the Lord” (24:2). Notice in whom David’s confidence lies—“in the Lord.” He doesn’t brag about his acumen or cleverness in escaping the efforts of Abimelech and Saul to capture him. He doesn’t brag about his calling/anointing to one day be king. David’s confidence is ultimately in the Lord.

People choose to place their confidence in any number of things this world has to offer. Some place their confidence in their assets. Others place it on their job. Others on their self-sufficiency. Have you checked the stock market lately? Have you seen who isn’t allowed to go to work or noticed those who have lost their income stream due to the measures being taken? Have you seen the grocery stores unable to keep up with peoples’ demands. What we have here, if we are willing to notice it, is a clarifying moment. No longer are people able to boast in their portfolio, vocation, or stockpile of toilet paper. The world around us is running out of things to boast in and, as David says next, “the humble will hear it and rejoice” (24:2b). 

Those who realize that they cannot take care of themselves, or rely on what they can do, or depend on how much they have, recognize their humility and God’s great glory and they rejoice. This is what David does here. Though David had a lot going for him—his anointing, his victories, his prospects, etc.—his being hunted by Saul probably had a way of keeping him humble. However, in this humble state, David finds joy.

There is so much that is keeping us humble today that we ought to welcome. Not being able to do what we have planned, not being able to go where we want, not being able to serve the way we want to serve, not being able to see what we want to see, etc. Personally, I’m humbled by the fact that much of what we’ve planned going forward as a church in the spirit of creating opportunities for outreach, inspiring meaningful fellowship, cultivating deep discipleship, has been placed on hold. I have had to, as a pastor, husband, and father, come face-to-face with Proverbs 16:9—"In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.” I’ve had to confess my humility before the Lord and submit to his superior plan. In this there is joy.

The combination of praise and boasting in the Lord leads David to invite the reader to join him in magnifying the Lord—“O magnify the Lord with me” (24:3). As the lines of this stanza naturally/logically build on each other, readers must realize they cannot accept David’s invitation in verse 3 unless or until they are already praising the Lord with their mouths according to verse 1 and placing their confidence in him according to verse 2.

David desires that people join him in exalting the Lord—“And let us exalt his name together” (24:3b). This open invitation echoes to this day. However, again, the people of God cannot succeed in exalting and magnifying the Lord’s name if they are not actively engaged in praising him in all things and placing their confidence in him.

In the midst of all that our world, our country, our community is facing, may it be the church from which the sound of hope and truth is heard as it magnifies and exalts a great and mighty God! This is only possible if we recognize our humility before him and allow his praises to be ever-present on our lips.


This leads us successfully to the second stanza of David’s song—a call to seek the Lord in anticipation of his answer in 34:4-7. This stanza begins with a testimony of sorts—“I sought the Lord, and He answered me,…” (24:4a).

If you are like me and a lot of other people, you are action-oriented and look for what it is that you can do in any particular situation to bring about an intended goal or accomplish a particular mission. For me this is true not just in personal goals, but in the mission of God of going and making disciples and leading a church to that end. I’m always looking for something to DO. When we cannot do what we think we need to do or what is expected or what is routine or what is planned, seeking the Lord might seem like a shallow consolation prize with very little going for it. However, for David, it was the key to an answer for his prayer and, as verse 4 continues, the reason for his deliverance.

“And delivered me from all my fears” (24:4b). “Deliver” is the same word for “save” in the language of the Old Testament. By seeking the Lord fervently and consistently, David was saved from his enemies and enjoyed deliverance from their wickedness. In his situation, he realized that only the Lord could come through for him and bring him out of his dire situation. And the wise among us realize the same today.

We cannot forget that our salvation for eternity and for this day is not something that we bring about but something that God graciously provides. We also cannot forget that our ability to do for God and his mission is not something that we accomplish in and of ourselves—it too is wrought of the Lord. If this virus, social distancing, and the cancellation of what we believe is important can teach us anything, may it be that seeking the Lord is itself a worthy and powerful enterprise. May the extra time that we have on our hands remind us of the value there is in knowing God and growing in that knowledge both as individuals and as a believing community. Perhaps being shut-out and shut-down from the rest of the world is not as much an obstacle, but an opportunity to be reacquainted with the One who has always been in control and can do more by himself that we ever could in our own power.

David describes those who really get this in two different ways. First, he says, “they looked to him and were radiant, and their faces will never be ashamed” (24:5). Those who realize that God is ultimately in control and salvation is ultimately not up to them are not frustrated when they fail or despairing when unexpected obstacles come their way. Instead, they take heart that God is still in command and new opportunities are being paved that are in keeping with his sovereign will. You’d live your life and I’d live mine with a glow about us too if we realized that, especially in these difficult times in which we live.

The next analogy David uses is of a poor man—“this poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles” (24:6). David paints himself as a poor man crying out to the Lord—desperately dependent on someone else for survival. This once again highlights his humility before God. In Matthew 5 Jesus will say, “blessed are the poor in spirit for there is the kingdom of God” (Matt. 5:3). The implication of Psalm 34 and Matthew 5 is that those who are poor in their own estimation recognize their need for God, cry out to God, and are saved by God.

Crying out to the Lord can look like many things, but most commonly it involves prayer. “You can do more than pray after you have prayed; but you can never do more than pray until you have prayed” (A.J. Gordon). “The greatest thing anyone can do for God or man is pray" (S.D. Gordon). Here again, God may be affording his people an opportunity and blessing in the midst of this plague—time to seek the Lord in ways we haven’t in a long time, and time to pray in ways we may never have before. Both practices assume that God is still moving even when we are unable and still doing even when we are forbidden to act. “Prayer strikes the winning blow; service is simply picking up the pieces” (S.D. Gordon). Looking for something to fill your days of quarantine with? PRAY. Pray for your friends, your family, your community as they face this unseen threat. Pray for the healthcare workers and first responders in the line of fire. Pray for your pastor and your church. Pray that despite the measures taken, the efforts being made in your congregation to grow and share the gospel are not thwarted. Pray that those in need are provided for. Pray that the church has all it requires to help its flock and spread the gospel truth. Pray that you are a blessing, a voice of reason, and a real encouragement to those around you. “Prayer is the first thing, the second thing, the third thing necessary to a minister. Pray, then my dear brother; pray, pray, pray." Edward Payson.

At the end of David’s second stanza, he makes a two-fold promise. First, he promises the Lord’s protection—“the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him” (24:7a). What an encouragement it must have been for David to know as he was hiding out in caves and in the wilderness from those pursuing him, that the Lord was keeping watch over his life by means of his angel.

What an encouragement this ought to be for you and me—that as we are held up away from others, God has not left us alone and is surrounding those who fear him with his protective presence!
More than merely his protective presence, God also “rescues them” according to David (34:7b). The same deliverance David was said to enjoy in verse 4 is available to all who seek, cry out to, and fear the Lord!

So What?

What do you need rescuing from today? Loneliness, boredom, discouragement, confusion, chaos? What existential, spiritual, relational, physical threat is in hot pursuit of your life today? While many, if not all, are under the threat of this virus and its many implications, perhaps the deluge of data and information being pumped through your television or smart phone has also created an awareness of other misgivings, issues, or problems needing attention. No matter what you may be made to go through or what our church may be made to go through, let’s learn David’s song and magnify the Lord in all circumstances because he is worthy of such regardless of how we feel. Let’s confess our dependency on him and submit to his superior plan when our plans fail. And lets treat what this world knows as an obstacle as an opportunity to spend purposeful time seeking the Lord and crying out to him in new and fresh ways, trusting that he can do more himself than what we can accomplish if we had things our way.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Roller Coaster Begins-Judges 3:7-14

I really appreciate a good roller coaster! Wooden or steel, tame or terrifying, hanging with my feet dangling or seated in a car, I enjoy these thrill rides in all their iterations. Roller coasters provide exciting two/three-minute experiences of highs and lows and loops and steep banks. That said, I wouldn’t want to spend my entire life on one. At some point, if the ride was too long or extreme, I imagine it might prove nauseating and even dangerous. Though I’ve never known anyone to spend all of their time on an literal thrill ride, I do know many who live their lives on a perpetual spiritual coaster. One compelling example of this is found in the Book of Judges. With the introduction of this book out of the way,  Judges 3:7-14 describes three victories that successfully take the reader through the first phase of one wild ride that will continue through the remainder of the work. Ultimately, this passage teaches that there are there two ways to go about living one’s life--the preferred way of reaching new heights in God's grace through obedience and faithfulness, and the un-preferred way of descending to new lows by means of idolatry and evil. 

1. VICTORY #1: Mesopotamia’s Victory over Israel-3:7-8

The patterns identified in the introduction of this book (disobedience/idolatry, punishment, and foreign powers) surface immediately as the first phase of the judges is described. This whole repetitive saga begins with Israel’s disobedience—“the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (3:7a). This is the first of three reasons given for a foreign power gaining victory over God’s people—sins of commission. Israel was doing things contrary to the law of God as revealed through Moses. They were actively engaging in sinful behavior and for this reason, they stood to receive severe discipline.

Their sinful behavior probably came a direct result of the second reason given for their failure—“and forgot the Lord their God,…” (3:7b). Often these two—sinful behavior and forgetting God—go hand-in-hand. Failure to keep God’s revelation at the forefront of one’s mind often leaves one more susceptible to committing acts against Him. This is why there are many encouragements given for the people of God to remember the word of the Lord. For example, back in Deuteronomy 11:18-19 the Lord says, “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.” It is obvious that by Judges 3, a generation or two had neglected this all-important practice of teaching the next generation about who God is and what he has said. As a result, they took God for granted, and worse, they forgot him all together!
Sinful behavior and forgetting God inevitably lead to the third reason for Israel’s failure and Mesopotamia’s victory—idolatry—“and served the Baals and the Asheroth” (3:7c). Rather than worship the one true God, the Israelites were lured in by the Canaanite influences around them and began worshipping all forms of the weather God and his mistress.

Though the original readers are not yet privy to the consequences of Israel’s disobedience, today’s students already know that those who failed at the beginning of this book were going to reap all kinds of heartache and difficulty as a result. The Israelites in Judges would have never expected the degree of pain and suffering they were in for given their failures listed here. The sad thing is, many are surprised when they suffer for giving into the same practices today. What is present in this passage is not unlike what is witnessed all too often in our own context, even among those who claim to be the people of God. Sinful behavior left unconfessed and undealt with can lead many to eventually take God for granted in their lives or forget him and his word altogether. This can eventually leave one susceptible to replacing God at the forefront and center of his/her life with something/someone else. The only thing that can ultimately result from taking a ride down this slippery slope is disaster (whether then or now).

For Israel, this disaster happens in three phases. First, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel,…” (3:8a). This is similar to what was introduced in 2:14 immediately after idolatry had been practiced by the people of God. As argued earlier in this study, the quickest way for God’s people to incur the wrath of the Lord is to extend worship to something other than him. It is no accident that immediately upon the description of Israel’s idolatry, the anger of the Lord surfaces with white-hot intensity.

So how angry is the Lord? Angry enough “that He sold them into the hands of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia,…” (3:8b). While little is known about this pagan leader, one thing is for sure: the first oppressor God sends Israel’s way is no small regional leader. In fact, this king of Mesopotamia, unlike the others that will be used to discipline Israel, is the most powerful of all the enemies named in this book. One commentator has said, “for him to have extended his tentacles as far as Judah in southern Canaan mean he was a world-class emperor” with an especially far reach (Block, Judges, Ruth, 153). That said, it is important to recognize that powerful though this first oppressor may be, there is one power who is stronger—God Himself. Nothing escapes the sovereign control of God. It is God who sells Israel into the hands of this emperor and only because God deems necessary/appropriate. While some, including some of God’s people during this time, may have pointed blame at Mesopotamia for their misfortune, ultimately, their beef was with the God they betrayed. It is he who is pulling these disciplinary strings.

As a result of their being sold to Mesopotamia, “the sons of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years” (3:8c). Because of their great disobedience, forgetfulness, and idolatry, Israel finds herself in the very same position from which God had saved them years prior—enslaved by a pagan ruler.

2. VICTORY #2: Othniel’s Victory Over Mesopotamia-3:9-11

It is in this context that God raises up the first of many judges named Othniel to lead his people to victory amid oppression. However, this only comes after “the sons of Israel cried to the Lord,…” (3:9a). Make no mistake, this outcry is not motivated by sincere penitence or contrition. Instead, it is a cry of pain and a plea for help. Remember when God answers this cry he is not doing so because Israel has made any attempt at repentance or getting it right (see notes on chapter 2:18). He is instead answering a complaint, demonstrating how utterly gracious and compassionate he is in this particular saga.

God’s grace comes in the form of a deliverer named Othniel—“the Lord raised up a deliverer for the sons of Israel to deliver them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother,…” (3:9b). Though you may not remember, you’ve heard this man’s name before, in 1:12-13.

Judges 1:12-13-“And Caleb said, ‘The one who attacks Kiriath-sepher and captures it, I will even give him my daughter Achsah for a wife.’ Othniel the son of Kenaz, Calen’s younger brother capture it; so he gave him his daughter Achsah for a wife.”

As a proven conqueror of the Canaanites and one who married withing the covenant community, Othniel is a fitting choice to lead God’s people during this time. Add to this his connection to Joshua and Caleb and Othniel stood as a model of the ideal Israelite leader whose faith produced courage and obedience (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 171).  

This is proven in the brief description of Othniel’s success—success that comes not because of his own strength, but God’s strength at work in him. Verse 10 reads, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he judged Israel” (3:10a). This verse describes, at least in part, how the Holy Spirit operated in the Old Testament world (see 6:34; 11:29; 14:19; 15:14; 1 Sam. 11:6; 16:13-14). That said, in both testaments, the Spirit of God is the agent through which God’s will is exercised (be it through a person or through creation, etc.). In the Book of Judges, when the “spirit of the Lord comes upon individuals, it demonstrates the “arresting presence and power of God, often of individuals who are unqualified for or indisposed to service for him” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 155). In this specific case, the Holy Spirit transforms a low-ranking Israelite officer with a weak resume into the ruler of Israel and a conqueror of a formidable enemy.  

“When he went to war, the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand, so that he prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim” (3:10b). Let’s put this into perspective. You have the emperor of Mesopotamia with a sprawling kingdom that reaches across the known world going up against a brand new, un-proven leader of Israel which is at this point occupies a relatively small jurisdiction in the collection of dominated regions under Cushan-rishathaim’s control. That said, what Othniel has going for him that Cushan-rishathaim doesn’t is the Spirit of God and the Lord’s promise of victory. What appeared to be an unfair fight in favor of Cushan-rishathaim actually proved to be a lop-sided victory in the opposite direction. What made the difference—the God of Israel!

What Othniel enjoyed under the Spirit’s control is similar to what believers today can enjoy because of the indwelling Holy Spirit in their own lives—confidence and victory in whatever God calls them to accomplish. As 1 John 4:4 states “greater is he that is in me than he who is in the world.” As it was in Othniel’s life, so does it prove to be in the lives of God’s people today: it is the Holy Spirit that more than covers the difference between our weakness and the strength of our foes, our inexperience and the expertise of those rage against the Lord, our limitations and the power of God’s enemies.
As a result of the Spirit’s work through Othniel, “then the land had rest forty years.” (3:11). Some speculate that the duration of this rest might involve a rounded-out figure as forty often symbolizes the lifespan of a generation. It might also be significant that the “land” is said to enjoy the rest, not the people. This reminds the reader that while geo-political peace was enjoyed here, it is not as though the people were enjoying true spiritual rest. God had brought them victory over a powerful enemy, but it is not clear that the people turned back to him, even after this success was granted. Perhaps out of deference to Othniel and his faithfulness to be used of God, the peace in the land lasted until his death. However, it would not go far beyond that. This is foreshadowed by the mention of Othniel’s passing at the end of verse 11—“And Othniel the son of Kenaz died” (3:11). 

3. VICTORY #3: Eglon’s Victory Over Israel-3:12-14

With Othniel now dead, following 40 years of relative peace under his leadership and the Spirit’s blessing, the narrator continues with “now the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord,…” (3:12a). At this point we shouldn’t be surprised as this was the response of Israel upon Joshua’s death back in Judges 2:6-11. That said, this bad habit of doing evil against the Lord will only prove to propel the people of God deeper and deeper into trouble.

In response to the evil of his people, “The Lord strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done evil in the sight of the Lord,…” (3:12b). Interestingly, the Moabites were not included among those left in the land to test Israel in 3:1-6. Instead, these were cousins of the Israelites (descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot—see Gen. 19:36-37). That said, Eglon was a more menacing figure than Cushan-Rishathaim as he lived next door just across the Jordan River and was not in some distant land. Though a force to be reckoned with, Eglon is painted in unflattering and near-cartoonish ways in the Book of Judges. His oft-repeated name comes from two words meaning fat cow (or fat bull). This name will appear especially fitting in verse 17 when the reader learns that he is extremely large (and the words employed for this description are typically reserved for livestock). But for now, Jabba the hut (I mean, Eglon) is nothing to laugh at. This caricature of a guy will soon be shown to rule over and oppress the people of God.

Eglon proceeds to amass several allies and gain a major foothold in the region belonging to Israel—“and he gathered to himself the sons of Ammon and Amalek; and he went and defeated Israel, and they possessed the city of the palm trees” (3:13). This place, “the city of the palm trees,” is a reference to the oasis site of Jericho, just north of the Dead Sea. This served as a natural stronghold for any force attempting to control the Judean wilderness and the roads leading into the central hill country (Walton, Matthews, & Chavalas, IVPBBC, 248). In other words, not only does the Lord permit the Moabites and their friends to enter the domain of Israel, he allows them to obtain a strong foothold in that domain.

It is from this foothold that Eglon begins his own period of oppression against Israel—“The sons of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years” (3:14).

So What?

So begins the roller-coaster ride that is the Book of Judges. We enter as readers at a low point of sinfulness, forgetfulness, and idolatry leading to subservience to Meopotamia. We are then taken up under Othniel who is empowered by the Lord to lead for forty years of relative peace. And then the people’s evil sends Israel over the hill, dropping ever-so quickly to new lows under the regime of a fat second-cousin named Eglon. This initial stage of the ride that we will continue to take in the Book of Judges reminds readers just how seriously God takes sin and just how damaging its many effects may be. Wicked behavior has a way of causing people to forget God which can lead to open idolatry. This must needs be punished and disciplined. That said, God does not leave his people, even while they are in a much-deserved time out, without grace. What a gracious and loving Lord! Help is available to overwhelm formidable foes, powerful influences, and enemy parties. This help comes by means of the Holy Spirit. Reliance on him wins victories in accordance with God’s will. This was true then and it is true now. However, one cannot endorse sinful behavior, forget the Lord, and have something/someone else as ultimate and enjoy the confidence that comes from the Holy Spirit. If this passage teaches us anything it is that you can’t have it both ways—sinful behavior and God’s will, idolatry and right relationship with the Lord, subservience to the world and confidence in the Spirit. So where are you on the roller coaster of life. Is your commitment to the Lord, obedience to His Word, and reliance on the Spirit taking you to new heights in your relationship with him? Or, is disobedience, forgetfulness, and idolatry sending you on a downward spiral?

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Problematic Patterns- Judges 2:16-3:6

Today we are going to wrap up the introduction to the book of Judges. This final section of the opening passages will successfully set the table for what we can expect in the individual stories that will unfold in the remainder of this important work. In any good introduction of a paper or essay, the writer will highlight what will be discussed/argued by means of a thesis statement and outline of the major points. Here, in this final portion of the writer’s introduction of Judges, something like this occurs as three patterns are presented that will reemerge again and again in the rest of the book. What is described here is what the reader can expect to see in the remainder of the story (again and again). Therefore, let’s explore these patterns today and learn how important it is to give up pursuing what is prohibited while God is still standing in our way.

1) PATTERN #1: The Program-2:16-19

During this tumultuous period in Israel’s storied history, a certain pattern unfolded in the way that God dealt with his people and the way that God’s people responded. The program that develops is simple and two-fold: God would bestow graces upon his people that they didn’t deserve and then God’s people would fail miserably to respond positively to that grace. (Hey, I didn’t say it was pretty). Judges 2:16-3:6 serves as a kind of preemptive summary of the remainder of the book. The trends and themes introduced here will be revisited with each and every judge that is described in further detail as the book progresses.

As already introduced, the patterned program begins with God’s grace. In this case, God’s grace comes in the form of judges—“then the Lord raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them,…” (2:16). As already mentioned, “judges” are not “judges” in a judicial sense as much as they are military/tribal leaders who were responsible for giving God’s people moral direction during this period. It is obvious that in the appointment of these judges that God’s anger did not cause him to totally abandon his people (or his promises made to them). Instead, and even though they didn’t deserve it, God would “raise up” judges to provided much-needed leadership in troubling times in an effort to provide deliverance. Interestingly, “deliver” (יָשַׁע) can be translated “saved” along with the connotations of redemption. God sent leaders to provide redemption even/especially when the people receiving such did not deserve it.

You would think that such generosity and grace would engender allegiance and contrition in the minds and hearts of God’s people during this period. However, they responded to such in a very different way: “Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them. They turned aside quickly from the way in which their fathers had walked in obeying the commandments of the Lord; they did not do as their fathers…” (2:17). In the face of grace, the people of God failed on many levels. First, they failed to listen to a message that was there to provide much needed guidance in a chaotic context. Second, they forsook their gracious God and ran around with other suitors who only took from them (their freedom, their blessing, etc.). Third, they abandoned the well-lit paths/examples of obedience in which their fathers walked and walked down the dark roads of wickedness. We are talking about failure in massive proportions. Rather than reaching newer and better heights of covenant relationship with their great God, they prostituted themselves and with every passing generation “reached new depths of corruption and became more stubbornly entrenched in its idolatry” (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 158).

You might say, well that is just one example. However, the same program repeats itself in the next verses (same song second stanza). First, God would extend grace: “When the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge and delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judges;…” (2:18a). Added to the description of the Judges here is the detail of what God empowered them to do. God did not just raise people up to lead; God himself was “with the judge” and by being “with” them he would “deliver them from the hand of their enemies.” In other words, He was providing much-needed leadership to those who had proved unfaithful and undeserved victory! Why? The rest of verse 18 explains “for the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed and afflicted them,” (2:18b). The idea of the Lord being “moved to pity” is a major theme throughout the book with significant implications. The word (nahama-“to breathe deeply”) can take several different connotations (many of which might be present here). It can mean to perform mourning rites, regret/change one’s mind, or grieve/feel sorry for. While the last option appears to be the primary motivating action here, it is possible that, as God is depicted elsewhere, this is an example of God threatening his people with harm (see 2:15) but then changing his mind. Sometimes, God is said to change his mind when the threatened persons repent (see Jeremiah 18:8; 26:3, 13, 19; Jonah 3:9-10). Other times this happens when someone calls upon the Lord on behalf of the threatened (Exod. 32:12, 14; Amos 7:3, 6). In some cases God is said to cease punishing after he deems the extent of a consequence sufficient (2 Sam. 24:16). Finally, on other occasions, God is said to change his mind when his people agree to his will (Jer. 42:10) (options taken from note in Block, Judges, Ruth, 131). This backdrop reveals the extent of God’s mercy in this particular case in Judges—the people have not repented, no one is praying on their behalf, the punishment does not appear too severe, and the Israelites have not agreed to do anything remotely close to God’s will. In spite of this, God still extends the hand of grace!  WOW!

However, as already mentioned in verses 16-17, the love, mercy, and grace of God to move on behalf of his people does nothing to elicit obedience and repentance on behalf of Israel. Verse 19 reads, “But it came about when the judge died, that they would turn back and act more corruptly than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them and bow down to them; they did not abandon their practices or their stubborn ways” (2:19). The program is as follows: disobedient and adulterous people whine—God extends grace—grace yields judges—judges lead victories—judges die—people grow even more corrupt. This program is a vicious, embarrassing, and altogether woeful cycle.

2) PATTERN #2: The Punishment-2:20-23

Perhaps this loathsome program is why “the anger of the Lord burned against Israel” throughout this period (2:20a). The idea of God’s anger as a burning fire was first introduced in 2:14 and is repeated here (to be seen again). God is, after all and “all-consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29)—a fire that can purify as well as burn and here, the intent is for latter (burning) to bring about the former.

God’s burning wrath and the decision made as result is put into words in verses 20-22 when it says, “‘Because this nation has transgressed My covenant which I commanded their fathers and has not listened to my voice, I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died, in order to test Israel by them, whether they will keep the way of the Lord to walk in it as their fathers did, or not,’…” (2:20-22). This statement might be divided out into three parts. First, God’s accusation is found in the last part of verse 20. “This nation” had broken (“transgressed”) his covenant and had “not listened” to Yahweh’s voice. Second God describes his reaction (2:21-“I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died”). Instead of going ahead of Israel to sweep away their enemies, God disengages his power and influence that would bring about forward progress. If you read ahead in the rest of the book, the battles fought are no longer offensive, but defensive. After the accusations and the reaction, God explains his motive—"to test Israel by them, whether they will keep the way of the Lord to walk in it as their fathers did, or not,…” (2:22). Though, given what we’ve already read in this book, one can already predict the outcome of this test, what this test reveals is how the grace and patience of God provides opportunity after opportunity for his people to learn something (about God’s superiority) and finally get it right, in spite of a terrible track record.

This declaration is followed by a demonstration of the follow through—“So the Lord allowed those nations to remain, not driving them out quickly; and He did not give them into the hand of Joshua,…” (2:23). Joshua? I thought he was dead? He is at this point. What the narrator is doing here is looking back to explain what God would use to judge his people. Those few nations that God did not hand over to Joshua while he was alive were initially left in the region to test Israel and see if they would follow up with what began under Joshua’s leadership. They failed miserably and so, as a result, God allowed those nations to remain and prove to be an instrument of judgement against his feckless people. The idea of “remaining” suggests that the nations were under no real threat and were allowed to “rest” right where they were. What is tragic here is that the very same rest God had achieved for Israel under the leadership of Joshua was now being granted to the Canaanites and other nations as they were allowed to “remain” and not be “driven out quickly.”

3) PATTERN #3: The Players-3:1-6

After describing the program that readers will see again and again in the book and the pattern of punishment that will ensue in the following passages, the writer introduces the reader to the players that will emerge repeatedly in the rest of this chapter of Israel’s history. Judges 3:1-2 reads as follows: “Now these are the nations which the Lord left, to test Israel by them (that is, all who had not experienced any of the wars of Canaan; only in order that the generations of the sons of Israel might be taught war, those who had not experienced it formerly)…” (3:1-2). The beginning of chapter 3 serves as a reminder of what was already explained at the end of chapter 2. The Lord left these nations here to test Israel—will they or will they not “accept Yahweh as their sovereign and their responsibility in fulfilling his agenda” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 137).

Which nations need to be rooted out? They are listed in verse 3—“These nations are: the five lords of the Philistines and all the Canaanites and the Sidonians and the Hivites who lived in Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as Lebo-hamath” (3:3). Let’s take a moment to learn a little about these characters as we will be seeing them time and time again in this book. The Philistines were originally a sea-faring people who had settled along the coastal plain of then Canaan. Eventually give major city-states emerged that worked independently and together to consolidate power in this region: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron (Josh 13:2-3). Sadly, it is not until a strong monarchy under David and Solomon that we will see an end to the Philistine influence in this region. The Canaanites, particularly “all the Canaanites” refers to all the people of this region at the time this was written, including the Sidonians. The Sidonians represent the people of Lebanon and Phoenicia, which bordered on the norther edge of Israel’s jurisdiction. The city-state of Sidon was a major seaport on the Mediterranean coast. Added to these are the Hivites which inhabited an area in the central hill country of Canaan ranging from Gibeon, near Jerusalem to Shechem and on north to Mount Hermon. North south, east west and central, God left people in every corner of this region that was supposed to belong to Israel to judge her for her idolatry. Once again, the narrator explains why these were left--"They were for testing Israel, to find out if they would obey the commandments of the Lord, which He had commanded their fathers through Moses” (3:4).
How do they do on their test?

There is nothing worse as a teacher than going to grade and essay and realizing from the very beginning that the student has not read or has misread the prompt. From the start of their introduction it becomes clear that they are missing the focus of what was asked and have failed to do what I’ve requested. The same happens here as articulated in verses 5-6—“The sons of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and they took their daughters for themselves as wives, and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods.” Not only does Israel fail to drive out the enemies, they marry the enemy, give their daughters to the enemy, and served their gods. YIKES!

So What?

These three patterns demonstrate that one of the worst things that God could do is give us what we want. The people of Israel wanted to give up on their program of conquest and endorse a program of adoption—adoption of pagan people into their families and pagan gods into their worship. The people of Israel wanted to trade activities that would translate into blessings from God for those things that would incur his punishment and wrath. They wanted to trade the prospect of being set apart for settling to be one of many. Rather than stand in the way of these things and keep his people from the inevitable tragedy that these choices would bring, God says in the book of Judges “go ahead.”

Friends, one of the scariest things God could tell you to do today is the very same thing: “go ahead” or “have it your way.” Sometimes the things that we choose to pursue, some of the choices that we are trying to make, may be frustrated and difficult to achieve. We complain and wonder why it isn’t easier, and yet, have you ever stopped to consider that maybe it is God himself who is keeping you from that or standing in your way for your own good? This is especially true when we are pursuing those things that God’s word tells us that are wrong. It is God’s grace that keeps us from fulfilling those desires that are outside the scope of his will or against his Word. The worst thing that he could do in these situations is give you the green light. And if he does, watch out. Though it might bring our flesh relief to get the go ahead, just because God doesn't keep you from doing wrong doesn't mean we can afford to continue down that road in the long run. The implications of our endorsement of sin, though not always immediate, will lead to destruction and God is not above allowing us to experience a measure of that so that we re-learn who he is and what he desires (even if that means learning the hard way).