OK, here's the plan (if God is willing):

1) Every day will be a new devotional. I have enough devotionals for every day for three years

2) Also as I can, I'll be posting on my new political blog (see bottom of page).

Some other housecleaning:

A) If you'd like to just get new postings sent to your email, just submit your address in the box on the left just below. There's just one possible downside, though. Occasionally I'll add a music video at the end that's relevant to the devotional, and you won't get them in the email sent to you. If I add a video though, I'll make sure to mention in the posting, so you'll know to come to the site to see it if you'd like.

B) I actually finished writing new blog posting for the TAWG at the end of 2016. So what I'm doing now is at the beginning of every month, I'll move the earliest month from 3 years ago ahead so that a "new" posting appears every day. That's why you won't find any postings for January 2014, for example.

C) When I started this Blog, I was using the 1984 edition of the NIV, and that’s what I linked to on the Biblegateway site. However, in 2011 Zondervan updated its edition and thus reworded a lot of the NIV translation. Therefore, all the links which went to the 1984 edition now redirect to the 2011 edition, which often has slightly different wording. Thus, part of my editing process has been to update my Scripture quotes in my postings. But I might have missed some, in which case you might see my quote in the posting as a little different from what comes up when you click on my citation link, since that redirects to the 2011 edition on the Biblegateway site. It's a good thing that we realize that the work of translation never ends, but it can be a kind of a pain on a site like this. If you see any difference in verbiage between my quote and what shows up as a link on the Biblegateway site, or if you hover over a link and it has "NIV1984" at the end of it, please notify me and I'll correct it.

D) I can't believe I have to say this, but here goes. At the end of every posting is a suggested short prayer that has to do with what we discussed. This is actually what I've prayed when I finished writing it. In no way am I asking you to pray the exact verbiage of my suggested prayer. It's just a springboard for your own prayer, nothing more. Quite frankly, I've never been a fan of praying rote prayers written by someone else. As with everything else I do here, to the degree it helps, great; to the degree it doesn't, chunk it.

As always, thank you so much for reading, even if it's to read one post. God bless.

[May 27]—Lessons From A Runaway

Jonah 1

Now we come to the book of Jonah, which is one of my favorite stories of the Old Testament. It’s a short book: You can easily read it in one sitting. But there’s so much meaning packed into these four small chapters that we’re going to take about a chapter a day.

First, we need just a little bit of background. Ironically, the name Jonah means “Dove,” which is the last word I would’ve chosen to ascribe to this man. He was a contemporary of Amos, so this was a time when Israel was a dominant power in the area. During this time, however, the nation of Assyria was a perennial threat, and its capital was Nineveh. This city was infamous for its aggression and brutality towards its neighbors. Commonly when it captured prisoners of war, it used large hooks thrust thru the mouths of its captives to lead them into exile. So Nineveh was A) a thoroughly wicked and brutal city, and B) a mortal enemy of Israel and Judah.

And it was to this city that Jonah was called to preach. The Lord called him and told him basically “I’m sending you to proclaim my word to Nineveh. You’re going to go to them and urge them to repent, because I’m about to execute judgment on them.”

What did he do? He ran away. He went in the exactly opposite direction. Later in the book he gives a very specific reason for his disobedience: The last thing he wanted to see was Ninevah repent. He didn’t want to see God forgive them! He wanted to watch them burn!

So he figured that if he didn’t complete his mission, Nineveh would be destroyed.

Here’s where it gets almost funny if it wasn’t so serious. Let me get this straight: You’re going to run and hide from an omniscient God. Well, what else was he going to do? Actually do what the Lord had told him to do?

So he boarded a ship heading in the opposite direction from where he needs to go. The Lord sent a storm onto the ship, and its hardened, most experienced sailors were terrified. The captain, out of concern for everyone on the ship, went and found Jonah. In stark contrast to the pagans—who at least knew that there were supernatural reasons behind the storm—the prophet was asleep below. In other words, his physical state matched his spiritual state.

They all drew lots to see who’s the cause of all this, and the lot fell on Jonah. To his credit, he finally showed some concern for people other than himself, and he urged them to throw him overboard. And to the credit of these pagans who didn’t know the one true God at all, they did their best to avoid doing this to him. But although they did their best, it was—as always—the Lord’s purpose that prevailed. They realized that they had to do the unthinkable, and tossed him overboard. And as Jonah sank into the depths, the Lord provided a big sea creature (the Hebrew is a generic term, not necessarily a whale) to swallow his wayward prophet and save his life.

So what can we learn?

A) It’s really really really foolish to try to run away from the Lord. Whether you do it literally (like Jonah) or figuratively, you’ll only end up hurting yourself.

B) When you do things your way instead of God’s way, you don’t just hurt yourself. Jonah’s disobedience jeopardized the lives of everyone on that boat.

C) It’s a sad state of affairs, but it does happen at times. More often that we’d like to admit, sometimes pagans acts better than God’s people. What that happens, it brings disgrace to the name of Jesus. This should not be. It must not be.

Alright, I think we have enough to ponder for today.

Father God, I hate to admit it, but I think there’s more Jonah in me than I care to think about. It’s not just wrong and sinful to be disobedient to you, it’s really stupid. When I’m acting like this, please wake me from my slumber.

[May 26]—Schadenfreude

Obadiah

            Do you know what that one-word title means? Websters.com defines it as “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” But in the way I’ve heard it commonly used, it usually refers to enjoyment obtained from the trouble of others to whom you’re hostile. To be clear, you might or might not have a reason to be personally hostile. Let’s say you have someone you “love to hate” in the public sphere with whom you disagree politically, or who is embracing a lifestyle you find repugnant, or maybe you’re just envious of their success. And then you hear about a terrible tragedy or huge setback in their life; maybe they just got arrested, or they just announced that they have a life-threatening illness. And you say to yourself “It couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy! Good riddance!” That’s Schadenfreude.
            And that’s the topic of today’s passage. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, the Edomites, despite being relatives of Israel, had always been unfriendly to them. Israel had really attempted to befriend them, or at least not have mutual hostilities. As best as we can determine, this attempt to reach out to them had never been reciprocated. Their attitude and actions towards Israel ranged all the way from a “cold war” to open aggression.
            We’re not exactly sure what event to which Obadiah is referring, and it’s not all that important. What is important is that Israel (referring to the entire nation, not the northern kingdom) was being invaded by a foreign power. Edom stood by and cheered them on, and later joined in the plunder. While their Jewish brothers were dying, they were standing off to the side and called out “Hit 'em again, harder, harder!”
             And then they did worse than that. Any major invasion or battle is going to produce refugees, people who’re fleeing the danger. Did the Edomites show any compassion at all? No, quite the contrary. They killed or captured as many of these poor helpless souls as possible and sold any survivors back to the invaders.
            Now, it’s quite likely that that this trouble on Israel was her own fault. Time and time again the Lord warned his people, and after enough futile warnings, he used other nations as his rod of discipline. He'd hand Israel over to her enemies for a short (or not so short) time as punishment, and she’d experience multiple casualties, loss of land, loss of resources, and loss of people to exile.
            But that in no way excused Edom’s actions which were based on horrible attitudes. Along with hatred of brothers, they were also guilty of overweening pride in their (internationally famous) wisdom and a false sense of security in their own defenses. They were sure no one could ever touch them.
            But they were wrong. Dead wrong. God was watching all this, and he’s the Lord over all nations. His Day was coming in which he’d sit in judgment over every country and tribe and person in the world. And in response to their conduct, Edom would be. . . wiped out completely. Israel would be punished, but she’d eventually recover: Her remnant would come back from the brink. But not Edom. A thief would only steal what he wanted and would probably leave something behind. But when the God of Israel was done with them, there’d be nothing left.
            So what can I take from this? What is the Lord trying to tell me today? Maybe I’ve been too prideful in my own accomplishments, in my own “wisdom.” Maybe I feel secure in my own resources like Edom did, thinking nothing can touch me. Or maybe I’m harboring an unresolved conflict with my sibling in Christ.
            If anything of these apply, I need to deal with them now. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Today.
            How about you?

Father, I see a lot of Edom in me sometimes. I may not have carried it to the degree they did, but that’s because of your grace, not because of any goodness in me. Please search me out, from top to bottom and inside-out. Whatever you see that doesn’t look like you, please cleanse and remove. 

[May 25]—Final Restoration

Amos 9:11-15

            I approach today’s reading with fear and trepidation. I love the passage itself, especially after the nigh-unrelenting negativity of the entire book up till now. After spending eight and three-quarter chapters slapping Israel up one side and down the other, he ends the book on a completely positive note. The prophet, probably with tears of joy in his eyes, predicts a time of final restoration of Israel. The Lord’s wrath will be finally and completely appeased, the people will no longer rebel against his standards and expectations, and they'll no longer have to live in fear. “Never again” will Israel be punished.
            But before we go forward, we have to deal with the elephant in the room, which is the cause of my hesitancy. How do we interpret this passage? Specifically, when is/was this fulfilled? David’s tent is obviously referring to David’s greater Son coming into his Kingdom. When is/was David’s “tent” restored?
            Most conservative scholarship falls into two camps, answering the question in one of two ways. Let me hastily add that a lot of very very smart people whom I respect differ with me on this, but I should add that a lot of very very smart people also agree with me (or more precisely I agree with them). I’d be fine with avoiding this controversy altogether (particularly on this blog), but we really can’t discuss this passage without also discussing how to interpret it.
            One side says that all (or most) of this was fulfilled at the 1st coming of Christ, especially as the Church expanded past the Jews into all the world. And there’s very good reason to do this: The apostles seem to have interpreted it as such. At the very first official church council recorded in Scripture, the main issue at hand was how much to demand of Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus. Some teachers proposed that they need to basically become Jews first, that they need to get circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law.  The apostles officially repudiated this notion; Gentiles do not have to keep the Mosaic Law. And to prove their point, they quoted today’s passage. So when someone claims that today’s passage was completely fulfilled in the early days of the Church, they have evidence for it. These people therefore claim that Israel as a nation—and the Jews as a people--no longer have any unique place in God’s plan nor are under any special care.
            Others look at Amos’s passage and take it (and passages like it) as literally as possible. They believe that this passage is referring to the return of Christ: When he comes back in power and glory, David’s “tent” will be restored once and for all, all God’s enemies will be subdued, and there will be universal peace and prosperity for 1000 years, exactly as described in today’s passage.
            Me? I think it’s partially fulfilled back in the time of the apostles (far be it from me to question their inspired interpretation of Scripture), and will be completely and (mostly) literally fulfilled when Christ returns. No, I don’t think that the Lord’s rejection of Israel (which happened when they rejected the Messiah) is either total or final. See here for more on this touchy subject.
            Why don’t I buy into the first group’s interpretation? There are quite a few reasons, but most of them can be summed up in this: Quite frankly, taking passages like this as being figuratively or spiritually fulfilled at the 1st coming or in the Church Age make no sense to me. Trying to squeeze round pegs like “I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them” into the round hole of the Church Age doesn’t seem. . . natural to me. The most natural reading to me is the more literal one.
            But no matter which side of the fence you fall on, this passage is uplifting. Wrong will be made right. All of God’s enemies will be punished. But thank the Lord, his preferred method of destroying his enemies is to turn them into beloved co-heirs. And his redeemed people will live in safety, forever. Right now in this world, to be associated with the name of Jesus Christ is to invite suffering which ranges from mockery to torture and death. But that won’t always be the case. The Day is swiftly coming in which to be associated with Christ will be the best thing that happened to anyone.
            Do you join with me in longing for that Day? (Sigh)

Lord Jesus, I have lots to look forward to when you return, but first and foremost I’m longing to see you get what belongs to you, what’s rightfully yours. Let’s see a foretaste of the Day, in my life, right here and now. 

[May 24]—Sieve

Amos 9:1-10

            One of my favorite Psalms is one you’re likely familiar with: the 139th. It’s a breathtaking picture of God’s omniscience. It doesn’t present God as being “up there” who just knows facts about everything like baseball stats or data on a computer. No, he knows every intimate detail about us. The most hover-crazy mother in the world has nothing on my Father. Let this beauty sink into your spirit for a moment:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

            But there’s a dark side to his omnipresence, as the Israelites would soon find out. The fact that God is “here” is a wonderful source of blessing and comfort to those of us who are on his “good” side. But for those on his “bad” side, they’ll find his intimate presence a not-so-pleasant experience. Verses 2-4 are basically the inverse of Psalm 139. No matter where they flee, there’s no escape from God’s all-seeing eye, which will watch over them for harm and not for good. No matter where they go, his justice will hunt them down. His omnipresence, like all his other characteristics, can either be your best friend or your worst enemy.
            After giving us another lofty description of the God with whom we must deal, he asks a rather shocking question in verse seven. The Israelites hearing this would likely have fallen over in shock. They thought themselves chosen by the Lord for special privileges and blessings. And there was that aspect of their “chosenness,” but mostly they were chosen for special responsibilities. And he downplays this very concept of being “chosen” by flatly saying that he’s also “chosen” the Cushites, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.
            He’s the Lord over all nations. No one is acceptable to him due to their physical lineage. We’re acceptable to him based on a personal relationship with him, as demonstrated by Abraham (faith which leads to works). As you’ve no doubt heard, God has many children but no grandchildren.
            There might seem to be a contradiction here between vs. 8 and vss. 1-4. In the latter the Lord tells us flat out that “Not one will get away, none will escape.” But in vs. 8 he says that “I will not totally destroy the descendants of Jacob.” So which is it? Will there be survivors of God’s wrath or not?
            The answer is found in vs. 9, specifically one word: “Sieve.” This was a huge wire mesh that they would use to sift grain from pebbles that were mixed in. The grain would fall to the ground, and the pebbles would be left behind.
            The point is that there’s no physical escape from God’s judgment. Our only hope (but it’s a sure one) is the escape route which the Lord has provided, not something we’ve come up with.  And of course that’s faith/trust and repentance.
            A final warning from Amos is in verse 10 (the remaining verses in the book are positive). If you’re telling yourself “Disaster will not overtake or meet [me],” then the Lord is giving you one last appeal: “Yes, it will.”
           
Lord Jesus, you're my shelter from the punishment I deserve. Your blood covers my sin, and there's no condemnation left for me. You know me inside-out and backwards and forwards, and you love me anyway. Thank you. 

[May 23]—Famine

Amos 8:1-14

            I love bananas; in fact, they’re my favorite fruit. They’re quick and easy to peel in the morning for an addition to breakfast when I’m running late. Of course, in summertime I have to eat them right away. Otherwise, they turn brown fast and aren’t worth eating. Once a fruit is ripe, it’s time to eat it in a hurry.
            And the time was ripe for Israel. He'd sent his prophets, including Amos, to warn them to come back to him, and their response had ranged all the way from indifference to violent hostility.
            You can’t see it in English, but there’s a pun in vs. 2: The Hebrew word קֵץ (qets, “end”) and קָיִץ (qayits, “summer fruit”) sound almost the same (per the NET Bible study notes). This is why the NIV translates the verse as “The time is ripe,” (trying to capture the pun), while the more literal NASB translates it as “The end has come.”
            Harvest time was supposed to be a time of celebration: rejoicing, parties, revelry, singing, feasting, etc. Instead, the upcoming “Day of the Lord” would bring the exact opposite: mourning, funerals, famine, and silence. He would figuratively turn their “noontime” into full darkness.
            Why? Some of this he’s hinted at before, but here he gets very specific, painfully so. They were waiting for the Sabbath to be over so that they could get back to their businesses. This alone was a bad sign: They saw the Sabbath as a burden instead of a chance to refocus themselves on their relationship with the Lord.
            And of course these business practices were less than honest. In a nigh-perfect picture of religious hypocrisy, they observed the Sabbath, and then eagerly returned to the practice of cheating people. Like a lot of merchants, they used “dishonest scales,” which meant they had one set of weights for buying and one for selling, a practice which God loathes (see here for more on this). They manipulated markets specifically so they could cheat people. They sold “the sweepings with the wheat,” which meant they’d mix in chaff from the floor along with their wheat in order to—once again—cheat people.
            Whether or not Amos is being literal when he says they “[buy] the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” isn't totally clear. Either they were involved outright with the slave trade (which would be abominable), or they simply were cheating the poor and treating them as objects to be exploited.
            And what was the attitude behind all this? We’ve discussed this before, but let me summarize a very important principle that they had forgotten: People are more important than things. All the money and material possessions in the entire world are not worth one human life.  This was something they’d obviously disregarded.
            There’s one major consequence of their sin which I’d like to address from vss. 11-14. As part of their punishment, the Lord threatened another famine, but a different one than they’d experienced before. It wouldn’t be a physical famine but a spiritual one: “a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.” He’d withdraw access to his word from their lives, and they’d desperately and futilely seek it from coast to coast.
            This bears some thought. They had access to his word. They had the Torah. They had the prophets. But as we mentioned above, they'd rejected it. And then the really really bad times would come, and then they’d be interested in hearing what God had to say. And they wouldn’t find it.
            This is a principle we’ve seen multiple times in Scripture. If God reveals something to you, you need to respond positively to it--now. If you don’t, if you ignore it, then don’t expect him to say anything further later on when you’re ready to listen. See here for how I relate this to John the Baptist, for example.
            So to sum up, I need to A) remember that people are always more important than things, and B) listen to what God tells me the first time he says it. 

Father God, please give me listening ears and a soft heart when you’re speaking, and let me see the people around me as you see them. 

[May 22]—Vindication

Amos 7:10-17

            Websters.com defines vindicate as “confirm, substantiate. . . to provide justification or defense for,” in other words, to prove someone or something right when accused. That’s the word that comes to mind when I read today’s passage.
            The first king of Israel as a separate nation, Jeroboam, was concerned that his subjects would make pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem, so he set up altars in Bethel as rival worship centers. In Amos’s day it was still the center of worship in the northern kingdom. The priests were appointed by the king, so naturally their message would have to be fully approved by him. Thus there continued to be an incestuous relationship with state and religion.
            Apparently the high priest of this worship center was Amaziah, and it’s quite possible that Amos came to preach at the very doorstep of his temple in Bethel. That way Amos could proclaim his messages of warning and repentance to everyone coming there to worship.
            And oddly enough, this state-appointed priest didn’t take too kindly to Amos’s message, especially the part about the king and nation falling to a foreign invader. Imagine that! I can't possibly understand why he didn’t embrace it with open arms, can you?
            Amaziah was completely loyal to his Master, the king of Israel. But Amos was loyal to his King as well.
            We can gain an insight into Amaziah’s view on prophets by way of his accusation against Amos, by the way. To his mind, Amos had to have been sent by Judah (their rival) in order to foster rebellion against their king. Also, based on what he was used to, a prophet got paid. And if you didn’t like what a prophet was saying you could intimidate or threaten him.
            If Amos had been a paid prophet sent by an earthly power (or just trying to make a buck somehow), then this might've worked. But Amos completely went against what was commonly thought of concerning prophets. He was an obscure shepherd and farmer until the God of Israel sovereignly called him as a representative. When he refers to a “son of” a prophet, he’s referring to a disciple of one, like the ones who gathered around Elijah and Elisha. In other words, Amos in no way sought out this job, nor was he hired out by anyone. He was called.
            Amaziah insulted, tried to intimidate, and threatened Amos, ordering him to leave the country. But Amos couldn’t leave until he completed his mission. He was bound and determined to dispatch his duty to his King, and nothing could deter him.
            And since Amaziah took a personal interest in opposing Amos, then Amos—inspired by the Lord—repaid the favor and took a personal interest in Amaziah. His wife would become a prostitute, his children would be killed, and he’d end up in exile in a foreign country until the day he died. He’d live to see all of this happen to him and his loved ones. I wonder if he ever replayed this conversation in his head years later, once Amos was. . . vindicated.
            I see two main applications here, and both sting quite a bit. First, once again I need to ask myself: “How do I respond to criticism, both from God’s word and from godly friends? David made this odd request once, and I think it’s a great one: “Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness; let him rebuke me —that is oil on my head.” Obviously Amaziah forever stands as a negative example for me to avoid. I need to look at him and say “I sure don’t want to end up like that guy!!!”
            Second, I don’t know about you, but I really need to be a lot bolder in talking to nonbelievers about the truth. Just like Amaziah, Amos forever stands as an example, but in his case it’s someone I need to emulate.
            What about you?

Holy Spirit, I plead with you to be a guard over my mouth. So often I need to speak up when I’m silent, or I speak up when I need to keep my trap shut. Yes, I really really need this. 

[May 21]—Visions

Amos 7:1-9

            Apparently the Lord’s patience with Israel was quickly running out. The Lion had roared, the formal charges had been made, judgment was coming. The Lord gave Amos three visions which give us a lot of insight into how he deals with us and our sin issue.
            God had declared earlier that he doesn’t do anything without notifying his prophets in advance. Of course this is speaking hyperbolically, but the point is still valid: He reveals what people need to know. Therefore, no one has an excuse.
            But there’s another reason (besides warning people) why the Lord reveals his planned judgment to his prophets. He revealed this in order to invite his prophet to intercede for sinful people. Amos was following in a grand tradition that included Abraham (the first man listed in Scripture as a prophet), Moses, an unnamed man of God, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.
Literally interceding means to “stand in the gap,” which is the phrase that the Lord used with Ezekiel. Between God and sinful people there’s a grand canyon called sin. The prophet acted as a “go between,” for the two parties. He represented the Lord to the people by proclaiming the word revealed to him. But he also represented the people to the Lord, pleading their case, especially when they’re about to be destroyed due to their sin.
In today’s reading, the Lord gave Amos three visions, all related to each other. The first was one of the most terrifying to people of that era, actually in any era except to modern residents of the West. Locusts, as we mentioned before with Joel, usually mean a lot of people were going to slowly starve to death—a particularly unpleasant way to die. In his vision, Amos saw the land picked clean, meaning the marauding insects got everything.
So he cried out to the Lord. Notice some things about his intercession. First, he addresses his Master as “Sovereign Lord,” denoting a healthy respect for the Person with whom he was speaking. He asked God to forgive them, but notice that he doesn’t appeal to the people’s goodness or righteousness. No, he appeals to God’s compassion. Israel looked with pride on her accomplishments and conquests which supposedly she’d done herself, but the prophet acknowledged how weak and defenseless they really were.
Also take note—this is very important—the Lord doesn’t exactly give in completely to his request. The prophet pled with the Lord to forgive, but the next verse says he “relented” and said “OK, this particular judgment won’t happen.” That’s it. He makes no promise to forgive them.
The next vision reinforced the second, although this time it seems to be describing more of a quick judgment instead of lingering starvation. Again the prophet respectfully begged the Lord to relent, and once again he did. Just like Jonah, Amos knew that he’s “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity,” and once again he demonstrated this.
But then we see something very different from the first two visions. The Lord showed him a wall and a plumb line. And if you’re not sure what that is, don’t feel bad because I had to learn about it as well. It’s a tool that people used to build walls and other structures, consisting of a long string and a weight. You held the string at the top of the wall and let it dangle, and by comparing the plumb line to the wall you could tell if the wall was built straight or crooked.
Unlike the other times, the Lord didn’t merely threaten a national calamity that affected people indiscriminately. This time, he was very specifically comparing their behavior to an objective standard. Obviously this is a symbol of his revealed word—in their case, the Torah. Also in this case, the prophet didn’t try to intercede. The Lord’s written  word was final, literally.
So I see three things this passage teaches us: 1) God’s reprieves are not pardons, 2) His people are called to intercede between him and lost sinners, and 3) His judgments are not capricious or based on a whim, but are a reasoned comparison between his standards--as laid out in his word--and our performance.
So, whom are you going to pray for today?

Father God, it's amazing to me that you invite me into your throne room and use my poorly worded prayers as you reach out to sinners. Wow. 

[May 20]—Complacency

Amos 6:1-14

            I remember a fanciful story that illustrates today’s passage, and I know I've told it before in this blog, but please forgive me. Satan was having a board meeting in Hell with his demons. As always, the subject at hand was how to hinder the spread of the Message of Jesus. The demons were putting forward ideas on how to keep people from receiving Christ as Savior. One said, “Let’s tell them that the Bible isn’t true, that’s it’s a fairy tale or myth.” That was immediately rejected by another: “But there’s too much evidence that it’s historical. We have a pretty weak case there.” Another demon suggested “Let’s try to convince people that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead.” Another: “No, that won’t work. There’s too much evidence for it, too many witnesses.” A third one offered “Let’s tell people there’s no Hell, that everyone’ll eventually make it to Heaven.” The response: “Some people’ll buy it, but the Bible’s really clear that there's a Hell. We need something that’ll get the rest in.”
            Then Satan raised his hand and all the demons were silent. He proclaimed, “All these are good suggestions. But that’s way too difficult. All we need to do is whisper in people’s ears that they can believe in Christ. . . tomorrow. Then we’ll have them.”
            Complacency. Webster’s defines it as “self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.” It’s a far more deadly enemy of my soul simply because it’s much more insidious. I really don’t have a temptation to murder someone, and although I struggle with lust, at least I recognize how dangerous it is. But complacency sneaks up you like nothing else can.
            Up until now, Amos addressed only Israel, the northern kingdom. But in vs. 1 he targets both Samaria (north) and Zion (the southern kingdom of Judah). Apparently this was a nigh-universal problem.
            You don’t need a lot of background on the cities listed here. You can do some further research on them, but basically you need to know that they were cities conquered either by Judah or Israel. The dominant tribe in the north was Ephraim, which was a son of Joseph, so in this case “Joseph” is another name for Israel. In vs. 13, “Lo Debar” literally means “nothing,” so the prophet is mocking them for their pride in conquering nothing. In vs. 14, “Lebo Hamath” was on the northern border of Israel, and “the valley of the Arabah” was on the southern border. So his judgment on them was going to be total, from border to border.
            Other than complacency (or perhaps linked to it), for what other sins was God judging Israel?
            They loved luxury (vss. 4-6). They cared about pleasure and buying only the very best of the best of the best. Completely oblivious to the coming judgment on their nation, like Paul’s enemies their god was their stomach and their destiny was destruction. Like the proverbial fool who “puts all their eggs in one basket,” they were all about immediate gratification. And their party was about to come to a screeching halt.
            Also there was the issue of pride—that’s what Amos is referring to in vs. 13, when he quotes them as saying “Did we not take Karnaim by our own strength?” Karnaim literally means “horns,” which symbolizes strength. In other words, they bragged about conquering all these cities (which would turn out to be “Lo Debar,” or nothing) and acted as if all these accomplishments are things they did on their own
            Once again, I’m completely positive that I see absolutely no correlation between what God judged Israel for and our own nation today. Absolutely none at all. Love of luxury, pride in “our” accomplishments, complacency about a God who judges? Naaaaaah. No parallel at all.

Father God, I tremble when I look at my nation and know that you are just. As much as it depends on me, let me do my part to turn aside your judgment. And please deal with us according to your grace. 

[May 19]—Let It Roll

Amos 5:18-27

            The last worship center which we’ll study from vs. 5 is Gilgal. It’s listed second in that verse, but today’s passage seems to fit quite nicely with it, as we’ll see.
            Gilgal, as you might expect from the fact that Amos cites it, was an important worship center and destination for religious pilgrims. The reason it was considered sacred by the Israelites was because of Joshua. As soon as they entered the Promised Land, Joshua had them take stones from the river and set them up as a memorial, a perpetual reminder of how the Lord dried up the river for them to cross.
            The very next thing they did after crossing the river border was to all be circumcised. Surrounded by hostile cities and tribes, Joshua (under the direction of the Lord) had all their males circumcised (despite the danger this would pose on a human level). Apparently they hadn’t done so while in the wilderness. By commanding this, God was reconfirming his covenant with Israel. The reason this place was called Gilgal? The Lord said “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you,” and Gilgal sounds like the Hebrew word for “to roll.”
            That brings us to today’s passage. Vs. 18 is the earliest recorded reference to the term “Day of the Lord.” It’s never defined, but we have a fairly decent idea of what it meant to Amos’s first hearers. It was probably the day that the God of Israel would show himself victorious over his enemies. It sometimes seems like it’s predicting the return of Christ at the end of sinful human history. But other times it’s talking about a day in the not-too-distant future when the Lord would vindicate his word and his prophets, save his redeemed people from mortal danger, and punish evildoers both in the “micro” and in the “macro.” We’ll discuss this more later, but the “Day of the Lord” might be referring to a taste of the future, a miniature foretaste of what’ll happen when the Lord Jesus returns.
            And of course the Israelites were looking forward to the Day of the Lord. Why wouldn’t they? God was on their side, wasn’t he? They could watch him as they stood on the sidelines and he crushed his (and their) foes.
            Au contraire, said the Lord. Yes, his Day was coming. The problem was that as it was, they’d find themselves on the wrong side of it! Instead of a glorious day of brightness and joy and celebration, for them it’d be a day of horror and darkness. How dark? Pitch black without a single ray of hope.
            No one on the wrong side of this Day would escape God’s wrath. Amos says that it would be like “a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him.” Just when you think you’ve escaped the worst of it, you’ll discover you haven’t gotten away with anything.
            Why was he warning them of this? Why was he so angry at them? Weren’t their religious rituals enough? Um, no. He wasn’t looking at their religion with neutrality or mild distaste. He hated it. He despised it. It disgusted him, like the church of Laodicea would later on. I think the only thing he hates worse than complete paganism or blatant idolatry is false religion which carries his name.
            This is why I bring up Gilgal, and I think Amos did back in vs. 5. Remember what it means? In vs. 24 he tells them to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” Their society had major injustices flowing through like sewage, and he’s telling them to clean it up. Stop the injustice in the courts. Don’t let the rich trample the poor any more. If they didn’t make the necessary changes, he’d send them into exile.
            But we need to keep this in context. Was social reform enough?
            NO!!! Please go back to verse 4. You can’t have a good cure if you have the wrong diagnosis. The “macro” injustice was a symptom. The root problem was not social injustice or legal oppression. He calls them in verse 4 to “Seek me and live.” They needed to come back to him. They needed to repent in their personal lives. They needed to seek his face. They needed to restore their relationship with him.
            Once again I remind you that this passage is applicable in some ways to believers as well. The apostle John tells us to “continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming,” which opens the strong possibility for all of us that we will be unconfident and ashamed at his coming.
            Hmmmmmm.

Lord Jesus, I know you’re coming. I want to remain as close as possible, in lockstep with your Spirit. When you return, whether I’m in the grave or not, I want full confidence when I see you. Please. 

[May 18]—Immanuel

Amos 5:14-17

            Of all my favorite names for my Savior, probably just about my favorite would be Immanuel. Such a deep meaning found in such few words: God with us. When he took on a human body and stepped into this world, he forever changed the world, both seen and unseen.
            But what do we mean when we say that name? Specifically what do we mean when we say that God is “with us”? Well, we know that he lives inside us, is permanently connected to us, and forever identifies with us. That never changes for believers, and is utterly independent of your performance.
            But there’s another sense in which he might or might not be "with" us. If we’re doing something in disobedience to him, he’s obviously not going to put his stamp of approval on us. Even if it’s not intrinsically sinful (like adultery), we might be trying to accomplish his plan with our own methods. In that case, the kindest gift he can give us is a magnificent failure before we get too far.
            That brings us to today’s passage, which I believe relates to the second of the religious sites which the Lord mentions in vs. 5: Beersheba. This was the place that Abraham met King Abimelech, where the king said of him “God is with you in everything you do.” Years later Abraham’s son Isaac stayed there, and the Lord told him “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” Abimelech (probably another king with the same name or title) recognized the same truth about Isaac: “We saw clearly that the Lord was with you.”  And finally Jacob—near the end of his life as he passed thru Beersheba to go to Egypt—was told by the Lord “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you. . .”
            Thus visitors to Beersheba associated with that place the promise that the Lord would be with their ancestors. And naturally they believed that the God of Israel would be with them as well. They assumed that the righteousness of their ancestors carried over to them, especially since they faithfully visited the shrines.
            But what did the God of Israel say about this? “Seek me and live. . . do not journey to Beersheba.” Their religious pilgrimages were worse than worthless, since they didn’t have a right relationship with the God who appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
            If you want the Lord to be “with” you in the sense of smiling on you and yours, there are conditions on this. We must seek him. That means hating and shunning evil and loving and seeking good.  And in the context of this chapter, it means we treat others well. As best as we’re able, we work for justice for the oppressed in society. And in our personal relationships, from our “inner circle” and working outwards, we treat others with love and compassion and in truth.
            There was a very deep problem in how these people viewed things. They assumed that the Lord would be with them because of their ancestors and because of their religious rituals. Well, he’d be “with” them all right. He'd be in their midst, just not in the way they expected. He’d be “with” them in just the same way as he passed through the midst of Egypt, and this time he wouldn’t be “passing over” them like before.
            When I say I want his presence more in my life, do I really mean it? Really?

Yes, Lord, I want more of your presence in my life. No matter what it costs me. I’m coming near to you now, and I ask that you do the same. 

[May 17]—Transformation

Amos 5:1-13

            Now we come to the 5th chapter of Amos, which is a really pivotal piece of this book. The problem is that we A) don’t speak Hebrew, so we miss some of his “puns,” and B) don’t immediately recognize many of the allusions he makes. That's a good case for getting a good study Bible with some notes, especially the NIV Study Bible. 
            Verses one thru seventeen are written in the form of a lament. When someone died, it was common for the family to hire professional mourners, and this is like a dirge they'd sing at a funeral—in this case, Israel's.
            Verses 4-6 are really central to the entire book. The Lord’s plea to his wayward people could be summed up in four words: “Seek me and live.” In fact, this could really sum up his main message to fallen humanity.
            If I mentioned “Washington D.C.,” then that brings up history and images in your mind. You might think of the White House, or the Supreme Court. If I mention the name “Philadelphia,” you might think about the Colonial history associated with the city. But if you were completely ignorant of American history and politics, then those names would mean little or nothing to you.
            That’s why we need some background here, so that we can understand how Amos’s message would resonate with his first listeners. He references three separate religious centers which held a lot of profound meaning for his first audience: Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba.
            As we mentioned before, Bethel was the location of Jacob’s dream. This was where the Lord first met Jacob, and Jacob’s life was forever transformed after that. The Lord promised to care for Jacob, and 20 years later he returned to that spot and—acknowledging that the Lord had kept his part of the bargain—recommitted himself to serving the God of his father and grandfather.
            What did Bethel mean to Amos’s hearers? It was the place where the Lord met and transformed the life of Jacob, and it was there that his descendants celebrated their inheritance of his blessings and promises.
            And the Lord was still transforming, as expressed in creation. He brings out the stars in their constellations as they dance across the sky. He turns midnight into dawn and then back again. He pulls water out of the oceans and seas, pours them over land and transforms dry land into fertile ground.
            Well, the people were transforming too. They'd gone from bad to worse. They were transforming justice into bitterness and were casting righteousness down to the ground. They were oppressing the poor through heavy taxes on straw and grain, things which the less-fortunate depended on for life. They were turning good men into silent ones out of fear.
            And here was Amos’s word to them: The Lord was going to do some final transforming of his own. If they didn’t turn back to him and start treating people with justice, he was going to transform their lavish mansions into ruins, their lush vineyards into dust bowls, and their cities into wastelands.
            When the Lord intervenes in your life, it changes you. But sometimes we forget about what he did for us. The wonder at his grace and the marvel at his wonders fade over time. And I firmly believe this: There's no stagnation, no standing still in our relationship with him. We’re either progressing or falling back.

Lord Jesus, you’re calling me to seek you, and I’m answering. I want to be changed by you, not conformed to the pattern of this world. Please renew my mind and mold me into your likeness. Please give me a holy dissatisfaction about where I am. Onward and upward!

[May 16]—People Get Ready!

Amos 4:6-13

            The people of Israel were committing idolatry, some subtly and others more blatantly. They oppressed the poor and abused the legal system in order to deny a voice to those who couldn’t defend themselves. Many of them attended worship regularly and put some effort into following the proper form and presenting the proper sacrifices. But the Lord knew their hearts and saw how they were treating both his Name and each other.
            So how did he respond? Did he just swoop down and destroy them without any further warning? Of course not, although he’d have been justified in doing so.
            He sent the prophets, and apparently when that didn’t work, he sent harsher measures. C. S. Lewis said that God whispers to us in our pleasures and shouts at us in our pains. He had sent disaster after disaster after disaster upon them.
            Why? Was it because he was a sadist? Quite the opposite. He loved them. He took no pleasure in the prospect of them dying in their sin, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.
            No, he was doing this to wake them up from their slumber. Note the poignant refrain. He lists the disasters he inflicted on them: extreme famine, drought, blight and mildew, locusts, Egypt-style plagues, enemy assaults, and the complete overthrow of entire cities a la Sodom. And he ends each verse thus: “Yet you did not return to me.”
            First off, we need to get past this silly notion that I’ve heard before, that God would never actually send horrible things into people’s lives, that he only “allows” them. You can make a case that in certain circumstances it’s the Lord “allowing” bad things to happen to us, like he did with Job. But there are other times in Scripture in which it explicitly states that the Lord himself sent calamity on a city or nation. Yes, he does do that sometimes.
            And sometimes—not all the time—he sends disaster into someone’s life. Why does he do this? Sometimes we know, but most of the time we have to adopt a very humble attitude to avoid repeating the mistakes of Job's friends.
            But let me speak a word of complete frankness to my siblings in Christ. If you’re involved in a sin and refuse to repent, especially if you’re publicly bringing dishonor to the name of Christ, and then something terrible happens to you, that might be the reason.
            Let me clarify, however. This has nothing to do with "punishing" you for your sin, if by that term you mean getting what you deserve. If you’re a believer in Christ, you'll never get what you really deserve from God. It’s an issue of getting your attention in order to bring you back to himself and to preserve his good name. Yes, he takes his reputation very seriously.
            But they’d disobeyed the Torah, they’d ignored or been hostile to his prophets, and they’d ignored his more blatant attempts to get their attention, so he was going to have to resort to even harsher methods. He told them, “Because you’ve ignored my instructions and warning up until now, prepare to meet your God.”
            You see, we’re all going to meet him sooner or later. The nonbeliever avoids him and hides from him. But as someone once told me, “You can meet him as your Savior now, or you can meet him as your Judge later.” Any person with any sense would prefer the former.
            As for believers, we'll also meet him either sooner or later. We can come to him in repentance and ask his forgiveness, and in “meeting” him in this way, we save ourselves a lot of grief, both in this life or in the next.
            And what God is this whom we’ll meet? Read this verse slowly please. Ponder who this is we’re dealing with:

He who forms the mountains,
    who creates the wind,
    and who reveals his thoughts to mankind,
who turns dawn to darkness,
    and treads on the heights of the earth —
    the Lord God Almighty is his name.
           
            In other words, he'll quite literally be either the best Friend or the worst Enemy you’ll ever encounter.
            You need to open up your heart to him and deal with him now. Don’t wait. Whether you’re a nonbeliever or a believer who knows better, don’t wait. Please.

Father God, I open my heart open to you. Lord Jesus, your blood is the only plea I have. Please examine, cleanse, and change. 

[May 15]—Repentance Schmenance

Amos 4:1-5

            Someone one said that anyone who likes either politics or sausage should carefully avoid seeing either being made. I love sausage, and in my case, it certainly could be said that “ignorance is bliss.” I don’t know exactly how sausage gets made, and I don’t want to know. Ever.
            The reason I bring up this rather morbid segue is because of the 1st verse in today’s passage. Amos, ever the picture of subtle criticism, compares the upper income ladies of Israel to cows. Bashan was a region of Israel just east of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, and it was famous for its choice, pampered cattle. One of my favorite comic strips was The Far Side, and I remember seeing one in which cows are in a line leading to the slaughterhouse, and one of them is cutting ahead of the others, and one of the cows is yelling at the cutter “Hey, you! Get back to the end of the line!”
            You see my point. He was comparing these wealthy women to cattle because they were pampered and supposedly had their every need cared for, but they were just being prepared for the slaughter.
            And what specifically were they guilty of? Well, they crushed the poor, oppressed the needy, and treated their husbands with contempt. All they cared about was their luxurious lifestyle. And that was going to come to an end very shortly and very painfully. The fish hooks in the mouth were an extremely torturous way of carrying off prisoner of war into exile. By the way, that was something in particular that Assyria was famous for, and this was in fact the nation that the Lord used to punish Israel and destroy her.
            But what I’d like to focus on even more sharply is what the prophet says about their worship. What did the Holy Spirit think about it?
            Well, he invited them to “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more.” Bethel and Gilgal were very sacred in Israel’s history as places in which God intervened on their behalf. Bethel was the place of Jacob’s famous dream, and Gilgal was where all Israel was circumcised as they entered the Promised Land.
            They offered their tithes just like they were supposed to, except they were supposed to be using unleavened bread most of the time. However, leaven was used in the thanksgiving offerings, which Amos references in vs. 5. Scholars are divided as to whether he's condemning them for using leaven, but based on the context, I don’t think so.
            You see, the main issue wasn’t following the correct formula. The main problem was the condition of their hearts, which then overflowed into how they treated the poor and other people.
            Now matter how often they went to corporate worship or how often they sacrificed, God was not impressed. They didn’t come with a right heart, and that was all-important.
            You probably didn’t notice this, and I certainly didn’t until commentators pointed it out to me. Do you notice anything missing in his description of their worship? He lists thank offerings and freewill offerings. What’s not there? Like the non-barking dog in the The Silver Blaze, it’s what’s missing that’s all important.
            There’s no sin offering mentioned here. There’s no indication that they had any sense of how much they’d offended the Holy God of Israel.
            You see my friend, there’s no true worship that he accepts until the sin issue is dealt with. Now hopefully you know that just killing an animal and spilling its blood—even if the ritual is performed perfectly—would not solve the problem. There had to be—as Joel put it—a rending of the heart. There had to be, there has to be, an acknowledgement of the seriousness of our sin. That leads to confession, and there has to be a blood sacrifice.
            And of course all the blood of all the animals in the Old Covenant were only shadows of the one and only true sacrifice which would appease God’s wrath for all time.
            But for those of us who are believers, who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, there’s still something we need to consider: How’s our worship? Is it something he finds acceptable? Something with which he’s pleased? Is the sin in our lives dealt with? If not, then what are we doing?

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

[May 14]—Hauled Into Court

Amos 3:9-15

            Just like I’ve never encountered a lion in the wild, I’ve never been sued, so I can’t really relate a lot of personal stories about this. So instead I’ll provide a little background to help us understand today’s passage.
            This is basically a lawsuit which the Lord was bringing against his people in Israel. He'd made a covenant--a formal agreement or contract--with them in the days of Moses. In order to bring suit against someone or accuse them of a crime, the standard was two or three witnesses. When the Lord formalized the covenant near the end of Moses’ life, he called heaven and earth as witnesses to it.
            Here he brings suit against Israel, accusing them of breaking their solemn agreement. He calls as witnesses Ashdod (of the Philistines) and Egypt. Both of these were mortal enemies of Israel, and of course the Israelites saw them as uncircumcised, godless pagans. This was a harsh insult to bring them as witnesses, as if they were Israel’s moral superiors.
            He specifically brings up four things which had got his attention, either signs of criminal activity or crimes themselves.
            First, he calls his witnesses to note that there was “unrest” in Israel. Our God is the God of peace, not disorder. Where he reigns, there’s peace. Where he doesn’t, where people just do things their own way, there’s going to be all sorts of strife and chaos.
            Second, he’s seen lots of oppression. He doesn’t go into a lot of details here, since he’s already outlined what he means in the last chapter. Again, where it’s acceptable to do things your own way instead of God’s way, obviously you’re going to see injustice and the “little guy” getting stomped.
            Third, there’s lack of knowledge of how to do right. But how’s he condemning them for this? Because their ignorance was willful ignorance. If they didn’t know about right and wrong, it certainly wasn’t because they didn’t have access to his word. They also had the prophets, the ones sent by the Lord himself to knock on their foreheads ala Biff Tannen in Back To The Future: “Helloooo! Think McFly!”
            And finally he talks about storing up in their fortresses what they’ve “plundered and looted.” Of course, the very fact that they’ve “plundered and looted” this stuff signifies that it’s not theirs. But they’ve stored this stuff away when people are in need, completely disregarding the God who’s watching all of this.
            As he’s stated before, these “fortresses” in which they’ve trusted, whether literal or not, were not going to prevent the Lord from giving them what they deserved. It would all come crashing down on them.
            Now we need a little bit of background for verse 12. A hired hand watching sheep wasn’t usually expected to snatch a lamb out of a lion’s mouth. But to prove that he didn’t steal the sheep, he’d try to get at least an ear or a bone to show the owner. The Lord wanted to be their shepherd, but now he was a lion to them, and most of the nation would be devoured.
            But not all. There would be a remnant based on his grace. Yes, verse 12 is talking about his grace. As Isaiah said, “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.” If he'd treated them exactly like Sodom, that would’ve been exactly what they deserved.
            And once more a little basic background for verse 14. In the ancient Near East it was  a custom that a convicted criminal could find amnesty by holding onto the horns of an altar. This is talking about the horns on the altar of Bethel, which is referring to the altar built by King Jeroboam as a rival to the temple in Jerusalem. So their first problem was that they were going to the wrong altar. Second, the Lord explicitly told them that a murderer couldn’t find mercy that way, and there’s never any record that he sanctioned letting offenders go because they held onto horns on any altar. Instead of trusting in some superstitious ritual, they needed to turn back to the Lord in repentance.
            Once again, I see lots of applications. For me, this is reminder of how important trust is, specifically in what or whom is my trust? Is it in a fortress I’ve built up? Or is in the Rock of my Salvation?

Lord Jesus, for all the times I’ve built on a foundation of sand, please forgive me. By your grace, I want to build on you from now on.