[May 31]—Expectations

Micah 6:6-8

            Due to time constraints, we won’t spend a lot of time in the book of Micah, but I’d like to spend a day talking about its most famous passage. Verse 8 is that one I’m referring to, but it’s good to take it in context.
            Yes, the Lord required Old Covenant believers to give sacrifices. The book of Leviticus is filled with very precise instructions on this. The blood of animals had to be spilt when sin was committed. And contrary to what you might think, the offering of sacrifices didn’t end with the Old Covenant. The book of Hebrews, one which discusses sacrifices extensively, lists two sacrifices which New Covenant believers are expected to render: The sacrifice of praise, and being generous with others.
            But the point of today’s passage was that even under the Old Testament sacrificial system in effect, this wasn’t the most important thing in a believer’s daily life. Someone could offer up all the livestock in Israel and watch it go up in smoke, and God wouldn’t be impressed if it wasn’t accompanied by something else. And that something else is the subject for today.
            As believers, our sins are forgiven, and our eternal destiny is secure. That’s not the issue. But what does he require of us right now? What’s really important to him? Verse 8 is widely regarded as the best summary.
            The first thing he wants is for us to “act justly.” Literally it says to “do justice,” and the NET Bible study notes say it’s in the sense of “promote.” Justice is what we should be striving for in the public sphere. It means we promote the standard that people are treated with justice on the “macro” level. We should be promoting just laws and a just legal system. Bribery—something which God frequently condemned and outlawed in the Mosaic Law—must be minimized as much as we can accomplish in a fallen world.
            Let me get on my pet peeve about this for moment, please. Good Christians can disagree about whether or not gambling should be legalized, whether we want the state to step in and keep people from gambling who want to gamble. But can we agree that it's a travesty, a mockery of everything that's good and right and just and decent, for government to promote the lottery? It preys on the people who can least afford it, encourages them to place their financial hopes on luck or chance instead of hard work and savings, and cultivates some of the darkest urges of fallen humanity.
            And then we are to love “mercy,” as the NIV renders it. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you might've guessed what word this is. That’s right—it’s chesed, just about my favorite word in Hebrew. In case you're not so familiar with it (and missed my posting on it), It’s variously translated as “unfailing love,” “mercy” [as here], “faithfulness,” and lovingkindness (in older translations). This is what David appealed to when he had grievously sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love.” As the Lord’s shown it to us, we’re supposed to show it to others.
            This is different from justice. Justice is what we need to promote as a society, in the “macro.” In the “micro” settings of our daily life, we need to show compassion and mercy and forgiveness. This is a really important distinction to make. As a society, the legal system is not there to promote forgiveness. A police officer can't have as his first priority the promotion of love and forgiveness. It’s entirely inappropriate for a judge to “forgive” someone of their crimes; that’s not his place. His job--his God-given responsibility--is to administer justice according to the law and keep the social order.
            But most of us don’t have that type of responsibility. In our daily lives, we have to treat others as the Lord’s treated us. And that leads into the last thing the prophet lists as what God expects of us. We're supposed to walk humbly with him. We should have a very low estimation of our own righteousness: “[If] you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” And we should consciously keep to the forefront of our minds that everything good in our lives comes ultimately from our Father, not our own efforts and certainly not because we deserve them.
            Promote justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. I think that’s enough for us to work on for right now.

Father, please give me what I need to stand up for what’s right, to treat others as you’ve treated me, and to walk humbly with you. By your grace. 

[May 30]—Lessons From The Tree

Jonah 4

            We’re not exactly sure how the Lord did it, but somehow he made it clear to Jonah that he was satisfied with the city’s repentance and that he’d forgiven them.
            And Jonah reacted in a way that I’m sure absolutely no evangelist out there ever would. Most evangelists or missionaries or other ministers I know would be discouraged by a lack of positive response. If they saw what Jonah saw, they’d be thrilled. No, they’d rub their eyes to make sure they weren’t dreaming. No, they’d. . . well, I’m not sure how they’d react, but they sure wouldn’t act like Jonah did.
            He saw that the people repented, and he knew his theology pretty well. He knew from Moses and the Psalmists that the Lord is the “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Remember, there was absolutely nothing wrong with Jonah’s theology, what he knew about the Lord.
            The problem was his heart. He hated the Ninevites so much that he let that blind him to some things he might not have considered. My first question to him would be "Uh, Jonah, you knew that the Lord is ‘gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love’? You don’t even have to know your Bible to know this about him: You know it in your personal life. When you rebelled and ran away from what he called you to do, he forgave you and gave you your instructions 'a second time.'"
            But he wanted forgiveness for himself and his own, not for his enemies. In his mind, that was too far.
            We might condemn him, but I think a quick condemnation might be a sign that we haven’t really wrestled with the implications of God’s grace. If someone molests children and asks forgiveness, will Christ forgive him? What about someone who rapes an elderly woman and sets her on fire (which some people have done)? What about someone who tortures an innocent person for the State? If they repent and ask forgiveness for Jesus’ sake, will he forgive?
            Yes. Something about that really bothers me, but yes, that’s what the Bible unequivocally teaches. And I know that there are people who can’t accept that, and one of the talk-show hosts I love to listen to—Dennis Prager, who’s a practicing Jew—says that this is one of the main reasons he can’t accept Christianity. It's unthinkable to him to the Lord would just let someone off like that.  And my response to him would be “Well, Dennis, with all respect, you accept the Old Testament, so what about Nineveh?”
            Let’s see God’s response to Jonah. He simply asks him “Is it right for you to be angry?” And the answer to that question is “No.” He doesn’t have the right to be angry. He'd sinned against the Lord and deserved death as much as anyone. But his self-righteous attitude wouldn't let him recognize the depth of his own sin, so instead of answering, he stormed off in a huff. He walked outside the city and sat down to watch what would happen, undoubtedly hoping against hope that he’d see a replay of Sodom and Gomorrah.
            The Lord graciously provided a plant to shade him, probably a castor oil plant. Jonah was happy about the shade, still perfectly happy to accept God’s goodness but unhappy about seeing his enemies getting it. The Lord then provided a worm to destroy it, and again Jonah was baking in the heat. Then we come to the final recorded conversation between God and Jonah.
            He asked Jonah almost the same question as before, but this time he’s more specific. Jonah was angry about Nineveh being spared, and then he was angry about the plant. Let me paraphrase the Lord’s response: “Jonah, this was a plant. I caused it to grow overnight, not you. And I caused it to die. And you were concerned about—let me remind you—a plant. But I created each and every one of those people down there. I fashioned each and every one of them in their mothers’ wombs. They bear my image, and that makes them infinitely precious to me. There are at least 120,000 people down there who don’t really know right from wrong [which might be a reference to children]. And if you don’t care about the people, Jonah, don’t you at least care about the animals?”
            How did Jonah respond to this? Well, it’s not recorded, but we know his story, so this was recorded as Scripture, so Occam’s razor would seem to dictate that we get this narrative from Jonah himself. If so, then that’d mean that apparently Jonah repented of his self-righteous and cold-hearted attitude. At least I hope so.
            But no matter how he responded, it should be obvious how we should. We must, we must  do two things: A) repudiate any illusions of self-righteousness, and B) take on God’s attitude towards the lost. He doesn’t want anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance. Will you join me in this?

Yes, Lord, by your grace, I will. Clean out any stink of self-righteousness, and give me your eyes towards the lost. 

[May 29]—Lessons From The Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy

Jonah 3

            Sorry about the title, but I’m a big Star Wars fan, and I’ve been waiting for about three years to use that line. 
            I think one of the most beautiful and most meaningful sentences in all of Scripture is found in the first verse of today’s passage. In fact, the part that really gets me is a little three-word phrase: “a second time.” Like the dog who didn’t bark in The Silver Blaze (by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), sometimes it’s what’s missing that’s all-important. Notice what’s missing here. There’s no condemnation of Jonah’s disobedience and rebellion, nothing about how he put the sailors’ lives in danger, and no mention about a probation period. 
            He’s the God of Second Chances. No matter how badly we screw things up, no matter what we’ve done, he stands ready to forgive. And when he forgives, he promises to never bring it up again. Never. Ever. There’s no probation period in which “We’ll see how it goes, then maybe we’ll talk about going back to the way things were before.” All we have to do is come to him and agree with him that we’ve done wrong (which is what we mean by “confessing”), and he forgives and cleanses from the inside-out.
            So finally Jonah obeyed the Lord and went to Nineveh. The author takes time to mention how large the city was—it took about three days for him to tour the city, and 4:11 says that there were at least 120,000 people living there (see my note tomorrow about this). So we’re talking a huge amount of lives at stake.
            I’ve had Bible professors and some teachers say that vs. 4 is the sum total of Jonah’s message, that he said absolutely nothing to them to give them any hope of forgiveness if they repent. That’s possible, I suppose, but with all respect, I think it’s a summary, not necessarily the exhaustive total of what he told them. I’m sure he didn’t want to give them any message of hope, but it looks like he was finally obedient in telling them what God wanted them to hear, not what Jonah wanted to tell them. Of course, if he had a choice in what to tell them, he might lie to them and tell them that everything’s going to be perfume and roses in their future, then sit back and laugh as the city burns.
            No matter what exactly he told them, an incredibly amazing thing happened. This incredibly sinful city, the scourge of the Ancient Near East, a place responsible for the destruction of hundreds of thousands if not millions. . . listened. And boy, did they listen.
            Talk about your plot twist! Let me remind you of something. Israel/Judah didn’t listen to Isaiah or Jeremiah or Amos or Ezekiel. The Lord sent prophet after prophet after prophet to his people, and their reaction usually ranged from indifference to violent rejection. Why did Nineveh respond positively when Israel didn’t? Some might say the Lord sovereignly moved in the hearts of the Ninevites and he didn’t do so to the Israelites. Others might give a more human-oriented explanation: Maybe the Ninevites were just ready to hear, and his appearance and message caught them at the right time. How much of it was God, and how much was the decision of the people, and how do those two interact? We don’t know exactly, or at least I don’t.
            But that open question doesn’t affect my next point I want to draw from this. Until this life is over, there’s always hope for anyone. Please don’t give up on them. This is the point I made with Saul of Tarsus. You can’t tell by looking at someone whether or not they’ll respond positively to the Message.
            And finally we see that the Ninevites learned the same thing Jonah learned back in verse 1: He truly is the God of Second Chances. When they repented, he listened and forgave and relented from the destruction he'd threatened.
            That’s the type of God that he is, which I’ve discovered in my personal life over and over and over again. Have you?
             And now, presenting this message far better than I could ever dream of doing, here's the inimitable Veggie Tales song "God of Second Chances"

Father, you truly are the God of Second Chances. And third, and fourth. . .  Thank you. Make me a faithful herald of this awe-inspiring grace, this incredible mercy. Please. 

[May 28]—Lessons From The Belly

Jonah 2

            So the prophet was thrown overboard, and the Lord graciously provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Chapter two is his song of thanksgiving and hope that he sang while he was in there.
            Before we get to that, let’s tackle an important issue. Is this book literally true? Was there a literal man named Jonah who was on the ship, who was swallowed by a fish for three days, and who preached Nineveh into repentance? Some say it’s a nice story with some moral lessons, but it’s not to be taken literally. Here’s my response to that: I think I’d trust Jesus Christ as an interpreter better than anyone else, right? So what did he say? When predicting his death, he told his listeners “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” He also said that the generation of Ninevites who listened to Jonah and repented at his preaching would rise up at the last day and condemn the generation that heard Jesus and rejected him. That would be awfully hard to do if the story of Jonah’s just a fairy tale. So I think I’ll take his interpretation of the stories of Jonah, Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah’s Ark, and our first parents over the interpretation of a Bible “scholar” who says different. And in each of the cited references I just made, he interprets them as having literally happened. 
            So getting back to Jonah’s song in the belly, do you notice anything about it? Does it look familiar at all? If you said, “Well, it looks a lot like a Psalm,” then move to the head of the class. It is very similar to the Psalms. Notice that it doesn’t even really ask the Lord for help; it thanks him in advance for deliverance which he fully anticipates. He expects that he'll soon be giving thank offerings in the temple. He describes how he was sinking into the depths, the seaweed was wrapped around his head, and he was on his way to the next world. But the Lord heard his cry and answered him. And this would be his testimony: “Salvation comes from the Lord.”
            This man knew his Scripture. He knew God’s word, both the written version and the word which had come to him directly. So what happened? Why was he heading to Tarshish at the beginning of the book?
            Because good theology and knowledge of the facts about God do not always lead to a close relationship with the Lord. Just because someone knows the word of God inside and out doesn't necessarily mean that they know the God of the word. There are plenty of people who know the Bible forwards and backwards but don’t have a relationship with him at all.
            And even those of us who’ve known him for a long time can fall into the danger of knowing the Bible better than we know Christ. They say “familiarity breeds contempt,” and that can include Scripture, especially if we haven’t cultivated a personal relationship with him. Our hearts can grow cold towards him.
            There’s another lesson I’d like to point out here. I have no doubt that Jonah was a believer. He had a personal relationship with the Lord, but he’d let his personal animosity towards Nineveh wreck that. So he was disobedient.
            And so he had to go through all that hardship on that boat, and then he experienced a harrowing journey to the bottom of the sea, and then he got to spend three days in the belly of that fish. How do you think it smelled down there? Think it was nice and  clean?
            We’ve discussed this before, but it definitely bears repeating. A believer cannot lose his salvation, but if he persists in disobedience, he’ll end up seriously regretting it. He might undergo financial loss, or marital strain, or health issues, up to and including death. Of course my favorite example of this was David when confronted by Nathan about his sin. David confessed “I’ve sinned against the Lord,” and the very next words out of Nathan’s mouth were “The Lord has taken away your sin, you’re not going to die.” But then the prophet went on to predict that David’s life would be marked by tragedy for the rest of his days because of this period of disobedience.
            So there are two major lessons here, and I think both are pretty applicable to me. How about you?

Lord Jesus, as the hymn says may I never outlive my love for you. I love your word so much, but mainly because it’s an avenue into your presence. When the coals of my heart are cooling off, blow on them and do whatever’s necessary to ignite them into flame once again. Please. 

[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


            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.” To paraphrase the singers in Israel, logical arguments against biblical truth have slain their thousands, but sheer complacency has slain its tens of thousands. 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.

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.