December 10th, 2018

Stupid Pills

2 Samuel 10:3 “The Ammonite nobles said to Hanun their lord, ‘Do you think David is honoring your father by sending men to you to express sympathy?’” (NIV).

Observation: Hanun had succeeded his deceased father as Ammonite king. In an act of kindness, David sent an official delegation to express sympathy in Hanun’s loss, but Hanun’s advisors persuaded him that David’s motives were impure. In turn, Hanun humiliated the envoys by, among other things, cutting off their garments at the buttocks. Not surprisingly, the insult led to war in which David was victorious over Hanun and his allies.

Application: There is an oddity here we must not miss: “When the Ammonites realized they had become a stench in David’s nostrils” they prepared for war (2 Sam. 10:6). When they realized! Had they taken a stupid pill that morning? They had intentionally visited profound humiliation on David’s envoys; should they not have had forethought as to the implications of their actions? Any time governmental representatives of a powerful nation are intentionally brought low, doesn’t it seem reasonable to expect the offended ruler to consider it an act of war?

The phrase when they realized suggests that the Ammonites were clueless. But think for a moment. Assume the United States sent several ambassadors to honor the deceased leader of another country. Upon arrival, their host cut off their garments at the buttocks and sent them back to their official plane. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that the president would consider it an intentional offense? 

Is it difficult to conceive of the Ammonite stupidity in this story? We would never similarly dishonor our King and Lord, we self-righteously claim. O really? He said to pay Caesar his due; have I never fudged a deduction or taken pay under the table? He tells me to cherish my wife; has my behavior never sent her tearfully to bed? He bids me to work for my employer as unto Himself; have I never allowed Internet diversions into company time?

The list of possible parallels between the Ammonites and me is fearfully long.  Thankfully our King is a forgiving king if I will but repent, but absent repentance, should I react as an Ammonite surprised to find I might be a stench in the King’s nostrils? To be guilty indeed, but to then lay that awful burden at His feet, is the gateway to ultimate freedom. It moves us in an instant from the posture of enemy to one of receiving unparalleled affection.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, You have seen my every act of insult and rejection, yet You pursue me. You know my every offense as though each one had intentionally pierced Your side personally. Forgive me, Lord, that I might spend my days in uninterrupted intimacy with You.

December 9th, 2018

Early Hires

Matthew 20:13  “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?’” (NIV).

Observation: This verse is found within the familiar story of workers hired to labor in a vineyard. Some had been hired early in the morning to work all day for a denarius. Several more times as the day advanced, the owner hired additional men; at day’s end, the foremen distributed wages of one denarius to each man regardless of the length of his workday. The early hires objected to their one-denarius paycheck, claiming it was unfair that others who worked less should be paid the same. But the owner reminded them that there was no unfairness in what they were paid; their wage was exactly as promised at the beginning of their engagement.

Application: Whose side seems right in this exchange? Upon careful reflection, we must confess that the owner is exactly right in what he says to the early hires. Doesn’t he indeed have the right to pay each laborer whatever he wishes for their work?

While it may be easy to concede the owner’s correct response, doesn’t the heart tend toward sympathy with the complaint of the early hires? Despite their agreement to work all day for a denarius, doesn’t something within us empathize with their emotions? Perhaps that is because we too readily think as they think.

When I came to Christ as a single man, there was a time when I declared to God that he alone was more than enough. Each of us, if we have experienced genuine conversion, must have said something akin to that.

Why then, when I see an elderly couple holding hands do I feel pangs of envy as I recall my too-young wife now dead? I must ask myself: Did I mean it when I told the Lord that He is more than enough? For the childless couple struggling with empty playgrounds in their mind, or the family that has lost son or daughter prematurely, thinking of birthdays uncelebrated and grandchildren unborn, the question must be answered afresh. Did I mean it when I said Christ is sufficient? It is in life’s empty moments that I must remember my hiring wage—one denarius for a day’s work, regardless of what others receive. In that breathtaking moment hangs my destiny: to linger in loss and disappointment or to confess again that He is more than enough.

Prayer:  Lord Jesus, You know each time I have responded like a worker claiming mistreatment. Forgive me, Lord. You are eternally just and righteous in Your provision for my life.

December 8th, 2018

The Eternal Rub

Psalm 106:4-5  “Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them, that I may enjoy the prosperity of your chosen ones, that I may share in the joy of your nation and join your inheritance in giving praise” (NIV).

Observation: Through Psalm 106 the psalmist recounts Israel’s rebellious history and petitions God to save His people. Sin was confessed in admirable detail, along with remembrance of the pain and disciplines Israel experienced as a result. The psalmist in verses 4 and 5 asked the same favor of God for which each of us longs, that when (not if) God shows favor to His loved ones, it might spill over onto him.

Application: Notice the three evidences of favor the psalmist anticipated, the three effects of being favored by God: prosperity (“that I may enjoy the prosperity of your chosen ones”); joy (“that I may share in the joy of your nation”); and praise (“that I may join your inheritance in giving praise”).

A proper question then arises: Am I experiencing these evidences of God’s favor:  prosperity, joy, and praise? And, if I am not, is the fault to be laid at God’s doorstep, or ought I search more deeply within for the culprit?

See, too, the three ways the psalmist referred to God’s people: as a chosen one, as His nation, and as His inheritance. Surely we would lay claim to fitting within the second three categories, but if that be so, why then might there be a disconnect with the first three? If I am His chosen yet not prosperous, if I am part of His nation yet lack joy, if I am His inheritance but not overflowing with praise, has God failed me?

Herein is the eternal rub. As long as my focus, my identity, my satisfaction are centered upon me, then my experience of prosperity, joy, and praise must always be conditional, my contentment relative to those around me. If my gaze remains fixed on what God has done for me in terms of the things of this world, He could never possibly give me enough. Why, He could even sacrifice His Son on a cross for me, yet I would remain discontent.

Once my gaze moves from myself and fixes instead on a Bridegroom who has moved heaven and earth to win me to Himself, then I can join fellowship with those in earth’s poorest hovels in a shared experience of prosperity, joy, and praise. Then I will understand that He has indeed shown me great favor.

Prayer:  O Lord, forgive me for conditional praise, for comparative prosperity, and circumstantial joy. I am filled with awe and gratitude for Your unmatched accomplishment in my behalf. How I love You!

December 7th, 2018

The Levitical Praise Band

1 Chronicles 15:19-20 “The musicians Heman, Asaph and Ethan were to sound the bronze cymbals; Zechariah, Aziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Maaseiah, and Benaiah were to play the lyres . . . and Mattithiah, Eliphelehu, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom, Jeiel and Azaziah were to play the harps” (NIV).

Observation: David’s first attempt to bring the ark to Jerusalem had ended in disaster (see 1 Chronicles 13:10) because he had not followed God’s proscribed method of transport. This time he would not make the same mistake. First Chronicles 16 tells of David’s care in appointing Levites to carry the ark and then gives us a mind-numbing roster of men assigned to play cymbals, lyres, and harps as part of the joyous processional.

Application: The Levitical praise band. Why doesn’t God deem it sufficient for us to know that the ark was brought to Jerusalem in a party atmosphere? Admittedly a bit more detail could add texture and color to the story, such as listing the kinds of musical instruments employed. For some reason, though, God was not satisfied with such generalities; instead, He risks our bogging down in difficult pronunciations of unfamiliar names or, alternately, that we would notice the approaching swamp and rush to skip over or around such minutiae. He chooses to give us far more detail than we may think helpful to a quick reading over morning coffee and a Danish. Surely He should have known we’re far too busy for this.

But consider: the Christian faith always comes down to the individual. Through history’s broad sweep, Christianity has profoundly altered the world, but Scripture never quite celebrates the society-changing effect of the Christian movement. Rather, its focus is always on celebrating the individual changed heart. Revelation 21:27 delights in individuals “whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” Luke 10:20 similarly reminds us to rejoice that our name is written in heaven. Thankfully the Lord doesn’t skip quickly past my name.

Perhaps God’s memorializing of obscure cymbal clangers is meant to remind me that it’s my heart that He is jealous over. His kingdom contains countless millions of souls even as there are countless stars in the heavens, but the miracle is, He knows each by name. I make my mark by one thing only: that I love Him with my whole heart. Then, in joyous celebration of my fully belonging to Him, He takes the simplest of offerings, such as the ability to clang cymbals, and then exults to the Father, “This one is mine! I will use his simple gift to magnify My name through all eternity, and I will remember who he is forever!”

Prayer:  Father, forgive my human tendency to think I must accomplish great things to catch Your eye. As I stumble again over the unfamiliar names in today’s verse, I rejoice that You cherish me as I am, and that You will remember my name forever.

December 6th, 2018

A Particular God

1 Chronicles 13:12 “David was afraid of God that day and asked, ‘How can I ever bring the ark of God to me?’” (NIV).

Observation: Through twenty years of Saul’s reign, the ark had resided in Kiriath Jearim while Saul turned his back on the God of Israel. In one of his first major acts as king, David joined with the nation’s military leaders and the whole nation of Israel to bring the ark back to Jerusalem. In a spirit of tremendous celebration they began moving the ark on a new cart, but when Uzzah righted the tilting cart, the Lord struck Uzzah dead. As a result, David was angry because of God’s wrath against Uzzah (v. 11) and afraid of God, not knowing how he could hope to successfully bring the ark to Jerusalem.

Application: The real problem here was that although David had a correct understanding of God’s will in the matter, he failed to consult God as to method. His intentions were good, but his actions were not according to God’s precepts. The ark’s place was indeed in Jerusalem, but the proscribed method of transport was on the shoulders of Levites on poles through rings fastened to the ark itself.

God certainly could have prevented the cart’s tipping, but that would have brought it to Jerusalem by means of men’s devising, rather than in the fashion God had clearly commanded through Moses. David’s second try, done God’s way, was wildly successful (1Chron. 15:15).

Do God’s strictures seem overly particular? If so, we would do well to know Him better. Psalm 7:11 describes Him as a righteous judge, “a God who expresses His wrath every day.” Taken alone that would be disheartening indeed, but it immediately follows this: “My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart” (v. 10).

He is indeed particular, but His heart is fiercely protective of those who will once and for all yield to Him. Once David chose to fulfill God’s purposes in God’s way, His blessings covered the whole undertaking. My choice is exactly as David’s was, to follow God with no instance of compromise. In full obedience, David ultimately succeeded in admitting the presence of God into his life. The Lord is equally delighted to dwell within me, but also just as jealous that His access be only on His terms.

Prayer:  Lord, I am reminded what a huge part of Your passion for me is that I would learn to come to You on Your terms alone. Teach me to serve you in gladness and in trembling.

December 5th, 2018

Heavenly Global Positioning System

2 Samuel 5:24 “As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, move quickly, because that will mean the Lord has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army” (NIV).

Observation: Word of David’s anointing as king had reached the Philistines, who came against him in full force. In response, David sought God’s direction, which could hardly have come in greater detail. Astonishingly, God gave David both strategy and timing. “Do not go straight up, but circle around behind them and attack them in front of the balsam trees. As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, move quickly, because that will mean the Lord has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army” (2 Sam. 5:23–24).

Application: One temptation in reading such an exchange is to grow intensely jealous of David’s ability to hear God’s voice. David’s prayer had not simply been words tossed into the night sky with an expectation to war if the dice came up “seven” or not to war if it was “snake eyes”.

No, this was instead the answered prayer of a man who had so practiced a passionate pursuit of God that he knew he should expect detailed instruction.  The story grows even more amazing when we consider God’s signal for David to move out: the sound of the heavenly host in the tops of the balsam trees, marching to war. Which is more mind-bending, that God’s angelic army makes the sound of marching as it moves into battle, or that David should expect to hear and take his cues from it?

My heart longs to hear God’s voice thus. He has been faithful to guide. He does answer prayer. I am familiar with doors opened easily and doors that resist my every attempt to pass through. I have known His comforting presence in life’s night seasons, and have exulted in His presence on mountaintops. But David’s experience is something far more profound, more like an in-dash global positioning system. “Turn left now. In three blocks, just past the blooming lilac, slow for an elderly woman who will be crossing the street.”

That’s how David heard God. How much of life’s “stuff” must I put away to hear Him like that? I begin to suspect Him to be less like the distant dour monarch who rarely speaks, and more like the three-year old in a car seat who chatters constantly.

Prayer:  O Lord, my heart longs to hear Your voice above all else. Show me how to cut through life’s clamor, that I might hear as David heard. Forgive me, Lord, for settling for mere shadows of Your presence.

December 4th, 2018

Herod’s Haunting

Matthew 14:1-2 “At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, ‘This is John the Baptist, he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him’” (NIV).

Observation: Jesus had been teaching extensively and performing amazing miracles throughout the region, and word of His activities had reached Herod.  Herod’s conclusion was wrong, of course, but the verses following give insight into his reasoning. Herod had been in an illicit relationship with Herodias, wife of Herod’s brother, and John the Baptist had confronted them about it. Although Mark 6:20 tells us that Herod liked to listen to John’s teachings, he ultimately made a foolish promise to Herodias’s daughter in front of a house full of guests. When she had consulted with her mother and demanded John’s beheading, Herod meekly complied.

Application: Unresolved guilt holds the power to blind us completely to God’s truths. Here, guilt rises from John’s grave like a ghostly apparition and points its bony finger at Herod. As it does so, it utterly incapacitates Herod’s understanding of the current move of God all around him.

Herod had indeed sinned by beheading John. There is precious little about Herod’s life to commend him, except this one glimmer of hope: as John had taught of spiritual things during his imprisonment, Herod had been strangely drawn. The door of hope was slammed tight, though, in one evening of drunken bravado and pride when Herodias had manipulated Herod to John’s destruction.

Now, with the region abuzz with Christ’s exploits, all the guilt-ridden Herod could imagine was that John had been resurrected.

The power of unresolved guilt is overwhelming, making a person blind and deaf to even the most astonishing works of God. Unresolved guilt and shame will skew understanding and cause right reasoning to cry “uncle.” In the hands of an enemy bent upon my destruction, guilt is a weapon awesome enough to utterly thwart the work God wants to do in my heart.

What I must recognize is this: guilt has no power, no authority, except that which I willingly grant. Like other aspects of sin now cancelled, guilt, too, can be eradicated in a moment’s work. Genuine repentance washes away the most stubborn of stains, of which guilt is a leading ingredient. I wonder how differently Herod’s story would have ended if he had laid his guilt at the foot of the Cross. Then this: is Herod without Christ any more to be pitied than I?

Prayer:  Lord Jesus, none are beyond Your reach except by individual choice. Thank You for persistently drawing me to Your Cross and to the empty tomb. I am in awe of You.

December 3rd, 2018

The Problem with Self-Promotion

2 Samuel 1:8 “He [Saul] asked me, ‘Who are you?’  ‘An Amalekite,’ I answered” (NIV).

Observation: David had just returned from a victorious fight against Amalekites who had overrun his city of refuge and kidnapped the loved ones of David and his men. Three days later, an Amalekite youth came to David with word that Saul and Jonathan were dead, and that the youth had helped Saul die. First Samuel 31 tells us that Saul had taken his own life, so it is likely that this Amalekite messenger fabricated his involvement in Saul’s death, thinking he would win David’s favor.

Application: Think of it! It had been Saul’s disobedience in failing to destroy all Amalekites that finally led to God’s rejection of him as king over Israel (see 1 Samuel 15). In fact, it was from God’s commentary on the situation that we are told He values obedience over sacrifice. Doing exactly as God instructs is always better than our self-promotion as we seek to make ourselves look good. How ironic, then, that it was an Amalekite that reported Saul’s death to David.

This young Amalekite stood not a chance of surviving his encounter with David; not only was he a remnant of an enemy of Israel whom Saul was to have utterly destroyed, but he was also one of the tribe whom David had defeated a mere three days earlier. David commanded the youth’s execution based upon his testimony (probably false) of having killed Saul (2 Samuel 1:16).

What might the lad have been thinking? Perhaps he regretted his heart motive in reporting Saul’s death at all; there is every reason to think his report to David exaggerated his role in Saul’s death. Sadly, I catch glimpses of my own heart in this young Amalekite’s motives. There have been times when flesh has led to exaltation of my role in a thing being done, times when my eyes were so far removed from the Lord that I was content with “atta-boys” from those around me, rather than seeking to please Him.

God’s requirement is that I find peace and fulfillment in Him alone. When I act as the Amalekite lad, it is always because I have chosen to seek fulfillment from a lesser source, from one whose approval is vanity and whose commitment to my best is fleeting. Psalm 118:15 says, “Shouts of joy resound in the tents of the righteous” (NIV). Anything less is the mere tinkling of fragile glass easily broken and leads to destruction as surely as did the Amalekite’s self-promotion.

Prayer: Father, cause me to seek fulness of joy in You, to be satisfied only in Your gaze. Nothing else satisfies.

December 2nd, 2018

Taking the Bait

1 Samuel 31:10 “They put his armor in the temple of the Astoreths and fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan” (NIV).

Observation: We see here the fruit of flesh at work. The Philistine army had conquered Israel and killed three of Saul’s sons. Saul himself had committed suicide ahead of their fearsome advance. First Samuel 31:8 tells us that when Saul’s body was discovered it was stripped and beheaded, and then his armor was sent to one Philistine temple while his headless body was fastened to the wall of the city of Beth Shan. First Chronicles 10:10 further reveals that Saul’s head was hung in another of their temples.

Application: What unmitigated barbarism! Have these people no refinement at all, no sense of propriety? Were they completely dispossessed of grace even in great victory? To strip and behead the corpse of a vanquished enemy was bad enough; to then display him in their temples and on a city wall is simply beyond the pale. What gradually overtakes us is the thought that we would never behave thus.

Think about the spiritual condition of the Philistines. These were a people who lived by physical and military strength, the natural result of which was to display trophies of their conquests for all to see, including their places of worship. Though these trophies would ultimately rot and could never provide lasting contentment, we can imagine a certain self-satisfaction as they viewed the relics of their success.

I must ask myself: has my own redemption been thorough enough to never behave similarly? What of my accomplishments have been nailed to a wall as an object of inner or outward worship? What are the positions attained, goals achieved, and things acquired that produce self-satisfaction when I review these life-fruits? In celebrating these trophies, am I all that different from the Philistines?

Christians are called to be a heart people. We ask God to tenderize our hearts so as to distinguish us from those whose rewards can be nailed to a wall. Our one true reward was nailed to a tree over two thousand years ago. It is in attaining His life that I ought to rejoice. My trophy must be to hear His “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Jesus was tempted to aspire to more, to pursue goals other than the Father’s, but He never took the bait. To the end, His purpose was as mine must be, to do only what He sees the Father doing (see John 5:19). Any other pursuit is unworthy of His sacrifice.

Prayer:  Lord Jesus, forgive me for my Philistine-like pursuit of worldly trophies. Cause me to be a man of one purpose, to be satisfied in gazing upon none but You.

December 1st, 2018

Precipice of Premature Action

1 Samuel 28:17  “The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David.”

Observation: The reign of Saul would tomorrow come to an end. In taking refuge from Saul by living among Philistines, David was in turn obligated to war against Saul along with his Philistine protectors. Under pressure from his generals, though, the Philistine king told David to return home; David would not be part of the conquering army after all. It seems God wanted both David and Saul to understand that it would be God Himself who would tear the kingdom from Saul. 1 Samuel 28:18 emphasizes the point, “As you [Saul] did not obey the Lord . . . so the Lord has done this to you today.”

Application: David would indeed become king; of this Saul was now certain.  Saul also knew that within twenty-four hours he and his sons would be dead, and that it would be God’s doing, not David’s. God would use the Philistine army to carry out His purposes.

David had made a number of mistakes leading to this moment, and there would be others in the future. At times He had been filled with faith, fresh from gazing upon the beauty of the Lord. He had been sensitive to error in even symbolically striking against Saul in the cave when he dared to cut off a piece of Saul’s robe. Now, though, David was willing to be part of a Philistine expedition against Saul, the purpose of which was to kill the Israelite king. God’s intervention, by causing the Philistine generals to doubt David’s commitment to their cause, kept David from personal responsibility for Saul’s destruction.

Notice how strong is the human tendency to take matters into our own hands. Knowing God’s plan is never the same thing as knowing His timing or His methods. When David found himself at the point of taking action to bring about what he understood to be God’s plan for his life, God intervened to stay David’s hand. The ultimate result would be God’s purposes accomplished God’s way, and in God’s timing.

I am reminded again how little I know my own heart. I may think I do, but there is always a tendency toward self-exaltation, a determination to “make happen” that which is God’s alone to do. Pulled back repeatedly from the precipice of premature action, the results, once they occur, can then be ascribed only to God. He likes that. In His sovereignty, He will brook no shared glory.

Prayer:  Lord, I repent of the tendency to get out ahead of You. Forgive me, Lord, for letting my soulish understanding thwart Your best for my life, and for those around me. Cause my heart to become satisfied in the knowledge that You will accomplish Your purposes in Your own way, and in Your own timing. I love You, Lord.