Monthly Archives: March 2014

Ruth

I admit it’s hard for me to sit still. I feel wired to get into motion. Do stuff. Make stuff happen. I like to see a problem, come up with a solution, and execute it. But often, in so doing, I merely add to the problem. Ultimately, it is God Almighty Who moves me forward in life, despite my propensity to move myself backward.

And Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “Should I not seek for you rest, so that it may go well with you? Is not Boaz our kinsman, with whose maidens you were? Behold: tonight he is winnowing barley at the threshing floor. Wash yourself; anoint yourself and put your mantle on you; and go down to the threshing floor, but do not make yourself known to the man until he is finished eating and drinking. And it will come to pass, when he lies down, you will learn the place where he lie, and go and uncover the place of his feet, and lie down there. And he will tell you what you should do.” And she said to her, “All you have said I will do.” And she went down to the threshing floor and did all that her mother-in-law had commanded. And when Boaz had eaten and drank, and was merry in his heart, he came to lie down at the edge of the heap. And she came secretly and uncovered the place of his feet and lay down. And in the middle of the night, the man startled, and turned suddenly, and—behold! A woman was lying at his feet! And he said, “Who are you?” And she said, “I am Ruth, your handmaid; spread out your skirt over your handmaid, because you are a redeemer.” And he said, “Blessed are you to the Lord, my daughter! For this last kindness you have shown is better than your first—because you did not go out to the young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not fear: all that you have said I will do for you, because all my people in the city know that you are a woman of great excellence (virtue). And now, truly I am a redeemer; however, there is a redeemer nearer than I. Stay here tonight until morning. If he will redeem you, good: let him redeem you. If he does not want to redeem you, I will redeem you—as the Lord lives. Lie down until morning.” And she lay down at his feet until the morning, then rose and left before a man could recognize his fellow. For he had said, “do not let it be known that a woman came to the threshing floor.” And he said, “Take your cloak that is on you and grasp it.” And she grasped it, and he measured six measures of barley and put it on her and he came into the city. Now she came to her mother-in-law, and she said, “How are you, my daughter?” And she told her all that the man had done to her. And she said, “He gave me these six measures of barley, because he said, ‘Do not go empty-handed to your mother-in-law.’” And she said, “Sit, my daughter, until you know how the matter will turn out, because the man will not rest until he is finished with the matter today.”

This powerful story is yet another consistent Old Testament example of the significance of trusting in God. This time, however, instead of the focus of the story being a Jewish descendant wrestling with trust in God, it is a foreigner. Ruth is a Moabitess, and after a series of tragedies in chapter 1 has decided to remain faithful to her mother-in-law. This act of fidelity and loyalty was worthy of commemoration, and when Naomi re-entered her homeland, bringing Ruth along, their fame had spread because of Ruth’s loyalty. In those days, Ruth and Naomi couldn’t exactly start a bakery under a 501(c)3 corporation charter; they had to operate within the boundaries of that culture and that time. Ruth went to work with the servants of a rich man, hoping to gather enough sheaves left over to provide for her and Naomi. By remaining with Naomi, she had come to rest “under the wings” (2.12) of God Almighty. In trusting God, she placed her future and destiny in His hands. Though Naomi engineered the nighttime meeting between Boaz and Ruth, it was God Who destined the results: the spreading of Boaz’s skirt over Ruth was a symbol of being the redeemer-kinsman who would assume financial responsibility for Ruth according to Law. We will see this imagery again in later Old Testament scriptures, most notably Ezekiel—where God has spread His skirt over Israel. Boaz, abiding by the Law, offers the right of redemption to a nearer kinsman, and when he refuses, willingly accepts it himself. Thus, Naomi’s and Ruth’s lives are saved and well-provided for, thanks to the Provider Who was watching them. Though low in culture and status, He had cared for them and provided for them. And Ruth turned out to be no average woman: her offspring was the very lineage of the Messiah Himself, since her great-grandson was King David himself.

This story becomes more powerful to me every time I read it. Maybe it’s because the older I get, the more dependent on God’s provision I become (as He designed it). The story resonates with me because I see myself in it. I see a foreigner, a cast-off, a nobody—forgotten by society, scraping through the best she can. How she must have battled depression and anger and a generally bad attitude! And yet God was watching her the whole time, subtly moving her destiny toward the beautiful moment of provision and protection that He had designed for her all along. She could never have done this on her own. She could never have even come up with the idea. She simply threw herself on the mercy of God, and God took care of the rest.

My natural tendency is to believe that my hard work and ingenuity will ultimately engineer my destiny. But that’s a lie: my future is entirely in God’s hands. All I can really do—despite my efforts—is to come to trust in the shadow of His wings. If I do that, He takes care of the rest. He leads me to where I need to go. He opens the right door and closes the wrong ones. He does this, and I am merely faithful to Him.

“The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under Whose wings thou art come to trust” (2.12). This passage says it all. The trust that this foreigner had for the Lord God’s provision and protection is a model for me and you. Let’s follow it today.

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Judges 15-21

[16.16]
And it came to pass, that she pressed him with her words every day, and urged him, and vexed [mistreated] his soul to the point of death.

Samson had been devoted the Lord since before his birth. His entire life had been set apart as a tool of God Almighty. As a Nazirite, he was more sanctified (set apart) than any other group of Israelite, and this was a vow to be taken quite seriously. But over the course of time, his vow to God and his dedication to the cause of the Lord waned in intensity—especially once he became interested in women. His carnal desires began to outweigh his spiritual ones, and soon his Philistine wife was more important to him than his God. Given that marrying a Philistine was off-limits anyhow, he was already well down the road of compromise before he ever got the infamous haircut.

What’s most important to you? What or who “vexes your soul” to the point of action? The Hebrew word קָצַר means to bring down, and carries with it the connotation of “vexing” or “mistreating.” Your temptations will always seek to bring you down from your commitment. They will mistreat your spirit until you compromise. Christians should be careful to whom they are enjoined, and they should also take care to maintain their first love—Jesus Christ. It’s easy to look at Samson and shake our heads and say, “He was too much of a womanizer.” But Samson had simply compromised the integrity of his vow to God—what took place after was a simple consequence (you’ll note that God still ultimately exercised His sovereignty over the Philistines despite Samson’s choices). Samson’s story could have had a happy ending if he had maintained the integrity of his oath.

What about your commitment to Him? Do the cares of this work—particularly your appetites—distract you from keeping the integrity of that commitment?

Judges 8-14

[13:22-23]

22Then Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, because we have seen God.” 23Then his wife said to him, “If the LORD had delighted to kill us, He would not have received from our hands the burnt offering or the grain offering; neither would He have showed us all these things, nor would He have told us such things as these.”

The children of Israel vacillate between the loyal love and fidelity they are to show the Lord and their spiritual adultery with other gods. As a result, God raises up judges from time to time to lead them out of this “adultery” and back to the fidelity to Him. One such judge is set apart from birth as a special instrument of God: Samson. His very birth contains elements that will seem familiar to Bible readers: like the story of the births of Samuel or Jesus, there is the character development of the mother, coupled with the words of an angel. The narrative of Samson is similar to the Greek classical story of Achilles, but predates it. As the angel speaks to Samson’s parents—Manoah and his wife—an interesting story unfolds that might help our interpersonal relationships and spiritual growth.

The angel has spoken to the couple, and then has left. The sudden absence of the angel causes Manoah to become afraid in a superstitious sort of way: clearly, they have had dealings with the living God, and therefore must die. But his wife’s response is telling: if God had intended death for them, He would surely not have received worship and given instruction. He would have just killed them. Manoah, the “man of the house,” is unable to properly interpret the situation. It is his wife who is wise and capable and logical, correctly interpreting their situation and its future ramifications.

I grew up in a culture in which young boys and girls were taught that gender subjugation was somehow biblical. The “man of the house” was ordained by the word of God to go work outside of the home and make the money, and the “woman of the house” was supposed to stay home, raise kids, and passively obey her husband. Of course, none of this was biblical, since “working outside of the home” was not generally something done in biblical times, particularly in agrarian cultures. But here, in the book of Judges—during the time of those horribly misogynist Jewish Old Testament types—the wildly superstitious Manoah is the hysterical one, while the wife maintains calmness in giving the family proper direction. Without her cool logic, there might never have been a story to tell beyond this point.

It was always foolish to believe that the Bible somehow ordained misogyny, because it didn’t. But it’s even more foolish to believe that we can, like Manoah, somehow understand the voice of God by ourselves. That’s another lie that we’ve bought—that hearing God’s voice and knowing His will is some mystical understanding that only occurs in one’s mind’s eye. Apart from the community of God, you won’t know the difference between His voice and your own—because your natural proclivity is to enthrone yourself as God anyhow. Manoah didn’t understand the situation as long as he trusted only himself and his own experiences to interpret the voice of God. He needed his wife.

We need each other. That’s why we have church, Bible study, small group, Sunday School. We can’t do this alone. You want to hear God? Read your Bible, engage in devotional talk with others, and engage the community of Christ.

And husbands….listen to your wives. They’re often more gifted at hearing God’s voice that you are.

Judges 1-7

Joshua is gone, and the Israelites have continued to live in the land promised to them by God. However, we note that they failed to completely drive out the enemy from the land, and as a result their devotion to YHWH has flagged. By the third chapter of Judges they are chasing (or, as the KJV puts it, “whoring”) after other gods. God raises up judges to lead them politically and religiously, so that they may be revived in their worship of YHWH. Among these is Gideon, whom God calls to thrust out the Midianites from among them. When the angel of the Lord appears to Gideon, he tells him that “The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valor” (6.12). God’s word to Gideon “God is with YOU” (singular). But Gideon’s response is “if God is with US, then why is all this bad stuff happening?” (6.13). Given the circumstances, this is a reasonable question. The angel answers by simply commissioning Gideon to defeat the Midianites and rescue Israel. He hasn’t answered the “problem of evil” question that’s been posed, but he has given Gideon his mission—the very thing that will bring contentment to Gideon’s life, since it’s his destiny, and will rescue God’s chosen people from themselves. Of course Gideon is doubtful of his own abilities, and takes some persuading. Chapters 6-8 are the story of Gideon’s alternating belief and doubt in the word of God in his life. When he believes, great victory belongs to him and Israel.

God’s call is rarely a one-time experience. It is usually a process that takes time, like with Gideon. All of us have an individual destiny, as well as a corporate one with each other as members of the Church. What God calls us to do is impossible, and typically not something that we ourselves might have predicted or chased after. But He empowers us to do it, and goes with us every step of the way. I’ve heard criticism of Gideon for putting out the fleece before the Lord, and not just following God’s orders without question. But such criticism fails to take into consideration that hearing, trusting and following God’s word is a process and not a moment. Even Abraham, the paragon of faith, had trouble wrestling with this in Genesis. It is important to listen to God—through your devotionals, your church experiences, and the community of Christ—so that you may act according to His will for you.

God’s word isn’t a mystical, ethereal experience that happens to you in your quiet time. He’s given you His word, and any experiences you have that communicate to you will confirm that word if they are valid. Pay attention to His word today, and humble yourself before Him. He will guide you in the place where He wants you to go.

Joshua 19-24

[21.44-45]
44Then the LORD gave them rest on every side, according to all that He swore to their fathers. And there was not a man that could stand before them from all their enemies; the LORD gave all their enemies into their hand. 45And there did not fail ought of any good thing that the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel; all came to pass.

[23.6-8]
6Therefore be very courageous to keep and to do all that is written in the book of the Law of Moses, to not turn from it to the right hand or to the left; 7that you not make mention of the names of their gods, nor cause to swear by them, nor serve them, nor bow yourselves down to them. 8But cling to the LORD your God, as you have done until this day.

It is clear that the over-arching, cohesive theme of the book of Joshua is that trust in the Lord is courageous and fear is sin. Joshua tells the people this once again in 23.6-8. He reminds them to not turn from this book of the Law; to not be easily distracted by circumstances and turn to the right or to the left from it. He reminds them that compromise in worship is sin; syncretism is not valid. There is, after all, only one God—and His name is YHWH. He reminds them that they are to cling to God, and this verb (דָּבַק) is the same one used of husband and wife as well (Ge 2.24). It is this trust in God’s word that has landed them in the Promised Land, and now that they are there the Lord has given them rest on every side, just like He promised to their fathers (21.44-45). God keeps His promises to Israel.

He still keeps His promises. He brings us into a spacious place. He crushes the enemies before us. He provides for our needs and leads us to where He wants us. He is to be trusted. His word is to be valued above that of anyone else—especially ourselves. To trust His plan is to demonstrate real courage; to stress and fear about your life is to betray the fact that you don’t trust Him.

Cling to Him today. He wants the best for you, and you need only believe Him. It takes courage to do this; the courage that only comes from Him. But if you trust Him, He’ll give you rest on every side.

 

Joshua 13-19

[14:8]
Nevertheless, my brothers who went up with me melted the people’s hearts with fear, but I wholly followed the LORD my God.

[17:14-18]
Then the sons of Joseph spoke to Joshua, saying, “Why have you given me but one lot and one portion, seeing as how I am a great people? For so far, the LORD has blessed me.” And Joshua said to them, “If you are a great people, then get you up to the wood, and cut down for yourself there in the land of the Perizzites and the giants, if the mountain is too narrow for you.” And the sons of Joseph said, “The hill country is not enough for us; and the Canaanites who dwell in the land of the valley have chariots of iron, and those in Beth-Shean and her towns, and in the valley of Jezreel.” Then Joshua spoke to the sons of Joseph—to Ephraim and Manasseh—and said, “You are a great people with great power, and you will not only have one portion. But the mountain shall be yours, for though is it is a forest, you will cut it down and possess it to its furthest borders [outgoings]. For you will drive out the Canaanites, though they have chariots of iron, and though they are strong.”

The descendants of Joseph had a problem: their tribe was so numerous that their assigned lot wasn’t big enough for them. There was a forest on the mountain that would have worked, but they were concerned that they would be unable to assault its natural fortifications. The enemy had already entered the bronze age and were heavily armed with serious weaponry. Taking that land seemed an impossible task. But there are no impossible tasks in the service of the Lord. That land was theirs by birthright—by the promise of God—and they were not to sit idly by and allow it to be usurped by the pagan enemy. Joshua’s words to them were memorable enough to have been recorded: his advice was to not fear the chariots of iron. The sons of Joseph were actually better-armed than the Perizzites and giants in the land—for God fought for them. It is especially interesting to read this story in conjunction with Caleb’s words of chapter 14, when he looked back on the history of the exodus and his own spying mission into Canaan: “Nevertheless, my brothers who went up with me melted the people’s hearts with fear, but I wholly followed the LORD my God.” Once again, we see the same paradigm that has been sketched earlier in the book: there are those who melt with fear, and those who wholly trust in the Lord.

We Christians are in the impossibility business. God does not call us to do “easy” things. In fact, He frequently calls us to impossible things. We are told that “all things are possible with God” for a reason (Mt 19.26). Despite the size and number of the enemies in front of us on our journey, we are better armed because God is the Author of our destiny. He fights our battles. We can either melt with fear and stress at the task before us, or we can wholly trust in God. And what does it mean to trust in God?

To wholly trust Him is to believe Him. To believe Him is to hear Him. To hear Him is to listen to Him. To listen to Him is to invest in the time you spend with Him and with His community. Nothing is impossible to you; wholly trust in the Lord your God today.

Joshua 7-12

[10:8-14]

8Then the LORD said to Joshua, “Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hand. There shall not a man of them stand before you.” 9Then Joshua came to them suddenly, having gone up from Gilgal all night. 10Then the LORD overwhelmed them before Israel, and killed them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, and chased them in the way that goes to Beth-Horon, and struck them to Azekah and Makkedah. 11And it happened that as they fled from before Israel, as they were in the going down to Beth-Horon, the LORD threw down great stones on them from the heavens at Azekah, and more died from the hailstones than those whom the sons of Israel killed with the sword. 12Then Joshua spoke to the LORD in the day that He delivered the Amorites from before the sons of Israel, and said in the sight of Israel, “Sun: stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Ajalon!” 13And the sun stood sill, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves on their enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the middle of the heavens, and did not make haste to go for a whole day. 14And there was not a day like that before or after—where the LORD listened to the voice of a man—for the LORD fought for Israel.

Again, we are witness to a major theme in the book of Joshua: that fear is associated with sin. In fact, it is, by definition, a lack of trust in God. In chapter 10, when Joshua is staring at the business end of the Gibeonites—who are better armed and know the territory better—God speaks as though the battle is already complete: “I have given them into your hand” (10.8). The very next verse has Joshua acting on this intelligence; he surprised the Gibeonites after an all-night march, and God did indeed discomfit the enemy. God spoke, and Joshua responded in faith. It is telling that God overwhelmed the enemy, not Joshua. A strange thing happened in that battle: Joshua commanded the sun and moon to stand still, and they did. It was a bona fide miracle, and it might look familiar: think of Elijah on Mount Carmel, calling down fire from heaven. Long before he did that, he’d lived at the brook in the wilderness, being fed by the ravens, learning to trust God and hear His voice. Joshua, too, had been in the wilderness learning to hear God and trust Him under Moses’ tutelage for all those years, and in this chapter we also see a connection between Joshua’s trust in Him and his extraordinary request.

During this lifetime, we have a battle with sin. The battle has already been won, and the enemy has already been delivered into Christ’s hands. And yet we frequently behave as though the outcome is in question. We hem and haw and vacillate and turn to the right and turn to the left in our struggle against the Self. We sometimes forget the central truth of this 10th chapter: that stress and fear are manifestations of sinful pride, and trust in God enables you to hear His voice and know His direction. Like Joshua and Elijah, the more time we’ve spent on our knees, trusting Him with every aspect of our lives, the more we trust Him in the heat of the battle—and the more in tune with His work we are. Joshua’s extraordinary request was an extension of God’s plan and authority, and he was intimately familiar with that based on his relationship with God.

If you trust Him, He will do mighty things.