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Chapter Summaries, Job 1-5

Monday, February 11, 2019

 

Job 1 sketches out both the prosperity and the downfall of the title character.  The first eight verses paint him as a man who has everything in both a physical and spiritual sense.  He is as righteous as he is wealthy.  However, his prosperity and righteousness attract the attention of Satan, who claims that the second is the result of the first.  Satan seeks and receives permission from God to take away all of his blessings without harming his health.  Satan does precisely this, using various means to destroy not only Job’s flocks and herds, but also his children.

Job 2 is more of the same.  God and Satan have another conversation.  God points out that Job, despite having lost his prosperity, has not ceased to be righteous.  Satan promises different results if he is allowed to up the ante, attacking Job’s health as well.  God gives Satan permission, and now Job has a plague of boils to go along with his other problems. 

Job’s calamities begin to draw notice from others.  His wife tells him to curse God and die.  Job righteously refuses.  Then, three of Job’s friends, named Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, show up.  They sit in mourning with him for a week, saying nothing.

Job 3 contains the first of Job’s poetic speeches.  He begins it by calling a curse down on the day of his birth and the night of his conception.  In Job’s view, both the day and the night have betrayed him because they allowed him to exist.  He would have been far better off if he had never been born.  He considers the dead with longing because they no longer have to suffer.

Instead, he wants to know why he continues to exist.  For him, there is no joy in life, only suffering.  The key question appears in v. 23, in which Job asks why life continues to be granted to him when God clearly is set against him.

Job 4 is the beginning of Eliphaz’s first speech.  Eliphaz accuses Job of being ready to dish out spiritual correction but not so ready to take it.  He then maintains that the innocent are never oppressed by God.  Instead, God only makes the wicked suffer.  Eliphaz then relates a vision that he saw.  In this vision, a fearsome specter points out that it is impossible for man to be right in the sight of God.  Even angels transgress, and we’re nothing next to them!  People perish because of their sins.

Job 5 continues Eliphaz’s narrative.  He points out that in his experience, it is the wicked and foolish who suffer.  They bring it on themselves.  He encourages Job to turn to God, who rescues the poor and needy while bringing down the proud.  He thinks that Job needs to accept God’s rebuke, implying, though not saying, that he thinks that Job’s problems are sin problems.  Once Job is willing to do that, all of his difficulties will clear up.  Repent, Job.  It’s for your own good.

Compassion in Jonah

Friday, February 08, 2019

 

A few weeks ago, after I finished going through Jonah in my daily Bible reading, I posted on Facebook, “I love the book of Jonah!  It is both warm and subtle.”  In what is perhaps a sign that I deadpan too much on Facebook, most who responded thought I was joking.  Those who took me seriously, seriously disagreed.

Apparently, an explanation is in order!

I think part of the problem is that when most Christians think of Jonah, they think of the eponymic prophet and his encounter with the not-whale.  The story is dramatic, but it is admittedly not very cozy.  However, the book is not about Jonah’s ingestion by a great fish, nor even about his preaching mission to Nineveh.  As impressive as those things are, they’re not the point.  Instead, the theme of the book is God’s efforts to teach His wayward prophet compassion.

Think about it.  In the opening scene of the book, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, and Jonah heads in the opposite direction, presumably because he isn’t terribly interested in saving the Ninevites.  At this point, God would have been fully justified in turning Jonah into a grease spot.  However, he doesn’t.  Instead, He sends Jonah on his undersea journey to give him time to repent, just as He wants to give Nineveh time to repent.

Jonah does, and once he’s back on dry land, he grudgingly goes to Nineveh.  Then, he warns the people of God’s impending judgment, even though he really wants to see them destroyed.  However, the outcome is exactly what God wants to see, and exactly what Jonah doesn’t want to see.  The city repents en masse, and disaster is averted.

Jonah, however, remains as hard-hearted as ever.  He camps out on the hills above the city, hoping that God will change His mind and destroy it (the opposite of Abraham’s perspective on Sodom, if you think about it).  In one last attempt to correct His wayward prophet, God raises up a plant to shade him and then kills it.  When Jonah gets upset, God points out that if Jonah is right to get emotionally attached to a plant, God is right to feel compassion for a city filled with human beings.

This is a story that gives me a great deal of hope.  It clearly reveals the depth of God’s compassion, not only for Nineveh, but for one of His own who repeatedly refuses to get it.  I’m glad I serve a God like that, not least because of all the times when I have repeatedly refused, and probably still do repeatedly refuse, to get it.  I am a daily witness to the greatness of His mercy.

Second, the story of Jonah illustrates God’s patience.  Despite multiple provocations, God doesn’t give up on Jonah.  Instead, He continues teaching him, right up to the last sentence of the book.  As a disciple of Jesus, I know that I am very much a work in progress, and I am thankful that God will patiently continue His work in me and not give up on me.

Is a book filled with storms and judgments stereotypically warm?  Well, no, but every time I read it, I find myself warmed anyway.  The conflict in it isn’t God’s fault, but Jonah’s.  The compassion, though, all belongs to God.

We Should Sing More Psalms

Thursday, February 07, 2019

 

Recently, I spent a weekend down in Texas working on a project called Timeless.  It is a modern-day psalter—an adaptation of all 150 psalms into lyrical and musical forms suitable for use in a-cappella congregational worship.  Though I was happy to help, Timeless certainly isn’t my brainchild.  Indeed, it had been pursuing this goal for a dozen years before I ever encountered it.

However, the more I think about it, the better I like the idea of singing more psalms.  Anybody who pays attention to my writing on worship knows that there are two main lyrical issues that concern me:  better Biblical content and greater emotional range.  Singing more of Psalms, and especially singing paraphrases that are representative of the content of Psalms, addresses both of those concerns.

Now, it’s true that we have some psalm content in our repertoire already.  Nearly every Christian knows the likes of “Hallelujah!  Praise Jehovah!” and “The Lord’s My Shepherd”.  However, those upbeat hymns of praise and assurance give us a distorted picture of what the Psalms are like.  Most of the 150 are not upbeat and happy.  To the contrary, most psalms are laments, filled with sorrow and the struggle to find God in difficult times. 

Even our song texts that come from psalms of lamentation often manage to miss the point.  Take, for instance, the praise song “Shield About Me”.  We sing it frequently at Jackson Heights, and I like it, though the high-flying tenor line is kind of a strain for my baritone voice.  The lyrics are quoted from Psalm 3:3. 

That’s fine, as far as it goes.  I’m all about praising God as my shield, my glory, and the lifter of my head.  However, Psalm 3:3 isn’t its own proverb.  It’s in the context of Psalm 3:1-2, which reads, “O Lord, how many are my foes!  Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God.’”

We would never glean it from “Shield About Me”, but Psalm 3 is another one of those psalms of lamentation.  The ascription tells us that David wrote it when he was on the run from Absalom.  These are the words of a man whose own son is trying to kill him!  The idea of God as our shield and glory and head-lifter is powerful on its own, but when it is contrasted with human faithlessness and evil, it becomes sublime.  Even if our loved ones betray us, God is still on our side!

We need to be singing things like that, though they undeniably make many Christians uncomfortable.  You know what, though?  That unpleasant emotion that makes you uncomfortable may be exactly the emotion that a brother or sister in Christ is feeling and desperately, desperately needs to sing about.  Don’t think a psalm about betrayal by a family member could be relevant?  Talk to a Christian whose spouse has cheated on them.

We live in a culture that insists on authenticity, but too often our song worship is inauthentic.  We sing as though every problem a Christian has can be solved with a pasted-on smile and a snappy two-pager.  Is it any wonder that so many Christians seem emotionally detached from our singing?  Maybe, just maybe, it would help if we invited them to sing what they were truly feeling.  Maybe it would help if we invited them to sing from the Psalms.

Psalm Summaries, Psalms 11-15

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

 

Psalm 11 is David’s appeal to God in a time when he fears that God has abandoned him.  He feels that even if he flees like a bird to the mountain of God (which is where the hymn “Flee as a Bird” comes from), the wicked will shoot him down.  He is helpless and powerless. 

However, despite his powerlessness, he still trusts in the ultimate justice of God.  He appeals to God to punish his wicked enemies according to their wickedness.  He concludes by expressing the contrasting hope that the Lord will reward the righteous in His presence.

Psalm 12 sets out the spiritual struggle of David with people who are lying about him.  In vs.1-2, he sets out the problem:  flattering and double-tongued people who trust in the power of their lies.  Vs. 3-4 appeal to God to judge those who sin with the tongue.  In vs. 5-6, David predicts God’s rescue of the poor and needy from the liars who oppress them.  He also contrasts the lies of the wicked with the pure speech of God.  The psalm concludes in vs. 7-8 with an expression of hope in the protection of God and a condemnation of the wicked whose continuing presence makes God’s help necessary.

Psalm 13 is another psalm of lamentation from David in a time when God seems absent and his enemies are all too present.  He wonders is God is going to forget and abandon him forever, giving glory to David’s enemies by default.  David predicts that if things keep going in the same direction, his enemies will kill him and boast in his death.  However, in the conclusion of the psalm, he remembers the graciousness of God’s past dealings and expresses the confidence that God will give him reason to rejoice this time too.

Psalm 14, also by David, presents a pessimistic perspective on the foolishness and wickedness of humankind.  People everywhere doubt God’s existence and give themselves over to sin.  God looks down from heaven, searching for one righteous man, but He can’t find even one.  It’s enough to make one wonder if David was writing this in 2019!

However, David points out a problem with the wicked.  In their oppression of the poor, they aren’t reckoning with God, who protects the poor.  Sooner or later, God is going to make things right.  The final verse of the psalm expresses the hope that He will do so soon.

Psalm 15 presents David’s take on a much more optimistic subject:  what it takes to dwell in the presence of God.  He tells us that God favors those who a) live righteous lives, b) are honest with themselves, c) don’t betray others, d) love the righteous and despise the wicked, e) keep their word under all circumstances, and f) don’t oppress the poor.  Do these things, and God will sustain you.

Pessimism and the Future of the Church

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

 

On my recent week-plus swing through Texas, I shared a number of meals with and otherwise talked to a number of old friends.  One of the themes of those conversations was pessimism about the future of the Lord’s church, at least in the United States. 

Admittedly, reasons for such a bleak outlook seem abundant.  Day by day, our nation appears to be growing more wicked and less tolerant of genuine Christianity.  A greater percentage than ever before of children “raised in the church” are leaving it.  Attendance is declining nationwide.  Et cetera, et cetera.

Despite all the gloomy statistics, though, I’m not convinced that the gloom is warranted.  First of all, human beings are rotten at predicting the future.  Whatever you think the world is going to be like 20 years from now, you’re almost certainly going to be wrong.  In the past 20 years, which is not all that much time as history goes, the United States has had to endure 9-11, the War on Terror, the Great Recession, and the celebrity of the Kardashians. 

The 20 years to come will hold just as many surprises, both bad and good, and anybody who tries to predict the future by extrapolating current trends is foolish.  Where will that leave the church?  Who knows!

Second, if we think the world is going to wrack and ruin, we have lots of company among God’s people in the Bible.  Some of the godly gloom-and-doomers are obvious:  Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and a host of other prophets.  Some, though, are less so.  In Psalm 12:1, David writes, “Help, Lord, for the godly man ceases to be, for the faithful disappear from among the sons of men!”  Yes, that David—the one who was about to lead Israel to the pinnacle of its righteousness and historical attainments.

Similarly, Paul has to argue in Romans 9:6, “It is not as though the word of God has failed.”  Why?  Precisely because it appeared that the word of God had failed!  Paul had seen the people of God—the Jews—reject the Anointed of God en masse.  We think of the first century as a time of tremendous success, but that’s not how it looked to the Jewish brethren alive then.  To them, it seemed as if God’s great purpose had been defeated.  Only the Holy Spirit could reveal that all along, God had been aiming at another purpose altogether.

So too today.  It may be that our purposes—for our country, for our churches, for our families—are being defeated.  However, God’s purpose is not being defeated.  I believe that He is as active in history as He ever has been, but His work today is unknowable. 

Perhaps we are on the cusp of a spiritual renaissance in this country, and God will be glorified in that.  Perhaps He is using our riches to establish first-century Christianity across the globe, and He will be glorified in that.  Perhaps He is waiting until the iniquity of the American has become full to come in judgment against us, and yes, He will be glorified in that too. 

The future is uncertain.  The victory of God is not.  We don’t have to worry about what tomorrow will bring because He’s got it under control.  Literally. 

Instead, our place is to work, not grow weary, and not lose heart.  Whatever God’s purposes may be, we know that they will always provide a place for those who hold fast to Him.

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