Human beings are rotten at predicting the future. Weather forecasters today have computers crammed with sophisticated mathematical models. They have access to real-time data that their predecessors could only dream about. And yet, with all this plus years or even decades of experience and training, they’re about as likely to get next week’s weather right as I am to sink a half-court three-pointer.
No matter what some might pretend, we have no idea what’s going to happen, and this extends even to predicting the consequences of our own actions. Even the most discerning of us are frequently surprised by how our lives turn out.
We can’t be shrewd, but we can be good. Though doing the right thing doesn’t always benefit us (Exhibit A: Jesus), it frequently does. A godly choice now can have consequences that bless our lives in ways that we didn’t anticipate.
We see this principle at work in the life of Mordecai, cousin and guardian of the Persian queen Esther. Mordecai is a dutiful protector, and after she is taken into the palace, he frequents the king’s gate to see how she’s doing. While there, he learns that two of the king’s doorkeepers are plotting against the king.
This is no business of Mordecai’s. Ahasuerus is not a particularly good or likeable king, and he’s a foreigner besides. It would have been easy for Mordecai to ignore the whole matter with a subway-rider’s nonchalance: “I didn’t see nothin’, man!”
However, he doesn’t. The king is the king, and it’s wrong to plot against the king. Mordecai tells Esther, Esther tells the king in Mordecai’s name, and the two doorkeepers are exposed and executed. Nothing is done for Mordecai, and he continues his sojourn at the gate.
While there, he incurs the enmity of Haman, the second most powerful man in the kingdom, by not kowtowing to him. Haman decides to get his revenge by eradicating the whole Jewish nation, but first of all, he wants to see Mordecai decorating a gallows in his front yard.
He goes to Ahasuerus, desiring permission to kill Mordecai, but the king has something else in mind. Belatedly, he has been reminded of Mordecai’s loyalty, and he has decided that he wants to honor him. Rather than dragging Mordecai to the gallows, Haman ends up praising him in public. If Mordecai hadn’t done the difficult-but-right thing, he would have been executed. As it was, though, his selfless act was the first step of his climb to prominence in the Persian government.
Today, we probably won’t be called upon to disrupt assassination plots, but we are called upon to do good in less dramatic ways. Opportunities to be gracious to others abound in all of our lives. They start with the needy of the church (and sometimes what the needy need is emotional rather than financial support) and go from there.
We should take advantage of these opportunities because it’s the right thing to do. However, we also should not forget, nor be surprised by, the persistence of the effects of doing good. When we seek the Lord first, He will often bless our righteousness in ways we could not have imagined.
Of all the ordinances of God, perhaps the most difficult to apply is Matthew 19:9. Like most preachers, I’ve been in the painful position of having to tell an apparently happy couple that their marriage is unlawful in God’s eyes, and that if they wish to please Him, they will have to separate. I don’t relish these conversations, but I believe that it’s my duty to have them.
Some, however, want to avoid this painful responsibility by claiming that it’s not really what God would want, especially when such marriages have produced children. Isn’t God a pro-family God? Wouldn’t He want the father and mother to remain together when their divorce would inflict such emotional harm on their offspring?
I think that any valid argument that would exempt couples with children from the restrictions of Matthew 19 would quickly win acceptance. Nobody likes being the bearer of family-destroying news. However, the evidence we have points in the opposite direction. God is a pro-family God, but even more than that, He’s a pro-holiness God.
We see this most clearly in the story of the latter half of the book of Ezra. In this account, Ezra, a scribe who has recently returned to Jerusalem from exile in Persia, learns that in the absence of appropriate teaching and oversight, the Jews have begun to practice mixed marriage. Jewish men have joined themselves to the women of the nations around them.
Ezra is appalled. As he points out in Ezra 9:6-15, this is a clear contravention of God’s laws forbidding marriage outside the bounds of God’s people. This kind of sin is what got the Jews exiled in the first place. It’s why they continue under Persian bondage. If they continue in it, God may well remove them from the land forever.
The seriousness of the problem demands a stern remedy. In Ezra 10, Ezra and the people determine that the men in mixed marriages must put away their foreign wives. The Jews set up tribunals and dissolve every such marriage in a matter of months. This was no easy matter. After listing the offenders, Ezra 10:44 observes, “All these had married foreign women, and some of the women had even borne children.”
People 2500 years ago loved their families and children no less than we do, but they understood that the law of God left them no choice. If they were to remain God’s holy nation, they had to end all unholy marriages, regardless of who suffered as a result.
Today, the same thing is true for us. A Christian who wants to remain faithful cannot remain in a marriage that Jesus forbids, and the church that wants to remain faithful cannot tolerate the unlawfully married who insist on remaining together. If we veto the judgments of the Lord that we don’t like, He is no longer the head of the church. We have set ourselves up as its head instead. Either we are faithful in all things, or we are faithful in nothing. Ezra’s example is a difficult one to follow, but it’s the only path that leads to heaven.
From an earthly perspective, many of the prophets of the Old Testament got a raw deal. On this list, we certainly must include Jeremiah. He was forbidden to marry and have a family, he couldn’t attend parties or funerals, and he prophesied in a time that was utterly hostile to his message. As a result, he was imprisoned, put in stocks, dumped in a cistern, and threatened with death. Even his own extended family plotted to kill him.
This makes for grim reading, and it wasn’t a whole lot of fun for Jeremiah to live through, either. Frequently, he complains to God about his lot in life, but God’s replies are generally unsympathetic. In such circumstances, it would have been easy for Jeremiah to give up on God, but Jeremiah knew very well that he didn’t dare. At the very beginning of his work, God tells him in Jeremiah 1:17, “But you, dress yourself for work, arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them.”
In other words, there was exactly one way that Jeremiah could hope to survive the dying convulsions of the kingdom of Judah. He had to stay 100 percent faithful to God. If he wasn’t, if he allowed fear to deter him from proclaiming God’s word, God would meet his silence with the very woes he hoped to avoid. Even though serving God looked like the riskiest choice, it was actually the safest.
Today, few of us have lives that can compare to Jeremiah’s for sheer wretchedness. We enjoy many of the blessings he was not allowed to experience, and we don’t have his surfeit of enemies. However, even in much less trying times, we still experience the temptation to disobey God because of fear.
We go get drunk with our friends because we’re afraid that they won’t be our friends any more if we don’t. We return evil for evil in our marriages because we’re afraid that if we don’t, we’ll get walked on. We’re as touchy as a fresh burn because we’re afraid that others won’t respect us if we aren’t.
And so on. The devil will attempt to use our fears against us in innumerable ways. However, as with Jeremiah, the only way forward is to defy our fears for God’s sake. If we allow ourselves to be dismayed before our spiritual enemies, He will dismay us before them.
This is generally not obvious in the moment. In the moment, it seems that only by giving in to our fears can we protect ourselves. We must remember, though that protecting ourselves isn’t our job. It’s God’s. If we are faithful to Him, He will be faithful to us.
Much of the time, we tend to understand the kings of Israel and Judah in a binary way. We read “X did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and “Y did what was right in the sight of the Lord” not as summaries, but as blanket statements that accurately describe every aspect of a king’s life.
This understanding is an oversimplification in both directions. Even a rotter like Ahab believed in God, feared God, and spoke with His prophets. On the other hand, even the most righteous kings of Judah weren’t perfect.
Consider, for instance, the career of the righteous king Hezekiah. In 1 Kings 18:5, he receives the encomium, “He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him.” As impressive as this sounds, we must recognize that it’s where Hezekiah ended up, not where he started. Despite his opposition to idolatry, there were times in his life when he failed to trust.
This is most evident in the prophecies of Isaiah that concern the events of Hezekiah’s reign. In Isaiah 22:8-11, Isaiah says of Hezekiah, “In that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that the breaches of the city of David were many. You collected the waters of the lower pool, and you counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to Him who did it, or see Him who planned it long ago.” For all of his righteousness, Hezekiah found himself in a place where he still relied on what he could do rather than on the salvation of the Lord.
However, everything that Hezekiah could accomplish was overwhelmed in the massive Assyrian invasion of 701 BC. The Assyrians came from the north like a tidal wave, destroying everything in sight. They conquered all of Judah, including the citadel of Lachish, except for Jerusalem itself.
Jerusalem is clearly next on the hit list. Assyrian officials inform the inhabitants that they must surrender instead of being destroyed. Now, in Isaiah 37:3-4, Hezekiah says, “This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the Lord your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has send to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the Lord your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.”
There’s no more talk about armories and reservoirs and walls. Now, Hezekiah has put his trust completely in God, a trust not shared by any king before or after him. He hopes for his redemption not for his own glory, but for God’s.
Today, it’s easy for us to be early-Hezekiah-style Christians. We do the right things, but we continue to trust in ourselves. Sooner or later, that selfish trust will betray us. We will learn, like Hezekiah, that security can only be found in God. The only question is whether we will learn from his calamity or our own.
One of the themes of the book of Daniel is faithfulness to God despite living in a foreign land. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were exiles because of the sins of their fathers, men who couldn’t manage to keep covenant with God even though they were living in the promised land. The sons, though, were put to a sterner test than their fathers. They were expected to serve faithfully despite the bad example of their ancestors, the destruction of the temple, and their removal to Babylon. They were called to remember God even when their very names were changed from names that glorified Him to names that glorified idols (Bel, Aku, Aku, and Nergal, respectively).
Astonishingly, they succeed. All four men draw a line in the sand in Daniel 1. They determine that they would rather live on vegetables and water than run the risk of defiling themselves with rich food and wine from the king’s table. In Daniel 3, Daniel’s three friends prefer to face incineration rather than worshiping the king’s image. Similarly, in Daniel 6, Daniel himself defies the king’s edict and continues to pray toward Jerusalem according to the terms of 2 Chronicles 6:36-39.
In all of these things, God blesses them. Despite their austere diet, they become fatter than their peers who gorged themselves on royal delicacies (In my book, this is evidence that eating salads doesn’t help you lose weight!). An angel rescues Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace. God closes the mouths of the lions who were supposed to devour Daniel for his illegal prayers. Though an outside observer might conclude from the destruction of Israel and Judah that God is powerless, His care for the exiles shows that He is anything but.
Today, Christians in the United States increasingly feel that they are living in exile. America has never been “a Christian nation”, at least not in a Biblical sense, but increasingly, the morality of those around us is diverging from the morality of the Bible. Millions are turning to a bizarre moral code of their own invention. The same people who sneer at us for believing in an imaginary God simultaneously believe (and insist) that somebody who has two X chromosomes can be a man. Never mind the biology; saying makes it so!
In such an environment, staying faithful to our Creator is becoming increasingly difficult. Like the exiled Jews, we face all kinds of pressure to conform. Maybe nobody is changing our names on us, but it’s certainly true that Christians who are loud in their defense of Biblical morality will get in all kinds of trouble in secular schools and workplaces.
Nonetheless, our only recourse is to continue trusting in God too. He does not promise us that serving Him will be easy or painless, but He does promise that He will not forsake us. If we remain true to Him despite provocation from the citizens of this world, He will surely bless us.