When I was a child, my Mom used scripture to teach and correct me. One of her favorites was found in Numbers 32:23b “..you may be sure your sin will find you out.” This was a warning not to try to hide or excuse bad behavior. I could lie about cleaning my room, but sooner or later, Mom would find out. I could pretend to eat my peas at dinner, but sooner or later, my pile of uneaten veggies would show up as evidence. And I could be nice to my little sister around company, but that wouldn’t fool those who knew us well, or convince my sister that I wasn’t going to be bossy after they left. Most importantly, God would know what I did– and I would know that God knew!
Sin is more than just a simple action, or an accident. Sin is an infection–a poison. And it leaves traces, and scars, and has consequences– not just in actions or consequences, but in the shaping of our minds, attitudes, and character. Sin– concealed, denied, ignored, or excused–breeds and grows; it poisons our thoughts and emotions. Instead of reacting openly and honestly, we become defensive, secretive, paranoid, and apprehensive.
Praying involves communicating openly and honestly with God. Sin will get in the way of that communication. Not on God’s part– He is unchanging. But on our part– we will not be fully open with God. We will be suspicious of His goodness, and doubtful of His mercy. We will try to hide our guilt and our true motives. As early as the Garden of Eden, this is the pattern. Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. “Where are you?” asked God (Genesis 3:9). Certainly He knew where they were, and why they were hiding. But Adam replied, “…I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (Genesis 3:10) When God asked Cain about his brother, Cain tried to cover-up the murder with distractions. “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”(Genesis 4:9) God never asked Cain whether or not he was responsible for his brother. But God already knew that Cain had killed Abel; Cain’s attempts to redirect the conversation did nothing to hide his guilt– it merely confirmed that Sin had wormed its way into his thoughts and attitudes. Cain never asked for forgiveness. He never confessed to the murder of his brother. Instead, he received the punishment for his sin– banishment and isolation. Later, Cain’s descendants even bragged about their family history of murder and exile! (Genesis 4:23-24)
Of all the people we might try to impress, God cannot be fooled by our false righteousness. He cannot be impressed or distracted by arguments or justifications. And He can’t ignore how Sin is poisoning us, and leading us toward death– both physical and spiritual death. Even “little” “secret” sins will infect our relationships– with God and with others– and cause us to grow emotionally and spiritually numb. Unfortunately, the poison of Sin can cause us to withdraw further from the very source of healing. We attempt to bargain with God; to justify or excuse our actions in our own eyes, asking Him to ignore our condition. We may even be defiant, knowing we deserve punishment, but doubting God’s willingness or ability to bring about justice. We march boldly in the opposite direction, doubling down on our bitterness, anger, or shame.
We need to seek God’s mercy and grace through confession and repentance. God is faithful to forgive and eager to restore to us the joy of His salvation (Psalm 51:11) He will do what all our mind-games and excuse-making cannot do–He will remove our sins from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). And once the poison of Sin is drawn off, we can see and hear, think and act with a clear conscience, free of guilt and shame; free of secrets and excuses. We may still face the earthly consequences of our actions– punishment for things we’ve stolen or lives we’ve hurt, broken relationships or changed circumstances–but the eternal consequences of death and separation from God have been erased by the Blood of Christ and removed forever.
And that will lead us to prayers of worship and thanksgiving, freely and joyfully raised!
5-9 So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritualunderstanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s right before you, oblivious that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books.
2 Peter 1:5-9 (The Message) (emphasis added)
I think one of the hallmarks of a Christian is not knowledge about God, but personal experience of God. And one of the signs of such experience is a reverent wonder– an overwhelming AWE– of God. Of who He is and how He works, what He has done, and what He has promised to do. As we grow in faith, good character, understanding, discipline, and patience, we are ready to absorb the absolute WONDER of this majestic, mighty, amazing God we serve. We revel in our own personal experience of Salvation, but we also begin to see the magnitude of God’s Grace, His Power, His Wisdom and His Holiness.
Many of the ancient prophets tried to describe their encounters with God’s presence. Daniel and the Apostle John were paralyzed and prostrate when visited by angels. Paul was blinded by the light. Moses’ face had to be covered after being in God’s presence. because his face was so radiant. Isaiah was struck dumb. The list goes on… We may not experience the presence of angels or receive prophecies like they did, but we can experience a sense of ecstasy in contemplating our marvelous Lord and Savior.
One prophet who had such an experience was Habakkuk. Habakkuk lived in perilous and evil times. His nation was in rebellion toward God’s law, and its citizens, from the leaders and priests to the farmers and townspeople, were paying lip-service to God while prostrating themselves to foreign gods and foreign countries. The leaders lived in splendor, while many of their own people starved, or were sold into slavery. Habakkuk, in frustration, prayed to God, pleading for relief from evil, and judgment for the righteous. He had faith, was of good character, understood the law, had developed discipline, and had a passionate patience– but his patience was mixed with frustration. “How long must I wait to see justice and reform?” “How long will my people keep seeking help from wicked foreigners?” “When will we be free of oppression?”
Habakkuk was not just whining. He had a heart for his own people, and wanted to see what God would do. God’s answer was not what Habakkuk was expecting. God promised justice and redemption– but only after invasion, more oppression, and exile! God was sending a vast and merciless army to crush not only His own people, but all the wicked nations in whom they had placed their trust. God was going to “pull the rug out” from under the entire region. But then, He would punish the invaders, wiping out their power and restoring His people to their own land.
What was Habakkuk’s reaction to such news? At first, he was stunned; then confused. But in a very short time, his horror turned to worship. He resolved to stand at his watch; to station himself on the ramparts to see God at work. And as he waited, his perspective changed. God DID see the injustice and wickedness; the violence, lies, and betrayal. God had a plan– a plan so much grander and glorious in scope– a plan that had been in place from long before Habakkuk was born; long before his complaint. It was a plan that would not leave wickedness unpunished, but would bring justice in its proper time, and allow for redemption, restoration and renewal.
Habakkuk’s prayer (chapter 3) is a marvel of praise and worship: “His glory covered the heavens, and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand where his power was hidden…” (v. 3b-4) “You split the earth with rivers; the mountains saw you and writhed. Torrents of water swept by; the deep roared and lifted its waves on high. Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear… (v.9b-11) “I heard and my heart pounded; my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines; though the olive crop fails, and the fields produce no food; though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to go on the heights.” (v. 16-19a NIV)
How often does my heart pound and my lips quiver as I contemplate our Awesome God? How often am I joyful in God my Savior– especially in the midst of expected hardship and continuing evil around me? How often do I limit my sight to what is immediately before my eyes, instead of looking up at the one who holds every moment of the past and future; who controls the vastness of millions of galaxies, yet also sees each individual hair on 7 billions human heads, knows every grain of sand in the desert, and every drop of water in all the oceans; who tracks every molecule in the universe, but knows me by name?!
May today be a day filled with reverent wonder, as we consider the Holy, Majestic, and Awesome God who has the power to redeem, inspire, and strengthen us for whatever lies ahead.
8 In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign Lord came on me there. 2 I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man. From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire, and from there up his appearance was as bright as glowing metal. 3 He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood. 4 And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain. 5 Then he said to me, “Son of man, look toward the north.” So I looked, and in the entrance north of the gate of the altar I saw this idol of jealousy. 6 And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing—the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.” 7 Then he brought me to the entrance to the court. I looked, and I saw a hole in the wall. 8 He said to me, “Son of man, now dig into the wall.” So I dug into the wall and saw a doorway there.9 And he said to me, “Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here.” 10 So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel. 11 In front of them stood seventy elders of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising. 12 He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” 13 Again, he said, “You will see them doing things that are even more detestable.” 14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. 15 He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this.” 16 He then brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord, and there at the entrance to the temple, between the portico and the altar, were about twenty-five men. With their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, they were bowing down to the sun in the east. 17 He said to me, “Have you seen this, son of man? Is it a trivial matter for the people of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here? Must they also fill the land with violence and continually arouse my anger? Look at them putting the branch to their nose! 18 Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them.”
Ezekiel 8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com
We make a big fuss in our culture about privacy. What I do in my own home, with my own life, in my own time, is private. And, for many of us, our privacy is sacred. We rage and fight and panic about who may be invading our privacy– listening in or watching us when we least expect it.
I must admit, I don’t like the idea of anyone spying on me or listening in on my private moments. I especially don’t like the thought of someone manipulating or using my private words, images, or ideas without my knowledge or consent.
But there is a danger in our quest for privacy– we are inclined to believe that anything we do in private CANNOT ever be discovered; that we are safe to do whatever we please, regardless of the consequences. The internet has made this idea even more dangerous–we can be private and anonymous behind the screen. We can say things we know we shouldn’t; we can view things we would be ashamed to acknowledge watching; we can explore fantasies, mask our inadequacies, pretend to be who and what we are not; all behind the “safety” of the screen.
And this is nothing new. In Ezekiel’s day, the moral, legal, political, and religious leaders of the day thought they were “safe” to indulge in idol worship behind closed doors. But more than that, they believed that God would never see as they practiced divination, witchcraft, ritual prostitution, violent orgies, even child sacrifice! They had built hidden rooms where they practiced vile rites and indulged in the very behaviors they taught others to avoid. Worse, they condemned and vilified others when they “got caught” doing the same things they practiced with impunity. And when prophets came to them with warnings–the very words of God– they had them ruined, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
In the eighth chapter of Ezekiel, God shows his prophet a vision. He allows Ezekiel to “go behind closed doors” and see the priests and leaders at their worst–over and over again–secret rituals, detestable practices, flagrant disobedience, arrogant rebellion…And all of this was happening as the nations of Israel and Judah had collapsed, and many thousands had died from war, disease, and starvation. People had been sent into exile– defeated, starving, enslaved. Yet their leaders were keeping up an image of righteousness and proud endurance, instead of turning to God for help and hope.
God was very clear–Jerusalem WOULD be captured and destroyed. Babylon WOULD take God’s people captive and send most of them to the sword or to exile. Defiance and pride– especially relying on the great victories of the past– would not save them. Rebellion and violence would not hold back God’s judgment.
The same is true today. It is easy to write about praying and walking closely with God–I’m hidden behind a screen. I can sound righteous and Godly for a few minutes three times a week. And it is easy to point fingers and call out the bad behavior of others behind the anonymity of a computer screen. We need to speak up, speak out, and defend the cause of those who are oppressed, abused, enslaved, and silenced. But we also need to beware that we are not crying, “Shame on you!” from a locked closet, while waving banners or buying merchandise supporting the abusers.
And God sees all of it. What we may find shocking and reprehensible, God has already seen through to its conclusion! God WILL bring judgment and punishment for those who shed blood and bring violence and injustice. But God also sees what I do in the watches of the night; when I’m alone with my thoughts; when I’m not on my guard against what I view on Facebook or YouTube. God knows what celebrity gossip I crave, or what I’m “watching” on eBay. He knows if I am ignoring or justifying evil happening all around me. He watches over my shoulder when I’m reading that new novel, or I’m driving down the road (hopefully not at the same time!), or when I’m wallowing in self-pity or jealousy or anger.
When I read about Ezekiel weeping over the behavior of Israel’s leaders, I am convicted. How often do I weep and seek God’s mercy over the behavior of our leaders–all of them, and not just the ones I voted for? Or do I just fume and post about how awful “they” are (whoever “they” my be) and how “they” need to be punished? How often do I ignore my own bad behavior? I may not have a “hidden room” filled with detestable images and idols, but God is still watching how I react to challenging times. He knows if I am obeying His voice or merely pretending to follow Him while leaning on my own understanding or my own image of self-righteousness. He knows if I have made money, politics, status, safety, health, or even “religion” into idols, hoping that one or more of them will carry me through tough times. He knows if I am condemning others for their bad behavior, while hiding or justifying my own.
I want everyone to see me when I am noble and righteous–but I need to see myself as He sees me every day–His much-loved, and ever-needy, child.
Father, may I be quick to remember that You ALWAYS see me– and that You ALWAYS want me to see You as well. Help me to see You in the middle of challenging times. Help me to see You when I interact with others. Help me to obey You in the private moments when no one else is watching.
I’ve already posted recently about Ash Wednesday (see the post from Feb. 15), so it may seem strange on a day of fasting and ashes to be writing about food. And manna doesn’t seem to have much of a connection to prayer– bear with me…
Manna was, quite literally, “daily bread.” God sent manna each day for the children of Israel as they wandered and camped in the wilderness on their journey to the Promised Land. It appeared overnight, much like dew, and evaporated in the heat of the day. Yet the small “grains” could be gathered and made into nourishment for the thousands of Israelites who had no other source of bread. Manna and the bread made from it were only good for a day (except on Friday, when twice as much would fall so no work needed to be done on the Sabbath). God provides for our needs daily– we don’t have to worry and fret. Jesus returned to this theme often, including the Sermon on the Mount and The Lord’s Prayer.
Manna was uniquely suited for the Israelites in their situation. Manna did not require time to grow, harvest, or prepare. It did not require storage space, as it was collected and used up daily. It did not require yeast, salt, or sugar to be added to it–God designed it to be simple, sufficient, sustaining, and even sweet!
Manna was provided even after the Israelites complained and accused Moses (and God!) of leading them into the wilderness to die. God will not withhold punishment (see what happened in Numbers 11 when the Israelites complained about the manna!), but He will provide for our needs out of His love for us, not as a condition of our righteous behavior. All the people had access to manna, even those who complained or were defiant. If someone went hungry, it was not because God refused to provide– but because they chose not to avail themselves of His gift, or because they refused to accept the nature of the gift.
Manna was consistent. God didn’t send manna one week and raisins the next; God is faithful and unchanging–the manna wasn’t just a nutritional provision, it was a reflection of God’s nature! God gives good gifts; it is our selfish nature that often takes His goodness for granted, and asks for what we do not need.
Once the Israelites reached the Promised Land, the manna stopped. God’s gifts meet our needs– in His way, and in His time. God does not give gifts blindly or absent-mindedly. God knew exactly how much manna to send each day, and exactly when the manna would no longer be needed. He was watching closely the whole time– every step of the journey.
So today, whether or not you are fasting, you can rejoice in the knowledge that God has seen every step of YOUR journey. He will provide for our every need, including the need for forgiveness, courage, physical nourishment, and spiritual growth. All we need to do is look for it, gather it, and use it!
Yesterday and today mark two important milestones in North America. September 16 is Mexican Independence Day, and September 17 is Constitution Day in the United States. On these days, people in our two countries celebrate some of the great things that can be accomplished by “we the people.” The founders of our nations were not perfect, but they fought and worked and came together to make “a more perfect union,” and a brighter future for their citizens.
All around the world, governments are instituted to protect the rights and lives of people– to protect them from danger, to allow them to interact in peace and safety, and to provide for “the general welfare” of all. But governments– even the best–are run by fallible people.
The Bible tells a long and complex story of the ancient nation of Israel. Tracing its origins to a single patriarch (Abraham), the family grew to be a powerful nation, ruled first by priests and judges, and then by a series of kings. The nation split into two distinct countries, before being scattered and sent into exile. The story of the nation is chronicled (literally) in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. In the books of the prophets, the same message comes from God again and again–Israel and Judah have both fallen into the same idolatry and corruption that doomed the nations they had conquered in former times. Instead of seeking justice for all the people, and providing order and protection, the leaders had become drunkards, liars, thieves, and murderers. They betrayed their allies, made foolish treaties, oppressed the poor and helpless, and celebrated their own cleverness. “We the People” had devolved into “us versus them.” Worship of God had been replaced by worship of a pantheon of foreign gods–worship that involved ritual prostitution and human sacrifice. Family members and fellow citizens were sold into slavery, robbed and beaten, used and abused, and slaughtered–without remorse or fear of retribution. God’s warnings were followed by His justice and punishment, and the demise of both nations, as well as punishment for their neighbors.
Israel’s story, while very detailed, isn’t unique in history. Instead, it is a case study of what can happen when the people abandon unity and the rule of law for division and corruption. It is what happens when “who we are” becomes more important than “whose” we are; when “we” are more important than anyone else–even God. Israel and Judah continued to be religious right up to the point where they were dragged off to exile. They brought offerings and sacrifices, sang songs, prayed, and memorized scripture. Their leaders assured them that God would protect them and continue to let them prosper as their enemies marched up to the gates of Jerusalem. They had not abandoned the worship of God– they had just added idolatry to it. They worshipped their own prosperity, they worshipped gods and goddesses of the harvest, of war, of wealth, and wisdom. They still thought God was great– but not necessarily Sovereign.
Who or what are we worshipping today? What “new” and additional principles have we added to our own Constitution? To the laws of the land? To our way of being good citizens in our respective countries? To the eternal Word of God? When we hear the phrase, “We the People,” does it bring to mind people who look and live differently than us? Does it bring thoughts of justice and unity? Does it humble us?
King David, the second, and one of the greatest of Israel’s kings wrote: “Know that the Lord, He is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” (Psalm 100:3 NKJV) “We the People,” by ourselves, will scatter and fall into destruction, like sheep without a shepherd.
He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth— the LORD God Almighty is his name.
Amos 4:13 NIV (via biblestudytools.com)
To whom do you pray? I know many people who address their prayers to “Our Father.” Others pray to the Name of Jesus, or to “Abba,” or even through a saint. I’ve heard some even use terms like “Daddy God,” or “The Man Upstairs.” But the One who hears our prayers, the Triune God of the Universe, is altogether Holy, Righteous, Sovereign, and Supreme. We forget that or diminish that to our peril.
That doesn’t mean that we cannot draw near to our Creator– in fact, He wants us to call on Him and commune with Him. But He is more than just another someone we can talk to. He sees us– and He sees through us! We may be able to “fool” our friends and even our family with a false smile or half-attentive listening, but God is not fooled by our appearance or our shallow actions.
The people of Israel, during the time of Amos’s writing, had formed a bad habit of “fake” worship. They prided themselves on their rituals– morning sacrifices, tithes, offerings, etc. They were religious– on the surface. But their lives were filled with greed, selfishness, corruption, pride, and apathy. They not only knew there was injustice all around them, they were willing participants!
They had pushed a loving and merciful God to His limits. He had sent plagues, famines, war, and other disasters to humble His people and shake them out of their sinful stupor. Hard times can bring people together; disasters can cause them to turn their eyes to Heaven; to ask for help, and to offer help to their neighbors. But these stubborn people used hard times to take advantage of those who were already in trouble– the rich watched in comfort and disdain as their countrymen starved. They cheated and hoarded while others were dying.
Sadly, the Israelites of Amos’s time are not so very different from people in our own time and countries. God’s warnings and pleadings don’t sound out of place in 21st century America. Or Europe. Or anywhere else. We have a form of worship– people who brag about their Mega-churches with worship orchestras, bistros, indoor playgrounds for the kids, light shows, and more; people who attend every “Christian” concert that comes to town, or attend retreats and seminars. And there’s nothing overtly “wrong” about such worship. But it has to translate into WORTH-SHIP–recognizing that God is not just another superstar; that His House is not just a place to be entertained or meet other “nice” people. That His Word is not just a bunch of stories about “other” people who messed up, with a list of suggestions on how to live a “better life now.”
“He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth— the LORD God Almighty is his name.” May we never forget or take for granted WHO God really is. And may we always recognize His Worth and Majesty. May we be quick to listen and obey Him, and quick to repent when we go astray. That’s what He was asking through Amos and the other prophets– that’s what He asks of us today.
We’ve been experiencing a heat wave. The temperatures are high, but the humidity makes it feel even hotter. People are doing whatever they can to avoid the heat– everything from driving around to stay in the air-conditioned car, wearing loose fitting clothes, wearing wide-brimmed hats for extra shade, drinking lots of cold water, or staying indoors with fans. Others have no alternative– they must walk in the heat, work in the heat, or try to find whatever shelter or shade is available, even if it offers only relief from the harshest rays of the sun.
Today, we are getting rain– blessed relief– cool drops of water and lower temperatures, along with clouds to hide the sun’s piercing rays. Even so, the rain has come with wind and even some flooding and storm damage. So even our “relief” poses some danger. So there is limited relief from the heat, but once the rain front passes, the temperature may rise, and the humidity will once again make the air steamy and oppressive.
Watching how people work and plan and worry about avoiding the heat of summer reminds me of how we work and plan and worry about avoiding another kind of “heat”– accountability and judgment. Hell is described as a “place of eternal torment”, a “lake of fire,” and a “blazing furnace.” People will do almost anything to avoid such a place. They try to pretend it doesn’t exist; they create “air-conditioned” philosophies and religions that block the reality of judgment and punishment; they worry and work and plot ways to escape their fate.
Jesus clearly taught that Hell is real, and that it is a place of darkness, suffering, gnashing of teeth, and despair. Someday there will be a “heat wave,” as all those who have rejected God’s offer of forgiveness and His Sovereignty face His judgment and righteous wrath. There will be no rain to bring relief or refreshment; no shade or cooling breeze of grace– only the unbearable oppression of guilt, shame, and self-torment that comes from being outside of God’s loving care.
There is a way to “avoid the heat” of God’s wrath– He offers complete restoration and eternal life for those who turn from sin and follow Him. Jesus, through His life, ministry, death, and resurrection, made it possible for us to live in God’s presence– His Light, His Glory, and His Love– in joyful eternity. We do not have to worry and work and plot how to “avoid the heat.” We need only put our trust in the one who sends the heat and wind and rain in their seasons, and whose Grace shades us from His wrath.
Part of this trust is being able to call out to God in our times of “heat”– whether from guilt or oppression–and ask for His blessed relief. Sometimes, we need to call on His Grace and forgiveness. Sometimes, we need to call on His promises– not to remind Him, but to remind ourselves that our “heat” is temporary, and His relief is eternally effective. This week, our “relief” from the heat came in the form of rain storms. We might be tempted to complain about the manner of God’s response to our cries for help in the moment. But we must remember that the storms and the heat waves of this life are temporary– the fires of Hell, and the blessings of Heaven are eternal.
There are a lot of angry people out there. They have ample reason to be angry. The world is filled with darkness, injustice, pain, sickness, violence, oppression..the list goes on. Such things should make us angry. Such things are wrong. They are destructive. They are evil.
But anger, even justified, cannot heal. It begets more anger, and yet more evil in the name of vengeance. Anger alerts us to evil, but it cannot be allowed to fester and corrode all that is good.
God created us with emotions, like anger, but He desires us to bring them under His discipline to become instruments of good. All the way back in Genesis, God cautioned Cain in his anger https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+4%3A1-16&version=NIV God did not condemn Cain for his anger, but he warned him not to be mastered by it. Cain did not listen, and in his anger, he committed the first murder. God’s wrath against Cain was swift and terrible– God cursed the ground, so it would not produce for Cain; He drove Cain to wander in the barren wilderness. Even so, God put a mark of protection on Cain, and promised His own vengeance on anyone who would try to kill him. God’s mercy overwhelmed simple retribution. God had the power (and the right) to strike Cain dead. He chose to let Cain live with the dark consequences of his anger.
God understands that we will get angry– He gets angry, too! But God sees beyond anger, beyond the immediate pain and rage that we feel when confronted with evil. God’s ways are eternal and Holy and right.
If we turn to God in our anger– if we cry out to Him and wait for His wisdom, He can turn even our anger and bitterness into something far better– resolve. We can resolve to bring good out of tragedy; we can resolve to work, and sweat, and pray, and stand firm in the midst of the storm. If anger is like fire– swift and destructive, then resolve is like a mountain–enduring and offering shelter, protection, and a fixed reference. Fire can scorch the mountain. But it cannot move it or destroy it.
We are living in uncertain and evil times. Let us acknowledge it; even be angered by it. But then, let us bring our anger, our pain, our confusion– and our hope–to God. As God warned Cain, if we do not do what is right, sin will be crouching at our door, desiring to have us; to destroy us and drive us away from God’s presence. If we deny our anger, if we push it down and pretend that it has no power to touch us, we are playing with fire. But if we bring it to God, acknowledging the struggle, crying out in our pain, God can turn our anger into resolve– steadfast through fire and storm and wind and time. Solidly committed to what is good and right and truly just.
Anger, violence, vengeance–all promise easy justice and powerful change. But once the fire of emotion and action has passed, we are left with ashes and death. But on the mountain of resolve, even the ashes become mixed with the good soil underneath to produce new life and growth. The good endures. The good resolves to endure. Goodness is eternal. Let us seek the good, and seek that God would, beyond our anger, grant us resolve.
The Biblical figure of Daniel is mostly remembered for being thrown into a den of lions as a punishment for praying to the God of Heaven in defiance of a new law (proposed by his enemies, who hoped to set him up). https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+6&version=NIV The story is a familiar one– so familiar that we sometimes pass over the context and details. I don’t want to retell the entire story, but I want to put it in context. There is a lot more than just a den of lions and a miraculous rescue.
First, the Book of Daniel is filled with loosely tied stories in the life of Daniel, an Israelite captured by the Babylonians, and living in exile over the course of over seventy years. By the time we get to chapter six, Daniel is likely in his late eighties or early nineties! He has served under at least five monarchs in two empires, and has seen the utter collapse of two major capital cities (Jerusalem and Babylon). Because of the episodic nature of the first half of this book, we have very few details of Daniel’s everyday life– we never learn if he was married or had children; if he was ever allowed to return to the land of Judah; or if he was able to use his position and influence to help other Jewish families or speak out against the idol worship and human sacrifice practiced by his captors. In the story of Belshazzar, it seems that Daniel had been relegated to a lower position within the palace during the years after Nebuchadnezzar’s death– Belshazzar did not know of him; only because the Queen remembered his ability to interpret dreams was Daniel summoned and brought back to court. The events of chapter six are unique and shocking to us, but not in the context of Daniel’s life.
There is a pattern that gets repeated throughout Daniel’s story– it is the confrontation of two great powers– Daniel’s faithful service to God puts him in opposition to the powers of his captors. He is a captive and a foreigner, but that is not what makes him (and his three friends) a target of powerful enemies. It is his prayer life and his obedient devotion to God that causes him to be singled out. In seven decades, that devotion has never wavered, and Daniel’s life of prayer has been consistent, both in private and in public. Daniel doesn’t have to argue, protest, or announce his devotion. When he is praised for his abilities, he quietly gives the glory and credit to God. When he is vilified and betrayed, he quietly waits for his vindication to come from the God he has trusted through the years.
Darius, (like Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar and others before him) is impressed by Daniel– enough that he appoints Daniel to a position of great power and authority within the kingdom. Daniel, because of his humility and integrity, is not threat to the rule of Darius–but he does pose a threat to those under him who are hungry for power and prestige. There will always be people in this world who will try to destroy what they do not understand or respect. Darius is not the author of Daniel’s dilemma, but a tool in the hands of corrupt officials. Daniel could have been hurt, enraged, or defeated by this decree from Darius– but he recognized that the real enemy wasn’t Darius, or the crooked satraps who put him up to it (or the hungry lions he faced)– the real enemy was the opposition to Almighty God and the refusal to acknowledge His authority. Darius is quick to learn that God’s power is real and absolute, and that God is gracious in his power, and loving toward his servants. The wicked satraps did not learn this lesson, and they perished.
Notice that, just as in the story of the fiery furnace, God did not remove the danger. Daniel’s friends had to go into the fiery furnace…Daniel had to go into the den of lions. And these were not just overgrown kittens. They would have been captive lions– just as Daniel was held in captivity! They were trapped in this den, unable to hunt for their food; dependent on the whims of their captors. They were kept in a state of uncertainty, fear, and hunger. They were desperate, and hurt, and angry. When Daniel is brought out of the den, and Darius orders the conspirators to be thrown in (with their families), the lions pounce with terrifying ferocity, not even letting the bodies hit the bottom of the den! God may allow us to face some terrifying “lions”– scoffers and rebels and desperate people who will try to take their anger and hurt out on us. Will we trust that God can stop their mouths while we wait for deliverance?
Daniel’s calm response to this entrapment was not the result of Daniel being “holier” than someone else, or more clever; God did not send him a vision of assurance that he would live to see another day. Daniel must have been terrified of facing several starving lions! At his age, he would not have had the strength to fight them. But Daniel’s obedience and trust won the respect of yet another ruler from a very different culture. And God’s miraculous rescue won the awe of Darius– so much so that he issued a decree throughout his realm to all peoples of every language in the kingdom to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel! Faithfulness, humility, and obedience always open up opportunities for God to display His Glory.
Just as Daniel was thrown alone into a lion’s den and sealed inside by a large stone, one day Jesus would be thrown into a tomb to face death and hell. He was sealed in with a large stone, but no one came to his rescue. He stood and faced our enemies– Sin and Death. His flesh was torn and crushed and His blood poured out, and He bore the wrath and punishment that we deserved, so that Sin and Death were defeated. And when He was finished, the stone was removed, and Jesus emerged victorious! His faithfulness, humility, and obedience let to Glory and Life. We may never face a literal den of lions– we may not be tested with persecution, but Jesus has already won the battle; He has permanently closed the mouth of our greatest enemy, and set us free!
Daniel’s prayer life is not marked by spectacular prayers of rhetorical magnificence. He isn’t known for fervent fasting and wailing prayers for the rescue of his nation (though he probably said many). Daniel is noted for his consistent practice of praying– good days, bad days; days of glory or ignominy; days of ease and days of uncertainty; days spent serving wise rulers, and days spent serving madmen and spoiled brats– Daniel quietly and faithfully went to God in prayer. He didn’t make a public spectacle, but he didn’t hide, either. Will we be faithful to seek God’s face throughout the day– in little matters and times of crisis; in praise and in pain; for our daily bread, our neighbor’s health, our nations’ revival, and our world’s salvation and healing?
God is all-powerful. He is sovereign over all the universe for all eternity. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Yet, in His majesty, He is merciful; unwilling that any should perish.
In the book if Daniel, we encountered the familiar story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were thrown into a fiery furnace for failing to bow down to a giant statue commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar. The mighty king of Babylon was an absolute ruler, and failure to obey one of his decrees could result in death. That it did not end in death for the three young men baffled and impressed their king. But it didn’t change him.
The very next story in the book of Daniel is one that is less familiar– it is another curious interjection into a book of (seemingly) disjointed stories. In chapter three, Daniel narrates his friends’ story, in which he is curiously absent. In chapter four, Nebuchadnezzar is the narrator, Daniel is one of the characters, and his three friends are never mentioned. (Because Nebuchadnezzar is narrating, he uses Daniel’s Babylonian name, Belteshazzar.)
The chapter begins almost as a mirror image of chapter 2, except the writing style is very different–more formalized, and written more as a proclamation. (https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dan%204) Nebuchadnezzar is being troubled by a recurring dream. Once again, he calls in all the astrologers, sorcerers, etc., to interpret the dream. However (whether because Nebuchadnezzar is narrating, or because he has learned a little self-control), this time there are no threats involved, and when the lesser wise men fail, Nebuchadnezzar himself sends for Daniel, confident that Daniel can provide an answer. Nebuchadnezzar actually flatters Daniel as he asks for an interpretation, but Daniel is still cautious. This dream is more disturbing than the first, because it is more personal and immediate. God is warning Nebuchadnezzar directly that his pride has gotten out of control and God is about to step in a pronounce judgment on it. God will teach Nebuchadnezzar about humility by causing him to lose everything, including his mind!
Daniel carefully gives Nebuchadnezzar the interpretation and the warning from God, and adds his own wish that his king might escape punishment by humbling himself before the Almighty God. But in a year’s time, Nebuchadnezzar forgets. In the very act of praising himself, Nebuchadnezzar hears the voice of God, who drives him away from his kingdom, from society, and from rationality. For seven years, Nebuchadnezzar lives as a beast, eating grass, roaming outdoors, and covered with “the dew of heaven”. At the end of that time, he comes to his senses and is restored to his mighty kingdom a wiser, humbler, and grateful monarch.
What a contrast between these two rulers! Nebuchadnezzar demanded total loyalty and obedience. When it wasn’t given, the reaction was instant fury and a sentence of death. God is the One who ultimately deserves our total loyalty and obedience. When it isn’t given, the sentence is death (Romans 6:23a). But God, who has the complete authority to pronounce the death sentence, is more interested in deliverance than in destruction. Make no mistake, God will punish Sin; God will destroy those who persist in evil and rebel against Him. But God’s heart is reconciliation and redemption. God did not kill Nebuchadnezzar; He didn’t strike out at him in fury and cast him immediately into the fiery furnace of Hell–though He had the power and authority to do so. God had given Nebuchadnezzar his life, his power and his kingdom. He took it away. And then he restored it. God took away Nebuchadnezzar’s ability to reason– and he restored that too. And while Nebuchadnezzar was living as a brute beast– in the middle of his punishment– he was covered with “the dew of heaven.”
Curiously, this phrase, “the dew of heaven” is used all the way back in the book of Genesis. It is used by Isaac as he blesses his son Jacob (disguised as Esau). https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+27%3A+27-29&version=ESV Even as Jacob was practicing deception that would have dire consequences, God’s blessing was being poured out on him by his father. And centuries later, in his midst of punishment, Nebuchadnezzar was blessed by God, who provided for his needs, and ended up giving back all that had been lost because of Nebuchadnezzar’s pride.
God punishes– He punishes those He loves! He teaches, humbles, and disciplines. But He is not in the business of destruction. He was with Nebuchadnezzar throughout his period of madness and humiliation, ready to restore (and even increase) all that he had lost.
May we honor this God of grace and mercy– his mercies are greater than his wrath, and his grace is greater than all our sin! Nebuchadnezzar finally learned to praise, worship, honor, and obey the “Most High God.” May we do the same.