Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Learning from Those Who Preceded Us in Faith
1) Abraham: Father of All Who Live by Faith
2) Rebekah: She Who Went the Second Mile
3) Jacob: The Man Who Became the Prince of Israel
4) Shamgar: God's Unknown Warrior
5) David: A Heart Formed Toward God
6) Elijah and Elisha: God's Prophets Against Idolatry
7) Esther: Orphan Girl Who Became Queen
8) Nehemiah: Fought the Good Fight
ABRAHAM : FATHER OF ALL WHO LIVE BY FAITH
Sometimes life just doesn't seem to make sense. Some of the things happening in the world around us do not seem to make sense. Why do we so often judge people good by their physical appearance alone, even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary? Why are plain, or even unhandsome, people that are good often ignored in politics? Why do pleasant-looking TV, movie, and sports 'stars' attract so much adoring attention, even if their personal lives lack reason for praise?
Why are most of our presidents tall? Are we incapable of looking past stature when it comes to electing men worthy of leading our nation? Do Americans have the 'Saul' complex to the point where our judgment is clouded by appearance and charisma? Why is this so? Why do we keep trying the same old solutions that have not worked in the past over and over and over again? If it did not work before, why is it going to work now? Why do we always want more when we cannot even use or store the things we have now? Why does it become so hard to just say "no"? To just do the right thing?
If men and women were designed to live together, why did God make them so different? We have many differences and yet we are surprised when we have a hard time getting along. We disagree. Sometimes it seems like God does not make sense. Why did He put that tree in the garden when He knew we were going to disobey Him? Why does He seem silent when we most need Him? And why does he allow people to be so cruel? Allow Satan to tempt us or allow death to take the ones we love? We often strain to understand why is God allowing these things to happen. What do you say, what do you think, and what do you do when God does not make sense?
Scripture is a record of God's organized and specific interaction with purposely-selected people. Scripture is God's special and written revelation to humankind to teach them who He is, what He wants, and how He operates. Without this special revelation, debate and discussion would never be able to definitively verify many of the things taught in Scripture. Not only would there be endless disagreement and discussion, as there is in intellectual circles that have rejected Scriptural teaching, but the sinful nature of humans would tend to enshrine falsehood and sensuality. Those who stumble onto the truth would get their opinions diminished to the point of being just one of many opinions, or lost altogether. Many of these people asked some of the same questions that trouble us today. And Scripture records what happened. We can learn from them.
Scripture probably has no better example of an individual who faced uncertainty than Abraham. He is a man who is called a pillar of faith by those who read his story. But this was not always true. Abraham faced uncertainty and did not always respond with pure and complete faith. But when his story finally ended he became a father of nations, especially God's specially-chosen nation, Israel. Genesis 12:1 states, "And the Lord said to Abraham, Go from your country and from your kindred and your father's house to the land I will show you and I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great."
Verse 4 records Abraham's response--he went. I don't think it was quite that simple. I don't think it was quite that cut and dried. The Iraqi desert is a harsh place and that is the area through which Abraham and his family had to walk. It would have been very easy and practical for Abraham just to ignore the voice and finish his life with the friends, the people he knew, where it was comfortable and safe.
When God said to Abraham, "I will make you into a great nation," Abraham was 75 years old and Sarah was 65 and barren. But God says to them, "I'm going to make your name great. You're going to be the father of a nation." Well, for ten years it did not happen. In Genesis 15:3, Abraham confronts God by saying, "You have given me no children." You can almost hear the frustration in Abraham's voice, "Lord, you have given me no children!" And how does God respond. Does the sovereign Lord of the universe point His finger at Abraham and say, "You insufferable wretch, how dare you question Me!" No! He takes Abraham outside and tells him to look upward and says (15:5), "Look up at the heavens and count the stars if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be." He essentially tells Abraham that it is not yet time but that if he would continue to believe the fulfillment would surely come. But Scripture records a tragic event.
Abraham and Sarah did not wait for God's fulfillment to His promise. They decided to fulfill God's promise themselves. They altered God's best plan with their own human reasoning. Notice, they were not opposed to God's plan, as Satan might be, they wanted its fulfillment, but they tried to fulfill it with their own human strength, their own human effort. Ishmael was born. He became the progenitor of the Arab nations who would later become the sworn enemies of that very nation that God called Abraham to start. Ironic, isn't it? By his faithlessness, Abraham cursed the very people he was called to be the father of.
Fifteen years after the birth of Ishmael, when Abraham was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am the Lord God Almighty. Walk before me and be blameless. I'll confirm my covenant between me and you and I will greatly increase your numbers (17:1-2)." Within a year, Isaac is born. Twenty-five to twenty-six years after He first made His promise to Abraham, God fulfills it. He fulfills it despite Abraham's advanced age and Sarah's barrenness. If only Abraham and Sarah had waited, there would be no conflict with the present-day Islamic nations that support terrorism, nations inhabited by descendants of Ishmael.
Abraham's faith was not perfect. He stumbled at the birth of Ishmael. But God was not done with him, yet. When Isaac was 10-15 years old, God told Abraham to do something that was strange. Genesis 22:2 says, "And God said take your son, your only son by my promise, Isaac whom you love and go to the region of Moriah and sacrifice him as a burnt offering." What, a human sacrifice? That is what the unholy, dark religions of the world do! I am sure Abraham had a similar reaction.
Does anyone think that Abraham did not think about this? Hebrews 11:17-19 gives evidence that he thought hard about this. "It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God's promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, though God has promised him, 'Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.' Abraham assumed that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead." Wow, what faith! After thinking long and hard about this, Abraham decided to do what God wanted him to do, even if he did not understand it, completely. Abraham knew that his God could raise the dead, if necessary!
Scripture records (22:3) that the next morning Abraham set out to obey God's command. "The next morning Abraham got up early. He saddled his donkey and took two of his servants with him, along with his son Isaac. Then he chopped wood to build a fire for a burnt offering and set out for the place where God had told him to go." Abraham did not linger in this journey like he had in his previous journey out of Ur. Abraham's faith had grown. It had grown to the point where he believed in what he had not yet seen, the resurrection from the dead! As the story unfolds, we see that God does provide a substitute sacrifice. Isaac, in a sense, was spared dead by the death of another.
Why does God sometimes work in such mysterious and strange ways? Listen. Listen close. Because He wants to show us that He exists and He is active in our world. If God had given Abraham and Sarah a baby when he was 35 and she was 25, we would say, "Well, so what, that happens all the time." But God has something special planned. "This is going to stand out. I want you and the world to know that I didn't just wind this place up and let it go. I am intricately and intimately involved." That is Abraham's message for us. When God does not make sense, you need to recognize that He is on the move, He is doing something. He is involved. When God does not make sense, He is growing you. When God does not make sense, He is making saints. That is what He did for Abraham and that is what He wants to do for us.
Did you know that until Abraham was 75 years old, he lived in the middle of the Chaldean civilization that worshiped idols? They bowed down to stone and wood idols. They burned incense and gave sacrifice to them. But then God said to Abram, "You need to get out of this place. I need to change your environment, so I can change your character. I've got a long-term plan and it doesn't involve the Tigris-Euphrates valley. It is going to be over there by the Mediterranean. It is going to be in a little land soon to be called Israel. And my long-term plan is still going to be in effect 5,000 years from now and you will start it all. My long-term plan is going to go all the way to the end of this age. Abram, I have the next step for you, get up and leave."
Abraham is called a man of faith because he trusted God when God did not seem to make sense. He trusted imperfectly at first but God kept working with him and turned him into the great patriarch we know today--Abraham father of many nations, father of those who walk by faith!
It is easy to wait when everything is wonderful. You do not grow faith without fear, without facing down all the what-ifs that come into your life. You do not grow self-control without temptation. There is a world of difference between innocence and integrity. Innocence is when one's personal purity rests in never having faced anything that challenges its existence. Integrity is when one's personal purity is chosen despite temptations to do otherwise. You do not grow grace without frustration. You do not grow trust without risk. When God does not make sense, He is making saints!
How will you respond when you feel God is not making sense? What will you think, what will you say, what will you do? Remember being three years old and wearing diapers. You had a problem but you grew beyond that problem. Riding a bike was a problem; swimming was a problem. And once we learned, once we got through it, it was never a problem again. God will enable you to grow through the things you think you cannot. The things you fear the most.
When the world is unfair to you, God is still there. He knows you do not like it. You shouldn't. There is much to dislike in this sin cursed world. But God asks, "How are you going to respond?" Let God grow you in the real laboratory of life. To do so, He may have to upset a few things. He told Abraham he had to move out of his comfort zone. He had to get him off balance so he could reassess his own life and break the routine and rebuild character. When you wonder what on earth is God doing, He is getting intricately involved in your life. Watch, respond, and grow with it. Had Abraham remained in Haran, he would have been just another insignificant figure in human history. But through God he built a legacy that impacted all of human history. Let us not forget, that unless God remembers something and values it, it will ultimately be worthless. It will ultimately be destroyed and forgotten.
Listen to this story about Jerry. Jerry is a fellow in his mid 30's. Jerry and his wife sat in church week after week, year after year. Being a good church going person, trying to do the right thing, trying to grow as God wanted him to. Bringing his kids to church, doing all the right things. And then one Sunday morning the church brought in a Chinese national who came to share what God is doing in China, how God is opening up the government, opening up avenues for people to go and share their faith. And God started tugging on Jerry's heart. He looked at his wife and saw that God was tugging on her heart, too. They prayed about it and they sensed that God was calling them to China. Jerry called the Chinese national and asked him whom he needed to contact to find out more information about missionary service in China. The Chinese national put him in contact with a man named Gordon, the head of a small mission group that has taken people to China.
Like Abraham's experience with God, Jerry's experience with Gordon was strange. Over the phone Gordon said to Jerry, "Well, I would like to meet with you, that's what we're all about, but I've got a real busy schedule and if you want to meet with me, see me tomorrow morning; I've got an opening at 3:00." Jerry said, "You said 3:00." Gordon answered, "Yea, meet me at my office downtown in the middle of town at 3:00 am." Jerry agrees. He set his alarm clock for 1:30 am, gets up, showers, gets in the car, and makes the hour drive through the empty roads and finally pulls into the parking lot of this little mission group. The parking lot is empty. The building is completely dark. He gets out of the car, walks up, and finds the door locked. He knocked on the door then banged on the door. There is no answer. He goes back to his car and prays a little bit, reads a little bit, sleeps a little bit.
Five hours later, at 8:45 am, a receptionist pulled up in the parking lot and unlocked the door. Jerry looked up and saw her. "Great, at least somebody's here." He walked up to her and introduced himself. At 9:15 am, Gordon opened the door and walked through. The receptionist said, "This man has been waiting for you for a little while." "I'll be with him in just a few minutes," Gordon said. About half an hour later, he beeps the receptionist and says, "Send that fellow in."
Gordon greeted him at the door and shakes his hand. No explanation is given about the long wait, no acknowledgment, he simply tells Jerry to sit down. Jerry pulls out his resume. He hands Gordon the resume and Gordon just kind of takes a look at it and plops it on his desk. Jerry is a bit mystified.
Gordon speaks first. "Jerry, I've got three questions for you. They're going to test you in a number of areas. Number one, what is one plus one plus one?" Jerry thought about this for a second. He's not sure if it's a trick question or what's going on and he says, "three." "That's right," Gordon answered. "Jerry, now the next one's a little bit harder and testing a different skill, how do you spell China?" With a perplexed look on his face, Jerry says "C-h-i-n-a." "Great ok," says Gordon. Then Gordon said, "Jerry, last question, Who died for your sins?" Jerry said, "Jesus." Gordon responded, "Thank you very much, we'll be in touch."
Jerry just stands there, perplexed, he doesn't know what to say. Then Gordon speaks, "Well, we'll be in touch. I'll talk to the committee and we'll let you know what's going on." Jerry turns and walks out, gets in his car, and drives home. Jerry meets his wife at the door and she anxiously says, "What did he say, what did he say, what did he do?" Jerry shook his head and said, "You wouldn't believe it if I told you." Ten minutes later a car pulled up in the driveway. It's Gordon.
Gordon marched up to the door and rang the doorbell. Jerry opened the door. "Jerry, welcome aboard. I told the committee all about you and they voted unanimously that they want you to go with us to China." Dumbfounded, Jerry replies, "You told them all about me? You don't know anything about me. All you know about me is that I can spell, I can add, and I know Jesus."
Gordon smiled and said, "No, I told them you've got a passion for Jesus that puts your love and obedience to him ahead of all personal comforts. I told them you have a persistence, a patience to get through whatever comes your way unexpectedly. I told them you have enough self-control not to get angry when people are rude to you and neglectful of you. I told them you're humble and will answer the stupidest questions. And I told them you trust God to work through people you've never even met, who can control your destiny. You're just the kind of man, you're just the kind of family that I want, that we need."
Jerry went to China. Abraham went to the land promised to him for an inheritance. Both faced strange circumstances. And both were judged worthy by there faithful response. God does require that we as Christians should live good and virtuous lives on a daily basis. But we should never forget that when God does not make sense, when there seems to be a cloud between Him and us, He is creating not just a virtuous person but a saint. Virtuous people can live their everyday lives well. But it takes a trial-forged saint to follow God into the darkness. To follow Him when it does not seem to make sense!
REBEKAH - SHE WHO WENT THE SECOND MILE
How do you feel when someone does something for you that is above and beyond what you expect? How do you feel? Do you feel loved, treasured? Do you feel that he or she cared enough to do something beyond what you would expect? This article will focus on a woman, a girl who went beyond expectations to reach out to someone she did not know. We are going to look at the life of Rebekah. We are going to stand on her shoulders and get a viewpoint of life above and beyond our normal viewpoint. Rebekah wants you to be an above-and-beyond person. To be that kind of person that lets others feel treasured, that communicates love and value to others.
God promised Abraham that He would make him a great nation. Twenty-five years after Abraham left Haran and journeyed to the land that God promised to him and his ancestors, the child God promised to him, Isaac, was born. God promised Abraham that his descendants would be many. But forty years after Isaac's birth, Isaac was the only descendant of promise. Sarah has been dead for thirteen years and Isaac is not even married. He has no wife. How can you have a great nation without descendants? When Abraham was a very old man he recognized that Isaac needed a wife.
Abraham was now a very old man, and the Lord has blessed him in every way. One day Abraham said to the man in charge of his household, who was his oldest servant, 'Swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not let my son marry one of these local Canaanite women. Go instead to my homeland, to my relatives, and find a wife there for my son Isaac' (Genesis 24:1-4). Abraham knew that the one we marry will have a great influence on our life. The Bible is filled with examples of the negative effects of marrying the wrong mate. Solomon, the future king of Israel, who asked for wisdom to judge and rule his people, was brought low by his attachment to idolatrous and sensual wives. Israel was split because of his disobedience. The one you choose to marry can have a profound influence on your spiritual life. Abraham knew this. He sent his servant, Eleazer, to Haran, 500 miles away, to find a wife for Isaac.
Eleazer loaded ten camels with the supplies necessary to make the 500-mile trip. If someone traveled twenty-five miles a day, it would take close to three weeks to travel across the desert to Haran. It is miserable territory. Eleazer was not a young man. He was Abraham's oldest servant. But Abraham chose him for this task because he was the most trustworthy servant he had. The odds were stacked against him, however. Think about it. How many women do you know who would leave their family and homeland and travel 500 miles through the desert to marry a man she never meet? Eleazer realizes the difficulty of his task and prays for God's help and direction. When he arrives in Haran he prays the following prayer: "O Lord, God of my master Abraham give me success today and show kindness to my master Abraham. I'm standing beside the spring and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a girl please let down your jar that I may have a drink, that she may say, 'Drink, and I'll water your camels, too.' Let her be the one you have chosen for your servant, Isaac. By this I will know you have shown kindness to my master" (Genesis 24:14).
Eastern hospitality dictated that when anyone asked for a drink you would comply. That was just common courtesy. But your camels, that is a different matter. You were responsible for your own livestock. If you were rich enough to have a caravan of ten camels, you would also have enough resources to hire a servant to water those camels. It is a big job to water ten camels. Each camel will drink 20-30 gallons. It is not a matter of simply turning on a spigot and holding a hose in a tub, it involved taking a two-gallon jar, pitcher, or bucket and dropping it down 50 feet into a well and pulling it back up, hand over hand, and carrying it over to a trough separated from the well, so the animals don't contaminate it, and dump it. This had to be done ten-to-fifteen times for each animal. That is 200+ times that someone would have to lift, haul, and dump two gallons of water. Does that sound like something any teenage girl you know would want to do? It is unnatural and that is what makes it special. Eleazer was looking for someone special.
Genesis 24:15-22 records what happened when Eleazer arrived at the well. "As he was still praying, a young woman named Rebekah arrived with a water jug on her shoulder. Her father was Bethuel, who was the son of Abraham's brother Nahor and his wife Milcah. Now Rebekah was very beautiful, and she was a virgin; no man had ever slept with her. She went down to the spring, filled her jug, and came up again. Running over to her, the servant asked, 'Please give me a drink.' 'Certainly sir,' she said, and she quickly lowered the jug for him to drink. When he had finished, she said, 'I'll draw water for your camels, too, until they have had enough!' So she quickly emptied the jug into the watering trough and ran down to the well again. She kept carrying water to the camels until they had finished drinking. The servant watched her in silence, wondering whether or not she was the one the Lord intended him to meet."
This job probably took her 2-3 hours to complete. Can you imagine that rope cutting blisters into her hands? She had gone to the well unprepared for such arduous labor. She was not a large, powerful person but her stamina and determination were extraordinary. God strengthened her that day, because she was His choice to be Isaac's wife. Because Rebekah was willing to go above and beyond what was expected of her, God strengthened her to complete this task.
Rebekah had no idea that the simple statement, "I will draw water for your camels, too," would change her life forever. She did not know it would lead to a husband, to a fortune, to a legacy, to a place in history, to a place in eternity. She did what she did because she believed it was the righteous thing to do. Maybe she even did it out of obedience to God's command to love and care for others in need of help. God had arranged circumstances perfectly and Rebekah showed herself worthy.
Rebekah and her family agreed that it was God's will for her to become Isaac's wife. Rebekah went by faith. She wanted to be involved in what God was doing. She heard the story that Eleazer told about Abraham and the promises of God, and she wanted to be a part of it. Her family wanted her to be a part of it: "Our sister, may you become the mother of many millions! May your descendants overcome all their enemies" (Genesis 24:60). Rebekah followed through on her commitment and married Isaac.
After twenty years of marriage, while Rebekah was still childless, Isaac pleaded with God to give them a child. God answered his prayer by giving them twins. While the twins were still in Rebekah's womb, they struggled with each other in an extraordinary way. Rebekah went to God and asked him, "Why?" God told her, "The sons in your womb will become two rival nations. One nation will be stronger than the other; the descendants of your older son will serve the descendants of your younger son" (Genesis 25:23). In other words, the younger son was God's heir through whom the promise to Abraham was going to be fulfilled. The younger son's name was Jacob. His brother's name was Esau.
While both sons were to be loved by their parents, Jacob was the one that was to be favored as heir of God's special promises to Abraham. And that is what Rebekah did. She spent a lot of time with Jacob. But Isaac preferred Esau. Esau was a manly-man, a good hunter who provided Isaac with the benefit of wild game to eat. Esau was someone he could be proud of. Esau, however, was not a spiritual man. His concerns were earthly and sensual (of the senses), he was a profane man. He did not value his future Abrahamic inheritance. But because of Rebekah's influence, Jacob did.
We can only assume that Rebekah told Isaac about what God said to her concerning Jacob, that he was the one that God chose to be heir to the promises given to Abraham. Scripture does not record it for us, but can you imagine that this conversation did not occur in their many years of marriage. I think it did. I think Isaac knew. Isaac was being disobedient to God by favoring Esau. Rebekah was faithful to what God wanted.
Usually family blessings are passed on to surviving children just before the death of the family patriarch. But forty years before his actual death, Isaac decided to give his blessing to Esau. It seemed to come up in Isaac's mind suddenly. Rebekah was surprised by what was about to take place. How could she stop Isaac from making such a terrible mistake? From going against God's wishes? Remember Abraham? Remember when he and Sarah tried to fulfill God's plan in their own strength and wisdom? Remember the disastrous results? Remember that Ishmael, the future enemy of Israel, was born? Ishmael was the progenitor of the Arab nations who are Israel's sworn enemies.
Rebekah was in a similar situation. She was faced with an obstacle that she perceived to be against God's plan and promises. Unfortunately, she repeated the mistake of Abraham and Sarah. She took it into her own hands and tried to fulfill God's will in her own strength and wisdom. And the results were also disastrous. Genesis 27:5-14 tells us what happened: "But Rebekah overheard the conversation. So when Esau left to hunt for the wild game, she said to her son Jacob, 'I overheard your father asking Esau to prepare him a delicious meal of wild game. He wants to bless Esau in the Lord's presence before he dies. Now, my son, do exactly as I tell you. Go out to the flocks and bring me two fine young goats. I'll prepare your father's favorite dish from them. Take the food to your father; then he can eat it and bless you instead of Esau before he dies.' 'But Mother!' Jacob replied. 'He won't be fooled that easily. Think how hairy Esau is and how smooth my skin is! What if my father touches me? He'll see that I'm trying to trick him, and then he'll curse me instead of blessing me.' 'Let the curse fall on me, dear son,' said Rebekah. 'Just do what I tell you. Go out and get the goats.' So Jacob followed his mother's instruction ..."
Rebekah's plan worked. Isaac was deceived and Jacob received the blessing meant for the heir to Abraham's promises. Everything that God predicted and wanted came to pass. Then why the problem? The problem lies in Rebekah's method. God is a righteous and holy Being. He does not approve of lying and deception as a means to fulfilling His will. The end does not justify the means!
Scripture records the consequences of Rebekah's and Jacob's deception. Jacob had to flee from Esau and move to Haran. An enmity was created between the two sons that lasted decades. After Genesis 27:46, Rebekah never saw her son Jacob again. After this passage, her name is never mentioned again until Genesis 49:31 when she is mentioned in relation to her burial place. Even the death of her nurse is acknowledged in Genesis 35:8, but her actual passing is never mentioned. It is like she dropped off the scriptural scene, never to be heard from again. I do not think this is a coincidence. God is letting us know how much He disapproved of what she did. Her deception besmirched biblical history and Jacob's character. Jacob was well known as a man capable of lying to get what he wanted. It is a grave mistake to try to fulfill God's will in worldly, sensual, deceptive ways. Both Abraham and Rebekah remained believers in God, but the consequences of their unfaithful deeds hurt God's best plan for the situation.
How did Rebekah move from such a sweet and committed disposition to be such a schemer? I think the text shows that Rebekah was not a full-time, committed schemer. She was a desperate woman who did not stop to ask God what He wanted her to do! She acted out of unbelief and consequently received the curse of God (27:13) on her deed. It is a shame. Instead of always being remembered as the one who went above and beyond at the well in Haran, she is remembered more for her deception of Isaac.
Paul asked the Galatians, "Have you lost your senses? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort" (Galatians 3:3)? Rebekah's act is an example of this principle. Her life and her reputation suffered because of her deceptive scheming. Parts of Rebekah's life are commendable and are worthy of being good examples for us. But this one incident was enough to damage her reputation.
For her above-and-beyond attitude, she should be commended, and followed. How can we implement the above-and-beyond principles? Let me give you three insights that will encourage an above-and-beyond attitude.
First, to become above-and-beyond people we have to work on our hearts. The clearest picture I can give you is that of a measuring rod. A measuring rod measures things. The measuring rod I have in mind measures relationships. It strives for an "I do this, you do that" mentality. It is like Aristotle's friendship based on utility. Aristotle observed his world and taught that there were three kinds of friendship. Friendships based on pleasure, utility, and nobility (or virtue). Pleasure friendships were good as long as each party continued to give pleasure to the other. If one party grew tired of the other, the friendship would end. Utility friendships were perhaps the most distant. They characterized merchant relationships. Bargaining unto mutual satisfaction is the key activity. Fairness is the key idea. These relationships use a measuring rod to gauge personal satisfaction.
To be an above-and-beyond person you have to break the measuring rod. A measuring rod is a way to keep score. We need to realize that following 'fairness' in every minutia of life quenches the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is to walk by flesh and not the spirit. This does not mean that we can be insensitive and grasping toward others without any concern for 'fairness'. We need to value others. But on our part we are not to enter into utility relationships with everyone we meet, especially our friends and spouses, in order to preserve our share in the relationship.
The third type of friendship is the kind that is primarily based on nobility or virtue. Exchange between these friends is based on what the heart wants to do for the other, not on what the mind deems proportionately correct. It is this type of heart that God can lead on a day-to-day basis.
The second step to becoming an above-and-beyond person is to go the extra mile with a smile. Jesus taught His disciples to turn the other cheek and go the second mile. In order to go the second mile, we need to go the first mile. We need to be involved in the lives of people, one way or another. Our method of involvement may vary but involvement is necessary for the Christian Life. And in the course of this involvement opportunities arise that require something extra. This something extra is going the second mile. Going the first mile means helping someone who needs help during the daily activities of life. Going the second mile means going above and beyond to help another. It does not mean thrusting yourself on someone so that you can go the second mile, 'be a second-miler', but that if the person needs extraordinary help you provide it!
Rebekah went the second mile for Eleazer. Let us review who Eleazer was. He was Abraham's oldest and most trustworthy servant. He needed help to water his camels. To repeat, it was the custom in that time that if someone asked for a drink from the well the hearer was to draw water for him or her. It was expected, as good manners are expected. But watering the camels was the responsibility of the owner of the camels. Rebekah took a look at Eleazer and his camels and saw a need. She volunteered to water his camels. She was able and he was not. She went the second mile for Eleazer.
Would she have done the same thing for a young, healthy, strong man? I do not think so. Going the second mile does not involve taking the responsibility away from someone who is capable of doing it himself. Going the first mile with this person is the right thing to do. Help him, yes, but stop when it is his responsibility to continue.
There must be a balance between helping and allowing someone to carry out their own responsibilities. In order to be balanced, one must be capable of going the second mile. In order to be balanced, one must be capable of not going the second mile. The inability to say, "No!", is not a virtue. Eleazer was looking for someone who was capable of going the second mile. He found that person in Rebekah. She went the second mile for him with a smile on her face. He watched her and liked what he saw. She was the one he wanted to bring home to his master, Abraham.
Finally, to be an above and beyond person, you've got to let God's grace flow. Being an above-and-beyond person is not natural. We need God's grace. God's grace is not something that we earn. It is not that He recognizes our goodness and then gives us extra grace to do more, but that we recognize our need and ask Him to help us. It has to be Him in us to strengthen and encourage our hearts, helping us to do these things. We have to allow Him to have more room, more reign in our lives. We need to let the grace of God flow.
I recognize this is a tough message. I recognize many of you have very difficult people in your lives, difficult situations, difficult problems you are facing. But none of them are a stretch for the Jesus that lives within you. None of them are a surprise to God. You cannot out-give God. He wants to bless and enrich your life.
Oswald Chambers in My Utmost For His Highest, in the July 7th entry, wrote: "If we are going to live as disciples of Jesus, we have to remember that all noble things are difficult. The Christian life is gloriously difficult, but the difficulty of it does not make us faint and cave in, it rouses us up to overcome. Do we so appreciate the marvelous salvation of Jesus Christ that we are our most for His Highest?…. Thank God He does give us difficult things to do! His salvation is a glad thing, but it is also heroic, holy thing. It tests us for all we are worth. Jesus is bringing many "sons" unto glory, and God will not shield us from the requirements of a son. God's grace turns out men and women with a strong family likeness to Jesus Christ, not milksops. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to live the noble life of a disciple of Jesus in actual things. It is always necessary to make an effort to be noble." Chambers says that the Christian life is difficult, gloriously difficult. It is hard. But there is a richness to it, a depth that reaches down to things that really matter.
Rebekah was not perfect. But we should allow her to teach us how to go the second mile, to go above and beyond for those who need our help. We should also learn from her sins. To use unholy means to fulfill God's plan angers God. It pollutes His perfect plan, which always brings negative consequences to both the sinner and His plan. Let us let Him work His perfect work through our lives with no negatives consequences created by us!
JACOB: THE MAN WHO BECAME THE PRINCE OF ISRAEL
After Adam and Eve introduced sin and rebellion into the world, God responded in a redemptive, reconciliatory way. He judged their sin by removing them from the garden and then covered them with the skins of an animal, showing them that someone else had to die to cover their nakedness (sin), and promised them a deliverer who would save them from the burden of their sin and the curses associated with their fall.
Adam and Eve had children and worked hard as God commanded them to do. And all seemed well, but something happened to drastically change the course of human history. Cain rejected God's admonition to resist sin, by repenting, and then murdered his brother. Cain's sin was different than Adam's and Eve's. Adam and Eve were deceived into sinning against God's Word and their own innocence. Their sin was entirely spiritual. They believed the serpent rather than God. They did not seek to harm anyone and they repented when God rebuked them.
Cain deliberately rejected God's rebuke and purposely sought to harm his brother. Cain's act was the first aggressively harmful deed. The chaos and wickedness that Cain introduced into the world that day continued until the whole world was filled with corruption and violence (Genesis 6:11-12). The story of Noah and the flood is the result of this corruption.
After the flood, Noah's descendents repopulated the earth but without the excessive violence and corruption that characterized the pre-flood days. But there was still rebellion. Centuries after the time of Noah God's redemptive plan entered a new phase. He started to center His redemptive focus into a particular lineage. Genesis 12 through 50 record this history.
Then the LORD told Abram, "leave your country, your relatives, and your father's house, and go to the land that I will show you. I will cause you to become the father of a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and I will make you a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:1-3)." God honored His promises to Abraham and passed them to his son, Isaac, who passed them to his son, Jacob.
The two main facets of the Abrahamic promises are the promises for a coming deliverer and a nation. The deliverer is Jesus Christ and the nation is Israel. The promise of a deliverer was not unique to the Abrahamic promises. The very first promise after the fall of Adam and Eve was of a 'seed' who would crush the head of the serpent, God's and humankinds' enemy. The Abrahamic promises made it clear that this 'seed' would be somehow connected with what God was going to do through Abraham and his progeny.
The promise of a special nation was new. As history revealed to us, Israel became a conduit of God's special verbal revelation to the world. Israel was to be the keepers of God's written word and all His redemptive activities on their behalf. He was going to teach the world about Himself and His ways in a way that was more focused and direct than He had in the prepatriarchal days. Jacob was the third of the three patriarchs of Israel, the one whose loins produced the 12 tribes of Israel. The remaining portion of this article will center on Jacob.
What do you know about the man Jacob? Although Abraham is the first and chief patriarch, more space is given to Jacob's life than Abraham's. Over half of the book of Genesis records events that occurred during the lifetime of Jacob. Why did the writer of Genesis (Moses) think that so much attention should be given to Jacob and his lifetime?
There are two main reasons. First, Jacob is the one who directly fathered the 12 sons through whom the 12 tribes of Israel would be named. So it seems reasonable that the writer would want to chronicle the events surrounding their lives. Second, it records how God formed Jacob into a man of faith, the prince of Israel, who started out being a greedy, grasping, scheming individual and who ended up valuing and longing for that 'city of God' that was yet future. Hebrews 11:21 says that, "It was by faith that Jacob, when he was old and dying, blessed each of Joseph's sons and bowed in worship as he leaned on his staff." Jacob is remembered in the Hall of Faith as one who worshiped God. That is a good reason to be remembered. If someone put that on my tombstone, I would like that, even if it said nothing else about me. Jacob died in faith, worshiping God.
But this was not always true about Jacob. If one were to read the account of Jacob's life from Genesis 25 through Genesis 38, one would be left with the impression that Jacob was nowhere near God. He and his family were a mess. Meyer captures the contradictions in Jacob: "If we can understand the life of Jacob, we can understand the history of his people. The extremes which startle us in them are all in him. Like them, he is the most successful schemer of his time; and like them, he has that deep spirituality, that far-seeing faith, which are the grandest of all qualities, and make a man capable of the highest culture that a human spirit can receive. Like them, he spends the greatest part of his life in exile, and amid trying conditions of toil and sorrow; and like them, he is inalienably attached to that dear land, his only hold on which was by the promise of God and the graves of the heroic dead" (p. 69).
Only the last chapters of his life (Genesis 46 through 49) paint a different picture of Jacob. In truth, a study of Jacob is more a study of God's gracious dealings with a self-willed, grasping individual than it is about Jacob. We read things about God's involvement in Jacob's life that we do not read about in anyone else's life.
Jacob did not have a lot of good examples when he was growing up. Isaac, his father, was the least spiritual of the patriarchs. He was basically materialistic. He lived more by his senses than by faith. He was actually determined to give the promised blessing to Esau, despite knowing that Jacob was God's choice, and despite Esau's blatant worldly disregard for the wishes of his parents when he married two Hittite women.
Isaac lived much of his life devoid of the spiritual life. And while Rebekah, Jacob's mother, had more respect for God's plan, when confronted by the crisis of Isaac's wicked intent to give Esau the blessing, responded by using deceit to gain the blessing for Jacob. Jacob learned materialism and cunning from his parents. With these examples he flees from his angry brother Esau. "Esau hated Jacob because he had stolen his blessing, and he said to himself, 'My father will soon be dead and gone. Then I will kill Jacob'" (Genesis 27:41).
Isaac and Rebekah send him to Haran, several hundred miles away, so that he could escape Esau and find a woman to marry that was not like the local, idolatrous, sexual, and brash Hittite women. On the way, God meets him in a dream. This is what Jacob saw. "As he slept, he dreamed of a stairway that reached from earth to heaven. And he saw the angels of God going up and down on it. At the top of the stairway stood the LORD, and he said, 'I am the LORD, the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I will give it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will cover the land from east to west and from north to south. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What's more, I will be with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. I will someday bring you safely back to this land. I will be with you constantly until I have finished giving you everything I have promised'" (Genesis 28:12-15).
How did Jacob respond. Firstly, with respect: "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I wasn't even aware of it…What an awesome place this is! It is none other than the house of God--the gateway to heaven" (28:16-17)! He built a memorial pillar and named it Bethel, which means 'house of God'. Great ! Jacob got it. Unfortunately, no! Listen to what he said: "If God will be with me and protect me on this journey and give me food and clothing, and if he will bring me back safely to my father, then I will make the LORD my God. This memorial pillar will become a place for worshiping God, and I will give God a tenth of everything he gives me" (28:20-22).
God was not at the center of what Jacob said, Jacob was. "God, If you do for me, I will acknowledge you." Isn't this straight self-centeredness? What is not stated but is implied is the unspoken part -- "But if you won't bless me, then forget you."
Genesis 29:1 finds Jacob leaving Bethel. If you just had contact with God won't you want to linger for awhile? Savor the experience, maybe further it? Jacob hurried away! Oh, my! This experience did not seem to sink down too far into his soul. In his mind, He left God behind in Bethel. And he hurried away! How sad. The future of Jacob showed the negative consequences. His whole life could have been different. God approached him early in his life and wanted to guide him through it. But Jacob hurried away.
The next twenty years Jacob spends in Haran working for uncle Laban. And God blessed his efforts. But there was also deceit and resentment there. Laban tricked Jacob into marrying both of his daughters and working his flocks. Jacob had to work 14 years for Laban. In that time he married Leah and Rachel and had many children and made Laban a rich man. After the 14 years Jacob wanted to go back to Beersheba, back home. Laban knew that he was rich because of Jacob. He knew that God was blessing Jacob. He wanted Jacob to stay. They reached an agreement that satisfied both men. Jacob could keep all the speckled, spotted, or dark-colored sheep for himself. The others would continue to belong to Laban. And Jacob would manage both flocks.
Laban cheated. He had his sons remove "all the male goats that were speckled and spotted, the females that were speckled and spotted with any white patches, and all the dark-colored sheep" (30:35). Jacob responded in less than an honorable way. He selectively bred the flocks to make his share grow and Laban's wither. He did this for six years. After six years he was a very wealthy man, with many servants, camels, and donkeys. Resentment began to grow in Laban's sons who saw their inheritance diminishing before their eyes. They incited Laban to confront Jacob.
God told him to return to the land of his father and grandfather, to return to where "I will be with you" (Genesis 31:3). Where did God tell Jacob He would be with him in a special way? Bethel. Did he go to Bethel? What happens next in Jacob's life was another crossroads experience that could have changed his life, and history, forever.
Genesis 32 tells us about this crossroads experience. Jacob sent messengers to his brother Esau with this message: "Humble greetings from your servant Jacob! I have been living with Uncle Laban until recently, and now I own oxen, donkeys, sheep, goats, and many servants, both men and women. I have sent these messengers to inform you of my coming, hoping that you will be friendly to us" (32:4-5). The messengers returned with news from Esau -- Esau was on his way with an army of 400 men. An army of 400 men?! Jacob was terrified.
Genesis 32:7-12 records his response. "Jacob was terrified at the news. He divided his household, along with the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps. He thought, 'If Esau attacks one group, perhaps the other can escape.' Then Jacob prayed, 'O God of my grandfather Abraham and my father, Isaac-O LORD, you told me to return to my land and to my relatives, and you promised to treat me kindly. I am not worthy of all the faithfulness and unfailing love you have shown to me, your servant. When I left home, I owned nothing except a walking stick, and now my household fills two camps! O LORD, please rescue me from my brother Esau. I am afraid that he is coming to kill me, along with my wives and children. But you promised to treat me kindly and to multiply my descendants until they become as numerous as the sands along the seashore--too many to count.'"
This was the first time recorded that Jacob sought the Lord. He recognized that God had been faithful to the promises given at Bethel. In response to Jacob's prayer for protection, God visited Jacob in a very unusual way. While Jacob was alone near the Jabbok River, the angel of the Lord came to him and wrestled with him. What were they fighting over? Genesis 32:26 says they were fighting over a blessing: "Then the man said, 'Let me go, for it is dawn.' But Jacob panted, 'I will not let you go unless you bless me.'"
Meyer has some insightful things to say about Jacob's wrestling match. "Remember that the conflict originated not with Jacob, but with the angel…. This passage is often quoted as an instance of Jacob's earnestness in prayer. It is nothing of the sort. It was not Jacob who wished to obtain something from God, but it was that He--the angel of Jehovah--had a controversy with this double-dealing and crafty child of His. He was desirous to break up his self-sufficiency forever, and to give scope for the development of the Israel that lay cramped and coffined within…. Then Jacob went from resisting to clinging. As the day broke, the Angel wanted to leave; but He could not because Jacob clung to Him with a death grip. The request to be let go indicates how tenaciously the limping patriarch clung to Him for support. He had abandoned the posture of defense and resistance, and had fastened himself on to the Angel--as a terrified child clasps its arms tightly around its father's neck" (p. 89).
It seems to be the case that God would not bless Jacob personally until he first sought God and not just His blessings. God blessed Jacob as patriarch, intricate to the overall plan to bring blessing to the world, but he refused to bless Jacob the man. And that was why God got dirty and wrestled with Jacob the man. God was not just content with using Jacob as a piece of His redemptive puzzle. He wanted Jacob's heart, as well.
Later that day, Jacob had his meeting with Esau. They made peace with each other and made plans to meet again in Seir, which became known as Edom, which was south of Judah's future territory. Esau left the meeting expecting Jacob to follow. Jacob did not. He went the other way. Unfortunately, he did not only go the opposite way from Seir but Bethel as well. Bethel is the place where God told him His presence and blessing would be, the place "for worshiping God." Jacob should have gone there. God promised to be there. But instead Jacob took his family to Shechem. Jacob bought land to settle just outside the town and pitched his tents there.
This turned out to be a terrible mistake. Much like Lot's settling near Sodom turned bad, so did Jacob's settling near Shechem. Soon after they settled, Jacob's daughter, Dinah, was raped and two of Jacob's sons, Simeon and Levi, committed murder to avenge the rape.
If Jacob had gone to Bethel in the first place, none of the terrible incidents in Shechem would have happened. Now God comes to Jacob again and tells him to go to Bethel. And what does Jacob find there? "God appeared to Jacob once again…. God blessed him and said, 'Your name is no longer Jacob; you will now be called Israel'" (35:9-10). Jacob set up another stone pillar memorial in remembrance of God's speaking to him there. After reading verse 15 you are left with the feeling, "Wonderful, Jacob is now home and all is well." Then you read verses 16-22: "Leaving Bethel, they traveled on toward Ephrath (later became Bethlehem)... . and camped at the tower of Eder."
At Ephrath, Rachel died in childbirth and at Eder, Reuben slept (had sex with) with Bilhah, his father's concubine. Jacob continued away from Bethel and settled near his father Isaac in Hebron, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem. After Isaac's death, Jacob moved again. Genesis 37 finds him in Shechem, again. Shechem is where Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers.
Jacob should have never left Bethel. Why did he not settle there? God was there for him. Was Bethel inhabitable? Could it have supported Jacob's flocks? Unger says the following about Bethel: "A town about twelve miles N. of Jerusalem, originally Luz (Genesis 28:19). It was here that Abraham encamped (Genesis 12:8; 13:3), and the district is still pronounced as suitable for pasturage." Jacob could have lived there. It may have been more difficult, and perhaps the pastures were not as large and spacious as Shechem's, but it could have been done. And most importantly, God was there for Jacob. Bad things seemed to happen to Jacob when he was not there.
Between Genesis 36 and Genesis 41 the story is mainly about Joseph. Jacob enters again in Genesis 42. From his interaction with Pharaoh and Joseph, we see a different man. The many hardships Jacob endured molded him into a man who worshiped God, into a man that Hebrews 11:21 describes as "bowed in worship as he leaned on his staff." Jacob had become the prince of Israel, worthy of being the patriarch of a nation.
The story of Jacob is much more about God than it is about Jacob. Although God had a plan to bless the whole world through a special nation He was going to form, He never lost sight of the individuals that were instrumental in that plan. He cared about them as individuals, not just as instruments of His will.
What can we learn from God's dealings with Jacob? God's grace, God's glorious grace doesn't give up on us. God says, "I can work with you. I know your background in college, I know what you did when you were a teenager, I know where you're at right now and what you're struggling with and what you're going through right now, but I can work with you right where you're at to restore you, to bring health to your soul. To bring strength to your life. You may be having an affair, but I haven't given up on you. I want you to have an affair with me instead of that other woman or that other man. I want you to walk with me. I want you to trust me. I want you to chase after me the same way you chased after that new car. I haven't given up on you. I can work with you."
Just because God is gracious does not mean that we can do what we want. We saw that with Jacob. Just as Jacob was blessed when he went to Bethel, we have to do certain things, also. Firstly, don't wrestle with God, walk with him. Don't contend with God, conference with him. Don't challenge Him, choose His ways. Align yourself with his plans, with his ways, with his patterns. Walk with God. To live wonderfully in a fallen world, you must let your life reflect the graces of God. Let us learn from Jacob's life. Let us learn from both the good and bad parts of his life. But may it be said of us, as it was said of him, "Jacob…bowed in worship as he leaned on his staff."
Meyer, F. B. (1981). Great Men of the Bible (vol. 1). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Unger, Merrill F. (1979). Unger's Bible Dictionary. Chicago: Moody Press.
SHAMGAR: GOD'S UNKNOWN WARRIOR
Sometimes Christians read the Bible and come away feeling admiration for the characters they read about, but feel detached from them as people they can relate to. These characters are seen as special, God-blessed individuals who have done extraordinary things for God. And in some cases they are special. God called Jeremiah from the womb: "The Lord gave me a message, He said, 'I knew you before I formed you in your mother's womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my spokesman to the world'" (Jeremiah 1:4).
This same thing can be said of David and John the Baptist. These giants of God are seen as almost other-worldly, not like us. But a thorough reading of the Scriptures reveals that not all of God's giants are big and popular like Jeremiah, David, or John. Scripture is filled with references to ordinary men and women who did extraordinary things. This article is about such an individual. This article is about an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing because He and God partnered together to fight against a common enemy.
After the generation that left Egypt died in the wilderness, except for Joshua and Caleb, Israel was ready to enter the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The land was already possessed by peoples that God characterized as corrupt and unworthy of maintaining occupation of the land. He wanted to give it to a new people, a people that would worship Him, a people whom He could bless with all the benefits inherent in this rich and fertile land. But in order for this to become a reality God commanded Israel to completely remove the prior occupants of the land, or else their idolatrous practices would cause Israel to forsake the very first commandment, "To have no other Gods before Me," and that this religious forsaking would lead to social corruption.
God directly told them, "As for the towns of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as a special possession, destroy every living thing in them. You must completely destroy the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, just as the Lord your God has commanded you. This will keep the people of the land from teaching you their detestable customs in the worship of their gods, which would cause you to sin deeply against your God" (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). This time in Israel's history is known as the Era of Conquest and lasted a little over 400 years.
The book of Judges is concerned with the developments that took place after the death of Joshua. Schultz says this: "Although Joshua had defeated the main forces of opposition as he led Israel into Canaan and divided the land to the various tribes, many locales remained in the hands of the Canaanites and other inhabitants. In his final word to the Israelites Joshua warned the people not to mix or intermarry with the local inhabitants who remained but admonished them to drive out the idolatrous people and occupy their land. Further attempts were made to dislodge these peoples, but the record clearly indicates that the Israelites were only partially obedient" (1980, pp. 105-106).
Because of Israel's widespread disobedience, the surrounding peoples were a continually reoccurring thorn in their side. These 400+ years were characterized not by continual blessing but by a reoccurring pattern of Israel's sinking into social and religious apostasy and idolatry, followed by God's judgment in the form of oppression at the hands of the very peoples they were supposed to remove from the land, followed by repentance and return to God and His ways, followed by God's blessing of peace and prosperity in the land. The book of Judges records seven periods of apostasy and oppression and seven corresponding periods of deliverance. The subject of this article lived during the period of the second apostasy and was instrumental in Israel's second deliverance (Unger, 1984, p. 132). His name is Shamgar.
Judges 3:12-31 records the second apostasy and second deliverance. "Once again the Israelites did what was evil in the Lord's sight, so the Lord gave King Eglon of Moab control over Israel. Together with the Ammonites and Amalekites, Eglon attacked Israel and took possession of Jericho. And the Israelites were subject to Eglon of Moab for eighteen years. But when Israel cried out to the Lord for help, the Lord raised up a man to rescue them. His name is Ehud son of Gera, of the tribe of Benjamin, who was left-handed…. So Moab was conquered by Israel that day, and the land was at peace for eighty years" (3:12-30).
Notice that Ehud was the main deliverer during the second deliverance. The Moabites lived east of the Dead Sea. They threatened Israelite territory from the east and from the importance given to the judgeship of Ehud they seemed to be the main threat toward Israel during the second apostasy-oppression. But according to Judges 3:31, Moab was not the only threat. The Philistines, who lived along the Mediterranean Sea coast, threatened Israel from the west. As a contemporary, or near contemporary, of Ehud, Shamgar was the one God used to repel the Philistines.
Shamgar is an interesting figure. Only one verse acknowledges Shamgar's role in the history of Israel: "After Ehud, Shamgar son of Anath rescued Israel. He killed six hundred Philistines with an ox goad (3:31)." While Ehud seems to be the national judge that God called to bring peace to Israel, Shamgar seems to have been a local judge (Schultz, p. 104) that organized a successful resistance to a Philistine invasion. Other judges recorded in the book of Judges were also local--Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (Schultz, p. 104). While the better known judges--Othniel, Ehud, Deborah and Barak, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson--had a wider sphere of influence, the local judges, or deliverers, had narrower spheres of influence.
Shamgar is an example of a man who was willing to be used by God for the purpose God designed for him. For the place and time God had for him. Shamgar was ready when God needed him. And that is the main lesson we learn from Shamgar. We have no idea what Shamgar did for a living prior to his battle with the Philistines, or after that battle. Shamgar could have been in any occupation. It is unlikely that he had a full-time spiritual ministry, like a pastor or religious schoolteacher. He was most likely an ordinary Israelite who responded to an extraordinary threat from one of God's enemies. Shamgar did not wait for a spiritual leader to take care of the Philistines. He became that leader. God sent His spirit to search out someone who would respond to this particular need. And He found that man in Shamgar. By his valiant fight against the Philistines, he inspired others to fight. Shamgar showed up when God needed him. And so did all those other fighters who fought with Shamgar, whose names only God knows. The world may have forgotten who these people are but God remembers. And if God remembers what a person has done for His kingdom, it does not matter if the whole world forgets. God's opinion is the only one that ultimately matters.
Shamgar is a little known figure of whom most people have never heard. The story of Shamgar has little, if any, influence on their lives or consciousness. But God saw to it that what Shamgar did for Him would never be forgotten by acknowledging him in His word. There are other 'Shamgars'. Little known but valuable in their service to God. Some, God allowed to be victorious in their decisive battles with the enemy. Some, He did not. Some 'Shamgars' suffered greatly for their faith. Have you ever heard of Thomas Mann or Anne Askew? Probably not, but God knows them and is proud of them.
The following is written about Thomas Mann in Foxe's Book of Martyrs (p. 314-315): "Thomas Mann was apprehended for the profession of Christ's Gospel. He had spoken against auricular confession, and denied the corporal presence of Christ's body in the sacrament of the altar; he believed that images ought not be worshiped, and neither believed in the crucifix, nor yet would worship it. For such like matters was he a long time imprisoned, and at last, through fear of death, was content to abjure and yield himself unto the judgment of the Romish church…. But within few years after, he was accused of relapse, apprehended and brought before the Bishop of London. But because he would seem to do all things by order of justice, and nothing against the law, he therefore appointed unto the said Thomas Mann certain doctors and advocates of the Arches, as his counselors to plead in his behalf. He was condemned as a heretic, and delivered to the sheriff of London sitting on horseback in Paternosterrow, before the bishop's door (A. D. 1518). The sheriff immediately carried him to Smithfield, and there, the same day in the forenoon, caused him to be 'put into God's angel,' 1518."
You may have never heard of Thomas Mann, but he is a man who put his life on the line as Shamgar did. Shamgar was successful because God needed for him to be successful. Thomas Mann died a martyr because God needed martyrs to pave the way for widespread change in the European religious scene. Thomas Mann was no less a success than Shamgar. Thomas did not deny his Lord before persecutors.
Not all heroes are men. Anne Askew was a hero and a martyr, a female 'Shamgar.' Foxe records her personal testimony and story: '"Christopher Dare examined me at Sadler's hall, and asked me, wherefore I said, I had rather to read five lines in the Bible, than to hear five masses in the temple. I confessed that I said no less; not for the dispraise of either the epistle or the Gospel, but because the one greatly edify me, and the other nothing at all…. Then the bishop's chancellor rebuked me, and said that I was much to blame for uttering the Scriptures. For St. Paul, he said, forbade women to speak or to talk of the words of God. I answered him that I knew Paul's meaning as well as he, which is, in 1 Cor. xiv, that a woman ought not to speak in the congregation by the way of teaching: and then I asked him how many women he had seen go into the pulpit and preach? He said he never saw any. Then I said, he ought to find no fault in poor women, except they had offended the law…. Then my Lord Chancellor asked my opinion in the sacrament. My answer was this, 'I believe that so oft as I, in a Christian congregation, do receive the bread in remembrance of Christ's death, and with thanksgiving, according to His holy institution, I receive therewith the fruits also, of His most glorious passion…. Then the Bishop said I should be burned. I answered, that I have searched all the Scriptures, yet could I never find that either Christ, or His apostles, put any creature to death.
"Well, well,' said I, 'God will laugh your threatenings to scorn.' Then I was sent to Newgate…. Then they put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlewomen to be of my opinion, and thereon they kept me a long time; and because I lay still, and did not cry, my Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nigh dead…. Then was I brought to a house, and laid in a bed, with as weary and painful bones as ever had patient Job; I thank my Lord God therefore. Then my Lord Chancellor sent me word, if I would leave my opinion, I should want nothing; if I would not, I should forthwith to Newgate, and so be burned. I sent him again word, that I would rather die than break my faith.' The day of her execution being appointed, this good woman was brought into Smithfield in a chair, because she could not go on her feet, by means of her great torments. When she was brought unto the stake, she was tied with a chain, that held up her body…. Then Wriothesley, Lord Chancellor, offered Anne Askew the King's pardon if she would recant; who made this answer, that she came not thither to deny her Lord and Master. And thus the good Anne Askew, being compassed in with flames of fire, as a blessed sacrifice unto God, slept in the Lord A. D. 1546, leaving behind her a singular example of Christian constancy for all men to follow."
Is Anne Askew any less of a hero than Shamgar? Was she any less brave? Shamgar fought with an ox goad. Anne fought with her words and her flesh. Shamgar looked across and saw an enemy with weapons to slay him. Anne looked down and saw flames ready to devour her. Shamgar did not retreat. And neither did Anne Askew.
No Christian should belittle him - or - herself as insignificant in God's sight. Challenges will come the Christian's way. God is glorified and justified before His condemners, His adversaries, when His children endure suffering for His sake. Shamgar, Thomas Mann, and Anne Askew are examples of little known individuals who did extraordinary things. Not everyone can be an Isaiah or John the Baptist or Apostle Paul because these were specially chosen servants of God, but all Christians can be a 'Shamgar' if they respond to a tough situation with faith and courage, if they confront the local enemy that threatens God's people, God's ways, and God's word.
Foxe, John. (1981). Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Springdale: Whitaker House.
Schultz, Samuel J. (1980). The Old Testament Speaks. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Unger, Merrill F. (1984) The New Unger's Bible Handbook. Chicago: Moody Press.
DAVID: A HEART FORMED TOWARD GOD
The heart is an amazing muscle. It is about the size and shape of your fist. It beats day in, day out, awake, asleep, a million and a half times a year. It pumps close to a gallon of blood every minute; 500,000 gallons a year. It's a tremendous muscle and vitally important to physical life. The heart in biblical literature refers to something different. In Scripture, the heart is the spiritual core of our being. It is the life force of our spiritual nature.
Every heartbeat is a gift from God and someday there will come a day for each of us when that heartbeat will finally stop. And our lives will be judged not by the number of beats per minute, not by the quantity of blood it pumps, but by the quality of our spiritual heart before God. As water reflects the man's face, so the spiritual heart reflects the whole man. The 'heart' is the hub of decision-making, the place where our spirit discerns God's will and presence. It is where God meets us. It is where God nudges us to change and guide our lives.
"Just follow your heart" is common advice heard these days. They mean: "Do what you feel is right. Listen to your inner voice. Do what you feel like, what you think you should do. What do you want to do? Listen to that inner child within you and be true to yourself." I do not know about your inner child, but I will not be a better person if I listen to my inner child; he is rather selfish, insecure, and petty. Is your heart really a good guide? Should we listen to our heart?
The very first time the word heart is used in Scripture is in Genesis 6. It is used both of God and man. Verse 5 says that the Lord saw how great human wickedness had become. Every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was evil all the time. And He was grieved in His heart. It is not a very good description of the human heart. God's heart is filled with pain because of our heart. Every inclination of our heart is evil from childhood. What does that mean? It means there is a downhill slide in humankind. Evil comes all too easy. Sin comes all too easy. Taking the short cut comes all too easy.
Proverbs 28 describes people who trust their heart without self-examination. Things like partiality, lying, greed, flattery, and murder are the fruits of listening to the inner heart without self-examination. Verse 26 calls such people fools. "Trusting oneself is foolish, but those who walk in wisdom are safe."
Jeremiah 17:9 says it vividly: "The human heart is most deceitful and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? But I know! I, the Lord, search all hearts and examine secret motives." Deceitful means crooked, fraudulent. Your heart even promotes self-lies. We lie to ourselves in order to do the evil we really want to do. We lie to ourselves so that we can live with evil in our lives.
In Mark 7:21, Jesus says from within, out of a person's heart, comes evil thoughts, sexual immorality, death, and murder. The list goes on: adultery, wickedness, deceit, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within. They make us unacceptable to God. But God did not give up. God's love motivated Him to seek a way to fix the problem. Every year we celebrate Christmas. Christmas is the beginning of God's plan to redeem our hearts. Easter is the completion of that plan. Communion celebrates the process of cleansing and redeeming our hearts.
David is described as a man after God's heart. If David were here this morning, he would say: "Do not follow your heart. Do not follow your heart. I followed my heart three distinct times and it caused nothing but heartbreak. Long term heartbreak for my life and for others around me." David speaks from firsthand experience. More written space is given to David's life than any other biblical character. We will focus on three incidents in David's life that will help us understand the folly of following an unexamined heart. We will focus on the story of Michal, the story of Bathsheba, and the story of Absalom.
Michal was Saul's daughter and she was the love of David's life. She saved David's life when Saul was trying to kill him and David asked for her hand in marriage. She was the wife of his youth. But as they grew older together something started to happen in the relationship. They didn't seem to fulfill each other quite as much and they started becoming a little critical of each other. When David brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem he danced with the people, including some servant girls.
Michal saw what happened and thought it was undignified for a king to mix with common people. "When David returned home to bless his family, Michal came out to meet him and said in disgust, 'How glorious the king of Israel looked today! He exposed himself to the servant girls like any indecent person would do!'" She did not understand what David was doing, or the joy he felt. David answered her charge: "I was dancing before the Lord, who chose me above your father and his family! He appointed me as the leader of Israel, the people of the Lord. So I am willing to act like a fool in order to show my joy in the Lord. Yes, and I am willing to look even more foolish than this, but I will be held in honor by the girls of whom you have spoken!"
David saw himself as the leader of all the people and he was not afraid to mingle with them. They, too, were God's people, that designation was not reserved for royalty. Michal was into the pomp, ceremony, and public image. She did not value the things of the Lord, she did not grasp the significance of the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant. She criticized David with such a severe spirit that a wedge was driven between them. He put her away. He cut her off. She remains his wife, they don't get divorced, but he puts her away and they never had a child together. Their life together ended.
Unfortunately, instead of trying to restore the relationship David had children with other wives and concubines, but never had sex with Michal again. God designed us to live together as husband and wife. Designed us to grow together, to work things through. But David responded with bitterness and resentment toward Michal. And she rejected him -- pushed him away.
It takes two to have a healthy relationship. If one rejects the other, it makes it difficult. Hosea, the prophet, also experienced rejection from his wife (Hosea 1-3). But Hosea did not run to other women in response. He waited for the Lord to work in her life. There were many lonely years, but eventually the Lord brought her back to him. Despite what Hosea's wife did to him, he refused to find comfort in the arms of other women, in illicit relationships. David followed his heart and responded badly. He put his wife away and sought sex with many other women.
The second story relates to the first. The second story concerns Bathsheba. "Late one afternoon David got out of bed after taking a nap and went for a stroll on the roof of the palace. As he looked out over the city, he noticed a woman of unusual beauty taking a bath. He sent someone to find out who she was, and he was told, 'She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.' Then David sent for her; and when she came to the palace, he slept with her. Then she returned home" (2 Samuel 11:2-4).
If he had reconciled Michal to himself, or refused to relieve his loneliness in the arms of other women, like Hosea, he would have turned his eyes from Bathsheba. He did not. He committed adultery, and caused her to commit adultery on her husband. David followed his heart and it led him to adultery.
Tragically, the story does not end there. Verse 5 continues the story. "Later, when Bathsheba discovered that she was pregnant, she sent a message to inform David." Now what was David going to do? He was known as a righteous king, who loved his people. His reputation was at risk. Fear gripped his heart. David followed his heart and hatched an evil plan. He sent Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, into battle unprotected. He was killed. David then married Bathsheba. Any child born to them would appear to be legitimate.
This incident plagued David's reign for many years. His reputation was damaged and God's holy cause was hurt. "Nathan replied, 'Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you, and you won't die for this sin. But you have given the enemies of the Lord great opportunity to despise and blaspheme him, so your child will die'" (2 Samuel 12:13-14). Although the people of Israel did not know the truth, they may have even seen him as a hero for marrying a widow, and bringing her into his house, but God knew the truth and He sent Nathan, His prophet, to rebuke David. After initially denying Nathan's charge, he confessed. David's heart led him to adultery, lies, and murder.
The third story revolves around one of David's sons, Absalom, born to him by one of his other wives. After David left Michal, he attached himself to many other women, some were wives and some were concubines. 1 Chronicles 3:1-8, 9b record all the children David fathered by his wives. These verses name 19 sons and 1 daughter born to David.
This list does not include the children he fathered with concubines (v. 9a). David fathered many children but he was a Dad to none. He was always too busy with matters of State to spend time with his children. As one of these neglected sons, Absalom rebelled against David. Absalom led a political and military revolt against David.
The revolt failed but many people died in the battle. David was not a good parent. He did not have a heart for his children. When Paul taught that fathers should bring-up their children with care, discipline (Ephesians 6:4), and comfort (1 Thessalonians 2:11), he was not teaching a new truth. To be a good father, David would have to conform to Paul's picture of a father devoted to his children. He did not. He followed his own heart and desires instead. His role of king overwhelmed his role of father. He did not force himself to pay more attention to his children. To have God's heart in this part of his life, he should have forced himself to spend more time with his children!
David was a complicated man. He had glaring weaknesses of character. But he also had many successes in his life. Read the Psalms. Many of them were written by David. Only someone who was inspired by God could have written the Psalms. The level of insight and devotion seen in them are extraordinary. They are not mere exercises in poetry writing. They came from a heart and mind that had spent many hours contemplating God and His works.
Psalm 51:1-12 is a good example of David's basic heart's direction. This psalm records David's response after Nathan revealed his adultery with Bathsheba. David could have responded defensively, but he did not. "Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins. Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin. For I recognize my shameful deeds--they haunt me day and night. Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just. For I was born a sinner--yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. But you desire honesty from the heart, so you can teach me to be wise in my inmost being. Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me--now let me rejoice. Don't keep looking at my sins. Remove the stain of my guilt. Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a right spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence, and don't take your Holy Spirit from me." If you read the other Psalms written by David you will find the same heart and wisdom you find in Psalm 51. When David followed God's heart all went well. But when he followed his own heart sin and trouble dogged his life.
How is your heart? Have you had a heart checkup lately? Like a physical heart problem, our spiritual heart can also show symptoms of ill health.
1. Numbness. In your life do you have a sense of numbness? Do you sit through services, do you open your Bible, do you hear someone talking about spiritual issues and you just grow cold. A sense of not feeling the things you should feel, not feeling a sense of love, of compassion, of care. You have got a heart problem.
2. Dizziness. Is there a loss of equilibrium in your life? Do you lose your balance? Have you become extremely tolerant or extremely judgmental? Are you overly proud or ashamed, over confident or have a total lack of confidence? If so, then you need a spiritual checkup.
3. Shortness of breath. You can't pray, you just have no heart for prayer. You don't have any spiritual stamina to keep going. Did you lose your strength to fight the good fight?
4. Fear. You sense something might be wrong but you do not want to check it out. Is there a sense of fear that, "I just do not feel as spiritual as I think I should be? There must be something wrong with me. I am afraid of what I might find!"
If you sense something is wrong, how do you check it out? 1) Go to God's Word, and let His word shape your heart. Bow before God's wisdom, even if you do not understand it all. 2) Go to God in prayer. "Lord, I want you to disciple my heart. I want you to put in my heart what should be there, replacing what should not be there."
"Delight yourself in the Lord," Scripture says (Psalm 37:4), and "He will give you the desires of your heart." If your heart is listening to God, follow your heart. Your desires incline you in a specific direction. Delight yourself in the Lord and your direction will be right. Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. Want to follow your heart? Make sure your desires are godly, and your actions will also be godly. But always examine yourself first. Your natural heart can be deceptive. "Examine yourselves to see if your faith is really genuine. Test yourselves" (2 Corinthians 13:5). If the writer of the Psalms can have blind spots, then surely you can , too!
ELIJAH AND ELISHA: GOD'S PROPHETS AGAINST IDOLATRY
Elijah and Elisha are two prophets that ministered and prophesied to the kingdom of Israel prior to the time of their captivity to the Assyrians. The kingships of Saul, David, and Solomon had passed and Israel was more influenced by the surrounding nations than they were influenced by it. Their ministry was to warn God's people to shape up or God was going to ship them out to captivity. They had walked away from the God of their fathers. They were now following Baal.
Merrill Unger says this about Baal worship: "Baal, a common Canaanite word for 'master', 'lord,' was one of the chief male deities of the Canaanite pantheon…. Baal was the son of El, the father of the gods and the head of the Canaanite pantheon…. Baal was thus the farm god who gave increase to family and field, flocks and herds. He was likewise identified with the storm-god Hadad whose voice could be heard in the reverberating thunder that accompanied rain, which was so necessary for the success of the crops. The inhabitants of Canaan were addicted to Baal worship, which was conducted by priests in temples and in good weather outdoors in fields and particularly on hilltops called 'high places.' The cult included animal sacrifice, ritualistic meals, and licentious dances. Near the rock altar was a sacred pillar or massebah, and close by the symbol of the asherah, both of which apparently symbolized human fertility. High places had chambers for sacred prostitution by male prostitutes and sacred harlots. The gaiety and licentious character of Baal worship always had a subtle attraction for the austere Hebrews bound to serve a holy God under a rigorous moral code" (Unger, p. 413).
King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, were the chief promoters of Baal worship in Israel. They brought hundreds of prophets into Israel to make Baal worship the official religion.
Elijah and Elisha were God's messengers during this time of apostasy and idolatry. Elijah was the prophet to the northern kingdom. He confronted King Ahab and Jezebel, the high priestess of Baal worship. He told them that God's judgment was on them for corrupting Israel and leading them astray. And that it would not rain until they turned back to God. For the next three and a half years famine visited Israel. Elijah went into seclusion for the entire time. Unable to find Elijah, Jezebel killed some of the prophets of the Lord.
Where did Elijah hide for three and a half years? The story is interesting. "Then the Lord said to Elijah, 'Go to the east and hide by Kerith Brook at a place east where it enters the Jordan River. Drink from the brook and eat what the ravens bring you, for I have commanded them to bring you food'" (1 Kings 17:2-4). Elijah stayed at this place until the brook dried up. Then God told him to go to Zaraphath because He had a widow there who would take care of him. When Elijah met her she had only enough flour and oil left to make a small meal for her son and herself. Although she had little, she was willing to share with Elijah. Because of her generosity, the Lord blessed her. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: "There will always be plenty of flour and oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again." God fulfilled His promise to the widow and Elijah to take care of them. He provided the food and had them take care of each other.
After many months passed (1 Kings 18:1), Elijah returned to Israel and presented himself before Ahab. Elijah told him that God was displeased with him and his family for neglecting the commandments and promoting Baal worship. Elijah commanded Ahab to gather 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. 1 Kings 18:21 records Elijah's rebuke: "Then Elijah stood in front of them and said, "How long are you going to waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him! But if Baal is God, then follow him!" Elijah challenged the false prophets. "The prophets of Baal were challenged to prevail upon their god to ignite the prepared offering. From morning until late afternoon they performed their vain rituals while Elijah ridiculed their futile efforts. Elijah then repaired the altar of the Lord, prepared the sacrifice, drenched it with water and called upon the God for divine confirmation. The offering was consumed, and all Israel acknowledged God. Immediately the false prophets were executed at the brook Kishon" (Schultz, p. 176).
Ahab immediately left by chariot to drive about fifteen miles to tell Jezebel what Elijah did to the Baal prophets. Jezebel was furious and vowed to slay Elijah. She sent him the following message: "May the gods also kill me if by this time tomorrow I have failed to take your life like those whom you killed" (1 Kings 19:2).
Elijah fled for his life. In a deep depression, he started complaining to God, "Why is this happening to me? I've done everything you said. I've been really, really good. I've stood up for you and now it's not working out. I want to know why." God said to him, "Go out from the mouth of the cave and stand" (v. 11a). Elijah looked and saw a tornado, and in the middle of the tornado there was no voice from God, and then there came fire and in the fire there was no voice from God, and then there came an earthquake and in the earthquake there was no voice from God but then in the still, small voice God spoke to him. He said in a whisper, "Elijah, what are you doing here?" Elijah responded, "God, you know what I'm doing here. I'm running for my life." God responded, "What are you doing here? You have run from the face of the enemy who I have control of. Oh, you of little faith. Can you not trust that I will be with you? I will protect you. I will strengthen you. I have just defended you from 450 priests of Baal, what is one queen going to do to you? You panicked and you ran. Trust me."
Soon afterward, God told Elijah to find a man named Elisha and to train and anoint him as Elijah's future replacement. Elijah found Elisha plowing his field. Elisha accepted God's call for his life and became Elijah's assistant. Second Kings 2 records events that were significant in the passing of the prophetic mantle from Elijah to Elisha. God took them on a tour of four places that have historical significance to the people of Israel.
"Then the Lord was about to take Elijah up into heaven in a whirlwind and Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal" (v. 1). Gilgal is a vitally important place in Israeli history. Remember when the high priests crossed the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant, when the people finally went into the Promised Land? Where did they go? They crossed the river and Joshua had them pick up twelve stones from the riverbed and carry them over to the other side and stack them in a mound where they camped that first night. This was Gilgal. It was the place where they held a celebration for the cutting off of the old life and a moving to a new life. It is where God settled them and it's where they took the covenant God had given them. There they stacked the stones and there they circumcised all the people who had not been circumcised in the wilderness. It is where they celebrated all that God had done for them in the past. It was there they realized God's provision for them throughout the 40 years in the desert.
Elijah said , "Elisha, God has told me to leave Gilgal and go on to Bethel. Elisha, you stay here. It's a long walk and I don't know what's going to happen. I want to keep you safe. They are trying to kill me. Therefore, Elisha, stay here (v. 2a)." And Elisha said, "I will not stay here. Wherever you go, I am going to go (v. 2b)." Not only did Elisha go to Bethel with Elijah, but God sent them to Jericho and to Jordan, as well. God wanted them to remember these key places because He did key things for His people at them. He especially wanted Elisha to be cognizant of his role in the restoration of God's people to their original calling.
When Abraham left his homeland and crossed the Syrian desert, it was at Bethel that he built the first altar. Bethel is also the exact location that Jacob stopped and rested when he was fleeing from Esau, and where he had the dream of the angels ascending and descending on a ladder that reached to heaven. Jericho was the place of great victory where the walls came tumbling down. It is at the Jordan where God promised Israel victory and a land to dwell if they were faithful. And during New Testament times, it was where John the Baptist and Jesus started their ministries. Places of historical significance have always played a part in God's word. Significant ingredients in the worship of God are thankfulness and appreciation for past acts of divine graciousness and love. The Jordan signifies to us God's promise of the newness of life for all who will believe.
In 2 Kings 2:8, Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up as they were getting ready to cross the Jordan and struck the water with it and the water divided into two. Both crossed over on dry ground. After they crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me Elisha, why are you here? You could have stayed in Gilgal, you could have stayed in Bethel, you could have stayed at Jericho, you could have stayed on the other side of the Jordan. Why have you gone through all this? What is it you want?" Elisha essentially said, "Elijah, you're good, but I want to be better. I want more of what you have. Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit. Elijah, I want twice what you have. I want to have twice as much insight. I want twice as much grace; twice as much faithfulness."
As faithful as Elijah was, there were some downsides to Elijah's life. Elisha wanted to be completely sold out, with no compromise, no fear, no holding back, so he asked for a double portion (2 Kings 2:9) of the spirit that was on Elijah to be upon him. Elijah recognized this as an extraordinary request. He told Elisha that it was God's decision to make. Second Kings 2:10: "If you see me when I am taken from you, then you will get your request. But if not, then you won't." For this to me true Elisha would have to stay with Elijah at all times, never turning back. As they walked together, a chariot of fire with horses of fire appeared and separated them and Elijah went up into heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this. He took his own clothes and tore them and picked up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it and said, "Where is the Lord of Elijah?" And the waters divided to show the 50 prophets on the other side and more importantly to show Elisha, that God's call and ministry now rested with him.
What did Elisha ask for? He asked for a double portion of God's spirit. As a child, how many of us knew all about Elijah but little about Elisha? Elijah was the well-known and fiery prophet who called fire down from heaven. Elisha was second in command, the servant, the assistant. He was not a showy character. But when you look at Elisha closely you see something fascinating.
In the whole Bible there are 3-4 chapters that talk about Elijah's life. But there are 6-8 chapters that talk about Elisha's life. When you count the miracles of Elijah, you find 10-12 depending on whether you talk about the starting and stopping of rain as one or two miracles. How many do you think you find when you study the story of Elisha? There are 20-24 recorded miracles attributed to Elisha. Elijah focused on King Ahab and the kingdom of the north. Elisha's ministry is doubled because he focused not simply on Ahab and the kings of the north but he also focused on Jehosaphat, king of Judah, and the kings of the south. He had twice as much influence, twice as many miracles recorded. Twice as much impact on lives. Is this just a coincidence? He asked for a double portion and it's recorded in God's Word that a double portion was granted in the form of miracles, influence, and impact.
It is very easy to be satisfied and complacent, to live in the past and celebrate all the great things God has done. Israel had this problem. It always remembered to celebrate the different festivals that recognized God's past deeds but it forgot to live with him in the present. It is easy to do that. It is tempting to do because it does not require present change. Elisha did not fall for this temptation. He asked for, and received, a fresh and double portion of God's spirit.
What difference would a double portion of God's spirit make in our lives? What difference would a double portion of God's spirit make in our churches? Tell me, what difference would it make? Bigger outreach. Changed lives. Missionary work. A more excellent relationship with Christ and more sensitive to the needs of others. A more humble nature. Crowded buildings. Expanded youth programs. You think God wants these things to happen. Why won't they? The only thing standing in God's way is us. Dare you pray for a double portion of God's spirit. Dare you pray the prayer of Elisha?
We should ask, "Not where is the God of Elisha, but where are the Elishas of God? Where are those willing to ask God for a double portion of His spirit? Who dare challenge God, and say, 'Lord, I open myself up to you.'" Sometimes when we pray such a prayer God will bring disruption and trial to our lives. If that happens, don't be depressed, don't hide out in a cave like Elijah but trust him to lead you onto higher ground, to multiply your effectiveness, to bring better things to your life. God is not one who takes things away from our lives except when it is those things that destroy and consume our lives in unhealthy ways. Dare to pray. Dare to pray, "Lord, bless us with a double portion of your spirit!"
Schultz, Samuel J. (1980). The Old Testament Speaks. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Unger, Merrill F. (1979). Unger's Bible Dictionary. Chicago: Moody.
ESTHER: ORPHAN GIRL WHO BECAME QUEEN
The Book of Esther reads like a made for television movie. It has suspense, intrigue, betrayal, conspiracy, and treachery. The whole story becomes of fascinating interest and meaning to us when we discover that this is not merely a story of ancient past, but is also a divinely inspired, magnificently accurate portrayal of God's active hand in human history.
A reading of the Bible reveals that God intervenes in human history in two distinct ways. He sometimes does supernatural, beyond the natural, deeds that only He can do. Examples of this type of intervention are the parting of the Red Sea, God's feeding of Israel in the wilderness with manna for 40 years, and Jesus' feeding of the 5,000. At other times He uses people and objects within His creation and orchestrates and directs them to fulfill His will.
These activities by God are more numerous than supernatural miracles. They can be thought of as 'natural' miracles. God does not create something out of nothing or use physical power that is only His by divine prerogative, but confines Himself to act within our space-and-time limitations. Examples of this type of intervention are Joseph's sale into slavery and his eventual use by God to save Israel from starvation, David's slaying of Goliath, and Caesar's decree that forced Joseph to take Mary to Bethlehem, fulfilling the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in that city. The story of Esther falls into this category. God's name is never mentioned in the entire book but God's guiding hand can be seen throughout it.
There are five major characters in this book - a king, a queen, an orphan girl, a man of God, and a villain. The king is Xerxes, son of King Darius. He ruled a vast empire that covered much of the Middle East, from India to Egypt to the borders of Greece. The first act in this story centers on a fundraising party with hundreds of dignitaries from all over the empire bringing tribute to finance a war with Greece. Xerxes was ambitious to make his mark on the kingdom. He wanted Greece. At the end of the 7-day party, with his judgment impaired by alcohol, he made a foolish and arrogant decision to show-off his beautiful wife to all his guests. He ordered her to parade in front of his guests. Some commentators think that he ordered her to parade in front of his guests wearing nothing or near nothing but her crown. He wanted everyone to know what he had and, the worst part, how he controlled her. Vashti, his wife, refused.
I suspect that what Xerxes wanted Vashti to do she had done for him in private many times before. And that is fine. But Xerxes violated his love for her by ordering her to make their private life public for his own titillation and ambition. Vashti was stung by his betrayal and refused to humiliate herself just for his selfish pleasure. She had standards and refused to lower herself to his level. Esther 1:12 says that "This made the king furious, and he burned with anger." One can almost sense an undercurrent of a power struggle between Xerxes and Vashti. Was Xerxes trying to put Vashti in her place? Was this a continuation of a behind the scene conflict? His immediate reaction of rage reveals a prior mindset of control and domination. To refuse someone in this mindset provokes verbal and physical abuse.
Persia of Xerxes' day was much like the Arab countries of today. The husband had complete control over the wife. Women were abused regularly. Vashti's refusal of Xerxes order was considered scandalous. It was rebellion against an oppressive system that degraded women. One could almost see her as a true feminist, standing up for the dignity of women everywhere. Women should not be made to parade around with little or nothing on in front of others against their will. It is degrading to make them do it. Vashti had the courage to say "No!" to the evil command. And what happened to her? She was deposed from being queen. Some commentators think she was executed based on Esther's statement in 4:16. "Though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I am willing to die." Is it possible that Esther considered death possible because she knew that Vashti died before her? We do not know for sure, but whatever happened to Vashti we know she paid a great price for her convictions, maybe even her life.
Between chapter 1 and chapter 2, four years pass. During this time the Persians invade Greece. But they failed. Chapter 2 finds Xerxes back in his palace licking his wounds from the Greece defeat and feeling lonely. Xerxes missed Vashti's company. His attendants sensed his loneliness and suggested a beauty pageant to find him a new wife. "Let us search the empire to find beautiful young virgins for the king…. The young woman who pleases you will be made queen instead of Vashti" (2:4). Xerxes liked the idea. One of the women chosen was Esther.
When Esther was a minor her father and mother died. Her older cousin Mordecai adopted her into his family and raised her as his own daughter. From scriptural evidence, they seemed to have a deep and trusting relationship toward one another. Mordecai did what he believed was best for Esther and Esther listened to Mordecai's wisdom and direction. When the king's servants arrived in Susa, Esther's city of residence, they were impressed with her beauty and chose her as a candidate for Xerxes' special affection. As the other women chosen, Esther was taken to a special place and given one year's worth of beauty treatments and health foods to enhance her appearance and vitality.
Esther 2:15-18 record what happened when Esther meet the king: "When it was Esther's turn to go to the king, she accepted the advice of Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the harem. She asked for nothing except what he suggested, and she was admired by everyone who saw her. When Esther was taken to King Xerxes at the royal palace in early winter of the seventh year of his reign, the king loved her more than any of the other young women. He was so delighted with her that he set the royal crown on her head and declared her queen instead of Vashti."
Because of Esther's influence, Mordecai was given a position as a palace official. One day Mordecai overheard two palace guards plotting to assassinate Xerxes. He reported what he heard to Esther and she took the information to Xerxes. Upon investigation, Mordecai's story was found to be true and the two men were executed. But he was soon forgotten for what he did. He received no reward for what he did.
Some time later, we do not know exactly how long, the Prime Minister, Haman, enjoyed special prominence in the king's sight. The king ordered all to bow down before Haman whenever he passed by. Mordecai refused to do this, despite repeated counsel to do so. Haman was incensed at Mordecai's snub. Haman was a well-known hater of the Jews. And this incident with Mordecai provoked him to such anger that he committed himself to destroy all the Jews in the kingdom. Haman made elaborate plans for nearly one year to carry out the destruction in a single day. As incentive to motivate many to kill a Jew, the property of the Jew killed would be given to the killer. Official decrees were written and distributed throughout the kingdom.
When Mordecai learned of the plot, he became very distraught and upset. Jews all over the kingdom were fearful and confused. "And as news of the king's decree reached all the provinces, there was great mourning among the Jews. They fasted, wept, and wailed, and many people lay in sackcloth and ashes" (4:3). Mordecai also covered himself in sackcloth and ashes to mourn for his people. Esther saw him in morning and sent her servant to inquire as to the reason for his sadness. Mordecai gave the servant a copy of the decree and instructed the servant to show it to Esther, as well as a message requesting that she intercede for her people before the king. Esther reminded Mordecai that it was illegal, upon penalty of death, for anyone, even her, to appear before the king uninvited. Mordecai's response shows the severity of the situation, as well as his belief that God will not allow all Jews to perish [he must, therefore, have believed the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob], but that it was a real possibility that he, his relatives, the citizens of his hometown, Susa, and Esther herself were doomed to die.
Esther saw the truth of what Mordecai said and sent the following message to him: "Go and gather together all the Jews of Susa and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will do the same. And then, though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I am willing to die."
Esther was not an aggressive person. All her life she had graciously submitted herself to an authority figure. First Mordecai, as her adopted father, and now Xerxes, the king of Persia. She respected laws and proper submission. She was probably the direct opposite of Vashti, who had the aggressiveness to oppose Xerxes in public. But now at a critical time, she let her responsibility to her people, God's people, to push her to do what she would never have considered doing previously--approaching the king uninvited, putting her life in jeopardy.
Three days later, Esther appeared before the king and found a warm welcome. Xerxes heard her request. "What is your request? I will give it to you, even if it is half the kingdom (5:3)!" Think about this. At this point, Esther could have had wealth beyond her wildest dreams. She could have forgotten about her people, Mordecai, and her God, but she did not. She remained faithful. She requested that the king allow her to arrange a special banquet for just them and Haman. Her request was granted.
Haman was delighted that he would have a special meeting with just the king and queen. He thought he was being honored above everyone else in the kingdom. But he was soon to find out that God had other plans for him.
The night before Esther's special banquet, Xerxes had trouble sleeping. He ordered an attendant to bring the historical records that perhaps he might gain sleep as the attendant read to him. Providentially, the account of Mordecai's involvement in saving the king from assassination was read to Xerxes. Xerxes inquired whether Mordecai had been ever been rewarded for what he did. The attendant replied, "No." Just at that moment Haman entered the outer court, which drew the king's attention. Haman had come to request that Mordecai be hanged on a specially built, 75 foot hanging gallows. Before he could make his request, Xerxes asked him, "What should I do to honor a man who truly pleases me?" Haman thought that that special someone was himself. He advised that royal robes be placed on this person and that this person was to be placed on a royal horse and be paraded around the city, as a dignitary shouted, "This is what happens to those the king wishes to honor" (6:9)!
The king thought that this was a good idea, so he instructed Haman to do all of this for Mordecai. Haman was humiliated. As he mourned with his family, the king's servants arrived to take him to the banquet Esther prepared. At the banquet, Esther revealed to Xerxes Haman's evil plot. Xerxes ordered Haman's execution. And ironically, Haman was hung on the very gallows that he intended to use to hang Mordecai.
While the chief enemy of the Jews was dead, the threat was still present. The day that was set aside for the mass slaughter of the Jews was near. The decree designed by Haman had gone out to the entire kingdom, a vast area. Swift action was needed to prevent a disaster. Esther appealed to the king for the right for Jews to protect themselves against those who would kill them. Scripture records that on the exact day Haman had planned the Jewish extermination, the Jews killed five hundred people in Susa alone, and also Haman's ten sons. The next day they killed three hundred more of their enemies in the Susa area. In total, 75,000 enemies of the Jews were killed throughout the kingdom. Thus, assuring their future safety in the kingdom.
The author of the book of Esther closes the book by emphasizing the greatness and future blessings of both Xerxes and Mordecai. Mordecai became Prime Minister, behind only Xerxes in authority. Esther 10:3b says this about Mordecai: "He was very great among the Jews, who held him in high esteem, because he worked for the good of his people and was a friend at the royal court for all of them." Mordecai received the blessing of God because he was faithful to God's purposes and plans. Xerxes, a gentile, received the blessing of God because he was friendly and protective toward God's specially chosen people, the Jews.
The story of Esther and Mordecai can be used to teach many different lessons, some moral and some spiritual. But one primary lesson revolves around God's ability to use ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Esther and Mordecai were Jews in a foreign land. But God was able to use them for a special task because they had both good character and a faith and love toward the Creator God of Israel. True, Esther's beauty helped put her in a position to be considered for queen, but it was her character and humility that gained the position. Xerxes trusted her to help run palace affairs and not to embarrass him in public. Mordecai had wisdom and a kind heart. He took care of an orphan girl and loved her. And continued to love her even when she became an adult. There were probably other Jewish people living in the Persian Empire that had the qualities Esther and Mordecai had. But God chose them for the tasks and roles we read about in the book of Esther.
God can work great things through ordinary people. In Esther, He works through a drunken husband's outrageous demand, a pagan beauty pageant, a villain's hateful and arrogant plot, a king's insomnia, a king's absentmindedness, and a boring congressional record. He weaves all of these together and redeems His nationally adopted people from destruction. God had a plan for Esther's and Mordecai's lives and used them by grafting them into the historical tapestry that is the book of Esther. What if they refused to listen? Refused to stand up for what is right and moral? They would have missed God's blessing, but God would have found another way to complete His task. He would have used other people or arranged other sets of circumstances. But there is biblical evidence that when God has to alter His best plan to accommodate human unfaithfulness there are negative consequences. The Bible is full of stories of the consequences of rejecting God's first and best plan.
What would this world be like had Adam and Eve followed God's best plan by not eating of the tree in the center of the garden, or if Cain had followed God's admonition to bring a more worthy sacrifice, or if Abraham had not brought Lot with him on his journey, or if Abraham had waited for God's promised child, Isaac, and not had Ishmael, ancestor of the Arab tribes of today, which are Israel's sworn enemies, or if Moses had not brought Aaron on his deliverance mission, or if David had not committed adultery with Bathsheba, or if Solomon had stayed away from pagan wives whom eventually corrupted him, or if Israel listened to God and did not introduce idol worship in their midst, or if the Jewish leaders had listened to Jesus and not Caiaphas the high priest. There are more. Do not think that because something happens it was fated to happen. Sometimes things happen in this world because someone does not do something. He or she does not fulfill God's best plan for their life. Instead of putting God, family, and country first, too many men and women chose career and money as their priority. Negative consequences follow for their children and their culture.
Esther and Mordecai are examples of two individuals who did fulfill God's best plan for their lives. The results are all positive. Nothing negative came out of the Esther-Mordecai story. As James 1:17 states: "Whatever is good and perfect comes to us from God above, who created all heaven's lights. Unlike them, he never changes or casts shifting shadows." God authored the plan and it worked perfectly, with no negative consequences. Except, of course, for Haman, Haman's family, and those who hated the Jewish people, God's nationally-chosen people. And for this reason James continues by saying, "So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the message God has implanted in your hearts, for it is strong enough to save your souls" (1:21). God does not promise us riches and a carefree, comfortable life, but if we follow His perfect plan for our lives we will have His praise and no negative consequences that will harm His kingdom and people. Many who are listed in the Hebrews 11 Hall-of-Fame of faith suffered greatly for their faithfulness. But the kingdom of God was advanced by their faithfulness. And God praised them for it. They did not hurt God's testimony in this world but advanced it. By their faithful sufferings they inspire others to persevere during hardships and trials. God's perfect plans further the kingdom without negative consequences for the kingdom. Human-polluted plans always leave negative consequences for the kingdom and human history.
The example of Esther and Mordecai's character and faithfulness to God's ways and plans teach us to follow after God perfectly, so that no negative consequences might be created by us, consequences that hinder God's testimony in this world. We need to strive to fulfill His plan for our lives in a pure and holy manner so that He can work out His plan in the best possible way, free of negative consequences created by us!
NEHEMIAH: FOUGHT THE GOOD FIGHT
Knowingly violating God's best plan for a situation always brings bad consequences. And the closer someone is to God the more negative and far-reaching the consequences. The life and rule of Solomon is a good example of this principle. Early in his kingship over Israel he has an encounter with God that changed his life. "That night the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream, and God said, 'What do you want? Ask, and I will give it to you!' Solomon replied, 'You were wonderfully kind to my father, David, because he was honest and true and faithful to you. And you have continued this great kindness to him today by giving him a son to succeed him. O Lord my God, now you have made me king instead of my father, David, but I am like a child who doesn't know his way around. And here I am among your own chosen people, a nation so great they are too numerous to count! Give me an understanding mind so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great nation of yours?' The Lord was pleased with Solomon's reply and was glad that he asked for wisdom. So God replied, 'Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people and have not asked for a long life or riches for yourself or the death of your enemies--I will give you what you asked for'" (1 Kings 3:5-12)! God promised to give Solomon all the wisdom he needed to govern. A thorough reading of 1 Kings 3-1 Kings 10 will show that God kept His promise to bless Solomon. He blessed Solomon with wisdom, honor, and riches.
One of the projects Solomon undertook was to build a central place of worship--a temple. Until this time there were many local sites for offering sacrifices and burnt incense. David wanted to build a temple, it was his idea, but was unable because the many wars he was involved in took-up too much of his time and attention. Blessed by peace Solomon built the temple according to God's specifications. After the temple and all the temple contents were finished and Solomon offered prayers and sacrifices of dedication, God appeared to Solomon a second time. "I have heard your prayer and your request. I have set apart this temple you have built so that my name will be honored there forever. I will always watch over it and care for it. As for you, if you will follow me with integrity and godliness, as David your father did, always obeying my commands and keeping my laws and regulations, then I will establish the throne of your dynasty over Israel forever. For I made this promise to your father, David; 'You will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.' But if you or your descendants abandon me and disobey my commands and laws, and if you go and worship other gods, then I will uproot the people of Israel from this land I have given them. I will reject this Temple that I have set apart to honor my name. I will make Israel an object of mockery and ridicule among the nations. And though this temple is impressive now, it will become an appalling sight for all who pass by. They will scoff and ask, 'Why did the Lord do such terrible things to his land and to his Temple?' And the answer will be, 'Because his people forgot the Lord their God, who brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and they worshiped other gods instead. That is why the Lord has brought all these disasters upon them'" (1 Kings 9:3-9).
Unfortunately, despite God's explicit warnings and commands against marrying foreign, idolatrous wives Solomon married hundreds of them. And as God predicted, these women lead him and Israel away from the exclusive worship of God the Creator and Redeemer.
As a consequence of one powerful man's disobedience and idolatry, the kingdom of Israel was split in two. Immediately after Solomon's death the kingdom he worked so hard to build began to crumble. The corrupting process proceeded faster in the Northern section of the divided kingdom than it did in the Southern section. The Northern section, now called Israel, fulfilling God's warning given to Solomon in 1 Kings 9, was sent into exile by the Assyrians in 722 B. C. The Southern section, now called Judah, was sent into exile by the Babylonians in 586 B. C.
These exiles were times of discipline for a rebellious people. They were not evidence that God had given-up on Israel. God always remembers His promises to Abraham and David. Temporary disobedience does not thwart God's overall plans to fulfill His promises. History teaches us that these exiles accomplished an important objective--Israel never again returned to the idolatry that provoked the exiles.
The exiles were temporary. Starting in 538 B. C., God began returning people back to Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. There were actually three periods of return. The first was under Zerubbabel in 538 B. C. The second was under Ezra in 458 B. C. The third was under Nehemiah in 445 B. C. The remainder of this paper will focus on Nehemiah, the leader of the third return from exile.
Under Zerubbabel and Ezra, the Temple was rebuilt and the Law of Moses was again spoken to the people. But the city and its walls were still in ruin. Jerusalem was not yet a safe place to live. It was still a place of ridicule. The people who had already returned were struggling to survive. Listen to the words of Nehemiah: "Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had survived the captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem. They said to me, 'Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been burned'" (Nehemiah 1:2-3).
Upon hearing this news, Nehemiah began to weep and mourn. Nehemiah was born a Jew in a foreign land. He had no memories of the way Jerusalem used to be before the exiles. His reaction to the bad news was not a sentimental one. His prayer to God shows us that his heart was with God.
John 4:23-24 tells us that God has always sought people who worship Him in spirit and truth. Jesus said, "But the time is coming and is already here when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for anyone who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth." Many Israelites got lost in the Law, or worshiped false images of God, misrepresenting Who He is. While in exile, apart from the Temple and altar, many Israelites learned to worship God in spirit and truth. They developed a spiritual connection to the Lord.
The prayer of Nehemiah shows this spiritual connection. "O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! ... Please remember what you told your servant Moses: 'If you sin, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands, even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored…. Please grant me success now as I go ask the king for a great favor. Put it into his heart to be kind to me'" (1:5-10).
Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king of Persia, Artaxerxes'. As a cupbearer he had great responsibility and access to the king. A cupbearer not only made sure that the king's wine was safe to drink, but was also a trusted advisor and confidant. A cupbearer had to have great organizational skills in order to manage the selection and protection of the wine; to make sure it was not poisoned by enemies of the king. For three months Nehemiah prayed about speaking to the king. Finally, in God's providence, Artaxerxes' noticed Nehemiah's sadness and sought the reason. Upon hearing Nehemiah's wish to go to Jerusalem, he granted Nehemiah's request to return to rebuild the city and its walls. Nehemiah left the privileged job of cupbearer, and all the luxuries that go with that position, and journeyed to Jerusalem, which was characterized by want and strife.
While it is not necessary to look at all the specific details regarding the rebuilding of the city and walls, we are going to look at the opposition Nehemiah faced. Read 2:19-20, 4:3-14, 5:1-11, and 6:1-7. These passages speak of all the opposition Nehemiah and the rebuilders had from those with a vested interest in the project failing. Greed, anger, ridicule, discouragement, and deceitful conspiracy fueled the opposition. But how did Nehemiah react to all this negativity and sin? His was not a response of compromise and reconciliation. He actually prayed against the ridiculers and conspirators. To pray that God's judgment will fall against His enemies is called an imprecatory prayer. It is to take sides with God against God's enemies.
Nehemiah twice prays against these people:
1. "Then I prayed, 'hear us, O our God, for we are being mocked. May their scoffing fall back on their own heads, and may they themselves become captives in a foreign land! Do not ignore their guilt. Do not blot out their sins, for they have provoked you to anger here in the presence of the builders'" (4:4-5).
2. "Remember, O my God, all the evil things that Tobiah and Sanballat have done. And remember Noadiah the prophet and all the prophets like her who have tried to intimidate me" (6:14).
Not only did God not forget these people, but He put the accounts of their opposition in His Word for all to read about and condemn. The reality of their opposition is no longer confined to a small plot of ground called Jerusalem, but wherever the Bible is read their evil deeds will be known, and their names cursed. This should strike fear in our hearts. If we should dare to oppose God's work and ways, will all hear of our opposition at the future judgment? Will our names be listed along Tobiah's, Sanballat's and Noadiah's?
There seems to be several purposes for the writing of Nehemiah (Malik, 1996), and its companion book, Ezra (both are records of the return from captivity).
1. To provide a record of the reconstruction of the Israelite theocracy upon the physical and spiritual foundations of the past and to give a continuity between the preexilic and postexilic times. The promises given to Abraham and David were still in force. God is not done with Israel, but He still has plans for it, within His overall plan to redeem the world from sin and death.
2. To demonstrate God's faithfulness in restoring His people to the blessings found in His promises to Abraham and David.
3. To proclaim the legitimacy of the restored religious, political, and social life of God's nationally-chosen people. God called them back to the land. They are not illegitimate occupiers of the land. They belong there.
4. To foreshadow the complete fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and David. Despite what the critics said in Nehemiah's day, and despite what critics say today, God is not finished with Israel yet. He allowed them to return and receive His blessing when they confessed the unholy sins of disobedience to the Law of Moses and idolatry. He will bless them in the future when they confess the sin of rejecting their Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. Until then they will remain in spiritual exile.
Nehemiah is an example of a man who fought for what he knew was God's will. It was obvious that the city and walls needed to be rebuilt for the protection of the people. Only those who had selfish hidden agendas could oppose it. We need to learn from Nehemiah. Hardship and opposition does not necessarily mean that we are out of God's will. It may actually occur because we are directly in the middle of His will, involved in His project. It is interesting, sometimes our projects proceed along smoothly because God is blessing us, but at other times all hell seems to break loose against what we are doing. Yet, like Nehemiah, we are doing exactly what God wants us to do.
Nehemiah triumphed for two reasons. First, he knew that what he was doing was God's will for his life. He was strengthened by his convictions to complete what God called him to do. Second, he was surrounded by good people who also were faithful to complete the task assigned to them. When we face opposition we should examine ourselves to see whether we are receiving flak because of our own bad actions, whether there has been a misunderstanding, or are our enemies actually striking at God by striking at us. If the former two can be eliminated, and the later confirmed, then we must stand strong in God's strength and refuse to backaway from our holy task!
Nehemiah did not quit. The postexilic history of Israel might have been different had he not triumphed. But Nehemiah is an example of someone who followed God's best plan for his life. And God's people benefited from his faithfulness. Solomon, despite his great wisdom, is an example of someone who knew God's best plan for his life but failed to do it. Solomon's unfaithfulness brought great suffering to his people. The lives of Solomon and Nehemiah should stand as examples to us. Solomon is often looked upon as a great man and is remembered for his great wisdom. But his end was not good. Nehemiah is not as well known, but when one reads his story carefully one sees another David-type character. Solomon inherited peace, but eventually squandered it on immoral living. Nehemiah 'inherited' conflict, but eventually turned it into peace. Nehemiah, along with Paul, fought the good fight and finished the race (2 Timothy 4:7). David would have been proud of him!
The Bible records the history of God's activities on behalf of humankind. Its contents range from the creation of the world, through the destruction of the world, and finally ends by describing a re-creation that will be free of sin and its corruption. God makes Himself known through the things that He does and says. The beauty and functionality of creation speak of a powerful and benevolent Maker. There is much that can be learned by listening to creation's witness. But with creation as His only witness there are aspects of God's character and being that would remain unknown to us.
God must reveal Himself in a personal way in order for us to understand Him as a personal Being. This personal self-revelation is recorded in the Bible. It is called special revelation. Creation's witness is called natural or general revelation. Both are needed to give us an accurate image of who God is.
All the stories that you have read in these articles are true. They really happened. They are not mere myths told for moral affect. The characters are not cleaned-up to make them more admirable, and thus better moral teachers. They were real people in real situations. None of them was perfect, but from each we can learn lessons of faith that God finds noteworthy. The key to the positive witness of each of the characters studied was that each learned to trust God in difficult circumstances.
Although each chapter in this booklet has the name of a human subject, this booklet is ultimately more about God than it is about Abraham, Rebekah, Jacob, Shamgar, David, Elijah, Elisha, Esther, or Nehemiah. These biblical figures are revered because they did great things. Most importantly, they did great things that will be remembered because they partnered with God to do them. Other men and women in the history of this world have done 'great' things, but God will not remember them at the Judgment. Only those things that were done with His approval and partnership will be positively remembered. If you want God to honor and remember you, then you must learn the spiritual lessons contained in the lives of those biblical giants who have preceded you in faith.
Now that you know these things the prayer of Peter seems appropriate. "You therefore, beloved, since you know these things beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen" (2 Peter 3:17-18).