Archive for June, 2012
You know, one of the great things about reading and thinking on the Bible is that on any given day, a single phrase can open your eyes to a new reality. A few words, read at just the right moment, can be like a light that illuminates your world. I guess that’s why people have been reading this collection of books for thousands of years, but still seem to be finding new things to learn from it.
Take these two lines from Psalm 94:
When I said, “My foot is slipping,”
your unfailing love, Lord, supported me. (Psalm 94:18)
What a perfect picture of God’s love and his response to us. Imagine climbing up a steep rocky slope. You climb confidently, knowing that your safety gear is in place and will keep you from plummeting to your death. Then, something happens – your foot begins to slip. Now, you know that your safety equipment is still there, but it isn’t as comforting any more. Slippage of any kind gets the heart racing.
Now, imagine that you call out to someone climbing behind you, “My foot is slipping,” and they come and help support you and get you to the next foothold. Sure, the safety gear was great, but not as great as the personal touch of a friend’s support.
For us, God serves as both the safety rope and the supportive friend. Ultimately, we know that God will be there for us if we fall, but how much more comforting is it to know that he will also be there before we fall. If we call out to him, he will provide the support we need to not only keep from falling, but to continue advancing.
Really, the only question is whether or not we’re willing to call out to him. I don’t know about you, but I have times when I would rather deny that my foot is slipping than to call out for help. And in those times, I’m much more likely to fall – maybe a little ways, maybe a long ways. Yet, all the time, God was there, ready to provide the support I need.
I’ll say this over and over until the day I die: God will not force himself on us. But if we call out to him – if we admit that our foot is slipping – he is there not only to catch us when we fall, but to be the support we need to keep climbing.
I wonder if you can call God a liar and get away with it. I mean, as I read Psalm 89, that’s how it reads to me. The psalmist, Ethan the Ezrahite, basically says, “God, you said one thing, but did another.” In Ethan’s eyes, God has not honored his commitment to David, to Israel and to David’s descendants. He is calling out God and asking him why he didn’t honor his word.
This is an interesting approach, especially for some guy named Ethan the Ezrahite, whom nobody I know has ever really heard of. I mean, for Job or David to say these things, at least you recognize that there is a deep relationship with God from which these kinds of back and forth discussions flow. But here’s this guy Ethan calling God out – calling him a liar.
And, while we’re told (much later in the Bible) that all scripture is God-breathed and useful, I don’t think that necessarily means that all of it is necessarily correct – especially passages like this. (Before you get the rope, hear me out.) I think that God sometimes uses our own foolishness and the foolishness of others as a teaching tool. Therefore, including in the scriptures a rant about God being a liar can be a really useful tool for those who have seen God’s faithfulness. It’s as if God said, “Be sure to include Ethan’s words so that later, people can look back and see how foolish they were.”
You see, God had not lied to David, nor had he abandoned his oath. The fact was, God just had a much greater plan in mind – one that was going to take longer than a person’s lifetime to play out – one that would take thousands (maybe millions) of years to play out. And so, what may have seemed like abdication to a man like Ethan (or, at times, to us) was actually just part of the natural ebb and flow of God’s plan.
It seems that David himself actually had a much firmer grasp on this concept than Ethan. Look at David’s words in Psalm 86:
Teach me your way, Lord,
that I may rely on your faithfulness (Psalm 86:11)
Now that is a wise statement and, in two lines, contains more wisdom than the entirety of Ethan’s song. Here, in these two lines, David recognizes that God is faithful (not a liar or one who abdicates his responsibilities), that he is wise (with something to teach), that he has a certain “way” that we are ignorant of and that, ultimately, if we truly understand him, we will realize that we can rely on him.
David doesn’t accuse God of something, but, instead, acknowledges his own inability to understand the situation he finds himself in. And I suspect that it is this kind of clarity and humility that allowed David to become a great leader and a name known around the world for generations, while Ethan sat around complaining.
If there is, somewhere in the cosmos, a sliding scale which indicates at one end that a person or people are friends of God and at the other end that a person or people are his enemies, Israel is perpetually stuck somewhere in the middle. In fact, the Bible speaks of many individuals who are friends of God and it speaks of many nations who oppose him. But the tone is different for Israel.
The people of Israel (especially the Biblical writers) hold fast to their claim as the people of God. They call for swift justice for those who oppose him, or more accurately, those who oppose them. And yet, they aren’t firmly in God’s corner, either. For many, the jury is still out as to whether or not this “God of Israel” is all he’s cracked up to be.
You can hear it in some of these Psalms – a tone of voice that somehow comes through in the writing. Like this, from Psalm 80:
Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,
the son of man you have raised up for yourself.
Then we will not turn away from you;
revive us, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, Lord God Almighty;
make your face shine on us,
that we may be saved. (Psalm 80:17-19 – emphasis mine)
You see? A little quid pro quo with the God of the universe – a little deal-making. The psalmist is telling God that if he will rescue his people, then they will not turn away from him. In many ways, this is a foretaste of the mocking that Jesus would endure on the cross as his accusers shouted that if he was the Son of God, he should command his angels to come down and rescue him. Then, surely, everyone would worship him.
But God is not in the quid pro quo business…at least not in the way we tend to want him to be. He doesn’t like to make little bargains, because he has already closed the BIG deal. In a game of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” he has stored up an infinite amount of back scratching and we have no room to demand anything more of him.
And yet, throughout history, recorded in the Bible, in history books and even in our recent memory, there are those of us who insist that God somehow owes us something – that if he would just pull his weight around here, we would be happy to pull ours. To me, this is the worst kind of heresy – a show of disrespect – a lowering of God and an elevating of ourselves so that we have the audacity to speak as if we are on the same level.
In our rejection of his authority, his wisdom and his all-encompassing knowledge, we also reject his mercy, compassion, protection, guidance and helping hand. We serve a God who longs to make things right, but who refuses to do so on our terms. And so, we are called to surrender – to give up our so-called “rights” and to declare that whatever God wants, he can have. The really cool thing is that if we will just do that, then we’ll find what he had waiting for us all along – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
What if God’s wrath, judgement and punishment isn’t out of anger, but out of compassion? It occurs to me as I read these passages that the only time God’s people really followed his ways was when they were suffering some kind of persecution or judgement. As soon as things were going good again, the people returned to their un-Godly ways.
And so, it seems that if God wanted his people to live the kind of life they were created to live – to love and serve and seek God – that the best course of action would be to make sure that they were suffering. If he could keep them under heavy persecution or slavery, they would continue to seek them.
Using that logic, then, the times where God rescued his people and set them free were more about giving them a chance to prove that they could live without those kinds of restrictions, rather than the vengeful acts of an angry God. God, in his wisdom, seems to always be pointing us toward his perfect plan. We, in our foolishness, seem to buck against it at every turn.
Who knows where we would be if God protected us from hard times – probably nowhere near where he has created us to be.
They say that those who don’t remember their past are bound to repeat it. I think it could also be said that those who remember the positives from the past have hope of repeating them. Such is the case in Psalm 77.
The song begins with a pretty negative tone:
I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted. (Psalm 77:1-2)
The psalmist goes on to write about songs he sang in the past – and pretty miserable songs at that. Then comes the turning point – the revelation that there is more to God than what we can see and that, indeed, God has proven himself time and time again:
Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” (Psalm 77:10-12)
In remembering the past, the psalmist expresses hope for the future and a recognition that God has come through for his people before. At the same time, there is an implied recollection of the fact that the rescue of the people of Israel from the hands of the Egyptians came only after years of slavery.
In other words, the people of Israel went through the same types of struggles as we find in the first half of Psalm 77 before they could ever experience the kind of joy written about in the second part of the song.
It is no different for us. We long for healing and restoration, for reconciliation and freedom. But healing is preceded by sickness and disease – restoration by brokenness. Reconciliation is preceded by alienation and freedom by slavery and imprisonment. The things we long for are preceded the things we dread.
And it will be that way until God ultimately restores his creation. And so, if you find yourself living out the first half of Psalm 77, just remember, the last half has happened before and it will happen again.