Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Why does God send trouble? (Amos 4:4-13)

What would you say if you heard sarcasm in a sermon? The people of Israel heard Amos the prophet addressing them in a sarcastic manner when he urged them to go to Bethel and Gilgal and sin there (4:4-5). Those were the locations where false worship took place. More seriously, it was not only the prophet who was using sarcasm. In reality, he was only passing on the message God had given him to say. Surely it was very serious when the Lord spoke in such a manner to his people.

The Lord reminds the Israelites that they have not listened to his warnings in providence. He had sent famines (v. 6), droughts (vv. 7-8), destroyed crops (v. 9), allowed defeat in war (v. 10), and arranged sudden calamities (v. 11 -- as was the case when he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah). Although the Israelites had gone through these devastating experiences, they had not returned to the Lord in repentance. One of those judgements should have been sufficient! Yet all of them had no effect on the Israelites. They were both blind and deaf to what was happening in God's providence.

Could things get worse? They were about to because God himself was going to judge them. He summons them to meet with him. Normally they would have been summoned to worship him, but now they are being summoned for a different reason. And when they meet with him they will experience the awesomeness of his power. After all, he is the One who controls creation (vv. 12-13). This was fulfilled when he arranged for them to be taken into exile.

This passage leads us to consider why God allows troubles to come. While we can never pronounce the reason for a particular situation, the passage reminds us that sometimes God sends trouble in order for his people to turn away from a sinful path. Of course, difficulties also come into the lives of those who are faithful to him. So wisdom is needed to discern why they are allowed by God. After all, we have to be mindful of the fact that we should be preparing for meeting with God one day, and heeding providence is part of that preparation.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Forget God and what happens? (Amos 3:9-4:3)

In this section of his book Amos relates the message given to him by the Lord regarding what he would do about the sins of his people. The first detail may surprise us -- the Lord calls for two pagan groups, one from the Philistia and one from Egypt, to witness the sinful practices of his people (3:9). This invitation may have been a rhetorical one used by the prophet to inform his hearers that their practices were worse than what those foreigners would have seen in their own countries.

Amos informs the Israelites that they will be defeated by a foreign army. This scenario seemed unlikely at the time because Israel was then a dominant military power. Yet the scale of the defeat would be extensive -- all that would be left of Israel is likened to a sheep that had been mauled by a wild animal (v. 12).

Why would this happen? Amos mentions the reasons in the next verses. Israel had been guilty of idolatry (v. 14) and luxurious living (v. 15). In particular, he is addressing the ruling classes here and also adds that they were guilty of oppressing the poor (4:1). Their fortresses would not prevent them going into captivity (4:2-3), led in chains by hooks on their noses. 

The people of Israel had forgotten their God and instead participated in idolatry. Forgetting God soon led them to forget their relationship to one another. Instead of showing brotherly love they practised the opposite. Those who had plenty trampled on those who had little. 

Here is a reminder that ongoing brotherly love depends on an ongoing relationship with God. If our relationship with God cools or ceases, so will our relationship with one another. Instead of a church being a family, it can become the opposite, and when that happens, what future can it have?

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Pain of a Faithful Servant (Amos 3:1-8)

Amos begins his sermon recorded in chapter 3 with a reminder that great privileges are accompanied with responsibilities and consequences that don’t belong to those who do not have the privileges.  The people of Israel had been redeemed from slavery in Egypt by the Lord – this was a unique blessing that he had only given to them. Moreover they had been brought into a rich relationship with him in the Promised Land (vv. 1-2).

Nevertheless they had turned away from their God, and because he still valued the relationship he would punish them for their sins. This is a reminder to us that sin by God’s people will not be ignored by him if they persist in practicing it. In verses 3-6, the Lord reminds his people, through a series of illustrations, that sin and chastisement go together in the lives of his people. If they commit sin, they will be punished.

Amos had the burden of being informed by God of his intentions (vv. 7-8). It was not easy for Amos to carry this task. He knew that he had to pass on the Lord’s message, even although it was one of threatened judgement. As far as he as a prophet was concerned, he had an inner compulsion to say what the Lord would do. This inner compulsion was an expression of love – love for his God and love for those whom his God was going to punish.

As the Lord’s servant, he wanted his God to be honoured, therefore he was determined to preach the strong message he had received. But he declared it with the hope that the people would listen and repent before it was too late. This is often the pain of faithfulness, found in a heart that loves God and his sinning people.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

God Judges His People as well (Amos 2)

The second chapter of Amos continues his prophetic denunciation of the nations surrounding Israel. Moab would be punished by God for its treatment of the body of the king of Edom. It was burned by the king of Moab, and in response the Lord would send an army against Moab that would destroy its strongholds and its ruling class and it would cease to exist as a nation.

The next nation that is rebuked by Amos is Judah, the country from which he came. It is important to note that a preacher cannot show favoritism to his own countrymen when God’s message has to be declared. Their sinfulness was different from the previous nations that he mentioned. To Judah had been given the law of God, but they had rejected it and practiced false religion instead (this may not have involved false gods; instead merely lukewarm participation in the right method may have been their practice). God’s punishment on Judah will be very similar to that which Moab would receive, except that no total destruction of Judah’s royal house is mentioned (after all, it would have to remain even in very diluted form in order for the Messiah to come from that royal line).

So far, the listeners of Amos in Israel would not have shown any negative response to what he had said about the fate of those other nations. After all, it is very easy to be self-righteous during a sermon that describes other people. But things would have changed after he started to detail the sins of Israel (vv. 6-8). The sins of Israel that are mentioned include selling the righteous into slavery, mistreatment of the poor, sexual immorality at the pagan shrines and drunkenness at their religious feasts. Or, in other words, opposition to God’s people, indifference to the poor and enjoyment of immorality. Those sins are not confined to ancient Israel.

Why did they engage in such practices? Because they had a bad memory (vv. 9-12). They had forgotten that it was the Lord who had defeated the previous inhabitants of the land and given it to them under Joshua; they had forgotten that it was the Lord who had defeated Egypt and delivered them from slavery there; and they had forgotten that the Lord had sent special messengers to them to call them back to him in repentance.

Therefore, Israel also would be punished with her neighbours (vv. 13-16). This would happen even although she had a powerful army. The message of Amos here is that greater privileges bring greater responsibility and greater judgements if the privileges are ignored. 

Friday, 26 April 2013

God, the Judge of Nations (Amos 1)

Who was Amos? No doubt, we will reply that he was a prophet whom the Lord used as his spokesman long ago to speak to his backsliding people. But what kind of background did this prophet have? Amos 1:1 tells us that he was one of the shepherds of Tekoa and in 7:14-15 he says that he was also a dresser of sycamore figs. So we can see that the Lord chose as his servant a man of humble background.

What task did the Lord have in mind for this servant with a lowly background? In the main, his ministry was to be among the people of the northern kingdom of Israel, although we can also see from the first two chapters that he was given messages from God about the surrounding nations. Amos himself was from the kingdom of Judah (Tekoa is located there), and since two centuries had passed since the kingdoms had divided from one another it means that he was called to serve in what would be, in many ways, a foreign country.

When did he deliver his prophetic messages? He did so during the reigns of Uzziah, the king of Judah, and Jeroboam II, the king of Israel. This could cover a period of over fifty years and it was marked by national prosperity and growth for the northern kingdom. An earthquake is mentioned in 1:1 and the verse says that Amos gave his first message two years before it happened. But no one knows when that earthquake occurred (although some archaeological evidence points to one having taken place about 760 BC).

What did he have to say about God? Throughout his book, he says a great deal about the Lord. But he begins in verse 2 by likening the Lord to a roaring lion about to seize its prey. Then the prey is detailed and we see that it is made up of the surrounding nations, each of which is promised divine punishment because of its sins. Syria (Damascus) will be punished with exile because of its cruelty in war (vv. 3-5). The Philistines (Gaza) will become extinct because they treated people cruelly (vv. 6-8) and Tyre would be destroyed for similar behaviour (vv. 9-10). Edom would be conquered because of their centuries-long hostility towards the people of Israel, a hostility made worse because they were related to one another (vv. 11-12). Ammon would go into exile because of their cruelty in war, particularly what they did to the pregnant women of Gilead (vv. 13-15). All of these nations had their prey, but their behaviour was preparing them to be the Lord’s prey.

These divine actions remind us that God is never indifferent to national sins of any country. He may seem for a while to be doing nothing, but eventually he will. In particular, he will judge those guilty of acts of cruelty against their fellowmen. Obviously we can see how such sins can occur in warfare, but there are also many other ways in which such cruelty can be practiced (slavery, racism, economic exploitation, denial of basic human rights are only some).

In Matthew 25, Jesus describes the future Day of Judgement in the parable of the sheep and the goats. On that august occasion, we will all hear the roar of the Lion. The behavior that he will be concerned with, as detailed in that passage, is how we related to other humans, particularly his people in need. Clearly, the message for his disciples from Amos 1 is that they should be compassionate and merciful and should never condone acts of cruelty on helpless people performed by nations for whatever reason.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Rejoicing in the LORD (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Habakkuk has been told by God that great trouble is coming. How should he think as he anticipates this great judgement of invasion and exile? We are probably astonished by what he says in verses 17-19. He begins by describing the worst possible situation, in which the whole country is completely ruined (v. 17). Should it happen, he will still rejoice in the Lord. He is not saying that the crisis will happen, but he does say what he will do should it happen. Why will he rejoice in the Lord?

The first point we can notice is how different Habakkuk’s response is from the response of some, both Christians and non-Christians, when they face trouble. Often when a difficult situation looms, their response is stoical, and they grit their teeth and prepare to force themselves through the difficulty. Others engage in pretence and shut their eyes to the problem, hoping that it will have gone away when they open them. Why do they respond in these ways? Because they are not trusting in God. Of course, every Christian will wonder if they too could respond the way Habakkuk did, so we need to ask why he did so.

First, Habakkuk will rejoice in the Lord because he is the Saviour of his people (v. 18). This divine role was made clear in what the Lord had done for Israel when he delivered them from Egypt (as described in the previous verses). Yet the prophet makes it more personal by calling it ‘my salvation’. Even although the nation would be in trouble as far as its circumstances were concerned, Habakkuk would not lose the salvation he had received from the Lord.

The prophet is telling us here that spiritual experiences are independent of circumstances. As far as society was concerned, the circumstances would remove all bases for joy because it was based on things. In contrast, losing temporal blessings does not mean that we as Christians will lose spiritual blessings. The psalmist says that he had more joy than those who had a bountiful harvest (Psalm 4:7) and here the prophet says he will have spiritual joy even if there is no harvest. It is a question worth asking ourselves, ‘Is my happiness connected to what I have or to the God who has saved me?’

Second, Habakkuk will rejoice because the sovereign God will strengthen him for every situation (v. 19). The difficult time is coming, but has not yet arrived. When the trouble comes, he knows that the Lord will strengthen him. The same power that brings the trouble can bring him joy. Earlier he had said that God’s great display of power at the Exodus had been only a hiding or veiling of his power (Hab. 3:4). Its greatness served to hide the fact that the Lord could have done far more. Often our problem is not the future, but our fear of the future. Well, Habakkuk gives us the remedy for that fear. The Lord’s strength will be there to give spiritual blessings to his people.

Third, Habakkuk knows that he will still be able to make great spiritual progress: ‘he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.’ He likens himself to a deer that walks sure-footedly along narrow paths on high hillsides which it can climb easily. Times of difficulty should be expectant times when we should anticipate the Lord showing his grace to those who need to walk carefully because of their situations. They will discover that the Lord has his own recompenses when his providence causes them to live in difficult times.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Recalling the Lord’s presence (Habakkuk 3:3-16)

In these verses Habakkuk describes a theophany, a visit from God. The scene is what took place on Mount Sinai when God gave the law to his people. He was able to find his people in the desert (this is the significance of him being described as coming from Teman and Mount Paran (v. 3a) – Habakkuk is not suggesting that God lived in those places).

It was an awesome occasion, likened to a sunrise, perhaps with lightning (vv. 3b-4). The Lord was on a march against the foes of his people and his weapons were pestilence and plague against their enemies (v. 5), as the Egyptians had experienced. Such was his might, it moved the mountains and hills (v. 6) and even powerful tribes were afraid (v. 7). God came like a warrior (note the mention of his chariot in verse 8 and his bow and arrows in verses 9 and 11).

The effect on the natural creation was immense (the rivers and seas were in ferment in verse 8, the mountains, sea and heavenly bodies were affected). Yet his battle was not with the created order, but with those who opposed his people (vv. 12-15, perhaps descriptive of the Egyptian army being destroyed in the Red Sea and the occasion when the sun and moon stood still during Joshua’s campaign).

Why is Habakkuk rehearsing what happened to Israel at the beginning of their history? One answer is that he is reminding himself of what God could do. Another answer is that in prayer he is reminding the Lord of what he did on previous occasions when his people needed him. And he is praying that the Lord should come and deliver his people and destroy their enemies. In doing so he found confidence for the future because he knew he could ‘quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us’. The Babylonians would yet be dealt with by God in his time.

As he thought of the great deeds of the Lord in the past, Habakkuk was overwhelmed by the might of the Lord. He found himself like Isaiah when he saw the greatness of God (Isa. 6). The prophet was moved to the depth of his being as he contemplated what God had done and what God could do. Greatness made him shudder, even when it was the greatness of grace. 

The obvious lesson for us is to discover and memorise the details of the ways God has worked in the past. We have the records of such divine activities in the Bible and we also have them in the records of church history. Our fathers have told us of the great things God did in their times. When we read them and remember them, they become a great encouragement to our prayers.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Responding with prayer (Habakkuk 3)

Habakkuk’s response to the answer that the Lord gave him in chapter 2 about his concerns over divine providence was to pray for the spiritual recovery of his people. Habakkuk had heard the Lord’s voice and he felt compelled to pray. This is always the true response to having heard the Lord speak to us, whether we hear him in church or in our personal devotions. The immediate prayer does not have to be long, but it does have to be earnest. A failure to respond in this way reveals that we have not been listening to God.

This divine response caused Habakkuk to be afraid. He may have been afraid for personal reasons – after all, he did not know what would happen to himself when the Babylonians came. Or he may have been afraid of the consequences that the devastation would bring about and the huge restoration process that would be required once the period of the Lord’s judgement was over. The larger the devastation and the longer it would last, the greater would be the extent of recovery required. 

When will this mercy be available? The answer is in the phrase ‘the midst of the years’. Calvin suggested that it described the period between the promise to Abraham and the first coming of Jesus – after all, if the Lord did not show mercy, none of Abraham’s seed would be preserved, and if that happened it would mean that the Saviour would not be born. This idea suggests that it is appropriate to pray between two points, one that starts a period and one that closes it. If that suggestion is correct, then we can deduce that we can pray this prayer between the two points of Christ’s first and second comings. Nevertheless, the meaning may be a lot simpler. The prophet may merely be saying to God that in all that is going on in that period of time he should remember mercy.

We face a similar situation as Christ’s church today in Scotland. The contemporary equivalents of the Babylonians are already here and are engaged in the process of devastating God’s kingdom. They are not here because the church has been wonderful and needs to be distracted from its commitment to Christ’s cause. Instead they are here, we must admit, because the church has ceased to be what it should be – this decline began a long time ago. But there is little point in looking back and pointing at our predecessors. Instead we have to respond as Habakkuk did.

The prophet responded with fear and with prayer for divine mercy. As with Habakkuk, none of us knows how the current situation will affect us personally. In periods of trouble, some believers are not affected adversely as far as their personal circumstances are concerned whereas others pay a heavy price. 

And we should be filled with apprehension at the amount of spiritual recovery that will be required. Many have said that what we need is not another revival but another Reformation. They may be right. Revivals occurred in what could be loosely called Christian communities where there was already an existing measure of understanding of the Bible’s message and where cold orthodoxy of doctrine marked the church. We no longer have many such communities. Instead we have Bible ignorance and not even cold orthodoxy in most of our communities. So we will need another Reformation should God hear our prayers for recovery. 

In addition to such fear there must be longings for mercy. I suspect that is the big issue facing us today. How much do we really care? We can easily test our temperature by how often and how intensely we pray for the Lord to show mercy to our contemporaries. 

Monday, 22 April 2013

Habakkuk's Concern is Answered (Habakkuk 2)

What have God's predictions in this chapter to do with Habakkuk’s concern about the intention of God to use an evil power to chastise his people? Several answers are given here to the prophet’s question.

The first is that God will punish Babylon for its worldview, even if he allows that Babylonian worldview to affect his people in an adverse way for a time. That worldview was concerned about worldwide domination of its ideas, and Judah along with others suffered under its rule. Any enemy of God’s people always has a worldview which is very different from God’s requirements.

The second is that God uses the current worldview to chastise his church and hopefully bring it to a situation in which it will repent of its sin. This is obvious; although God had used the Assyrian empire to punish Israel several decades previously, he could not now use the Assyrian empire to punish Judah because the Assyrian empire had been conquered by Babylon and was no longer in existence. When I was converted in the early 1970s, the big enemy of the Christian church was communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. There were numerous books and tapes dealing with how it would overrun the world. The church did suffer badly under communism in Eastern Europe, but today in the main the big threat to the church is not communism, although it is in some parts of the world. But we have other threats which have replaced it and which may be more powerful and more lethal. Only time will tell.

The third is that the church will survive under God’s chastisement. Would it have been better for Judah if God had just left them alone? The answer is no, because they would still have been conquered by Babylon as the rest of the area was. It is better to be conquered because of divine chastisement than to be merely allowed to be conquered in God’s general providence for one’s sin. Because the Lord was engaged in chastisement, it was a reminder of his faithful commitment to his people, and they could deduce from it that he would restore them eventually.

A fourth lesson is that political changes are often connected to God’s purpose for his church. Babylon was raised up by him to chastise his people and then Cyrus of Persia was raised up by him to set his people free. Both Babylon and Persia did many other things, but they are remembered in God’s Word for their contact, for good or ill, with God’s kingdom. The fact that the Lord can use even his enemies for the good of his kingdom should be a great comfort. After all, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:22, Jesus is head over all things for the benefit of the church.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Lord's Answer (Habakkuk 2)

Eventually the Lord appears to Habakkuk and commands his servant to write the divine answer on a tablet (v. 2). There seems to be a reminder in this method of how God gave his law and other matters to Israel centuries before at Mount Sinai, which would be a reminder that the Lord had not changed the righteous requirements he delivered to his people when he made a covenant with them.

Habakkuk was to write it clearly so that a messenger, who was assigned to go somewhere with the message, would not have to stop and study it because it was difficult to decipher. I suppose we have here an illustration of how careful the Lord’s servants should be in making clear what the Lord has said. The answer that Habakkuk would receive was not designed only for his personal benefit, but was also intended for the benefit of other believers.

The message states several important doctrines which the Lord wanted his servant to absorb and then pass on to others. Here are two such doctrines. First, Habakkuk receives a reminder about the sovereignty of God. There is an appointed time (v. 3), even if its fulfilment seems slow. If the Lord is referring to the appointed time of Babylon, then the fulfilment would not occur until the end of the seventy years’ captivity in Babylon. Nevertheless the Lord’s timing would be followed, no matter what the plans of the Babylonian rulers were.

Second, Habakkuk is reminded about the Lord’s knowledge of the heart of his enemy. God is fully aware that the soul of the Babylonian leader is proud and sinful, and that he is marked by unrighteousness (v. 4). Later in the chapter God will spell out his knowledge of the Babylonian leader to Habakkuk. At least, this means that God’s intention to use Nebuchadnezzar was not based on ignorance of his character.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The prophet’s anticipation (Hab. 2)

The second chapter of Habakkuk opens with the prophet waiting for information from the Lord about his plans for his people. So Habakkuk located himself in a place where the Lord could speak to him. This was a very wise decision because if we want to hear from God it is usually very difficult to do so in the middle of bustle and noise. The voice of God can be drowned out by the noise of other things. There are times when it is appropriate to be alone with God, but we have to take steps to ensure that nothing will interrupt the occasion.

There are two lessons for us from the way the prophet responds to the Lord’s word. First, when we have a similar problem as Habakkuk had, we can turn to his experience and see the answer that the Lord gave him, and it is quite a lengthy explanation. Yet it contains permanent principles that we can apply to our own troubling circumstances. That is one reason why such passages are recorded in the Bible. So if we have a problem understanding how the Lord can use sinful people like the Babylonians in working out his purpose we can turn to what God told Habakkuk when they were alone together.

The second lesson concerns how we should respond to the Lord’s providential dealings. Habakkuk expected the Lord to come in a theophany (a common Old Testament appearance of God humbling himself and temporarily taking on a form by which humans could speak to him in a personal manner), and indeed he appears in such a way in chapter three. 

This expectation reveals that Habakkuk anticipated that the Lord would show his grace by stooping so low as to speak with him and explain what was happening. No matter how majestic the theophany might be in comparison to an earthly majesty, it was still an expression of the Lord humbling himself in order to appear in a form through which he and his servant could interact with one another.

Of course, we live in days when the Lord no longer has to use theophanies and other temporary means in order to communicate with his people. Because of the incarnation of Jesus we know that the Second Person of the Trinity has taken into union with himself a human nature and he and us can have communion by the Holy Spirit, and also through him we can have communion with the Father. Yet we should have the same degree of desire for communion with God through Jesus that Habakkuk had to meet with God in a temporary form. 

Yet although it would be a gracious visit from God, at the same Habakkuk knows he will have to respond to what the Lord says to him. God will come to him as the Explainer, which is grace in action, but he will also come to deal as the Judge of Habakkuk because of the ferocity of his complaint. We are familiar that the Lord will come to us as the Searcher of hearts, and we should welcome his probing because it will be for our spiritual good.

Are we are willing to have God deal with us in both ways? I am sure we would all like God to explain to us what he is doing, but would we like him to give his assessment of what we have said or done? Whether we like it or not, he usually does both. He does not do so through a theophany anymore. Instead he speaks through his Word. In it we will discover both explanations and corrections. Both are blessings from heaven.