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.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Samuel, an elderly leader (1 Samuel 8)

In this chapter Samuel is probably about seventy years of age. Nevertheless God has important roles for him yet in the future, including the anointing of King Saul and King David. So he is not going off the stage. What does the chapter tell us about Samuel? Here are a couple of suggestions, and we will think of some more tomorrow.

We get an insight into the spirituality of Samuel when we consider the names of his sons. Names had significance at that time and it is reasonable to assume that the ones Samuel chose would be expressions of his faith as well as indications of his hopes for his sons. Joel means ‘Yahweh is my God’ and is an affirmation that Samuel worshipped the God that had revealed himself has being in covenant with Israel and shown his commitment by redeeming them from slavery. Abiah means ‘My father is Yahweh’ and indicates that Samuel understood to some degree the relationship of being a child of God. Samuel saw himself as being both a servant of God and a son of God. The fact that his sons were a disappointment to him does not detract from his spirituality. 

The chapter also indicates that old leaders, who have been used by God throughout their lives, can make foolish decisions. Samuel made such a choice when he selected his ungodly sons as judges. It is hard not to see here a similar situation to that of Eli, except in Samuel’s case he chose his sons whereas Eli’s sons were in an hereditary office. 

To be fair to Samuel the text does suggest that the evil nature of his sons only showed itself after they had been given a position of power. So he may not have known their true character until it was too late. Nevertheless he could have deposed them. The main problem with Samuel’s action is that he had no divine authority for what he did. At best his action was a case of human wisdom. This kind of action is always a danger to those who lead God’s people, to try and solve a situation by common sense rather than limiting themselves to the instructions God has given. 

This decision that Samuel made had long-term consequences. While the sins of others in attempting to resolve the situation are not excusable, it is the case that they would not have happened if Samuel had not made a foolish decision.  His choice of his sons as judges led in one way to the people wanting a king.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Incentives to repentance (1 Samuel 7)

We have read this chapter now for four days and observed the importance of repentance. As we leave this chapter I would mention three incentives to repentance.

The first is the purity of God. We remember the response of Isaiah when he had his vision of the Lord high and lifted up (Isa. 6). He said that he was a man of unclean lips and that he lived among a people of unclean lips. It was when he realised this that the Lord was able to use him. 

A second incentive to repentance is the power of God. I don’t mean by this his power to crush us (that is the danger that impenitent people face). Rather it is his power at work on our behalf. Remember the response of Peter after he had witnessed the miraculous catch of fish. He fell at Jesus’ feet and said, ‘Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ It was when he said these words that Jesus promised to use Peter as a servant: ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men’ (Luke 5:8-10). 

The third incentive is the promises of God to penitent people. There is the great promise made to Israel in Deuteronomy 30:1-3: ‘And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.’  And there are many more such promises. 

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Evidences of true repentance (1 Samuel 7)

In this incident ay Mizpah we see several indications of true repentance. The first evidence is that the enemy is riled by such sorrow for sin. When the Philistines heard what Israel was doing, they attacked. The Philistines had been allowed by God to dominate the lives of the Israelites because they had departed from him. I am not saying that the Philistines understood the nature of true repentance but their master, the devil, did and he was determined to stop it. Similarly, when a church or community repents, the devil launches all kinds of attacks in order to prevent the repentance continuing. 

The second evidence of true repentance is the lack of self-confidence in the Israelites. They heard that the enemy was attacking, but unlike the previous generation who had marched confidently to battle with the Philistines, the penitent Israelites expressed their weakness. 

A third evidence of true repentance was the Israelites’ realisation of the necessity of prayer. They called on Samuel as their judge to lead in prayer. Samuel, in addition to praying, offered a lamb as a burnt offering. The burnt offering was a sacrifice of atonement that indicated total dedication to the Lord. Biblical prayer is often the cry of a people who are desperate and have realised that divine mercy is their only help.  

A fourth evidence of true repentance is recollection of the Lord’s goodness, seen here in raising an Ebenezer stone. They recall not merely their own personal experiences but join with all that God has done for his people so far. 

The fifth evidence is restoration of territory, of reclamation of ground that had been lost due to their sins. There is a wonderful description of the benefits of repentance in Joel 2. When God’s people repent of their sins, he ‘will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you. And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you: and my people shall never be ashamed. And ye shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God, and none else: and my people shall never be ashamed’ (vv. 25-27).  

Friday, 27 June 2014

Repenting at Mizpah (1 Samuel 7)

With personal repentance having taken place on a national scale, it was now possible to have corporate repentance. So Samuel arranged for the nation to gather at one of his regular meeting places, Mizpah. When they met they did three things: they used a symbolic action, they denied themselves a legitimate function, and they articulated a common confession.  

The symbolic action was drawing water and pouring it before the Lord, which signified their desire for cleansing. The point of such an action was to help them remember what it was they were doing. This is the easiest and least important aspect of the communal repentance because it could be done without much pain or trouble, and it is only of value if the other features are also included. 

The legitimate desire they did without was eating food. They realised that satisfying physical needs had to take second place to satisfying spiritual needs. The practice of fasting is one that the Bible mentions often, indeed Jesus took it for granted that his people would fast, yet no specific guidance is given regarding how long a fast should be. 

The common confession was straightforward and simple: ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ The particular name of God that they used signifies his unique relationship with Israel. It is the divine name that indicated his unchanging commitment to his people. They had rebelled against the One that had done them so much good.  

There are three kinds of repentance. There is natural repentance, which occurs when a person realises he has done something wrong, an inappropriate action. Legal repentance is what occurs in a person who is convinced by the law of God that he has done wrong but who still loves the sin; he is afraid of God’s punishment but does not desire a change of heart. Evangelical repentance is the response to God’s offer of pardon and is marked by a hatred of sin, a self-humbling because of it, and a longing to be free of it. 

It is also important to note that repentance is not the cause but only the condition of Yahweh’s deliverance. Repentance is not a religious twisting of the divine arm; rather it is the state of soul that God wants to see before he will bless us. 

Repentance of sin is particular. The one specific sin that was mentioned in the text was compromise, but its tentacles would have affected many areas of life. In one sense it was an outward activity, but in another sense it showed the sad state of their hearts. It was not enough that they get rid of their idols; they had to get their hearts sorted out.  

John Bradford, an English Reformer who was burned at the stake, used to write in a notebook the sins of which he was guilty each day so that he would repent of them (in his notebook he also wrote down the commendable traits he saw in others and that he thought were lacking in himself). As I read about his practice I realised that one hour of my life would fill several notebooks. But having said that, Bradford took an action that helped him deal with his personal sins. 

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Path of Recovery (1 Samuel 7)

At the end of the previous chapter the ark of the covenant was returned to Israel. For twenty years the ark was located at Kiriath-jearim. It is not clear if the people were seeking the Lord for these twenty years or whether it took these twenty years for the people to seek the Lord.  

In the chapter we are introduced again to Samuel. Throughout these years he has been active. Verses 15–17 describe his regular activities. He travelled the country preaching to the people at strategic locations. His message is summarised in verse 3:  ‘If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.’ 

Samuel’s strategy is clear: there had to be personal repentance before there could be corporate repentance. His message is a call to wholehearted commitment to the Lord. 

For this to happen, there has to be a renunciation of worldly behaviour. The sin of which Israel was guilty was not open rejection of the Lord. Rather what they did was to mix the worship of Yahweh with the worship of the pagan tribes around them. They had been guilty of compromise. If they wanted to know divine blessing they would have to repent of their action. Repentance is more than sorrow for having done wrong; it also includes change of direction. The change required of them was total dedication to the Lord. They listened eventually to the preaching of Samuel: ‘So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only.’ 

It is not clear how long this process took. This is a reminder that in looking for restoration we have to be patient. God will not move until the situation is changed, and the situation for which he is waiting is the repentance of each believer. I wonder who was the last person to repent in Israel at this time, and what was the time-gap between that person and the first one to repent. As we apply this to ourselves, each of us knows the necessity of repenting from our compromises with sin before restoration will come. The longer we resist repenting the longer the blessing will stay away. How many unrepentant members does it take to prevent the Lord’s blessing? The answer is one. 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Signs of hope from a disaster (1 Samuel 6)

What happened at Beth-shemish was tragic. Nevertheless we should not regard what happened in a totally negative way. One obvious factor of the return of the ark to Israel was that it indicated that God was once more present with his people, that the blessings which it signified, of rule, reconciliation and revelation, were once more available to them. This was a new beginning. God was returning to his people. 

A second sign of hope is this: the Philistines could not endure the presence of a God of judgment and they got rid of him. It was different with Israel: they were beginning to learn that it is better for them to have God present in his holiness than for him to be absent from them. Jesus told one of the seven churches, ‘As many as I love I rebuke and chasten.’ This is a key difference between the way the Lord works with the world and with his people.   

A further sign of hope is the importance of repentance and self-humbling at the actions of the Lord. The men of Beth-shemesh did not rebel against the judgment of the Lord, instead they humbled themselves under the mighty hand of God. This was how it should have been. They acknowledged his sovereignty and they showed their repentance by attempting to rectify the situation and find a suitable location for the ark. 

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

God and the Israelites (1 Samuel 5–6)

The story here informs us of the independence of God, in the sense that he does not need his people to help him. Israel had not been able to defeat the Philistines, and perhaps they imagined that Yahweh had also been defeated. As we saw earlier, Yahweh had defeated the pagan god Dagon in the very place where his power was assumed to be greatest.  

Having said that God does not need us, I would stress that this does not mean God does not want to use us. The reality is that he does want to use his people. 

A second lesson from the story is that God’s people should rejoice when he gives a measure of spiritual restoration. When the men of Beth-shemesh saw the ark returning they rejoiced. Here was a sign of the Lord returning to bless them. Beth-shemesh was one of the cities allotted to the Levites (Josh. 21:16), and the inhabitants should have known how to take care of the ark, so its return there is another reminder of God’s gracious working in providence. In his mercy he returned the ark to the tribe that he had designated to look after it. 

A third lesson that we see here is that God deals with his people in a more severe manner than he does the world. Instead of looking after the ark they committed the sin of sacrilege. It is not clear what the precise figure who died were. Most manuscripts say it was seventy persons; others say that that the 50,000 refers to the men who died in the battle with the Philistines and so added with the seventy gives the total number who died in that period. In any case, here we have a reminder that the mere presence of the signs of God’s commitment to his people is not an indication that he will tolerate improper responses from them.

Of what sins were these Israelites guilty, bearing in mind that they were probably Levites or priests? The first sin was that they disobeyed clear biblical teaching that no-one was to look into the ark; perhaps their looking arose out of a concern to check whether or not the tablets and the other items were still in the ark, or perhaps it was mere curiosity. Whatever the reason, their action was wrong.

A second sin was despising the symbol of God’s presence; when they lifted the lid of the ark they were holding in their hands the symbol of his power. A similar situation would occur if a person was to grab the Queen’s sceptre and throw it about; the seriousness is not in the metal of what the symbol is made, but what it represents.  

If these men were the religious leaders, then it is a reminder to church leaders today that what is required from them is faithfulness to God’s word. They have to treat the things of God as if they were handling God himself. When they read his word they are listening to God; how they handle the signs of God’s presence indicates what they think of God.  

But the lesson is not limited to church leaders, for it applies to all the Lord’s people. Our God is a consuming fire and he demands holiness and obedience from us.   

Monday, 23 June 2014

God and the Philistines (1 Samuel 5-6)

The Philistines placed the ark in the temple of Dagon, perhaps because they were showing contempt for the god of a defeated foe, but more likely because they wanted to add its power the power of their god and so become a more powerful people – this was a common practice in the middle east at that time. But they learned that the true God will not share his glory with another.

This is a lesson that needs to learned repeatedly. One obvious application is the modern practice of inter-faith activities. What the Philistines were trying to do, when they placed the ark in their temple, was to join the power of Yahweh and the power of Dagon together. For example, today it is common to say since Christians, Jews and Moslems worship only one God they can worship together. But that is an insult to the glory of the living God. 

Seeing evidence of the Lord’s power does not bring about a change of heart. In chapter 4 the author records the awareness the Philistines had of God’s mighty acts in the past and of how that knowledge had not caused them to worship him; the same knowledge is mentioned in 6:6, again with no signs of true worship. Here are three examples of their attitude.  

First, when the Philistine priests saw Dagon’s head and hands cut off from this stump, they would have realised the significance, because this was the way a triumphant army treated its enemies. What had happened in the Philistine temple was a complete victory for Yahweh. Yet, in chapter 5:5, when Dagon falls on the ground, the consequence is that the Philistines make a ruling that no-one should ever stand on that spot. The location of the defeat of their idol becomes a place of significance to them. 

Second, when one city cannot cope with the consequences of the presence of the ark, they send it to another city, no doubt hoping that the next city would find the means of preventing the troubles recurring. This is a joint-activity to find a way to neutralise the power of God, but there is no sense of acknowledging his supreme authority. 

Third, eventually they realise that they cannot defeat him, so they decide to send the ark back to Israel. When their plan to return the ark works, they are merely glad to be free of the Lord and his judgment, but they show no interest in God’s mercy. No doubt the priests of the Philistines were praised for their astuteness in getting rid of God. 

The actions of the Philistines here is an example of Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:18ff regarding how sinners, despite knowing the truth of God’s power, persist in their rejection of him. Knowledge, even of God, by itself does not lead to repentance.  

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Learning from Defeat (1 Samuel 4)

There are five lessons that we can learn from the account of the defeat of Israel by the Philistines. First, God is prepared to let his people be defeated if their relationship with him is not right. One of the helpful sections of Scripture in this regard are the warnings the Saviour gives to the seven churches of Asia. With five of these churches he finds fault, and with two of the five we would have been pleased, those in Ephesus and Sardis. Ephesus was doctrinally orthodox, purged out heresies, while Sardis had a name that she was alive. Yet Jesus was prepared to let them go out of existence if they did not repent of their sins of lovelessness and hypocrisy. 

Second, God is prepared to allow his name to be humiliated if the relationship with his people in a given place is not right. There was great celebration in the Philistine camp, although we know their celebrations were short-lived. But the point I am making is that God was prepared to give both his people and their enemy the illusion that he had been defeated. This has happened repeatedly throughout church history. 

Third, the action of the Israelites removed the fear the pagans had of the God of history. At first, the Philistines were apprehensive of taking on in battle the assumed presence of such a God who had done great things in the past. But when they discovered that the presence of the ark added nothing to Israel, they concluded they had nothing to fear. Is it the case that the church’s response of recent decades, whether it be tradition, superstition or innovation, which has achieved almost nothing, has caused society to lose its fear of God. A church in a wrong relationship with God is not an army to be feared by either the devil or the world. 

Fourth, when this type of thing happens, we are not to assume that God is doing nothing, for he is present but acting in judgement. In this situation, he fulfilled his own word about the house of Eli. Yet even the way Eli died, and the concern expressed by his daughter-in-law, as well as the general concern of the people, suggests that some of the people had begun to realise that there was a problem. It may be, that in the current weakness of the church, the Lord is removing outdated ideas, superstitious notions and irrelevant innovations to bring about a church that repents of her wrong relationship with her Lord, and hopefully there are some with the eyes to see this and examine their relationship with Jesus.

Fifth, God must withdraw himself from his people in order for them to turn and seek him. When they realise he is not there, then they become serious about their devotion and commitment. This is anticipating a future event at Mizpah, where what was needed was self-humbling, confession of sin and rededication to him.