Weird Bible Stories, Part 6

Time. It’s the one thing we all have; it’s the one thing we all take for granted. We waste it, yet we wish we had more of it. Sometimes, time drags on and on, but other times it flies. Time. We’ll all get to the day when we’ll do anything for just a little bit more of it. Which is sad, because so many of us spend our time killing it. As Thoreau wrote,

As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.

I dare say there many of us who, probably in our youth, did much injury to eternity as we frittered away the hours, killing each moment not realizing there would come a day when we’d be desperate to get them back. But, alas, once you use up an hour, you can’t get it back. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t get more than 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day. Or can you? Once upon a time, there was a man who managed to make time stand still. It’s never happened again, but it did happen once. And that’s our weird Bible story: Joshua’s long day.

It all began with a political coalition of five kings, allied against God’s people. You just know things will end badly for those five kings; going against God’s people is never a good idea, but that never stops some people from trying.

A peace treaty leads to war

If you know your Hebrew history, you know that by Joshua 10, the Israelites had finally begun to take the Promised Land, as per the Lord’s instructions. Their 40 years of wandering around the desert was over, and under Joshua’s able leadership, the land promised to them centuries before was theirs for the taking. But nobody said it would be easy! You probably noticed this in your life: Serving Him isn’t all sunshine and roses. Being obedient to the Lord’s will isn’t always easy, not because His will is all that difficult, but because those around you won’t always like the direction your life will take. Often, though not always, following God’s will can take you away from the will of others.

God was fighting for Israel as she pressed into Canaan, so all they had was success. Of course, this scared the local kings, who were afraid of losing their kingdoms to Israel. One of those frightened kings was the king of Jerusalem. Interestingly enough, this is the first time we read of Jerusalem in the Bible. His name was Adoni-Zedek, a name that means, “the Lord of righteousness.” His kingdom, Jerusalem, was formerly known as “Jebus” because it was where all the Jebusites lived. Of the Jebusites, this was said:

This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites. (Joshua 3:10 | TNIV)

Israel was doing just that, and they were closing in on the Jubusites.

Now Adoni-Zedek king of Jerusalem heard that Joshua had taken Ai and totally destroyed it, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and that the people of Gibeon had made a treaty of peace with Israel and had become their allies. (Joshua 10:1 | TNIV)

It was that peace treaty with Gibeon that caused Adoni-Zedek to create the five-kingdom alliance to stop Israel.

The Gibeonites then sent word to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal: “Do not abandon your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us! Help us, because all the Amorite kings from the hill country have joined forces against us.”. (Joshua 10:6 | TNIV)

Gibeon was a huge city, although it didn’t have a king. The fact that this large city-state would defect and join Israel would send signals to other city-states that the only way to survive Israel’s invasion would be to join them. This was what terrified Adoni-Zedek, who quickly created a powerful alliance that, as far as he was concerned, would stop Israel in its tracks. He reasoned that punishing Gibeon would stop others from signing peace treaties with Israel.

The Gibeonites then sent word to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal: “Do not abandon your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us! Help us, because all the Amorite kings from the hill country have joined forces against us.”. (Joshua 10:6 | TNIV)

Looking at the Gibeonite situation, Christians can learn a some lessons. First, when people identify themselves with God (or even God’s people), opposition arises. Our Lord understood this:

Everyone will hate you because of me, but those who stand firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:22 | TNIV)

The second thing we can learn from these Gibeonites was how they confronted this potentially devastating situation. In fact, they did three brilliant things:

• They unashamedly cried out to God’s people for help. All their other friends had turned against them.
• They showed that they had a very simple faith in God as One who had greater power than all the kings of the Amorites that dwell in the mountains. This simple faith was based upon the reports they had received of God’s miraculous work on behalf of Israel.
• And finally, they accepted the ready response to their need. From Gilgal came Joshua and all the people of war with him, and the Gibeonites discovered that identification with God’s people may lead to problems, but being on God’s side was much better than they ever thought possible.

The long day

Even as Joshua prepared to fight for the Gibeonites, the Lord reassured him of certain victory:

The Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them; I have given them into your hand. Not one of them will be able to withstand you.”. (Joshua 10:8 | TNIV)

That’s not a new promise from God; He had reminded Joshua many times not to be afraid, that victory was guaranteed. But there are two sentences in verse 8 and we’d better read that second one and talk about it. Yes, Joshua had been commanded by God to “not be afraid of them.” The “them,” of course, refers to the five-king confederacy and their combined military might. Any sane man would be fearful facing that, but the man who trusts in God is the most sane man. But it’s that second sentences that gives pause: “Not one of them will be able to withstand you.” In other words, victory was assured but Joshua and his army would have work to do; God’s people would have to do their part.

Many of God’s promises are just like that. God promises to do such and such for us, but we have to put forth a good-faith effort and the blessing comes as God takes our – sometimes – pathetic attempts and makes them more than adequate to the situation. Of course, salvation isn’t like that. We have no “part to play” in God saving us. But once we are part of His family, we have responsibilities; God won’t do everything for us.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands. (Psalm 90:17 | TNIV)

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God…. (Deuteronomy 28:1, 2 | TNIV)

Deuteronomy 28 was written specifically for the Jews, but the precedent is there for all believers. Accepting Christ as your Savior is obeying God, and therefore you qualify to have God’s blessings “come on you.” That English phrase comes from a Hebrew phrase meaning, “over power,” giving us a picture of two people running. “Over power” means that the person behind you is coming after you with greater speed and will soon pass you. God’s word is clear! As you journey through life, living in obedience to God and His will, there are blessings running after you and eventually you will be literally overwhelmed by those blessings! These are supernatural blessings. They are moving at a higher rate of speed than you are, and they are targeted especially for you. But the conditions have to be right. You have to do your part, just like Joshua did his.

So Joshua marched up from Gilgal with his entire army, including all the best fighting men. The Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them; I have given them into your hand. Not one of them will be able to withstand you.” After an all-night march from Gilgal, Joshua took them by surprise. (Joshua 10:7 – 9 | TNIV)

That was what Joshua and his men had to do: Show up, ready to fight. It wasn’t easy, marching all the way from Gilgal to Gibeon. It was a long trip and they had to carry all their weapons of war. “Doing their part” wasn’t easy. But if God’s people wanted victory, they had to.

Verses 10 and 11 are the result of what Joshua did in verses 12 and 13:

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon. ” So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. (Joshua 10:12, 13 | TNIV)

Many pages in many Bible commentaries are devoted to trying to explain how the sun could stand still. Did it really? Did the earth stand still, too? Did God halt the entire universe for the sake of His people? Verses 10 and 11 recount the results of Joshua’s prayer; the result of the sun standing still:

The Lord threw them into confusion before Israel, so Joshua and the Israelites defeated them completely at Gibeon. Israel pursued them along the road going up to Beth Horon and cut them down all the way to Azekah and Makkedah. As they fled before Israel on the road down from Beth Horon to Azekah, the Lord hurled large hailstones down on them, and more of them died from the hail than were killed by the swords of the Israelites. (Joshua 10:10, 11 | TNIV)

“Joshua’s long day” is not easily explained scientifically. And this causes skeptics to mock and make fun of what they believe to be a fantasy. The fact is,  nobody can prove that the sun stood still. Then again, nobody can prove that love exists, either. How do you know when somebody loves you? You just know. You can’t see the love that exists between a mother her and children, but nobody doubts that it exists. And only a fool would question “Joshua’s long day.”

We must all realize that He who made the laws of nature has a right to use them. He who used hailstones as weapons of mass destruction against the enemies of His people can certainly use light and darkness to accomplish His purpose. God’s sovereignty over nature enables Him to support His spiritual kingdom by the use of the physical world. The Psalmist emphasized that the whole visible universe exists for spiritual ends.

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. (Psalm 19:1, 2 | TNIV)

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters. (Psalm 24:1, 2 | TNIV)

The uniqueness of a miracle

Verse 14 serves as a kind of commentary-summary of the whole story, and we can learn a lesson from what it says, too:

There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel! (Joshua 10:14 | TNIV)

Well, of course, the Lord listens to His people all the time. God answered Joshua’s prayer in spectacular fashion, and he became as much a leader of God’s people as was Moses. The Lord did fight for Israel, after Joshua asked Him to.

This miracle has never been repeated, which is why we call it a “miracle.”  A miracle by its very nature is rare. Verse 14 teaches us that God uses miracles carefully and with great reserve. He guards against man becoming dependent upon them. He insists that we depend upon Him, the miracle-working God himself, and not on the miracles themselves.

“Joshua’s long day” is a weird story that teaches Christians some very important lessons that get lost the more we try to rationalize a true miracle.

 

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Weird Bible Stories, Part 5

This weird Bible story is found in Genesis 38. It’s the whole chapter, and it is one weird story. Hollywood couldn’t do this story justice! It concerns some disreputable characters, immorality, deception, and all around nasty behavior. As a matter of fact, it sounds like what most of us are watching on Netflix these days. But it’s not on TV, it’s in the Bible, of all places, and it’s a weird story.

The story begins in this unassuming way:

At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. (Genesis 38:1 | TNIV)

An out-of-place chapter and people God uses

At first glance, Genesis 38 seems out of place. It literally interrupts the fascinating story of Joseph. Just when his story gets interesting, we’re confronted with chapter 38 and the sordid story of Judah, one of the brothers responsible for young Joseph ending up in an Egyptian prison.

That phrase, “at that time,” should prompt you to ask the question, “At what time?” The answer is back in chapter 37.

Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. (Genesis 37:36 | TNIV)

So the events of chapter 38 are taking place during the events of chapter 39 and onward; they are occurring during Joseph’s story. And that shows us the genius of the Bible. Here in chapter 38, we see just what kind of lowlife Judah was and in the very next chapter we see the amazing character of his brother, Joseph. We see Judah, the man who never got it right, compared and contrasted with Joseph, the man who always got it right. And it would be through Judah that the Messiah would come! The Lord’s choices are, many times, surprising. He frequently chooses to work through people you and I wouldn’t want anything to do with. Just a quick glance through a list of Bible characters reveals some very interesting facts about its “heroes of the faith.”

Noah. Here was man who was living during the most sinful period of earth’s history. With no Bible and no God-based religions, and no civil laws, human beings were living pretty much however they wanted. You can imagine how bad things were. But Noah is referred to as a “preacher of righteousness,” and he and his family were chosen to be the sole survivors of a world-wide judgement from God that effectively wiped out all human life. From them, the earth would be repopulated. Noah, however, was a drunkard.
Abraham. This man was already way past retirement age – and living at home with his father – when God called him to become “the father of many nations.” Abraham was a man with a backbone of jelly; he couldn’t make a decision to save his life. He was a liar and lived a life full of fear and apprehension.
Leah. Well, the Lord would use her to continue the family line, through which the Messiah would eventually come. She was so ugly, her father, Laban, had to trick Jacob into marrying her. Her name means, roughly, “wearied,” or “faint from sickness.”
Elijah. Here was one of the greatest prophets who ever lived. Many miracles accompanied his ministry, yet he was suicidal.
Rahab. Sure she saved the entire nation of Israel, but she was literally a lying prostitute.
Peter. One of our Lord’s “inner circle” and the man who preached a sermon that resulted in thousands of converts. We forget sometimes that he denied Jesus three times.
Saul, who would later become Paul. He was a towering figure in the early church. He founded many churches and his letters helped shape Christian theology. He was also the man whose zealous attitude resulted in the martyrdom of uncounted followers of Jesus Christ.

Yes, God chooses to use and work through the most unlikeliest of people. Judah was also an unlikely – some might say, reluctant – follower of God. Chapter 38 of Genesis is not his best moment, that’s for sure.

On the hunt

There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him. (Genesis 38:2 – 5 | TNIV)

Verse 2 adds to the stupid things Judah did during his life. While his brother, Joseph, is in Egypt, resisting the temptations of Potifer’s wife, going to prison for his trouble, yet remaining steadfast and true to God through it all, Judah takes for himself a Canaanite woman, which was completely against what God wanted. He had no business getting involved with any Canaanite, but especially a woman. Her name isn’t given, a further indication of God’s displeasure with the whole situation.

At any rate, Judah had three sons by this Canaanite woman: Er, Onan, and Shelah. For the first son, a woman named Tamar was acquired to become his wife. Er, however, was so bad that God took his life. We aren’t told what he did that got him in God’s crosshairs; his sins are irrelevant to the point of the passage. But what is relevant is Onan and his responsibility. This responsibility would later become part of the Law of Moses:

If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:5, 6 | TNIV)

The significance of continuing “the family name” isn’t a big deal anymore to most of us, but it was a huge deal in the Israel of Judah’s time. It was Onan’s sacred responsibility to make sure that Er – his sinful brother – was not forgotten in Israel by giving his widow a son. But the nut didn’t fall far from the tree, and because this arrangement didn’t benefit Onan in any way, he practiced an early form of birth control to make sure Tamar didn’t get pregnant.

But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so he put him to death also. (Genesis 38:9, 10 | TNIV)

The “wicked thing” that caused the Lord to take his life was not the birth control per se, it was shirking his family responsibility. It was Onan’s solemn duty to look after Tamar and to ensure that her family line continued. Without a son, Tamar would be less than nothing in that ancient culture.

We assume that Judah never knew why children had not been conceived, for only Tamar would have known the cause. As far as he was concerned, the problem must have been Tamar, and he refused to give her to his third son, the next in line.

Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s household. (Genesis 38:11 | TNIV)

Well, the years rolled by and Tamar remained a widow, living with her father, a disgrace in her time.

Deception

Obviously Judah, like Onan, was shirking his responsibility as far as Tamar was concerned. When his wife passed away, after a period of mourning, Judah attended a sheep-sheering festival.

When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,” she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.” “And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked. “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said. “Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked. He said, “What pledge should I give you?” “Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again. (Genesis 38:13 – 19 | TNIV)

Clearly, Tamar knew Judah very well. She knew that moral purity was not one of his virtues. And just as clearly, this wasn’t Judah’s first encounter with a prostitute. He knew exactly what to do. He handled the arrangements with all the savoir-faire of a worldly wise expert. Tamar was convinced that if she could only look like a prostitute, Judah would take things from there. And he did. He gave her tokens of good faith: a cord, a seal, and his staff. Judah negotiated terms that were acceptable to both of them. Not that Tamar had any interest in payment for her services, she was only interested in getting pregnant.

Well, the deed was done but when Judah’s servant went to find the prostitute to make good the payment, surprise, surprise! He couldn’t find her. In this verse, we get a further glimpse into the sketchy character of Judah:

So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’ ” (Genesis 38:22 | TNIV)

So, everybody assumed that Tamar was a “shrine” or temple prostitute. Judah, the man whom God chose to be the direct ancestor of His Son, was willing to not just avail himself of the services of a prostitute, but those of a pagan temple prostitute! His story gets worse all the time.

The jig is up

About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.” Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!” As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”

Wow! What a dramatic example of Numbers 32:

But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out.” (Numbers 32:23 | TNIV)

We also see the ancient double standard here. It was perfectly alright for Judah to have engaged the services of a temple prostitute but it was not alright for her to have become pregnant by one of her customers.

The jig was up. Tamar’s plan worked to perfection. And why wouldn’t it? She knew Judah’s weaknesses and she simply exploited them. His reaction, though, is priceless:

Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah. ” And he did not sleep with her again. (Gensis 38:24 – 26 | TNIV)

Through deception Tamar obtained a part in the blessing of the firstborn, but she also obtained that which Judah should have rightfully given. Shelah , the son of Judah, was of age, and Tamar should have been given to him for a wife. Thus, in the end, the continuation of the line of Judah was not due to the righteous actions of the Judah but rather lay in the hands of the “righteous” Tamar.

What do we Christians in the 21st century learn from this sordid mess?

The over-arching theme of this entire section of Genesis is divine providence. From chapter 37 to the end of the book, we see that God is at work bringing about His purposes through men and women who are actively pursuing sin. In chapters 37 and 39 and following, God is providentially at work to fulfill His promise to make the descendants of Jacob (Israel) a great and mighty nation in spite of the fact that these brothers seemed intent upon diminishing their numbers. In chapter 38 God is at work, providentially fulfilling His promise to provide a Messiah through the descendants of Judah.

All things being equal, God’s sovereign power and all-wise and loving purposes are accomplished through obedient servants. But all things are rarely equal, and when His people go their own way, God’s infinite power is channeled through unwilling, disobedient men and women, who, in spite of themselves, achieve God’s plans. They do this unknowingly and often unpleasantly.

Unfortunately, this great doctrine of God’s sovereignty is misunderstood by many Christians, who have been taught that God’s purposes can only be achieved if we are faithful and obedient. What could they possibly say about this chapter? And do you really believe that God’s purposes are contingent upon our commitment and consistency? God is not limited by our sinfulness.

In truth, the doctrine of the providence of God is one of the most profound and comforting truths in all of the Bible, because it teaches that what God says, He will do, even if I am trying my hardest to thwart Him.  Thank God that my salvation doesn’t depend on what I do or on my good intentions.  If that were the case, I’d be just another lost soul.  And thank God He is the One with the plan and the infinite resources to carry it out.

 

Weird Bible Stories, Part 4

The story of Balaam’s talking donkey is, I think, the weirdest story in the Bible. Mind you, if you can accept that a serpent spoke to Eve, I guess it isn’t a stretch to believe that a donkey spoke to Balaam. Here’s what happened:

Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times? ” Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now. ” The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” “No,” he said. (Numbers 22:28 – 30 | TNIV)

It was just an ordinary donkey that the Lord used to get the wayward prophet’s attention. God can do anything He wants to; He is God, after all. My father used to say that I was so stubborn God would have to use a two-by-four to get my attention. Thankfully that never happened to me, but the Lord did open the mouth of this animal and it spoke, which definitely got Balaa’s attention!

Setting the scene

The Israelites had all but completed their 40-year trek around the desert. You’ll recall that 40 years before, they had been about the enter the Promised Land when they rebelled against the Lord and He punished the nation by forcing them to turn around and begin a four decade sojourn through the desert until that sinful, rebellious generation died off. And here they are, about to go in and possess the Land God had given them.

But before they could do that, they had to get themselves ready. A new census had to be taken and Moses’ successor needed to be chosen. Other things needed to happen before God’s people could claim their promise of a new home, so here they sat.

Then the Israelites traveled to the plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho. (Numbers 22:1 | TNIV)

Much of what took place there is recorded in the first couple of chapters of Joshua and parts of the book of Deuteronomy. Even though God had given His people the land they were about to enter, it wouldn’t be a cake walk; they would face obstacles and difficulties. The modern Christian can well understand this. Coming to faith in Jesus Christ, with all of His power and promises available to him, certainly doesn’t eliminate all of life’s trials and problems! We wish it did, but the reality is sometimes life gets a little harder when after we confess our faith in Christ and start living for Him!

They waited and went about the business of preparing to enter the Land. Meanwhile, the people across the Jordan were very aware that the Israelites were about to make life very uncomfortable for them. In the famous story of Rahab and Hebrew spies, we learn that the citizens of Jericho were, in fact, quite terrified of the Hebrews.

We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. (Joshua 2:10, 11 | TNIV)

Imagine, if you can, an entire nation sitting on the border of your country, waiting to march in and take possession of it. You’b be scared too! And that’s the setting for the story of Balaam.

A prophet for hire

The first encounter

Now Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites. The Moabites said to the elders of Midian, “This horde is going to lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field. ” So Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor, who was at Pethor, near the Euphrates River, in his native land. Balak said: “A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” The elders of Moab and Midian left, taking with them the fee for divination. When they came to Balaam, they told him what Balak had said. (Numbers 22:2 – 7 | TNIV)

Balak was terrified of the Hebrews, so much so that he was sure no military in the Land could come against them. With no military solution at hand, he turned to the supernatural. In sending for a “seer,” Balak was doing what was very common in his day. The ancients believed in the power of the spoken word. He truly believed that if a seer like Balaam, who was the most powerful seer/prophet in the land, pronounced a curse on Israel, it would come to pass. Talk about misplaced faith!

Or was it? Balaam was pure pagan; he was not Israelite nor was he a man of God. And yet, he addressed the Lord properly and the Lord spoke to him. But make no mistake about it, Balaam was not a good prophet gone bad or bad prophet trying become good. He was a pagan, through and through. The Lord will speak through a donkey, and He’s about to speak to this pagan. This is one of the biggest lessons – and maybe one of the most difficult to grasp – of this weird story. Yet it serves to underscore the great doctrine of the sovereignty of God. He is God, and every living thing is His creation and He can do whatever He pleases with His creation.

Balaam was a “prophet-for-hire” in the ancient world. He made a living telling people what they wanted to hear. He looked at Yahweh as just another god; just another resource he could use to make a buck.

But this time, something went wrong. Balaam accepted payment to curse Israel, but God had other plans. He spoke to this man in no uncertain terms.

But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed. “. (Numbers 22:12 | TNIV)

So, he didn’t go with them back to Balak.

The second encounter

But King Balak was desperate, so he persisted.

But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God. Now spend the night here so that I can find out what else the Lord will tell me. ” That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”. (Numbers 22:18 – 20 | TNIV)

The first time Balaam did the right thing. But the second time, he ups the ante. He knows he’ll get paid more if he goes with these men back to king Balak, so instead of doing what he did the first time, he invites the men to stay the night so that he could ostensibly go and pray about it. He didn’t need to do that; the Lord had already told the prophet what to do and what not to do. So why is he going through the motions to seeking the Lord? Haven’t we all done exactly what Balaam did? We went to God, didn’t get the answer we wanted, so we kept going to back until we did? We might be able to excuse a pagan like Balaam of treating God like this, but we Christians should know better!

Then the Lord did a curious thing: He told Balaam to go back with the men; the exact opposite thing He had previously said. Why would God do that; why would God essentially go back on His word? Here we see an interesting thing: God is actually allowing a person to do something that person really wants to do, even though it’s not God’s will. He’ll do that sometimes, usually to teach that person a lesson or others a lesson. Some theologians call this “God’s permissive will,” in that He permits people to do things that may be outright sinful or things that are not really beneficial to them.

At any rate, the prophet Balaam goes back to king Balak, and it’s during the journey that Balaam has a most fascinating conversation with his donkey.

The best part of the story

The story of the talking ass is by far the best part of the Balaam’s story. And it’s a classic set-piece in which we have the Angel of the Lord, a blind seer who says what he wants, and donkey who can see the Angel and speaks at the Lord’s command! Balaam, an obviously intelligent man sees less than a dumb animal, who itself knows God is near while the human is utterly clueless.

Some readers stumble over a talking donkey, but the Lord, once again, permitted something to happen in order teach us a lesson. It’s not the Lord talking through the donkey, it’s the donkey saying the things a donkey in such a situation might say. As a matter of fact, the New Testament affirms that this incident really did happen, just as it is recorded here in Numbers.

But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—an animal without speech—who spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness. (2 Peter 2:16 | TNIV)

And you have to feel sorry for the poor donkey. She tried to protect her owner not once, not twice, but three times from the drawn sword of the Angel of the Lord, only to be beaten by her owner for her trouble. This really goes to show the sad character of Balaam, the supposed prophet. Here’s a man who “speaks for God,” yet treats one of God’s creatures in such a despicable way. This man is one messed up individual, and we see God going to extraordinary lengths to get his attention. If he’ll stop long enough to listen to an ass, maybe he’ll stop long enough to listen to God.

Peter mentions Balaam’s “wrongdoing.” What was his wrongdoing? We have a hint in the way The Living Bible paraphrases these verses:

So the next morning he saddled his donkey and started off with them. But God was angry about Balaam’s eager attitude, so he sent an Angel to stand in the road to kill him. As Balaam and two servants were riding along, Balaam’s donkey suddenly saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword. She bolted off the road into a field, but Balaam beat her back onto the road. (Numbers 22:21 – 23 | TLB)

Balaam’s “wrongdoing” was going to see Balak, but it started with his “eager attitude.” To discover what that was, we turn to a number of other New Testament verses. Peter cautioned against “the way of Balaam:”

They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness. (2 Peter 2:15 | TNIV)

Jude, in his one chapter letter, warned his readers about “the error of Balaam” –

Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion. (Jude, vs. 11 | TNIV)

And finally, John in Revelation, talks about “Balaam’s doctrine.”

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. (Revelation 2:14 | TNIV)

God evidently considers these warnings necessary and appropriate for Christians even today, and so He preserved them in His Word. “The way of Balaam” is simply greediness; a willingness to prostitute spiritual gifts and privileges for “the wages of wickedness” (II Peter 2:14). In other words, Balaam was more than willing to preach something contrary to God’s Word for his own personal gain.

“The error of Balaam” was evidently his willingness to compromise his own standards of morality and truth in order “greedily” to accommodate those of his pagan patrons (Jude 11). Balaam was willing to tell people what they wanted to hear, even though it went against what he knew to be true, and he was able to change his beliefs on a dime to match those of his employers.

Finally, “the doctrine of Balaam,” which even in John’s day was already infiltrating the church, was to use his own teaching authority to persuade God’s people that it was all right for them to compromise God’s standards of behavior, even “to commit fornication” (Revelation 2:14) with their idol-worshipping enemies.

This sad sack Balaam stands for all eternity as an example of a worldly, wishy-washy, calculating believer in God who would do just about anything to further his himself and his interests. Jesus didn’t have Balaam in mind when He spoke these words, but they certainly apply to him and people like him:

And how does a man benefit if he gains the whole world and loses his soul in the process? For is anything worth more than his soul? (Mark 8:36, 37 | TLB)

No wonder Micah (the faithful prophet) urged God’s people to “remember” Balaam and his tragic end (Numbers 31:8).

Among those killed were all five of the Midianite kings-Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba. Balaam, the son of Beor, was also killed. (Numbers 31:8 | TLB)

 

 

 

 

Weird Bible Stories, Part 3

It’s no secret: I love the Bible. I’ve always found it to be the most fascinating piece of literature I’ve ever studied. A lot of people don’t know this, but almost all of the best literary classics ever written found their origins in the Bible. For example, while it may not be a literary classic in the mold of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a couple of Canadians no less, created one of the most enduring fictional characters ever, whose story is based on a Biblical story: Superman. Follow: Superman was sent to earth by his father, was raised by a humble family, grew up as a man with extraordinary powers, and went about doing good, and even saving the human race at least a dozen times. Sound vaguely familiar?

Steven King has used vague Biblical references in many of his books, but most obviously in The Green Mile, in which the protagonist with healing powers is executed alongside two criminals. And then another one of King’s works, The Stand, Mr King creates a post-apocalyptic world that sounds a lot like how the Bible predicts the world will end.

Archibald MacLeish wrote about a banker who sounds a lot like the Biblical character, Job. The book is called – are you ready? – J.B. Clever.

J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series uses a lot Biblical imagery that a lot of readers miss, sadly even confessing Christians.

So, to me it’s always been interesting how much a debt of gratitude secular literature owes to the Bible. Its great and timeless themes continue to influence and inspire the great stories of today.

And as great as the stories of the Bible are, there are some that are just plain weird. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to look at a handful of weird Bible stories. I say “weird” with respect. Perhaps “odd” would be a better word. But, then again, what better way to describe the story of a talking donkey than “weird.” Let’s take a gander at Balaam’s talking ass.

Two strange things that aren’t the talking donkey

So the next morning he saddled his donkey and started off with them. But God was angry about Balaam’s eager attitude, so he sent an Angel to stand in the road to kill him. As Balaam and two servants were riding along, Balaam’s donkey suddenly saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword. She bolted off the road into a field, but Balaam beat her back onto the road. Now the Angel of the Lord stood at a place where the road went between two vineyard walls. When the donkey saw him standing there, she squirmed past by pressing against the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot in the process. So he beat her again. Then the Angel of the Lord moved farther down the road and stood in a place so narrow that the donkey couldn’t get by at all. So she lay down in the road! In a great fit of temper Balaam beat her again with his staff. Then the Lord caused the donkey to speak! “What have I done that deserves your beating me these three times?” she asked. “Because you have made me look like a fool!” Balaam shouted. “I wish I had a sword with me, for I would kill you.” “Have I ever done anything like this before in my entire life?” the donkey asked. “No,” he admitted. (Numbers 22:21 – 30 TLB)

Now, right off the bat, two things strike me about this story have nothing to do with the talking donkey. First, God would actually kill a prophet because of his sinful attitude. That’s really something, and it should make you want to double-check your attitude about things. We don’t often think about God taking such careful notice of our attitudes, but obviously He does. The second thing about this story that I think is mighty odd, besides the fact that the donkey spoke, is that Balaam carried on a conversation with it! Would you have done that? What if your dog, for example, started talking to you out of the blue, would you talk back? After recovering consciousness I might, but then again I might be tempted to call the media.

Yes, your attitude makes a difference

The always quotable Winston Churchill once remarked,

Attitude is a small thing that makes a big difference.

And he’s correct about that. In this life, your attitude will make the difference between success and failure; victory and defeat; sadness and happiness; frustration and contentment; hate and love. In this life, your attitude can stop you from doing great things or rush you headlong into doing stupid things. But even more significant than what your attitude can do for you in this life is how it affects you in the next!

For example, consider some of these verses and the attitudes they deal with:

Anger

Yes, “anger” is an emotion but it can also be an attitude. In his letter to the Ephesian church, here’s some advice Paul gave about the perils of “the anger attitude” –

If you are angry, don’t sin by nursing your grudge. Don’t let the sun go down with you still angry-get over it quickly; for when you are angry, you give a mighty foothold to the devil. (Ephesians 4:26, 27 | TLB)

There are a couple of ways of translating the first statement, and The Living Bible took one route that isn’t the most accurate. “If you are angry” is probably better translated as, “Be angry,” because there are times when it is entirely permissible from God’s perspective to be angry. A classic example of the proper kind of anger is this:

Looking around at them angrily, for he was deeply disturbed by their indifference to human need, he said to the man, “Reach out your hand.” He did, and instantly his hand was healed! (Mark 3:5 | TLB)

That’s Jesus who was seething at the hypocritical attitude and indifference of religious leaders to an obvious need someone had. Christ’s response to their indifference was to be “angry” and “disturbed,” and this led our Lord to act and to do something to meet that need. So, a proper anger would be anger over things like injustice or sin or when the Lord’s honor is questioned or His character impugned. But Paul’s caution is “don’t sin by nursing a grudge.” That’s a quaint way of telling us not to dwell an overly long time on it; don’t nurse the anger, even if it is a righteous anger. Paul’s advice is a take off on Psalm 4:

Tremble and do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. (Psalm 4:4 | TNIV)

So, be angry at the appropriate thing, for the appropriate amount of time, and like Jesus, if you can do something about it, then do it, but then “search your hearts and be silent.” In other words, let your righteous anger last no longer than a day. Never go to bed angry. Even if you can’t straighten out the thing that has made you angry within a day, when you go to bed, pray about it and ask God to help you to let it go.

As to “why” you should “let it go,” the reason has more to do with the spirit world than with maintaining good mental health or a good marriage. Paul’s reasoning is that if you “nurse a grudge” or if you continue to dwell on the thing or person making you angry, you are opening up yourself to some serious spiritual difficulties. You may be giving the devil a chance to make it even worse. Paul’s friend Peter helps us understand what Paul is getting at when he described how the devil works to make life hard for you:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8 | TNIV)

So never give the devil a chance to get ahold your heart and soul by nursing anger. Guard against that kind of attitude.

Fear

Another attitude that God really hates is one that might surprise you: fear. I say it might surprise you because in 21st century America, fear is looked at as almost a virtue! If you’re not afraid of certain things, then society thinks you’re either a nut or you don’t care. Especially in the area of child rearing, if you’re a parent and you don’t hound your kids constantly and dog their every step, you could very well be considered unfit! So much for faith and trusting God. There’s an incident back in the Old Testament – a very significant but obscure incident – that shows what God thinks of a person who is fearful.

And now, is anyone afraid? If you are, go home before you frighten the rest of us! (Deuteronomy 20:8 | TLB)

Now, some fear is healthy and exercising this proper form of fear will keep you alive. You should fear, or respect, fast moving water, for example. You should be careful around live wires. You shouldn’t necessarily run into a burning building. The kind of fear God hates has to do with fearing something or some situation that God has already told you not to be fearful about. The context of our verse, Deuteronomy 20:8, is given back in verse one:

When you go to war and see before you vast numbers of horses and chariots, an army far greater than yours, don’t be frightened! The Lord your God is with you-the same God who brought you safely out of Egypt!” (Deuteronomy 20:1 | TLB)

There was no need for anybody to be fearful because God told them not to be; because the same God who wrought miracles in the life of the nation was fighting for them. Being afraid and showing that fear made those individuals unfit to serve the Lord. They may have been wonderful people, but their fear was sinful and in direct defiance of God’s command. Therefore, they had to be separated from the larger group and isolated before their fear – their sin, really – began to infect the others.

You may think that’s harsh; that fear isn’t all that bad; maybe you’ve deluded yourself into thinking that being afraid is the same thing as being careful and cautious. But you’d be wrong. Harboring fear and manifesting it in direct disobedience to the will of God is a sin. It’s not virtuous. It will harm you and it will harm others. It will ruin your testimony and render you useless to God.

Fear is a terrible attitude for a Christian to have.

Contentious

Another horrible attitude for the Christian to have is what could be called “the contentious attitude.” That’s not the best name for it; there’s probably a better one, but Ephesians 6:4 gives us an example of what it’s like:

Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4 | NIV84)

The context of this verse, obviously, is Paul’s general advice to fathers in the church. Paul could have given any advice but he gave this piece of advice dealing with the discipline of children. In trying to teach your children something good – the instruction of the Lord – don’t “exasperate” them. That’s a good translation of a Greek word that means “to irritate” or “to provoke.” It’s a rare word in the Bible, used only by Paul two times in all his writings. Essentially, fathers are to keep order and discipline their children, but not to go overboard with all kinds of rules and regulations, which invariably lead to nagging which will definitely lead to the children rebelling.

J.B. Phillips in his translation, puts Paul’s advice to fathers in easy-to-understand language:

Fathers, don’t overcorrect your children or make it difficult for them to obey the commandment.

That’s good advice for fathers, mothers, or just about anybody who is trying to lead others, especially in the way of faith. Don’t be contentious; hard to get along with; unbending. That kind of attitude will cause more harm than good no matter the purity of your motives.

How are some ways parents are “exasperating” their kids? William Hendriksen suggests a few:

Over-protection. Fathers and mothers (and others) can be so fearful that some kind of harm will befall their darlings that they fence them in from every direction. It does no good to remove all risk of harm from anybody, but especially children; risk is necessary for everybody’s physical, mental, moral, and spiritual well-being. Being over-protective can rob children and others from developing a sense of self-confidence, and instead depositing in them fear and apprehension.

Favoritism. Isaac preferred Esau over Jacob. Rebekah preferred Jacob. Nothing good comes from favoritism.

Discouragement. Every day, parents find creative ways to discourage their kids. Employers find ways to discourage their employees. Spouses find ways of discouraging their spouse. “You can’t do that.” “You’re not smart enough to take that class.” “You’re not tall enough.” “You’ve got your grandfather’s kinky hair.” “I wish you were more like his wife.” We’re very good at tearing each other down; we should be better at building each other up!

So, yes, God is very concerned and interested in your attitudes about all kinds of things. The prophet Balaam had the wrong attitude.  God didn’t like it, and God was willing to so far as to take his life because of it.

What was behind Balaam’s attitude of “eagerness?” Why did Balaam talk to his talking donkey? We’ll find out, next time.

 

 

 

Weird Bible Stories, Part 2

The book of Revelation is one weird book, especially if you don’t understand it. And plenty of Christians don’t. Many preachers don’t understand it either, and they say it’s a waste of time to even bother with it, and they’ll tell you so. That’s really bad advice, however. Reading and trying to understand what Revelation has to say comes with a promised blessing. No other book of the Bible comes with that promise; only Revelation.

Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. (Revelation 1:3 | NIV84)

If you haven’t made an attempt to read Revelation and understand it, you’re robbing yourself of a tremendous blessing. So, because I want you to be blessed, I’ll give you a very brief thumbnail sketch of what Revelation is all about, but chapter 12 will be put under the microscope.

Simple outline

There are two very simple things you need to know if you want to grasp Revelation. First, there’s this:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw–that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. (Revelation 1:1-2 | NIV84)

Some people call this book The Revelation of St. John, but verse one says it’s Jesus’ revelation, not John’s. Throughout the book, Jesus is showing John His revelation; the Son is showing the apostle what the Father has shown Him regarding the future. You may wonder why God the Father needed to show His Son the future. Here’s why:

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Mark 13:32 | NIV84)

In the first 31 verses of Mark 13, our Lord was teaching His disciples about the future, and they wanted to know when the events He was talking about would be taking place. His answer was simply that nobody knows except the Father. That was Jesus before His death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven. Once back in Heaven, Mark 13:32 became obsolete. The revelation Jesus Christ shared with John was what He didn’t know back in Mark 13. God the Father revealed to the Son His plan for man, and the book of Revelation is simply a record of that plan written out by the apostle John.

In fact, the book of Revelation, as we call it, isn’t really a book at all! It’s a letter – a very long letter written to churches John knew needed to know this information.

John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne…. (Revelation 1:4 | NIV84)

In the first three chapters, John deals specifically with issues confronting these churches. All these churches were struggling with various things. Some were suffering, others were losing their grip on sound doctrine. John offers words of encouragement, warning, and admonition to these churches. So, the first three chapters of Revelation cover things happening in John’s day. Almost nobody has anything controversial to say about anything John wrote to these churches in these chapters.

With chapter four, everything changes. The scene changes from Earth to Heaven; from John’s day on Patmos and the things happening to the churches of his day, to Heaven and Jesus’ revelation of what the future holds for the world.

After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. (Revelation 4:1-2 | NIV84)

That phrase, “after this” has a two-fold meaning. First, the obvious one: After what John did in the first three chapters – after he saw the short vision of Jesus and after he addressed the churches. The second meaning is: After the churches. In other words, the events of what John is about see in Heaven – the revelation of Jesus Christ concerning the future – will take place after the church age on Earth. We are living in “the church age,” or some people call it “the age of grace.” Whatever you call it, it will come to an end. It started with the birth of the Church in Acts and will end when the Tribulation begins. The Tribulation is “what must take place” after the churches.

Once “the church age,” or the “age of grace” is over, God’s pent-up wrath will be poured out over large swaths of the Earth. God’s wrath at the moment is being stayed or held back by the Church, but that’s going to come to an end, and this time of wrath is what we call “the Tribulation,” and it will last for seven years. It begins like this:

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest. (Revelation 6:1-2 | NIV84)

You’ve probably heard of the infamous “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” well, this is the first one. All they represent are various aspects of God’s wrath: a political conqueror, war and violence, famine and hyperinflation, and finally death. All these things are symbolized by colored horses. The horses aren’t real. They’re symbolic. What they symbolize, however, will be real. And that goes for all the symbols found in Revelation. They symbolize real things or people or events to come. The symbols, like the horsemen, are figures that stand for something literal.  So this period of tribulation will be characterized by the conditions and people represented by the horses and their riders.

The Tribulation drags on for seven years, occupying the bulk of the chapters of Revelation. By chapter 19, the whole mess comes to an end with the armies of the Heaven led by Jesus Christ coming to subdue the Antichrist and the armies of man. It’s called Armageddon, but it’s really a non-event:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. (Revelation 19:11-14 | NIV84)

Then, after some judgments, the Millennial kingdom begins in Revelation 20. It lasts one thousand years, then when it’s over, Satan, who will be bound during the Millennium, will be released and finally judged:

And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (Revelation 20:10 | NIV84)

When that’s over, the dead – all the dead from the beginning of time – will be raised and will stand before the throne of God.

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. (Revelation 20:12 | NIV84)

This is the great separation – the separation of the sheep and goats. Those who are born again will enter into their eternal state, and those who never accepted Christ during their lives will be judged according to how they lived, and then sentenced. They have no chance for heaven. Theirs will be an eternity separated from all that is good and righteous.

Then in chapter 21, we read about the New Jerusalem and we get the smallest glimpse into the eternal state, and then finally, with the last chapter, we read a kind of summary and some encouraging words to John, the man who saw what Jesus saw:

Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.” (Revelation 22:10 | NIV84)

Chapter 12

So how does chapter 12 fit into all this? By the time we get to chapter 12, John has seen what will be happening during the first part of the Tribulation. That’s a lot for a human being to digest, so chapter 12 is a kind of pause; a break in the action. Yet, it’s a little more than that. It’s an explanation of some of the things John saw in the preceding chapters and it’s a way to remind him of certain things. Everything we see in this chapter is symbolic of something, or someone, else. The easiest way to break down what’s happening in chapter 12 is to identify the various symbols.

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. (Revelation 12:1-2 | NIV84)

The identification of the woman is essential if you want to get this right. Key in understanding who this woman represents is knowing what the 12 stars symbolize, and Genesis 37:9, 10 gives us this information:

Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” (Genesis 37:9-10 | NIV84)

So the stars represent Rachel, Jacob, and Joseph’s brothers (the 12 tribes of Israel). The woman is just a symbol, remember, and the symbol is seen giving birth to a child. It would help if you knew Isaiah 9:6 in connection with this symbol:

For to us a child is born,to us a son is given,and the government will be on his shoulders.And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6 | NIV84)

The “us” of Isaiah is the “woman” of the sign and she represents the nation of Israel. Israel gave birth to a son, Jesus Christ. So what John is witnessing in Heaven is a very brief moment of historical fact: The Messiah came from Israel.

Why did John need to be reminded of this fact? It’s because of the rest of what he saw in this vision filled with symbols.

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. (Revelation 12:3-4 | NIV84)

The red dragon is, as you might have guessed, Satan. Verse 9 says as much:

The great dragon was hurled down–that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. (Revelation 12:9 | NIV84)

John is witnessing, in symbolic fashion, a little more history. He is being reminded of where Satan came from and how powerful he is. He has always stood in opposition to Jesus Christ, from the moment of His birth. He’s been on the earth for thousands of years, and he’ll be on the earth during the Tribulation, leading the whole world astray, and he has the help of the fallen angels.

She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (Revelation 12:5 | NIV84)

A little more history for John to be reminded of. This verse speaks of what will happen when Christ returns: He will rule the nations. John probably needed to be reminded of this; Jesus had told His apostles He would but with all John had been witnessing, he needed to be reminded. The second sentence refers to our Lord’s ascension. So in spite of the fact that Satan hounded Christ while He was alive on earth, the Heavenly Father took Him back home after His earthly ministry was accomplished.

The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1 ,260 days. (Revelation 12:6 | NIV84)

Here’s a verse of explanation for John. He’s been witnessing the future and it will get very bleak for Israel. This verse explains that no matter what Satan and the antichrist have in store for Israel, and no matter how powerful Satan may be, Israel will be supernaturally protected During the worst part – the second half – of the Tribulation. This was meant to comfort the apostle.

Not only will there be great distress on earth for seven years, things will get a bit rowdy in Heaven, too. Satan and his angels will once and forever be expelled from Heaven. A lot of people find it hard to believe that Satan is in Heaven. The book of Job makes it clear that Satan has no choice but to report to God, and to submit to Him. But at some point during the Tribulation on earth, Satan and his angels will be completely cut off from God and hurled from Heaven.

When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. (Revelation 12:13 | NIV84)

Angered by his treatment, Satan will strike out even more vehemently at Israel. No wonder she will be supernaturally protected! But because he can’t have his way with Israel, Satan will turn his attention to all believers.

Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring–those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 12:17 | NIV84)

In extremely brief fashion, this is the essence of what chapter 12 of Revelation is all about. It’s not about signs in the heavens for us today, rather it’s all about what the Lord showed John in heaven, to remind of him of his own nation’s history and to comfort him about its future.  When dealing with Bible prophecy, it’s best to let it interpret itself.  They Bible is not a mystery, full of hidden messages and codes.  It was written for every person to understand, with the help of the Holy Spirit.  When you read crazy things about Bible prophecy being fulfilled by planetary alignments or bad weather, you’d best keep your wits about you and remember these verses:

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things.  For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.  (2 Peter 1:20, 21 | TNIV)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weird Bible Stories, Part 1

You probably saw this on your Facebook news feed a few weeks ago. Britain’s “Daily Mail” loves to hype things like this. But could it be true? Let’s find out.

The Bible is a marvelous book full of inspiring and life changing stories. It also has its share of odd, weird stories. Like the one about the talking snake. And the other one about the talking donkey. Some Bible stories read like a Netflix Original, a show full of liars and cheaters, spies and political intrigue, and even murderers.

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, is a book that is one complete weird story. It is also the most misunderstood, misinterpreted, and abused book of the Bible, so its inherent weirdness is compounded by all the dopey ideas floating around the Internet.

On September 23, 2017, there will be an astronomical event that some people think will be a fulfillment of Revelation 12. That chapter is a fascinating chapter in and of itself, and we’ll take a very close look at it over the next two studies. But to answer the question of whether or not it will be fulfilled on September 23, 2017, the short answer is: “definitely not.”  And here’s why.

There is a persistent desire – a need, really – among Christians to feel vindicated.  Vindication of our faith is a Biblical promise.  Our faith will become sight when our Lord returns, but we want it now. We desperately want our faith, especially in the Bible, to be proven true. We want to be able to say to unbelievers and skeptics, “See? I told you so.” And because of this, we are very quick to latch onto any teaching having to do with Bible prophecy as it relates to the end times.

God’s prophecies come true, man’s do not

Since the beginning, man has been looking for the “signs” of God’s involvement with His creation and of His personal interest in we who take our relationship with Him seriously.  We can think of “putting out a fleece” to discover God’s will. And how many of us have used traffic lights to interpret God’s direction? If it turns red before I get there, it’s a sign that I should do such-and-such a thing. That’s how some Christians use made-up signs on the micro scale. On the macro scale, many Christians through out the 20th and now the 21st centuries have tried to tie certain earth changes – like earthquakes, tidal waves, droughts, etc. – and astronomical events – like the infamous Blood Moons, eclipses, etc. – to the Second Coming and of the end of time. Without exception, all those attempts haven’t worked out well and, in fact, have served to raise the level of skepticism among unbelievers. A very large segment of the evangelical church has an interest in Bible prophecies not yet fulfilled and has a tendency to make certain events happening now fit the prophecies written thousands of years ago. For example, nobody ever saw an atomic bomb in the Bible until after one was used. Nobody saw an airplane in Scripture until one was invented. While we should applaud their Biblical worldview, at the same time, we should all be discouraged from taking “secular liberties” with the Bible.

The truth is, there are many verses in the Bible that speak of “signs” God will use in the last days to get mankind’s attention. God has used all kinds of signs throughout the history of mankind, and they are all over the Old Testament. But the signs pointing to winding up history will be a little different. They will be so obvious; so extreme, that there will be no question.

There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (Luke 21:25 – 28 | TNIV)

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. (Genesis 9:12, 13 | TNIV)

These two examples refer to signs involving the sun, moon and stars and a rainbow, the first time it is mentioned in human history. But what we need to remember is that there were no telescopes or any other kind of visual aid to magnify the sun, moon and stars when Jesus spoke of signs in the sky.  There was virtually no light pollution to block the heavens from view, so when looking up at the night sky, a star gazer could see all kinds of stars and heavenly bodies.  Similarly, a rainbow could be easily seen with the naked eye.  These signs, one from the ancient past and fulfilled and one from the future yet to take place, will be seen by anybody on earth without any gadgets or gizmos.

Astronomers and scientists tell us there will be a unique planetary alignment on September 23 of this year. There is even a web page that keeps you abreast of the countdown. This event is so unprecedented (we are told), that Bible prophecy and end time watchers are convinced that it will be a fulfillment of the signs given in Revelation 12.

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. (Revelation 12:1 | TNIV)

There are basically two reasons why the astronomical event of September 23rd can’t have anything to do with the Bible. First, those claiming it does, resort to using astrology, not astronomy, to make it fit what John wrote in Revelation 12:1. The problem is, God absolutely forbids using astrology for anything.

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. (Deuteronomy 18:9 – 12 | TNIV)

The Hebrew behind “interprets omens” is obscure but important to know. It means “observer of clouds” or “gatherer of clouds.” It pictures a person who looks to the sky – not to God – for direction or guidance. When the Bible speaks of God using the sun and planets as signs for His people, it’s not referring to astrological signs!

Second, if the planetary alignment of September 23rd is a sign from God, who would see it on earth? When Revelation 12:1 was written, there were no telescopes and a sign from God was meant to be seen! Something happening out yonder in the universe that can’t be seen by man on earth can’t be sign be a sign from God. It can be an interesting event, but it has nothing to do with Bible prophecy.

What Revelation is about

So just what is Revelation 12 about? Let’s re-read the first verse again very closely:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. (Revelation 12:1 | TNIV)

John wrote “a great sign appeared in heaven.” He did not write “in the heavens,” but “in heaven.” As John saw this sign, he saw it in heaven because he was in heaven. He wasn’t dead, but God transported John to heaven to see certain things that would take place on earth in the future.  Here’s the verse that tells us that:

After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. (Revelation 4:1, 2 | TNIV)

I told you the book of Revelation was weird! But John wasn’t the only person in the Bible transported to heaven to be shown things.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. (Isaiah 6:1, 2 | TNIV)

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. (2 Corinthians 12:2 – 4 | TNIV)

The prophet Isaiah was allowed a short peak into the Lord’s throne room.  This vision took place “in the year that King Uzziah died.”  It was an incredible thing that Isaiah saw, and it changed his life.

The apostle Paul also had an experience in heaven, and he was nothing if not honest as he recounted it. He’s humble so he refered to himself as “a man” or “this man,” but he made it clear he’s not sure how it happened. Was he in heaven boldly or not? He doesn’t know, but he does know he was in heaven. God allowed him to see things and hear things that, unlike John, he was not allowed to talk about.

So John wasn’t the first person to see into heaven. But he did tell people what he saw. And what he saw was stunning: Before his eyes, the apostle John saw the panorama of history unfold. I say “history” because even though John was given a glimpse into his and our futures, history is what prophecy really is: history written backwards; history written before it happens. God can do that, by the way. Man can’t possibly foretell his or anybody’s future, but God can because He exists far, far, beyond the confines of space and time. That’s what he told John before He gave John the visions that make up the bulk of Revelation:

I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8 | TNIV)

God is like the alphabet. He is the A and the Z – His existence bookends the stream of time from beginning to end. Think of the alphabet as time. He existed before the letter “B” and He will outlive the letter “Y.”  He was around before time began and will be around long after it comes to an end.  And because he is the A and the Z, God is able to travel along the stream of time; He is able to see it as it happened and as it happens and as it will happen. To Him, the future is past and the past is present. That’s why we read verses like these:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4 – 7 | TNIV)

Fascinating, isn’t it? God sees you and me – right now, today – already seated with Christ in “the heavenly realms.” But we haven’t even lived our lives yet! We’re not in heaven, yet God sees us there. He sees the future. And He sees us in heaven, where we belong. Think about that the next time you get down and discouraged. Think about that the next time you think God has forgotten about you. He hasn’t. He sees you as you will be, and where you will be. Today you’re stuck on earth, fighting the temptation to sin, struggling with doubts, just trying to keep your head above water, and God sees you in heaven. You just have to hang on and get from “here” to “there.”

Next time, we’ll put Revelation 12 under the microscope to discover what’s really going on in this weird and remarkable vision John saw in heaven.

 

 

 

 

David and Solomon, Part 7

From the 1950 film version of the classic novel. It’s the best, as far as I’m concerned.

Solomon’s wisdom and riches are the things legends are made of. The secular world has long been enamored with King Solomon, and H.Rider Haggard’s classic adventure novel was all about Allan Quartermaine’s quest for King Solomon’s Mines. It’s been called the greatest adventure novel ever written, and it certainly is better than the film versions of it. In the novel, Quartermaine is part adventurer and part philosopher, and he makes an interesting observation that Solomon himself could have made. And did, as a matter of fact.

Truly wealth, which men spend all their lives in acquiring, is a valueless thing at the last.

Quartermaine knew it. Solomon knew it. And most people, after a lifetime of chasing it, find out the truth of that statement. Wealth, in the end, means nothing. Something else Quartermaine said was this:

for women bring trouble as surely as night follows day…

I’ll leave that one alone, except to say that was something else Solomon found out. Too late, as it happens.

But wealth and wisdom aren’t bad things. God can and does use those things for His glory and for the good of His people. The Lord gave Solomon a great, united Kingdom in fulfillment of the promise He made to David. But the Lord gave Solomon even more wealth and even more wisdom, as He promised at Gibeon:

“…therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, riches and honor, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have.” (2 Chronicles 1:12 | NIV84)

Let’s take a look at the legend of King Solomon.

Godly wisdom is attractive, 2 Chronicles 9:1 – 8

When the queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame, she came to Jerusalem to test him with hard questions. Arriving with a very great caravan–with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones–she came to Solomon and talked with him about all she had on her mind. (2 Chronicles 9:1 | NIV84)

The visit of the Queen of Sheba is one of the most well-known stories in the Old Testament. Scholars think that Sheba is today’s Ethiopia. It’s repeated almost word-for-word in 1 Kings 10, so it’s an important event in the history of Israel. It serves to demonstrate not only the extent of Solomon’s wealth and great wisdom, but of God’s ability to keep His word and bless His people beyond their wildest imaginings.

When the Queen of Sheba arrived to see if everything she heard about Solomon and his kingdom were true, and said this:

But I did not believe what they said until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half the greatness of your wisdom was told me; you have far exceeded the report I heard.” (2 Chronicles 9:6 | NIV84)

Yet Solomon isn’t the only one who was blessed beyond belief. That would be each of us. If you and I take the time to look back over the years of our lives, we’d notice how many times the Lord stepped into the flow of our personal history to alter our future for our benefit, for the benefit those close to us, but ultimately for God’s own glory.

This brief portrait of Solomon’s fame with Sheba and others coming to visit to hear him speak and bearing gifts, is also a portrait of the messianic hope Israel has, especially that of Ezra the Chronicler and of the Haggai the prophet:

I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. (Haggai 2:7 | NIV84)

Isaiah, another prophet, writing much earlier than Haggai, expressed a similar thought:

Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,to the house of the God of Jacob.He will teach us his ways,so that we may walk in his paths.”The law will go out from Zion,the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3 | NIV84)

Nations will come to your light,and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:3 | NIV84)

As Biblical historians are wont to say, “the future is like the past.”

Godly wisdom is practical, Proverbs 1:1 – 23

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel… (Proverbs 1:1 | NIV84)

Solomon didn’t personally write all the proverbs, but he did write many of them. The first group of them, Proverbs 1 – 9, describes some of the attributes of a Godly man: He is the one who fears God and behaves like a godly man should behave.

for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to the simple,knowledge and discretion to the young–let the wise listen and add to their learning,and let the discerning get guidance–for understanding proverbs and parables,the sayings and riddles of the wise. (Proverbs 1:2-6 | NIV84)

Those verses aren’t so much a sentence as they are a long (very long) subtitle to this collection of wisdom. Proverbs – godly wisdom – is what you need to become a wise person, a discerning person, and a morally upright citizen.

The key verse of the whole book of Provers is 1:7, a verse that is repeated several times throughout the whole book:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. (Proverbs 1:7 | NIV84)

The idea of “the fear of the Lord” as it is expressed in the Bible has nothing to do with being afraid or startled or of being tormented by God, but rather it refers to the fear of reverence and awe. The Amplified Bible correctly offers this translation:

The reverent and worshipful fear of the Lord is the beginning and the principal and choice part of knowledge [its starting point and its essence]; but fools despise skillful and godly Wisdom, instruction, and discipline. (Proverbs 1:7 | AMP)

You may wonder why this “fear of the Lord” is the “beginning of wisdom.” It makes perfect sense. He holds the future destiny of you, of all people, and of the world in His hands. No wonder you should revere Him! Your future depends on Him!

The very starting point – “the beginning” – of wisdom is God. That’s an interesting way to put it. The wise person is the one who makes God the very center of his life and the Word of God the foundation upon which he builds it. The idea here is that the wise person is the one who always defers to God’s opinion on any matter.

Does that mean that only Christians are wise? That’s a good question. The verse goes on to say that a fool is one who despises “godly wisdom, instruction, and discipline.” It is possible for a person to hold the teachings of Scripture in very high regard but not confess Christ as Lord and Savior. It is possible for a person live a Bible-centered life, but not a Christ-centered one. And God honors those who honor His Word; He will bless their endeavors.

The identity of “the fool” is important because the Biblical food isn’t a simpleton:

Fools mock at making amends for sin… (Proverbs 14:9a | NIV84)

The “fool” is simply one who is spiritually stubborn and rebellious. He the kind of person with no regard for God; he’s indifferent to the teachings of Scripture and other godly counsel. Our Lord had something to say about “the fool”:

But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:26, 27 | NIV84)

This single verse is profound and it’s like a seed; it’s not a big verse, but when it’s used – when it’s planted in your heart – it will grow and take over your life. In this single verse are God’s requirements for living “the good life.” Here they are: If you want to live “the good life,” there must be:

• A healthy relationship with God – “the fear of the Lord.”
• An ongoing discipleship – “the beginning of knowledge.”
• A respect for divine guidance – “Fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

Godly wisdom seeks eternity, Ecclesiastes 12:8 – 14

The book of Ecclesiastes opens like this:

The words of the Teacher, a son of David, king in Jerusalem… (Ecclesiastes 1:1 | NIV84)

He’s “the Teacher” or “the Preacher,” which is the Hebrew word, koheleth. That word comes from a root which means, “to assemble,” so the author was one who called people to come and listen to his words, like a teacher or a preacher. Koheleth was King Solomon according to tradition, but there are good arguments against it. Regardless of whether or not Solomon wrote it (I think he did), the life lessons in the book are stark and reflect what a lot of us have found out: when you put God first, you’ll succeed, but if you leave God out your life, you’re opening yourself up to a world of hurt.

At the end of the book, after a lifetime spent chasing riches and worldly acclaim and running from God, the Teacher comes to his senses and to the right conclusion:

Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. A “Everything is meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 12:8 | NIV84)

The Teacher wants his son, and his readers, to “do as I say, not as I did.” And for that, he should be commended.

Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. (Ecclesiastes 12:9, 10 |NIV84)

The Teacher was wise. There is no doubt about that. And he shared his wisdom with others. Not only that, the Teacher was able to discern wisdom in others. Assuming Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, he sought out the wisdom of others. The book of Proverbs is a collection of smart sayings that Solomon himself wrote, but it’s also a collection of smart things other people said.

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14 | NIV84)

Solomon’s conclusion is nothing if not deeply profound and moving. After a lifetime of chasing the wind and trying to satisfy his every desire with anything and everything except God, Solomon came to the conclusion that anything and everything are meaningless without God. He came to the conclusion that there is a God in heaven that every man will have to answer to. That same God has given people the rules for living a good life and the kind of life He desires for us to live and it is the duty of every man simply follow those rules. It couldn’t be simpler than that!

But even more than that, God is a holy God and He is concerned about holiness in people – so much so that every act and thought of man will be judged and determined by God to either good or evil.

Solomon imparted a lot of wisdom in his writings, but Jesus, in a single sentence, gave the best piece of advice ever:

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33 | NIV84)

 

 


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