City of Refuge

I have been seeing that everything in the Bible points us to Jesus. One of the many wonderful things our Savior provides us is a refuge from the Adversary, from the roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8).

In ancient Israel there were places called cities of refuge (Numbers 35:13-29) that God provided for people who had killed someone without premeditation or by accident. Since the law demanded an eye for an eye (Exodus 21:24), it was a place to escape the avenger of blood, usually a relative of the person killed. There were six of these cities, placed within traveling distance from anyplace in Israel. It is wonderful to look at the hidden treasure in their names and see the foreshadowing of the Redeemer, Savior, Messiah. Below are the names of the six cities, their definitions, and verses that reveal Jesus, our City of Refuge.

Shechem = “back” or “shoulder” as a place of burdens

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 (NIV)

What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. Luke 15:4-5 (NASB)

Ramoth = “heights” (plural of a word that means high in value; the root of both words is a word that means “lifted up”)

Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted. Isaiah 52:13 (NASB)

But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. John 12:32 (NIV)

For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. 1 Peter 2:6-7 (NIV)

Kedesh = “holy place” (from the verb qadash which means to consecrate, sanctify, prepare, dedicate, be hallowed, be holy, be sanctified, be separate)

Such a high priest [Jesus] meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Hebrews 7:26 (NIV)

In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an evil spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, “Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Luke 4:33-34 (NIV)

You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. Acts 3:14 (NIV)

Hebron = “association”

But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” Luke 15:2 (NIV)

For there is one God and one mediator* between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time. 1 Timothy 2:5-6 (NIV)

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners”.’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” Matthew 11:19 (NIV)

*“one who intervenes between two, either in order to make or restore peace and friendship, or form a compact, or for ratifying a covenant”

Bezer = “gold ore” or “remote fortress” “inaccessible spot”

The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. Psalm 19:9-10

The LORD is my rock, my fortress (fastness, castle, defense, fortress) and my deliverer; my God is my rock (rocky wall, cliff), in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold (refuge, secure height, a cliff or other lofty or inaccessible place, defense, high fort, tower). Psalm 18:2

Golan = captive, “their captivity: their rejoicing”

So the soldiers, their commanding officer, and the Temple guards arrested Jesus and tied him up. John 18:13

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. Isaiah 53:7

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:2

 

Image copyright Jack Bair 2019. All rights reserved.

Imprisoned

Instead of vaporizing us rebels he put us in protective custody. He gathered us into his loving net.

For God has imprisoned all people in their own disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone. Romans 11:32 (NLT)

God has imprisoned all people in their own disobedience – that really struck me. Another way you could say that is that God has made disobedience a prison for all people. It might not seem like it, but he did this because he loves us and wanted to have mercy on us. He could have set up the universe so that disobedience resulted in – boing! – being flung out into space. Or he could have made it so that disobedience resulted in immediate vaporization. Zap! You’re gone.

But instead he made it so that disobedience to God becomes a prison. We have all experienced that prison – addictions, compulsions, obsessions, uncontrollable emotions and urges, those loud voices in our heads building razor-wire-topped walls. Romans 7:24 (NLT) cries out, “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin?” But what does the next verse answer? “Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” The way out of our prison is surrender to the one who loves us and died for us that we might be set free.

Because the amazing thing is that God did not fashion our disobedience into a prison to have a “so there!” retribution for our turning away from him, or so that he could have some kind of “see I told you so” triumph over us. But, he did it so he could have mercy! God is love and he longs to love us, he longs to have mercy on us. Instead of vaporizing us rebels he put us in protective custody. He gathered us into his loving net.

That Greek word translated “imprisoned” in the above verse is sugkleio. It means to shut up together, embrace in a common subjection, enclose. It is used to describe fish caught in a net, as in Luke 5:6 (NIV).

When they had done so, they caught (sugkleio) such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.

Yes! Hallelujah! Instead of flinging us away into annihilation he has embraced us, enclosed us, caught us in his loving net. If right now you feel like you are flopping around, trapped, gasping for breath, surrender to the one who loves you, who came and died that you might be set free.

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. John 8:36 (NIV)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish (be lost, ruined, destroyed, abolished) but have eternal life. John 3:16 (NIV)

My eyes are continually toward the LORD, For He will pluck my feet out of the net. Psalm 25:15 (NASB)

 

This post is also a Bible study available for free use at Imprisoned Bible Study

 

Image by Melanie Dabovich, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Oscillation

From that strangling fear to give my trust – to joyful confidence in God my Rock. From fear of what people may think – to the desire to only please God. From futility to expectation. From fear that my life has been for nothing – to trust in the Faithful One who works all things together for my good.

For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” Romans 8:15 (NASB) 

The word translated “again” in this verse is the Greek word palin, meaning repetition of action, once more, back anew.  Strong’s¹ concordance lists it as probably coming from a word that means to wrestle or struggle “through the idea of oscillatory repetition.”

Oscillatory motion repeats the same movement over and over, like an oscillating fan. The Oxford Dictionary² defines oscillate (among others) as:

  1. To swing backwards and forwards; to move to and fro between two points
  2. To alternate between two states, opinions, principles, purposes, etc.; to vary or fluctuate alternately between two limits.

That definitely sounds like slavery to me. Being stuck in that back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes between two states – standing and falling. Sometimes between two limits – righteousness by works and righteousness by faith and the new life in the Spirit. Sometimes between two opinions – faith and fear, doubt and confidence.  From that strangling fear to give my trust – to joyful confidence in God my Rock. From fear of what people may think – to the desire to only please God. From futility to expectation. From fear that my life has been for nothing – to trust in the Faithful One who works all things together for my good. Back and forth. Back and forth.

There are a lot of verses in the Bible about oscillating or wavering.

Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” 1 Kings 18:21 (NIV)

Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded (two-spirited, vacillating). James 4:8 (NASB)

Without wavering, let us hold tightly to the hope we say we have, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Hebrews 10:23 (NLT)

Show mercy to those whose faith is wavering. Jude 1:22 (NLT)

I love that last one. God is merciful to those who waver! We can ask Him, as David did, to help us in our oscillating.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive (hurtful, idolatrous, painful, sorrowful) way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Psalm 139:23-24 (NIV)

The Hebrew word for “anxious thoughts” in this verse denotes a kind of oscillating. The word is saraph, and that comes from caiph, the word that means ambivalence, division, divided opinion or divided in mind. Wavering, oscillating comes from anxiety and fear. But the root of both of those words is caaph, which means to cut off, lop off boughs. So, you could say that the root meaning is that my wrong (idolatrous?) thinking is dividing me, cutting me off from God. I still think my problems are a little too big for God. I am still not completely trusting him. But there is grace hidden here. For, what does lopping off boughs remind you of?

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes (cleanses) so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. John 15:1-4 (NIV)

I can’t remain in the Vine and bear fruit if I am jumping back and forth between faith and doubt, fear and trust. But amazing grace! The Father lops off those oscillating, unfruitful boughs, the doubt and fear that cuts me off from relationship with Him. The Father cleanses me if I surrender to him. But that takes courage. It takes stepping out of the boat, staying on the path with Jesus, abiding in the Vine. And I will by His grace! Because He is with me and I have not received a spirit of over-and-over-and-over again fear, but I have been adopted by my Abba Father and He is pruning me, caring for me.

Lord, help me to stop oscillating for I know that you can be trusted. Help me to abide and rest in You. Help me to turn off the fan.

Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. Psalm 46:10 (NIV)

 

¹Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible

²Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2000-

 

Image by Fred Barr https://www.flickr.com/photos/145458916@N04/46457248094/in/dateposted/

The Raven’s Croak

God didn’t choose a beautiful bird or a noble bird, or even a bird good for eating – but dirty, croaking ravens to feed Elijah – birds that probably had just been eating roadkill. I wonder what Elijah thought about that.

For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out (croak, cry of a raven), “Abba! Father!” Romans 8:15 (NASB)

It makes me smile that the Greek word translated “cry out” here means to croak, like the cry of a raven. We croak like a raven, “Abba! Father!” I feel like I croak a lot.

Jesus told us to consider the ravens, alluding perhaps to Psalm 147.

Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds! Luke 12:24 (NASB)

He gives to the beast its food, and to the young ravens which cry. Psalms 147:9 (NASB)

Why ravens? Why not something beautiful like a dove? The raven was on the list of “unclean” birds under the law of Moses (Deuteronomy 14:4, Leviticus 11:15). In Leviticus it says they are to be regarded as an abomination, as filth, detestable, disgusting. They eat dead things and maggots.[i] Yet (!) Jesus chooses this bird for his illustration of God’s care for us.

In a sermon called The Raven’s Cry, Charles Spurgeon wrote the following:

I can hardly leave this point without remarking that the mention of a raven should encourage a sinner. As an old author writes, “Among fowls He does not mention the hawk or falcon, which are highly prized and fed by princes. But He chooses that hateful and malicious bird, the croaking raven, whom no man values but as she eats up the carrion which might annoy him. Behold then, and wonder at the Providence and kindness of God, that He should provide food for the raven, a creature of so dismal a hue and of so untuneable a tone–a creature that is so odious to most men, and ominous to some.”[ii]

Encouragement for the sinner. Is this why Jesus chose the raven? To show us that no matter how disgusting, unclean – untuneable – that we think we are, or others think we are, or that we really are – God accepts us, God loves us, God takes care of us. What a picture of grace and mercy!

There is another amazing and curious mention of ravens in the Old Testament. It is in the retelling of Elijah hiding from Ahab. God told Elijah to hide at the Brook Cherith and that ravens would be sent to feed him (1 Kings 17: 3-4). Again, God didn’t choose a beautiful bird or a noble bird, or even a bird good for eating – but dirty, croaking ravens to feed Elijah – birds that probably had just been eating roadkill. I wonder what Elijah thought about that. And when the water ran out there at the brook, God sent Elijah to another sort of unclean raven, the Sidonian widow (1 Kings 17:9).

The Sidonians were idol worshippers. They worshipped “Ashtoreth the vile goddess of the Sidonians (2 Kings 23:13).” This worship included ritual prostitution (we call it human trafficking today) and child sacrifice. The notorious Jezebel was the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians (1 Kings 16:31).

So detestable were the Sidonians to the Jews, that when Jesus reminded them of this incident while speaking in a synagogue, He was almost thrown off a cliff (Luke 4:25-29). Yet(!), God sent Elijah there. And Elijah humbled himself to take food from the widow’s “unclean” hands – a widow, however, who was willing to give all she had for herself and her son to Elijah to obey the Lord God – and he ministered life and salvation to her and to her son.

Consider the ravens. Yes, we are all ravens. We are all Sidonians. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all have eaten our share of the maggots of lies and idolatry, and maybe still are. Yet (!!) we are loved. And we have been called (even the ravens were called to feed Elijah at the brook!) and chosen to humble ourselves and minister His life and love to all the other fallen, unclean birds. We are not called to judge and condemn, but to love. And we can stand in the strength and grace that He gives. We can abide, we can rest in the assuredness that we are His and He will care for us. That we are His adopted sons and daughters, and that He hears, and is delighted, when we croak “Abba, Father!”

(Abba! Another good one-word prayer? See A Thousand Defects )

 

[i] Wikipedia, The Common Raven

[ii] Charles Spurgeon, The Raven’s Cry, A sermon delivered on Sunday evening, January 14, 1866 at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington. Reprinted in, The Power in Prayer. Whitaker House, 1996.

Image, Raven by Jim Bahn (background color changed) https://www.flickr.com/photos/gcwest/186088713/in/album-72157594158104053/ 

 

A Thousand Defects

I think that those inexpressible prayers, those prayers reaching out from our hearts to His, stripped of everything but childlike, unguarded, helpless desire for Him – those are the most powerful and – for God – the most satisfying prayers of all.

Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:16 (NASB)

“The throne of grace.” The word grows as I turn it over in my mind, and to me it is a most delightful reflection that if I come to the throne of God in prayer, I may feel a thousand defects, but yet there is hope. I usually feel more dissatisfied with my prayers than with anything else I do.”  —Charles Spurgeon[i]

A thousand defects. Over the past ten years or so I have read a lot of books on prayer. I have twenty on the shelf before me right now. They all are good and have lots to offer. They have all enriched my prayer life. But there are many, many times, overwhelmed in the clouds of doubt and fear, words do not come. And I feel “a thousand defects.” I feel dissatisfied with my prayers, but worse, I fear that God is dissatisfied too. That’s why I love Spurgeon’s “but yet [!] there is hope.”  And I am comforted when he goes on to say:

But, brethren, suppose in our prayers there should be defects of knowledge: it is a throne of grace, and our Father knoweth that we have need of these things. Suppose there should be defects of faith: he sees our little faith and still doth not reject it, small as it is. He doth not in every case measure out his gifts by the degree of our faith, but by the sincerity and trueness of faith. And if there should be grave defects in our spirit even, and failures in the fervency or in the humility of the prayer, still, though these should not be there and are much to be deplored; grace overlooks all this, forgives all this, and still its merciful hand is stretched out to enrich us according to our needs.

One of the books before me is The Cloud of Unknowing by an anonymous monk. In it, the author recommends one-word prayers.[ii] That is about my speed in these times when I am in this “cloud of overwhelmed.” One of my favorites has become, “Help!” Just “help.” In the same chapter the author speaks of “a naked intent toward God, the desire for him alone.” And I think that those inexpressible prayers, those prayers reaching out from our hearts to His, stripped of everything but childlike, unguarded, helpless desire for Him – those are the most powerful and – for God – the most satisfying prayers of all.

It’s not a magical incantation. It’s not a precise liturgy, though liturgy is beautiful and can help lead us to the throne. It’s not a perfect recipe of words mixed with the right amount of faith, seasoned with the correct sprinkling of fervency or humility, in the prescribed position and vocal volume.

“True prayer is an approach of the soul by the Spirit of God to the throne of God. It is not the utterance of words; it is not alone the feeling of desires; but it is the advance of the desires to God, the spiritual approach of nature towards the Lord our God. True prayer is neither a mere mental exercise not a vocal performance. It is far deeper than that. It is spiritual commerce[iii] with Creator of heaven and earth.”

It’s a spirit to Spirit communication, a reaching out in the darkness and overwhelmedness. But it’s also that confidence thing. We cannot come to him naked and bare without complete trust and confidence. The word translated confidence in Hebrews 4:16 is parrhesia, which means “openly, frankly, without concealment, free and fearless confidence, cheerful courage, boldness, assurance.”

Little children come this way to their moms and dads all the time, with requests, inarticulate, but confidently and with complete expectation of being understood and answered. “Owie,” “drink,” “belly,” “up!” Little one-word requests that we jump to satisfy. Or sometimes they come with no words at all, just arms outstretched yearning for the parent’s comforting embrace.

“Help!” may be all I have right now. But it is all I need. Let me run into His merciful arms.

From the end of the earth I will cry to You, when my heart is overwhelmed; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. Psalm 61:2 (NKJV)

(For more on the naked intent toward God, see A Naked Intent Toward God)

 

[i] All Spurgeon quotes from The Throne of Grace, sermon given November 19, 1871. Reprinted in The Power in Prayer. Whitaker House, 1996.

[ii] The Cloud of Unknowing and Privy Counseling. Edited by William Johnston. 1973. Chapter 7.

[iii] Definition of the word “commerce” from Spurgeon’s time: interchange (especially of letters, ideas, etc.); communication. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles.

Image by DVIDSHUB, from flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/dvids/13938506188

The Lord Turned

He sees us toddling toward him, not fallen flat on our faces. God is always looking ahead, seeing us at our best, at the end of the road.

The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” Judges 6:14 (NIV)

The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the cock crows today, you will disown me three times.” Luke 22:61 (NIV)

I read a One Year Bible for my devotionals, which divides the Bible into 365 readings, one each from the Old and New Testaments, Psalms and Proverbs. Recently, the above two verses were facing each other on opposite pages, and I realized how alike the situations were. (Read Judges 6:11-22 and Luke 22:31-34, 54-62 for the full stories.)

Both Gideon and Peter were at their very lowest points. Feeling physically threatened and hiding – Gideon in a hole in the ground threshing his meager wheat, Peter crouching with the servants around a campfire, pretending he was somebody else. Both had a low opinion of themselves right at that moment. Both were denying the Lord – Peter outright and Gideon by his attitude. But worse, both felt let down and abandoned by their Lord.

“But sir,” Gideon replied, “if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian.” Judges 6:13 (NIV)

Yet (!), in spite of their failings and weaknesses, both were being called to do great deeds and both needed strengthening. I had always imagined the looks and words of the Lord in the above verses as negative – a rebuke, a reproach, a look of disappointment.

However, all through the Bible the turning of the Face of God toward his people is a picture of favor and grace, encouraging and strengthening.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. Numbers 6:23-26 (NIV)

“The picture is of divine favor – the beaming face of a parent for his beloved.” [i]

Turn to (turn toward) me and have mercy (be gracious, show favor, have pity) on me, for I am alone and in deep distress. Psalm 25:16 (NIV)

But the turning away, or hiding, of God’s face is a sign of rejection.

O LORD, why do you reject me? Why do you turn your face away from me? Psalm 88:14 (NLT)

But the Lord turned toward Gideon and Peter. Even in midst of Jesus’ great betrayal and passion, he turned in mercy and love, grace and encouragement toward Peter. “Come on, I know you can do it. Am I not sending you?” How that look of love must have pierced Peter’s soul!

“And the Lord turned Himself … and looked upon Peter; with his bodily eyes, with great earnestness, expressing in his looks concern and pity for him; for it was a look, not of wrath and resentment, but of love and mercy, and power went along with it.”[ii]

God calls us when we are in our holes and hiding places. He calls us out of doubt and despair, when denial and worthless words are spewing from our mouths. He calls us at our worst but calls us anyway. Like a father encouraging his little child to walk, “Come on, I know you can do it!” He sees us toddling toward him, not fallen flat on our faces. God is always looking ahead, seeing us at our best, at the end of the road. The Lord is asking you to turn to him. Gain strength and favor and guidance for your way. Turn and look full in his wonderful face, for he has already turned to you.

 

Image in the Public Domain. By Rembrandt – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15417264

[i] NetBible Translator’s Note on Numbers 6:25

[ii] John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible

 

Beat a Path

Both of these seek-words are two-way streets. We and the Lord are seeking each other.

Seek the LORD and His strength; Seek His face continually. Psalm 105:4 (NASB)

There are two different Hebrew words translated “seek” in this verse. The first one is darash– דָּרַשׁ, and means to resort to, frequent or tread a place, seek, seek with care, seek diligently, enquire, require.

“To frequent or tread a place” makes me imagine seeking out the Lord so often as to make a path. My husband likes to take a machete and create paths through our woods. He puts little benches along the way to sit and meditate and enjoy the beauty. As soon as the paths are established, they are followed by our woodland friends. We often walk along the trails with the footprints of deer, coyote, fox, raccoons, squirrels and possums. Hopefully, the paths we tread to God might show the way for others.

But the paths must be maintained. If you don’t walk on them for a while they return to their natural state. Sometimes my husband has to use a chainsaw to remove fallen trees and limbs. He blows the leaves in the fall and mows tall grass. Making and maintaining a path to the Lord requires similar diligence and effort — frequenting it daily, keeping it clear of debris, tripping roots and thorny vines.

The second word translated “seek” is baqash– בָּקַשׁ. It means to seek to find, to seek to secure, to seek the face or Presence of God, to desire, demand, require, exact, ask, request. Note that both words include the meaning “require.” At the end of the path we tread we find the place of His presence and there we ask, present to him our desires, requirements, requests, and sometimes foolish demands. And we listen and he opens our ears and hearts to also hear his demands, desires and requirements of us.

Both of these seek-words are two-way streets. We and the Lord are seeking each other.

Jesus said he came to “seek and save” the lost. He comes daily seeking us out, knocking on the door of our hearts. And we are commanded to “seek the Lord … seek His face” continually and diligently. We are instructed how to do this in another verse using both seek-words.

But from there [from a place of captivity and idol worship] you will seek (baqash) the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you search for (darash or tread frequently the path to, seek diligently for) Him with all your heart and all your soul. Deuteronomy 4:29 (NASB)

The other two-way street is the “require” part. We and God both have requirements of each other. But Jesus assures us that the burden of his requirements is light (Matthew 11:30).

He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require (darash) of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8 (NASB)

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV)

Our requirements of God are also simple: Everything.

Life, food, water, the air we breathe, shelter, grace, mercy, the strength to keep going, the ability to love and forgive. For all that God requires of us he gives the grace, even the very desire to seek him in the first place. A.W. Tozer wrote that, “We pursue God because, and only because, He has first put an urge within us that spurs us to the pursuit. ‘No man can come to me,’ said our Lord ‘except the Father which hath sent me draw him.’”[i]

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? Psalm 42:1-2 (NIV)

My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.” And my heart responds, “LORD, I am coming.” Psalm 27:8 (NLT)

Come! Let’s beat a path into His Presence, and there find the strength from the Lord to go on.

[i] Tozer, A.W. The Pursuit of God. Wing Spread Publishers, 2006.

 

Image copyright 2019 Jack Bair

Mercy Seat

The ark was full of responses to doubt and fear and rebellion, but God covered it all over with His mercy.

Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover (Mercy Seat). Hebrews 9:3-5 (NIV)

In the heart of the Israelite’s Tent of Meeting, behind a veil in the room called the Holy of Holies, or Most Holy Place, was a box covered with sheets of beaten gold which was called the Ark of the Covenant. Its lid, the Mercy Seat, was solid gold and depicted two angels in an attitude of worship. Inside the ark were three things:

1) a jar of manna, the “bread of heaven” or bread of angels which was given to the Israelites to eat in the desert

2) a dead wooden staff made from a branch of an almond tree which had come alive and produced flowers and almonds

3) the ten commandments written on stone tablets

I recently realized that all those things in the Ark were put there in a direct response to rebellion. The manna was given to the Israelites in response to their grumbling about having nothing to eat (Exodus 16: 3-4). God commanded Moses to put some in the ark as a reminder of His provision (Exodus 16:32).

Korah and company rebelled against Moses and Aaron as God’s chosen authority – “What right do you have to act as though you are greater than anyone else among all these people of the LORD?” they asked. Kind of like, “who made you the boss of me?” (Numbers 16:3). Aaron’s rod budded and produced fruit in direct response to the rebellion to confirm God’s choice, and God commanded Moses to include it in the ark as a sign (Numbers 17:1-10).

The stone tablets containing the ten commandments were the most important response, a life-preserver thrown out to all of us people flailing about trying to be our own god. His word is an anchor dropped into the world’s chaotic sea of sin and rebellion – an anchor that holds within the veil (Hebrews 6:19-20).

The ark was full of responses to doubt and fear and rebellion, but God covered it all over with His mercy and told Moses He would meet with him there.

“You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you. There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel. Exodus 25:21-22 (NASB)

The Mercy Seat is where the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled as an atonement for sin of the people by the High Priest once a year. This foreshadowed the death of Jesus, the Lamb of God, the final sacrifice for the sin of the world. It also foreshadowed Jesus as High Priest offering his own blood one final time in the heavenly Temple (Hebrews 9:11-28).

I also have been realizing that all those things in the ark represented Jesus, the Savior who was to come. He is the manna, the Bread of Life (John 6:48-51). He is the chosen High Priest (Hebrews 4:14), the Branch (Isaiah 11:1) that was dead and came back to fruitful life. He is the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14). God knew from the beginning how things would go and had a plan for our redemption. God’s response to the sin and rebellion of the world was Mercy. His response was Jesus.

… and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Romans 3:24-26 (NIV)

The word translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the above verse means, in the Greek, both the atoning victim and the Mercy Seat itself. Jesus is our Mercy Seat. But, Jesus isn’t storing up all our sins – or even the reminders of our sin – in a box and covering them over with his blood. At the cross Jesus vanquished sin, he destroyed it, he wiped it out forever – we can be made just as if we had never done anything wrong. Yet we are still crabbing about what we want but don’t have to satisfy our cravings, arguing about who is the boss, who gets to make the rules. We have been doubters, grumblers, rebels from the beginning, but God is still waiting to meet us there, at the Mercy Seat. Come and meet him there.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:14-16 (NASB)

If you would like, you can learn more about the Mercy Seat here https://www.bible-history.com/tabernacle/TAB4The_Mercy_Seat.htm

 

Photo replica of the Ark of the Covenant in the Royal Arch Room of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Photo by Ben Schumin on December 27, 2006

Running from His Heart

God’s love and purposes were, and are, relentless. You might say he is one-track when it comes to the salvation of the world.

The Lord gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are.”
But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and went on board, hoping to escape from the [presence of the] Lord by sailing to Tarshish. Jonah 1:1-3 (NLT)

I don’t know why this always makes me laugh. OK, I do know why. Go ahead and put your name in the blank:

But ____ got up and went in the opposite direction in order to get away from the LORD.

See what I mean? We all have done it. We have all tried to run away from God, with the emphasis on the word tried. In Jonah’s case, God was sending him to the city of Nineveh to call them to repentance, and Jonah didn’t want to do it. God said to Jonah, “Get up and go.” Instead, Jonah got up and ran; the word means “to bolt.” God told Jonah to get up or arise. Maybe, as a prophet of God, he was on his knees worshiping in the Presence and received this call. His reaction wasn’t exactly what God had in mind.

It seems nearly every person in the Bible called by God to do something started their reply with an excuse. But, I can’t talk very well (Exodus 6:30). But, I am too young (Jeremiah 1:6). But, I am too weak and unimportant (Judges 6:15). Except Jonah, he just bolted. Apparently, David tried to escape God too.

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. Psalm 139:7-10 (NIV)

David concluded that it is impossible to run from God. After all, His very name is Immanuel, God with us.

There are always so many reasons why not to answer the call to get up and go. When we look only at ourselves, we see weakness, sin, fear and doubt. But there may be just as many excuses when we look at God. As in Jonah’s case, he didn’t want what God wanted: the salvation of thousands. Especially these particular thousands. “Knowing well the lovingkindness of God, he anticipated that He would spare the Ninevites on their repentance, and he could not bring himself to be the messenger of mercy to heathen, much less to heathen who (as the Assyrian inscriptions state) had already made war against his own people, and who as he may have known were destined to be their conquerors.”[i] Another commentary explains, “he feared God’s compassion would spare the Ninevites on their repentance, and that thus his prediction would be discredited.”[ii]

So what were Jonah’s reasons for bolting? Prejudice, personal pride, and self-preservation. Prejudice: the Assyrians were Gentiles, reprobate, the enemy. Pride: he had a reputation to maintain. He had been publicly calling down horrible judgements on these people. Self-preservation: the Assyrians had attacked Israel before and were prophesied to do it again (Hosea 9:3; Hosea 11:5).

But God doesn’t care about any of that. Jesus showed us what God is like and what he expects us to be like. Jesus loved everybody the same. Jesus was completely humble. Jesus determinedly and obediently walked right into his own death. God’s love and purposes were, and are, relentless. You might say he is one-track when it comes to the salvation of the world. After Nineveh repents Jonah exclaims, “I knew you were going to do that God!” (Jonah 4:2). That always makes me smile too – Jonah knew God was going to save those people because he knew God well enough to know who God is, what God is like, and to know God’s heart. We may not be so honest with ourselves as Jonah, but when we run from God isn’t that what we are running from? His heart? His relentless love? His good, life-giving, excruciating purpose for our lives?

Kurt Bennett points out, “There’s only one place in the bible where we see God running.” That place is the picture of God shown in the parable of the prodigal son. In it, Jesus describes a loving father running toward another fugitive. If you are running from God and his call for your life, turn around and run back. You will run right into His relentless love.

Grace that chases me
O relentless Love
Morning faithfully
Brings mercy to me
Your sweet mercy

—James Mark Gulley, Stephen Gulley

 

[i] Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

[ii] Pulpit Commentary. Hendrickson Publishers

 

Image in the Public Domain

 

Fragile

In all my over six decades I have never once regretted love, I have never been sorry I was kind, I have never wished I hadn’t been so merciful. But I consistently bitterly regret lashing out in anger, crabbiness, rudeness – worthless words.

A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All men are like grass, and all their glory (checed) is like the flowers of the field. Isaiah 40:6 (NIV)

For the LORD is good and his love (checed) endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations. Psalm 100:5 (NIV)

The same Hebrew word, checed  חֵסֵד –, is used in both these verses. Checed means goodness, loving- or merciful kindness, mercy. It is often translated “unfailing love” or “loyal love.” I like how the Message Bible translates it:

A voice says, “Shout!” I said, “What shall I shout?” “These people are nothing but grass, their love (checed) fragile as wildflowers.”

Love as fragile as wildflowers. Isaiah goes on in verse 8, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” Our love withers and falls, but Psalm 100 promises that God’s goodness, lovingkindness, and mercy endure forever, or is forever, everlasting, evermore, perpetual, continuous, eternal, of unending future, from the beginning of the world to the vanishing point. This is proclaimed over 40 times in the Bible, 26 times just in Psalm 136. “His love (checed) endures forever!” Ours withers fast when things get hot and dry.

I have been meditating on how fragile we are. Not just physically, though our lives are very fragile and over too soon. The tiniest things can end it – a mutant cell, a virus. But also, how fragile is our “goodness” and “kindness.” Have you ever been praising God in the car, full of love toward your fellow man, and then someone pulls in front of you or you hit a big pothole, and all that checed evaporates in some not-very-nice words and thoughts? Have you ever come home from doing a “good deed,” feeling pretty good about yourself, only to snap at a family member? You don’t have to answer that. I have too many times. My checed is fragile as wildflowers.

I recently came home from delivering a meal and visiting a sickbed only to take my fatigue and sadness out in a rude email complaining of what I (mistakenly) thought was a flaw in a product I received in the mail.

I was surprised at myself, though I shouldn’t have been. I thought I had learned this lesson. In all my over six decades I have never once regretted love, I have never been sorry I was kind, I have never wished I hadn’t been so merciful. But I consistently bitterly regret lashing out in anger, crabbiness, rudeness – worthless words. One good thing came out of it though: I got to fine tune my well-used apologizing skills. The apology was mercifully accepted. That is one way we can express checed – by forgiving the fragile, withering failings of others.

At one of our jail Bible studies, a sweet, struggling inmate said something that hit home for me. “We have to mess up so we know where our strength comes from.”  Indeed. The strength to love, or to forgive, does not come from me. My beautiful wildflowers wither much too fast. But, hallelujah! His love never fails!

Lord forgive me for my worthless, unloving words. Help me remember my love is fragile. Help me to abide in you, dwelling in your presence always. Love others through me with your unfailing, forever-and-ever checed. You are my strength.

Finally (hereafter, for the future, henceforth, from now on), be strong (receive strength, be strengthened, increase in strength, be empowered) in the Lord and in the strength (great power, force, dominion) of His might (ability, power, strength). Ephesians 6:10 (NASB)

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my strength (my Rock) and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14 (NKJV)

Photo copyright 2018 Derek Bair