2. Thinking about Visions

Meditations from Ezekiel: 2.  Thinking about Visions

Ezek 1:1  In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.

In our first study in this new series we considered Ezekiel, a thirty year old exile from Israel, taken prisoner to Babylon, together with many of his countrymen. We pondered briefly in this catastrophe in his life, just as he was approaching the age to start in the priesthood, carried away from all that was familiar to all that is unfamiliar. We perhaps rarely think about what it must have been like for such people. At the age of thirty it is probable that he had a wife and a family. We know nothing of them. Did he lose them in the exile? We don’t know. All we do know it that it was a time of immense turmoil.

Visions? And then it was at that we read, “and I saw visions of God.” This expression, “visions of God” occurs at two other significant places in the book: “He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance to the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood,” (Ezek 8:3) and much later, “In visions of God he took me to the land of Israel and set me on a very high mountain, on whose south side were some buildings that looked like a city.” (Ezek 40:2)

A ‘vision’ is a picture formed in the mind that is so strong that everything else falls into the background of experience. It is not mere imagination but almost, we might say today, like a video being run in our mind that blanks out everything else. There are a number of such instances in the Bible.

Examples:  At one point in earlier history God’s word came to Abram in a vision (Gen 15:1), as it also did to Israel (Jacob – Gen 46:2). The apostle Peter had a clear vision when he was being sent to share the Gospel for the first time to the Gentiles (Acts 10:9-) although it was referred to as a trance (and yet he does later refer to it as a vision in a trance – Acts 11:5). This, of course came after Cornelius had received a vision (Acts 10:3-) telling him to send for Peter. The apostle Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia calling him to come to them (Acts 16:9). The Lord also later spoke to Paul in a vision to encourage him not to be silent (Acts 18:9). The implication from these examples seems to be that the Lord speaks through a vision at particularly important times of people’s lives, times that are particularly significant.

Sometimes the prophetic word of God comes in such clarity about the future that it is referred to as a vision, as in the case of young Samuel (1 Sam 3:15) but the distinction from the former use is that there is no visual picture. It may be that in such cases the reality of the contact with God is so strong that although there is no reference to a picture of what is seen, nevertheless everything else fades into the background in the face of the reality of what the person was hearing. This also appears true of Ananias in Acts 9:10-12.

Heavenly strangeness: And so now we read, “the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” We note this was specific revelation of heavenly things with heaven being opened. Although we will see specific pictures that we can at least partly relate to, they are nevertheless revelations about what is in heaven, or express the will of God that comes from heaven. Perhaps we might suggest that such was the chaos and confusion in Ezekiel’s life at this time, being carried away into exile, that it needed something as dramatic as a vision, or series of visions, to break into his awareness, which take us back into the historical context.

Time overview: Although verse 1 and later verses come in the first person – “I” – for a moment there is a break in verses 2 and 3 that come in reporting mode in the third person – speaking of Ezekiel as from an observer: “On the fifth of the month–it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin—the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the LORD was upon him.”  (v.2,3) Indeed this is the only third-person narrative in the book. Perhaps its purpose is to clarify the date in v. 1.

The historical books tell us in respect of King Nebuchadnezzar, “In the eighth year of the reign of the king of Babylon, he took Jehoiachin prisoner,” (2 Kings 24:12) and “He carried into exile all Jerusalem: all the officers and fighting men, and all the craftsmen and artisans–a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left.” (2 Kings 24:14) which was probably April 597BC. But we read that the word came to Ezekiel in the fifth year of their exile which, it is suggested corresponds to 593BC.

Settled in exile? Now we almost implied earlier in the previous study that this had only just happened to Ezekiel but the truth is that he’s been here for somewhere between 4 to 5 years already. If you have ever watched the film Ben Hur (the earlier version conveyed this better than the remake) the sense of terrible sense of futility and hopelessness that must come on a slave in chains is absolutely terrible, Barring a disaster (which happens in Ben Hur) there is nothing but nothing that you can do to free yourself. You are in this position until you die and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. That must have been the sense felt by these exiles; the unthinkable has happened because Jerusalem has been taken (and is later destroyed). This is the background for this book.

God possibilities: We suggested this before but it bears repeating before we get into the text of the visions. This background should challenge us, that with God the future is NOT set in impossible concrete, we do not know what God might come and do with us. Centuries before he had come to an aging shepherd in the backside of the desert in Midian and said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians …. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (Ex 3:7-10) A most incredible message of deliverance but devastating for Moses who after forty years in the wilderness had lost every ounce of self-confidence. Is that us? Has life done that to us? It is NOT the end.

For Ezekiel, it is slightly different; he is going to remain with his people in exile but he is going to bring God’s word to them that will no doubt filter its way back to Jerusalem. He is going to act as the confirming prophet to Jeremiah and he is going to set markers in history for the will of God. He is no longer ‘just an exile’; he is about to become a man with a mission. Bear all this in mind as we enter into the wonder and complexity of what is about to follow – and never say, “I am stuck in these unchanging circumstances.” With God you can never know!

3. Abraham, man of faith

Meditations on “The Big Picture” 3. Abraham, man of faith

Gen 12:1-3    The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

We must remind ourselves that we are covering only those ‘big steps’ along the path that carry great significance to the ‘big picture’.  The temptation may be to follow God’s ongoing interaction with mankind – His dealing with Cain and Abel in Gen 4, His relationship with Enoch in Gen 5, His standing against the growing evil on the earth  but saving a remnant through Noah in Gen 6 to 8,  His covenant  to never again destroy mankind in Gen 9, and His scattering mankind from Babel in Gen 11 – but the next big step comes with Abram recorded in Gen 12 right the way through to Gen 25 where Abraham died.

This step is in fact enormous and may diminish some of the later steps we shall consider.  We mentioned the name of Enoch just now of whom it was written, When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah. And after he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away,” (Gen 5:21-24) – and that is all! Now that is a remarkable testimony that this man, “walked with God 300 years and … then he was no more, because God took him away,” but that is all we get of him in just 4 verses. The contrast with Abram, or Abraham as he later became, is amazing not only for the brevity of the account of Enoch, but more for the extent of the account of Abram’s dealings with God in all those chapters from 12 to 25.

So why is Abram such a big stepping stone in the history of the Biblical record?  First, it must be because he is the first man to enter into a long-term and detailed relationship with the Lord. It is the detail that marks him out from Enoch. But second, it is because of the nature of the man Abram and what he tells us about the possibility of having a living relationship with Almighty God.  Prophetically the Lord was later to speak through Isaiah of “Abraham, my friend.” (Isa 41:8). This designation is also given in 2 Chron 20:7 and James 2:23.

Friends talk together and the account of Abram’s life moves from prophetic directive words (Gen 12:1-3), to protection (Gen 12:17-20), to constant repetition of the promise of people and the land (e.g. Gen 13:14-17),  to covenant making (Gen 15:9-18), to persisting with the couple despite their taking affairs into their own hands and having Ishmael (Gen 17:1,2), to further covenant making (Gen 17:9-14), to discussing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18), to protection again (Gen 20:3-), to enabling Sarai to conceive (Gen 21:1,2) and so on. It is a life of interaction with God.

And yet the thing that makes Abraham really stand out is his faith. Faith is hearing God, believing God and acting on what God says. Already we have seen how he left his home in Mesopotamia and travelled to Canaan, purely on the word of God which was in itself an act of faith, but it was in respect of the fact that his wife was barren and beyond childbearing age that we find this faith coming out most strongly: “Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:4-6)

Now although this is remarkable, the more remarkable thing about this is that it becomes the example for all to follow who wish to have a relationship with God. The apostle Paul uses this and describes him as “the father of all who believe.” (Rom 4:11) Indeed the whole of chapter 4 of Romans is given over to this and concludes, “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness–for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Rom 4:20-24) i.e. the faith he had, trusting completely in God’s word, is to be the same faith we have in believing on Jesus as our Saviour.

Perhaps the highest accolade, praising Abraham for being our example of faith, comes in Hebrews 11 where FOUR times he is praised for his faith: By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” (Heb 11:8)  “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country.” (v.9)  By faith Abraham, even though he was past age–and Sarah herself was barren–was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” (v.11) By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice.” (v.17)

But to conclude, let’s go back to God’s original promises to Abram: Through Abraham God’s intent is clearly to bless the whole world – see Gen 12:2,3  “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you”. This would be in two ways:

  1. Abraham’s demonstration of faith was to be an example for all to follow, showing that it is possible to have a relationship with God. (see also Gal 3:6-9, 4:28-31) This is what makes this such a monumental step along the path of history.
  2. Also Abraham would be the father of the nation (Israel) into whom the Messiah, the Son of God, would be born and reveal God and bring the means of salvation to the world.

The son, Isaac, who we have briefly mentioned, is the first son born into this family that will eventually develop into a nation known throughout history as Israel, a nation still in existence today, still playing a part in God’s plans. So significant is Abram that his name appears 32 times in the epistles of the New Testament after numerous times in the Gospels and the Acts. This is indeed a mighty step or signpost along the way!

11. Expectancy

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 11.  Expectancy

Heb 11:10   For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

In verse 9 the writer to the Hebrews had almost made a point when commenting that Abram lived in tents. He was a nomad of no fixed abode. We noted in that previous meditation that he travelled through the country, either unsure of where he should be or searching for something better. And that summarises how life so often is for us, we are unsure where we should be and searching for something better.

Our motivations may be varied. The person who constantly wants a bigger and better house, car or job may just be an insecure person who needs this sort of thing to make them feel worthy. They want to be looked up to and therefore they have to climb constantly upwards. But for other people there is this same sense of ‘something more’ but that is all it is, a sense that out there, there is yet something more.

It is the tension of the Christian life, having a sense of contentment in all that God has provided for us, yet also a feeling that there is yet more to come. No more is this so than when we are confronted by a situation that could either stay the same of we could seek God for something better and then have to step out in faith for it. Because we know that God has always got something more, there will always be this almost subconscious feeling of what should I be reaching out for?

Yesterday’s meditation was all about expectations and this is really just a continuation of that. We saw, “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.”   Not only was Abram  a tent dweller, an alien in a foreign land, but so were Isaac and Jacob. They all had the promise that one day this land would belong to them, a place where their descendants could settle and built permanent dwellings.  Of course when you put a lot of dwellings together you have a city, thus he now goes on to speak of Abram looking forward to a city, a place of settled permanence in contrast to the tents in which the patriarch lived.

But there is more to it than that, he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”  The fact that he describes it as a city “with foundations” suggests that this is more than physical foundations but a place whose origins go right back in history. This is a city built by God for people.  From Exodus onwards the Bible shows us God working to create a special people, a people who stand out in the world, a people who will reveal Him to the rest of the world, a people who are all the same, God’s people, relating to Him, drawn together by Him, all showing something of His character within them.

Later on the writer will say,   “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:22-24) It is a place where God, His angels and His people dwell together and it is possible because of all that Jesus has done. It is something clearly in the back of his mind for still later in the book we read, “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Heb 13:12-14)  i.e. Jesus was executed on the Cross outside the city, a sign of their rejection of him; thus we too are to leave the place of our habitation in the world – the old Jerusalem – and join him in the world’s rejection because any experience of community here in this world is temporary but the real community of God’s people is still yet to come in its fullness. We have a form of it now but the fullness is yet to come.

We see this in John’s vision in Revelation: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away…. And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Rev 21:2-4,10) God has on His heart a new community of His people who will dwell with Him in eternity and it will be a community where there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”

That is the ‘something’ each of us finds deep within up. Solomon wrote, “I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Eccles 3:10,11) Every human being has something inside them that yearns for more. The person who encounters the Lord, as Abram had, finds in them that this becomes crystallized into a yearning for fellowship with the Lord or a community in which the Lord resides in eternity. Why? Because we now have the Holy Spirit indwelling us and He conveys to us the longing or end goal that that Lord has on His heart for us.  Thus when we encounter the Lord by faith (as we all have to as Christians) then we find this yearning within us that comes from the Lord, for a city, a stable community of God with His people that we will eventually experience at the end or outworking of His plans for us. The more we sense Him the more the experiences of community today will feel inadequate; like Abram we will sense something better with the Lord than we have today. It is all part of the faith package.

10. Is this it?

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 10.  Is this it?

Heb 11:9   By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.

This is the second of four ‘faith’ things in respect of Abraham that the writer to the Hebrews covers. It is easy to miss it but the fact that Abraham “made his home in the promised land” is quite amazing; we’ll explain as we go along. To get to his new home he has had to leave his old home. It’s rather obvious but important. Home had been Ur. He had grown up there and it was familiar. The thought of going somewhere else is challenging. Will it be similar to here? Will I like it? What will it be like?

Going and being “a stranger in a foreign country” for the first time raises questions in the mind. It is easier today with the Internet able to show you images of that country and there is always plenty of information about whatever country it is you want to find out about. I remember the first time I flew out to Malaysia to teach, part of a team. I really had no idea what to expect. A friend of mine went on a similar ministry trip to Nepal and suffered with culture shock for the first week; it is a very real thing.

So God has told him to go and he set off, stopped at Haran but eventually carried on and he arrives in Canaan. Is this the place God meant for us or have we got to travel some more?

When we talk about God leading us by faith, what are we expecting Him to lead us into? What do we think we are going to find ‘when we arrive’? Do we have expectations, good or not so good? Some things are very simple and so we simply hear and do and that it is and we move on to the next thing, but suppose it is something bigger. Suppose it is moving on to a new job or a new career or, like Abram, a new place that we feel the Lord is leading us to? What were you expecting?  Suppose you find something different from what you were expecting? Consider what happened to Abram. There were three things that would make him wonder.

First he encountered different people: Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” (v.6) Faith so often has to do with people and the question that arises is how will these people respond to me? These are Canaanites and they have different gods, in fact they have gods and I have the One true God? Faith for us so often means interaction with people and the same sort of questions will arise in us. How will these people respond to me? What are they like? Who or what are their gods? How will they respond to my God?

Whatever the questions they ultimately boil down to the same fundamental question – am I in the right place, but somewhere along the line the Lord will bring reassurance: “The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. “ (v.7) Ah, that’s not quite what I expected – my offspring? Well yes, the Lord works on a long-term plan and our part is only a part, there is more to follow always. This step of faith may seem big for us but I have to tell you it is only A step and there are more to follow, but you’re in The Plan and God is with you!

So he’s apparently in the right place and has built an altar to worship the Lord, a sign of permanence, but am I to stay here or move on? Is there more to take in this experience: “From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.” (v.8,9) i.e. he kept going. The second thing about faith here is that we don’t settle! This may have been an amazing experience and I am truly blessed having come through it, but this is not a placer to settle. Faith can grow, our experiences can multiply, our lives can mature, we move on!

So far so good, but, “Now there was a famine in the land.” (v.10)  What? It has suddenly gone pear-shaped. This placed that seemed so good initially suddenly seems to be putting pressure on us. We have a problem. What do we do with it? How do we cope with it? Yes, that is precisely the problem and it is a learning situation we have been presented with. The third thing about faith is that so often the Lord leads us into a learning situation and that may be in the very act of faith or in the circumstances resulting from your act of faith.  The sensible thing at this point would be to ask God for wisdom but Abram is only in the very earliest stages of his relationship with the Lord. He has yet to learn that, and its absence is going to get him into trouble which you’ll see if you read on in Genesis.

For Abram this is only the first part of the fulfilment of God’s words to him. He’s stepped out and followed the leading and left his home land and journeyed to the new land. In the new land he has been exploring what is there but in the course of that he finds himself in trying circumstances. The good news is that although he doesn’t do very well in those trying circumstances the Lord doesn’t give up on him and He doesn’t give up on us as we sometimes stumble around in the waters of faith.

9. The Start of a Story

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 9.  The Start of a Story

Heb 11:8   By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.

Every story has a beginning; this was the beginning of Abram’s story. One day he became conscious that he was hearing God. I still find it sad that for many modern Christians they can accept these words about Abram but deny they are possible for themselves. When did God stop being a God of communication? The whole Bible testifies to this. Perhaps the bigger issue for many modern Christians is not so much the “I can’t hear God” but “I don’t want to hear God because that might put a demand on me that I don’t want.”

Perhaps the truth of this – for such people are Christians and so they did hear God when they were genuinely saved and they do hear God and respond to Him through sermons and such like – is that they are not sufficiently secure in their faith to be able to claim they heard God – even though they did! If that is you, claiming that God spoke to you doesn’t make you a super-saint above everyone else, just that you are an ordinary Christian – by New Testament standards at least. God can speak to us through sermons, through prophecy, through reading the Bible, thoughts while we are praying, words from other Christians, through circumstances and not doubt other ways as well.

The fear that some of us have is that we are unsure about God and therefore we would rather make excuses about not hearing than trust ourselves to a God we think is hard and might ask hard things of us. It’s more likely to be our uncertainty of God’s absolute love for us than about anything else. When we were first saved the conviction we first felt was probably more about our failures than about God’s wonder, the wonder comes second and depending on the sort of church we belong to and the sort of teaching we get, we either hear about that wonder, or we don’t.

The amazing thing about Abram (as he was before his name was changed to Abraham) was that he was a pagan living out in the area of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), the area from which the wise men or Magi came seeking Jesus. It was always an area that was known for its seers and so we don’t know how Abram heard God but one way or another he heard sufficiently clearly for the ‘message’ to be written down: The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Gen 12:1) Note the tense of Genesis 12:1 – “had said”. It looks back.

The story is intriguing and starts in the previous chapter: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.” (Gen 11:31) Terah, Abram’s father appears to be the one who led the family from Ur with the intent of going to Canaan (the eventual ‘Promised Land’) but settled in Haran, a city on the way, which is why, when we get into chapter 12 we read, “So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and….Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran…. and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.” (Gen 12:4,5) Now whether the originating word came to Abram back in Ur and he was the one who got his father to lead the family out, or whether Terah caught the sense of God’s intents and set out but gave up at Haran, we don’t know. All we do know is that God spoke to Abram – in Ur or Haran – and Abram heard and responded.

The enormity of this act of faith is noted by the writer to the Hebrews when he says, “even though he did not know where he was going.”  The message had been “go to the land I will show you.”  That ‘will’ indicates a future thing. You start going Abram and I will show you the land. Clearly they must have had some sense of direction and whether the reference to Canaan back in chapter 11 was in retrospect or they heard that as their destination to start with is not certain. The big issue is that, “Abraham, when called to go …. obeyed and went.”

That sums up faith really – God says and we do it. That is faith. It starts with God speaking and is followed by us acting and then there is an outcome which is yet in the future and is in God’s hands. The outcome for Abram was that he would have a new land to live in. As the days went on God made it more and more clear that this land would be his land and the land of his descendants, and of course it has been a land that the enemy has sought to challenge ever since.

So to summarise, dare we ‘hear’ God? Are we sufficiently secure in His love that we can trust that whatever we hear will be for our good and a blessing to us? I have often commented in these meditations (and see the prior brief series on Jeremiah for this) that whenever I have the privilege of bringing a prophetic word from God to someone, so often the response in them is, “Who me? Surely not.” It happened only yesterday when we were praying for healing for a lady who we know from a distance and as we prayed the Lord gave me a lovely word for her. Afterwards she thanked us and I saw that same look of uncertainty in her eyes as she went that said, “Surely that can’t be true? That was too good to be true.” And that takes us back to what I said earlier. Maybe the crucial issue that is before some of us as we go through these thoughts about faith, is whether I dare believe and trust God. Faith is responding to God. You can trust Him. We’ll say some more about this as we follow Abram’s story through. This was just the beginning of it.

6.1 Origins

Part 6: The Struggle for Canaan

Meditating on the Judgements of God:  

6.1 Origins

Gen 15:16   In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.

Of all the questions I have been asked about God, the one that comes most is why did God instruct Israel to wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan? Not only is that perception inaccurate but the understanding of all that went on is complex because it is covered over quite a wide area of the early books of the Bible. Nevertheless, dealing with the Canaanites, one way or another, was clearly on God’s agenda and if it did involve their destruction – or even some other act – then it could constitute a judgement and we need to consider it here.

Our starting point must be to consider ‘the Promised Land’ in a wider context. Our starting place must be with Abram’s family: Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.” (Gen 11:31) Although the patriarch, Terah, seems to have led the family to leave their home in the area of Mesopotamia, we find that the motivator to do it came from Abram for, “The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Gen 12:1) So Abram and his family (less his father who had died in Haran) end up in the land of Canaan.

Later on in his story we find, “The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.” (Gen 13:14,15) Hence we refer to it as ‘the Promised Land’. God promised Abram that this would be his land and the land of his descendants. Later the Lord reiterates this: “He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” (Gen 15:7) It is as they act out a covenant procedure that our verses above appear.

The name Amorites appears to have been used to cover all the inhabitants. As one dictionary says of the state of Canaan 400 years later, “Just how sinful many Canaanite religious practices were is now known from archaeological artefacts and from their own epic literature, discovered at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) on the north Syrian coast beginning in 1929. Their “worship” was polytheistic and included child sacrifice, idolatry, religious prostitution and divination.” They had seriously strayed from God’s design for human beings!

So to summarise so far: God took Abram and his family to this land where he lived alongside the other people groups there. Isaac was born there, as was Jacob and although Jacob left there, fleeing from Esau’s wrath, he did finally come back and settle there, only to leave and settle for his final years in Egypt when a famine struck forcing them to go to Egypt for food provided by Joseph. (We considered the Lord using famines in an earlier study). There they stayed until some four hundred years had passed and Israel developed into probably well over a million people who were forced into slavery by the Egyptians.  In the mean time the state of Canaan was getting progressively worse. In fact it would seem that God waited for that people grouping to get so bad that His judgement was essential, and Israel to get so desperate that they would do anything to escape from Egypt.

The entry into Canaan had been postponed for forty years when Israel refused to enter the land initially in a crisis of confidence when the twelve spies returned with their reports of what they found there. Now the forty years has passed and the previous generation (all those over the age of twenty except Caleb and Joshua) had died off. The next generation are now ready to enter the land and so before we see them doing that we will (1) consider the instructions the Lord gave them, (which many people are confused about), and then (2) see how they progressed from their desert wanderings to arrive at the border of the land, before (3) we will finally see how they got on with the task of clearing the land that the Lord had given them. These will make up the next meditations.

There are two issues to be considered in what follows: judgment on the pagan practices in Canaan, and then providing a home for the nation of Israel. Before we finish this one let us note God’s purpose declared again and again. At the burning bush, the Lord said to Moses, “So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey–the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. (Ex 3:8) 

 Later he instructs him to tell the elders of this:  Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, `The LORD, the God of your fathers–the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob– appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites–a land flowing with milk and honey.’” (Ex 3:16,17).

Finally before the plagues start He reiterates this: “God also said to Moses, “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they lived as aliens,” (Ex 6:2-4)before saying what He will do with the Egyptians but ending yet again with the promise: “And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.’ ” (v.8)

The scene is well and truly set. God’s intentions are clearly stated. In the next meditation we will see how He intended to do that.

1.9 The Testimony of the Bible

Meditating on the Judgements of God:   1.9  The Testimony of the Bible

John 3:16,17   For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

I still have a sense of dissatisfaction, that I have not yet adequately covered the point I am trying to make at the moment and which should be remembered in all that follows. Earlier on we said that God is love and that God is good and that God is perfect and we spelled out definitions to try anchor those words. But when I originally wrote a book on God’s love in the Old Testament, when it came to His goodness, I noticed that the testimonies of such people as David always anchored the term with God’s activities. To keep us from becoming judgment-orientated, even though this is the subject we are working towards, we perhaps need to remind ourselves of some of the good things God has done as shown to us in the Bible. That is what this study is about.

Our starting point has to be the Creation. As we have noted before, when God finished creating the whole of the earth, including us, His assessment of it was that “it was very good” (Gen 1:31). As a world without strife or disharmony in any shape or form, it was good to live in and the provision of fruit and vegetables was amazing. I am told there are over twelve hundred varieties of edible bean in the world today! God’s provision for us is all about pleasure and enjoyment within the boundaries He established. Wonderful!

When Adam and Eve fell He did not destroy them but simply put them outside the garden area where they had known the Lord. He did not give up on His plans for mankind. When we come to look at the judgements of Genesis we will discover that although mankind constantly got it wrong and went from bad to worse, God’s activity was incredibly restrained when it came to dealing with them.

We then find Him starting to build a relationship with a man called Abram and when he doesn’t do very well on occasion, God still keeps on with him – and with his son and his grandson Jacob. In fact His dealings with mankind simply reveal the folly of sin in man and the grace and goodness of God who does not give up on us.

Indeed God works within the sin framework of the world that exists after the Fall, and so copes with Jacob’s self-centred twisting, uses spoilt brat Joseph and allows the chosen family to end up in Egypt where they settle but end up as slaves. He then takes a failure called Moses and uses him to confront the awful sin of the Pharaoh of Egypt and delivers Israel out of his hands. He puts up with the moanings and groanings of Israel as they travel to Sinai and eventually when they refuse to enter the land God has chosen for them, He waits patiently until the generation of unbelief has died off and then takes the next generation to this land described as  a land flowing with milk and honey,” (Ex 3:8) a picture of wonderful provision.

When, long after they have settle there, they demand a king, the Lord does not give up on them but gives them one who fits exactly the king they have in mind, an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites–a head taller than any of the others.” (1 Sam 9:2) Unfortunately he fails and so God gives them another to be king, David, who does unite and establish the kingdom. When it comes to his son, Solomon, we see the peak of God’s blessing when the Queen of Sheba comes to visit and is absolutely overwhelmed by God’s provision (see 1 Kings 10, esp. v.7-9)

When Solomon eventually drifts away form the Lord, the Lord does not give up on them but splits the kingdom to give two opportunities for blessing to flow out of relationship with Him. The northern kingdom fails from the word go and the southern kingdom has good, bad and very bad times. The northern kingdom eventually fails and is carried away and when the southern kingdom settles in for very bad, they too are eventually swept away in what we call the Exile. Now we might have expected God to have given up on these people and utterly destroyed them but to our surprise we find He brings them back to the land and restores them.  Four hundred years later His Son, Jesus, is born into this land.

When we observe the ministry of Jesus the simplest way of describing it is to say he simply did good and kept on doing good in his Father’s name. Through him blessing followed blessing. When he formed a group of disciples he did not give up on their misunderstandings but patiently taught them. He allowed himself to be arrested, falsely tried, condemned and crucified. Three days later he rose from the dead and  instead of preaching death and destruction for this foolish world (both Jew and Gentile), he promised blessing, which came in the form of the outpouring of his Holy Spirit.

When you watch the movement of the Holy Spirit you see power and joy and then gifting of both spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12) and spiritual ministries (Eph 4:11,12), all of which are expression of His ongoing loving intent for us. In and through the Church we see his ongoing blessing of individuals; it is an ongoing picture of the love of God being poured out and poured out in abundance.

Please, although we are going to focus on studying the different types of judgment, and the reasons and purposes involved in judgment, and then specific judgments, please don’t get judgment-centred. Hold to the things we have considered in this first part for the judgments are minimal in comparison to all the goodness that is revealed in the Bible.

2. They had it all

Meditations in Romans, Ch.9-11 : 2:  They had it all

Rom 9:4,5  Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

As Paul reflects on his fellow Jews as an historical people, after his initial expression of anguish for them (the reason for which is not given at this stage but it does become clear that it is because of their hardness against the gospel), he now highlights all the good things they had going for them which marks them out as a unique people.

He now starts out, Theirs is the adoption as sons.” The Lord had declared, “Israel is my firstborn son.” (Ex 4:22) He had adopted Israel, they were a chosen people, a people called into relationship with the Lord. He continues, “theirs the divine glory.”  God’s glory had been a feature of their experiences of Him. (See Ex 16:10, 24:16, 40:34, 1 Kings 8:10,11) There is also the sense that on some occasions Israel were glorified before the eyes of the watching world who saw that God was with them to do great things, but the primary emphasis must be on the presence of the Lord’s glory with them.

Theirs also were “the covenants”. With who else had God made binding agreements?  The Lord had entered into a covenant with Abram (Gen 15:17,18), and with  Israel at Sinai (Ex 19:5,6, 24:3,4) and later again Deut 29:1-15 and Josh 8:30-35 and so on. Also they were known as the only people “receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.” Guidance, direction, commands and promises has all been part of their experience with the Lord. Who else in the world had received all this? No one!

He reflects on. It started right back with Abram: “Theirs are the patriarchs” seen in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob before the nation was fully formed. But from them, “is traced the human ancestry of Christ.” Jesus may have been the divine-man but the man side could be traced right back to these people. When God chose to come in human form, that human form was part of a family that went back centuries in the history of this people. This Christ, who had come out of their midst “is God over all.”  Isn’t that incredible! And for that He is to be “forever praised!”

So there is it. They are a remarkable people, made remarkable by their relationship with God Almighty. He had chosen their early fathers, He had called them into being as a nation after miraculously delivering them out of Egypt,  He had given them law by which to live, He had led them to take the Promised Land, and He had been with them throughout the centuries of their existence calling them again and again back to Him. They are an amazing people!

But Paul looks at this people who had been called to be a light to the Gentiles (Isa 42:6) a light to reveal God to the rest of the world, the people of God supposedly, a people relating to God and revealing God, and he realises that they had fallen short of all that.  So often they had turned away from God, so often they appeared no different from the rest of the world, and he ponders on this.

It is not as though God’s word had failed.” (v.6a) God had spoken, God had called, God had chided, God had made the way ahead plain and clear, God had corrected, God had promised, God had shown the potential of a wonderful future. Yes, in all these ways God had spoken and God’s word had come forth. But had His words failed? Had all His words missed the target, fallen on the floor so to speak and been to no avail? No, His words had not failed, they had all been true and nothing that He had said had been untrue or contributed to their failures. No, from God’s side there was no failure. So what was the truth?

Then he makes this astounding statement which upset so many: “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” We may look at millions of people that we call ‘Israel’ but the Israel that God speaks about are a people of faith, a people truly relating to God. If they are not people of faith, if they do not truly relate to Him they are NOT Israel, God’s people. That is God’s verdict.  Throughout Israel’s history there had been a faithful remnant, the true people of God; the rest simply went by the name, performed the rituals but had no real relationship with God. The Lord works on reality, what is real and true, not on the names we call ourselves.  ‘Christians’ for example, are not just church goers or good people, they are faith people, people who have put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour and been born again of the Spirit of God. These are not merely words, they are the reality. Paul continues making the point: “Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.” (v.7) They may be literal descendants but as far as God is concerned real descendants are those who faith people like Abraham was. It’s not about outward appearance; it’s about inner reality.  What is your inner reality?

16. Prosperity

Meditations in the life of Abraham : 16. Prosperity

Gen 13:1-2   So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.

This is the third indication that we have read of Abram’s growing prosperity. The first was back at Haran: “He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan.” (Gen 12:5) The second was in Egypt: “He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.” (Gen 12:16) And we come to today’s verses which act as a summary of what has happened.

Previously we assumed that Abram had had cattle and sheep beforehand because they tend to be the currency of the wealthy in those days, but actually there was no actual mention of them until Egypt. So perhaps a more accurate picture (and we can’t be sure) of Abram’s change would be: leaving Ur as a traveling nomad, settles in Haran for a while and accumulates ‘possessions’ – moves on to Canaan – moves on to Egypt where he acquires sheep, cattle, donkeys, camels and more servants.

Now I don’t know if you have noticed something interesting in all of this. Twice Abram had apparently strayed from his calling, once when he settled in Haran, and second, when he went down to Egypt.  Moreover it was in those places that he gained riches! Is this to advocate straying from the Lord’s plan? Heaven forbid! No, but it does say that the Lord will use every opportunity to bless His new follower. Do you believe the Lord will only bless you when things are going well?  Be clear on what happened in both these times. First he settled in Haran because his father settled there and, I suggest, he honoured his father by staying there a while at least. He wasn’t there out of his own making. In the second instance, it was a famine in the Land that drove him south to Egypt. If there had been no famine he would not have gone. He did not go freely to either of these places. People and circumstances pressed him to go where he went.

But they weren’t the places of God’s calling for him. No, but that won’t stop the Lord blessing him. The Lord blesses him, not because of where he is but because of who he is. All the Lord requires is our obedience and when we are we find we are in the way of His blessing. When we wilfully disobey Him then things go wrong, but that isn’t His desire for us; He desires us to be in the place of blessing. We are afraid of this principle sometimes because we feel pastorally concerned for those who are not well off. Well, let’s change our approach. Let’s be positive and ask how we can bring them into blessing. Please note I didn’t say just make them well off. Blessing is good that comes from God. For good to come from God we have to lead people into a place of relationship with Him.

Is God going to bless those who have no relationship with Him? No quick answers here because even the unrighteous are often well off. There is possibly something her about God’s permissive will rather than His active will, i.e. He allows rather than brings affluence. But, again, go back to Deut 28 and there is no question but God promises blessing on His people who will obey Him, and that blessing can be seen in material terms.

At the very least when we come to the Lord, we want to check with Him that we are doing what He wants us to be doing in terms of career. Thereafter as we seek Him and seek His wisdom (Jas 1:5) we should expect our lives to improve. Now that may not mean money. Three times in my working life I made career changes and three times I took a third cut in salary to do it, but my quality of life greatly improved on each occasion. Money does not necessarily equate with quality of life.  But quality of life (and that may include material blessing) is something to concern us but the most important thing is to seek and do His will as He reveals it to us. Speaking about things or possessions, Jesus said, But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 6:33)  Putting the rule of God first is key.

The apostle Paul was later to write, we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom8:28) Note the components of that well-known verse. What God is doing – working for our good. Where – in all things. Who is He doing it for – those who love Him. Why only them? Because He needs our cooperation to do so much in our lives and He has that in those who love Him. If someone disregards Him and refuses Him (and He sees that is how they will always be) how can He work with their cooperation? He can’t!  Don’t worry about them; focus on your own relationship with the Lord. Ensure your heart is open to Him and you understand His will for you and you live according to that – then leave the rest to Him. Amen?

13. A Plan

Meditations in the life of Abraham : 13. A Plan

Gen 12:11-13    As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, `This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”

People sometimes get confused with the Bible when they are asked, “Is it all inspired?” The answer has to be “Yes!”, for “All Scripture is God-breathed.” (2 Tim 3:16) but that doesn’t mean to say that we take everything we read as right and an example to be followed. In Job, for example, we find his three friends saying wrong things and so we need to discern what was right in their discussions. In Ecclesiastes we find Solomon writing out of a period in his life when he has lost contact with God. There is much to learn in it but we must realise the context. Now here in the story of Abram we find him following a course of action which is only a half truth and we cannot say we should follow his example here.

What we must do is remember what we’ve said before: this is the story of a man whose faith is embryonic and he is feeling his way through life and not getting it all right. We’ll see more of this as the story progresses. In this instance Abram does not pray and seek God for protection as he goes intoEgypt. He hasn’t learned to do that yet, as many young Christians don’t learn it until later in life. Instead he hatches a plan for his own protection, though it may not go well for Sarai. Not good!

At the heart of his scheme is fear. He fears that when he goes into the land and the powerful people there see his beautiful wife they will kill him to take her. The only way, as he sees it, is to distance himself from Sarai in some way. So he tells her to say that she is merely his sister. Now, as we said before, there is a half truth in this. We find at a later incident him explaining, “she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife.” (Gen 20:12) In other words Terah had either been married before, or had two wives or had a second wife when the first one presumably died, and through the other woman had had Sarai. She was, in fact, Abram’s step-sister.

As the story progresses, we will see that it is the Lord who protects her, but Abram wasn’t to know that. Put very simply, he has hatched a human plan to protect himself that involves a half-truth and putting his wife at risk. Not very honourable – but he knows no better. Note, as we said before, the Lord doesn’t reject him. The Lord will not approve this course of action, but He will also not reject this man with his young faith. What reassurance! How many times in our lives have we been godless (not referring our problems to Him) and planned our own way through our difficulties in ways that have been less than perfect, if not less than good?   The reality is that on our own (and the ‘old nature’ is just waiting to rise up and do its own thing without reference to God) we have done this and will do this many times before we get to heaven. Of course the Lord wants us to learn to refer everything to Him, but it IS a learning process and that means it happens slowly and gradually.

Please see the truth here of what we have been saying. This is why Jesus died – for our sins, big ones and little ones, sins of commission (thing we do wrong) and sins of omission (where we should have done something). Where you are, is not where God wants you to be; He wants you to change! He has something better for you than you are now.  If you are still following this behaviour pattern as much in five years as you are now, you haven’t learnt what the Lord is trying to teach you.

The Scripture is quite clear. When you don’t know how to do something, or you can’t see the way through difficulties, ASK the Lord: If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (Jas 1:5) and “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6,7) There it is: talk to the Lord about these sorts of things. Look to Him for answers. But if you are sufficiently young in the faith, and forget to do this, the Lord will not reject you – just give you some more difficulties until you do learn to do this! Be blessed!