5. The Big Picture

Studies in Isaiah 54: 5. The Big Picture

Isa 54:6 “The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.

Two Approaches:  As we look at this verse it appears that there can be two approaches to it. There is the approach that sees it in the context of the history of Israel and then the approach that sees it in the context of the history of the world. Put most simply we have a picture that portrays a wife who has been rejected, deserted and distressed, which can be either Israel or the world (and we will look at both) whom the Lord calls back to Himself. What follows in the ongoing verses is simply an expansion of that.

Israel, the wife: This has to be the primary meaning within a prophecy that comes from a Hebrew prophet to Israel in their time-space history. We must note the words in verse 6, “as if you were”. It is a picture, an analogy, to describe what they are like. The implication is that the Lord is like their husband. He had called them – through Abram and then later through Moses – to become a uniquely identifiable people with a uniquely distinct relationship with Him, a relationship likened to that of a husband and wife.

When? Now there is always a problem with prophecy: it may be spoken out of time, about a future time, a future time that is not yet identifiable, and it may be fulfilled more than once! So the Lord speaks of a time when He had apparently given them up: “For a brief moment I abandoned you,” (v.7a) and, “In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment.” (v.8a) Now in Isa 36 we have an historical insert: “In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. Then the king of Assyria sent his field commander with a large army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem.”  (Isa 36:1,2)

It was one of those numerous times when the Lord would discipline Israel – to bring them back to Himself – by using an enemy invader. The reality is that it happened so many times – the book of Judges is full of it – that it is difficult to suggest from our perspective when the Lord was referring to. The fact that Isaiah refers to Cyrus, who later becomes an instrument in the Lord’s hand for getting Israel back to the Land after the Exile, suggests it could be that this prophecy is yet to be also used for encouraging Israel in that later time as well as in the present when Isaiah is actually speaking out these words.

A Changed People:  The point of this word – in the present at least – is to reassure Israel that they were not utterly cast away. Now the truth is that the Lord does not just shrug his shoulders and pretend that sin has not happened; He always deals with it. The Exile, possibly many years later, was a time of purging Israel of their idolatry and of creating a new faithful heart in them. Thus when the remnant eventually started returning after some forty years, they came back with changed hearts. We need to realize this, that when the Lord speaks of restoring Israel after a time of disciplining, it is a purged people He will be restoring, a changed people.

He’s not going to just turn the clock back so that the old sinful attitudes are still there and He is doing nothing about it, He is going to change them. Previously, if He appeared to be doing nothing, it was simply that He was staying His hand of judgment to give them time to repent, and if they did not, then the judgment came to discipline them: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)

So when we try to understand the ways of the Lord, we should always understand that even though discipline comes, it comes with the purpose of changing us and the end result is to be a restored and changed people, a people who have been cleansed by the judgment (discipline) and had their hearts changed and transformed. Perhaps we should also note the tense at the beginning of verse 6: “The Lord will call you back…” There is a future sense to this. It is the Lord declaring His intention of what is yet to come, but that is how it is so often with prophecy; it is not merely stating God’s will for the moment, it also so often declares it for the future.

The World:  But the second approach we said above is about the world. The big picture of salvation after the Fall is perhaps portrayed here. This is the big picture of God’s plans and purposes for the whole world. At the Fall we were cast away. His relationship with mankind – Adam and Eve – was fractured by sin. When I first studied this judgment of being cast out of the Garden, I marveled that this was not the end of the ‘God + Mankind’ equation. God did not totally abandon us, He gave us what we wanted, what Adam and Eve had revealed, autonomy, the freedom to live our lives as we will – with all the repercussions!  We would learn, we had a need, of someone to save us from the mess that we all make of life.  And thus it was that it was like He hovered in the background. It was clear that He spoke with Cain and Abel, had dealings with various others in the ensuing years, and eventually called Abram into relationship with Him.

The Anger of the Lord: The words of these verses that we are considering could equally be applied to the Fall and what followed it: “The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.” (v.6) They had a relationship with the Lord to start with, but their sin meant that, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment.“ (v.7,8) The folly of sin evokes righteous anger; it is a right response to wrong.

In our defensiveness we so often fail to see this, perhaps only made clear when one of our children do wrong and provoke anger within us.  Anger is a rising of indignation, a rising of displeasure at what has happened. The thing should not have happened, it was pure folly for it to happen – and of course that is true of all sin, we should know better, but there seems to be this blindness that is part of sin, so that we don’t see the folly and so proceed with the sin. It is stupid and so any onlooker with an unbiased mind would feel a sense of anger that it ever happened. If we could see clearly we would feel it; God does see clearly and so feels it.

The Compassion of the Lord:  “I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer.” We may settle in anger and fume; God never does. It may be right to respond with anger at our folly but God never leaves it there. He looks upon us and anger is tempered by compassion. He is love (1 Jn 4:8,16, Ex 34:6,7) and love always looks for the best in everyone else. Anger is appropriate but it is overwhelmed by compassion and out of that God acts to redeem us.

There is a mystery here that C.S.Lewis sought to address, that God appears to stand outside of history, like He looks down on history, as seen as a road below that He can see from beginning to end, but also He steps into history and acts as if everything is new. So although the Scriptures are clear that the Godhead planned salvation, seeing the effect of free-will, even before they made anything, when the Fall took place God’s response to the moment was anger followed by compassion, and it was that compassion that moves Him to continue to interact with mankind. Never say God doesn’t care for us, He does. He may discipline us, “for a little while” (Heb 12:10) but it is that Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.”  (Heb 12:11).

Thus in these verses we also have the wonder of our salvation. Whenever we fail the Lord and come under His discipline, always remember it is but for a moment and the compassion of God will be there to restore us to Him: “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 2:1) God’s constant intent is to redeem us and that is what the whole of the Bible is all about. See it and rejoice in it.  Hallelujah!

18. Warning about Anger

Reaching into the Psalms 1 to 4:   18. Warning about Anger

Psa 4:4 (ESV)   Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.

This is another of those verses that translators have struggled with. I have used the ESV which is the same as the NKJV and some older versions, but even they have a footnote attached to ‘be angry’ that suggests an alternative as ‘be agitated’ or ‘tremble’ (NKJV) and “Tremble and do not sin” is the NIV.

Anger? Let’s take the thought of anger first of all. In the New Testament the apostle Paul uses this verse: “Be angry, and do not sin”: do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” (Eph 4:26) The truth is that anger is an experience we all have at some time or other. David spoke of this more fully in a later psalm: do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.” (Psa 37:7,8) We may get angry when we are offended and that is more of a defence mechanism. However we may rightly get angry (because God does) when we see wilful wickedness in the world around us. Habakkuk, we noted in the study of the previous psalm, was obviously angry when he cried out, “How long, O Lord, must I call for help? But you do not listen! “Violence is everywhere!” I cry, but you do not come to save.” (Hab 1:2) It is right to be angry about things that are clearly seriously wrong.

The Danger: The problem with anger is that it can flare up, burst forth and cause harm and upset. As David said, “it leads only to evil.” Not only can it cause harm to others as you may inflict your emotions on them, but it may in turn inflame them and cause them to retaliate and both might well be unrighteous. So the version above says, “Be angry (BUT) and do not sin.” I have inserted the ‘but’ there to imply that anger may be right but if it is carried on it may lead into sin.

Complexity: On the other hand there is a case to be made for suggesting that David is almost instructing us to be angry so that we do not sin. The challenge in verse 2 had been about godless unrighteousness in the land (and maybe in those bringing about these circumstances) and it is right to be angry about such things, in fact complacency almost becomes sin (“forgive us the things we have not done.”) What a complex things this anger is. Sometimes it is sin not to be angry but when we do become angry it becomes sin if we hold on to it.

Wrong and Right Responses: Why might that be? Why does it become sin to hold on to it? If we hold on to anger it means we are revelling in it, relishing it almost, using it, but it is never meant for that. I conclude that anger is meant to highlight injustice and wrong, but once we have observed that, the righteous ongoing response is to give it over to the Lord. Why? Two reasons. First, we may be wrong, we may have wrongly understood or only partially understood the situation and so we need to hand it back to the Lord for His assessment of it – “Lord will you judge this.” But second, more often than not, in reality you and I are incapable of really changing that evil, only God can, and sometimes we have to give it to Him and submit to His wisdom over it. He may want to deal with that person, here and now, or He may leave them for His greater purposes and only deal with them at the Final Judgment. Whichever it is, He knows best and we would be wise to simply submit it to Him. Perhaps part of our ongoing praying might be to ask, “Lord, is there anything you want me to do about this situation?” Merely because we say ‘submit it to the Lord’, does not imply passivity; it is simply suggesting we present the situation to the heavenly court for the will of God to be worked out in respect of it.

Ponder it: “Ponder in your own hearts on your beds” or as the NIV puts it, “when you are on your beds, search your hearts.”  i.e. we need to check out what we are feeling and thinking. Why I am feeling like this? What has caused me to react like this? Is there an element of self-centred, self-interest in my response? What is the truth about this situation? What does God feel about it? I wonder how many times we let things fester in our minds because we do not submit our feelings and thoughts to rigorous examination. Do I need to hold scripture up before me? I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:44,45)

Am I perfect? Do I always get it right? What is my ‘offender’ going through? What has brought this about? Could I have prevented it? Was I the cause of it? The more I ask such questions of myself the more I silence and quench the anger.

I am aware that in these paragraphs I have veered away from anger that arises from observing general human iniquity (such as human slave trading) to anger that arises when I am dealing with another person, and I have done that because I don’t believe most of us get angry about the big sins of the world – we duck them because they seem too big for us to do anything about – but we do often encounter trying circumstances that involve others and it is within those that we hear words spoken, things said and done, that raise our ire.

So yes, when I start asking the questions of myself that challenge my honesty and integrity, then I find I go silent. Thus David’s last words of this verse: “be silent”, and they come as a result of the pondering in bed. In bed? Yes, in line with Paul’s words, “do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” i.e. don’t go to sleep in a state of agitation. If you go to bed still angry, get up and sort it, don’t let it drag on. If there is an unrighteous situation, do what we said above, commit it to the Lord with the option of being told what part He might want us to play in changing things.

Can I insert a word of wisdom here before we finish? If you are angry within yourself because of something someone else has said or done, it may be that it is your sensitivity or your misunderstanding of the situation and nothing to do with the other person. If we have contributed to the situation then it may be appropriate to apologise or even ask for forgiveness but if your anger is one of these other things, then can I counsel you not to dump it on that other person with an apology, especially if they know nothing of your wrong reaction. The other thing today is don’t go public with your unrighteous indignation, certainly not on social media. If someone has offended you, you confront them lovingly in private and with humility. If you are out for blood, you are acting unrighteously. Don’t do it. If you genuinely want to be godly, then seek reconciliation with grace, wisdom and humility and only after you have paused, slept on it for a night and been open before the Lord. Such a simple verse but with such profound potential.

37. Marching Orders

Part 5: Wrapping it Up

Meditations in Exodus: 37. Marching Orders

Ex 11:1   Now the LORD had said to Moses, “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt. After that, he will let you go from here, and when he does, he will drive you out completely.

So enormous is the tenth and last plague that it takes two chapters to cover it. These ten verses that make up chapter 11 can be divided into three sections. Section 1 starts “Now the Lord had said to Moses…” so it is a recapping of what had happened, what the Lord had previously said to Moses but interestingly it does not include all of the Lord’s instructions because Moses clearly knows what to say in section 1 but that was not mentioned here in the first section. Section 2 starts with, “So Moses said,”  which was what was happening in the present, his confronting Pharaoh. Section 3, like v.1, has, The LORD had said to Moses,” and so is again a recap-summary section.

Very well, Section 1, verses 1 to 3. The Lord had told Moses, “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt. After that, he will let you go from here, and when he does, he will drive you out completely.” (v.1) First there is the intention of a last plague. Next there is the effect of that plague: Pharaoh will let you go but, even more than that, he will drive you out, so dramatic will it be.

But then the Lord gave a simple instruction to pass on to the Israelites: “Tell the people that men and women alike are to ask their neighbors for articles of silver and gold.” (v.2) We’ll see more of this later but it is God’s way of blessing His people – and after all, they have earned it being slaves for these people!!!! Then there is what almost appears an aside and the interpreters have put it in brackets, “(The LORD made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and Moses himself was highly regarded in Egypt by Pharaoh’s officials and by the people.)” (v.3) Some may want to say that this was simply because of the way Moses had brought the plagues with their gradual increasing in intensity but whether it is here, or elsewhere where it speaks of the Lord’s favour (e.g. Gen 39:2-5, 20-23), I believe the Lord speaks into the minds of people, almost certainly without them realizing it but nevertheless influencing them. Remember the Lord had said this was to happen right back at the burning bush: “And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.” (Ex 3:21,22)

Next, Section 2, verses 4 to 8.  The fact that this section closes with, “Then Moses, hot with anger, left Pharaoh.” (v.8b) shows us that what Moses said, he said to Pharaoh, so he tells Pharaoh, “This is what the LORD says: `About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well.” (v,4,5) Again the warning is clear and very specific. It is horrendous! Every firstborn son throughout Egypt (and including any cattle they have presumably bought in from neighbours) will die about midnight.

Now note the differentiation: “There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt–worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any man or animal.’ Then you will know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” (v.6,7) This is going to be epic, this will cause an anguish in the people of Egypt like they have never before experienced. You will hear the wailing across the land, first from one house, then another, and another and another, until all over the inhabited parts of Egypt wailing will be heard – except in Goshen where the Israelites live, for they will not be touched.

So, Moses concludes, “All these officials of yours will come to me, bowing down before me and saying, `Go, you and all the people who follow you!’ After that I will leave.” (v.8) In other words this will be so bad that all your officials will be past caring and they will not bother what you think, they will come and bow before me and plead for us to leave – and then we will (you stupid idiot!).  OK I’ve added that last bit but that is clearly what Moses feels when we read, “Then Moses, hot with anger, left Pharaoh.” Hot with anger? He is fuming at Pharaoh’s stupidity that has brought it to this point.

What is interesting is that at the end of the previous chapter we read, “Pharaoh said to Moses, “Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.” “Just as you say,” Moses replied, “I will never appear before you again.” (v.28,29) Yet, now Moses is before Pharaoh and he has a message that is so devastating that he is past caring what Pharaoh might feel or say.

So we come to Part 3, verses 9 & 10 which simply provides context into which to put everything else – this is all panning out just as the Lord had said: “The LORD had said to Moses, “Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you–so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.” (v.9) There are no surprises here – only what the individual plagues are, simply described as God’s ‘wonders’, And then comes the final description that sums it all up: “Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country.” (v.10) Moses and Aaron had, in one sense, been called to a hopeless task, to confront Pharaoh again and again and again – knowing he would not relent!

Remember right from the outset at the burning bush the Lord had said, “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go.”  (Ex 3:19,20) He had then gone on to spell out the end-game: “The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then say to Pharaoh, `This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’ “  (Ex 4:21-23).

So there it is, we are now into the end game – or perhaps not, there is a lot more to come from Pharaoh but for now we are about to witness a terrible judgment, not just because Pharaoh was pig-headed but because this whole people had so strayed from what God had designed human beings to be. How terrible.

1.4 Love, Anger and Judgment

Meditating on the Judgments of God: 1.4  God’s Love and Anger and Judgment

Deut 9:18-20  I ate no bread and drank no water, because of all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the LORD’s sight and so provoking him to anger. I feared the anger and wrath of the LORD, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you. But again the LORD listened to me. And the LORD was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him, but at that time I prayed for Aaron too

While we are still in this first part laying down foundations of understanding God before we move into considering specific judgments, there is an aspect of the Lord that is vital to investigate. So often, it appears, God seems to be motivated by anger. The Bible often refers to the ‘wrath of God’ and wrath is just strong anger. So how does this fit with a God of love. I believe we need to understand here two things. First that love shows itself in a number of different ways, and then, second, how emotions and rational assessment of wrong are related.

Let’s try and understand how love is there but may be expressed in different ways. Let’s think about a loving human father. Some of us may be turned off because we haven’t experienced a loving father, but stay with me if you will as we consider how a loving father might express his love for his child or children. Here are a variety of ways, and they are ALL expressions of love:

i) Sacrificial Earner: He works long hours to earn money to provide for the needs of the family. It often means he is not there for them –  but it is an expression of the strong love he has for them

ii) Gentle listener and encourager: He sits with his children, reading to them and listening to them, and encouraging them. He is there for them and they feel secure with him there.

iii) Firm Limiter: When they ask for things that are harmful, he withholds them and gently says no. They don’t understand and think him mean, but it is an expression of his caring concern for their protection and wellbeing that makes him say no.

iv) Strong Corrector: From time to time he brings necessary correction for he can see destructive traits growing in his child and so he brings correction to try to encourage them to not go in that direction. Sometimes that correction appears hard and painful, but he only brings it when it has become obvious that his wilful child will respond to no other correction.

v) Shadows Watcher: Sometimes he stands back and simply watches his child from a distance. He has conveyed his wisdom but his child needs to learn it for himself or herself, sometimes by the hard way of failure. Yet he is always there in the shadows watching them, ready to come the moment he is called and always there for them.

Similarly we may see God doing things that perplex us, but we must realise that they will always be expressions of His love.

  • Sometimes He provides, and sometimes He seems to be there for us and encourages us, and those times seem good to us.
  • But then sometimes we ask for things and He either says no or remains silent, for He knows that either now is not the right time or there is something better He wants for us.
  • Sometimes bad things seem to come into our lives and for a time we can see no good reason for them. Yet in the fullness of time we see how they benefited us,  or what God was able to bring about and achieve through them.
  • Sometimes God seems distant and we wonder why, and it is only later that we come to realise that He was teaching us to stand on our own two feet, or to appreciate Him more.

In a whole variety of ways God’s love is expressed differently – but it is still love.

Now to move on to the second aspect, and that is of emotion versus rational assessment. When something wrong or very bad is done, it is right to be angry about it. At Lazarus’s tomb, when Jesus wept, there was also in the original Greek a sense of anger involved, anger at sin that had brought death, and anger at the grief it had caused. If we are complacent about wrongs, it means we have become hard hearted and callous and indifferent to injustice. Sometimes it needs something to strike close to home before we wake up and accept that strong emotions rightly arise when evil hits. Righteous anger is, as a dictionary puts it, “passionate displeasure”

Please distinguish angers from reactive hostility or revenge. Righteous anger is simply an objective emotion that responds rightly to wrong. What follows, when it is God, is a dispassionate objective assessment of what to do about it.

God’s judgement is His dispassionate objective assessment of what to do about the wrong which has been highlighted by His instinctive anger.

Our passionate displeasure rises up in the face of something awful, something wrong. If it is us, we react and may over-react and get it wrong but God, we saw, is perfect so He looks and He assesses what is the right thing to do, the perfect thing to do, the thing to be done in the light of ALL of the facts of both past, present and future. Only He can do this, for He knows all things and He knows how things could work out and how they can work out and how they will work out, and all the differences depend on His actions now. He chooses that which is perfect.  But all of that follows His anger which triggers this assessment, a righteous anger that highlights the awfulness of what is being observed. His anger leads to His judgement but that judgement is objective.

So when we look at His acts of judgment in the Bible, realise you don’t have all the facts, your emotions are stunted, you see imperfectly, but God has seen, God has assessed perfectly, and even though you cannot see it, know that what He has done has been The best, The only right thing to be done.  Bear ALL of this in mind when you think of the Judgment of God.  This may give us a great deal of fuel to ponder on WHY God brings a particular judgement and why having made a dispassionate objective assessment of what to do about it, God’s judgement is this particular thing – which, with all the facts and information available to Him, is faultless!

2. Difficult Times

Meditations in David’s Psalms : 2 :  Difficult Times  – Psa 4

Psa 4:1   Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer.

The heading over this psalm simply attributes it to David, but gives it no historical context.  The clues to the causes or reasons why David wrote particular psalms, often comes at the beginning. The plea at the beginning, Answer me when I call to you,” (v.1a) supposes that prayer isn’t just one-way. David expects God to respond. It may not be in words, but in God’s activity. Note how he speaks of the Lord: “O my righteous God.” This is God who always does rightly. David is sure that this is what God is like and many modern day Christians would do well to take this on board: God only does what is right or, to put it slightly differently, whenever God acts, He will be acting in a right way in the face of the way He has designed this world. David prays with expectations of God, that God who acts rightly in every situation will do what is right for him.

Then he gives us the reason for this psalm: “Give me relief from my distress.” Something or someone is causing David distress or upset and he wants it to end. For this reason, he asks the Lord a second time, “be merciful to me and hear my prayer.” He wants God to hear his prayer and, by implication, respond to it. But he realises he has no personal grounds on which to twist God’s arm. All he can do is plead for mercy. Mercy is a favourable response that is not warranted or earned, but just given, for no other reason than the person wants to grant it.

David turns from his prayer – a one verse prayer! – and looks outward to those who cause him stress: “How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame?” (v.2a) His glory? His role in life as assigned by God – to be king over Israel.  Somehow they were thwarting his purposes in God! He says something that sheds further light on that: “How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?”  Ah! Perhaps his glory is the glory of Israel as a nation under God. These people who are causing him distress have departed from the truth and are following idols and as such they shame Israel and they shame David.

David then seeks to reassure himself: “Know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself,” (v.3a) and the implication is that he knows he is godly and therefore God has time for him and so, “the LORD will hear when I call to him.” (v.3b) Note the logic: God listens to the godly, I am godly, therefore God will listen to me.

But then it is as if he speaks to a wider audience, not merely the unbelievers. He talks to those who may read this psalm, ordinary believers and who may question the thought of being godly:  David says the Lord has time for the godly. Am I godly? He thinks of things that may cause doubt in the average person and may make them follow a godless course:  “In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and trust in the LORD.” (v.4,5) In other words life being what it is, it is a fruitful place for anger to spring up and that can lead on to, or even be a source of, godlessness. When we get angry we get self-centred and leave God out of the equation. The apostle Paul was to write, possibly with this psalm in mind, “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” (Eph 4:26 ) i.e. if you do get angry, don’t hang on to it!  The psalmist was saying, if you think you have sinned with your anger, do what you know the law requires and offer a sacrifice for sin and then trust the Lord for His forgiveness. That is the godly approach. We all get it wrong from time to time, but the important thing is how we handle it!

In the face of this negative influence within his country, from those who were unbelievers and turning to idols, David foresees some people’s responses: “Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?” (v.6a). There were clearly divided loyalties in the land, some being faithful to the Lord and some not, and the feeling was obviously, “Why are we in this mess?  Where is God? What about the idols, can they help?” Thus he turns back to the Lord with a further cry: “Let the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD.”  (v.6b) i.e. Lord, please come and make yourself be known, be the answer to all the doubters (implied).

Then in the concluding part of the psalm we find a sense of assurance that so often comes to the believer once they have cried out to the Lord. It is almost as if this is part of God’s answer, this reassurance that comes in and through prayer: “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.” (v.7) How incredible! One minute he is crying out to the Lord in his sense of need to be relieved of his distress, and the next minute he is talking about being filled with joy, yet this is exactly what happens when the believer cries to the Lord and then receives this assurance. It is a complete confidence that is expressed as joy.

The result of this now, is that David can say, “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” (v.8) With this joy bubbling in him, the anxieties of ungodly people being in his land are washed away and he is left with this sense of complete security. The Lord is in command and He will deal with them (implied) and so David can go to sleep and leave them for the Lord to sort out and thus the Lord will bring him into a place of complete security.

11. Jesus the Righteous One

Meditations in 1 John : 11 :  Jesus the Righteous One

1 John  2:1,2   My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

We have considered the first two sentences of these verses so that only leaves the last sentence, which is one which has received a variety of interpretations, so significant is its content. The crucial words for theologians are ‘atoning sacrifice’. Older versions of the Bible used the word ‘propitiation’ and at least one version used the word ‘expiation’. Unfortunately none of these words are words we use commonly each day and so we need to explain them to see what theologians have been struggling with.

‘Propitiation’ refers to appeasing an offended or angry person. ‘Expiation’ refers to paying the penalty and making amends for. To ‘atone’ means to make amends for and bring reconciliation.

Now the Bible does speak about the anger or wrath of God. Why does God get angry when, it is clear, before the foundation of the world, He knew before He created the world, that Adam and Eve would fall, and sin would enter the world. When we look up instances of God specifically being seen to be angry, we find He focuses His anger on wrong behaviour (see Num 11:10 with the Israelites’ grumbling about manna, and Num 22:22 when Balaam’s actions of going with the Princes of Moab, and Deut 1:34 at Israel’s unbelief about entering the Land.).

Now anger is displeasure expressed strongly. To consider the opposite, how would we think of someone who was utterly calm and indifferent in the face of, say, a gross injustice? Suppose you heard of a gang rape in a street, say, and that there had been a policeman standing by watching, completely indifferent to what he was seeing? I think you would be horrified. Anger is a legitimate and even righteous reaction to gross wrong.

Now of course God knows the wonder of the perfect world that He made and He sees the awfulness of sin and its effects. When Jesus came to the tomb of Lazarus and saw Mary and the others weeping, the text says that he was deeply moved (Jn 11:33,34). The verb there suggests an element of anger was part of that feeling, as well as love and compassion. Jesus was angry with the effect of sin. Put it in its simplest form and we can say that God has strong negative feelings about the presence of Sin, feelings that prompted Him to do something about it. That started right back before the foundation of the world when the Godhead planned for salvation following sin. To see this in its various forms look up Jn 17:24 , 1 Pet 1:20, Eph 1:4, Rev 17:8, Rev 13:8, 2 Tim 1:9, Tit 1:2. God, knowing that with free will, mankind would turn from Him, was moved to plan for Jesus to come and do what He did on the Cross.

There is, of course, another way of putting this and it is to refer to justice. Justice is all about bringing right to remedy wrong. A child knows all about justice when they cry out, “Mummy, that’s not fair, he’s got more sweets than me.” The child is referring to an innate sense of right and wrong and calls on the mother to correct a wrong situation. This is what justice does, and we all have this sense in some measure. When a serious wrong is committed, we demand that the police take action to catch the culprit and deal with him or her. Of course when it comes to our own wrongs, we excuse them or make little of them, but they are still wrongs. Count them over a lifetime and there will be a lot of them, and there is justice demanding you be dealt with!

Until we took our eyes off God as a nation, we believed in capital punishment for especially serious crimes. Supposing the truth is that THE most serious crime is to turn your back on God – because all other ‘lesser’ crimes follow and flow out of that one? Most of us are blind to the awfulness of that one most serious of crimes and its effect and so we probably need to pray for revelation to understand it, but that is at the heart of the call of the Bible for sin to be punished by death – because in the face of a perfect God and a perfect world that he made, what we have done and become is horrific. How can justice be satisfied?

This is where John comes in. Jesus, the Son of God has died as a sacrifice (a sacrifice is something that didn’t need to die, that had no cause to die, but was put to death for a purpose.) The purpose of the Old Testament sacrifices for sin was to point to what Jesus, the Lamb of God, would do on the Cross.

We were slightly inaccurate earlier on because we hadn’t fully finished with the previous sentence because there Jesus as referred to as the Righteous One. There has been no one in all of history apart from him to whom that description could be applied. It means that in everything he thought, said or did, he was righteous (did what was exactly right!)  He had no sins of his own to pay for and so his death was totally unwarranted; he was a perfect sacrifice.  Yet he did it because as God, only he was “big enough” to die for every sin in the world, both of the Jews and now of the Gentiles (that’s John’s reference to not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.)

This is why we can approach God today without fear, because Jesus has stepped into our place and taken every single thought, word or deed of ours that has been wrong and he has taken whatever punishment ‘justice’ could dream up for them. We are free and, even more, when we still blow it today and get it wrong, he is there by the Father interceding for us on the basis of all he did on the Cross. Hallelujah!

63. Self Control

Meditations in 1 Peter : 63: Self Control

1 Pet 5:8a Be self-controlled and alert.

Now if you are alert and can remember some of the things we’ve previously covered, you may remember that back in chapter 4 Peter said, “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.” (1 Pet 4:7) and so there we briefly considered this matter of self control – but it was only briefly!

In the world in which we live, we have had a number of instances over recent years of people who have broken loose and lost all control. Recently there was a man in the north of England who came out of prison, shot his girl friend’s new boyfriend – and her – and then went on to shoot a policeman sitting quietly in his police car. Now any one in their right mind would know that you are not going to get away with that, so why do it? You know it must have a bad ending. It did – he ended up shooting himself when cornered by the police after a massive manhunt. The end was predictable, so why start out down that path? The answer is loss of self-control.

Little children round about 2 or 3 lose self control when they throw a tantrum. We expect them to grow up and develop self-control. Elderly people are often noted to speak without care; they put aside the social niceties that they have lived by and speak what their minds think. It seems in old age we sometimes lose self control. Comedians sometimes produce routines that are funny and the humour comes in saying what is not expected, because mostly there are certain norms in society that we seek to conform to. In a comedy routine it can be funny to face the removal of those. Self-control is something that we expect of mature and responsible human beings. For example, when an individual hurts themselves, we don’t expect them to break loose with a bunch of obscenities – but sadly in modern society that is often not so – for that is a sign of lack of self-control. I purposefully determined many years ago that if I even hit my hand with a hammer while working, I would simply respond with an “Ow!” and nothing more.

Lack of self-control is demeaning. Civilised society puts a premium on it and perhaps the English “stiff upper lip” is the classic example of that which, no doubt, went over the top. Showing emotion is not a bad thing but there is a fine line between showing emotion and breaking lose. A classic example of that was Joseph who, in love, could no longer hide himself from his brothers: Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.” (Gen 45:1,2) That was a legitimate loss of control.

An example of bad loss of control is seen in Aaron and the golden calf incident, where we read, “Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.” (Ex 32:25). Now that is interesting because it shows that self-control was conforming to God’s will, the Law. Various times in the Old Testament period there were references to the land being brought under the control of Israel. Being in control meant not letting the enemy have control, so control there meant resisting the enemy’s activity – again to bring the land under the rule of God.

Self control is thus seen in these instances as being necessary to resist sin and Satan and to allow God’s will to prevail. Solomon wrote, “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.” (Prov 29:11) There are times when restraint (self-control) is the wiser course of action to resist the temptation to respond without restraint and open the way up for worse to happen.

Now another way of speaking of ‘self-control’ is ‘self-discipline’ which is why modern versions no longer speak of self-control but self-discipline when Paul was speaking to Timothy: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Tim 1:7). Self-control or self-discipline are there seen as strong character things, indications of a mature person. Self-control, being one of the things set over and against timidity or lack of confidence, is thus seen as a sign of strength in an individual, something that enables them to feel good about themselves.

There seems a sort of circular thing here. People who feel bad about themselves often seem to exhibit lack of self-control – listen to the language of the person with low self-esteem, often bolstered by expletives which they think will make them look hard or strong. We know differently! But the person who knows they are not in control of themselves then feels badly about it. For example, the person who wants to give up smoking but can’t feels, deep down, bad about themselves. In fact any one of us who are dominated by a bad habit, feels bad about ourselves. With the presence and help of the Holy Spirit, the Lord wants us to be in control of ourselves.

The person who can’t control their eating, their drinking or looking at pornography, is out of control and each one of these things leads to self-destruction. Perhaps an essential thing is to note why people act out of control. The gunman in my earlier illustration allowed anger to develop into revenge and soon a whole downward spiral of bad attitudes were taking over that meant eventual self-destruction. The person who overeats or over-drinks or has a yearning to view pornography, needs to face their own needs and realise that the means they are using to satisfy them are destructive. Jesus has to be the answer to all our needs, and that means submitting to Him as both Saviour and Lord.

With the presence of God in us, we are called to lives of freedom and freedom, strangely, means being able to be in control of oneself. May we know His power and His presence releasing us into self-control!

 

15. Wrath of God

We return to our series in Romans

Meditations in Romans : 15 :  The Wrath of God

Rom 1:18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness

Mostly we associate ‘wrath’ or anger with unrestrained outbursts of extremely hostile emotions witnessed by words and even deeds. Because we are so often unclear on the characteristics of God we think of God’s wrath or anger in these terms but an examination of Scripture indicates that this is not so. The wrath of God is a cool, calm, purposeful bringing of judgment that is deserved. It is a bringing of justice. Yes God is upset by our foolish godlessness and unrighteousness and yes He does rise up to take action against such attitudes and behaviour, but God’s anger is never out of control.

Anger, a dictionary of pastoral ethics suggests, is… ‘a response to wrong doing… may be negative or positive, unloving or loving…. redemptive or destructive… a neutral emotion.’  Wrath it seems in Scripture refers to anger in action. It is right to feel emotional about wrong doing and anger is an emotion that says ‘this should not have been’ or ‘this should not have happened’. Anger shows an absence of complacency about such wrongdoing, and God is never complacent. Wrath is anger that has determined that action should be taken against this wrong-doing. It is anger moving into retribution or judgment or correction. God doesn’t get angry over our stumbling attempts as His children to get it right when we make mistakes.

From what Paul says in our verse today God’s ‘anger-in-action’ is directed at godlessness and wickedness. Wickedness is wrong that is done with evil intent. The intent of the person is to positively do evil, wrong, harm etc. It is righteous to be angry at wilful, positive-intent evil! God has made us with a wonderful world and with immense individual potential – specifically to be and do good, in the image of our Creator. To purposefully go in the opposite direction to cause hurt, harm or damage in a purposefully destructive manner whether it simply involves words or, more likely, specific acts or hurt or harm, is a cause for negative emotions of indignation and displeasure and these are the expression we call anger. God is right to show this indignation and displeasure when He observes this wilful godlessness and unrighteousness that we call evil.

Now we mustn’t confuse the outworking of God’s anger with the emotion of His anger. Anger is the emotion and the emotion, in some situations, is closely linked with His calculated decision to take remedial action. We do need to note in passing that when God brings discipline or judgement, it is a form of remedial action. It is either to stop permanently a course of action by removing the person who God sees will not change whatever He says or does, or it is corrective in the way it stops a person following the course they are following so that they follow a new path that is not hurtful, harming or destructive. Now we are going to see in the verses ahead that God takes action (wrath = anger-in-action) and the form of what we would call judgment is clearly corrective, i.e. designed to bring change of behaviour.

Thus we should see that although God’s wrath is obvious, it isn’t necessarily destructive, it isn’t designed to kill or destroy people. We will see that soon in the verses ahead. So, we shouldn’t misunderstand God’s ‘wrath’ and see it as a vindictive or spiteful act, which is what it so often is in human beings. God’s wrath is thus seen to be His anger or indignant displeasure that is of such a magnitude, because of the nature of the sin, that it results in action by God against those committing the sin.

Perhaps a final thing we should emphasise is that so often men’s wickedness is both an expression of and an outworking of men suppressing the truth. First of all they suppress the truth by denying it, denying God and denying the way He has designed the world to work best, and they then proclaim and live a lie. Second, in the way that they do evil and wickedness, they prevent truth, the truth of God’s design being lived out as He wants it to be. They stop goodness prevailing, and they stop love prevailing.

This is the truth of how God has designed us to live and they stop that happening. It is a wilful, self-centred, pride thing and it is something human beings do purposefully. We don’t accidentally fall into it. It may happen gradually as we take one small step after another into a life of utter godless self-centredness, but each step involves an act of will. It is not just one step but many steps, many times when we make these acts of will in rebellion against God and rebellion against the truth. It is a downward spiral away from the truth and into a life of deception that is destructive in every way. If we live like this then let us not make any foolish talk about God’s harshness. It is right to be angry against such lifestyles and it is right of God to take action against such things to protect His world.

12. Slowness

Meditations in James: 12 :  When Slowness is Good

Jas 1:19,20 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.

Sometimes in Scripture you look at a verse and wonder how it comes to be there, but part of our studying should be to see the flow of thought in the writers mind. Our verses here today are rather like that. Let’s consider what James has been saying. His overall thought is to write to the church scattered in the world, no longer focused in the little spiritual stronghold of Jerusalem but now scattered all over the place. He’s spoken several times of the difficult times that we can face, living in this world, and has counselled us accordingly. One of the bits of counsel, the last one that we saw, was to remind us that God is good and, from that, what has happened to us because He is good, to remind us that we are special people who God has drawn to Himself and to whom He has given new Holy Spirit life. He has called us first fruits, those who belong to God who are used to remind the rest of the world that it belongs to Him. With this in mind James now moves on to touch on a way that, living in this sometimes difficult world, we might be tempted to be less than the people God has designed us to be.

Consider what it’s like living in this sometimes difficult world. Things go wrong; people do silly or nasty things. We feel frustrated with it and wish someone would deal with the stupidity or nastiness. When you are part of the Christian minority, frustration is a very real factor in life and the main expression of frustration is anger. When we are angry our temptation is to blurt out lots of unhelpful comments (Understatement!). James is a wise pastor, and he knows these are the thoughts and feelings that churn inside sometimes when this world appears to be going stupidly wrong.

Notice however, the gentleness with which he approaches us: my dear brothers.  Ladies don’t worry about this; you’re not the ones who tend to struggle in this area. It’s the forthright men, men who are naturally macho, who want to do things, achieve things, change things, who get frustrated. Ladies tend to more gently approach the problem. It’s like James says, guys, I understand how you feel but we really mustn’t let this world and its frustrations get at us, take note of this, pause up and think about it with me, will you.

He then comes up with a little threefold strategy. Part one: be quick to listen. So often we get angry and frustrated because we do not understand what is going on and we don’t know what is going on because we don’t bother to listen carefully to others. If we listened to what others were saying, we would understand them more fully and if we understood them more fully we would see their need and, as Christians, would have compassion for them, feel sorry for them. Compassion is an incredibly good antidote to frustration with people.  It may not be people; it may simply be circumstances going wrong. Again the temptation pushed before us by Satan, will be to launch out with angry, foolish words against God. “Why have you allowed this happen? Why don’t you do something?” It’s not wrong to have questions, but it is wrong to get angry with God about the frustrations of life. It simply shows we don’t understand the dynamics of life on this Fallen World, or the resources that are available to us from God. In the difficult circumstances, go to God by all means, but be quick to listen, listen instead of talking, and see what the Lord will say to you about the situation. He wants you to be a person of understanding. Understanding often counteracts frustration and subsequent anger.

Part two of the strategy: be slow to speak.  Solomon wrote, When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” (Prov 10:19). The more you speak, the more prone you are to say the wrong thing, and sin. For a while I wrote a weekly comment on the week’s events from a Christian perspective and came to realize afresh how easy it is to make shallow comments based on little knowledge, or comments based on inaccurate or incomplete knowledge. It is a dangerous thing to make comment on the world, yet we all do it all the time. Listen to any conversations in church, in the street or in the office. So many conversations about what is happening in the world. TV, radio and newspapers have made us all much more knowledgeable about what is going on in the world. How easy it is to denigrate someone else. It’s so easy to do when you know they are wrong! I find the more I write on the Internet the less I want to speak into such conversations. Be slow to speak.

Part three of the strategy: be slow to become angry. This last part should be the outworking of the first two, but it is something we need to purposefully do. What good does anger do? It merely vents your frustration instead of dissolving it in compassion and understanding. Anger so often breeds anger and, as James says, man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. There is the target we need to keep holding before ourselves: a righteous life. Perhaps a simple check at the end of each day is to ask ourselves, “Is there anything I have said and done this day that is unrighteous, that I know Jesus would be upset by?”  Do we have thoughts, ideas and attitudes that come out of frustration, that are tainted by anger, that are in all honesty, unrighteous? If we don’t deal with them, God will, and that will be more painful. It’s better to confess and crucify them than be caught by them. Let’s take on board James’ threefold strategy today.

47. Limited Anger

God in the Psalms No.47 – God of limited anger

Psa 30:5 For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favour lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

In these meditations we have already considered the God of Anger, but here there is something more that needs taking in.  Do you ever remember times when, as a child, you did wrong and there came a division between you and your parent who was angry with what you had done? The separation was the thing that hurt you more than any smacking you may have received, the fact that your parent thought badly of you and didn’t want to know you. Well that, almost certainly, is how many of us were brought up, and in a day of no smacking, the only punishment seen by many is banishment, and psychologically that is far worse that smacking which is over in a moment.

David knew this about God. Yes, He did get angry when it was justified, but that anger was a temporary thing, something that only lasted for a moment. Yes He does bring discipline (see Prov 3:11,12, Heb 12:5,6) but it is a momentary thing in the scheme of things. Yes, it may leave you weeping for a night, but it will only be for a night (all right, a ‘night’ may not just be a few hours, it can be days, depending on the depth of work the Lord has to do in us!) It will only be for a limited period and mostly it is only a very limited period.

Consider the usual order of events in these things today: you do something wrong, the Holy Spirit within you convicts you, and you are sorry.  What has been going on in heaven?  The Father sees the sin and is angry – because He is with sin. He stirs His Spirit within you and you respond. Now what happens?  At that moment Jesus intercedes on our behalf: “Father, I died for them, I died for that sin, it’s been dealt with.” (1 Jn 2:1,2), and the matter is instantly closed.   What may happen is that in the earlier stages you may take longer to respond to the Holy Spirit’s activity within you. Like Jonah (Jon 1:1-4) we try to ‘run away’ from God and pretend it didn’t happen, so it takes a little longer for the Lord to bring us to our senses so that we repent, but the moment we do, the above conversation in heaven takes place.

There is an important principle here: God’s anger against a sin last only until you repent. The literal interpretation of our verse above which says weeping may remain for a night” is actually “weeping will come in at evening to lodge”. It’s the picture of a lodger who comes to stay overnight. You may not yet see the significance of this, so let’s say it again: God’s anger against sin lasts only until you repent.  It doesn’t carry on holding the failure against us after it’s been dealt with.  Some of us feel God will keep on harbouring it against us. No He won’t; once it’s dealt with it’s over. That’s how any punishment with children should be. When our children were little we had a saying, “After smacks come cuddles.”  The practice of pushing our children away is psychological manipulation which is harmful. The controlled smack without anger after a clear warning, followed by hugs, says this is dealt with and is now past history that can be forgotten. It is interesting to note that under the Law of Moses, incarceration (prison) was not an option. The options were death (for major crimes, which became few) or restitution. In other words, there was no long, prolonged punishment, but reconciliation as quick as possible into society.  God is looking to bring favour and blessing, but we’ll have to leave that to the next meditation.