15. Ongoing Sin, Grace & Mercy

Struggles of Israel Meditations: 15. Ongoing Sin, Grace & Mercy

1 Kings 16:30  Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.

1 Kings 22:41,43 Jehoshaphat … followed the ways of his father Asa and did not stray from them; he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.

Focus:  Two kings running in parallel, sometimes working together but mostly working on completely different ways of life, two kings who further show us the struggles – both spiritual and physical – that the divided nation went through. The activities of Ahab are spelled out from 1 Kings 16:29 to 1 Kings 22:40 and they are interwoven with the activities of the prophet Elijah.  Jehoshaphat’s reign is summarized in 1 Kings 22:41-50 but only after we have seen him dragged into a war alongside Israel against the king of Aram (see 1 Kings 22:1-29). That’s all that 1 Kings records of him and we’ll consider him when we look in detail at the southern kingdom. For now we have to face Ahab.

Ahab? It is a strange thing but sometimes the Lord simply allowed Israel, as they pursued their foolish ways of turning from Him, to go their own way and then suffer enemy attack after He has clearly lifted off His hand of protection from over them. At other times, and they are not infrequent, He sends a prophet to rebuke and challenge the king in question. Elijah is one such prophet and a number of chapters are given over to the interaction between Elijah and Ahab.

  • At the beginning of 1 Kings 17 we see that Elijah warns Ahab that there will be a lengthy (“few years”) drought (1 Kings 17:1).
  • After three years of hard drought the Lord sends Elijah to Ahab (18:1,2). When he meets him Elijah challenges Ahab, challenges him to bring all his false prophets to Mount Carmel for a contest (see 18:16-40) – which he wins – and then declares rain is coming (18:41).
  • The kings wife, Queen Jezebel, is angry at the death of her prophets and threatens Elijah’s life and he flees (19:1-3).
  • Moving on, in chapter 20 we see Israel coming under threat from Aram (20:1-12). Amazingly the Lord sends another prophet to direct Ahab to victory (see 20:13-21). The prophet then warns there will be a repeat of this (20:22) but the superstitious advisors to Ahab fear the Arameans (20:23-27).
  • God’s prophetic messenger comes again and promises victory (20:28) which follows, but Ahab spares the opposing king (20:29-34) for which he is rebuked by the Lord (20:35-43).
  • When he further kills Naboth to obtain his vineyard, Elijah is sent with a death sentence for Ahab and his wife (21:1-25, esp. v.21,23).
  • Amazingly Ahab repents and the Lord lessens the sentence (21:27-29).
  • A while later we see the episode involving Jehoshaphat going and fighting alongside Ahab, but not before Micaiah prophesies disaster for Ahab (22:23).
  • When they go to battle Ahab is killed despite going in disguise (22:30,34-37) after ruling 22 years.

God’s Grace: What is amazing about all this is that although Ahab is clearly written off as one of the worst kings of Israel, the record shows that the Lord spoke to him through Elijah, another prophet, and Micaiah, a number of times. Through Elijah he performed a miracle on Mount Carmel resulting in the deaths in the so-called prophets of Baal. Was it that despite all this the Lord knew that it was possible to bring Ahab to repentance, as we’ve seen in 21:27-29?  Nevertheless he still shows the foolishness of his unrighteous and ungodly nature which results in him being killed in battle. He hadn’t learned!

Battles:  This series is essentially, on the surface at least, about the struggles of Israel, the battles in which they were involved, and yet again and again we see that physical battles may be one thing but the bigger battle raging in the background, is a spiritual battle.  Will this particular king heed their history, heed their calling, heed the Law, heed the words of the prophets and hold fast to God? It was a battle that raged and which can be observed in the lives and reigns of both Jehoshaphat in the south and Ahab in the north, and it is still as real today in your life and mine and in the Church at large.

Face the Truth: Foolish crusading atheists rant on about God being hasty and hostile and uncaring but if they would only read these chapters and think intelligently about them they would have to wonder about their previous assessments when they look at Ahab. This king follows a bunch of evil and ungodly other kings who all reject God’s overtures of love and grace. He reigns for 22 year, this king, and is described as doing, more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him,” (1 Kings 16:30) so it comes as a surprise that a ‘holy God’ does not wipe him off the face of the earth to prevent this ongoing situation to deteriorate any more. But He doesn’t. He sends Elijah to confront him and in fact two more mouth-pieces to confront him. Come on, he’s the most ungodly king so far! What is going on? What’s the point? The point is that God knows even this ungodly and evil king can come to repentance. That won’t make him perfect and, yes, he will still try to outsmart the Lord, but the offer of salvation is always there for the hardest of sinners. This is grace and mercy at its utmost!

And Us: If there is something in the Lord’s behaviour that we can allow ourselves to be deceived by, it is the Lord’s grace that holds back on discipline or judgment and keeps on encouraging and being there for us, despite our half-heartedness, or even our failures. People come across our paths, leaders fall from grace, public personalities that we call ‘celebrities’ live lives that are ungodly and unrighteous and we are left wondering, perhaps like Habakkuk (Hab 1) why God isn’t acting against them.

I believe the apostle Peter focused it perfectly when he declared, “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) If God holds back, it is not because He approves what we are doing, or what these various people above are doing, but because He is giving us – and them – additional time to put it right. If we don’t, the words of the apostle Paul that we’ve seen before will ring loud and clear: Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows,” (Gal 6:7) and if we expect the Lord’s judgment to come on the world, we need to realize (with Peter again) that, “it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household.” (1 Pet 4:17) God will clean up His church before He cleans up the world so that we will yet be a further testimony to the world that He means business. Amen? Amen! Let’s learn from these things.

15. Continuation

Reaching into the Psalms 1 to 4:  15. Continuation (start of Psalm 4)

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

Look again!  At first sight this first verse is just another of those cries of David that become so familiar in these psalms, and perhaps because of that I know it is another of those verses that in the past I have just skimmed over without giving it any real consideration. If that is true of you, let’s slow ourselves down and chew it over, meditate upon it and see what is behind it.

Urgency: It comes at the beginning of a psalm that may well be a continuation of the previous psalm for there are similarities, so it may be still on the occasion of David being on the run from Absalom. Having said that there do seem to be some stronger spiritual elements in it, but that may just be because David is thinking more about the nature of the people who are ousting him. In the middle of Psalm 3 we read, “I call out to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain,” (3:4) but now there appears a stronger urgency, not merely a testimony: “Answer me when I call to you.”  This has that feel to it of, “Lord, I’m crying out to you, I need you to hear me, I need you to respond to me.” It is a strange thing but unbelievers may pray but without any conviction. It takes a firm, committed believer to suffer frustration with God, because we believe in Him, we believe He has given us a channel to Him in prayer, and we believe He is a communicating God and so we expect Him to hear us and answer. For these reasons it is the committed believer who puts urgency into such praying.

God’s Righteousness: But then we come to a phrase which produces a variety of translations. The ESV and NKJV both have “O God of my righteousness,” while the NLT has, “O God who declares me innocent,” while the NRSV has, “O God of my right.” Now although there may be some cause for the translators to take this uncertain phrase in this direction, I think theologically, from what we know of David, in this instance he is relying upon what he knows about God and is not appealing to his own righteousness (which he does do elsewhere) because if this is what we think, a continuation of his appeal on the run from Absalom, he knows he has not been righteous and is indeed under God’s discipline because of two acts of extreme unrighteousness, so he would not be appealing on that basis.

Now this is an important and significant point. I am maintaining that the NIV that we are using here conveys most accurately what David is thinking and saying when he says, “my righteous God.” He is affirming his belief in God, not in himself. God does all things rightly – including bringing discipline and including delaying in answering specific prayers sometimes – that is what is behind this prayer of this man described as a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14, Acts 13:22). He will not blame God! He will not make himself out to be righteous and blame God either for his circumstances or for the apparent slowness in seeing an answer to his prayer.

And us? I believe our circumstances sometimes present a test for us, there to see how we will respond under trying circumstances. I believe I have been and still am facing such a trial, such a test at the present time and I watch others and see similar tests. Such trials make us grow up and mature, and they reveal to us (as well as to the Lord who already knows!) just where we are at in God’s redemptive process in our lives. It is only with His grace, apprehending it, taking hold of it and applying it by an act of will, that we remain righteous in our outlook and attitudes and subsequent thinking, words and behaviour. Part of our changing (2 Cor 3:18) is learning to trust God and not apportion blame for what appears to be happening to us. As I said, an important and significant lesson.

Relief? “Give me relief from my distress.” This takes us into the area of relief ‘from’ or relief ‘in’. At the moment of writing at least, David’s mind is in turmoil. David could be delivered ‘from’ his present circumstances if, say, someone back in Jerusalem had assassinated Absalom and changed the mind of his followers to repent and call back to Jerusalem the Lord’s anointed, David. That would have meant David being delivered out of them. But if the circumstances are going to carry on, then David needs a deliverance from his sense of turmoil, the anxiety he has within him. That would come about when the grace of the Lord imposes in his mind a sense of security, a sense of peace, and that so often comes when we pray (see Phil 4:6,7). Deliverance ‘from’ means a change of circumstance, deliverance ‘in’ means an inner heart and mind change.

A Need for Mercy: “have mercy on me”.  Mercy is undeserved compassion, forgiveness and blessing. Note the key word – undeserved. An appeal for mercy is saying, “I recognize I have no grounds to ask you to do this and so I plead with you to do this, just because you can.” For David, he is saying, “I realize I am in this mess because I deserve it and you are bringing discipline on me – and I deserve that – but in the midst of this I know you are the same righteous God who does all things well and so I plead with you that I may still experience something of your loving goodness towards me. Even asking for such a thing is in fact an expression of praise towards God, acknowledging something about His greatness that exists entirely independently from us; He IS known as a merciful God, a God who responds positively towards us, even though we don’t deserve it.

Let mercy listen: “hear my prayer“. There are times when we have messed up so badly that those who have been affected by our actions will just not listen to a word we say. If God had been us, if we had seen David’s adultery and murder-plans, and that in the face of all the things we had done for him, the human response would have been to write him of, give up on him, cast him aside. But God isn’t us – thank goodness! – He is merciful because He is love (1 Jn 4:8,16), and because we have learned that, it can give us hope that He might listen to our pleas.

When we have sinned and completely blown it, the wonderful thing is that God, as a loving heavenly Father, doesn’t turn His back on us but, to the contrary, is out there looking to hear those words that indicate change of heart, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” (Lk 15:18,19) and then to our amazement He throws His arms around us and kisses us (v.20) and orders a celebration (v.22,23). It is because we know that, that we can pray, even when we have got it seriously wrong. How wonderful is that; hold on to that if that is you.

86. Saved by Mercy

Meditations in Exodus: 86. Saved by Mercy

Num 16:41  The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. “You have killed the LORD’s people,” they said.

I finished the previous meditation with the following: What more can one say. It is like coming to the end of some great film full of action and suddenly, ‘The End’.  Silence. It is over, but you are left there, standing and wondering. Why were these men so foolish as to mess with God? The death of Korah and company by what appears a limited earthquake or even sink-hole followed by fire, must have been devastating. Yes, Moses had clearly been the Lord’s instrument but the magnitude of what happened was so great that surely there must have been no question that this was an incredible act of God. I finished as I did because it struck me that this is how it must have been, total silence  and horror, but if it was it was short lived.

“The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. “You have killed the LORD’s people,” they said.” (v.41) What was it about this people that made them so blind? Well we said it then and we’ll say it again – Sin. Modern Christianity so often says little about Sin but it is the reason for the Cross. It is inherent in every single person. Before we came to Christ we were held by its power. When we came to Christ he not only justified us, forgave us, cleansed us and adopted us, but he also put his own Holy Spirit within us, power to overcome, power to change us, but without Him we would be the sort of people Paul demonstrates in Romans 7 when he speaks of his old life saying, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:18,19)  Because of this the apostle John wrote, “the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” (1 Jn 5:19) And if we’re still wondering remember Paul said, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers.” (2 Cor 4:4) There can be no other explanation why these people – the whole community – grumbled against Moses.

Moses and Aaron must have either been outside the Tabernacle or they still used the tent of Meeting outside the camp because we read, “But when the assembly gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron and turned toward the Tent of Meeting, suddenly the cloud covered it and the glory of the LORD appeared. Then Moses and Aaron went to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and the LORD said to Moses, “Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once.” And they fell facedown.” (v.42-45) The crowd come to have it out with Moses and turn towards the tent at which point the pillar of cloud appears over it – the Lord has come, He has heard and yet again He tests Moses with His proposal to destroy this people. In fact clearly plague has started to appear in the people (v.46b) so Moses and Aaron fall face down in prayer for a third time.

But the role of the priesthood is to intercede for the people and stand between them and God and so we read, “Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with fire from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the LORD; the plague has started.” So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. But 14,700 people died from the plague, in addition to those who had died because of Korah. Then Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, for the plague had stopped.” (v.46-50)

The people with their attitude have forfeited the covenant and are in blatant rebellion against God. It is not an unintentional thing (remember the Law we considered recently) but wilful and purposeful. They don’t care. They are the chosen people of the earth, they have been called to be a blessing to the earth, to reveal God to the earth, to be receivers of His blessings and demonstrate His goodness to the world but instead a bunch of them rebel and when terrible judgment falls on them, the rest grumble against God’s servant. How incredible, how bizarre!

But why didn’t God just strike all of them down in a second, for He could have? The answer must be in what followed. The fact that Aaron stepped in with his priestly role with an act of atonement must have been what the Lord was wanting. The lessons are strong and clear. Blatant sin warrants death but even then where there is an intercessor, God will hold back and give another chance for no other reason than He is merciful. Yes, He is! There is no reason why He should hold back at this point. He is almighty God, Creator of the Universe. He has made a perfect world and mankind have thrown it back in His face, so to speak. He could have just wiped out and utterly destroyed the earth. He has the power and might to do that; we are but ants to Him and you and I tread on ants with little thought. Why hasn’t God wiped out this rebellious anthill? Be very clear: we have done nothing to deserve mercy; that is the thing about mercy it is given for no reason other than God chooses to.

Again we fall back to the Lord’s words through Ezekiel: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23) and “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32) and “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezek 33:11) THREE times the same message which perhaps the apostle Peter picks up on when he writes, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)

We have emphasised again and again in these studies the battle that is going on to bring this people through to a place where they can truly be a light to the rest of the world but it is hard work in the face of their constant failures. On the one hand with the human race we have a people made in the likeness of God so often revealing His grace (theologians call it ‘common grace’) so good things are seen in us, but all the time there is this struggle, because of free will, with this propensity to be self-centred and godless. It is an incredible battle that is going on and the only reason we are still alive is the mercy of God. Do a Moses and Aaron and fall on your face and worship the One who is holy, the One who is all powerful, the One who sent His Son to satisfy justice on your behalf, to spare you for no reason other than He wanted to!  That is mercy. We didn’t deserve it but we got it.

4. God of Mercy

Meditations in Romans, Ch.9-11 : 4:  God of Mercy

Rom 9:14,15    What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

Paul is not a modern philosopher. We, or at least I, would speak, even as we have already, about the God who knows and the God who chooses people on the basis of what He knows they will do, how they will respond to His good news, but Paul is working out his theology as he goes along and he simply presents to us what he knows of the Scriptures and will go no further.

But he has just spoken of God who chose the younger twin and rejected the older, accepted Jacob but rejected Esau. It seems, on the surface at least, as if God is simply choosing by whim or fancy and Paul is not going to go behind the scenes like we have done but is just going to face that head on. He faces the apparent problem: What then shall we say? Is God unjust?” (v.14) That is what it might seem. But Paul won’t have that: “Not at all!” And so he explains: “For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Now that is very blunt but when you are facing a holy God who is perfect in every way, whatever He chooses to say or do will always be right, even if we don’t understand it, so God says He chooses how He will respond to each person. He doesn’t explain why He chooses as He will. If He decides to show mercy and compassion for one and not another, that is up to Him – trust Him, He does what is right. We’ve sought to explain it in terms of His knowing all thing of this person and how they will act in the future, but the Bible and Paul simply ask us to accept God’s wisdom for what it is – perfect!

So Paul declares the basic truth here: “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”  This whole thing of salvation is not down to us. It doesn’t depend on what we think or want or hope – because all of our thinking may be utterly self-centred, even if it looks like we are trying to be good, and that falls short of what God is aiming for.

Now mercy is not a word that is used often in today’s world. A dictionary definition is “compassion shown by one to another who is in his power and has no claim to kindness.” This is the thing about mercy, it is not given because you deserve it or have anything of merit that makes you worthy of it. If God shows mercy it is simply because He chooses to.  This is where we have to trust that God, being perfect in every way, does what is right. This is the Scriptural position and it needs some reading and thinking to go beyond that simple understanding (which is what we have sought to do previously).

Paul then uses the example of God dealing with Pharaoh in Exodus: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (v.17 quoting Ex 9:16)  That needs thinking about. God raised up Pharaoh? Well He certainly brought him onto the pages of biblical history so He certainly raised him up in that sense. But perhaps the Lord had blessed and encouraged Pharaoh’s reign in a variety of ways to make him the great and powerful leader that he was. The only trouble is that greatness and power so often breed pride and Pharaoh had a lot of that, and pride made him foolish so he thought he could outwit God. He had become The most powerful man around and his fame would have spread around that part of the world at least, so that when he was brought down, that too would go around that part of the world.

So Paul comments, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” (v.18) Hardening Pharaoh’s heart was foundational to the story of Moses and Pharaoh. The truth is that Pharaoh already had a hard heart (hard against Moses and his people and hard against God, because that is what pride does) and so when God confronted Pharaoh again and again it just worked to harden his heart even more. Could God have dealt gently with Pharaoh? Gentleness never has any effect on a proud, stubborn and rebellious heart; it is just seen as a sign of weakness. No God chose to deal with Pharaoh in the way He did, so that it would be heard of around the world and people would hear about God.

Now there is an even bigger truth in the background which is not spoken of here because it was not Paul’s way or arguing, but the truth is that every man, woman and child on the earth is a sinner and (in Paul’s words), the “wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) or, to put it another way, every single person deserves death. Justice, left to itself, would have every single person destroyed, but God has mercy. God looks for a better way and it is the way of the Cross, the way of repentance and the way of redemption and salvation, but it is pure mercy. You might say that love (and God is love) always looks for a better way out to bless others, but then the question might be, but why should God love the unlovely, love those who hate Him, those who live their lives out turning their backs on Him? Why does He continually seek to draw them to Himself?  Divine love and divine mercy are mysteries when it comes to it. All we can do is give up our intellectual struggling and just be very thankful. Amen? Amen!

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.

24. Receivers of Mercy

Meditations in 1 Peter : 24:  Receivers of Mercy

1 Pet 2:10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

The word for church in the original text is ekklesia meaning a ‘called out people’. It is the same sense as when used of a people who were called out to the market square by a town crier. We have been called out of darkness by God and taken into the kingdom of the Son, a kingdom of light. And because that hasn’t happened to just me, but to many of us, we are a people”, a body of people with one head, Jesus. We are now the “people of God”, God’s people. Because of what Jesus achieved on the Cross we belong to Him: the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28) Thus Paul taught, “you were bought at a price.” (1 Cor 6:20 & 1 Cor 7:23) Thus we are now the people belonging to God, the people of God, millions of us all over the world and stretching back in history to the day of Pentecost and stretching into the future until the day Jesus returns and winds everything up – millions and millions of redeemed people, the people of God.

But then Peter says something that emphasizes even more the wonder of being part of this people – how we came to be part of this people. He speaks about mercy. Now William  Shakespeare understood something of this wonder when he wrote the Merchant of Venice.  Antonio, the merchant of Venice, had foolishly signed a bond granting to the Jew, Shylock, who lent money, a “pound of flesh” if he defaulted.  He does default and so Portia pleads with Shylock to release him from the bond. Eventually she declares to him, “Then must the Jew be merciful,” to which Shylock replies, “On what compulsion must I?” She then responds with those famous words, “The quality of mercy is not strained,” meaning that compulsion is precisely contrary to the spirit of mercy, which is not “strained” or forced. Mercy is a voluntary thing, it is not given because the Law demands it, but despite the Law, and so mercy, in Shakespeare’s words, “drops gently like heaven’s rain”, a natural and gracious quality rather than a legal one.

Once we had been under the Law and condemned by justice. We deserved to die and death was on the horizon as the punishment for all our sins. God could have left us in the state for we deserved it. Punishment is what is deserved for wrong doing so that was all we could look forward to. But then, amazingly, the plan of God is revealed and we see that even before the foundation of the world the godhead had planned how to redeem us. Mercy was the quality of what emanated from the throne room of heaven. Surely the angels must have looked on in amazement. Surely these foolish human beings deserved to be judged, deserved to be destroyed, but instead it is a member of the godhead who steps forward to the place of punishment and takes what is deserved for every sin. Why is this happening? Why is he doing that? The answer has to be mercy.

Yes, make sure you are quite clear on this: mercy is undeserved grace. There was absolutely no reason why this had to happen. This is the thing about mercy – it is freely granted for no other reason that the giver gives it!

When the Bible describes God as merciful; it means that it is natural for Him to express mercy rather than judgment. When Lot ended up in Sodom and was led out by angels to avoid the judgment it was, for the LORD was merciful to them.” (Gen 19:16). He could have left them to die with the rest but in His mercy He led them out. Moses instructed Israel about the future, “When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the LORD your God and obey him. For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath.” (Deut 4:30,31) When Israel fall, the Lord could just leave them, but He didn’t because of his mercy. Looking back, Nehemiah confirmed that this was exactly what had happened: “For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you admonished them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you handed them over to the neighboring peoples. But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.” (Neh 9:30,31)  Yes, the Lord could have given them up for that is what they deserved but mercy was seen when he restored them and raised them up again.

Perhaps one of the most amazing prayers recorded in the Bible is that of Daniel who intercedes for his nation which is going into exile and apparent extinction. In the early part of it he prays, “The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him,” (Dan 9:9) and near the end concludes, “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.” (v.18). He knew his God and he knew that he could appeal on the basis of mercy.  Israel had utterly failed the Lord yet he pleaded for their future on the basis of the Lord’s mercy – and his prayer was answered! Hallelujah!

3. A Living Hope

Meditations in 1 Peter : 3 :  A Living Hope

1 Pet  1:3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead

Peter bursts into praise. It is praise to God who is also the Father of Jesus. But Peter doesn’t speak casually about Jesus as he might have done years previously while Jesus walked on the earth and Peter walked alongside him. Then he probably would have referred to ‘the Master’, the rabbi who taught them to become fishers of men. But much has happened since those days. His master had been arrested and crucified and then he had come back from the dead and then he had ascended to heaven. Oh yes, he was no longer merely ‘the Master’ for they now recognised him for who he was – their Lord. We take this word ‘Lord’ for granted when it is used in respect of Jesus but it means he is our ruler, our owner, the one who has rights over us, our king! This is who Peter now knows Jesus to be, but it isn’t Jesus he focuses on, it is God the Father, the Supreme Ruler, the Almighty One, the One who has a plan that He is working out in the earth that involves eternity. All of these descriptions will come out in this letter. This is the One who is worthy of our praise.

When you ‘worship’ someone you bow down before them acknowledging their great superiority over you. When you ‘thank’ someone you express your gratefulness for what they have done for you or given you. When you ‘praise’ someone you extol them for what they have achieved. That brings us to the heart of this verse, Peter’s praise of the Father for what he has achieved. If we are Christians who have known the Lord a long time we may have come to take these things for granted and so we need to ask Him to bring them alive to us again. There are wonderful things being written about here!

Because of the nature or character of God He has done something wonderful. He has given us ‘new birth’, He has given us a new life; He has made us anew. We talk about it and preach about it so easily but it is truly a wonderful thing, that God has come to us and re-energised us by the power of His Holy Spirit and given us the ability to be different people, godly people, people in a living relationship with Him, receiving His guidance and direction and wisdom and enabling to be good!

The concept of being born again was brought to us by the apostle John in his Gospel (Jn 3:3) as he reported the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. He had already referred to it in his opening chapter: Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God– children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (Jn 1:12,13) but it is clearly a teaching of the early church for Peter is saying the same thing: God has made it possible for us to start life again on a completely different basis and with a completely different power and motivation.

What was so incredible about this was that we didn’t deserve it. In fact there was nothing in us that merited this; it was a pure act of mercy on God’s part. Mercy is kindness or forbearance that is not deserved. Perhaps we’ve never seen it like this but mercy is an expression of love. John tells us that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16). Now love is benevolence or strong benign feelings for another and everything about God is this, we are told. For this reason (which we are unable to explain any further than John says) God expresses mercy to whoever will receive it. It is a benign or benevolent attitude which is expressed in benign or benevolent actions.

Thus God did not condemn us but drew us to Himself and poured out His love on us in the form of forgiveness and adoption and empowering with the Holy Spirit and thus we were ‘born again’. All it required of us was to believe in Jesus, that he is the Son of God who died on the Cross for us, attested to by his resurrection from the dead. That confirmed who he was and what he had done.

But there is yet something more to consider. This new life, having been ‘born again’, is described by Peter as a living hope.” In the world hope is a very vague thing. “I hope it won’t rain tomorrow.” or “I hope I’ll get a pay rise next month.” Mostly these are vague wishes, things we’d like to happen. However, when we come to Scripture ‘hope’ is a very strong thing, a certainty based upon God’s promises. Hope is always about tomorrow, about what is yet to come. In the Christian walk we have a number of such things. For example whatever goes on in life, God will always be there working to bring good out of it for us (Rom 8:28). We also know that in the walk we have today and tomorrow He will always be with us (Heb 13:5b). Moreover, this walk will not end with death for we have been promised eternal life (Jn 3:15,16), a life that will never end.

In fact as we go through the New Testament we find it is filled with such promises, such declarations from God that say “Tomorrow will be a good day because God has said He will do this and carry on doing it.”  This hope is not just academic based on things God has said (although that is true), but it is living in the sense that it is verified by the living presence of God within us, His Holy Spirit. It is an ongoing, daily experience, Him in me, teaching, convicting, correcting, guiding and empowering for change. I know this will be like that tomorrow because it is like it today and it was like it yesterday. Some days we are very much aware of it, others not, but it is true. This is the wonder of the life that God has brought us into! Hallelujah!

54. Confession

Meditations in James: 54: The Place of Confession

Jas 5:15,16 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

Confession, in some parts of the church, has sometimes been turned into a ritual. If you “go along to confession” it becomes a ritual, something that is done because it is expected of you and it makes you feel better for a minute of two.  True confession comes out of a broken and contrite heart. In Scripture, probably the greatest example of confession comes in Psalm 51, where the heading tells us that David wrote this after the prophet Nathan confronted him with his sin over Bathsheba. It starts out, Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” (v.1,2) Confession comes to God with an awareness of needing God’s mercy, for having offended God. There is an awareness of needing to be cleansed and forgiven.

Look how he continues:For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight(v.3,4). David realized that all sin is against God and that it is evil! When the Holy Spirit convicts, this is what follows. Later he goes on, Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” (v.10,11) Real confession is concerned to be cleansed from the sin and reinstated in right relationship with the Lord (where the sin will not be repeated!)

Having heard a number of people on counseling situations, confessing to the Lord their sins, I have to say that rarely is there whole-hearted, unrestrained pouring out of sorrow to God for those sins. Mostly we have a great deal of difficulty in genuinely facing what we’ve done and genuinely saying, “That was wrong, that was evil, and it affronted God.” but that is real confession!

James’ references to confession flow in the context of healing and after the words we considered yesterday he says,If he has sinned, he will be forgiven”. Suddenly forgiveness and healing are linked. Not every sickness is linked to sin, but some is. Sometimes our sin has caused or made us vulnerable to the sickness, and so for the healing to flow, the sin has to be dealt with first. There is a very strong principle here which accounts, we suspect, for why there is so much illness in the world today. Having said this, James realizes that this needs further explanation.

He continues, Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. There can be no other explanation for what he says other that what we have said in the above paragraph. There is a divine order here: sin – sickness – confession – prayer – healing. It is interesting to note that TWO things are needed: confession AND prayer, confession by the sick person and prayer for healing by the elder. An Old Testament example of this is,Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife and his slave girls so they could have children again,” (Gen 20:17) after Abimelech had had dealings with God. He confessed but God required His representative, Abram, to pray for him. The prayer of the elder adds significance to what is happening and he acts as God’s representative to declare forgiveness and healing.

In the New Testament the classic example of this is Jesus and the man let down through the roof. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said,Friend, your sins are forgiven.” (Lk 5:20). The man’s willingness to come to Jesus was equivalent to his confession but before he is healed, Jesus pronounces forgiveness. Jesus knew there was a sin and forgiveness issue here and so dealt with it. He subsequently brings the healing: He said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (v.24). There is a clear link between the sickness and the need for forgiveness followed by healing.

We should note, however, that this is not always the case as John shows us in his Gospel. As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.(Jn 9:1-3) Sin was not the issue behind this man’s blindness. He was just part of the Fallen World, and so Jesus simply brought healing without the need of confession and forgiveness.

James concludes,The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. The righteous elder praying for a sick member of his flock, is in the position of God’s representative and, as long as he is a righteous man, he is therefore in the position to bring prayer to bear that has a powerful impact – to bring healing.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions to ask, that arises out of these verses, is do we have an open and submissive and humble heart that is willing to seek out its spiritual leadership and confess, when we become aware of our sin? Such confession is an indication of a heart that is indeed open, submissive and humble, and that is the challenge, because that is the sort of heart we are all supposed to have.

35. Heavenly Wisdom

Meditations in James: 35 : Heavenly Wisdom – Godly Guidance Guidelines

Jas 3:17,18   But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

Yesterday we pondered on the so-called ‘wisdom of the world’ which, in fact, is no wisdom at all.  Wisdom, we have said, is the knowledge of ‘how to do’.  That can range from ‘how to do’ life generally to ‘how to’ specifically bless someone, an individual, or ‘how to’ work out a specific problem.  We know wisdom was lacking when we completely mess up a job or a relationship, because we always assume that wisdom ‘works’.  It is one of the characteristics that we perhaps take for granted that we should maybe add to our definition: wisdom is ‘how to do so that it works out well’.  Yes, please hold onto that because it is important: wisdom implicitly works.  It’s not ‘how to do it badly’; it’s ‘how to do it so it’s a success’.

Now yesterday in the previous verses James spoke about earthly wisdom, but he doesn’t leave us simply with the negative; now he completes the picture with a positive picture of the characteristics of wisdom that comes from God. At the beginning of the letter, James told us, 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.” (1:5)  As Christians, the source of our wisdom should, therefore, be the Lord.  When we are confronted by a difficult set of circumstances we should turn to Him and ask Him to tell us how to deal with them.  When we do that we suddenly find that ideas start flowing.  Follow them, they are from the Lord.  Is this wisdom from the Lord or is the enemy trying to trip us up?  Well this is where these verses are so important because they describe the nature or characteristics of the outworkings of wisdom that comes from God.  If your guidance seems to produce the opposite of these characteristics, then they are not from the Lord.  If these characteristics appear, you are on safe ground.

He says this wisdom is first of all pure. Pure here means that is morally untainted, so if there is anything morally questionable about it, it’s not God! God will not guide you into anything that is morally questionable, so if your conscience worries you about a particular path, stay away from it.

The second description is peace-loving. God is constantly seeking to lead us into peace so if your guidance seems to lead to upset, think again.  Wisdom coming from God will always seek to bring you into harmony with other people.  It unites, not drives apart.  It heals, not harms.

The third description is considerate.  When we are considerate we think about what is good for other people.  Remember Jesus’ teaching: “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12).  When you are thinking how to deal with other people, let a check be, how would I like them to deal with me in similar circumstances?

The fourth description is submissive.  That seems an odd description for wisdom until we remember Paul’s teaching, Submit to one another (Eph 5:21) or as he expounded it to the Philippians, Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Phil 2:3) and went on to describe the submissive way Jesus came.  When we come submissively we come in humility counting others better than ourselves. That is a heavenly attitude.

The fifth description is full of mercy. Mercy is that characteristic of God that loves and doesn’t mete out what a person deserves but instead gives them good. Mercy is unwarranted blessing where perhaps circumstances suggest that the opposite was deserved. Wisdom from God means we will always seek to bless others.

The sixth description is full of … and good fruit. You know what the fruit of the Spirit is – love, joy, peace etc. (Gal 5:22,23).  Well let your wisdom be seasoned with these.  Let your wisdom be permeated by goodness, for that is what comes from God.

The seventh description is impartial. Wisdom from God does not take sides. Do you remember Joshua’s question of the man outside Jericho: Are you for us or for our enemies?” (Josh 5:13) and the man replied,Neither, but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” (v.14).  In other words, I’m God’s commander and God doesn’t take sides.  God wants us to bring blessing to all sides, and James has already spoken strongly about not allowing favouritism in the church!

The eighth and final description is sincere.  When we are sincere there is an absence of guile, there is no scheming. We are open and honest.  We will also have to be loving and gracious to temper this, so that it is not a selfish sincerity but a sincerity which is linked to all the other characteristics.

Eight descriptions!  Eight is the number of resurrection in Scripture, the number of God’s resurrection life, which follows death. When we die to self, and seek God for His wisdom then life will flow, which is why James concludes, Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. When we come with this sort of wisdom, then we come as God’s ambassador, we come as a bringer of peace, and righteousness will be seen to be the end outworking, or harvest, of all of this.  Righteousness, you may remember we have said, is simply living and acting in God’s prescribed and designed manner, and that is life.  May we be bringers of such life as we turn to Him and seek His wisdom.

20. Judgment & Mercy

Meditations in James: 20 :  Judgement & Mercy

Jas 2:12,13     Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

Sometimes in Scripture we move into areas where there is language being used that is not used in common, every-day life, and which, therefore, requires some definition.  This is one such place. ‘Judging’ is fairly easy because we have TV programmes where people have to perform and are then ‘judged’ by a panel. When we talk about judging, we talk about assessing or, to use an older phrase, being weighed in the balances. ‘Mercy’ is not so commonly used. Mercy is unfounded compassion. Mercy isn’t earned or deserved; it is just given. Now we have to apply these two words to see what James is saying in these rather complex verses.

First of all he makes a call in respect of our behaviour – speak and act. But we are to speak and act in a particular way, a way governed by what is going to happen to us in the future. He says, when you speak or act remember that you are going to be judged or assessed by the law of love that we have been recently considering. That law of love brings a freedom of movement; it allows us to reach out and touch others in very positive and purposeful ways. The law of love will be the yardstick by which we are measured.

Now earlier we didn’t go the full extent with the definition of judgement because it doesn’t only refer to the act of assessing, it also involves the act of determining what happens to the person being judged.  On these performance-TV shows the person or couple who is judged to have been bottom of the contestants, leaves the show and doesn’t appear any more. When we read of judgement in the Bible it can be either eternal judgement – where our eternal destiny takes us – or judgement that is short-term discipline, or even long-term if that discipline doesn’t bring the fruits that God is looking for when he brings it.  Judgement is also used in terms of rewards in heaven.

There is a clear Scriptural teaching that we Christians will receive in heaven according to how we have lived here: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Cor 3:12:12-15) and For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10) and Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” (Rev 22:12). The message is very clear. When we are Christians we have an eternal destiny in heaven with God, but the nature or character of that destiny (to start with at least) appears to be determined by the nature or character of the lives we lived here.  That is the judgement that James is possibly referring to.

But we need to consider his comments about mercy as well. Remember that he has just been speaking against favouritism and favouritism puts some people down while it elevates others. The poor needed our kindness and we didn’t give it.  We failed to show them mercy is what James is implying.  Oh yes, this isn’t a branch off to some completely different subject; this is an extension of his argument about treating all people equally and well.  If you don’t show people mercy, is what he is saying, you will not be shown mercy when it comes to your judgement time.  When you have finished your performance and are being assessed on it, if you haven’t included mercy in your performance, don’t expect to be shown mercy.  Expanding that word, if you haven’t shown undeserved compassion to those who needed it, don’t ask for special favours to get more than you deserve in heaven. Everything we have and will have, comes by God’s mercy and grace. He doesn’t HAVE to give us anything. We deserved eternal punishment, but in His mercy, His undeserving compassion, He offered us salvation through Jesus. That gave us a new eternal destiny.

But within that new life, He still gives us free will to choose how we will respond to His word and His Spirit and, therefore, we can be dilatory and casual and fail to be the people He wants us to be. If we are like that, we need to realise there are consequences. We may not loose our eternal destiny (though I believe Scripture indicates that is possible where there is apostasy) but we may not get all we could get if we had fully entered into the will of God, what He desired for us – which included letting His love reach out through us to those who were poor and needy.  Oh yes, there are definitely long-term consequences to what we do or don’t do today, and we really do need to consider those in determining how we will live now.