A Frowning Providence (Part Three)

Genesis 37:29-36

In a few hours, Joseph’s life changed forever. Sold by his brothers without mercy to slave traders, his dreams and hopes apparently disappeared forever. I don’t think that we can comprehend the desolate anguish as he was carried away. And what of questioning God? Had the Lord of all turned against him to deny his hopes and bring him bitterness? It would take over twenty years for young Joseph to see any positive answers to those questions. We should not imagine that the Lord God rushes to resolve our personal traumas.

Joseph’s enslavement had other consequences for the family. The first to experience the outcome were his brothers, who did the evil act. How could they explain their brother’s disappearance to their father? They resorted to an act of deceit.

The occasion was Reuben’s trauma (37:29-30). As the oldest son, he was responsible for his younger siblings. If you’re the oldest in your family, caring for them might have been the first serious responsibility you experienced. “Watch your brothers and sisters while they play outside. Don’t let them go out of our yard!”

Reuben had thought he had everything figured out, but all events are in God’s hands instead of ours. Though Reuben had planned to return Joseph to his father, the Lord had a different plan, and his prevailed. The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord (Proverbs 16:1 ESV). If we cannot control words, what makes us think we can control actions?

Observe that Reuben was not concerned for his brother’s hardship, but for his own predicament. “Where can I turn now?” He had not dared to risk himself to rescue his brother earlier, relying on his own schemes for an apparently easy way out. When a heavy burden had fallen on him, he lost all thoughts of Joseph. Self-interest becomes a dominating force in a course of sin. It becomes every man for himself. Reuben loved himself very well, but self-love did not lead him to love others, especially his father and his brother. This caused them to come up with a scheme to protect Reuben. They took Joseph’s special robe and put the blood of a goat on it. This made it look like Joseph had been killed by some wild beast. People are very skilled at doing an act of deceit to cover up their real acts and motives. Joseph’s brothers were very sure they would get away with this deceit. But God had a surprise for them years later.

What the ten brothers did affected Jacob in a horrible way (Genesis 37:31-36). His sons deceived him even as he had deceived his father. It should not surprise a sinner when his own lies and deceptions turn on him. Many, many years had passed since he, at his mother’s urging and with her approval, had deceived Isaac. Now, he felt the pain he had caused. Jacob was overwhelmed with grief. He had endured years of hard labor for his uncle, the death of Rachel, and the disgrace of incest, but he finally reached the end of his strength. Let us not be too hard on old Jacob. Remember the old Indian proverb about criticizing someone before you walk in their moccasins. I think an even better lesson would be to listen to the Lord’s advice and pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”          

What could be Jacob’s and Joseph’s consolation in this severe trial? The character and promises of God Almighty. The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe (Proverbs 18:10). Had God forgotten Jacob and Joseph in their grief? Not at all! Even then he was working for their good. We could not have proved that to either man during their sorrows, but it was very true.

Grace and peace, David

Road Closed

img_19572 Chronicles 18:8-27

Recently, we have encountered many “road closed” signs in our area. If we’re honest, we all feel ambivalent about these signs. On the one hand, we want the roads we travel to be in good repair. Admittedly, we even complain when they are not! On the other hand, a closed road can be an inconvenience, at times involving frustrating, time-consuming detours. And so we complain about the detours. Recently, the road we live off of was being repaired, which sent us onto detours. I reminded myself that I had very much desired to have the road fixed. The potholes had to go!

God our Father can wisely put “road closed” signs in our paths to develop godly character in us and/or to prevent sinful activity by us. He metaphorically puts roadblocks in our ways in order to help us to live with his ways and to speak with his tone. So, the Lord gave a final warning to both kings, Jehoshaphat and Ahab.

Micaiah the prophet entered an unpleasant situation with the deck stacked against him (18:9-15). God calls his people to walk through fiery trials, but praise his name, he walks through them with us (Isaiah 43:2-3). When nobody likes you, you might be in the exact place the Lord wants you to be for his glory.

  • Micaiah entered a situation where the kings were dressed in royal splendor rather than in sackcloth. This was intimidating.
  • Micaiah entered a situation where four hundred other prophets were saying what Ahab and Jehoshaphat wanted to hear. They even used drama! Zedekiah played his line skillfully, running around with iron horns.
  • Micaiah entered a situation where he was advised to agree with the false prophets. He was being pressured to say what the kings wanted to hear. People like to tell preachers what to say! Watch out that you don’t destroy your soul by seeking those who will tell you what you want to hear. You might hear lies from the pit of hell!
  • Micaiah spoke sarcastically in that situation, and Ahab could tell that it was not the truth. Do you see this? Both Micaiah and Ahab knew that it was sarcastic. Micaiah could only speak the message of the Lord (18:13).

My friends, be aware that unbelievers will try to gang up on you. But keep a firm hold on the word of the Lord.

Micaiah responded with two prophetic messages (18:16-27). The first pronounced doom on Ahab; if he went to war at Ramoth Gilead, he would surely die there. Notice that Ahab did not repent because of this message; he merely complained. Having “roast preacher” for Sunday dinner can be fatal; we’re not a good meal.

The second explained why the four hundred prophets were giving their message. The Lord had sent a lying spirit to entice Ahab to destruction. Satan is a liar and a murderer (John 8:44). His lies are easy to listen to. But the devil pats you on the back with a knife in his hand. Satan says, “Don’t listen to that crazy preacher! He doesn’t want you to have fun, because he doesn’t like you. Listen to me; I want you to succeed; really, I do. In fact, I want you to be like God. Go ahead; prove yourself. Make your own choices! Show everyone that you’re a man (or woman). You don’t need to listen to God. Go ahead; reach for the stars! You are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul. You can have anything you want! Visualize it and its yours. Take the fruit off that tree. You won’t really die.”

Now surely, Jehoshaphat listened to the Lord and abandoned his alliance with Ahab, right? He had heard the word from the Lord that he claimed to long for! So then he would listen to it, believe and obey, wouldn’t he? My brothers and sisters, this is where we should weep! If it were only so simple: share God’s word and people will change. Absolutely not! Apart from grace, no sinner, saved or unsaved, is able to change. Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing!”

God brought the consequences (18:28-34). You can choose unbelief and disobedience, but you cannot choose the consequences of your choice. God controls consequences. The Lord rescued Jehoshaphat, though he permitted him to suffer the scare of his life. When Jehoshaphat chose to go into battle, he found himself in deadly peril. He only escaped with his life, because the Lord helped him and drew the enemy away. But the Lord refused to help Ahab. Someone drew his bow at random, but God’s judgment guided the arrow to its fatal mark.

Do not play games with God! He will always win and you will always lose. Listen to the word of the Lord. Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:6-7). And remember: wrong desires wreak havoc, with our character and our lives.

Grace and peace, David

The People of the Uncertain Journey

IMG_0949Ruth 1:1-5

Last time in Ruth, we learned of a family that decided to make a journey to leave the Promised Land and the covenant people of God. They assumed that they were making a good choice. (Don’t we all assume that our choices are good and wise when we make them? Even when our choices turn out to be poor, we thought they were good at the time.) What can we learn about these people? (1:1b-2)

The story begins with the family of Elimelech, whose name means “My God is King”. He was married to Naomi, whose name means “Pleasant”. This couple had two sons: Mahlon and Kilion, but the meaning of their names is very unclear. In ancient times, names were important. Their names should make us think. Did Naomi have a pleasant life? Did Elimelech live like God was his king? If I call myself a Christian, does Jesus Christ significantly influence my life?

Their family was from the clan of Ephrath in Bethlehem, which means “House of Bread”. So we encounter our first ironic contrast. There is a famine in the “house of bread”. What will Elimelech do to provide for his family during this famine? He has a couple of options.

  • He can stay put on the land God had given him and depend on the Lord to see them through the hunger and poverty that the famine would bring.
  • He can trust his own judgment and seek a better situation, where they will not have to struggle and may in fact prosper. At this point we must ask, “Did anything clearly point to the result that Elimelech and his family would suffer lasting hardship if they remained in Bethlehem?” The answer is clearly no, since as the rest of the story shows, most stayed and prospered in the long run. We are too quick to run from difficulties that might be God’s pathway into greater blessing.

Elimelech heard that Moab was not suffering through a famine, as Israel was, and so he decided to leave the Promised Land, and go to another nation, to a people that were committed to idolatry and wickedness. We are not told what input Naomi had in this decision. She might have been willing or reluctant or had mixed feelings. But a few facts about Moab will indicate that this was not a wise decision.

  • A former king, Balak, had hired Balaam to curse Israel, when Israel was nearing the Promised Land (Numbers 22-24). So then, there were deep roots of hostility between the two people groups.
  • The women of Moab had been a stumbling stone to Israel, having seduced them to sexual immorality and the worship of false gods (Numbers 25).
  • In the early days of the Judges, Eglon, the king of Moab cruelly oppressed Israel (Judges 3). This would have been recent history for Elimelech.
  • From Israel’s earliest encounters with the Moabites, the people of Moab were called the “people of Chemosh”, the cruel, vile false god (Numbers 21:29).

Yet Elimelech decided to take his family on an uncertain journey, which might offer short-term relief, but which could also involve them in long-term tragedy. Instead of keeping them among the visible people of God, he took them to live among worshipers of false gods. People usually ignore what I’m about to say, but I’ll say it again. Before you move, be very certain you have a faithful gathering of God’s people with whom you can worship!

Elimelech and his family evidently planned to move to Moab “to live for a while” in that place. Here we encounter the principle that you can make your choices but you cannot choose the consequences of your choices.

  • No human can really discern where even insignificant choices will end. Many people have chosen to get in a car to go to the grocery store or the movies, and that was their last journey! The point is not to live in fear, because you can die in your house in your favorite chair also. Instead, the point is to avoid pride, as if you are in control of your life.
  • Though we make significant choices, God does, too (Proverbs 16:1, 4, 9). He has a plan that he is working out, and he has chosen to make our choices a part of his plan, usually in unexpected ways. For example, have you ever been in a situation where one choice seemed to require you to make another choice and then a whole series of choices that you had no intention of making when you made your first choice? More is involved than circumstances. God guides the smallest events (Proverbs 16:33; Matthew 10:29).
  • What happens to Elimelech and his family? Do they stay in Moab for just a while? “Verse 2 literally says, ‘They went to the fields of Moab, and they were there.’” [Duguid] That is what happens in life. We reach a particular place, and we sort of get stuck there. For example, when our family moved to Rural Grove, I thought we might stay there four years. My reasoning was, “If a missionary can live in a foreign country for four years, then I can serve God in the country that long!” Before I knew it, the four years became ten, and then twelve and finally fifteen. Even if we have plans, God has a way of altering them drastically.

We all like to evaluate our decisions quickly. A short-term evaluation would say that Elimelech and Naomi were doing all right. That is a constant problem with our evaluations. Present circumstances can easily mislead us. “Everything is fine!” Or, “my life stinks!” This is why we need the word of God as our basis of evaluation. It is an objective standard far more accurate than how “good” our lives seem to be. What then is the good news? As noted, God’s gracious providence is not hindered by human foolishness, as we shall see from the rest of the story. God is able to act to bring good, even when we make wrong choices that produce many problems in our lives. God’s grace is greater than our situations.

Grace and peace, David