April - September 2019
Call to Prayer, Part 1
Ashland Men's Mission
1 Timothy 2:1-2
Inspired to Challenge
When my good friend, Doug Yoho, began Ashland Men 15 years ago, his idea was to build a group of Christian men around Ashland County who committed themselves to the task of praying for the city and county. The defining passage for the group became 1 Timothy 2:1-2, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” That mission statement has stayed at the forefront of Ashland Men’s thinking. Once a month, a group of us meets to pray. We come from different churches and backgrounds, but whenever we come together, our priority is common prayer. Our first order of business is to pray for each other. Over the past couple of years, I have come to have deep respect for the men in the group. These are men who stand on principle, who know and accept the need for sacrificial service, and who remain faithful to their wives and love their families. For that reason, when they pray for me, I feel both honored and empowered. In honor of the men whom I respect, this series will examine some of the meanings of a dedicated prayer life.
Paul begins with four different words to describe our call to approach God—supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings. Obviously, these distinctions mean something to Paul. We will benefit from examining them. Of all the terms Paul uses in the 1 Timothy passage, supplications are most directed toward pleading for someone’s welfare. The word has to do with approaching God from a point of need. The context of this passage lies in salvation. Immediately after the verses quoted above, Paul writes, “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:3-4). Salvation is not for a deserving few. It is for undeserving people everywhere. The call to lift up supplications also implies discipline. One of the most pointed uses of the term occurs in Ephesians 6:18, where Paul tells the believers to “keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.”The Ephesians verse appears at the end of the well-known call to put on the full armor of God. Supplication, then, is associated directly with Christian warfare, and Christian warfare involves maintaining vigil. It is to be a continual act of discipline for the believer.
Prayer is a general term in the New Testament. Again, it makes a clear connection to discipline. Luke mentions that the early believers in Jerusalem “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42). In the book of Revelation, prayer plays a critical role in the fulfillment of history at the end of the age. John writes, “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel” (Revelation 8:3-4). When the Lamb of God continues with his judgment of the world, those very prayers become the instrument by which he carries out his verdict (Revelation 8:5).
This word speaks of praying on behalf of others, or even against the onset of evil. Regarding the latter meaning, Paul describes the prophet Elijah’s complaint, “Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life’” (Romans 11:2b-3, quoting 1 Kings 19:14).Intercession places us holy ground, because God himself intercedes for his people. The author of Hebrews writes, “Consequently, he [Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).Paul describes the Holy Spirit’s work in the same way. (Romans 8:26). When we intercede for others, we carry on some of God’s most precious work.
Thanksgiving and its Results
If thanksgiving does nothing else, it drives us to recognize God’s ultimate control over his creation. When we give thanks, we recognize his hand in the most difficult situations. In the Bible college class that I teach, we recently discussed the early part of Exodus, where God’s people suffered under Egyptian slavery. During their most difficult suffering, God appeared to have forgotten about them. But the text is clear that he was always near.
The Objectives of our Prayers
Having mentioned these four disciplines, Paul moves to the objectives of our prayers. We are to pray “for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions.” The original language suggests that rather than mentioning all people including kings and authorities, Paul has a more select group in mind. A more accurate reading refers to “kings and all who are in positions of authority.” As we pray for those in authority over us, the result is that we are able to “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” This goal is especially timely in the contemporary political and moral atmosphere that has polarized our society in ways that were unthinkable even a few years ago.
The Long Goal in our Prayers
As Christian men, we are called to stand in all situations. In our explosive political atmosphere, our children and grandchildren’s moral futures lie in question. We are responsible not just to pray, but to be ready to defend our beliefs. The relationship between prayer and defense will be a topic of future columns. For now, let me say this. One of the connecting points between prayer and defense lies in thanksgiving. The Apostle Peter, for example, tells his readers that they are to regard Christ the Lord as holy, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Hope is rooted in thanksgiving. Peter’s letter is written to a group of believers who suffered persecution under Emperor Nero. We probably do not have to face that level of persecution, at least yet. But to the degree that we can maintain an attitude of thanksgiving, our prayers will become more balanced, and we will be able to present a stronger witness to the world.
 William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary 46, Bruce M. Metzger, ed., (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 79.
 Ibid., 80.
Selected Passages in Revelation
Call to Prayer, Part 2
Prayer in the Book of Revelation
The Infinite Weight of Prayer
What is prayer? Exactly? When we put our minds to this exercise, we begin to see how much bigger prayer is when compared to our efforts to define it. As often as not, we end up with contradictory notions.
- We understand that prayer consists of petitions for the saints, but it is far more than a recitation of our daily laundry list.
- We realize that prayer involves adoration of God, but we run into situations when grief eclipses everything else.
- We know that prayer is a powerful tool to help accomplish God’s will in the world, but after all, I am only one man.
- We know that prayer involves self-examination and confession, but a regular practice of sin recognition is so hard.
- We understand that prayer is more than name-it-claim-it, but the qualifier, “according to your will,” sounds more like a copout for the difficult requests than recognition of God’s ultimate control over human affairs.
From a practical standpoint, we often treat prayer as a dreaded duty. We know that this is wrong, so in response, we try to divide prayer into bite-size segments—confession, adoration, worship, petition, praise. These are all good practices, but I wonder if our efforts to subdivide them so cleanly amounts to a bottom-up effort to make our prayers more effective. Prayer calls for discipline, but it is more than a recitation of our list of requests. It involves intimate communication with the God of the cosmos. In this challenge, I want to look at the way that God views our calls for help in our most desperate hours. We will focus on the book of Revelation.
Prayer in the Book of Revelation
Regardless of how we interpret the finer points of Revelation, we can agree that the book is God’s final word on his ownership of the affairs of mankind. In fact, we can map the book through the grid of the saints’ prayers. The book contains four key coordinates. These are 1) prayers before the throne, 2) prayer during crisis, 3) prayer as God begins to answer, and 4) prayer as praise. At the beginning of the book, Jesus Christ calls his churches to maintain the faith till death. While prayer does not enter the narrative directly in this section, it is implied.
One: Prayers before the Throne
In the letters to the churches at the beginning of Revelation, John is silent about prayer, despite the obvious difficulties that many of the churches faced. Yet we know it is there, because the churches’ prayers surface when John takes us before the throne. After he describes the glory in heaven, he reveals the cosmic drama. God holds up a seven-sealed scroll, which represents the right to bring human history to a close and fulfill God’s final redemptive purposes.
No worthy contender can be found to open the scroll, and John weeps. Then the Lion of the tribe of Judah steps forward as a slain Lamb. Notice what happens when the Lamb takes the scroll. “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8, emphasis added). Our prayers have occupied the innermost circle of God’s presence from the beginning. They are precious to him.
Two: Prayer During Crisis
As the Lamb begins to break the seals on the scroll in Revelation 6, the judgments on the earth begin. The first four mark the appearance of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Then we come the peculiar fifth seal.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” -- Revelation 6:9-10
Why does John shift from the earth to heaven, and why are the saints in heaven in such dire straits? I believe that the book shows us that until justice reigns on earth, heaven cannot rest. The words “O Sovereign Lord…how long…?” signify the language of lament in the Psalms, the saints’ cry to the Lord to intervene and bring justice. In Revelation, this cry calls for the Lamb to rise and bring justice into a world that is bent on seeking its own interests rather than God’s. The saints’ laments are the incense that fuels the Lamb’s passion. This lament, then, becomes the pivot point for the entire book of Revelation. The cry in heaven is a cry for justice, but justice cannot be complete until all of God’s purposes come to pass. Because of this, the saints are given white robes—a sign of great honor—and “told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Revelation 6:11).
Three: Prayer as God begins to Answer
Revelation 8 marks a major turning point in the book. When the Lamb opens the seventh seal, he reveals the seven trumpet judgments that are to come. John states that heaven goes silent for about half an hour. The silence probably is shock over what is to come. Before the next set of judgments begins, however, John writes this:
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. -- Revelation 8:3-5
When the angel casts the fire from the altar to the earth, the message is unmistakable. The saints’ prayers become the instrument that God uses to judge the world. From this point, the prayers no longer involve pleading. They take the form of worship for God’s judgment of world affairs.
Four: Prayer Changing to Victorious Praise
In Revelation 18, Babylon the great, the vital force behind everything that stands against God’s people, falls. When this is complete, the saints’ prayers turn to praise.
After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” -- Revelation 19:1-2, emphasis added
Revelation 19 is both brutal and unalterable. And it signifies the answer to the prayer that the martyrs under the altar cried in chapter 6, “O Sovereign Lord…how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10). With Babylon’s judgment complete, the Lord proceeds to eliminate all evil from the earth (Revelation 20. Prayer has completed its cycle. Evil is eliminated, the new heavens and earth appear, and perfect peace reigns.
Call to Prayer, Part 3
The Ultimate Purpose of Prayer
Jesus’ Teaching on Prayer
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, he teaches on prayer by giving us what has become known as the Lord’s Prayer. Here is what he said at the beginning of this incredible model prayer.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:
‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven….’”
-- Matthew 6:5-10
What Prayer is Not
In a culture that for centuries had stressed spirituality, certain practices had risen to the surface to distinguish the prayer warriors from those who merely pray. The prayer warriors of Jesus’ day had become both visible and vocal. Jesus’ opening comments teach us to avoid that kind of show. He gives two broad guidelines.
Jesus’ cautions speak to the substance of prayer rather than its style. The difference between prayer for show and real petition has little to do with the way we dress our prayers. Effective prayer goes to the question of how we approach God in the first place. Jesus focusses on that question at the beginning of his model prayer.
What Prayer Is
Our first call is for God to be holy. When we say, “Hallowed be your name,” we call on God to make his reputation great.
Calling on God to hallow his name almost sounds like an exercise in futility, because God is holy already. For example, when the prophet Isaiah sees the vision of the LORD in the temple, the four seraphim (literally, “burning ones”) that surround him cry out,
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of his glory!” --Isaiah 6:3
How can we add to God’s glory? The simple answer is that we cannot. The Bible is clear that God will be glorified among both his friends and enemies.
The plea for God to glorify his name shows our submission to him. When we align ourselves with his will at the beginning of our prayers, we place ourselves among those who wait for him to bring the full manifestation of his kingdom to earth. This is evident from the second line in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Prayer is Not Ultimately About Us
These two concepts—God’s glory and the fulfillment of his purpose in the world to establish his universal kingdom—underpin all meaningful prayer. They form the foundation for prayer. The Old Testament praise psalms invite God’s people to rejoice when the LORD works to bring victory in the saints’ lives. By the same token, the laments, the pleas for help, often in the form, “How long, O LORD…,” are equally rooted in God’s ultimate purposes. Both the personal laments and the laments of the people recognize that while evil flourishes, God’s purpose in the world remains unfulfilled. Their prayers for God to remember their plight rest on the understanding, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” The laments are passionate precisely because the LORD must be great among his people. When evil reigns, it threatens God’s mastery of the cosmos. The laments called for nothing less than for God to right history.
An Example of God Bringing his Will to Earth
One of most dramatic examples of God bringing his will to earth came from an unexpected source. My wife has a long-time friend who is a documentary film maker. In 2016, she premiered Unseen, a film about the Anthony Sowell murders in East Cleveland. Patty and I assisted in writing transcripts for several of the interviews, which gave us a deeper understanding of the events than what the documentary could show. The public history of the murders is well known. In 2009, police discovered the bodies of eleven African-American young women in Sowell’s yard and house. All the women were drug users whom Sowell had lured into his control. When a twelfth victim managed to escape by jumping out of his third-story window, police investigated and found the bodies of the other eleven. During the transcript writing, I learned about a deeper spiritual saga inside the story. One of the interviewees for the film was a local pastor who had served the community for more than twenty-five years. He described how the neighborhood had been a prosperous haven when he first arrived but had degenerated into a slum. By the time Sowell began his killing spree, the neighborhood was shot through with crime and drugs. Since the victims were drug users, the murders went unnoticed for at least two years. The women were inconsequential to the police. Around this time, the pastor organized a small group from his church to pray for the community. They made T-shirts so that they would be recognizable as a peaceful gathering, and they picked a different corner on which to pray every week. One week, he said, they stood in front of Sowell’s house. They did not know him. The murders were still a secret, and no one suspected anything. They just happened to pick that place on that week to pray for God to bring healing. Two weeks later, Sowell’s only surviving victim escaped, allowing police to discover the crime and bring Sowell to justice.
“Your Kingdom Come…”
The pastor’s story gave me chills. His group prayed for God’s kingdom to come, and it entered with justice. The Lord revealed the wrongs when human authorities neither knew nor cared about the injustice around them. For me, at least, understanding prayer in this context brings a great deal more purpose to the exercise. We can pray for the particulars, but we must remember the bigger picture. Yes, we have the freedom to pray during sickness or other tragedy. Yes, we can pray for justice when injustice reigns. Yes, we can weep for ourselves and others. Prayers during difficult times like these have meaning because the grand purpose for God’s kingdom is to rid the world of sickness, tragedy, injustice, and grief. Genuine prayer brings God’s kingdom to earth, one step at a time.
Call to Prayer, Part 4
The Importance of Knowing our God
The opening lines in what we know as the Lord’s Prayer call for God to make his name great in the earth.
"Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. " --Matthew 9-10
These words set the foundation not just for the rest of the prayer, but also for life itself. If God is to do his will on the earth, he certainly must perform it in his disciples. For that reason, we need to understand the next request in the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), as part of God’s grand plan for his will to be done throughout the earth.
The Greatness of God is shown in Plentiful Supply
Jesus’ call for us to seek our daily bread from the Lord looks indirectly at Psalm 104, a praise hymn for God’s creation. Part of the psalm reads,
"You cause the grass to grow for the livestock,and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earthand wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shineand bread to strengthen man’s heart." --Psalm 104:14-15
The thirty-five verses of Psalm 104 pulsate in their praise for God’s creative work. The heavens and the earth show God’s splendor. The order in the earth stands as testimony to God’s wisdom. And the resources and finished products that come from the earth—the grass, the cultivated plants, wine, oil, and bread—stand as blessings from our Creator who gives us reward for our labor.
The Moral Lessons in Daily Bread
Jesus has a more specific passage from Deuteronomy in mind when he teaches us to pray for our daily bread. Moses tells the generation that is about to possess the Promised Land,
“The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD." -- Deuteronomy 8:1-3
The older unbelieving generation has died, and their children stand ready for victory. They still have certain things to learn, however.
Three Things God seeks in Knowledge
Anyone familiar with the desert wanderings remembers that the first generation refused to believe that God could bring them into Canaan successfully (See Numbers 13:1-14:48). For this reason, God doomed them to wander forty years until they all died. We tend to emphasize the first generation’s demise during the wandering, but God was busy with the second generation as well. The forty years was not just a time of limbo while their parents died off. The LORD used the time to teach them to trust. That is the emphasis in this passage. For example, Moses makes use of the word know three times in this passage. The first instance refers to what God himself wants to know. He used the time “that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. This use of the word sounds strange to us who emphasize that God knows all things. Knowing what we will do is one thing, however. Knowing that we have chosen to obey in faith is something that he prizes far more deeply. When God tests us to know what is in our hearts, he wishes to prove us and establish us in his relationship with us.
Supplies beyond the Threshold of Knowledge
Moses’ second use of the word know goes to an area where Israel remained ignorant. “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know….” Moses uses a play on words in this sentence. When the manna first appeared in Exodus 16, Moses records this reaction. “When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was” (Exodus 16:15a). The original language word for “What is it?” is mahn, meaning what. This led to the word manna. For the next forty years, the people would pick up the what-is-it from the ground. Unlike the grass and plants of the creation from Psalm 104, which God gave mankind to cultivate, manna was just there. It never had a name beyond what-is-it.
What God has Given us to Know
The third use of the word know leads the people to the heart of an important moral lesson. Moses told Israel that God “humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, that you might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Part of Moses’ point is ironic. The cultivated plants, grain, and bread in Psalm the quote from 104 are identifiable and knowable. And they involve labor. The psalmist calls them “the plants for man to cultivate.” Manna, on the other hand, was an unknown substance that did not involve cultivation. It just appeared, ready to be baked, boiled, or eaten raw. There is another difference between manna and the plants of the field. The plants of the field reproduce in abundance and bring joy. Manna appeared in scarcity and often left the people hungry. The very scarcity of manna taught the people a moral lesson. The need to trust their God for supply was more important than personal comfort. Jesus quoted this passage for this reason during his forty days of fasting when Satan tempted him to turn stones into bread.
The Doxology of Daily Bread
The call for God to give us our daily bread, then, is far more than a call for provision. It is a call for God to have the freedom to reign in our lives while we trust him for what we cannot know. When we find the ability to value God’s wisdom more than immediate comfort, we begin to honor his kingdom’s appearance on the earth in this most practical way.
Call to Prayer, Part 5
Forgiveness and Forgiving
Forgiveness and the Kingdom of Heaven
When Jesus moves to the personal and spiritual request in the Disciples’ Prayer, “…and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12), does he stay on track with the original request for God’s glory, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?
I believe so, for two reasons. First, a moment’s thought on forgiveness makes us realize that God’s will on earth is precisely to forgive sinners. Therefore, a plea to the Father to forgive our debts moves straight to his revealed mission in the world. Second, Jesus himself equates forgiveness with the Father’s will. In Matthew 18:15-20, he teaches about this issue. In the church, if someone has a conflict with another, he is to go to the brother and attempt to resolve the conflict. If the brother refuses to listen to them, they are to take one or two witnesses in the hope of restoring the brother. If the witnesses fail to convince the brother of his sin, then they are to take the matter before the church. If even this fails to persuade the brother to rectify, then the church is to conclude that this brother is not really a believer at all.
Forgiveness as the Greater Goal
Jesus’ point is not for us to use conflict resolution as a device to weed out the undesirables from the church. Instead, it is for us to make every possible effort to achieve restoration among the brothers and sisters in the church. Peter’s response to Jesus’ teaching goes to that end. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:22). Most of us are familiar with Jesus’ response to Peter’s question. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Before we jump on Peter for what he missed, however, we need to recognize what he got right. He understands that forgiveness lies at the heart of the issue. Jesus corrects him only on the greatness of the task.
Forgiveness on Earth as it is in Heaven
A parable connects the earthly task of forgiveness to the Father’s will for his kingdom to come to completion on the earth. “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants” (Matthew 18:23). Settling accounts means balancing the books, and one slave is caught holding a ten-thousand-talent debt. This is a serious trespass, and the verdict is swift. The man, his wife, and his children are to be sold into slavery in restitution for the debt (Matthew 18:25).
As Jesus often does in his parables, he drives the situation to the realm of absurdity. When the servant hears the verdict, he falls on his knees and begs, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything (Matthew 18:26).” Everything? The debt has attained biblical proportions. At a laborer’s wages, he would have to work two hundred thousand years to pay it. Upon hearing a plea this absurd plea, many kings would tell his servants, “Forget slavery for this guy. Just have him executed.” Jesus takes the story in yet another unexpected direction. “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:27). That was it. The king let the man go on the spot. The act is nothing short of foolhardy forgiveness. But it represents the kind of forgiveness that the Father bestows to each one of us.
More than Foolishness
At this point, the parable is only half over. The debt-free slave remains wholly ignorant of what he has received. He leaves his master’s presence, goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes him a hundred denarii and chokes him in an effort to collect. A hundred denarii is about a third of a year’s wages, easy enough to arrange for payback. The first slave wants none of that, however. He throws his fellow worker in prison until he can pay the debt (Matthew 18:30). The lesson—not to mention the irony—is obvious. The first slave has received immunity from a world-class crime. The least he can do is to extend the favor to his friend. The point is clear enough to the first slave’s fellow servants. When they see what has happened, they become “greatly distressed” (Matthew18:31). When they report the matter to the king, the king summoned the slave. The king places the slave under his own system of justice. Since he cannot forgive, he will not be forgiven. The king sentences him to prison until he can pay.
An Easy Parable with a Difficult Conclusion
The point of the parable is not that to place us under a threat to imitate God’s forgiveness or else. It is to show that if we stand where the first servant stands at the beginning of the story. We have experienced forgiveness of unimaginable proportions. That should compel us to forgive in human proportions. The Father’s forgiveness is outrageous. It requires no less than his Son’s death to relieve the guilty of their guilt. But the act goes to the heart of his joy. The logical next step for us is to forgive those who harm us. When we forgive, we begin to experience the Father’s outrageous joy . Our forgiveness becomes a reflection of the Father’s grace. By the same token, if we let our reluctance to forgive fester, it signals something lacking in our understanding of what the Father has done for us. Counting robs us of the joy of watching restoration in action. If we continue to count and never focus on pardon, our problems may be deeper. We may need to take a serious look at our own relationship with our Father. Is it even real? When Jesus likens “the kingdom of heaven” to earthly forgiveness, he brings the kingdom to earth. God’s kingdom is built on forgiveness, because it is what allows sinners to enter heaven. It is also what distinguishes the redeemed from the rest of the world.Forgiveness achieves the plea, “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” because it brings his kingdom to earth.
Call to Prayer, Part 6
Temptation and Deliverence from Evil
The Prayer to be Delivered from Temptation
In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, the admonition that he teaches after forgiveness goes to our walk. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). Isn’t this request a no-brainer? Of course, God would want his servants to avoid temptation, and of course he would want them to experience deliverance from evil. On the surface, this part of the Disciples’ Prayer appears to be unnecessary. Yet here it stands. Therefore, if we are to benefit from the prayer, we must do the difficult work of understanding it. This installment will focus on a teaching from the book of James. What he has to say regarding trials and temptations respectively will help us to understand Jesus’ request in the Disciples’ Prayer.
James on Trials
In many ways, James reads much like the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Like Proverbs, James concentrates on wisdom, and in Hebrew culture, wisdom referred to mature behavior before God and man. After his one-verse introduction, James makes his first point. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4). Look at the first sentence. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds….”
If we look carefully, we can make several observations on this passage. First, trials are external challenges to our faith. We meet them, which means that they come to us of their own accord. When we compare them to temptations, which are internal, the distinction between the two becomes easier to see.
Second, trials are involuntary. Nobody goes looking for them. No matter how good life may look one day, we know that the next can be a crash and burn.
Third, we are to consider our encounters with trials to be a source of joy. Why? Because “you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Trials are the means by which God produces stability in our Christian walk. In this passage, for instance, James uses “trials” and “the testing of your faith” interchangeably. Finally, when we survive trials, we achieve the goal of biblical wisdom. We become “perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” Survival then becomes the proof of the faith we claim to have. In this context, we can see that trials really are a gift from God. They challenge us. They test our mettle and offer the promise of reward if we remain faithful. If we look further down the text, James writes, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
Trials and the Crown of Life
Traditionally, the crown of life has been understood to be a literal crown that we will receive in eternity. But since the book of James addresses wisdom, I wonder whether the crown of life might be the reward of a proven character. After all, what can make a man stand taller than knowing that he has come through a difficult ordeal and survived? I cannot think of a greater reward than for someone to say, “There is a man with proven integrity.” Whether we understand our reward as a good reputation now or as a literal crown that we will receive in eternity, it stands as something of great value.
Temptations, the Dark Side
Consider this, however. Immediately after mentioning the crown of life, James issues a warning:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. --James 1:13-15
Since trials carry the ability to prove our character, they also pose genuine risks. They are not practice runs. They can and do result in failure. This is why James shifts so abruptly to his warning on temptation. If trials were not genuinely difficult, they would lack the power to produce fruit in our lives. By the same token, their difficulty rises from their ability to entice us to give in to compromise. Therefore, while trials are external, they have the ability to tempt us to compromise, either passively or actively. When a challenge turns to enticement, it has gone internal, and when it internalizes, by nature it becomes a temptation. James is determined to stress that temptation involves the luring and enticement of our own desire. Compromised human desire grows from sin to death. The issue has two sides. On the one hand, God brings trials to prove our character. On the other, what we do with the trial determines whether our character advances or retreats.
Back to Jesus’ Words
Jesus and James’s perspectives are mirror images of each other. James addresses our condition from the human perspective, showing how we can allow difficulties to lead to greater stability or promote compromise. In the Disciples’ Prayer, Jesus offers God’s perspective on the same issue. He calls us to pray to the Father during difficult times, so that he might deliver us from compromise. Understanding the issue both from James’s internal perspective and from Jesus’ external perspective offers us another insight into the issue. God never calls us to face trials alone. He is always there with us. Trials involve risks, both for us and for our God. If we observe the history of Scripture, we find that God sends his servants into high-risk zones every time he calls someone to his service. Sometimes we fail spectacularly, but thankfully we are not doomed to be branded by our failures. God forgives and lifts us up again, because his passion is to show off the proof of his work in us. When we emerge victoriously, God magnifies his name, and we stand, having passed the test of faith.
Call to Prayer, Part 7
Prayer From a Grieving Heart
The Danger of Praise without Grief
Recently I attended the funeral of a young father who had committed suicide. That tragedy was bad enough, but worse was the fact that the presiding pastors discouraged any show of grief.
I do not remember anything that either of the two pastors said in their sermons. What I do remember is a service dominated by praise music that became more and more frenzied as the service went on. When the family grieved, the music amped up.
I left in the middle of the service.
The Loss of Grief in Contemporary Christian Culture
Modern Christian culture has lost far more than the ability to empathize with the grieving. We have tried to outlaw grief. When someone grieves, we throw platitudes at them like these.
· “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
· Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
· “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17).
On the surface, passages like these encourage us to trust in God. When we use them exclusively, they become missiles to shoot down honest pain among our brothers and sisters.
The problem is not that we lack the answers to the difficult questions. We can be compassionate without having to know the answers.
The problem is that we have become unwilling to subject ourselves to the questions. Western Christianity has numbed itself to pain for so long that we have lost the ability to offer comfort to others who are in pain. We have turned grief into an out-of-bounds area. Even funerals rush through grief to get us back to “the joy of the Lord.”
Unfortunately, joy that denies grief is nothing more than a grinning mask.
Why We need Grief
In truth, grief is more important for the Christian life than we realize.
If there were no other reasons, we need grief because the Lord has blessed it. It is the means by which God calls us to seek him. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount opens with the grace of grief.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted…”
Jesus blesses those who mourn because the grieving seek God’s face more intently than anyone else can. Grief bears fruit that no amount of praise for praise’s sake can produce. Grief grounds us in our need for God’s grace.
· It causes us to acknowledge out true feelings before God.
· It makes us admit that we do not have the ability to manufacture praise at will.
· It lets others know that a problem exists that must be addressed.
· It draws us to the Lord in a far deeper way than praise alone can.
· It drives us to show compassion when others suffer.
God’s Special Place for Grief
Consider this fact. The most frequently occurring category in the Psalms is not praise. It is lament.
Laments are expressions of grief set to worship. They are deliberate and loud, and they call God to honor his covenant among his people. Psalm 102 is an example of one of the many psalms of lament. It begins,
A PRAYER OF THE AFFLICTED, WHEN HE IS FAINT AND POURS OUT HIS COMPLAINT BEFORE THE LORD.
Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry come to you!
Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress!
Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!
This is the language of a man who needs God. Almost all the psalms of lament begin with this kind of cry to God.
The psalmist continues with a description of his suffering:
For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning, my bones cling to my flesh.
I am like a desert owl of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places;
I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.
The laments have no time for pretend praise language. They must do business with God, and until the business is finished, the lament-er refuses to shut up.
The Enemy on the Outskirts
Almost all the laments mention an enemy. In the psalms of confession, the enemy is the writer. Sometimes the enemy is God himself. Psalm 77 is an example of such a psalm.
Most often, however, someone stands on the outskirts. He is seldom named, but he always obstructs. Here is how Psalm 102 describes the enemies:
All the day my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse….
He has broken my strength in mid-course; he has shortened my days.
--Psalm 102:8, 23
The enemy gives legitimacy to the lament. When he prevails over the saints, God’s name suffers. He makes the problem real.
Trust amid Complaint
The psalmists know where their deliverance comes from, however. This is why they are so bold in their complaints. When God rises up to deliver, the world will witness the truth.
But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.
You will arise and have pity on Zion;it is the time to favor her;the appointed time has come….
For the LORD builds up Zion;he appears in his glory;
he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer.
--Psalm 102:12-13, 16-17
The Return to Praise
The expectation of the laments is for God to deliver, and when he does, the Psalmists are ready to offer praise for his deliverance. Usually, this occurs as a vow, with the form, “I will tell his praise in the congregation.” In this psalm, the vow is expressed as a wish.
Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD;
that he looked down from his holy height; from heaven, the LORD looked at the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die….
The psalms of lament always anticipate a return to praise, because God makes his name great when he delivers
Call to Prayer, Part 8
The Meaning of Praise in Prayer
The Complimentary Relationship between Joy and Grief
Last week, my wife and I visited my brother and his family in North Carolina. We met our grandnieces, ages 8 and almost 4, for the first time. When we left Friday morning, our younger grandniece cried. I was certain that someone would try to soothe her, but thankfully, no one tried. Had anyone done so, the effort would have destroyed a moment that was magic. Her sorrow at our departure framed our collective joy in each other’s presence.
The Problems with One-sided Praise in Prayer
Our prayer relationship with our heavenly Father contains the same relationship between sorrow and joy. Grief is not an emotion to be avoided. It gives weight to joy. Unfortunately, modern Western Christians have come to insist on a praise-all-the-time mentality. In doing so, we have lost sight not only of the value in grief, but of the strength of genuine praise as well. I see three fundamental problems with the all-praise-all-the-time mentality. First, it simply is not biblical. The Apostle Paul is clear about the universal reality of suffering.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
This passage goes on to show the counter-intuitive truth that hope grows best in barren soil. When we mourn, we look to God for better promises. When everything is happy all the time, we lose any reason look for something worthier. Second, the always-praise mentality places impossible expectations on the one who suffers. When only praise is permitted, the person who grieves becomes the person at fault. His faith must be weak. His attitude brings down the whole group. Therefore, he must decide what to do to fall into step with the rest. Finally, the always-praise mentality builds a wall between us and the plight of our brothers. If the problem belongs only to the one who mourns, the rest can stop listening and stop caring. Forced praise causes us to pursue the lie on every possible front. It compels us to abandon the biblical reality of grief, it prevents the grieving from being able to be honest about their grief, and it smothers our ability to empathize with those who suffer.
Genuine Deliverance from Desperate Situations
Does this mean that we must abandon praise?
Not at all. We simply need to understand praise from a biblical perspective. The psalmists approached praise in much more immediate terms than modern believers. Our worship culture is dominated by adjectives. God is amazing. God is wonderful. God is awesome. God is…well, you get the picture. The psalmists use adjectives as well, but they attach them to reality. In the Psalms, praises are never just happy words. They are concrete declarations that declare who God is and what he has done. And because of his deeds, we know that he is a good God. Consider these words from Psalm 116.
Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; our God is merciful.
The LORD preserves the simple [that is, those who trust him]; when I was brought low, he saved me.
How does the writer of this psalm know that God is righteous and merciful? Because he has experienced God’s righteousness and mercy. He expresses his joy in simple words. “When I was brought low, he saved me.” Praise in the Psalms always remembers the laments. It never forgets the sorrow that drove the believer to prayer in the first place. The whole reason to praise God is because he has delivered from grief. Psalm 116 begins with this declaration.
I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.
Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!”
This is praise testimony at its best. The psalmist loves the LORD because he has heard and because he has listened. Death threatened him, and he cried to the LORD.
The Fulfillment of the Vow of Praise
In the previous segment, I mentioned the vow of praise in the psalms of lament. All the laments of the individual either mention the vow of praise explicitly or imply it. Psalm 116 is a fulfillment of the vow. The psalm carries a profound sense of relief from the disaster that once threatened. Now that God has saved the psalmist from death, he ponders how to express his gratitude.
What shall I render to the LORD for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD,
I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.
--Psalm 116:12-14, emphasis added
The psalm concludes with these words on his preparation to present his testimony.
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD.
I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the LORD, in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the LORD!
The bond between praise and lament is both organic and indestructible. It allows an empathetic bridge to grow between those who rejoice and those who suffer. When the ones who rejoice can remember their suffering, they can give genuine encouragement to those who grieve.Meanwhile, the ones who continue to suffer can gain a foothold in hope, because they have a concrete reason to hope
Call to Prayer, Part 9
Laments of People and What They Do
The previous three challenges have explored individual suffering and the value that God places on it. In every case, the psalmists’ suffering is real. They begin in private pain, and they make no effort to sugarcoat it with praise. Most of the psalms of lament involve individuals’ prayers directed to God. A small number of the laments pray on behalf of the people. When a national crisis occurs, for example, a psalm of lament of the people often accompanies it. While the laments of the people share many of the characteristics of the laments of the individual, they are much bolder in the way that they present their case before God. If the laments of the people storm the gates of heaven, the laments of the people attack them with a battering ram. The laments of the people teach us much about how to pray for others. If we want to become serious about prayer that intercedes for others, we will do well to understand how important the laments of the people are to God. Starting with this segment, the next few studies will look at this important subject.
Psalm 44 and the People’s Case
Psalm 44 is a classic example of a lament of the people. Historically, it occurs late in the Old Testament, probably during Jeremiah’s time in sixth-century BC, when Babylon prepares to invade Judah. Like Britain preparing to defend itself against Hitler’s blitzkrieg during the opening months of WWII, Judah trembles before the Babylon. The new superpower threatens the nation’s existence as a people. The psalm is a plea to God to deliver his people and their worship from annihilation. The psalm unfolds in three stanzas, each with the same structure: Affirmation of a truth, Contrasting statement that highlights its opposite, Reaffirmation of the truth. The first two stanzas are short—verses 1-3 and verses 4-8. The final stanza, verses 9-26, presents the people’s case before the LORD.
First Stanza: A Historical Prelude
The psalm begins with the history of God’s establishment of Israel just after the Exodus, when he brought them to live in the land of promise. The main point of this section—and the truth that they will use to leverage their plea to God—is that Israel’s deliverance was a solo act. God alone bought his people into the land. The psalm unfolds like a hymn sung in a cathedral. It is a stately march with a cadence that calls us to consider each line.
O God, we have heard with our ears,our fathers have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old:
you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free…
The writers then reinforce the truth by stating its contrast:
…for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them…
Finally, they bring the stanza to a close by reaffirming the original truth:
…but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face, for you delighted in them.
Israel’s early history is sacred to the people. Their deliverance from Egyptian slavery is as important to Israel as Jesus work on the cross is to modern Christians.
Second Stanza: The Beginning of the Plea
The second stanza moves from God’s prior work to the people’s plea. It imitates the first stanza’s structure. Its opening affirmation calls on God to work as he had done in the past.
You are my King, O God; ordain salvation for Jacob!
Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down those who rise up against us.
The statement, “You are my King, O God; / ordain salvation for Jacob,” is important. Four hundred years before, when Israel first called for a man-king to rule over them, part of the chosen king’s defined duties was to “go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:20). Here, the psalmists affirm that their true king was not the man on the throne, but God himself. They wait for him to go out and fight their battles for them. Already the leveraging has begun.
The contrasting statement in the second stanza imitates the one in the first stanza. Now, however, it reflects the people’s situation, which is dire.
For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.
This statement is as real as it gets. Judah’s paltry army has no chance to resist Babylon. Their bow and sword will be powerless against the military giant that threatens them. The reaffirmation of truth in this second stanza is a reiteration of their faith as well as their corporate vow of praise.
But you have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us.
In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah
Where the People Stand
These words do not represent happy-faith declarations that say, “No matter what happens, we will continue to trust you.” They have no second-best options. The people’s lives are in jeopardy. They are about to become slaves in a foreign land. Unspeakable cruelty faces them. Under these circumstances, happy faith is whistling in the dark. At this point in the psalm, their prayer is only beginning. The last stanza will pull out the stops.
For now, the take-home value is simple. Prayer in desperate situations is not about looking brave before an audience of our peers. It is about coming to God in private, when the only thing we have to show for our presence is fear. The next segment will look at the final stanza of this psalm. Here we will see what desperate prayer looks like.
Call to Prayer, Part 10
Laments of the People and what they do
The Legal Characteristics of Psalm 44
When I was in high school, I saw a television airing of the movie Twelve Angry Men for the first time. It was riveting. The movie follows a group of jurors in an inner-city murder case in which a young Hispanic man is on trial for killing his father. One witness saw the stabbing through the windows of a passing train, while another heard the two arguing from the floor below. Conviction is a slam-dunk, but the prosecution’s case begins to unravel as the jurors examine the evidence more carefully. At the end, eleven jurors recognize the young man’s innocence. They have to resort to brutal tactics to persuade the last man to acknowledge his personal prejudice and change his opinion. Psalm 44 is a case where God stands before his people in judgment, and the people resort to extreme tactics to argue their innocence. Their arguments become brutal.
Building the Case against God
The previous challenge looked at the first two stanzas in the people’s case. Both are crafted to bring the most possible persuasive force before God. Each is constructed as a three-part argument with the following form:
Affirmation of a truth
Contrasting statement that highlights its opposite
Reaffirmation of the truth
The first stanza reviews what God did during Israel’s early history. The second moves to a defense of the people’s continuing faith in their God. The final stanza (verses 9-22) follows this pattern, but with a twist. Here, the affirmation and reaffirmation of the truth argue for the people’s innocence. The opening affirmation in verses 9-16 lays down a series of accusations against God. The list is merciless and almost unending.
But you have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies.
You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have gotten spoil.
You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations.
You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.
You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.
All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face
at the sound of the taunter and reviler, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
This is serious language. We dare not treat it lightly. The contrasting statement in this stanza emphasizes the people’s faithfulness in worship in contrast to God’s actions against his people. This is their line of defense.
All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way…
Following this defense, the people reaffirm their case by affirming God’s essential goodness in judgment over against what they perceive as their essential goodness in their faith.
If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.
Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
The language in the closing section of the psalm is heartbreaking and shows the desperation of the people as they wait for a silent God.
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.
Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
Interpreting God’s Silence
This psalm likely dates during the time of the Babylonian siege on Jerusalem that ended in 586 BC. The Bible is clear on the reason for God’s silence during this brutal time. The people were pure in their worship, but that was not the problem. The problem was exploitation of their brothers and sisters. For generations, they had ignored the prophets’ repeated calls for justice for the poor, the innocent, and the widows. King Manasseh receives the brunt of God’s wrath. “For he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the LORD would not pardon” (2 Kings24:4).
A Closer Look at the People’s Case against God
As blinded as the people were to their own errors, Psalm 44 is a beautifully written psalm. It can teach us much about intercession and what God encourages when we intercede for others. An important aspect involves the psalm’s accusatory language. As extreme as the language in this psalm is, the Psalms never use it for shock value. To the contrary, they are careful to remain within certain limits. Two boundaries apply to all the laments. One boundary involves the limits of the language in the laments of the people. When the psalmists plead for their nation, they have no problem raising issues over God’s actions. They freely say, “The LORD has done this and this.” That is where their complaints stop, however. They never say, “This is the LORD’s fault.” To blame God in that manner would shift the center of moral definition from God to the people and make God indebted to the people. Arguing that the LORD has delayed justice is one thing, because he lives for justice. To say that he is unjust by nature is out of bounds. The other boundary lies between the laments of the individual and the laments of the people. While accusatory language occurs in the laments of the people, it is absent when we read the laments of the individual.Individuals pleading on their own behalf complain freely, but their complaints focus on the enemy that interferes or blasphemes. An individual may wonder why God remains silent, but he never accuses God. The issue goes to reverence. No one would dare speak so presumptuously to his God on his own behalf. Only when they speak for the group do they bring the kind of language that occurs in Psalm 44.
The psalms of the people show a degree of boldness that borders on sacrilege. Yet God loves that kind of confrontation. In the next segment, we will look at a passage in which God calls for his people to get in his face.
Call to Prayer, Part 11
All creatures of our God and KIng lift your complaint and make it sing!
Israel’s Faithful Youth
Not long after I graduated from college, I took over my father’s locksmith business. One heartbreaking call involved changing the locks on a house during a divorce in process. When I got to the house, the woman’s father met me at the door and took care of business. Meanwhile, the young woman sat on the couch, watching a video of her wedding. I could not imagine the agonizing mingling of emotions as she tried to cling to this last remnant of joy in a ruined marriage.
The prophet Jeremiah’s first recorded message is a divorce message to the people of Jerusalem. It too clings to lost happiness.
“Thus says the LORD,
“I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest.
All who ate of it incurred guilt; disaster came upon them, declares the LORD.”
For the old Testament prophets, Israel was God’s bride, the love of his life. As her husband and deliverer, he wanted his people to delight in his care. They were to be his faithful wife. Instead, they looked for satisfaction among other gods. Their unfaithfulness was like adultery to God. The picture that Jeremiah paints is equivalent to a grieving spouse as he flips through a now abandoned wedding album. Once, when they were happy…
This raises a question. God reminisces about devotion in the wilderness and bridal love? Whom exactly does God mean? The people we remember from our childhood Bible stories complained during their time in the wilderness. They lacked food and water. They distrusted their leaders. They suffered plagues because of their complaining. Hardly the picture of a faithful bride. Has God forgotten his history in the wake of a sudden nostalgia attack?
No, he has not. God pronounced sentence on the first adult generation in Numbers 13-14, when the twelve spies returned from their reconnoitering missing in Canaan. Ten of the spies turned Israel’s heart from their inheritance. With stories of giants in the land, the people panicked and attempted a coup against Moses and Aaron. Because of their refusal to trust, the adults, whom God had tasked with the responsibility of securing Canaan, would die in the desert. “But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected” (Numbers 14:31).
The people to whom God refers in the Jeremiah passage are “the little ones,” the children of those whom God freed from Egyptian slavery. Forty years after the Exodus, the second generation had grown to maturity. It was this generation that learned to trust the LORD. Under Joshua’s leadership, they secured one of the most triumphal periods in Israelite history. Unfortunately, only they and the generation that followed them remained holy to their God.
God’s Heartbroken Complaint during Jeremiah’s Time
Now, five hundred years after Moses and Joshua, the LORD laments his people’s lapse into unfaithfulness. Jeremiah continues his message from God.
Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the clans of the house of Israel. Thus says the LORD:
“What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me,
and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?”
Notice the language in this passage. These words do not reflect a distant God who pronounces only mechanical judgment on his erring children. The language here is passionate. It is heartbroken. It reflects the sense of betrayal of one whose spouse has looked for other lovers.
A Call to Complaint Speech
So, what does God wish he had seen from his people? His answer may surprise us. Here is what he says:
“They did not say, ‘Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that none passes through, where no man dwells?’”
Probably the last thing we would expect is for the LORD to call his people to employ complaint language, but he does. He calls for the same kind of lament language that Psalm 44 uses. God’s complaint against his people is that they refused to complain enough. Why would he want such a thing, particularly after the first generation of Israelites were condemned for their complaints? We need to understand the nature of complaint. Complaining against God, as the first free generation of Israelites had done, is wrong. Engaging God face to face on his terms is something entirely different. That kind of prayer gets the job done. The complaint language that we see in the laments of the people focuses on God and his word. When we approach God in the way God calls us, complaint language accomplishes two things. One, it makes us understand that the issue at hand belongs to God. It always has been his. Two, it drives us to look to God for answers. When we look to God, we do not have our attention focused elsewhere.
This kind of focus is so important, in fact, that its absence almost guarantees failure. We see this fact when Jeremiah finishes this section of his sermon. He concludes with a declaration of what the people had done and who was responsible.
And I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and its good things.
But when you came in, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who handle the law did not know me;
the shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit.
--Jeremiah 2:7-8, emphasis added
The Danger of “Nice” Prayer
God does not want prayer that is only “nice.” What does he prove if he accomplishes nice things? He wants us to expect great things, and that comes from serious prayer. But neither does he call for complaint language for its shock value. Old Testament prayer focuses on who God is and what he has promised to do for his people as their covenant God. Sometimes the only way to do that is to get in God’s face. The next challenge will conclude our study of prayer with a study of a man whose challenge resulted in a calling.
Call to Prayer, Part 12
The Proving Power of Directed Prayer
The Psalms and prophets contain examples of people who level complaint prayers at God. But does God really use them? As a matter of fact, he does. One such prayer takes place during one of the darkest sagas in Israel’s history, the period of the Judges. Following Joshua’s victorious campaign, the people began to forget their history. For the next three hundred years, Israel fell into repeated downward moral spirals. Judges 2 describes them.
· The people of Israel forget their covenant with their God and begin to seek other gods.
· The LORD becomes angry with them and sends their enemies to plunder their goods.
· The people remember their God and seek his favor again. In response, God calls judges to deliver them from the oppressor of the day.
· The judge rules for a time, but after he or she dies, the people slip back into idolatry. The cycle begins again.
Judges describe three sets of spirals—one in chapter 2, one in chapter 6, and one in chapter 10. While they all consist of the same general formula, each cycle results in diminishing returns.
The Cycle Begins Again
During the second cycle in Judges 6, Midian and Amalek harass Israel for seven years. Their tactics are especially heinous.
Whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the east would come up against them. They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey.
The attacks drive Israel to live in caves in the mountains (Judges 6:2). “And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the LORD” (Judges 6:6).
In this cycle, the author adds a new beat to the four-step process. A prophet appears with a message from God:
“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of bondage. And I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you, and gave you their land. And I said to you, ‘I am the LORD your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.’ But you have not obeyed my voice.”
The message is an indictment consisting of three points:
· The LORD led Israel out of Egypt and delivered them from all who oppressed them. He is superior to any of the other nations’ gods.
· Because of this truth, he commanded Israel not to fear the gods of the Amorites.
· Israel has not obeyed his voice.
This is the only time that a prophet appears in the book of Judges. He remains unnamed, his specific audience remains unidentified, and no one appears to respond. With this triple sense of anonymity, we might be tempted to dismiss this part of the message as unimportant. However, it will turn out to be the key to understanding the complaint prayer that will emerge in the next few verses.
God’s Encounter with Gideon
The Scripture moves directly from the prophet’s message to the Lord’s encounter with Gideon. We know him for his army of 300. As the scene opens, Gideon and his father are threshing wheat in a winepress to hide their work from the Midianites (Judges 6:11). The angel of the LORD (a term that the Old Testament uses to depict a physical manifestation of God) comes and sits under a terebinth tree, a native shade tree. The dialogue between the LORD and Gideon is compact, almost to the point of senselessness. Here is the part that will be important to us.
And the angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him, “The LORD is with you, O mighty man of valor.”
And Gideon said to him, “Please, sir, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
And the LORD turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?”
When Something Little makes a Big Impact
Obviously, the dialogue above records a calling. Gideon is God’s man to deliver Israel. The movement from Point A to Point C is so quick, however, that we wonder about the connections. What does Gideon’s complaint have to do with the LORD’s greeting, and why does the LORD say, “Go in this might of yours”? We must take the dialogue apart carefully. God opens with the words, “The LORD is with you…” In English, you can mean either a single person or a group, as in “you all.” In the original language, the word is singular. Further, the angel of the LORD adds the words, “O mighty man of valor.” Obviously, he thinks highly of Gideon. Gideon’s reply deflects God’s words by directing it to the people. “If the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” Following this deflection, Gideon resorts to complaint language. “And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
This is the language of lament, the same words that Jeremiah 2:6 calls for. Given the strong similarity of the two passages, I suspect that the prophet Jeremiah’s call to lament may even look back to this section. In response to Gideon’s lament language, the angel tells him to go in his might and deliver Israel.
The Power of Lament
What Might? Think back to the prophet’s message in the previous paragraph. An anonymous messenger has rebuked an unnamed audience for their unfounded fear of the wrong gods, and no one listens. No one, that is, except for Gideon. Of all the people of Israel in his day, he alone takes his complaint to the LORD. His might has nothing to do with his natural abilities, character, or charisma. It goes to his understanding of his God’s character and his willingness to approach the LORD in the kind of prayer that God honors.