1 Chronicles 13-14, Zechariah 7, John 20

Read 1 Chronicles 13-14, Zechariah 7, and John 20 today. This devotional is about Zechariah 7.

During the 70 years that Judah was captive to Babylon, the Jewish people began a tradition of fasting in the fifth and seventh month of each year (vv. 3-4). The purpose of this fast was, on the surface at least, to beg the Lord to end the captivity, return his people to the promised land, and restore the temple. But the temple was now being rebuilt and many people were returning to Judah, so this delegation wanted to know if the fasting was still necessary.

Zechariah’s answer was long and did not conclude until chapter 8, but his entire answer challenged the questioners more than it answered the question. The Lord asked the people, “…was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?” (vv. 6-7). A fast of true repentance would have honored the Lord but a mere ritual that everyone observed as a matter of custom meant as little to the Lord as it did to the people observing the fast. Likewise, their “normal” days of eating and drinking were done without any regard for the Lord. They did not give thanks for the food he provided or enjoy it as an act of worship from grateful hearts. Both their religious observance and their daily habits were done for themselves, not as servants of God seeking to please him.

Instead, God wanted his people to live like him daily, showing justice, mercy and compassion (v. 9) by caring for widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor rather than using the vulnerabilities of these groups as levers to exploit them (v. 10). That is the kind of worship God wants, not because he expected people to work to earn his favor but because these ethics were evidence of a truly changed heart.

Think about your daily choices–to eat or not to eat, to read God’s word and pray or not, to attend church or sleep in, to be kind and helpful to others or to ignore their needs. Does your walk with God drive the decisions you make on these (and other) things or do you choose what you will and won’t do based on your own personal motivations?

When you have the opportunity to help someone in need, do you do it as an act of worship and obedience to the Lord?

2 Kings 6, Jonah 4, John 3

Read 2 Kings 6, Jonah 4, and John 3 today. This devotional is about Jonah 4.

At least once in our lives, I’d guess, we all allow someone to talk us into doing something we don’t want to do. Either we don’t want to do the activity itself or we are unsure, skeptical even, if the activity will be fun or productive or helpful or produce whatever result it promises.

We also may be reluctant because we see real risks. We’ve all had that sinking feeling that happens when we are reluctant to do something, do it anyway, then see that the very thing we feared is happening.

Jonah can relate. The people of Nineveh were wicked people. This is why Jonah hated them and resisted coming to preach to them in the first place back in Jonah 1. When he did come, Jonah came to them preaching God’s judgment and offering no grace, as we saw yesterday. As I mentioned in the devotional on Jonah 1. Jonah did not want to preach to Nineveh because they were cruel to people they conquered and captured in war. Maybe some of Jonah’s friends or relatives had been tortured by the Babylonians or maybe he’d just heard enough reports to know how violent they were. Regardless of the specific reasons why, Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. He did not want to preach to the people who lived in Nineveh. He did not want to see them respond well to his message. He did not want the king to repent in sackcloth and sit in dirt as he did in Jonah 3:6. Jonah was willing to die—“throw me into the sea“ (1:12)—rather than preach to the people of Nineveh. But God, in his inimitable way, changed Jonah’s mind and persuaded him to go to Nineveh and speak against their sins.

Our reading today tells us why Jonah did what he did in chapter 1 and chapter 3. He went the opposite direction from Nineveh in chapter 1 and preached judgment without grace in chapter 3 because he was afraid the Lord would forgive the Assyrians of Nineveh: “He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity’” (v. 2). In our language, Jonah is saying, “I knew it! I knew this would happen!” If you’ve ever regretted letting someone talk you into something, you know the feeling. But in Jonah’s case, it was the positive result that he feared. He did not want to preach to the people of Nineveh lest they repent and avoid God’s judgment. When exactly what he feared happened, his hatred for the Assyrian people turned into anger at God himself.

God dealt with Jonah by confronting his anger (v. 4, 9). He asked Jonah whether he had any right to be angry in verse 4. Jonah ignored God’s question and went outside the city to see if God’s judgment would fall on them despite their repentance (v. 5a). God was gracious to Jonah, giving him a plant to provide him shade (v. 5b-6). Then God took away the shade (v. 7) and turned up the heat (literally) on Jonah (v. 8). After this object lesson, God asked Jonah again if he was angry (v. 9a); this time he got the answer–of course I’m angry (v. 9b). God then used this object lesson to show how self-centered Jonah was. He was concerned about the plant, but not about the vast number of children (“who cannot tell their right hand from their left”) and animals who would be lost if Nineveh were destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah style.

Verse 11 of our passage is the point of this entire book of Jonah. It was written to bring us face to face with our own poor priorities. We care passionately about things that do not matter at all and can be indifferent (or worse) toward people we hate. This happens when we stop seeing people for what they are–eternal souls made in the image of God but bound as we once were by sin natures that distort everything. When we start to think of people not as individuals but as groups–atheists, Scientologists, Hindus, or whatever–we might lose sight of the fact that they are people. People have strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, beliefs and doubts, parents and children. Generation after generation can be lost to the gospel if we assume that entire groups of people won’t listen to us, don’t care about God, are too proud to repent, or too sinful to desire forgiveness. We notice when the comforts of life are gone and we regret their loss just as Jonah regretting losing his shade. But do we ever consider the eternal destiny of people in groups we are inclined to dislike and avoid?

2 Samuel 14, Daniel 4, Mark 14

Read 2 Samuel 14, Daniel 4, and Mark 14. This devotional is about Daniel 4.

People who have been highly successful face the temptation of taking too much credit for their success. The assumption for that person is that people pretty much get what they deserve so, since that person is successful he must deserve it.

The opposite is often believed, too; namely, that the unsuccessful deserve their failures so the successful and powerful should feel no pity toward the “losers” of life, nor should they feel bad if they oppress them. If they weren’t such losers, they’d figure out how to avoid being oppressed, the successful oppressor thinks.

What does the successful person think he has that gives him such a large advantage over others? Often, he believes in the superiority of his own intellect.

Here in Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar is warned about becoming proud of his success. His warning came at a time when he was “contented and prosperous” (v. 4b). The good feeling he had about his life faded quickly, however, after he had a disturbing dream that he did not understand (vv. 5-7). God gave Daniel the interpretation (vv. 8-26) and Daniel delivered the Lord’s message that the dream was a warning against Nebuchadnezzar’s sins (v. 27). 

A full year later, the fulfillment came and Nebuchadnezzar lost his mind and, temporarily, his kingdom (vv. 28-33). This experience humbled Nebuchadnezzar (vv. 34-35) just as God said (v. 32, 37). The ultimate lesson is that God hates pride and often chooses to humble the proud in order to demonstrate his sovereignty and lordship.

But notice what Daniel advised Nebuchadnezzar to do after he received the vision but before it was fulfilled. In verse 27 Daniel told him, “Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”

Did you notice that phrase, “by being kind to the oppressed”? Remember I stated earlier that the successful, the proud, often think they deserve their success because they believe that people get what they deserve? That feeling of entitlement causes the powerful to oppress the weak.

Daniel’s advice, then, was to show true repentance by showing kindness to the oppressed. When one is truly humble, that person treats everyone with dignity. He doesn’t “kiss up and kick down” as the saying goes. Instead, he is kind to everyone, especially those who need kindness the most.

Do you believe that you deserve the life that you have? Is it impossible to believe that you could be homeless, family-less, unloved and living on the streets? I have been told that many people who live that way are mentally ill, just as Nebuchadnezzar was in verse 33. Yet how often do we see people begging and wonder if they really “deserve” our help?

1 Samuel 10, Ezekiel 21, Psalms 99-101

Read 1 Samuel 10, Ezekiel 21, and Psalms 99-101 today. This devotional is about Ezekiel 21.

This devotional is about Ezekiel 21:6-7: “Therefore groan, son of man! Groan before them with broken heart and bitter grief. 7 And when they ask you, ‘Why are you groaning?’ you shall say, ‘Because of the news that is coming. Every heart will melt with fear and every hand go limp; every spirit will become faint and every leg will be wet with urine.’ It is coming! It will surely take place, declares the Sovereign Lord.”

God is holy and God is just.

God’s holiness means that he is separate from sin so he hates sin and loves righteousness.

His justice means that every sin must be appropriately punished. All is right within God’s creation when sin is punished. 

Despite these truths, we should not conclude that God enjoys the suffering that his judgment brings to people. Just the opposite is true:

God is satisfied when justice is done but he mourns the pain and suffering that just punishment brings to his creation.

In these verses, then, God commanded Ezekiel to groan and express sadness, grief, and fear for the judgment of God that was coming on his people. 

Similarly, as Christians we should feel a sense of satisfaction when justice is done but also empathize with the sinner who experiences the pain and loss that come with judgment. That empathy can best be expressed through the gospel of Christ. In Christ, every bit of God’s wrath was poured out in justice but it fell on our Lord Jesus Christ rather than on us sinners. Because God’s justice has been satisfied, mercy, grace, and forgiveness are possible. When we groan and grieve for sinners, God’s love and the offer of forgiveness in Christ is expressed. If God is pleased, then, sinners can be saved.

Do you empathize with criminals when they are found guilty and sentenced for their crimes? Or, are you happy in a vindictive way for their suffering? The people Ezekiel prophesied to were wicked people who deserved every bit of God’s judgment that they got. Yet God ordered his prophet to “groan before them with a broken heart and bitter grief” because God loves his creation. Are we developing that ability in our hearts? Do we truly “love the sinner but hate the sin” or do we secretly hate the sin and the sinner too?

Deuteronomy 22, Jeremiah 14, 1 Corinthians 16

Read Deuteronomy 22, Jeremiah 14, and 1 Corinthians 16 today. This devotional is about Deuteronomy 22.

Critics of the Bible often point to the punishments spelled out in a passage like today’s to show that the Bible is harsh, unreasonable, and unloving. Cross-dressers (v. 5), promiscuous single women (vv. 13-21), and people who commit adultery (v. 22-24) all get the death penalty for their sins, even though they were all “consenting adults.” Rapists also were to receive the death penalty (vv. 25-27) which maybe harsh by today’s standards of punishment but probably not an example critics would bring up. These punishments seem harsh only because of how comfortable we are with sin; in God’s sight, every sin is an eternal offense, so these punishments should teach us something about how our sins—and the desires that compel them—look to the holy eyes of God.

This passage is also a favorite of critics because some of these laws seem arbitrary (vv. 9-12).

But notice the other case laws in this passage. If someone else—whether you know him or not—is about to suffer the loss of his valuable property, you are supposed do what you can to prevent that loss (vv. 1-5). “Do not ignore it,” the scripture says in verse 1, verse 3, and verse 4.

More interestingly, you’re allowed to take a mother bird’s eggs but not her (vv. 6-7). The promise of obedience to this passage is “so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life” (v. 7b). But this act of conservation doesn’t benefit any Israelite person; it’s just good management of God’s creation. It teaches us not to be destructive just because we could be.

Verse 8 of our passage tells God’s people to make sure that they build reasonable safety precautions into their homes. Since people in these desert cultures used their roof to entertain in the evenings when the weather is more comfortable, God’s word commanded them to be careful to protect human life by putting appropriate fencing around the roof.

These laws show that God was not harsh or arbitrary at all toward people in general. He wanted to protect his nation from becoming a lawless culture full of promiscuity. The penalties spelled out in these passages were to protect the importance of the Jewish family and to emphasize important God’s holiness is to him. The laws against abusing birds and requiring Israel to watch out for each other’s property and protect each other’s lives show how much God values human life. They teach us not to be so self-centered that we look the other way when someone is about to lose their valuable property. Instead, we should watch out for others, showing them the kind of kindness and compassion that we would want others to show to us and that God himself does show for us. If we find a lost wallet or purse, a lost smartphone, or see a wandering child, God wants us to do what we can to help. We may not have a flat roof that needs to be fenced in but are we careful to clear our sidewalks of snow and ice? As people who belong to God, we should be conscientious and kind toward everyone, not just conscious of our own stuff.

Finally, the harsh punishments in this chapter remind us of the deep grace of God toward us. God hates sin and is uncompromising in how he wants sin to be punished. He is so uncompromising that he demands that every sin should be punished to the fullest extent of justice. Yet, because he loves his creation and is compassionate toward us, he did not look the other way when we wandered from his commands. Instead, he came in the person of Christ both to look for and find us when we were lost AND to bear the just punishment that our sins deserve. No sin is trivial in the sight of God but none is putrid enough that Christ’s death cannot cover it. The cross-dresser, the adulterer, the promiscuous, the self-centered one who never helps another in trouble are all savable, if God wills, through the atonement of Christ. The same goes for those who speak lies, who gossip, who break things and hit people in uncontrolled rage, who lust but don’t touch, who take the eggs AND the mother bird. No sinner is beyond the saving grace of God; if you’ve been redeemed from one of these sins—or from any sin at all—give thanks that God is uncompromisingly holy but also incredibly compassionate, loving, and gracious toward all of us who are unholy.

Judges 10:1-11:11, Jeremiah 23

Our OT18 readings for today are Judges 10:1-11:11 and Jeremiah 23.

This devotional is about Judges 10:16b: “And he could bear Israel’s misery no longer.”

The book of Judges recorded God’s relationship with Israel in the Promised Land before the era of the kings began. Israel was settled in the promised land but they still struggled to trust God and live according to his word. The result of their struggle was a cycle that repeated continuously throughout the book of Judges including here in our reading for today:

  • Phase 1: Disobedience (10:6) to God’s word which led to:
  • Phase 2: Defeat & oppression by their enemies as an act of God’s judgment (10:7-9).
  • Phase 3: Repentance in which God’s people turned to him for relief from their enemies (10:10-16).
  • Phase 4: Deliverance in which God sent a judge to give them victory over their enemies (11:1ff).
  • Phase 5: Obedience (for a while) until they lapsed back into phase 1.

As the shampoo bottle says, “Rinse and repeat.”

Throughout all phases this cycle–and, in fact, at every stage in Israel’s history–God’s love for his people remained. He stayed committed to the covenant he had made with them even despite their disobedience and failure. Here in 10:11-14, God pushed back a bit on their repentance. He reminded them of all the times he had saved them after their repentance (v. 11) then told them to forget about it this time (v. 12) like a young girlfriend or boyfriend who says, “We’re never getting back together again.”

God’s compassion remained, despite his frustration and their suffering under the Ammonites got under God’s skin, too. As verse 16b put it, “And he could bear Israel’s misery no longer.” Sin brings misery and suffering and, although God loves justice, he does not enjoy the suffering that his people endure for their sins. This is why he forgives us again and again and again when we repent. It is the infinite merits of Christ who lived as our righteousness and died as our sacrifice that keeps us in God’s good graces but it is also the incredible compassion of God that keeps him faithful to us as well.

Our sin struggles–meaning, our repeated failures despite good intentions–may cause us to wonder at times if God will ever stop forgiving us. That, in turn, may cause us to wonder if we should even bother repenting. This verse and many others in scripture teach us that God’s compassion and mercy is much greater than we can imagine. If you are in Christ, keep striving for holiness and don’t ever quit because you fear God’s displeasure. In Jesus we are accepted; his blood allows the ocean of God’s compassion to keep restoring us when we look to him.

So keep looking to him….

Deuteronomy 15, Isaiah 42

Today’s readings are Deuteronomy 15 and Isaiah 42.

This devotional is about Deuteronomy 15.

Poverty is an evergreen problem. It affects every society from the most affluent to the most socialistic. Here in Deuteronomy 15, Moses taught the people of Israel about dealing with poverty in a godly way. Let’s start with two verses in this singular chapter that appear to be contradictory:

  • verse 4: “there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you,”
  • verse 11: “There will always be poor people in the land.”

There is no actual contradiction because verse 4 says, “there need be no poor” not “there will be no poor.” The reason that “there need be no poor” is that God “will richly bless you” [here comes a part I didn’t include above:] “if only you fully obey the Lord you God” (v. 5a). When Moses said in verse 11 that, “There will always be poor people in the land” he was acknowledging that Israel would not fully obey the Lord and, therefore, poverty would be one result.

So, even in the prosperous promised land, poverty would exist. How did God want his people to deal with it?

  • First, notice that debt is allowed and it is one of the solutions to poverty. However, God’s law regulated the use of debt so that it would not be permanently oppressive to poor Israelites. That is what verses 1-6 are about. These verses say that debts can be incurred but they must be canceled every seven years (vv. 1-2). Furthermore, God’s people were to be kind and generous toward the poor even when making loans (vv. 7-10).
  • Second, slavery was allowed but only for seven years if the slave was an Israelite (vv. 12-18).

There is a lot more I would like to say about this chapter, but I’ve already written a lot so let me close with a few observations for your edification.

First, compassion and generosity are commanded toward the poor. See verses 8, 10, 11b, 13, and 14. But, just so that you will see at least one of those verses, allow me to quote verses 7-8: “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.” God’s people were commanded to be kind and generous to the poor.

Second, the causes of poverty are not addressed in this chapter. Proverbs talks about what causes poverty so that we can learn to avoid some of the behaviors that lead there. But, in this chapter, there is no pointing of fingers at the poor. God did not say, “Find out if someone is poor because of their own laziness or abuse of alcohol or whatever, and only help those who can’t help it that they are poor.” No. Some people are poor because they had a hardship–their father died when they were little kids or they had a drought or someone robbed them–while others are poor because they made bad decisions or were lazy. God did not teach his people to discriminate against any poor people. If they were poor, God’s people were supposed to be kind and generous toward them.

Third, work is one prescription to end poverty. When verse 12 says, “If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you…” it is describing a particular kind of slavery. The person in verses 12ff sold themselves into slavery because they needed money to live and to pay off debts. This was a limited type of slavery that was only to last a maximum of six years (v. 12b). We don’t practice any kind of slavery any more–a good thing–but the principle of working your way out of poverty is still a valid one. One solution to poverty is a loan with generous terms (vv. 1-11) including cancellation of the loan (v. 2d). Another solution is work (vv. 12-18).

Fourth, there is no command to build a government program to help the poor. The generosity God commands here is the generosity that comes from a willing heart not because federal agents with guns took your prosperity to re-distribute it. Some Christians appeal to passages like this in order to argue for big government programs. That is not what is taught in this passage or in any other passage of scripture.

Caring for the poor has never been easy for me. I was raised in a fundamentalism that said, “Don’t give money to beggars; they’re just going to use it to buy alcohol.” That might not be bad advice but to me it justified doing nothing. My attitude was wicked in the Lord’s sight according to verse 9. Over time, I have learned to be more generous with poor people, due to passages like this and seeing how compassionate people like my wife are toward those in need. This is still a struggle for me, though, I will admit. Don’t be like me. Don’t judge poor people for being poor; treat them with kindness, love, and generosity.