We Are Delivered!

This week we find ourselves in the book of Jeremiah as the reading plan brings us back to the prophets and the prophetic call to the people of Israel to remember and keep their covenant with God. Jeremiah is sent by God to basically tell the people of Judah and Jerusalem that the Babylonians (“a people from the north”) are going to be his instrument to punish Israel for not keeping their covenant with him. Like the prophets we’ve read so far, Jeremiah warns Israel of the coming covenant curses (recall the covenant blessings and curses from Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28). Jeremiah is painting a grim picture for Israel.

Just for fun, or not fun, I thought I would skim through Jeremiah and list out some of the sins God tells Jeremiah to point out to Israel:

-    worshipping other gods
-    seeking help and blessing from Baal (pagan god)
-    rejecting God as God (God says not even the pagans do that, at least they stick with their gods)
-    speaking falsely of the Lord
-    rejecting the Lord’s prophets
-    oppressing poor people (sojourner, fatherless, widow)
-    stealing
-    greed
-    lying, deceitfulness
-    perverting justice to make a profit
-    shedding innocent blood
-    murder
-    committing adultery
-    sacrificing their children to pagan gods

What a mess. But for me, there is one especially disturbing scene. I have been thinking about this since I read it. It is in chapter 7 where Jeremiah is standing at the gate of the temple. Jeremiah warns Israel, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘this is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’” (7:4).

Why would those words be “deceptive”? Why is Jeremiah rebuking people for going to the temple and declaring its significance, “the temple of the Lord”? Here’s why:

“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?” (7:8-10)

The people are deceiving themselves because they think they can do as they please with their lives then show up at the temple with offerings and sacrifices and make everything right. “We are delivered!”

How could they think they could do such things and then show up at the temple and “poof” everything is right between them and God? Sounds crazy. It is easy to wonder about them when their sins are written down for us to read.

But I’ve been wondering, what would Jeremiah say to me if he were standing on the front steps at Clear Creek on Sunday? Greg, you would come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘I am delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?” 

Does the way I live align with my regular presence in the company of the church? Do I ignore sin and selfishness and evil in my life but stand at church and sing and make offerings and tell myself “delivered!”? Do I see that what I truly worship I worship every day - not just on Sunday or Wednesday? Am I willing to repent? Am I willing to let God align my character with his so my worship is right and not self deceiving?

Good questions, aren’t they?

You're in Here Somewhere

It’s just one of those things that happens when you make a habit of reading the bible on a consistent basis - God speaks right at you, right in the moment, about exactly what you are doing. That’s what happened to me as I read through Proverbs the other morning. 

I was angry. 

Someone had just gotten on my last nerve. I ranted and said a few unkind things in my anger (because, you know how it is, when you’re mad you think everyone else needs to know it). Then, ironically, I went and got my bible out so I could do my daily reading…

Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding,
but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly. -Proverbs 14:29

A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
The tongue of the wise commends knowledge,
but the mouths of fools pour out folly. -Proverbs 15:1-2

Better is a dinner of herbs where love is
than a fattened ox and hatred with it.
A hot-tempered man stirs up strife,
but he who is slow to anger quiets contention. -Proverbs 15:17-18

I could list a few more but you get the idea. God held a mirror up to my face and said, through a few providentially placed proverbs, “This is you… fool… hot tempered man… strife stirrer upper. This is you.”

If you’ve never had this experience, you need to keep reading your bible because if you do, sooner or later, you will. God will show you an X-ray of your heart in his Word (I hope you see a better picture of yourself than I did).

But here’s the thing, if you don’t ever see yourself, if you’re simply reading - if you manage to keep what you are doing separate from what you are reading - then you have missed not just the verses that describe your folly (whatever it is), you miss the whole point of the book of Proverbs. 

Proverbs describes how wise people live their lives. Proverbs summons people who believe in God and believe God to behave like it in how they think and speak and respond to life (like, for instance, how they respond to people who frustrate them).

So, if you are going to let God grow you as you read Proverbs, you must go do something about you when see yourself described, and the description is less than Christ-like. The Proverbs don’t say the righteous man never sins. The Proverbs say the righteous man learns and grows from God’s rebuke. The wise man repents and learns not to be so foolish next time.

A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding
than a hundred blows into a fool. -Proverbs 17:10

Keep reading! I promise I will, but right now I need to go tell some people I’m sorry for being so angry… I mean, foolish.

Good and Wise

Is God good? If he is, why does he allow bad things to happen to good people? Are people really good? If they are, why does tragedy happen to them? Don’t people get what they deserve? God is just, right? So, if he allows something to happen to a person there must be a direct connection to their actions, right?

The book of Job confronts and rejects the premise that only good things happen to good people and bad things only happen to bad people. It goes like this:

Job says, “I don’t deserve what is happening to me.”
Job’s friends say, “God wouldn’t let this happen if you didn’t deserve it.”
Job says, “My complaints are valid. I don’t deserve this.”
Job’s friends say, “Does God pervert justice?” “You should admit your sin and ask for mercy.”
Job says, “I’m going to ask God to relent and let me enjoy my life a little.”
Job’s friends say, “God exacts less of you than your guilt deserves.”
Job says, “The wicked prosper.”
Job’s friends say, “The wicked will suffer… that’s you.”

It’s borderline comical. The longer the discussion lasts, the more sin Job’s friends accuse him of - they make up sins they accuse him of committing. Not only is it not helpful, it is insulting to Job (If you think about it, if their belief that people get exactly what they deserve in this life was accurate, they are implying they are all completely good and only deserving of their good circumstances. They sit in judgment of Job.).

Job’s friends believe they are defending God from being accused of not being just. Because they believe God’s justice is wholly revealed and expressed in this life there must be a tit for tat response from God. They believe we experience God’s justice more or less in real time.

Job protests his innocence and cries out to God in bewilderment, anger, and despair. Whatever he thought about God’s justice is challenged by his circumstances. Job believes he is innocent. He is angry, tired and full of questions. But Job does the wise thing. Job cries out to God in his anger and with his questions.

Finally, God answers Job. At first glance the answer doesn’t seem very satisfying, God just says, “I am God and you are not. Who are you to question what I do? You don’t know anything.” Again, Job responds wisely, he says “You’re right, I repent in dust and ashes.”

Through the book we see Job grow from being a good man (even God says Job is a good and righteous man) to a wise man. We are about to learn more about wisdom as we read Proverbs. Job lays the foundation for understanding biblical wisdom and justice. 

The wise person believes God is God, and a wise person’s concept of justice is rooted in the understanding that life extends beyond this life and depends on God’s eternal power and righteousness.

The wise person trusts that God is just and will do justice, even if he can’t see how. And so, Job can say “Though he slay me, I will hope in him…” - Job 15:13

…For a Pair of Sandals

First of all… if you are wondering why the reading plan skipped Jeremiah and went straight to some of the “minor prophets” after Isaiah (“minor” because their books are shorter), it is because the reading plan is following the prophets more or less in the order they would have spoken to Israel and Judah. So Isaiah, Amos, Joel, Hosea were some of the earlier writing prophets while Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel wrote later. The plan reads the prophets in historical sequence.
As you read through the prophets you recognize some distinct themes. You’ll see where God condemns the pagan nations that do harm to Israel (Amos 1-2, Obadiah, for example). God charges the leaders of Israel with corruption (Isaiah 1:23, Hosea 5-7). And, the prophets continually foretell of God’s redemption and the future salvation he will bring about for his people.

One theme that appears in almost every prophetic book is the theme of true worship versus false worship. Reflect on these texts for example:

Amos 8:4-7
Hear this, you who trample on the needy
    and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
    that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
    that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
    and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals
    and sell the chaff of the wheat?”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
“Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

Amos 5:21-24
“I hate, I despise your feasts,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
    I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Isaiah 58:5-8
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard."

You get the idea. There was a direct connection in God’s eyes to the meaning and value of Israel’s worship practices and the way they treated people, especially the poor and needy. It is pretty blunt. God says, “You take advantage of poor people, set your hearts on making a buck cheating and oppressing them - and then you make offerings and sing songs to me? I hate that you do that! I won’t listen to you! That is not worship, that’s a lie! If you want to worship me do justice, be generous, help the poor.” 

As I read these kinds of accusations against Israel and God’s pleas for them to repent I have to wonder about myself. What does God hear when I sing? Does my religion reflect my true heart or do the things I do make my religion a lie? Is my whole life worship or do I just try to get Sunday out of the way so I can go back to making a buck at the expense of others? Do I notice the needy and take God’s compassion on the poor and oppressed, or am I blind and indifferent?

These are good questions.

Hosea 6:6
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Who Is Listening?

God never stops speaking to his people. You may think sometimes that God has forgotten you or is too angry about what you’ve done to talk to you, but that just isn’t true. The Psalms say it this way:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
    whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.        
- Psalm 19:1-4

God loves his people and is always calling to us, always declaring his glory and love, urging us to recognize his voice.

The Read through the Bible plan throws a bit of a curve in that it doesn’t move sequentially from 2 Kings to 1 Chronicles. Why not? Because the reading plan is helping us understand who was doing what when in the story of the bible - not just following the books in the sequence in which they were arranged.

We skipped to the book of Isaiah to begin reading the prophets because some of the prophets (Isaiah for one) were speaking to Israel during all the chaos we’ve been reading about in 1 and 2 Kings. Some of the prophets spoke to Israel during the time of their exile and captivity. Some of the prophets spoke to Israel after they were released from captivity and returned to Jerusalem and the surrounding area (you can watch The Bible Project video below that explains this).

The striking thing through all this to me is the realization that God never withdrew his voice from his covenant people. There were continually prophets present in Israel and Judah who reminded the people of their covenant identity and their covenant commitments to the One True God. The prophets were unpopular people - their promise of impending covenant curses was not well received. But God sent them and used them to call to his people, confront his people, urge his people to return to covenant faithfulness so he could bless and prosper them. We have the history of the bible so we know Israel didn’t listen - but we know that just because people aren’t listening doesn’t mean God isn’t speaking.

This is troubling and reassuring to me. It troubles me to know that God is speaking - through his creation, through his word, through his covenant people - but that so often I am not hearing and not listening. But it is also reassuring because I also know that whenever I slow down, humble myself, and look for God he is always present and always communicating his glory and grace.

It would be a good exercise as you read through the prophets to consider their challenges, threats, promises of destruction and prediction of blessing. Where do you hear their voice in your life? What part of the bible is impacting your ears these days? Who among God’s people is God using to speak to you about your life and God’s grace and sovereignty? 

God never stops speaking to you.