Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Doctrine of God

THE FAITHFULNESS OF GOD

 

“Great is Your faithfulness”

(Lam. 3:23b; NKJV)

 

One of God’s attributes is His faithfulness.  The word refers to God’s total reliability – the state of being firm, reliable and trustworthy.  And God’s faithfulness, Jeremiah says, is “great.”  It is not small or insignificant.

But how is God’s faithfulness great?  What does it mean in actual practice? As we experience life it is often filled with tumult and turmoil, with chaos and uncertainty.  Where is God/s faithfulness in that?

Jeremiah’s own life, as it turns out, was far from easy or pleasant.  God had called him to an extremely difficult ministry.  He was called to be a prophet during the Kingdom of Judah’s last days as a nation, during the reigns of Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.) and Zedekiah (597-587 B.C.).  During that period Jeremiah warned the nation of its sins and its impending doom.  The message, needless to say, was not well received.  He was imprisoned at least twice, came close to being executed, and at one point was thrown into a dungeon.  “And in the dungeon there was no water, but mire.  So Jeremiah sank in the mire” (Jer. 38:6).  It is no wonder, then, that in Lamentations 3 Jeremiah could exclaim,

“You have moved my soul far from peace;

I have forgotten prosperity.

And I said, ‘My strength and my hope

Have perished from the Lord.’”

(Lam. 3:17,18)

And at the same time he was genuinely grieved over the state of his nation.  At one point in the Lamentation he could say, “My eyes overflow with rivers of water / For the destruction of the daughter of my people: (v. 48).

And yet in the midst of all of that he could say “Great is Your faithfulness.”  But how could he say that?  How could God be faithful when we are experiencing so much pain and destruction?

First of all, God’s faithfulness – His firm reliability – is reflected in the fact that “Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed” (v. 22).  When Israel sinned they deserved God’s wrath and judgment.  And yet they were still God’s chosen people, and in the midst of their affliction God still cared about them, and it is for that reason that they were not consumed.   “. . .His compassions fail not, / They are new every morning. . .” (vv. 22b, 23a).  And that is because of God’s faithfulness.  He is not hot today and cold tomorrow.  He is consistent in His love for His people, and that remains true throughout their experience with Him.

Moreover, when God brings trials and tribulations into our lives, they are only temporary.  The sun will shine again.  “For the Lord will not cast off forever . . .” (v. 31)   We still remain His people; He still loves us, and we will be restored to His favor when His purposes in our lives have been accomplished.

And when God afflicts us He does not do so willingly.

“Though He causes grief,

Yet He will show compassion

According to the multitude of His mercies.

For He does not afflict willingly,

Nor grieve the children of men.”

(vv. 32,33)

Trials and difficulties come and go; God’s compassion and mercy remain constant.  And when it is necessary to chasten us, God does not do it because He gets some kind of sadistic pleasure from it.  Even in our sin and failure God loves us still and looks forward to our eventual redemption.  We are fickle and inconsistent; He is not.  Great is His faithfulness!

All of this has far-reaching implications for us today.  First of all, when we find ourselves in times of trial or difficulty we need to remember God’s faithfulness.

“This I recall to my mind,

Therefore I have hope.

Through the Lord’s mercies we are

not consumed . . .”

(vv. 21,22a)

What we need to do is to “hope in Him” (v. 24) and “wait for Him” (v. 25).  We should “hope and wait quietly / For the salvation of the Lord” (v. 26).  The words translated “hope” and “wait” are nearly synonymous and suggest waiting patiently in confident expectation.  The trials of the moment may be severe, but God’s lovingkindness and compassion are eternal.  The trial lasts but for a moment; the love of God is forever.

But we must not take God for granted – we must seek Him.

“The Lord is good to those who wait for Him,

To the soul who seeks Him.”

(v. 25).

We must make a conscious effort to look for Him and find Him – to call out to Him in prayer.  And the promise is that if we do so He will be good to us.  But it all comes back to patient waiting.

God has the ability, and the right, to do whatever He wants.  But what is to keep Him from being arbitrary and despotic?  The answer is, His faithfulness.  He is consistent; He keeps His word.  It is part of His very nature to be faithful.  That is what makes it possible to trust in Him and to act on His promises.

“Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed,

Because His compassions fail not.

They are new every morning;

Great is Your faithfulness.”

(vv. 22,23)

 

 

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PRAISE THE LORD

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Psalm 33

 

Theology was never meant to be a dry academic discipline.  We are called to have a relationship with the living God.  That requires that we can understand and appreciate certain things about Him; and those truths should have a profound effect on us personally.  Psalm 33 is a classic example of how the Bible approaches theology.

Significantly the psalm begins with a call to worship:

“Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous!

For praise from the upright is beautiful.”

(Psalm 33:1; NKJV)

What is called for here is not an emotionally detached assent to a set of theological propositions.  Rather, we are called to “rejoice,” and the Hebrew word used here suggests a shout for joy, an emotional expression of something that we genuinely feel in our hearts.   And in verses 2 and 3 the psalm goes on to emphasize the role that music plays in worship.  It specifically mentions the use of musical instruments: the harp and “instrument of ten strings” (a specific kind of harp).  Verse 3 says that we are to “Play skillfully with a shout of joy.”  The picture here is not of a dull, somber, lifeless formality, but rather of an outburst of exuberant joy.  And this, we are told, is “beautiful” (v. 1).  The goodness and greatness of God calls for an expression of real joy.

The psalm then goes on to explain why this is so.  It begins with a general statement about the attributes of God:

“For the word of the Lord is right,

And all His work is done in truth.

He loves righteousness and justice;

The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.”

(vv. 4,5)

The word of the Lord, what He says and commands, is “right” – it is honest and true, and completely dependable.  And God’s works are done “in truth” or “faithfulness” as it might be translated (cf. NASV, ESV).  God’s character is steadfast and reliable, and His actions are consistent.  Unlike human beings, who can be inconsistent and even dishonest, and therefore unreliable, God is completely trustworthy.

Moreover the psalm says that God “loves righteousness and justice” (v. 5).  That suggests both that God is righteous and just himself, and that He wants to see righteousness and justice in us.  This is important, because it establishes a basis for morality without which human society cannot function.  As human beings we are accountable to a Supreme Being and are obligated to conform to a higher law.  Otherwise might makes right and the law of the jungle prevails.

And then the psalm goes on to say that “the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” (v. 5).  The word “goodness” could be translated “lovingkindness” (NASV).  It is the willingness of God to show kindness towards the weak and lowly, and especially to those in need.  And the earth, the psalm says, is full of His lovingkindness, as the psalmist will go on to demonstrate.

The psalmist then turns his attention to God’s works, beginning with God’s work of creation.  “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made . . .” (v. 6); and “He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap . . .” (v. 7).  What strikes the psalmist here is the vast expanse of the heavens and the mighty rolling ocean.  As impressive as there things are in themselves, how much greater must be the One who created them!  And the heavens in particular were made by God’s mere spoken word.  What amazing power God must have if He can create something out of nothing, and accomplish that merely by speaking the word!  “Let all the earth fear the Lord; / Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him” (vv. 8,9).

If, therefore, God is the creator of all things it follows that He can control what He created, and this would include the actions of men.  Because God is ultimately in control, His will is the final factor.  People, rules and entire nations may think and plan, but “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; / He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect” (v. 10).  The Lord’s counsel, by way of contrast, “stands forever” (v. 11).  As a result His will is determinative.

The psalmist then goes on to point out that God can see everything that goes on here on earth.  “The Lord looks from heaven; / He sees all the sons of men” (v. 13).  “He fashions their hearts individually; / He considers all their works” (v. 15).  The ultimate reality is not an impersonal natural force or an abstract idea; it is a living conscious Supreme Being.  And while He is infinitely greater than we can imagine, that does not mean that He is so far removed from us that He is not aware of what we are doing.  On the contrary, he knows everything that we do, and that should make us think twice before we act.

This, then, leads the psalmist to the practical implications of what he has said so far.  The first is the realization that ultimately it is not our physical or social circumstances that control our destiny: “No king is saved by the multitude of an army . . . A horse is a vain hope for safety” (vv. 16,17).  Instead the promise is this:

“Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him,

On those who hope in His mercy,

To deliver their soul from death,

And to keep them alive in famine.”

(vv. 18,19)

The promise is to those “who fear Him” and to those “who hope in His mercy.”  Here we have the basic elements of true religion.  To “fear” Him is not to live in constant terror of Him.  Rather it is to have a deep reverence and respect for Him, and a desire to please Him in all our ways.  To “hope in His mercy” (or “goodness” or “lovingkindness” as it might better be translated – it is the same word that was used in verse 5) means to wait patiently for God to act in His kindness to deliver us.

And so the psalm concludes with a ringing affirmation of trust in God.

“Our soul waits for the Lord

He is our help and our shield.

For our heart shall rejoice in Him,

Because we have trusted in His holy name.”

(vv.20,21)

We patiently wait for the Lord; we look to Him for protection (“He is our help and our shield”).  We trust in Him, and as a result our hearts are filled with joy.  And then there is the concluding prayer:

“Let Your mercy, O Lord, be upon us,

Just as we hope in You.”

(v. 22)

Christianity, then, is not an abstract idea or a mere religious formality.  It is a deep appreciation for who God is and what He has done for us.  And this, in turn, should elicit from us a heartfelt gratitude.  Praise the Lord!

 

THE WISDOM OF GOD

4.2.7

Albert Bierstadt: Yosemite Valley

 

With the widespread acceptance of the Theory of Evolution it is commonly believed that we came into existence through a blind, impersonal natural process.  And this, in turn, suggests that human existence is largely without meaning and purpose and calls into question the existence of moral norms and absolutes.  The French Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said that “Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or without himself” (“Existentialism is a Humanism,” 1946).

But do we live in a random, purposeless universe?  We certainly see chaos and disorder, but we also see elements of rational structure as well.  The biblical answer is that God does, in fact, exist; that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being, albeit a universe that has fallen into disorder since its creation.

“The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;

By understanding He established the heavens;

By His knowledge the depths were broken up,

And clouds drop down the dew.”

(Prov. 3:19,20; NKJV).

Wisdom is the ability to produce a positive outcome from one’s efforts.

“Through wisdom a house is built,

And by understanding it is established;

By knowledge the rooms are filled

With all precious and pleasant riches.”

(Prov. 24:3,4)

And so it is that when we look at nature we can see evidence of God’s wisdom on every hand.

“He has mad the earth by His power,

He has established the world by His wisdom,

And has stretched out the heavens at His discretion.

When He utters His voice,

There is a multitude of waters in the heavens:

And He causes the vapors to ascend from the

ends of the earth.

He makes lightning for the rain,

He brings the wind out of His treasuries.”

(Jer. 10:12,13).

The plain fact of the matter is that if there was no rational order to the universe, if it did not function according to consistent patterns, to natural laws, there would be nothing for science to study.  One cannot make rational sense out of pure chaos.  And the more we learn of nature the more complex it appears.  Everything from subatomic particles to the distant galaxies speaks of both order and complexity.  But what is the source of that order?  Order does not spontaneously arise out of chaos.   There has to be an intelligent Creator behind it all.

“The heavens declare the glory of God;

And the firmament shows His handiwork.

Day unto day utters speech,

And night unto night reveals knowledge.”

(Psalm19:1,2)

But according to Scripture not only does God control the forces of nature, He controls the course of human events as well.  Hannah could say:

“The Lord makes poor and makes rich;

He brings low and lifts up.

He raises the poor from the dust

And lifts the beggar from the ash heap,

To set them among princes

And make them inherit the throne of glory.”

(I Sam. 2:7,8)

But when we look at all of the chaos and turmoil in today’s world, one might ask, where is the wisdom of God in that?  This was the very question faced by Job in the Old Testament.  Even though he was described as “a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8), a series of seemingly inexplicable disasters befell him.  Job was led to question the wisdom and justice of God.  But in the end God challenged Job, saying, “Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? / He who rebukes God, let him answer it” (Job 40:2); and Job was finally led to respond, “I know that You can do everything, / And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You . . .Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, / Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:2,3).

The fact of the matter is that what God created was originally good (Gen. 1:31).  It became corrupted through man’s sin and rebellion.  But amazingly God, in His wisdom, can even turn evil into good, and use it to accomplish His own higher purposes.  Joseph’s brothers had done much harm to him; but in the end he could say to them, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:20).

And so it is that God has a larger purpose in human sin and suffering, and that is the plan of redemption.  In Romans chapters 9-11Paul asks the question of why it is that the Jews, God’s chosen people, were rejecting the gospel; and he answers by saying that it is all a part of God’s eternal plan, and that although they may reject Christ now they will, as a nation, respond to the gospel at some point in the future.  “For God committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32).  The 19th Century Scottish commentator John Brown of Edinburgh put it like this:

“And thus God, by successively allowing the depravity of

human nature to develop itself in the idolatries of the

Gentiles and the apostasy of the Jews, will make it evident,

when He brings both these component parts of mankind

into the enjoyment of saving blessings, that He acts

towards them on the principles of sovereign kindness.”

(comm. ad Rom. 11:29).

In salvation God is able to demonstrate both His justice and grace at the same time.  Paul concludes his argument by exclaiming, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33).

What all of this means in practical terms is that we should stand in wonder, awe and admiration of such a great God.  “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:36).  Human wisdom, with all mankind’s science and technology, its business acumen and legal expertise, cannot compare with the infinite wisdom of God in creation and redemption.  This should lead us to worship and adore such an awesome God.

But the fact of God’s wisdom should also lead us to trust in Him.  His ways are always best, because He is wiser than we are.

“Trust in the Lord will all you heart,

And lean not on your own understanding;

In all you ways acknowledge Him,

And He shall direct your paths.

 

“Do not be wise in your own eyes:

Fear the Lord and depart form evil.

It will be health to your flesh,

And strength to your bones.”

(Prov. 3:5-8).

THE HOLINESS OF GOD

 

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah tells about a vision he had when God commissioned him to be a prophet.  “In the year king Uzziah died, I say the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple.  Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one cried to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

The whole earth is full of His glory!’

And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke” (Isa. 6:1-4; NKJV).

King Uzziah was a king of the southern kingdom of Judah, and he died in 742 B.C.  Seraphim (the plural of “seraph”) were angelic beings in heaven.  But what did they mean when they cried out, “Holy, holy, holy”?

The basic idea of holiness connotes being set apart from what is commonplace and ordinary.  God is not like other things in our experience, and therefore He should not be treated like other things.  Rather He is due our utmost reverence and respect.

In what way is God different from everything else?  First of all, He is exalted high above all of creation.  Isaiah saw Him “sitting on a throne, high and lifted up.”  Psalm 99 speaks of the Lord as “great in Zion, / And He is high above all peoples” (Ps. 99:2).  As much as God loves us, and wants us to love Him, the fact remains that He is the Creator and we are His creatures, and between us there is a vast difference which should never be forgotten or overlooked.  We must always approach Him with the reverence and awe that is due someone who is infinitely greater than ourselves.

But what really separates God from ourselves is our sin.  When Isaiah saw his vision of God in all of His glorious majesty, his immediate reaction was,

“Woe is me, for I am undone!

Because I am a man of unclean lips,

And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;

For my eyes have seen the King,

The Lord of hosts.”

(Isa. 6:5)

To behold the absolute moral purity of God is to be struck by our own depravity and moral pollution.  We are like Adam and Ever, who after they had sinned, “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God” (Gen. 3:8).  Sin and righteousness are absolutely contradictory and incompatible; to love what is good is to hate what is evil.  And so it is that God cannot come into direct contact with a depraved and morally polluted human race.

This meant that when God chose Israel to be His chosen people special precautions had to be taken.  When God met Israel at Mt. Sinai, the people had to ceremonially cleanse themselves, and God instructed Moses to tell the people, “Take heed to yourselves that you do not go up to the mountain or touch its base.  Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 19:12).  Later, a tabernacle was assembled, a large tent that served as a kind of mobile temple that signified the presence of God among His chosen people.  But special rules applied here as well.  The Ark of the Covenant, a special chest that contained the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, was kept in a special part of the tabernacle called “the Holy of holies.”  Only the high priest was allowed to enter there, and even he could only do so once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Even here precautions had to be taken.  Among other things the high priest had a special robe that had little bells sewn on its hem, “and its sound will be heard when he goes into the holy place before the Lord and when he comes out, that he may not die” (Ex. 28:33-35).

The sanctity of God’s being and presence, His separateness from sin and pollution, was underscored by several historic incidents.  On one occasion the Ark of the Covenant had been captured by the neighboring Philistines, who returned it after a series of disasters befell them.  The ark wound up at the Israelite city of Beth Shemesh.  There, unfortunately, some of the men looked inside the ark.  As a consequence a number of men in the city were struck dead (I Sam. 6:19,20)  On a later occasion, when an attempt was made to move the ark from one location to another, one of the drivers  of the cart it was on touched the ark to stabilize it, and was also struck dead (I Chron. 13:9-12).  Such were the terrifying consequences of treating God’s person and presence carelessly!

So what are the practical implications of God’s holiness?  First of all, it should inspire a profound sense of awe and reverence on our part.  “The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; / Let Him be your fear, / And let Him be your dread” (Isa. 8:13).  Because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross, we may now “come boldly to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:10), and yet God still remains God and we are still mortal human beings.  Let us bow in reverence and worship His holy name!

But secondly, the holiness of God requires that we also should be holy in the way we live our lives.  If we profess to know Him and love Him we should hate sin the same way He does.  “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).  As Christians God had given us a new nature, but we must still live in a fallen and sinful world.  In order to please God, then, we must be “sanctified,” “set apart from the sin and corruption of the surrounding society.  We are to be lights shining in the darkness.  We must live by God’s standards, not the world’s.

GOD’S GOODNESS

 

 

We have seen, then, that God is the all-powerful Creator and sovereign Lord of the universe.  But what kind of king is He – good or bad?  Is He a benevolent ruler, or a cruel tyrant?  What is it like to have a relationship with Him personally?  Is it even possible to have a relationship with Him?  In short, what is His character like?

Moses, in the Old Testament, found out in a particularly dramatic episode recorded in Exodus chapters 33 and 34.  Moses had led the children of Israel out of Egypt, and they had arrived at Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments.  But no sooner had Moses received the Commandments then the Israelites turned to idolatry and thereby provoked God to anger, threatening to destroy the venture before it had hardly begun.  Moses interceded and God relented.  But this raised the question about what to do going forward.  God said that He would send His “angel” to guide and direct them, but that God himself would no longer be present with them.

Moses, then, was faced with the crushing burden of leading the nation almost by himself.  Moses once again interceded and pled for God’s presence.  And then Moses made this extraordinary request: “Please, show me Your glory” (Ex. 33:18; NKJV).  God granted the request, and arranged to reveal Himself to Moses on top of the mountain.  On the appointed day Moses stood on the mountain, the Lord descended, “And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation’” (Ex. 34:6,7).  It was a definitive revelation of God’s own character.

So what is God like?  The word translated “merciful” (Heb. rachum – “compassionate” – NASV) basically involves a sense of tender compassion, especially towards those in weakness or distress.  The classic description is found in Psalm 103:13:

“As a father pities his children,

So the Lord pities those who fear Him.”

(The word translated “pities” comes from the same Hebrew root as rachum).

It is the very helplessness of the child that motivates the father to help him.  He does so because he has a natural sympathy and compassion for his own offspring.  So too, when God sees His spiritual offspring in need He is moved with compassion.

Then the passage says that God is “gracious,” which stems from the idea of showing favor to someone with an open-handed generosity.  If anyone suffers need and cries out to God, God says, “I will hear, for I am gracious” (Ex. 22:27), and “The Lord will give grace and glory; / No good thing will He withhold / From those who walk uprightly” (Ps. 84:11).

The text goes on to say that God is “longsuffering,” or “slow to anger,” as it might also be translated (NASV, ESV, NIV).  The text does not say that God is never angry, but that He is “slow to anger.”

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,

Slow to anger and abounding in mercy.

He will not always strive with us,

Nor will He keep His anger forever.

He has not dealt with us according to our sins,

Nor punished us according to our iniquities.”

(Ps. 103:8-10)

While God may be justly angry with us, He does not give us the full punishment that we deserve.

Then the text says that God is “abounding in goodness and truth.”  The word translated “goodness” (Heb. chesed) is often translated “mercy” or “lovingkindness.”  It points to a disposition on God’s part to respond to the needs of His creatures.  It would include the care that He exercises over His creation in designing things in such a way that they function together harmoniously – “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 33:5b).  It is also seen in His willingness to rescue those in distress:

“Nevertheless He regarded their affliction,

When He heard their cry;

And for their sake He remembered His covenant,

And relented according to the multitude of His mercies.”

(Ps. 106:45).

And then the text says that God is full of “truth,” or “faithfulness” as the word might also be translated.  The word implies consistency or reliability.

“The works of His hands are verity and justice;

All His mercies are sure.

They stand forever and ever,

And are done in truth and uprightness.”

(Ps. 111:7,8).

Interestingly these last two terms are often combined together to form a single phrase, as they are in our text: “and abounding in goodness and truth” (Ex. 34:6), or as it might be translated, “and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (ESV).  And yet the two terms are not exactly synonymous, but rather complement each other, as in Psalm 85:10:

“Mercy and truth have met together;

Righteousness and peace have kissed.”

“Mercy” or “lovingkindness” is a kind regard for the individual.  “Truth” or “faithfulness” is a devotion to principle – God always does what is right and what He promised to do.

In the New Testament these ideas are combined to form the concept of “love,” and the Geek word agape is often used for this distinctively Christian type of love.  “God is love” we are told in Scripture (I John 4:16).  “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.  In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:9,10).  The love of God is self-sacrificing and directed toward the undeserving.

The practical implications of this are far-reaching.  We do not live in an impersonal, amoral universe ruled by the law of the jungle.  We are creatures of an all-wise and benevolent God and are accountable to Him for the way we live our lives.  And He, in turn, is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth.”  That means that in the hour of trial we can look to Him for help.

“I will cry to God Most High,

To God who performs all things for me.

He shall send from heaven and save me;

He reproaches the one who would swallow me up.   Selah.

God shall send forth His mercy and His truth.”

(Ps. 57:2,3)

We still live in a sin-cursed world, filled with pain and sorrow.  Yet God can bring us safely through.

But if God is love, if mercy and compassion are a part of His essential character, then it follows that this is what He expects from us as well.

“He has shown you, O man, what is good;

And what does the Lord require of you

But to do justly,

To love mercy,

And to walk humbly with your God?”

(Micah 6:8)

Do we “love mercy”?  Our natural tendency as fallen human beings is to be self-centered and to take advantage of each other.  But God wants us to be genuinely concerned about others – our family members, our neighbors, our fellow-workers, and the customers with whom we come in contact.  That means that we will never want to insult them, or offend them, much less lie to them or cheat them.  Rather we should be generous and kind toward all, always ready to help them in times of need.  Because that is the way God is Himself, and that is what He expects of us.

 

GOD’S JUSTICE

 

 

Abraham once asked God the pointed question, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25; NKJV).  And indeed that is the central question of human existence.  God is indeed “the King of all the earth,” and He “reigns over the nations, / God sits on His holy throne” (Ps. 47:7,8).  Why, then, is there sin and evil in the world?

The immediate answer to the question, of course, is that we human beings are the ones who are doing the sinning.  So the real question should be, why do we sin?  Why do we do things that we ourselves believe to be wrong?  It is the human race that is fallen and corrupt, not God.  We are the direct cause of our own misery.  But as for God, “the Lord is righteous, / He loves righteousness . . .” (Ps. 11:7).

But if God is “a great King over all the earth” (Ps. 47:2), why does He not prevent evil?  Can He not stop it?  And if He can, why does He not?  The answer is that there is, in fact, a partial justice now, but there will be a final justice later.

First of all, we can see partial justice now.  David could say,

“For You have maintained my right and my cause;

You sat on the throne judging in righteousness.

You have rebuked the nations,

You have destroyed the wicked;

You have blotted out their name forever and ever.”

(Ps. 9:4,5)

Where are the Assyrian and Babylonian empires today?  Where is the Roman Empire?  Where is Hitler’s Third Reich?  They are all in the ashbin of history, brought to their inevitable ruin by their own decadence and recklessness.  In the end their wickedness destroyed them.

But even on a smaller scale we can see justice being carried out.  In God’s common grace the civil magistrate is “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:1-4).  When civil government works the way it is supposed to, law and order is maintained, criminals are punished, and neighborhoods are kept safe.

But even on a more personal level God works in the life of an individual believer to protect him, provide for him, and lead him along.  “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).  This can be a hard thing at times for a believer to understand.  We certainly are not kept from trials and difficulties in this life.  But the verse does not say that “all things are good,” but rather that “all things work together for good.” By themselves many of the things that happen to us are bad: sickness, injury, joblessness, etc.   But God can use the bad things that happen to us for the ultimate good.  Even if we, as Christians, are called upon to suffer martyrdom, it advances God’s kingdom and promotes His glory, and we will receive a reward in the age to come.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith,” as the saying goes.  And thus David could say,

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days of my life;

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Forever.”

(Ps. 23:6)

But it takes faith to believe that when we are in “the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4).

But God’s perfect, final justice will be revealed at the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment.  The apostle Paul describes “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will ‘render to each one according to his deeds’” (Rom. 2:5,6)  God has appointed a day, sometime in the future, when everyone outside of Christ will get exactly what he deserves – “indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, to every soul of man who does evil . . .” (vv. 8,9).

But there is a delay in God’s justice until history runs its course; first of all, to give everyone the opportunity to repent and believe – “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance’ (II Peter 3:9); and secondly, to make sure that the wicked really do deserve the punishment they will receive – “But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5).

But this all raises an even more difficult and disturbing question: if God is just and punishes sin, what hope is there for us? – for we are all sinners.  The answer is not what some would imagine it to be – that God simply forgets and overlooks sin.  The sin is real and the guilt is real.  So rather than simply overlook sin, what God has done is to arrange to make an atonement for sin.  We have redemption through Christ Jesus, “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood . . . to demonstrate at this time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25,26).  A “propitiation” (Greek hilasterion) is an atoning sacrifice that turns away the wrath of an offended Deity.  By sending forth His Son as a propitiation God can effectively punish sin and forgive it at the same time.  Thus His justice is upheld while He shows mercy to those who repent of their sins and believe on Christ.

The prospect of divine judgment is both sobering and comforting at the same time – sobering, because “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31); but comforting because we can know that evil will not ultimately prevail, and that righteousness will finally triumph.  We do not live in an amoral, unjust universe, where crime pays and “nice guys finish last.”

Seeing, then, that God is just, and will judge the world, how careful we should be to live righteous lives that please Him!  And if we do not know Christ as our Savior, how quick we should be to flee to Him for salvation!

GOD’S AUTHORITY

 

The Bible describes God as an all-powerful King who has dominion over the entire world.  “For the Lord Most High is awesome; He is a great King over all the earth” (Psalm 47:2); NKJV).  He is also called “God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome . . . “ (Dt. 10:17), and “The Lord of Hosts . . . the King of glory” (Ps. 24:7-10), Who “has established Hi throne in heaven, / And His kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103:19).  Nor is this kind of language confined to the Old Testament.  The apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, could say, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen” (I Tim. 1:17).  Theologians refer to this as “the sovereignty of God.”

But what does that mean in actual practice?  What it means is that God commands and we are to obey.  First of all, because God is the all-powerful Creator, He is the One who ultimately controls what happens in the universe.

“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,

And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth . . .

For He spoke, and it was done;

He commanded, and it stood fast.”

(Ps. 33:6,9)

Theologians refer to this as God’s “decretive will,” by which God “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11).

But God can also tell us how we ought to live our lives.  God could tell Moses, “But as for you, stand here by Me, and I will speak to you all the commandments, the statutes, and the judgements which you shall teach them, that they may observe them in the land which I am giving them to possess” (Dt. 5:31).  It is noteworthy here that Moses received a direct revelation from God himself, and that it took the form of verbal commands.  The commands, in turn, carried the full weight of God’s authority: “Therefore you shall be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you . . .You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.  You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess” (vv. 32,33).  This is what theologians call God’s “perceptive will,” the precepts and commandments by which we should live.

But, one may ask, doesn’t this sound tyrannical?  At first it may seem that way.  We as Americans in particular are used to thinking that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” to quote the Declaration of Independence.  But we forget that we exist as creatures of God – we owe our very existence to Him.  It is not for us to decide for ourselves the terms of our existence.

The apostle Paul, addressing the Greek philosophers in Athens, pointed out to them that God is the One “who made the world and everything in it,” and is “Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24).  He “gives to all life, breath, and all things,” and has created every nation of men “so that they would seek the Lord” (vv. 25-27).  But now God “commands all men everywhere to repent” (v. 30).  And why should they repent?  “. . . .because He has appointed  a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness . . .” (v. 31).  As human beings, whether we like it or not, we live in a universe created by God and ruled by God.  In the end it is His will that will prevail.

But does that mean that we are doomed to lead a dreary life of abject slavery, subject to the will of an arbitrary tyrant?  No, not at all; because God is good, benevolent and wise.  His ways are always best.  Psalm 19 glories in the wisdom and goodness contained in God’s law: “The law of the Lord is perfect . . .The statutes of the Lord are right . . .The commandment of the Lord is pure . . . The judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (vv. 7-9).   God has our best interests at heart, and because we live in a universe that He created, we can find happiness and fulfillment only when we live the way He wants us to.  To avoid an accident, obey the traffic laws!

What God’s sovereignty means for us personally is that we are called to fear Him.  Moses could tell the children of Israel, “You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him” (Dt. 13:4).  When it says that we should “fear Him,” it does not mean that we should live in constant terror of Him.  Rather it means that we should have a profound reverence and respect for Him, that we take with utmost seriousness everything that He says, and that we are always careful to obey Him.  He is our Lord and Master; we are His servants.  It is not for us to question His will for our lives.

But more than that, we should love God, and if we genuinely love Him, it will be our delight to obey Him.  “Therefore you shall love the Lord your God, and keep His charge, His statutes, and His commandments always” (Dt. 11:1).  God did not create us to have a hostile relationship with Him, and had we not rebelled and sinned against Him we would have enjoyed uninterrupted communion with Him.  And even now, in spite of our sin and rebellion, He sent His Son into the world to die for our sins so that our communion with Him can be restored.  The object, then, is not to keep us in servile fear, but that we should love Him – love Him for all that He is; love Him for all that He has done for us.  But if we love Him we will obey Him; we will always want to please Him.  God always remains God, and we are His servants.

GOD BOTH FAR AND NEAR

 

Psalm 113

            God is infinitely greater than anything we can even imagine – unlimited in His being, knowledge and power – the Creator of heaven and earth.  Yet at the same time He is close to us, and has personal knowledge of us.  Theologians refer to this as God’s “transcendence” (God is exalted far above all else) and His “immanence” (God is present with us).  But how God could be both at the same time is truly extraordinary.

Both ideas are brought out in Psalm 113.  It begins with a call to praise the Lord (Hallelu Yah – praise the Lord – v. 1), and then reflects on God’s infinite majesty and glory:

“The Lord is high above all nations,

His glory above the heavens” (v. 4; NKJV).

The nations (goyim – Gentiles) are all the nations of the earth, whether they have any conscious knowledge of God or not.  Empires and civilizations come and go – some are powerful and hold sway over large portions of the earth.  Yet God is above them all.  They are all relatively nothing in His sight.

Moreover God’s “glory” is “above the heavens.”  God’s “glory” is certainly His reputation and honor, but the Bible also uses the term to refer to the splendor of God’s presence.  This is God’s brilliant radiance, which makes Him stand out above all others.  And this, the psalm says, is “above the heavens.”  We stand in awe at the vast expanse of the night sky, the distant galaxies millions of light years away.  And yet God’s glory is greater even still, and stands above all these.

But then the psalm goes on to ask a striking question:

“Who is like the Lord our God,

Who dwells on high,

Who humbles Himself to behold

The things that are in the heavens and in the earth?”  (vv. 5,6)
The underlying Hebrew is a little hard to translate, but the main thought is clear: God makes His dwelling in heaven, far above the sphere of human activity; yet at the same time He graciously condescends to view what goes on down here on earth.  How both could be true at the same time boggles the imagination, yet Scripture asserts both truths at once.

But then what does God do in light of what He sees?  The last three verses of the psalm describe the care He exercises on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged.

“He raises the poor out of the dust,

And lifts the needy out of the ash heap,

That He may seat Him with princes –

With the princes of His people.”  (vv. 7,8).

The language is very similar to that of Hannah’s prayer in I Sam. 2:8.

Likewise,

“He grants the barren woman a home,

Like a joyful mother of children.”  (v. 9).

The implication here seems to be that in ancient Israelite society a woman’s social position within the home was not secure until she bore children, again apparently referring back to the experience of Hannah, who had been childless while her husband’s other wife had children.  In both cases God sees the situation, is concerned about it, and does something to resolve it.

Here, then, are the two sides of God’s existence: His transcendence and His immanence.  His transcendence, the fact that He is “high above all nations,” should move us to awe and wonder.  God is infinitely greater than any earthly, created thing, and infinitely greater than ourselves.  That fact should have a profoundly humbling effect on ourselves.  When we approach Him in prayer we should do so with the utmost reverence and humility.

And yet, at the same time, God is near at hand.  He knows about our personal circumstances, cares about what happens to us, and can take appropriate action.  And this, in turn, should fill us with joy and praise – that such a great God, high and lifted up, the Ruler of heaven and earth, can condescend to view our poor plight and come to our aid – who can conceive of such a thing?  And yet it is true!  And thus the psalm begins and ends, “Praise the Lord!”

DIVINE PROVIDENCE – II

 

 

We have seen that God controls the forces of nature and can even override them as necessary.  But what about the actions of human beings?  Can God control those as well?  Are we not at the mercy of others, stronger and more powerful than ourselves?  Can God answer prayer in the face of human opposition?

Some imagine that man has a free will, and therefore his actions cannot be determined by God – that if God can control what human beings do, that would, in effect, make God the author of sin.  The Westminster Confession of Faith, on the other hand, makes the assertion that “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established’ (Westminster Confession, III.i).  The question is, how does divine sovereignty relate to human responsibility?  This is, in fact, one of the most difficult of all theological questions.

The Bible makes it clear that God “works all thins according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11; NKJV), and that includes His ability to control the human will: “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).  “A man’s heart plans his way, / But the Lord directs his steps” (Prov. 16:9)  God can control what a powerful human ruler does: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, / Like the rivers of water; / He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).  And ultimately God controls the destinies of entire nations. Hanna could exclaim:

“The Lord kills and makes alive;

He brings down to the grave and brings up.

The Lord makes poor and makes rich;

He brings low and lifts up.

He raises the poor from the dust

And lifts the beggar from the ash heap,

To set them among princes

And make them inherit the throne of glory.”

(I Sam. 2:6-8)

Even the worst crime in human history was done according to God’s plan: Peter could tell a Jewish audience, “Him [i.e., Christ], being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death . . .” (Acts 2:23).  And yet God is not the author of sin: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.  But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (Jas. 1:13,14).  But how can how can both the sovereignty of God and human responsibility both be true at the same time?

A classic illustration is Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus.  God told Moses at the very start “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 7:3).  As the narrative unfolds God sends the plagues on Egypt to demonstrate His power, and yet it was not until after the last one that Pharaoh finally consented to let Israel go.  What happened in the meantime?  In five places the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10); and in three places it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34).  So which was it – God or Pharaoh?

The answer is found in the verse from James just quoted: “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and entice” (Jas. 1:14).  “The heart is deceitful above all things, / And desperately wicked; / Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9).  Thus the immediate cause of sin is our own depraved human nature: we sin because we want to sin.

But how, then, could God be said to have “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart?  The answer is found in Romans chapter 1 where, describing human depravity, it says in no less than three different places that God “gave them up” (vv. 24, 26, 28) – gave them up “to uncleanness, to the lusts of their hearts” (v. 24), “to the passions” (v. 26); “to a debased mind” (v. 28).  In other words, the impulse to commit sin lies within human nature; God acts as a restraining influence.  God will then sometimes removes the restraint, allowing human depravity to take its natural course, knowing full well what we will do as a result.  The sin is ours, but the outcome is part of God’s plan.  And God can use the evil actions of human beings to bring about the ultimate good.  Joseph, in the Old Testament, could tell his guilt ridden brothers, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:20).  And, of course, the ultimate example of this is the crucifixion of Christ himself – the most horrible crime ever perpetrated by mortal man, and yet all a part of God’s eternal plan.

God, then, is in control of human events, and as a result He controls what happens to us personally.  This, then, should affect how we respond to the various trials and difficulties that come our way.  We need to look to God for the solution to our problems, and put our trust in Him

“For exaltation comes neither from the east

Nor from the west for from the south.

But God is the Judge:

He puts down one,

And exalts another.”

(Psalm 75:6,7)

Or, as Hannah put it in her prayer, “For by strength no man shall prevail” (I Sam. 2:9b).  That consideration should cure us of the disease of self-sufficiency, and make us realize how truly dependent we are upon God.  But it should also give us confidence and strengthen our faith – no matter how great the obstacle before us, God is even greater.  If it is His will, it will be accomplished!

And finally, it should cause us to give God all the glory.  Everything we have we owe to Him – it came to us through His providence.  “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generation, forever and ever.  Amen” (Eph. 3:20,21).

DIVINE PROVIDENCE – I

 

Can God answer prayer?  Almost every Christian would emphatically say “yes.”  But skeptics remain unconvinced.  To them there are two major objections to the idea that God can answer prayer: 1) the physical world operates on the basis of natural law, in which every effect has a natural cause; and 2) human beings have a free will, making it difficult to see how their actions can be controlled or governed by God.  How, then, do we answer these objections?

We will begin with the first objection: how can God control what happens to us in life, if what happens in the physical realm is the result of natural causes?  Did God cause it to rain, or the cold front that moved through our area?  The weathermen, after all, never mention God in their forecasts.  So what really causes the weather – God or the forces of nature?

The answer is both.  God is the Creator of nature, and thus created the natural forces as work in the physical world.  But the Bible goes beyond that and asserts that not only did God create the world, He actively sustains it as well.  The apostle Paul, speaking to the Athenian philosophers, could say of God, “In Him we live and move and have our being . . .” (Acts 17:28; NKJV).  And writing to the Christians of Colosse he could say of Christ, “. . . all things were created through Him and for Him.  And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col. 1:16,17).  And the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews could say that Christ is “upholding all things by the word of His power . . .” (Heb. 1:3).  How is this possible?   Bear in mind that the idea that everything in nature must have a natural cause is only an assumption.  There is much in nature, from subatomic particles to the distant galaxies that we cannot observe directly, and much is shrouded in mystery.  And what is the ultimate source of energy and life?  Might it not be God himself?

Some theologians have explained the relationship between God and nature in terms of “concursus” in which God is the first cause, and the forces of nature are the second causes.  The first cause acts on the second cause, which, in turn, produces the observable effect.  In this way it is God who ultimately controls what happens in nature.

Scripture also makes it clear that God can override the course of nature and perform that which is miraculous and supernatural.  The Bible contains many accounts of such miracles, including everything from the Exodus out of Egypt to the resurrection of Christ.  It is at this point, of course, that skeptics will flat-out deny the biblical record.   But in the four gospels of the New Testament, all written in the First Century, two of them by eye-witnesses, there are accounts of Jesus performing miracles and Himself rising from the dead.  The Gospels according to Mark and John are especially vivid accounts, Mark based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, and John being an eyewitness himself.  In both cases it is evident that Jesus left a very deep impression on those who knew Him personally.  If it were just a matter of only one account it could conceivably be dismissed as a fraud or delusion.  But the New Testament writers, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, were unanimous in asserting that Jesus had actually risen from the dead.

What, then, do we make of all of this?  First of all, we should be able to go to God in prayer for our physical and material needs in the full confidence that He can meet those needs.  “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you,” our Lord said (Matt. 7:7).  God is omnipotent; He is the Maker of heaven and earth.  He can “supply all your need according to His riches in glory” (Phil. 4:19).

By the same token it is pure folly to trust in human means when it is really God who controls our destinies.

“Unless the Lord builds the house,

They labor in vain who build it;

Unless the Lord guards the city,

The watchman stays awake in vain.”

(Psalm 127:1)

We may think that we have plentiful resources at our disposal: education, wealth, physical strength, and personal connections.  But how often have our plans been frustrated by forces beyond our control?  In the end it is God who determines the outcome, and thus it is on God on whom we must rely.  Our failures in life should be fresh reminders of Who is in control, and we should be humbled accordingly.

And let us never forget to acknowledge God’s blessings already received.  “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17)m and we should acknowledge God accordingly.  As ancient Israel was about to enter the promised land, Moses sternly warned them of the spiritually stupefying effects of material prosperity.  They were about to enter a land flowing with milk and honey, but the danger would be that they would forget the God who made all of these blessings possible.  “. . .then you shall say in your heart, ’My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’”   Moses tells them “And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Dt. 8:17,18).  When we are prosperous and successful we become complacent and self-satisfied.  We attribute our success to our own effort, and forget who sent the sun and rain, the health and strength.  It is then we spiritually wither and die.  Is this not what is wrong with contemporary American Christianity?  We don’t pray because don’t feel our dependence upon God.  And He is far from us; or, as we might better say, we have departed from Him.  May God help us always to remember the source of our temporal blessings.