No easy God – 1 Samuel 6. RBT Notes, 6th October

Unless we are reconciled to God, we cannot live with God. We need reconciliation through grace. Without that, God’s presence makes us uncomfortable, restless, guilty, and ultimately will be nothing more than a curse to us.

Witness the Philistines. The Ark of God is at best an embarrassment, at worst, an active threat. Israel’s God has already devastated Philistia, no one knows if and when He will do that again. They need guidance to deal with this, the guidance of God their own priests (v.2). You get the irony, don’t you? People look to God-substitutes to find out how to put God at arm’s length.

Maybe it was God Himself who told their priests what to do. The Philistines are reminded about what Israel’s God has done, as well as the dangerous hardening of the Egyptians’ hearts against Him, and are given instructions about reparation (vv.4-6). They put the gold on the carts as they are told, and watch it go off to Israelite territory (vv.7-12). The result is massive elation of the Israelites, and massive relief for the Philistines (vv.10-18).

easyGod is not easy, though, for His friends as well as for His enemies. Some Israelites look into the Ark (v.19). They probably know that all it contains is a pot of manna, two stone tablets, and Aaron’s staff. Special, yes, but hardly magical, are they? Maybe they reason that there is something extra in the ark, maybe God Himself? And then they maybe reason that God will see their inquiry not so much as impiety, but as a God-honouring desire to know. Except He doesn’t. He is offended, and He judges, and leaves this community grieving and terror-stricken (vv.19-20).

So, pagans push God away, but believers try to get too close. Pagans want to avoid God, believers want to invade God’s holiness. Both are wrong, both suffer judgment, both learn that God is no easy God. In Christ we learn that God has not changed, but He has invaded our world. He calls us into His holiness, and indeed gifts the holiness of His Son Jesus. In Him we are safe from God’s wrath, but are commissioned to live in His holy Presence. So begins the life of discipleship, each step marked by a serious commitment to honouring God for Who He is. Watch your steps, then, and make each count as a fitting tribute of worship to the King of Kings.

Will the Real God please stand up? 1 Samuel 5. RBT Notes, 5th October

1 Samuel 5 is a classic OT story, with a bit of everything. Here we find,

1. Obscure and obsolete place-names
2. A strange-sounding god, complete with statue
3. Tribal conflict
4. A big fight over a religious artefact
5. Things that go bump in the night
6. A just-so story
7. A vengeful god
8. A very nasty plague
9. A clear claim about the authority of the God of the Bible

And here are at least 9 reasons why people don’t read the Old Testament, or the Bible at all. It just seems to be tall stories. Even if we could believe them, they have no relevance on our lives, and little which attracts us to what they’re saying. Or so we think.

Actually, this passage tells us everything about Biblical Christianity. The God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament. What you see here is the God of the Bible, the human heart, and God’s response to it. That’s Christianity. 1 Samuel 5 is a perfect place to start if you’re going to see what Christianity’s all about. Let’s ask two questions of the passage.

Why do people worship things which aren’t real?

We worship what works for us

imageFor these 11th C BC Philistines, Dagon worked. He’s won the battle, He’d beaten this god of Israel. He had taken the ark. Remember the Ark, the special box which contained the 10 Commandments? The chapter before tells us that the Israelites put so much trust in it that they took it into battle. Now it was stolen. And the Philistines thought that they had got this god in a box. ‘Where’s the evidence for God?’ they could have shouted: ‘look our gods, our values have beaten him. Let’s celebrate!’

What’s working for you right now? What’s an idol for you? Not sure? Ask yourself, what must I have in life, above all-else? Approval, success, romance, wild sex, power over others? You’re looking at your idol. And you’ll understand, then, that you’re like everyone else – religious.

We ignore the facts

Picture the scene: the Philistines had fought, and won. Dagon had come up trumps, now it’s party time! Come day 2 they get a rude awakening – they weren’t the only ones who’d crashed out after a night’s partying – Dagon had, too. Their god had toppled over. They panic, and pick him up. Day 3 comes, the same things happen, expect now Dagon’s head and hands – his wisdom and strength – were cut off, and he was prostrate before the Ark. The historian’s message couldn’t be clearer.

So they didn’t do the sensible thing – after the second time – of breaking it up? No, they set it up again. Because people do, when they’re confronted by the Living God.
It wasn’t a broken Dagon alone which showed that the real God had shown up, the facts were all over the nation of Philistia. There’s this dreadful plague – tumours and rats sounds exactly like the bubonic plague (v. 7). ‘Devastation’ doesn’t seem too strong a way of putting it.

And then it gets more frightening, more dreadful. Wherever they take the Ark, death goes with it. If it weren’t so terrifying it would be comical – Ashdod, Gath, Ekron – all suffering from something which make swine flu look like a blessing! And this continues until our historian tells us, in v. 12 – ‘their cry went up to heaven’. What started out as a victory party turned into a living hell.

 

Why don’t people worship the Living God?

They didn’t, though they had seen His power. Their god was broken, and their catastrophic plague a sign of the true,God’s displeasure. They knew that this God was Living, powerful, true. They clung to what they trusted in. Come on, they knew just what was happening. But they wanted a broken god rather than the real one (compare v. 5).

The real God is too much for us

This episode tells us two things about the God of the Bible, the God of true Christianity:

1. He’s Living. Ask Dagon, better still, ask the Philistines. A God you can’t see – that’s scary. You never know where He is. You knew where Dagon was, right there, in his temple, in that place you could chose to go to or not to go to. You could involve him in your life if you wanted to; you do a few things and you can believe that you’ve made him happy, you’re in His good books. That’s religion. It’s about having the gods where you want them, getting them to do what you want them to do. Christianity’s all different. It’s not about trying to control God, but recognising that He’s in control.

2. He’s Powerful – you can’t put Him in a box. Think of the Philistines’ pride: they’d beaten his armies, they’d captured His magic box. Now they had him just where they wanted him. Surely he was powerless? People make that same mistake today. They think they’ve got God safely in dusty church buildings; outdated hymns, fading memories of school assemblies, Sunday school lessons. He’s a God for the children, of a God for the elderly, God for people of an earlier age. A God for other people, in other worlds. That’s Philistine theology. How wrong we are.

The lesson of this episode is the Jesus is the Living God, before whom one day every knee will bow (compare Phil 2.10). He will never be toppled, never overthrown. He will always stand. And if we bow the knee to Him, we will rise up and stand with Him, forever.

Decline and Fall – 1 Samuel 4. RBT Notes, 4th October

This is one of the Bible’s “from bad to worse” chapters. There’s a decline, and then there’s a fall, as we’ll see.

Decline

Two defeats happen for Israel, in quick succession. After any defeat, there should be analysis, as we see in sport, business, and also warfare. You can imagine the post-battle analysis, after the carnage of vv. 1-3: “brave? Yup! Well-trained? Yup, Equipment? Check. Leadership? Check.  Religion? Religion! We forgot religion!!” Surely with the Ark, Israel reasons, they’ll be unbeatable. That’s right, God can be their Extra Man, to carry them home. Summon the Ark, then. But with the Ark come two scoundrels (vv.3-4).

Imagine the scene now inside the Philistine changing rooms as they listen to the ecstatic, confident Israelites (vv.6-9). Not only are they confident, but the Israelites have God on their side. The Philistines are doomed!

No they’re not, because God isn’t on their side.  They only think He is. The Philistines fight for their lives, with devastating success: 30 000 Israelite men are hacked to pieces, lives lost, husbands, sons killed – families left without a worker, an earner (v.10). Maybe many children and wives are angry at God that day – why did He fail His people?

But there is another loss. Hophni and Phineas are killed and the Ark is captured (v.11). The triumph is obvious, not only of the Philistines, but of God’s Word. Remember 1 Sam. 2.30 – the Lord dishonoured is the Lord who will be avenged. And He has done just that. Having the Word of God, the Leaders of God, even the Ark of God, is no substitute for a living, humble, sincere faith in God. He accepts no substitutes. We have been warned.

 

and Fall

Ruins_of_Holyrood_Abbey,_EdinburghTwo scenes now describe the aftermath. Firstly, there’s news from the front. A grieving messenger comes from the battle, to deliver terrible news to the ageing Eli (vv.12-13). The messenger hesitates over his news, but can’t conceal it – the Ark is captured, there’s slaughter, and Eli’s sons are dead (vv.14-17). So utter is the shock which overtakes Eli that he falls dead, too (v.18).

With his death comes another, as Phineas’s wife’s labour suddenly comes on as she hears the news (v.19). Her own dying act is to name her son, and it signals her and the nation’s despair – “Glory Gone” (vv.21-22).

Brutally tragic.  The Bible is, just as life is. God has erupted against His own people. We could, as many do, argue against Him, or privately grumble at Him, but the lesson is clear: “I am the Lord, that is my name. I will not give my glory to another, or my praise to idols” (Isaiah 42.8). Not to Israel’s religious idols, the priesthood and the symbols of God’s rule, as seen in the Ark; nor to our versions, our denominations, institutions, leaders, traditions, creeds, programmes or worship styles. God calls that false trust idolatry, and threatens His judgment. We have been warned.

And we are offered grace. Where is glory, and grace? In Jesus Christ. He is God’s revelation of glory, and His promise of grace. In Him the glory never ever departs, and in Him grace is always real, and saving. Outside of trusting in Jesus, moment by moment, we face decline and fall. But trusting in Him, honouring Him as our Saviour and Lord, and we are safe. And that is enough.

Listening – 1 Samuel 3. RBT Notes, 3rd October

God’s servant is growing strong, and that is a contrast with the absence of the revelation of the will of God for His people (v.1). The near-blindness of God’s leader, Eli, mirrors the lack of spiritual sight, therefore, of Israel (v.2). The only apparent light in the nation is burning at the tabernacle (v.3). Something needs to happen, and we know it will.

earwax-comes-from-1 (1)So here is the famous narrative of God calling “the Little Levite”, to borrow a phrase from a sentimental hymn on the chapter. In fact, this narrative is treasured because (like the hymn) we love the details of the call, but we skip over the terrifying words Samuel is given by God when he is called. The message given spoils the way we want to think about this passage. Scripture isn’t cuddly, though, and nor is the God who calls Samuel, and us.

Three times the call comes, three times Samuel fails to recognise God’s voice (vv.4-8). Why is this? The first and obvious answer is that Samuel has never before heard the audible voice of God, so why should he know who was speaking to him? This three-times call emphasises that God is persistent with Samuel, and we could add, He is gentle with him, too, waiting for him to realise whose Voice this is. Three calls show that God definitely wants this Samuel, while the third call gives Eli the chance to recognise that this is God calling, so there would be no doubting Samuel’s actions later on from him.

When God speaks here, there are no “get to know you introductions”, no preambles, just a straight-in word of judgment (vv.11-14). This is a terrifying charge for a little boy. And yet in his little, spiritually-aware heart, he must have known that God’s judgement would fall against these wicked men.  Of course, he is tempted to hide the message from Eli, but Eli insists on knowing (vv.15-17). And Eli knows that what the Lord says is true, and will come to pass (v.18).

The narrative moves on, to show Samuel’s growth, the honouring of his words, and the ongoing revelation of God (vv.19-21). God is with Samuel, and through him, with His people.

We think of another little boy. He always heard and obeyed the word of His Father, and brought it to the nation. He was given the words of God, hard words at some times, healing words at others. He was given words of warning and judgement. Ultimately, He died on a cross to become the true word of grace, bringing salvation to all of God’s people. We look to Him, listen to Him, and in dark days, it’s in His Name we go.

Tell out, your Soul – 1 Samuel 2. RBT Notes, 2nd October

There is no joy like that of a new mother, and a mother who has waited and wept through long years of childlessness. Hannah’s praise is fervent, and it models adoration to us. Her God is utterly holy, unique, and trustworthy (vv.1-2). Why would we not praise and worship Him as we receive His blessings?

The praise of song focuses largely on God’s sovereign power, so appropriate in the light of this miracle-child: He brings life, death, poverty honour, and everything else besides (vv.5-6). Read her worship again, though, and you’ll notice that there is an “edge” to it, as Hannah refers to boasting people, and God’s enemies. True, she has felt the barbs of Elkanah’s other wife over the years; but her warnings towards the proud and boastful show that she’s well aware that she and her son are living in dark days. We’ll see how dark they are now.

Godless, greedy, aggressive and unscrupulous. The picture painted of Eli’s two sons couldn’t be any worse (vv.12-17). Surely Hannah knew how wretched these young men were who her precious and vulnerable son was having to share a home with. They go from bad to worse, Eli’s warnings are ignored, but God will have His way, which is their judgment (vv.22-26). Whilst see how Samuel is growing and maturing (vv.21, 26), becoming the nation’s needed man of God, God needs to clear out the rubbish, before His people can be led by His servant.

When another unnamed man of God appears to confront Eli, he brings a message Eli must have understood, and might even have been waiting for (vv.27ff). Eli has allowed his sons to trample on holy things, and in doing that, he has himself dishonoured God (vv.28-29). He is guilty. What God says next must freeze Eli’s blood: the privileges of priesthood will not only be stripped from him, but from his line: God’s reproach of a man who allowed his sons to dishonour God will last through the generations (vv.30-36). We read, and we should fear.

Do we fear, though? Do we read this famous verse – “those who honour me I will honour” (v.30) and stop there, taking encouragement from the verse? Shouldn’t we rather read the whole verse – “those who despise me will be disdained” – and tremble. Because it’s true. Grace isn’t the taming of God the Lion. Grace is God reconciled to us. But God is never reconciled to our ongoing sin. Only daily repentance and daily faith will lead to a reverent walk with God. And the authentic Christian life is nothing but that.

So, a chapter of contrasts – faith and faithlessness, honour and dishonour. The Psalmist in Psalm 1 was right – there really are only two roads through life. So we chose faith, praise and obedience, in His strength, and for His sake.

 

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He hears our tears – 1 Samuel 1. RBT Notes, 1st October

The whole Bible is the story of the search for a King. Humanity rebelled against God back in the Garden, throwing off His rule, and receiving as their punishment His curse. But God promised a Rescuer, One who would restore God’s rule and blessing to the world (Gen. 3.15). The resulting plot of the Bible is the working-out of that promise being fulfilled.

Nowhere is that wait more clear – and God’s promise being worked out – than in 1 Samuel. It is a book of Rescuers. Two of them are very good, one is very bad. One so clearly mirrors the great and ultimate Rescuer, the Lord Jesus Christ. The story of each teaches us that, in good days and bad ones, God is sovereign, and sovereignly merciful.

imageThe book begins with a woman waiting (could we say, Eve-like) for a special child. Hannah is a worshipper of God, whose heart is breaking over her childlessness. Her story, and Israel’s story, is introduced via her husband. Elkanah is a worshipper of God, and a man with two wives, who has a special love for Hannah (vv.1-5). Each year’s tabernacle worship is a terrible triangle of bullying, tears and unfulfilled longings (vv.6-8). This is one unhappy family.

Hannah’s misery and isolation is compounded by the Tabernacle priest Eli mistaking her tears for drunkenness as she prays one year for that miracle child (vv.9-16). She isn’t drunk, she protests, but pleading with the Lord for a son, a son we learn who she wants, not for personal comfort, but for God’s service. Maybe either out of embarrassment or of deep sympathy for Hannah, Elkanah assures her that God will grant this bold prayer (v.18). And He does – Samuel, the “heard by God” child is born. Nothing is impossible with God, is it?

God answers the prayers of His weeping servant, so she must be true to her promise. Samuel is dedicated to God with his father’s consent and due ceremony (vv.21-28). What a testimony to God’s faithfulness, and an encouragement to what might have been Eli’s flagging faith, as he worships God in the light of this answered prayer (v.28).

“Unto us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Isaiah 9.6). Samuel is a gift to his parents, to the tabernacle service, to Israel, and to the Israel of God, the church. He is God’s Servant, and as such, he will bring the blessing of God. So does our servant, Jesus. This Son is given to us. God has heard our tears, His Rescuer has been given to us.