Solemn Assembly

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly (Joel 2:15).

Economic disaster was imminent when Joel prophesied to the nation of Judah. Locusts had come through and had wiped out the crops. Unlike our day where we have grain stored away for years and we even bid on the FUTURE price of those commodities, when their crops were destroyed they didn’t eat till the next year (at least not that food).

Richard Owen Roberts, a student of revivals throughout history and an author on the subject, identifies the “solemn (or sacred) assembly” as the answer prescribed by God for any kind of imminent appeal to avoid disaster. When the “Ark of the Covenant” was captured by the Philistines, Samuel proclaimed a fast and called the people together to repent before God (I Sam 7). When kings Asa and Jehoshaphat were threatened by nations mightier than they were, they each called upon the people to fast and repent at a solemn assembly (2 Chron 14, 20). When God declared judgment for the sins of his grandfather, Manasseh, King Josiah was moved to repentance himself and called the people to the same in 2 Chron 34:29.

Usually the solemn assembly was accompanied by fasting because throughout the Old Testament, fasting was a sign of self-humiliation, mourning and repentance. It is significant that historically the singular sign of a repentant spirit was the willingness to mourn through fasting. That’s why the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) has historically been known as “the Fast” (see Acts 27:9).

God responds to the Solemn Assembly – not because there is anything magical about an assembly – but because He responds to brokenness and contrition. When Christians mourn and confess and repent of their sin He takes notice because He sees that we understand the seriousness of sin. When Isaiah wrote that Jesus was “crushed” for our iniquities in Isaiah 53:5, that word is the same Hebrew word that is translated “contrite” in Psalm 51:17 – “a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” The power of a single Christian’s repentance is significant, but when a group of Christians – as in a local church – gather to genuinely mourn their sin, His heart is moved to action on their behalf.

In our day the Church has decided that His blessing must rest upon the mega-church because everyone strives for “bigness.” Pastors flock to the seminars or books of the most recent “success” story to learn their “secret,” which they are glad to share – for a price. (I even have a book in my library on how to use fasting to grow your church – apparently the author sees fasting as one of the tools in a pastor’s ecclesiastical toolbox!) But Isaiah tells us that if God wanted to build a BIG ministry, He wouldn’t need us. What He is looking for are those who are “humble…contrite…and who tremble at His Word” (Is. 66:2).

Spiritual Warfare

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12).

Apparently my life is too entrenched in the physical world that surrounds me, because this verse always strikes a chord with me. Reading this, along with Ephesians 3:9-10, I am reminded that there is an unseen spiritual presence that somehow impacts the affairs of men that I can see. What the connection is between the spiritual world of “principalities and powers” and our physical world of personal survival, caring and rearing our families, standing for Truth in the political world and promoting Christ is impossible to understand. Perhaps one day when this life is over, we will understand it.

In the verses that follow Ephesians 6:2, Paul speaks about the spiritual armor that we are to don as believers in this battle, but there is another passage that speaks about the weapons that we are to use. That passage is II Cor. 10:4-5 which tells us that our weapons are spiritual and can pull down the strongholds (in the spiritual world) that are impossible if we only see this as a world of space and time. The weapons to which Paul refers are, of course, prayer and fasting. Some might include giving since Jesus included this in His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6).

Both of these “means of grace” (to use the term employed by the Reformers) are mysteries to most of us. Why does God need us to pray when He already knows what He wants done and has the power to accomplish it? Why did the ancients consider fasting to be a way “to make your voice heard on high”? Isn’t that what prayer itself does? If our Lord owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” and “the wealth of every mine,” why does He command us to give?

The answers to these are bound up in the reality that “our warfare is not against flesh and blood…” Somehow, what we do when we pray, fast and give impacts the spiritual world in ways that we will never completely understand while we are in this life. Certainly the practice of these disciplines creates a growth component for our lives here that will be satisfying while we remain on this side, but God’s purpose is much greater even than that. Somehow we make a difference in the unseen world, and the unseen world affects what happens around us. That’s why Psalm 149 can say that it is the glory of God’s people to pray and to impact the political world in far-away places (see vss. 6-9).

These spiritual disciplines can become wearisome to us at times, but we must continually feed on the Scripture to keep the truth before us that even if we cannot see visible results from these disciplines, they are effective in the unseen world.

Take Hold of Instruction

Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her for she is your life (Prov 4:13)

Being instructed is hard. It rubs against our pride by forcing us to admit that there is something lacking in us, and everything in our society tells us that we are complete and adequate in ourselves, just as we are. There is nothing in us that requires instruction, at least not morally; men are basically good in themselves. If there is a flaw, society will take care of that through its Department of Corrections. The emphasis in public education upon “self-esteem” undermines real instruction. No longer does a student have to master a certain body of material; he is given passing marks so that he will feel good about himself. As a result of this unBiblical philosophy, larger numbers of our society are having to be “corrected.”

But Solomon’s words to us – if they are followed – actually help us live satisfying lives, because they keep us humble. We don’t think “more highly of ourselves than we ought to think” (Rom 12:3). We recognize in these words that there is real life…satisfying life…fulfilling life…abundant life, not a pretense of life like we see in the characters on TV and the movies. That’s why Solomon tells us to “guard her.”

Primarily Solomon has the informal instruction of a parent to his child in mind, but it is not outside the meaning here to think of formal instruction. Some professions expect a certain amount of “Continuing Education” or “Professional Development” of their members. My own course in seminary is stretching me to read things that I might otherwise have set aside. In some cases I have read books that I had not known existed, books confirming certain convictions in me but which I had no idea had been put into print. The confirming of those convictions has been a great encouragement to me, in some cases delivering me from an “Elijah Syndrome,” the feeling of being all alone in my ministry.

I’m glad I “[took] hold of instruction.”

Testing Our Faith

At that time the LORD said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth (Josh 5:2-3).

This is one of the places in the Biblical narrative where geography plays an important role in understanding what is happening in this passage.

Joshua has taken over for Moses in leading Israel. To confirm this God parted the Jordan River at flood stage so that Israel could to cross into the land. This would imitate the great miracle He did in the leadership of Moses – the crossing of the Red Sea – and remind the people that Joshua was indeed God’s choice to succeed Moses. After the nation crossed, the river returned to its natural state.

The place that Israel crossed and camped was not far from the place where the Jordan River feeds into the Dead Sea. Geographically, this is the lowest point in elevation on the face of the earth. Within about 5 miles, and, more importantly, within sight was the fortified city of Jericho. Joshua, Israel’s military commander under Moses and now the political leader, was looking up at the city, with no place of escape behind him – not the place a military commander would seek to launch an attack from. It was at this point that God tells Joshua to circumcise his army, effectively disabling his army for 2-3 days. Had the king of Jericho tried, he could have launched an attack just then and destroyed completely the army that was threatening him. He, of course, didn’t know this but it didn’t make it any less significant that Joshua was risking the safety of his nation by immobilizing is army.

Why didn’t God have them do this before they crossed the Jordan? Why did He wait until the River had returned to flood stage? It was simply and solely because He wanted to test the faith of His leader. Joshua passed.

There are times when God tells His people to do what is totally against the dictates of human reason, but to do it at His command and in dependence upon Him. Tithing is such a command. In an age when there is such financial pressure on families, He still calls upon us to give a tithe (see Matt 23:23 and Luke 11:42). The idea is not that we deplete our resources; it that we honor the One who owns it all. And this often goes counter to accepted practice in our society.

A related area is that God promises us that if we seek first His kingdom, all our material needs will be cared for. So, should a Christian mom take a job and put her kids in day care or should she stay at home and instill the values in them that she believes? Should a teen take a part-time job that will require him/her to work on Sunday?

There are other apparently irrational things that God calls us to do that we should do in obedience, just like Joshua (e.g., consider Isaiah 40:31). If we are fully devoted to Him, He will test our faith.

The Anchor

Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (Rev 1:3).

Theologians and Bible teachers have debated for centuries what “this prophecy” refers to. Does John promise blessing for reading the twenty-two chapters of the Book of Revelation or is the blessing for those who read the whole of the Scripture? We won’t resolve this debate in this blog, but we will testify to the blessing that reading either this book or the whole of the Scripture brings.

For more than 30 years I have been committed to reading the Bible, cover to cover, each year. It started with merely reading five minutes a day. My reasoning went something like this, “If God created me and has a purpose for my life, should I not set apart – at a minimum – five minutes each day to listen to Him?” Certainly He deserves much more than a mere five minutes, but since I could not predict how my life would go and what demands would be placed upon it over the course of time, I vowed only to this small amount. Still, that vow has kept me in the Scripture daily – usually for more than five minutes. On the rare occasion when I have failed, I have been conscious that the Holy Spirit has awakened me – sometimes from a very deep sleep – and has prompted me to fulfill my vow.

This vow to read the Word has created stability in my life like nothing else could. It has comforted me in trying times; it has reminded me of the Source of every blessing when times have been good, keeping me from thinking too highly of myself. When the world around me has been uncertain, whether due to politics, economics or personal loss, the Word has brought assurance that it will remain and that He is my refuge.

This vow has also brought real direction to me over the years. It has been – in the words of David – “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). There have been many times when my daily reading schedule has brought me to a passage of Scripture that was clear direction for that moment, if not that day. Most of these have not been profound, out-of-body experiences, but the quiet confidence that I had heard from God.

Whether you regularly read all sixty-six books or just the last one, John’s promise is true – you will be blessed. Nothing can be an anchor to our lives like reading this Book.

Truth for our Day

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:21).

That men choose to turn from God is a foundational principle in the mind of the Apostle Paul. We are – to use the theologian’s term – “totally depraved.” This doesn’t mean we are as bad as we could be, but that, given a choice, men naturally turn away from God to their own selfish ends. What men call “wisdom” does not lead us to Him. Just look at the highest rated academic institutions. Many of them began with an evangelical foundation, but have long since left it.

So instead of “wisdom” being our salvation, this verse says that we are saved through “believing.” Paul does not disdain education or human reason in this passage; he merely acknowledges the inadequacy of human wisdom to save us. We need something more – revealed Truth.

Truth gets a bad rap in a post-modern world. “Experience” is what we are looking for; objective Truth doesn’t exist. We can’t even trust the meanings of words any more. One author I read recently observed that in our world, word meanings were “inspirational” rather than “referential.” In other words, rather than “referring” to a mutually accepted meaning, words today “inspire” our thoughts regardless of what the author of what we were reading might have intended.

Somehow the Church needs to return to the Truth. With a united voice we need to become again heralds that proclaim the Truth. It won’t be easy because increasingly the points of reference in an experience-driven society are diminishing. But happily where it is happening the God that satisfied the emptiness in our souls with the Truth is revealing that Truth to those gripped by the philosophy of this age as well. Ultimately, their experience has not brought fulfillment because the high they enjoy has to be repeated. But Truth remains constant. May we resolve to proclaim it effectively and with authority wherever the opportunity comes.

Forgetfulness

When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me (Hos 13:6).

Even though God was referring to Israel when He spoke to Hosea, He may have used the exact same words to describe the current generation in America. Ancient Israel’s history was sprinkled liberally with special provisions of God for this people: the parting of the Red Sea, manna in the wilderness, water from the rock, the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, Gideon’s miraculous victory over the Midianites, to name just a few.

So with our American history. In their excellent book, The Light and the Glory, David Manuel and Peter Marshall chronicle many of the clear provisions of God in the establishment of our country, provisions that only the hardest of heart could deny being an intervention of God Himself.

For a number of years both of these nations – Israel and America – enjoyed the clear blessing of God. Neither was perfect in its worship and practices, but as a whole, the people (often responding to the national leadership) embraced the God of Israel as their Creator and Redeemer.

But there came a time when Israel forgot Him and His deliverances. As Hosea said, “they were satisfied,” and the satisfaction begat pride – they thought they deserved His blessings. When He began to remove a few of the blessings to make the people remember that they had no real claim to them – they were all gifts – the people got angry with Him (He was acting like any good parent would). So He sent His prophets to warn them. Some repented, but it just made others angrier. After repeated warnings, He finally sent judgment – for Hosea’s Northern Kingdom of Israel, it was from the Assyrian Empire. About 150 years later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah ignored the warnings and was carried to Babylon.

We have entered that era of forgetfulness in America. Among others, God has sent us DL Moody (with his musical partner, Ira Sankey) and when they passed, Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver tried to stir this country to repentance. In recent years the baton has been passed to Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows. But with each succeeding generation, the number of people willing to listen to their calls for repentance decreases.

Israel’s history from inception to captivity lasted about 600-700 years, but we should expect God to be more patient with Israel. After all, He specifically called them His “chosen people.” The United States of America has never been called that (at least not by God).

How long do we have before judgment comes? That’s up to us. How long will we wait before we choose to repent?  Some people think (to their shame), “Perhaps we won’t have to repent if the right person gets elected in the next election.” But our hope is not a political one; it wasn’t for Israel and it won’t be for us. How quickly we forget!

A Question of Eternal Significance

Although I normally begin my blog with the verse or two that prompts my thoughts, today the passage is actually a couple of chapters in the Old Testament book of Daniel. Please look them up.

Chapter 2 describes a dream that the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had one evening. Like many of us he woke up knowing that he had dreamed something but couldn’t remember what it was. Unlike most of us he recognized it as something quite significant. When his counselors couldn’t tell him the dream and its interpretation, Daniel  was called and, after prayer, God revealed the dream to him so he could interpret it for the king. In chapters 7-8 of Daniel’s prophecy, we get another picture of the same dream/vision.

What is significant about this dream is that it is prophetic, and the details are astounding. The veracity of those details are now a part of our historical record. Daniel wrote this in the sixth century, BC sometime before the fall of the Medo-Persian Empire. But Daniel not only predicted that the Greek leader, Alexander the Great, would defeat the Persians, but also that his kingdom would be divided into four parts, that one part would persecute the Jews, and that the whole would be later conquered by the Romans, during which time Messiah would come.

Rationalist philosophies down through the years have disdained predictive prophecy, but they have always been baffled by Daniel’s (and Nebuchadnezzar’s) peek into the future. It really places them between the proverbial “rock and hard place”: either deny the obvious (that Daniel had some foreknowledge which can only be attributed to a Being outside human experience) or scrap the philosophical position that they are using to deny the Truth.

Because of the constant denial of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures as authoritative, many people today have not wrestled with this conundrum. Sadly, their souls will be, in part, the responsibility of those so-called Christian scholars and leaders who have decided that they will pass judgment on the Scripture rather than submitting to the Scripture themselves.

But the larger part of the responsibility will be their own. Each of us (at least in this society) has the witness of creation and the Scripture available to us. It won’t be a valid excuse to simply say, “I was too busy standing in line for three days waiting for the latest iphone to be sold, so I didn’t have time to check to see if the Scriptures were really true.”

The conundrum of whether to believe and obey the Scriptures or find an excuse to justify their rejection is one each of us has to face – even if we didn’t spend days waiting for the latest technology. On the answer to that question rests your eternity.

Fools in High Places

There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler:  Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones (Eccl 10:5-6).

 One of the important characteristics of the Hebrew language (from which this passage is translated) is “parallelism.” Rather than rhyming words such as we use in English, Hebrew poetry uses similar or opposite thoughts to draw out the meaning of the phrase. In this passage, then, the noun “rich” is to be seen as being antithetical or the opposite of the word “fools.” It is not a customary usage of the Hebrew term, but the meaning is pretty clear. The “rich” in this case are rich in wisdom.

 I happened to read this while our United States Congress was embroiled in the battle over raising the debt ceiling for our government. (Note I said, “government,” not “country.”) I concur with Solomon, “Fools are put in many high positions…” I always hesitate to criticize in this way because I know that there are many good and decent men and women who are trying to do the right and responsible thing to keep our country solvent, but they are out voted by the “fools” who simply want to buy their votes to win reelection. This was not what our Founding Fathers envisioned. (Incidentally, while I am being critical here, I also regularly pray for them.)

 It is not rocket science to understand that we cannot spend more than we take in perpetually. It is also not rocket science to understand that we already take in ENOUGH. However, bringing money back home is one of the main considerations when a politician is seeking reelection.

This is why a Balanced Budget Amendment makes sense – it’s what we must do as a family, what our church must do and what every business must do as well. Even “lower” governments – municipalities and states – must balance their budgets or lose services totally. That’s a choice some communities have opted for over exorbitant taxation.

 Since, as some say, “reelection is the principle job of any politician,” perhaps we are at the point where we need to establish term limits for the House and the Senate. After all, the Presidency has a limitation of two terms. By limiting them to a certain number of elected terms in office, perhaps it will be an incentive for them to serve the people rather than perpetuate their reelection.

I also think that someone other than these elected officials should establish their salaries. Perhaps this could be the annual, collective job of the Lieutenant Governors of each state (In our technologically rich era, this could be done quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively through a Conference Call). Perhaps they could use the same standard for Congressional raises that is used to determine cost of living increases for Social Security recipients. Or, since these people represent their respective states, take their salaries from the coffers of the individual states to remind them who they are really serving.

 Solomon had it correct that the people in low positions (we would call them “grassroots”) often are rich in wisdom. The question in each generation is, “Will we be heard?”

The Gauntlet Has Been Laid Down

“Who of all the gods of these countries has been able to save his land from me? How then can the LORD deliver Jerusalem from my hand?” (Is 36:20).

             There is a fascinating story of deliverance recorded in the middle of Isaiah’s prophecy. The powerful Assyrian king, Sennacherib, had swept through most of the region we know as the Middle East on his way to world domination. He had cruelly carried the Northern kingdom of Israel into captivity and was poised (at the time of Isaiah’s writing) to destroy the Southern kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem.

             It was at this point that the Assyrians made a tactical blunder – or perhaps it would be better to say they revealed a false religious assumption. Sennacherib’s representative stood outside Jerusalem and challenged the God that Judah trusted in – the Assyrian army vs. the God of Judah. Of course, we have read the outcome (it’s recorded three times in the Old Testament!) and know that the angel of the LORD came and wiped out 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a single night, and Sennacherib limped home with what remained of his devastated army. Not long afterward, he was killed by two of his own sons while worshiping his false god (see Is 37:36-38).

             Our world seems destined for a repeat of this story. While we in America try to “tolerate” our Muslim neighbors, our leaders seem less and less willing to stand up to terrorist threats. We are supposed to allow a victory monument in the form of a mosque near the site of the 911 attacks because to deny it would be to anger the radical wing of the Muslim religion. If anyone else were to suggest this, our legal experts would call it “blackmail.”

            The constant cry of “peace in our time” that comes from every U.S. political administration concerning the continual Middle East crisis will ultimately end in the withdrawal of American support of Israel. Whatever happened to the principle of “to the victor belong the spoils”? Israel has been provoked, fought back and won each time, yet they are considered the aggressors and the watching world expects them to give in to the demands that they return the lands they captured. Ultimately the idea is to isolate them in the world and to bring about the same showdown outside the gates of Jerusalem that Isaiah recorded. Only this time it will take place a little bit north of Jerusalem at a place called “Armageddon.” But make no mistake, the rationale will be identical, “Whose God is really the true one?”

             I won’t pretend to know the day or even the year that these things will take place. America’s support of Israel seems to hinge on the strength of American Evangelicals who still believe in the God of Abraham, Moses, David and Isaiah, but that is waning. Perhaps there will be enough true repentance for God to stay these events for a generation or two. But there is no doubt that it will happen. The gauntlet has been laid down and God will not retreat from it. It is the final conflict of the ages.