Read Psalms 119:129-176, 139.
Is it too early for a little bit of music theory? I guess there’s only one way to find out. I promise that this is going somewhere. Theme and variations is a form of musical composition and performance where an initial theme is played and then altered in subsequent repetitions. The melody might change slightly, the rhythm might shift, or the accompaniment might differ to name just a few examples. There is a consistent theme throughout the piece, but each variation serves to highlight or illuminate something different. That seems to me to be a lot like what is going on in Psalm 119. The 22 stanzas offer a number of variations, but each one carries the same theme–the goodness of God’s law as a guide for life.
In Psalm 119:168, that theme takes this form, “I keep your precepts and testimonies, for all my ways are before you.” While continuing to celebrate the goodness of God’s guidance, the psalmist also acknowledges the reality that God knows us fully, a theme expanded upon in Psalm 139. Many have had the idea that God sees all they do used against them as a weapon of fear and control, but David–in Psalm 139–celebrates this idea in verse 3, “You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.” It leads him to wonder at God’s constant presence and continued protection before pleading in verse 24, “And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” In David’s variation on this theme, he not only celebrates God knowing all his ways but invites God even closer.
How is this theme playing out in your life? Are you able to celebrate the goodness of God’s guidance? Does God’s knowledge of your ways lead you toward fear or toward faith? What David had discovered is that God knew him fully and loved him relentlessly. That theme holds true for you, too.
Read Psalm 51.
Happy New Year! What better way to celebrate than with a psalm about sin! I’m sure you had it on your playlist as you rang in the new year. Yeah, probably not, but would it be the worst new year’s anthem? That answer probably depends on what we think this psalm is about. Is it really a psalm about sin as I suggested earlier? Yes, David sings about his sin as one who is broken over his transgressions, but I’m not sure that’s what the psalm is about. It isn’t, at least, where the psalm begins.
From the opening line, there is another theme of this psalm–the mercy and grace of God. David sings this song, not just because he recognized how he sinned, but even more because he trusted that God’s mercy was more abundant than his transgressions. David’s heart was broken and contrite, but the reason he sang was because he had hope. He believed that God was able to renew and restore what sin had broken. He trusted that his departure from God’s path did not mean that God would depart from him.
As we look back on the year that is gone and look forward to the year ahead, this may be just the song we need–a song about a God who can restore and uphold those who have fallen.
Read 2 Samuel 1:1-2:7.
Put yourself in David’s shoes. Saul has attempted time and time again to take your life, and now, news has reached you that Saul’s life has come to an end, along with the life of your dearest friend Jonathan. How would you respond? David, maybe surprisingly to our 2021-trained eyes, responds with dignity that honors not only his friend but even his adversary. Despite all of Saul’s offenses against him, David laments the loss of father and son, beloved and lovely. You see, Saul’s behavior didn’t determine David’s. Saul’s rebellion didn’t diminish his dignity as one created in the image of God, and David didn’t let it diminish his either.
So much of what is normal in our culture (yes, even in our Christian subculture) is about winning at all costs. But what does that say about those with whom we disagree or those we view as our adversaries or even our enemies? Spoiler alert: David didn’t get everything right. That said, he got this right. He honored Saul where he could. He honored his brother Jonathan. David modeled what Jesus calls us to do, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Read 1 Samuel 17-18.
When we read the description of Goliath of Gath, it isn’t all that difficult to understand why Saul and Israel were “greatly afraid.” Goliath was determined to defeat Israel, and by the looks of him, he was able to do just that. Their fear is understandable. And when David shows up–more shepherd than soldier with a youthful appearance–it isn’t all that difficult to understand why Goliath wasn’t scared in the least. His confidence is as understandable as Saul’s fear, but it turns out that both Saul and Goliath had the same blind spot. Both failed to see what God was doing on behalf of His people. Why? They were both blinded by their belief in their own limitations or abilities and a pursuit of their own glory. For Goliath, that blindness led to his immediate demise, while for Saul, his story was initial victory followed by a slow burn. His fear of Goliath gave way to a jealousy of David that would define the remainder of his life (much of which is a story for another day).
Immediately following David’s defeat of Goliath, a clear contrast develops between Saul and his children. David and Saul’s son, Jonathan, were the best of friends. Jonathan loved David “as his own soul.” And we’re told that Saul’s daughter, Michal, loved David, but even that became for Saul another plot to kill David. Saul was scared to death of David, just as he had been of Goliath before, still painfully unaware of what God was doing around him. So to be sure, these chapters sound a strong alarm about the dangers of being driven by fear (or pride), but they also sound a needed reminder not to discount or ignore what God is doing around us and within us.
We, too, can become completely consumed with what we can do or what we can’t do or what others can do that we can’t do. That is a scary place to be, but it isn’t a place we have to be. Writing about what God had done for His people by sending Jesus as the Savior of the world and what He was doing in and among them by giving His Spirit, John stated in 1 John 4:18 a reality we need to see, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” If you’re afraid today, let it drive you toward the God who loves you instead of letting it drive you to hate those around you.
Read 1 Samuel 1-2.
And Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation.”1 Samuel 2:1 (ESV)
Some stories take a little while to get moving. We’ve all had a friend recommend a book or a movie or tv show with something along the lines of, “It starts a little slow, but just stick with it.”
Well, I’m here to tell you that 1 Samuel is not that kind of book. From the first verse, we find ourselves right in the middle of the action. The story of Elkanah’s family is dramatic enough, but Eli’s family takes the intrigue to another level. That said, the point of the story isn’t merely to entertain us but to engage us spiritually, and while the book is named for Samuel, I think it’s fair to say that Hannah is the one at the center of these opening chapters. We see her faithfulness throughout, and we hear it in her prayer. This isn’t a pious performance. Hannah was pouring out her heart to the Lord to the point that Eli thought she was drunk. Her relationship with God was real. It was honest. Hannah prayed with a confidence that God was neither blind or deaf to the plight of the lowly and poor. She prayed to a God who was and is on the side of those who are weak, poor, and hungry. Hannah knew the Lord. She cried out to Him in her distress. She rejoiced in His salvation. It may have seemed that God’s work in her life started a little slow, but God showed Himself faithful–to Hannah and to His people.
Where are you waiting on the Lord to move?
Read Judges 6-7
What has you scared this week? Maybe it’s how far behind you are on your Christmas shopping. Maybe it’s the latest news concerning the ever-evolving pandemic. Or maybe those haven’t even entered your mind. Maybe there are other things that have you scared, or maybe you aren’t feeling all that fearful today. Regardless of how you are experiencing fear right this moment, we all know what fear feels like–and so did the Israelites.
The book of Judges tells the story of God’s people in a cycle of rebellion, oppression, repentance, and deliverance. In Judges 6, it is Midian that overpowered Israel, stealing their produce, until they cried out to the Lord for help. That’s when God sent a word to the people that they were not to fear the gods of the Amorites because He was the Lord their God. And yet, the people continued to disobey God’s voice. That’s where Gideon would come in. God was determined to use Gideon to rescue his people from the oppressive practices of the Midianites. The problem was Gideon wasn’t so sure. He was, after all, the weakest member of the weakest family in Israel. He was going to need some clear signals (apparently clearer than an angelic encounter) that this was God’s plan. The Lord’s message, however, was unwavering, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.” Did that eradicate Gideon’s fear? He would do what the Lord said, but he did it under the cover of darkness because of his fear of his family and his community.
The life of Gideon was lived–like ours–at the intersection of faith and fear. He listened to the Lord, trusted Him, and obeyed. But he was also keenly aware of the risks involved with answering God’s call on his life. Gideon’s story shows us that faith and fear aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, by the time we reach Judges 7:10, we hear the Lord speaking directly to Gideon’s fears, “But if you are afraid to go down, go down to the camp with Purah your servant. And you shall hear what they say, and afterward your hands shall be strengthened to go down against the camp.” God didn’t react to Gideon’s fears by withdrawing His presence. He didn’t grow frustrated by Gideon’s repeated requests for confirmation. He led Gideon as He does us when we are afraid–with tenderness and patience. So whatever has you scared today, you can trust God to lead you.
Read Joshua 5:10-15, 6.
This past weekend marked Rivalry Week in college football. Kentucky or Louisville? Alabama or Auburn? Florida or Florida State? Ohio State or Michigan? Oklahoma or Oklahoma State? Whose side are you on? Sports aren’t the only arena that raise that question. We’re experts at dividing ourselves up and then asking who’s on which side. We do it with fun things and far more serious matters because it seems easier to sort people. The problem, as Joshua learns, is that we aren’t always the best ones to do the sorting because we often aren’t even asking the right questions.
When Joshua saw the man standing before him, his inclination was to ask, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” Whose side are you on? The choices seemed clear to Joshua, but the commander of the Lord’s army didn’t play along. His answer is jarring, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord.” The salvation of Rahab and her family in Joshua 6 shows us once again that God doesn’t sort people according to our standards. So maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to make judgments either. Maybe we shouldn’t be so swift to sort people as good or bad. Maybe doing so risks missing what God is doing in the world, maybe even through those we would consider our adversaries.
Read Deuteronomy 8-9.
Remember. That is the message for the people of Israel in these chapters. Remember who God is, what He has done on your behalf, and how He has called you to live. Remember. It’s a good word for us as we prepare to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday this week. Like Israel, it can be easy for us to forget in the moment how far God has already brought us. It can be tempting for us to say in our hearts, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” Or as we’re more likely to say, “Look what I’ve done. I earned this. I deserve this.” But is that always the case? If so, what does that mean for those who don’t have what you have? Are they automatically less deserving? Moses would caution us against making such judgments. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that the good things in our lives point to our goodness, he would have us recognize that we have a God who remembers His promises to His people. Our God is patient and merciful and determined to make all things right. Let’s take a few moments to remember the ways He’s demonstrated that in our lives.
Read Numbers 20; 27:12-23.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”Maybe Mark Twain (But Probably Not)
This quote is widely attributed to Mark Twain. The only problem is that it doesn’t appear to have originated until several decades after his death. Nevertheless, it’s a good line and one that rings true in today’s passages. Numbers 20 wasn’t the first time the Israelites found themselves at Kadesh. Last time, in Numbers 13-14, it was the people of Israel balking at God’s promises in the face of their fears, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt!” Back then, it was Moses who interceded for the people, pleading with God to forgive them according to his steadfast love, which he did.
As Numbers 20 opens, we learn that the people have returned to Kadesh, where their grumbling sounds remarkably familiar, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord!” Moses and Aaron consulted with the Lord and then returned to the people with instructions to “tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water.” But instead of speaking as the Lord commanded, Moses struck the rock with his staff.
It had been the fear of the Israelites that kept them from entering the promised land for a generation. Now, Moses’ frustration would do the same for him. Moses failed to uphold the Lord as holy before the eyes of the people. What might seem to us a minor disobedience in Numbers 20 God calls a rebellion against his word in Numbers 27, appointing Joshua as the one who would finally lead his people into the land they’d been promised. Both fear and frustration are natural and at times unavoidable reactions in a fallen world. Like Moses and the Israelites, the question before us isn’t if we will ever be afraid or frustrated. The question is what we will do in those moments. The Israelites and Moses aren’t the only part of these episodes that rhyme. The Lord was steadfast in his love and faithful to his word, and he still is, even when we are frustrated or afraid.
Read Leviticus 23.
God knows us, doesn’t He? He knows our penchant for busyness and our bent toward distraction. He knows how we use the first to feed the second and that the end result is a heart turned in on itself–weary and worn from the endless work of self-seeking and self-exaltation. So, in His goodness, He offers an exchange–rhythm and rest for our busy and distracted hearts. For the Israelites, the rhythms were marked clearly on the calendar. There was a day of rest each week to re-center their lives around the Lord and a calendar full of feasts to remind the people what the Lord had done for them. These were days and times to pause from ordinary work and remember what it means to be the people of God.
In Matthew 12, Jesus would talk about Himself as the “lord of the Sabbath,” but before that, He also offered an invitation for us to rest. Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus knows our penchant for busyness and our bent toward distraction. He knows that what you need isn’t another task on an already endless to-do list but the presence of the One who rested and offers rest to you. He also knows that you’re still prone to choose the first before the second. Even reading through the Bible can become another task on the list, with the goal being to do instead of to be. To the weary and heavy laden, the lord of the Sabbath extends an invitation: come to Him, trust Him, and receive rest for your soul.