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The Forgetful Prophet

The Forgetful Prophet

One of my favorite things to do in Kansas City is visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Every time I visit I am drawn to a particular painting that depicts God sending an angel to encourage the prophet Elijah. This is one of my favorite stories in Scripture and the more I have studied the passage, the more I realize that I identify with Elijah. But that identification is not with the positive aspects of Elijah’s character but rather the unfortunate deformation that is taking place in his ministry.  

 

Elijah’s Encounter with God

Before God sends his angel to Elijah in 1 Kings 19, the wicked king Ahab and his wife Jezebel have led Israel into apostasy through the worship of false gods. In the chapter just prior to the encouragement of Elijah, God had shown his glory through the defeat of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. In that scene both Elijah and the prophets of Baal had prepared a sacrifice for their respective god and they were going to see whose responded. Listen to the prayer of Elijah at that moment:

 Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today let it be known that you are God in Israel and I am your servant, and that at your word I have done all these things. Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, the Lord, are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” 

There are three things to notice about this prayer. First, notice Elijah’s remembrance. He calls on God’s personal name, Yahweh (anytime you see the name translated Lord, it is referring to God’s covenant name), and refers to him as the God of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (or Jacob). This title brings all sorts of images and memories of the prior work of God to mind in the story of the Torah. Second, notice his humility. His desire is that people would know Yahweh is Lord and that Elijah is his servant. There is no self-commendation, there is a servant who has only done as his God has commanded. And finally, his ultimate desire is to see the glory of God displayed and have it recognized as such. 

God answers this prayer and sends a fire to consume the sacrifice and the prophets of Baal are defeated and destroyed and there seems to be a glimmer of hope for a nation that had abandoned its God. Keep this prayer in mind as we fast forward one chapter and we see a very different interaction between God and his servant Elijah.  

 

Elijah’s Spiritual Amnesia

In chapter 19 we are told that Jezebel, after hearing about the defeat of the prophets at Mount Carmel, orders the death of Elijah. We are told that the prophet “became afraid and immediately ran for his life.” Our prophet who just watched Yahweh show his power at Mount Carmel is now asking that the Lord would take his life (1 Kings 19:4). In Elijah’s next words to God note the change of tone from his last prayer: 

“I have been very zealous for the Lord God of armies, but the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are looking for me to take my life” (1 Kings 19:10). 

God responds by asking him to stand on Mount Sinai so that God might speak with him in a soft whisper (19:12) but when Elijah hears the voice it says “he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” 

Did you notice the changes? Instead of remembering the character of Yahweh when Jezebel threatens him, he gives into fear and despair. Instead of humbly submitting himself to God, he questions why God has not honored his zeal. Instead of seeking the glory of God, he covers his face to keep from seeing it. What happened? How could there be such deformation in such a short time frame? 

 

Deformative Forgetfulness 

Since Genesis 3, the serpent has sought to lead God’s image bearers into deforming forgetfulness. Curt Thompson says in his book Anatomy of the Soul that “being tricked always involves the subtle or blatant manipulation of fear, memory, and shame.” I believe this is what we see taking place in Elijah’s life. The deformation of fear has allowed him to see Jezebel as a threat beyond God’s control. The deformation of his memory has led him to forget the superiority of the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, demonstrated on Mount Carmel. The deformation of shame has led him to cover himself from the glorious presence of God, much the way Adam and Eve covered themselves in the garden. But similar to the garden, the Lord responds in surprising grace toward this deformed prophet. 

The Lord responds to Elijah in several ways. After the prophet put himself under a tree to die we are told the angel tells him to eat and sleep (twice!). Then God calls him to Mount Sinai, the mountain where Yahweh made his covenant with Israel. God brought him to a physical location where he would feel secure and would encourage him to remember the God who cared for the likes of Abarahm and Moses would also take care of him. Once Elijah arrives at the mountain, the Lord asks him two times: “What are you doing here, Elijah? It reminds me of God asking Adam and Eve in the garden after they ate the fruit, “Where are you?” God is gently inviting his weak servant to see the waywardness of his ways. God does not lash out at his prophet, but instead speaks to him in a whisper and he reminds him he is not alone. There are in fact seven thousand prophets who have not bowed to Baal and God’s plans have not been thwarted. Even so, we see a disturbed prophet who, until the Lord takes him to heaven in a chariot of fire, seems to only reluctantly and begrudgingly listen to his God (2 Kings 2). 

 

Grace to Remember 

So why do I identify with this prophet? Perhaps you can relate: I often allow my circumstances to be much larger than my God. This leads to a forgetfulness of God’s prior work and a “woe is me” mentality. My fear leads to a forgetfulness that I am ashamed to admit. So how can we combat such deformation? 

What is your pace in life? Do you ever find it fascinating that the first thing God has this weary prophet do is eat and sleep? I know that my greatest vulnerability to deforming practices is when I am tired, hungry, and alone. God treats each of these in his interaction with Elijah. Reflect on the rhythms you are setting. Are they for your flourishing? 

Who or what are you paying attention to? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “The devil doesn’t fill us with hatred for God, but with forgetfulness of God.” Are there ways you live like God is absent? What are some practical reminders and rhythms to keep you mindful of God?  

I believe that today the prophet Elijah is able to look upon the face of his Savior despite his previous desire to cover his face before the glory of God. What a patient God we worship! I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my spiritual amnesia, that even the prophets of old had moments of weakness. But I take even greater comfort in knowing that we worship a God who beckons us back to himself. Even in a soft whisper. 

Move and Dig

Move and Dig

Change is not the enemy but an opportunity

“Change is not the enemy but an opportunity.” My parents often shared these words when our family handled seasons of change. To be honest, those words often annoyed me. I don’t love change. I like stability. I like predictability. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that much of life involves change whether we want it or not. We age, we move, we change jobs, we change schools. There are all sorts of changes we must undergo. 

Despite my lack of love for change, it has still been a theme of the last 15 years of my life. In the last decade and a half, I have lived in 6 different cities, 4 different states, and I am pretty sure I have had to change which room I live in about 15 times. I have had to get used to adapting because this has been a season of constant transition. Though I hope the next decade brings more stability, I do believe that change is one of God’s favorite classrooms. 

 

Change in the life of Isaac

In Scripture, we are shown several characters who had to adapt to changes, foreseen and unforeseen. I will never forget a Dallas Seminary chapel message from Genesis 26 on the patriarch Isaac’s encounter with undesired change. Isaac was the son given to Abraham and Sarah in their old age as the beginning of God’s promised fulfillment to give Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars. God promised to bless these descendants with a great land and to use them to bless the nations. But in this passage we see obstacles that seemingly threaten the fulfillment of such promises. 

At this stage in Isaac’s life, he had been living in the town of Gerar because of a famine. Because of God’s blessing upon Isaac, he was becoming too powerful for the comfort of those around him, therefore, Abimelech, king of the Philistines, asked Isaac to leave Gerar and find safety somewhere else. So Isaac agrees to this unexpected transition. See what transpires next: 

Then Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found a well of spring water there. But the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen and said, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek because they argued with him. Then they dug another well and quarreled over that one also, so he named it Sitnah. He moved from there and dug another, and they did not quarrel over it. He named it Rehoboth and said, “For now the Lord has made space for us, and we will be fruitful in the land” (Genesis 26:19-22).

At first glance this is not exactly what I would call a gripping narrative, but our chapel speaker opened my eyes to the beauty of this passage. In the passage prior, God confirmed with Isaac the oath he made with his father Abraham and said “Live in the land that I tell you about; stay in this land as an alien, and I will be with you and bless you. For I will give all these lands to you and your offspring…I will give your offspring all these lands, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring” (26:2-4). If I was Isaac and had just received this promise from God and now these herdsmen are telling me I cannot use the wells my family dug, I would probably give some pushback, both to the herdsmen and to God. But what do we see Isaac do? “He moves and digs, he moves and digs, he moves and digs.” This was the refrain our chapel speaker repeated again and again during that chapel message. “He moves and digs.” Isaac did not wallow in self-pity. He didn’t attack these herdsmen, he kept moving and he kept digging. 

 

Stewarding change

Amid all of my own transitions I have done a lot of moving, but I have not always done a lot of digging. I have seen change more as an enemy than an opportunity for further obedience. I have thought, “Lord, until you bring me to a place where I can settle, I am not going to make an effort to establish relationships or seek the flourishing of this temporary pit stop.” I have often seen change as something to resent, not steward. 

Did you note that the passage referred to the well Isaac dug as a “spring of water”? Springs of water were often a rare find in the valleys. In the time before running water, wells did not just mean refreshment, they meant life. Even though Isaac did not partake for long of the life which that well produced, I imagine those wells led to the flourishing of many who came after. 

Eventually God allows Isaac to settle at the well of Rehoboth, which is the Hebrew word for “open spaces.” I love that! And isn’t that what we all want? A place to live, rest, and thrive. If only that was our common reality in this fallen world. Instead, life more often reflects the name of the other two wells: “argument” and “hostility.” 

Change in my life has often included arguing with God. I think I know what I need better than he does, so I dig my heels in and refuse to move, fighting for control. In other seasons, I have faced hostility from those around me and could not move fast enough, but the Lord has called me to keep digging and serving those who made life difficult. I wouldn’t mind changing so much if I could have the exact timing, outcomes, and environments I want. But change does not often work that way. I cannot control every aspect of life, but I can steward the change he allows. 

 

Move and dig

I don’t know where God has you right now. I don’t know what seasons of change you are presently experiencing. Maybe it’s a new job, maybe a new marriage, or a new child. Perhaps your change involves loss; the loss of a job, a dream, a loved one. Now you are adjusting to a life that comes with a great void. There may be “hostility” at work or in your neighborhood that is forcing a change like it did for Isaac. 

Whatever the source of your change, I admonish you to keep moving and keep digging.  I challenge you to think about what your digging might mean for those around you. Maybe you are about to leave your job, but you have some final responsibilities to conclude. Instead of coasting to the finish line, consider how your good work might lead to the flourishing of the one who will take your place. 

Maybe you are a college student and you only plan to live where you are for a few years until you graduate. What are ways you can bless your neighborhood or apartment complex in ways that will shape it years after you are gone? Who knows what life-giving qualities could stem from your faithfulness in that season of stewardship! I have learned that if my contentment in life is dependent upon seeing the fruit of all of my hard work, I will end up living a life of discontentment. But I pray that on that day when God brings us to the land of “open spaces” God will allow us to look back and see the springs of water that came from all our hard digging. 

Brother and sister, keep moving and keep digging. 

Majoring on the Minors

Majoring on the Minors

The Bible is the most read book in the history of mankind and in 2 Timothy we are told that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Note that it said ALL Scripture. It is not hard for us to see the profitability of the gospels, the usefulness of the epistles, and the equipping that comes from books like Proverbs. But when we come to the middle of the Scriptures we come to what are likely the least understood and most skipped words ever written. Yes, I am talking about the prophets and especially the minor prophets. Though the word “minor” is in reference to the length of the books, I think it is easy to see these books as having minor relevance for our lives. 

They have weird names, confusing and sometimes even disturbing imagery, and at face value we struggle to see their relevance to modern-day life. So why even try to read and understand these strange books? When we treat the minor prophets as of minor importance, we forfeit much wisdom and beauty. And though not an exhaustive list, I want to look at three of the prophets and the message that reoccurs throughout the rest. 

 

God’s Justice in Nahum

One of the most repeated questions in the Bible is “how long, O Lord?” and perhaps you have joined in that cry. We do not have to look hard to find a world saturated with sin and suffering. Any time we hear the news there are examples of war, disaster, abuse, etc. If we worship a just God, “how long” will he seemingly do nothing about these headlines? The prophets do not give us a timeline, but they reveal to us the character of a God who takes into account the sins of his people and the sins against his people. 

The book of Nahum’s focus is the city of Nineveh in the nation of Assyria, which was used by God as an instrument of discipline against Israel for their rebellion against him. Though an instrument of God, Nineveh was not innocent of sin in their treatment of the Jews. In response to the wickedness of Nineveh we are told “The Lord is slow to anger but great in power; the Lord will never leave the guilty unpunished” (Nahum 1:3). This passage references God’s self-description of himself from the book of Exodus, but with slight differences. Hundreds of years prior, the Lord revealed himself to Moses as “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Exodus 34). 

So why does Nahum focus on God’s power and justice instead of his love? This is because God’s power and justice are not distinct from his love, they are aspects of it. If we worshiped a God who did not take evil and injustice into account, he would not be a God worth worshiping. If God was a capricious God who angrily annihilates his enemies, we would be hopeless. The prophet Nahum helps us see a God who perfectly holds justice and grace in balance, and therefore we have hope. 

 

God’s Sovereignty in Habakkuk

Another question we have likely asked of God is “are you there? If you are, do you care?” Amidst our suffering we like to have an understanding of the reason for the pain we experience. We want a diagnosis so we can get a prognosis. Sometimes the answer is not always that clear. Sometimes when we get an answer it’s not the answer we expected or wanted. In these moments we are tempted to doubt that the Lord truly has things under control. 

The prophet Habakkuk was weary of seeing the people of God engage in outright rebellion against their God, and he wants to know if God is going to hold them accountable. God’s response: “I am going to send Babylon as my tool of judgment.” Initially Habakkuk becomes even more enraged with this solution. Babylon? They are even more wicked than Israel! The Lord responds to the prophets’ understandable confusion with: “But the righteous will live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Note that he does not say the righteous will live by knowing the time, place, and purpose of all things. No, he says they will live by faith. God will use Babylon to overthrow Judah but he will also hold Babylon accountable. 

As the book comes to a conclusion, we find the prophet no longer lashing out at God but instead we see a resolute dependance: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there is no fruit on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though the flocks disappear from the pen and there are no herds in the stalls, yet I will celebrate in the Lord; I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17-18). We have and will continue to see such times when there is “no fruit on the vine,” but when we look to the prophets we have the invitation to join in a long history of prayers of trust that come from confused and hurting hearts that find their peace in an all powerful, victorious God. 

 

God’s Faithfulness in Micah

At other times, we are so humbled by the glory of God that we ask “how could God still want to do anything with a sinner like me?” Many have asked a similar question; upon approaching the throne room of God in a vision, Isaiah said “Woe is me for I am ruined because I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). After seeing a miracle of Jesus, the disciple Peter said to him “Go away from me, because I’m a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). How could God’s faithfulness endure my unfaithfulness? 

In the book of Micah we are shown a holy God who appears in an unholy land and as a result, “The mountains will melt beneath him and the valleys will split apart, like wax near a fire, like water cascading down a mountainside.” (Micah 1:4). But in the “last days” it says that instead of a melting mountain, God will draw to himself those from many nations who will come to the mountain of the Lord where “He will teach us about his ways so we may walk in his paths” (Micah 4:2). And what are the ways of God? They are what God commands of his own people: “to act justly, to love faithfulness and to walk humbly with your God.” Throughout the prophets we see God enact perfect justice while maintaining faithfulness to his people. Therefore, we can come humbly to God because he “will vanquish our iniquities” and “will show loyalty to Jacob and faithful love to Abraham, as you swore to our ancestors from days long ago” (Micah 7:20). God has every right to hand us over to our sin but his faithful love overwhelms our rebellion. 

 

God’s Justice, Sovereignty and Faithfulness Is For Us, Too

The prophets are difficult to understand, there is no getting around that, but that does not mean we should avoid digging for the gold that each book contains. We forfeit too much hope and comfort if we do. Each of the prophets reveal a God who has ordered history for his glory and deserves our reverence. I pray that as we enter this new year, intentional time spent in study of the prophets will lead to new and greater insights into the character of our great God. Let us not neglect the hope and awe that the prophets beckon us to.