Starting the Passover Over

Please read 2 Chronicles 30:1-31:1 in your Bible.

Starting Over (1)Image by James Best, (C) 2020,https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020

“A story surfaced from Operation Desert Storm about a soldier who got a ‘Dear John’ letter from his girl; she wrote that they were through. Worse than that, she was getting married to someone else! Adding insult to injury, she wrote, ‘Will you please return my favorite photograph of myself? I need it for my engagement picture in the paper.’

“The poor guy was devastated but not defeated. From every corner of the camp, soldiers handed over extra photos of their girlfriends. There were hundreds of photos. The jilted soldier put all the photos in a shoe box and mailed it home with a note. ‘Please find your picture,’ he wrote, ‘For the life of me, I can’t remember exactly which one you were!!’”

How’s that for making the best of a bad situation?  When we think about the Passover, that’s a time when God turned evil into good. And as we’ve seen, at the center of the Passover is the lamb.  In the centuries that would follow the first Passover, lambs had died for the sins of the nation.

“Inside the walls of the Temple, two lambs died every day (Exodus 28:29-31), one at 9 a.m. and the other at 3 p.m. It had been a sacrifice marked by blood, for the literal meaning of ‘sacrifice’ in Hebrew is, ‘to slit the throat.’

In addition to the twice-a-day sacrifice of lambs, there would have been countless lambs dying on the major Jewish holidays.”  (Andy Cook, Lifeway.com)

So our identification of Jesus as the Passover Lamb is an important, even essential biblical image.

Rediscovering the Passover revived the devotion of God’s people.

  1. A quick history lesson.

Hezekiah served as king over Judah from 715-686 BC.  His reign ended 100 years before the Babylonians conquered Judah.  2 Chronicles 29:1-2 tells us he took the throne at age 20 and ruled for 29 years.  He had not been on the throne for a month when he reopened the temple (29:3).  He brought back the priests and their assistants, the Levites, whom he commanded to purify the temple.

The temple was closed because King Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father, was an idolater and a very bad king.  He had ordered the temple’s furnishings removed and its doors shuttered (2 Chronicles 28:24-25).

Finally, after purifications, consecrations, and preparations, worship in the temple was restored (29:35).  The Passover would be the first sacred day to be observed in the reopened temple

  1. What we can learn from it.

Worship is supposed to be a unifying act. (30:1, 5-11)  Hezekiah invited all the tribes of Israel, even though the northern 10 tribes had already been conquered by the Assyrians and dispersed. Hezekiah may have hoped the unification of the tribes in worship would have political benefits too.  Having a secondary motive in no way diminishes Hezekiah’s loyalty to God or what was accomplished in this Passover observance.

We should be eager to worship. (30:2-4)  God commanded the Passover be observed on the 14th day of the first month. However, they did not have things ready at that time (the priests were not ready and not enough people had returned to Jerusalem).  Rather than wait until next year, they agreed to hold the Passover in the second month.

God directed them to worship. (30:12)  THE HAND OF GOD gave them UNITY OF MIND, FOLLOWING THE WORD OF GOD.  Unity of mind is something to which all church folk should aspire, and it will only come as we jointly follow Jesus, the Word of God.

Worship required them to purify themselves according to the will of God. (30:13-17)  Offerings were made in accordance with the Law and almost everyone complied with ritual purity.  The response of the people was so enthusiastic, it made the priests and Levites feel ASHAMED at their relative apathy.

Worship brought healing. (30:18-20)  Not everyone kept the Law as they should.  Some of the Israelites from the north (30:11) came late and did not undergo the ritual purification. Hezekiah offered a wonderful prayer for their forgiveness and God HEALED THE PEOPLE.  This shows us that sometimes ritual needs to be set aside to meet people where they are.  After all, the ritual was made for the people, not the other way around.  A sincere heart is a more important qualification for worship than ritual purity.

Worship requires follow-through into daily living. (30:21-22, 31:1)  Those who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover followed up with the week-long observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread too.  They worshiped the Lord every day of that week. When the time of worship ended and they returned home, they continued the program to get rid of idolatry.

Worship ought to be something we enjoy and want to do. (30:23-27)  THE WHOLE ASSEMBLY (23), THE ENTIRE ASSEMBLY (25) found such joy in their worship they wanted to continue it another week!  There was nothing in the Law to require or even advise this; their decision to stay together was entirely voluntary.  Part of their joy was the knowledge that God was pleased with their worship (27).  King Solomon is mentioned here, the builder of the temple.  Hezekiah, the temple rebuilder, is compared with Solomon.

Rediscovering the Passover revived the devotion of God’s people.

In 1998 Ray Boltz recorded a song entitled “Watch the Lamb.”  It recounts the story of Simon of Cyrene, who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross to Golgotha.  Here are the lyrics of the latter half of the song:

At first I tried to resist him then his hand reached for his sword.

So I knelt and took the cross from the Lord

I placed it on my shoulder and started down the street

The blood that he’d been shedding was running down my cheek.

 

They led us to Golgotha.  They drove nails deep in His feet and hands.

And yet upon the cross I heard Him pray, “Father, forgive them.”

Oh, never had I seen such love in any other eyes.

“Into Thy hands I commit My spirit.” He prayed, and then He died.

 

I stood for what seemed like years.  I’d lost all sense of time

Until I felt two tiny hands holding tight to mine.

My children stood there weeping.  I heard the oldest say

“Father, please forgive us.  The lamb ran away.”

 

“Daddy, Daddy, what did we see here?

There’s so much that we don’t understand.”

So I took them in my arms, and we turned and faced the cross

And then I said, “Dear children, Watch The Lamb.”

(Ray Boltz, 1998, Gaither Music)

 

RESOURCES:

Zondervan Bible Commentary,

1 & 2 Chronicles, J. Kier Howard

The Daily Study Bible Series,

I & II Chronicles, J. G. McConville.

Andy Cook at https://www.lifeway.com/en/articles/sermon-easter-passover-lamb-jesus

http://www.higherpraise.com/lyrics/superduper/b/ray_boltz/watch_the_lamb.html

Traveling Light

Pleas read Exodus 12:1-30 in your Bible.

Meals on Wheels (1)Image by James Best, (C) 2020,

https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020

Study people at an airport or bus terminal and you can quickly recognize overpackers.  They have multiple bags, all of which are bulging.  We all have stories to tell about ourselves and family.

I learned this week the psychology behind overpacking.  The emotion that drives it is fear.  The overpacker is generally not an experienced traveler, so they have an understandable fear of being in an unfamiliar place and not having access to something they need.

Overpacking is a coping mechanism that attempts to deal with fear by over-preparing.   There are all kinds of people on the internet with packing advice, but it seems to me the place to start is managing that fear.

One way to pack appropriately is to deal with the facts and keep them at the forefront.  How long will you be gone?  Where are you going?  What will the weather be?

Then make a list of items that are absolutely necessary.  Set them out on your bed around your bag, and eliminate everything that is not obviously needed.  If it’s there because there’s a remote possibility it’ll be needed, you’re packing out of fear.

Have your bags packed the day before leaving.  Packing at the last minute increases your fear and makes you more likely to overpack.

As we make our way through life, we are confronted by similar decisions.  Fear will counsel us to take matters into our own hands, to trust to our own resources instead of trusting in God. Faith makes room for God in our plans, trusting Him to provide our needs.

The Passover teaches us to be ready to promptly follow God.

  1. God commanded them to observe the Passover (1-13).

The ritual was to have a hurried feeling to it.  Verse eleven  describes how it was to be eaten.

“THIS IS HOW YOU ARE TO EAT IT: WITH YOUR CLOAK TUCKED INTO YOUR BELT, YOUR SANDALS ON YOUR FEET AND YOUR STAFF IN YOUR HAND.  EAT IT IN HASTE; IT IS THE LORD’S PASSOVER.”

Why did God command this?  I can speculate two reasons.  First, to accurately re-create the Passover event.  As it happened in Exodus 12, the people of Israel were to be ready to leave Egypt.

Second, to create a feeling of urgency about our response to God.  Other Scripture support this interpretation.

Psalm 95:7-8 = TODAY, IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS…

2 Corinthians 6:2 = I TELL YOU, NOW IS THE TIME OF GOD’S FAVOR.  NOW IS THE DAY OF SALVATION.

An important symbol in the thing was the lamb.  From Genesis to Revelation, a lamb is a symbol of sacrifice that is necessary to make peace with God.  The Law of God states that sin causes death.  The only way to be restored to life is through the shedding of blood, the pouring out of a life given in exchange for ours.  In the Old Testament, a lamb served that substitutionary function, but the sacrifice had to be repeated year after year.  In the New Testament, Jesus death saved us – one act of sacrifice, effective for all time.

When Jesus comes again, a “pass-over” of greater magnitude will take place.  Those who have received Him by faith will pass over from death to life.

  1. God carried out the plague on the Firstborn (29-30).

This plague demonstrated God’s justice. The Egyptians tried to kill the sons of Israel (see Exodus 1:15-22).  Justice was served when they lost their firstborn and in Pharaoh’s case, a son (11:5).  The punishment matched the crime.

God acted justly in a second aspect: Egypt’s sins against God’s people were committed by their exercise of free will choosing sin.  With each of the preceding plagues, Pharaoh was given the choice of setting Israel free.  (As we read in Exodus 7:14-11:10, the preceding plagues included blood in the Nile, frogs, gnats, flies, livestock, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness.

God Himself explained the purpose of the plagues: to bring glory to God.  In Exodus 11:9-10 we read, THE LORD HAD SAID TO MOSES, “Pharaoh WILL REFUSE TO LISTEN TO YOU – SO THAT MY WONDERS MAY BE MULTIPLIED IN EGYPT.”  MOSES AND AARON PERFORMED ALL THESE WONDERS BEFORE PHARAOH, BUT THE LORD HARDENED PHARAOH’S HEART, AND HE WOULD NOT LET GO OF HIS COUNTRY.  In Exodus  14:4 it is written, “AND I WILL HARDEN PHARAOH’S HEART, AND HE WILL PURSUE THEM.  BUT I WILL GAIN GLORY FOR MYSELF THROUGH PARAOH AND ALL HIS ARMY, AND THE EGYPTIANS WILL KNOW THAT I AM THE LORD.”

On the first Passover, only those under the lamb’s blood were saved.  Otherwise, all the firstborn children died, from the household of mighty Pharaoh to the child of the lowliest prisoner.  Even the firstborn among the livestock died.  This was a blow against Egypt’s livelihood. This plague finally broke the pride and arrogant disbelief of Pharaoh, and, as predicted, God’s people were free at last.

This account of the Passover is a warning against ignoring God until it is too late.  We have all seen people reject God until their life is broken down by adversity until nothing remains standing between them and God.

This is precisely what happened to Pharaoh through the whole process of these plagues.  Each new plague was designed to wear down his resistance, to strike down the false gods and the excuses he’d made.

We’re told repeatedly that God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart.  Why was this necessary?

One, as we noted earlier, God’s purpose is, as always, to make Himself known to people – for their good.  If the thing is over too quickly – people will not experience God’s power in a convincing way.

Two, as a demonstration of the lengths to which God is will go in order to save His people.

Three, at no time did God violate Pharaoh’s free will.  He chose stubbornness, pride and disbelief at the beginning and remained committed to them until the end.

The Passover teaches us to be ready to promptly follow God.

      One way to deal with an over-packer is to buy them a suitcase that is shaped like two slices of bread.  Then it will be OK if it is “jam-packed.”

A man stormed into his lawyer’s office with a suitcase.  “I want to sue!” he told his lawyer.

“What seems to be the problem?” the attorney asked.

“I bought this suitcase for my wife and even though she may have overpacked it, this wheel broke off!  The thing has got a lifetime guarantee, the company refuses to replace it!  I will sue!”

The lawyer looked the baggage over and shook his head and said, “I don’t think your case will stand up in court.”

There are important lessons to be learned here.  In both Old and New Testaments, the Passover Lamb is God’s way of bringing life out of death.  It was the cure for the penalty for sin, which is death.  Today is always God’s day.  Now is the time to be saved.  The present opportunity may be our last, so act NOW.

 

RESOURCES:

Message #934

Why Lefty Killed Hefty

Please read Judges 3:12-30 in your Bible.

Why Lefty Killed Hefty (1)Image by James Best, (C) 2020, https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020

I owe the outline and very clever title to Alan Carr’s sermon, retrieved from the internet address listed in the resource section below.

We need a Deliverer and we need to deliver ourselves from slavery to sin.

      In 2006, a Methodist church in the city of Dudley, England, was charged a fee to put a cross on their new building.  The law required a fee for all outside advertisements.  It was decided that the cross was not merely decorative, but that it was an advertisement for Christianity.

When you think about it, the fee was appropriate.  The cross has a distinctive message; we need to be delivered.  That is why Jesus gave Himself on the cross to be our Passover Lamb.

During the 400 years covered in the book of Judges, the nation of Israel followed a predictable pattern. They would serve God faithfully while they followed the strong leadership of a judge. When the judge died, they turned to the worship of pagan gods. The Lord sent His judgment upon them by allowing Israel to be oppressed by their enemies. After a time of suffering, Israel would repent and God would raise up a deliverer to set them free.

We see this pattern of disobedience, discipline, and deliverance in the account before us and in our own lives. Our problem is not enemy nations, but our own nature, aka, “the flesh.”  We are our own worst enemy.

  1. ISRAEL’S DISTRESS (v. 12-14)

Their foes (vs. 12-13) were the Moabites, Ammonites & Amalekites.  These peoples were “cousins” of a sort, peoples descended from relatives of the Patriarchs.  They were the previous occupants of the land God promised to Israel.  They were supposed to have been driven from the land, but Israel did not finish the job.

Their Fights (v. 13) = These nations worshiped false gods and were constantly attacking, hindering and seeking to enslave the Israelites.

Their Failures (v. 13) = King Eglon established his headquarters in Jericho, the first city conquered by Israel when they entered the Promised Land, Joshua 6. To see their oppressors set up shop in a place where they once had enjoyed great military and spiritual victory must’ve been hard.

Their Foolishness (v. 14) = Because Israel failed to honor the will of God, they became the servants of Eglon.  This condition lasted 18 years!

  1. ISRAEL’S DELIVERER (v. 15-26).

Ehud’s Problem (v. 15) = Ehud was from the tribe of Benjamin, whose land included the area around Jericho. They would’ve suffered the most under Eglon’s reign.  Eglon was “a left-handed man.”  This may simply mean that he favored his left hand (40% of people do).  But Hebrew word literally means that he was “bound in the right hand,” which may imply Ehud’s right hand/arm was crippled.  Now you know who “Lefty” is!  This would seem like a disqualification for a would-be deliverer, but God used it as an asset.

Ehud’s Plan is laid out in verses fifteen through nineteen.  The people of Israel had to pay tribute to Eglon.  On this day, they sent their tribute with Ehud.

Ehud made for himself a double-edged dagger some 14 inches long. He strapped this dagger to his right thigh, under his cloak, and went to take the tribute money to the king.  If his right hand was obviously crippled (as it is depicted in our illustration), the guards wouldn’t have expected trouble and didn’t search him

In v. 17, Eglon is described as A VERY FAT MAN, which may symbolize his material prosperity, achieved by exacting tribute from the nearby tribes. Now you know who “Hefty” is!

Ehud’s performance or his execution of the plan is described in v. 20-26.  After delivering the money, the delegation departed, but Ehud came back and told Eglon that he had a secret message for him. The king was eager to hear some great secret, dismissed his servants.

Ehud told the king that he had a message from God. Ehud drew his dagger and thrust it into Eglon’s body. The blade sunk so deep into that the fat closed around the handle and Ehud could not retrieve it.  You could say King Eglon “got the point” of the message God empowered Ehud to deliver.

Ehud locked the doors to the rooftop room and made his escape. By the time Eglon’s servants overcame their embarrassment and found a key, the king was dead and Ehud was long gone.

Some of you read this story and think, “TMI!”  (Really – I left out the bathroom part!)  The gory details illustrate the nature of our battle against sin: we are going to have to deal it a death blow to enjoy victory.

III. ISRAEL’S DELIVRANCE (v. 27-30).

Israel’s deliverance required follow-through (v. 27-28).  Ehud knew that just killing the king would not be enough to free his people.  However, it would create disorder and an opportunity to strike.

Ehud had taken the first step toward victory. The second step was for the people to follow Ehud’s leadership. When Ehud returned, he sounded a ram’s horn. Trumpets were sounded for several reasons in Israel, but in this case it was to call the people to war.  They did follow Ehud and they achieved a great victory.

Israel’s deliverance involved fighting (v. 28b-29).  First, they utilized good military strategy.  In blockading the crossing of the Jordan, Israel cut off the avenues of escape and reinforcement.  They killed about 10,000 men. These were VIGOROUS AND STRONG MEN – real soldiers. God gave them victory!

Second, they did the whole job – no half-measures.  NOT A MAN ESCAPED = Israel did not back off until they had dealt with all the enemy soldiers in their country.

Israel’s deliverance resulted in peace (v. 30).  Unlike other judges, this text does not tell us the Spirit came upon Ehud or that he became a judge over Israel.  This may imply Ehud acted on his own and God used his initiative.  On the other hand (the left one?) Ehud’s actions resulted in the longest period of peace in the book of Judges (80 years).

We need a Deliverer and we need to deliver ourselves from slavery to sin.

      By way of illustration, Israel’s victory teaches us about our own battles with sin and the flesh.  God has given us everything we need to walk in victory. He has given us His Word, His Spirit, prayer and His presence in our lives.

We are lot like Ehud. We are all unlikely conquerors. Also like Ehud, we can have victory. We need a deliverer, but we also need to act ruthlessly to kill the sin in us.

SOURCES:

the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Madvig.

https://www.sermonnotebook.org/judges/Judges%2002%20-%20Judges%203_12-30.htm

Message #1450

Fearfully and Wonderfully

Please read Psalm 139:13-16 in your go-to version of the Holy Bible.

Sanctity of Human Life_finalImage by James Best, (C) 2020, https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020

On January 13, 1984, President Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation designating January 22 as the first National Sanctity of Human Life Day. (January 22, 1973, was the day the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion-on-demand in all 50 states.) People across the United States use the day to celebrate God’s gift of life, commemorate the many lives lost to abortion, and commit themselves to protecting human life.

https://www.lifemattersww.org/CHURCHES/Sanctity-of-Human-Life-Sunday

On Dec. 10, 2019, our South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem issued an Executive Proclamation, designating January, 2020 as “Sanctity of Human Life Month.”  I’ve read it and believe it is a well-written proclamation.

Personally, I have dear friends who are committed Christians on both side of the issue of abortion-on-demand and am able to love then all and listen to lots of viewpoints.  We are not here to debate abortion-on-demand, capital punishment, or any other single aspect of a pro-life perspective.  Instead, it is our task this morning to agree on the single most important basis of civilized life: the belief that all human life is sacred.  If we can’t all agree on that statement, we have no basis for trust and relationship, no basis for organizing in civilized ways.  Regardless of race, religion, or other beliefs, all members of the human family must recognize the right of all humans to live.  All other rights and freedoms begin with this essential principle.

In addition to that, let all Christians agree that the sacredness of human life is a principle affirmed everywhere in Scripture: from the creation of human life in Genesis to the redemption of human life in Revelation, God commands us to respect human life above all other parts of creation.

CONTEXT: Psalm 136 is King David’s celebration of God who knows us completely, yet loves us unconditionally.  Verses 13-16 are our focus this morning.  Here we find David saying God knows us intimately because He made us.  And He makes only good things.  In these verses we find a beautiful confirmation of the principle of the sacredness of human life.

Because we are God’s creation, human life is sacred.

  1. Human life is sacred because God is our Creator. (13)

Every verse in this section affirms this teaching. However, verses thirteen through sixteen direct our attention to the INMOST part of our BEING, the spiritual/emotional/intellectual facets of our personality.

The image of being KNIT by God expresses a beautiful sentiment.  A similar statement is made to the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 1:5; The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

Yet this is much more than sentiment.  God has plans for each life and assigns purposes to our days

  1. Human life is sacred because we are fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image and likeness. (14)

The words FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY express our awe at the creative power of God. Though the psalm applies to all human beings, David wrote it from a very individual perspective.  He praised God out of gratitude for all God had done for him.  So great was David’s gratitude that he wrote ALL God’s WORKS ARE WONDERFUL.  All of creation prompts praise to the Creator.

This passage does not mention the Image of God, but it is so integral to our understanding of humanity and in the background of these affirmations, we must mention it here.  Found in Genesis 1:27, this phrase is not precisely defined in Scripture.  But it is clearly something(s) that distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation and elevates us above it.

  1. Human life is sacred because God created each of us according to His plan. (15-16)

A developing child is invisible to the naked human eye, but fully known to God.  The words, MY FRAME literally means “my bone.” David used respectful metaphors for the womb: SECRET PLACE and DEPTHS OF THE EARTH.

In fact, God knows us so well He has plans for our future even before our birth.  YOUR BOOK probably refers to the Book of Life, a common Bible word picture of God’s list of His faithful people; those who will be saved.

God has a general plan and specific plans for every person.  In general, God wants every person to be saved and every person to do good works.  2 Peter 3:9 names God’s will for universal salvation: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  Ephesians 2:10 proves God’s plan for universal good works. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.  The facts that not all people are going to be saved and not all people are going to do good works is evidence of the fact that all of have free will.  God delegates a portion of His authority to us, allowing each to choose to love or reject Him.

God has specific purposes for each of our lives.  It is the task of a maturing believer to discover God’s will and obey it.

Because we are God’s creation, human life is sacred.

      Any culture that refuses to recognize all human life as sacred fails the first and most important test of a civilized society.  We have no basis for organizing in a productive way apart from this first commitment to life.

Let’s make this truth more personal, as David did when he wrote this song of praise.  God has a purpose (several) for your life.  It is not yours to waste on sin and selfishness.

We have an amazing capacity to waste time.  We repeat mistakes until they become bad habits.  We give in to bad habits until they become character flaws.  Moments stretch into days and days become years before we turn around.  Life is too precious to waste.  One way we can honor the sacredness of human life is not to waste a moment of our own.

 

RESOURCES:

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, Willem A. VanGemeren.

If God is Your Co-Pilot…

…You’re Sitting in the Wrong Chair!

Please read Proverbs 3:5-6 in your Bible.

God's Guidance_v04(Image by James Best, (C) 2019, https://www.behance.net/gallery/82544295/Sermon-Illustrations-2019.)

CONTEXT:  This third chapter of Proverbs is an example of the content of the book.  It presents reasons and means to live an intelligent life based on the faith conviction that God is real and He rewards those who earnestly seek him.  Chapter three is a father admonishing his son to make the pursuit of wisdom a lifelong practice.  He lists many benefits to wise living to encourage this practice.  In the middle of the chapter we find two verses that put in focus how divine will and human will are to work together.

The way the world works is a combination of providence and prudence.

  1. Providence is God’s will deciding what happens.

In circumstances from mundane to miraculous, the Bible teaches that God sets a path before us.  He is not distant, but is intimately involved in our lives, knowing our hearts (Psalm 44:21), the number of hairs on our heads (Luke 12:7), and our future (John 3:20).

God is also at work in the great movements of human history, directing the affairs of nations.  In Proverbs 21:1, God directs the heart of the king like men direct the channel of a river.

Deism is the mistaken notion that God created everything then left it to run on its own.  It is another example of vain philosophies that attempt to take God out of the picture.  Let’s be clear: any teaching that limits the power of God or gives any being equality with God is a false teaching.

  1. Prudence is our own will deciding what happens.

“Prudence” is defined as self-discipline achieved by the use of reason.  It can be emblematic of a notion central to our culture that a person is only limited by their imagination and determination; any of us can become anything we want.

The Bible does command self-control (Titus 2:12) and includes it as one of the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Superficially, self-control and self-determination look similar but self-control is something achieved with God’s grace.  Self-determination is just a subtle way of excluding God from the details of everyday life.

Self-determination is one extreme.  The opposite end of the spectrum might be called “determinism.”  The Bible’s commands would not be necessary nor could we be held responsible for our choice if all our choices were being made for us.  Divine determinism may sound religiously correct, but it is not a biblical doctrine.

  1. The Bible’s witness is more complicated: it holds both providence and prudence in tension.

Herein is the difficulty: our human nature wants to simplify and to eliminate tension.  To be faithful to the Scriptures, we must hold onto both providence and prudence.  Let’s use Proverbs 3:5-6 as an example.

Proverbs 3:5-6 tell us prudence is a virtue when it is God-centered, not reliant on reason or any human power.  There are three expressions that develop this teaching.

First, TRUST IN THE LORD WITH ALL YOUR HEART.  In the Bible, the HEART is the center of a person’s inner life, both intellect and emotions.

Second, LEAN NOT ON YOUR OWN UNDERSTANDING.  By faith we appreciate that God offers unlimited resources; success is more likely as we trust in Him.

Third, IN ALL YOUR WAYS ACKNOWLEDGE (recognize) HIM.  Give God the glory; draw attention to Him, not yourself.

Providence is in evidence here in form of the promised reward: HE WILL MAKE YOUR PATHS STRAIGHT or “will direct your paths.”  In life and in Proverbs, the straight path is the best.  In Proverbs, the “crooked path” is a word picture of a life of folly and sin.  It ends in death (Proverbs 9:18).

Theologically, we understand that human free will is a delegation of the authority of God.  Rather than choose everything for us, God allows us to make our own choices and to experience the consequences of those choices.  God helps believers to make the right choices by supplying His word, the Holy Spirit, and the Church.  He exerts His will bring us to circumstances and gives us experiences that also shape our decisions.  After we decide, God exerts His will to bring about positive or negative consequences to teach us and to bring about His will.

Our life with God is not a matter of divine will OR human will but the interplay of both.  All of this is to direct our attention to God, to rely on Him more fully and love Him more dearly.

In both the details and in the big picture, God is so powerful He does not rely on our meager powers, but out of love He chooses to make us His partners in bringing about His will.  In our daily living, we exercise prudence but put our trust in providence.  We live wisely and righteously, seeking God’s will and choosing to walk in His way.

 

RESOURCES:

Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, Proverbs, Tremper Longman III

Be Reasonable!

Please read Isaiah 1:15-20 in your Bible.

Be Reasonable_final (1)Author Gordon MacDonald provided some insight into the term repentance: “’Repentance’ is not basically a religious word. It comes from a culture where people were essentially nomadic and lived in a world with no maps or street signs. It’s easy to get lost walking through the desert. You become aware that the country side is strange. You finally say to yourself, I’m going in the wrong direction. That’s the first act of repentance. The second act of repentance is to go in an alternate direction. It implies that you not only do this but you admit it to your companions.” https://www.family-times.net/illustration/Repentance/200130/

My family will tell you I have a real dislike for turning around and going back the way I came.  This comes up especially on family trips where we’ve ended up going in an unintended direction.  I prefer moving forward so thoroughly that I will go out of my way and/or figure out an alternate route rather than go backwards.

That kind of stubbornness is deadly when it is manifest in one’s spiritual life.  Sin turns us around; it puts us on a course away from God.  When that happens we need to be quick to repent which involves doing an about-face and returning to God.

CONTEXT: God spoke through Isaiah to address the sin of His people Judah.  Verse four of this chapter sets the stage by utterly condemning the people of Judah for having turned their backs to God.  Isaiah has been empowered to tell them to turn to Him.

True repentance is required for godly living.  It is a paradox of faith that godly living is both something you do for God and something God does for you.

  1. Godly living is something you do for God. (vs. 15-17)

Be warned: God does not acknowledge the prayers of hypocrites. (v. 15)  It is human nature to want to be in control.  One place this desire is evidenced is in religion.  We hope to exercise control of God by putting in our time and expecting His blessing in return.  We fall into hypocrisy, legalism, and merely external religious acts.  Though we would never say so, we believe God ought to be grateful for what we give Him.

Historically, we see this cycle: the Lord gives humanity a revelation/does a new thing.  Then, over the centuries, we paint layers of formality over it until the original becomes difficult to recognize.

Even the Old Testament system of formal religion was not given to be observed merely outwardly.  The sacrifices were to be a means of approaching God to receive inner cleansing from sin.  But according to Isaiah, the people of Judah – if they made the sacrifices at all – did it outwardly without any inner commitment to God.  The sacrificed without repenting.

Their hands were FULL OF BLOOD in two ways identified in this chapter.  There is a reference to THE BLOOD OF BULLS AND LAMBS AND GOATS in verse eleven.  These were the animals they sacrificed in their legalistic/hypocritical pretense of worship.  Religion that is not spiritual as well as material is powerless to save anyone.

In verse eighteen it is written their SINS were LIKE SCARLET, RED AS CRIMSON, the colors of freshly-spilled blood.

In their practice of prayer, hands were raised to God, palms up, not folded as is our practice.  This, then, is a graphic image of blood-red palms being uplifted in prayer, an obvious act of gross hypocrisy.

As “bloody hands” need washing, we must sincerely repent. Verses fifteen to seventeen tell us to WASH AND MAKE YOURSELVES CLEAN.  This expression represents regret over our sins.  What have we done for which we ought to feel regret?  If nothing else, we ought to regret the consequences of our sins, which distance us from God, from one another, and have toxic effects on our health and circumstances.  Washing was required in the Law of Moses as a means of preparation for worship and for meals.  It was a big deal in their faith; the Pharisees faulted Jesus and His disciples for not washing in Mark 7:1 ff.

After regret, repentance requires us to turn away from sin and toward God.  As is often the case in the prophets (i.e., Hosea 6:6-10, Amos 5:1-5; Micah 3:9 ff), turning toward God is revealed more in acts of justice than in conformity to the Law of Moses. Isaiah gives three examples of God-ward directions in life.

TAKE YOUR EVIL DEEDS OUT OF MY SIGHT!  The most complete repentance involves a hatred of the sin that we had committed.

STOP DOING WRONG, LEARN TO DO RIGHT!  We study the Bible to learn God’s moral code so we know what is right and what is wrong.

SEEK JUSTICE, ENCOURAGE THE OPPRESSED…

FATHERLESS… WIDOW.  Seeking JUSTICE requires actively looking for opportunities to come to the assistance of disadvantaged persons.

It takes humility to admit you are wrong and moral courage to ask for forgiveness: this is no less true in our relationship with God than in our relationships with one another.

Notice this section of Isaiah is full of verbs: WASH… TAKE… STOP… LEARN… SEEK… ENCOURAGE) so we need a reminder that we do these things as we are repenting.  We do not do these things in an attempt to earn God’s favor, but out of love and gratitude.

  1. Godly living is also something God does for you. (vs. 18-20)

Use your head – reason is a path to godliness. (18)  There are several court room expressions used in this passage.  The word picture is that of Judah being on trial for her sins.  REASON is supposed to be the means of reaching just decisions in court.

Rely on God to forgive your sin and cleanse you completely.  (18)  Don’t make the mistake of allowing regret to lead you into attempting to make amends.

The contrast of colors conveys the completeness of God’s forgiveness.  SCARLET to WHITE AS SNOW is the same language used in Psalm 51:7.  CRIMSON to WOOL (white).  The red dye used at that time was absolutely colorfast, so the prophet is saying that God can make white what is humanly impossible.

Obedience is required on our end of partnership with God. (19-20)  This passage holds each person responsible for their outcome.  We cannot blame God for our sins or their consequences.  If we, by faith, choose obedience, a full and abundant life is the outcome.  If we choose any way other than God’s, death is the outcome.

Blessings are promised to those who obey God. (19)  In this case, the blessing takes the form of a promise of a full belly: YOU WILL EAT THE BEST FROM THE LAND.  This has a symbolic side to it: it is not only materialistic, but is symbolic of spiritual and material prosperity.

Curses are threatened on those who RESIST God and REBEL against Him. (20)  In this case, the curse is the threat of a violent death: YOU WILL BE DEVOURED BY THE SWORD.  As with the blessing, this should be taken generally and symbolically but also seriously.  As Paul wrote in Romans 6:23, THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH.

This combination of blessings and curses are found frequently in Proverbs (2:21) and elsewhere in the OT.  They are positive and negative incentives to seek God and do right by Him.

These truths did not come from Isaiah; the LORD HAS SPOKEN. (20)  This assurance is one final incentive to obey, as the Lord’s warning is not to be taken lightly, nor are His promises.  He will do as He says.

2) Historically, we know that these curses did come to pass because the people of Judah refused to repent.

True repentance is required for godly living.

I’ve been reading a book entitled Extravagant Grace by Barbara R. Duguid.  It’s a summary of the teaching of John Newton – the pastor who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.”  Newton believed that a maturing believer took responsibility for his or her own sins, but was never paralyzed by guilt.  We can be encouraged to know that God’s grace is so powerful he can use even our sins to bring about increased spiritual maturity.  Specifically, he identified three virtues typical to a maturing believer’s life.

Humility – True humility is an accurate view of self.  People who ignore their guilt and people who obsess over it are both being self-centered & mistaken.

Tenderness – Seeing one’s self honestly allows one to see others in a true light and show mercy on their human weakness.  As Jesus taught in Matthew 7:3-4, tenderness is seeing the speck one’s own eye before fussing over the log in another’s.  In a word, not legalistic.

Spirituality – This virtue can be confused with being religious, but it is actually not putting one’s affections or trust in anything or anyone in this world.  Spirituality is a matter of focus.  Our focus should be on Jesus.

To the degree that these three things are true of any of us, we are receiving the spiritual maturity God wants of us.  Duguid’s point is that God’s grace is not going to be thwarted by our sin.  As Isaiah made plain, sin has serious consequences, but frustrating God’s plan is not among them.  This truth should cause us to both relax and be more vigilant at the same time.  In this life we continue to struggle against sin.  We can relax in the sense that there is no sin a believer can commit that will cause a loss of salvation.  We want to be more vigilant because we love the Lord and one another as we love ourselves and sin does cause a separation from those we love.  So we prefer the virtues of humility, kindness, and spirituality to all the vices the world has to offer.  Find happiness in being virtuous.

 

RESOURCES:

The Daily Study Bible Series, Isaiah, Vol. 1, John F. A. Sawyer

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 6, G. W. Grogan

Zondervan Bible Commentary, David F. Payne

The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Gleason L. Archer

Extravagant Grace by Barbara R. Duguid

Idol Smashers #9

bible battlers

“Idol Smashers” is a work of fiction set in the biblical era of the Judges.  Apart from persons mentioned in the Bible, it is entirely fiction and presented here in serial form strictly for the entertainment of my readers.  “Idol Smashers” is an original work, copyright Brett Best, 2011.

Day Two – Aphek

 (Previously, in Idol Smashers: The unexpected appearance of an idol animated by demon allowed some of the Heshonibites to temporarily escape their fate.  The men of Israel quit the cave and return to Aphek to rest and recover.)

The sun was in descent by the time the weary and wounded trudged into Aphek.  Maaz’s waterskin had been slashed during the battle; he didn’t remember when.  But it didn’t matter as everyone shared freely of their supply of water.  The remainder of Micah’s wine had been poured on wounds, in spite of his sputtering about “waste.”  The city did not come into view soon enough to suit them.

Upon their return to his home, Mattan plopped himself down on cushions and reached for a little golden bell.  He rang it and waited.  Nothing happened.  He rang it again, more forcefully.  Still nothing.  He rang it loudly until Joseph sat down next to him and gently put his hand on Mattan’s, stopping the peals.

“It appears your servant is elsewhere,” he said slowly.  “I’d appreciate it if you would not ring that anymore.  It resounds like a gong in my aching head.”  He reclined against a wall and closed his eyes.

“What am I to do, master?” Mattan asked, almost pleadingly.  “Who will go to get the healer?”

Barek offered to help Micah sink into a cushion, but was rebuffed by the proud man.  He turned to Mattan.  “I will go.  My stride is long and he will be here all the sooner.”

Mattan bowed his head in response, obviously relieved.  “Very well, my master.  I regret that little dog of mine has run off.  He will be punished; I assure you of that.”

Waving away his concerns, Barek said, “Never mind.  Where is the healer?”

“Simply go to the market and ask anyone there for Sharon.  She is well known.  Anyone can direct you.”

Caleb approached Barek slowly, a little cautious of the giant who had performed so ferociously in battle.  “I’ll go with you,” he offered.

Barek merely nodded in response and the two men went out the front door.

After a pause, everyone else sat down and made themselves as comfortable as they could. Mattan spoke to Samuel in a brusque voice, “Samuel, you had better get back home.  Your parents will be looking for you.”

The youth’s face bore a conflicted, thoughtful expression.  “No, sir.  I want to stay and hear about these men and Deborah.  I am one of you, now.  I believe I have earned the right.”

Mattan’s face became more florid.  “Earned…?  Now listen, boy…”

Maaz’s eyes snapped open and he fixed Mattan with a look that would have melted bronze.  “You will not address this man as you would a servant,” Maaz said in a low voice.  “He fought beside us this day.  The LORD used his arm to vanquish many idolators.  I say he has become one of us!”  Maaz looked around the room at each of his comrades.  Joseph’s eyes were closed and he appeared asleep.  Ammihud looked for a moment as if he might offer argument, then shrugged.  The others gave their agreement.

“There you are, Samuel ben Abram.  You are a man of Israel and no longer Mattan’s lackey.  You are now one of us.”

Rebuffed, Mattan folded his arms across his chest and appeared as if he might actually pout.  It had not been his day.  For once, he kept his tongue still.

Mattan’s discomfiture prompted one of Maaz’s rare laughs.  “As Ammihud is a man of many words, he will now tell you the tale. “

Though a cubit or two smaller than Maaz, Ammihud showed him he was capable of delivering a withering look too.

He heard his own voice begin almost independent of his thoughts as he turned his gaze to Samuel.

“It began yesterday, at Yom Hakkipurim…” Ammihud said.

 

After a lengthy conversation, Mattan’s back door burst open suddenly.  The dozing merchant was startled and cried, “My masters!”

The men looked with some surprise on Barek, who strode into the room carrying a struggling form.

“Let go of me, you big bully!” a shrill, young voice cried.

Joseph opened one eye.

“Barek, what have you got there?” he asked wearily.  “It makes much noise.”

The giant Israelite shook the small person he carried as easily as others might carry a sack of bread.  “Stop squirming and squealing,” he said.  Then he nodded to Caleb who took the hint and shut the door.

“If I let you go, will you not try to run?”

The form went limp, then the hooded head nodded.

As soon as its feet touched the floor, it broke out in a sprint for the door but found Caleb waiting there.  Although Caleb was half Barek’s size, he had a few pounds on the stranger and threw him away from the door and into Mattan’s lap.

The merchant chuffed as the air was knocked out of him, but the Barek’s prisoner was soon off him and on his feet again in the middle of the room.  A knife appeared in his hand.

“This dog has teeth,” Maaz said indolently.

“Why bring it here?” Micah asked.  “This isn’t the healer, is it?”  Under his breath, he whispered to Maaz, “I thought the fop said the healer was a woman.”

“Funny you should mention that,” Barek said.

Mattan wondered who “the fop” was supposed to be.

Jezreel sighed.  “This would be entertaining if my head didn’t hurt so.  What’s going on, Barek?”

The big man laughed.  “Took Caleb’s purse,” he said, tipping his head at his prisoner.

“Tried to…” Caleb corrected.  “I’d have gotten it back in a moment.”

This prompted another chuckle from Barek.  “Got a very light touch this one.  When I got ‘im and yanked off this,” he said, untying a bronze helmet from his sash.  “I found out why he’s got light fingers.”

The small figure still crouched, still looking anxiously around the room for some means of escape. Barek said, “Put away that toy.  You’re in a room of warriors.”  When the dagger reluctantly disappeared, the form straightened.

“Pull back your hood.”

A sigh emanated from under the hood before a pair of hands came from underneath the robe and lifted the hood.

Thus unveiled was the face of a woman!  A very beautiful woman indeed!  She had the prettiest, most innocent face Barek believed he had ever seen.

Both of Joseph’s eyes popped open.  And widened.  It was as if he’d awakened to a dream.  Here was a woman of great beauty, all the more beautiful for the wild, hunted look in her eyes.  She was more comely even than Rizpah, whose love and loss had first driven him into the desert.

The boy now exposed to be a woman looked all around the room.  When she saw how Joseph stared at her, the two lace-like brows above her dark eyes furrowed.

“Have you never seen a woman before?” she sneered.  “You gaze upon me as if I were made of gold!”

The rebuke startled Joseph from his reverie.  Looking at the amused expressions on the faces around the room, Joseph’s face reddened.

“Ah.  You startled me is all.”

“The only thing wrong with her teeth are the hard words that pour forth from them,” Caleb said.  He had become wary of the creature after she landed a swift kick when he’d gotten too close.

Joseph quickly gathered his wits.  “I… I did not expect Barek to bring us a woman in a man’s guise.”

Ammihud was not above seeing the humor in Joseph’s discomfiture.  “Yes, Barek.  Tell us how you left to find a healer and bring back a heel-biter?”

Barek joined in the laughter about the room.  “I said she had a light touch.   From across the market I saw her lift Caleb’s purse without disturbing the folds of his robe.”

“I was just about to take care of it,” Caleb said, trying to defend himself.  He was regaled with hoots of derision.

“I picked the struggling boy… I thought she was a boy wearing his father’s helmet…when I picked her up off the ground, the helm came untied and out spilled a woman and all her hair besides.”

Caleb strode into the middle of the room and continued the tale.  “After I retrieved my money, I searched her own sack and found this…”  He dumped the contents of a rucksack onto Mattan’s floor.  Out spilled a sickle, a sling and bag of stones, a waterskin, some bits of food, a red robe, and four purses!

The woman fell to the floor and scrambled to get all these possessions back into the rucksack which she snatched from Caleb’s hand.  “These are MY THINGS!” she cried.  “They are all that stand between me and Sheol!  You have no right to them!”

“A red robe,” Maaz observed thoughtfully.  “You wish to appear as a man but you have a woman’s  robe to wear when the bloody days of the month come.”

Her fiery gaze tore into Maaz.  “I wear that when I want to be left alone.  Men will not try to have me or even touch me when I wear that robe,” she explained.

Maaz suddenly snapped his fingers and then pointed at her.  He did not find this amusing and now he knew why.  “The Law says, ‘A woman must not wear man’s clothing, nor a man wear woman’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this’.  She has violated the LAW!”

Joseph exhaled slowly.  He searched his own memory of the Scriptures.  Having memorized the Torah as a youth and studied it as a man, his mind went quickly to the scroll and the passage Maaz quoted.

“True,” he said, “but there is no specific punishment stipulated for this sin.”

Now Ammihud’s academic side went to work.  “That’s so, but other things that the LORD detests call for stoning.”

A sigh escaped the woman’s lips and she seemed to fold upon herself.  She sat on the floor with a thump and slowly gathered her rucksack to her chest.  “Men of Israel.  Always so eager to solve their problems with a stone.”

This sobered the men in the room and they thought silently.

Finally, Jezreel spoke.  “It is almost sundown.  There can be no stoning, for the elders at the gate have gone to their homes.  This seems to me to be a point of concern, both for the Law and the woman.  Perhaps we should think…and pray about it this evening.”

“We can’t just let her go!” Caleb protested.  “Whatever she’s pretended to be, she is a thief!”

“Would you cry for justice as loudly if it was my purse she lifted?”  Barek reproached his brother Israelite gently.

“Of course,” Caleb said definitively, but with slightly less enthusiasm.

“My masters,” Mattan said slowly.  “You cannot consider keeping her here.  A woman alone among all these men.  In my home!  The scandal…”

“I’m not concerned about the niceties of your reputation, Mattan!”  Maaz said as he stood to his feet.  He reached down and gathered up a bit of the woman’s cloak.  The cloth felt rough and was dirtied by the dust of the road.  “This one is a wanderer and a thief and the LORD alone knows what else.  She must remain in our custody until morning.  Let the elders of this city decide her fate.”

Looking around the room, Maaz saw agreement on each face.  He turned to Mattan last of all and said to him, “You will arrange a suitable chaperone.  None of us will be stained by association with this unclean thing!”

Mattan opened his mouth as if to protest these unfair demands, but thought the better of it, and shut his mouth.  He nodded, then began to think about who might be available and could trusted to protect his reputation.

Maaz returned to his seat and attempted to melt the offending woman with his gaze.

He was surprised when Micah leaned forward and with tenderness asked her, “What is your name, child?”

A defiant look returned to her perfect face.  “Ruth,” she replied, then began to plait and braid her hair.

The men looked away, as this was a private act and a woman with her hair down in the middle of all these men not her family was unseemly enough.

“Ruth.  I had a sister by that name,” Micah said wistfully.  Maaz was flummoxed.  He knew Micah well and knew of no such sister.  But Maaz did not know everything about Micah.  “She died shortly after birth,” Micah explained.  “No one is going to stone you.  But you understand why we can’t just let you go.”

“If you won’t let me go, then feed me!  I’m hungry!”

“Ha!” Barek laughed.  “So am I!  Mattan, have you nothing to eat around here?”

Startled from his thoughts, Mattan jumped to his feet, then had to be steadied by Caleb.  “Fie on that boy!” he exclaimed.  “I shall get us a supper, my masters!  I am a good cook myself and need no help to prepare us a strengthening repast!”  He gestured to the cushion he’d vacated and to the remaining place in the circle.  “Please, please be seated,” he said, suddenly eager to please.

The back door exploded and Mattan’s servant sped into the room, then stopping in an equal hurry when Mattan lashed out, clutching the collar of his tunic.  “There you are, boy!  Where have you been?” he hissed.

“The healer comes!” the boy uttered between gasps.  He pointed to Balek.  “The giant found me with friends in the marketplace and told me to fetch her!”

As if on cue, there came a knock at the door.  Mattan’s eyes narrowed.  “Go answer the door, then.”  He half-released, half-threw the boy toward the door.  He winced at the discomfort this angry action caused his wounded side.

Scrambling around Caleb and Barek, the boy ran nimbly to the door and opened it.

A crone occupied the space, attended by a young man.  “May the house of Mattan be blessed,” she said, entering.  “I am told there is need of a healer.”  Her gaze fell upon Ruth, seated demurely in the circle of men.  “Who is it that needs me?” she said.

 

Day Three – Aphek

 

Breakfast centered around a debate about Ruth’s helmet – whether on not it should be returned to her before they took her to the gates of the city.  It was decided that it would be given back to her, as the evidence was more damming in the possession of the accused.

A couple of meals and a good night’s sleep had tempered Maaz’ insistence that she be stoned immediately, and he even agreed to let Jezreel present the whole matter to the elders.  Jezreel was gifted with words; he could even read and write them!

Last night the healer had vowed her silence to Mattan after he graced her palm with some shekels.  She’d stayed the night with Ruth as chaperone and after breakfasting to an extent that rivaled even Barek’s voluminous appetite, she bid them the blessing and departed.

Though his provisions and pocket were thus lightened, Mattan was confident his reputation would survive this ordeal intact and was generous in his good humor.

“Soon the elders will arrive at the gates, my masters,” he cooed.  “Then we can dispense with this matter and return to rest and let our wounds heal.”

“Rest?” Maaz growled.  “There will be no rest.  We have but today and tomorrow before we must resolve this matter else the tabernacle itself will be threatened.

Joseph tore his gaze away from a surreptitious look at Ruth.  He arched an eyebrow.  “What?” he said.  “I thought you gave no heed to dreams.”

“I didn’t.  Until I had one myself.  Last night.”

“You had a dream?” Ammihud asked, not quite trusting his ears.

“Yes, I had a dream.  Is that so difficult for you two to accept?”

Ruth looked confused.  This was a strange topic of conversation, but she’d learned by listening there was something going on with these men.  Her ears were as sharp as her eyes and curiosity had long been a failing of hers.

“I dreamed that the figure – the stick man on the idols – became alive.  He danced about me and taunted me.  He told me I was too dull-witted to divine his purpose, and then he ran off to Joppa.”

Thoughtful faces and silence were their response to Maaz’s dream.

“So we go to Joppa.  Today.  Though our cuts may run crimson again, we cannot delay.”

“You will not be taunted, brother,” Micah said, smiling.

“No, I will not.”

 

They had scarcely prepared to leave – Joseph’s hand was on the latch – when someone banged on the door from the other side.

“Who is there?” Joseph said without opening the door.

“I am Seth.  I am here for Mattan.  Is he at home?” said a young voice from the other side of the door.

Bowing to everyone that he jostled his way past, Mattan took Joseph’s place at the door and opened it.  Outside there stood a boy who quickly touched his lips and then the mezzuzah on the door post.  “Shalom,” he said, a little breathless.

“Seth?” Mattan asked cautiously.  “Why are you here?”

“The elders at the gate have sent me.  They are calling for you… and your… guests.  There is a war band of men at the gate.  They were denied entrance and then challenged the elders with their right to blood vengeance.  They said their kin from Heshonib have been massacred and their village destroyed.”  He looked at the men standing behind Mattan.  “They say all of you did it.”

Maaz was about to growl a reply but was cut off by a gesture from Mattan, of all people.  Mattan turned back to Seth; “Tell the elders we will be there shortly.  Shalom, Seth.”

Mattan quickly shut the door and leaned against it.  “This is a disaster!  We are found out!  What will we do?  How did they know it was us?”

Caleb quickly responded, “The escaped villagers.  They must’ve quickly found someone.  Some friends.  They may have even come here to Aphek while we were still walking.”

Still scowling at Mattan, Maaz opined, “It matters not.  We have been called out before the city.  Any hope of secrecy is gone.  Let us go out and face these pigs.  Perhaps we can find out where the survivors have fled.”

Ruth stepped into the middle of the group of men, her curiosity ablaze.  “Survivors?  What have you done?  What’s going on?”  Her own troubles were momentarily forgotten.

“None of your…”

“Brother,” Micah said, gently chiding his brother-in-law, “don’t forget Ruth is a woman.  Don’t be so rough.”

Maaz was stunned by this remonstrance, so rare from his brother-in-law.

Micah turned to Ruth.  “We’ve no time for tale-bearing,” he said patronizingly.  “These men are here to kill us.”

“We must face them, of course,” Ammihud said, thinking out loud.

“I was thinking about riding out the opposite end of the city,” Mattan offered with a weak smile.

“You will get us horses,” Maaz said slowly, punctuating his instructions with a prodding finger in Mattan’s chest.  You will have them brought to the gate of the city, along with our cart and belongings.  We will deal with these avengers of blood, if that’s what they really are.  Then we will leave for Joppa.”

Ammihud grabbed Ruth by the arm.  “We were going to take this one to the elders anyway.”

Ruth was about to protest, but saw steel in the gaze of every man save Micah and Mattan.  Nevertheless, she yanked her arm from Ammihud’s small hand.

“I would be happy to go in Micah’s company!” she said, taking the older man’s arm in hers.

In spite of the occasion, Micah had to smile.  “Just like my Ruth would’ve been,” he muttered and smiling, escorted Ruth past Mattan and out the front door.

 

As a group, they walked warily up to the gates of the city of Aphek.  So intent were they on the looming threat that only Micah noticed Ruth had put on her helmet, stuffing her braided hair up into it.  “This is not her fight, but she intends to survive it,” Micah thought.

A crowd had gathered.  People gather in much the same places vultures do.  The difference between the two being, where one hopes for a meal, the other for a spectacle.

A spectacle was unfolding here.

Thirteen heavily armed men stood before their mounts outside the city gates.  This band of thugs were inadequately met by a trio of guards and a half-dozen elders.  Four slingers had mounted the walls and kept a nervous eye on the proceedings.

The self-proclaimed “avengers of blood” were obviously professional soldiers or brigands, desperate men who made their living by works of violence.  If they really were kin to the Heshonibites, it was a remarkable coincidence that they were all professional killers too.

Worried looks crossed the faces of the elders as the group strode out of the gates, the crowd parting before them as the waters parted before Moses’ upraised rod.  Deborah’s men were no strangers to battle and strode into this arena with weapons at the ready.  Arms lost in yesterday’s battle were resupplied from their cart.

“Where is Mattan?” one of the elders asked.

Before anyone else could frame a reply, Joseph spoke in a confident voice, “Mattan is of no account here.  He is merely our host in Aphek.  We are the men you seek.”

Ammihud and Maaz looked at one another with mild surprise, as if to say, “Who put him in charge?”

“Ah,” the man said and gave way to an older man who stepped around him.  “These men came this morning demanding the right to face and accuse you of murder.  They say the nearby village of Heshonib has been razed and its people killed… by you.”

“That’s right” a rough voice spoke from the middle of the line of the avengers.  A tall man with dark hair and a weather-beaten, scarred face strode forward.  “You lot have blood on your hands.  The blood of my people.  I claim yours.”  It was plain by the look on his face that he didn’t care whether anyone believed his claims or not.  He was primed for a fight and would broach no disappointment.

Maaz was, as ever, ready to meet him nose to nose.

But the elders were in the way.

“Yes.  Well.  That’s what he’s said right along.  In fact, that’s all that he’s said.  Over and over again.”  This man saw through the avenger’s subterfuge, but had the safety of the city to think about.  “We have impressed upon him that though Aphek is not a city of refuge – no place to escape legitimate vengeance – we are not prepared to just hand people over on an accusation.  You may only be guests in our city, but you are in our city.  And we have rules.”

The avenger’s spokesman showed what he thought about Aphek’s rules by spitting a bilious brown stream on the ground.

The elder sighed.  “So.  Here you are to tell us your side of this story.”

Joseph took a moment to physically insert himself between Maaz and the avenger.  Interrupting Ammihud, he said, “We are only passing through Aphek.  We have no business with a village called Heshonib nor with these idolators.  Very soon we will be prepared to leave and will take our business elsewhere.”

“But what about these men – their charges?”

“Have they any proof?”

The avenger grunted and raised two fingers.  Another member of his party came forward, pushing along a boy child, one not ten years of age.

“Tell ‘em, boy,” the ringleader grunted.

Wide-eyed, the boy child regarded Deborah’s men and told a halting, confused tale of the events at the cave.  Upon their escape, they fled to Heshonib, only to find it burned to the ground.  These men, the avengers, were poking about the ruins.

“That’s enough, boy,” the spokesman said, roughly grabbing the child and pushing him back to the man who’d brought him forward.  Giving him equally rough treatment, the man hustled the boy back behind their line and directed him to hold their horses.

“You don’t seem very tender-hearted toward this survivor,” Maaz observed drily.

The avenger was losing the little patience he possessed.  “That’s all the proof you need.  Elder, tell your men to not interfere.  This lot can try to defend themselves and let blood decide.”

The oldest of the ruling elders looked into the eyes of each of his fellows.  Without speaking, they came to a decision that let them off the hook.

“If you intend to leave Aphek,” he said to Joseph, “you may leave peaceably.  What you do afterward is none of our concern.”

“So you would leave your Israelite brothers to be hounded by these curs,” Ammihud said stepping forward.  The courage in his voice exceeded the menace of his stature.

“We who live here on the borders learn to get along.  We don’t have the privilege of choosing our neighbors as some of our other tribes do.  You who do not live on the borders do not understand.”

The warrior spoke quickly, barely restraining himself from reaching out and shaking the old city leader into submission.  “We will not stand by and let this lot just ride off.  We demand the right to combat now.  The blood of our people demands satisfaction.”

Joseph looked to his fellows.  “I think we’ve learned all we can here.  Why don’t we go get our mounts and leave?”  Cautious nods of assent were the only reply he got.

The chief elder looked from man to man and nodded too.  “It is the best way.”

“I told them being civil wouldn’t work,” the avenger’s spokesman said.  He raised four fingers and immediately in the line behind him, four men twirled slings over their heads and loosed stones.  Heads turned just in time to see a couple puffs of dust appear near the top of the stone wall and one of the guards fall just before the “Thump!” of the stone hitting flesh reached their ears.

The avengers’ leader pushed the elder into Joseph and stepped back to draw his sword.

Joseph caught the man and gently pushed him aside.  In that instant, people were scattering everywhere.

The spokesman lunged for Joseph, following the point of his sword with his massive bulk.  Joseph adroitly sidestepped his attack and delivered an ineffectual blow to the man’s armored midsection.  The leader of the avengers reared back and lunged again at the prophet, counting on the speed and mass of his body to carry the day if his sword did not.  He learned too late of Joseph’s deftness and this second assault was rendered as ineffective as the first.

Another avenger barreled through the elders and guards, scattering them.  He swung a curved sword at Maaz, who blocked the strike with one end of his goad and brought the other end smashing into the man’s throat.  He fell to his knees, gasping for air.  Seconds later, the big Isrealite’s goad swung again and knocked the man’s helmet off, crushing his skull in the process.

With a cry, Ammihud dashed around a fleeing elder and confronted another of the avengers.  His bravado made no impression whatsoever on the seasoned warrior who merely grinned evilly.  The bladed polearm the man wielded was only a blur in the corner of Ammihud’s eye as something slammed into him, knocking him to the ground.  His side felt wet and tears filled his eyes before the world went dark.

A guard stepped over Ammihud, to strike at the fallen Israelite’s attacker, but his sword strike was easily parried.

Micah drew his axe with one hand and pulled Ruth behind him with the other.  “Stay behind me,” he cautioned.

On the wall behind the melee, one of the slingers summoned his courage and his sling and let a stone loose back at one of the enemy slingers.   Unfortunately, the enemy’s aim was better and he felt the impact of a stone smash his shoulder.  He nearly tumbled off the wall, but managed to steady himself enough to see a red welt already forming.  He felt his right arm going numb and dropped his sling.

Another stone zipped over the melee.  This one struck home with a loud smack on the leading leg of one of the enemy slingers.  He managed to loose a stone himself, but his aim was spoiled and the shot struck the city wall.

His fellow prepared a sling, but before he could wield it, something struck him on the side of the head and drove him to the ground.

The third guard caught in the melee had opportunity to draw his weapon before one of the avengers was upon him.  The black-armored warrior’s blade sliced the air, missing by the narrowest of margins.

Seeing Ammihud fall, Barek let cry an angry roar.  Rushing forward, he drew his sword and charged into the melee, determined to save his diminutive friend.

Most men would have at least hesitated when beholding the giant Barek bearing down on them.  But this avenger felt only a cold resolve as he strode forward to meet the immense Israelite’s charge.  It would be his last act of bravado.  Barek’s blade had hewn him in half even as the man was congratulating himself on his bravery.

One of the city gate guardians let out a cry, clutching at his back.  An avenger of blood withdrew his sword from the guard’s back, the blade stained with life-blood.  The stricken guard slumped forward and did not stir.

The chief elder had been flung behind the lines of battling warriors.  Caleb reached out to steady the old man and with two hands full of his robe, pulled him close and yelled, “GO GET HELP!  SEND MEN TO FIGHT!”  When the chief elder nodded his assent, Caleb turned and pushed him toward the city gate.

Caleb watched him go, then turned back to the battle before him.  He reached first for the dagger, then thought the better of joining in close combat so ill-equipped and drew his bow instead.  He waited for a clear shot.

At the southernmost end of the line of avengers, a man ran forward, brandishing his spear.  Samuel’s scimitar was in his hand, and he answered the avenger’s charge with a battle cry and charge of his own.  In spite of his opponent having the advantage of reach, Samuel’s blade tasted blood first, being buried deep within the “avenger’s” abdomen.

Though relatively inexperienced in actual battle, Samuel was well-practiced in martial arts and held keen senses.  Samuel knew that an avenger rushing at him from behind.  The pagan thug’s face bore a look of surprise when Samuel spun around suddenly, the arc of his scimitar a blur that arrived first.  The thug ran into Samuel’s attack and folded in half upon his weapon.  A spray of blood came from between his wordless lips.

Jezreel’s sling was in his hand.  Faster than conscious thought, the leather strap whistled over his head and the stone flew from it.  The missile struck the man at the north end of the line of avengers.  It caught him in an armored upper chest, and nearly spun him around.  However, the powerful warrior quickly recovered.  He cracked his neck and grimaced at Jezreel.  He strode forward, drawing both a sword and dagger.

In spite of the menace of this figure, Jezreel calmly stepped backward and reached for another stone.  He hummed the tune of his favorite psalm.  With a supernatural calm settling like dew on his soul, Jezreel stepped back and prepared another shot.

His opponent was running now, and Jezreel would be blessed indeed to get off another stone before the avenger was close enough to strike.  A blessing came in the form of a slingshot that came from behind Jezreel, striking his onrushing assailant in the side.  This forced the man to break stride, stumbling a bit.  Jezreel blessed the slinger on the wall behind him, and quickly let his own stone fly.

He had hurried too much and the shot sailed over the head of the avenger.  All he had succeeded in doing was getting the entirety of the man’s angry attention.  He lurched toward Jezreel, closing the gap between them.

The murderous look in the eyes of the avenger closing upon Jezreel changed to indecision as he stopped in his tracks.  Behind the psalmist he saw armed men pouring out of the gates of Aphek.  Though they were but simple peasants armed only with tools and daggers, their numbers were a threat.  With a grunt at Jezreel, he turned to run, but his injured leg gave way when he attempted to pivot on it.

Jezreel watched him sprawl in the dirt and blinked.  Not knowing the cause of his good fortune, the psalmist was a bit stunned and undecided as to what to do next.  Moments later, several men of Aphek swarmed on the avenger.  Their enthusiastic, if inexpert, attacks soon finished the man.

Trapped in the middle of a sudden conflagration of flashing weapons, the third elder dropped to the ground and held his hands over his heads.  Prayer was his best defense, and he pursued it with all his heart.

At the other end of the line of battling men, one of the pagan thugs attacked a gate guardian who was already set upon by another of the avengers.  But the guard proved his mettle by parrying this second attack.  Confronted by two attackers, the guard acquitted himself well.  He deflected all but a slash that caught his shoulder above the round shield that he carried.

Seeing out of the corner of his eye that one of the gate guardians was beset by two attackers, Samuel rushed to his aid.  Catching the nearest avenger unprepared, Samuel hewed him down with a single slash.

From the relative safety of her position behind Micah, Ruth watched the bloody combat with wide eyes.  Where seconds earlier she had foolishly considered joining the battle, she now thought the better of it and began to back away.

Fumbling in her rucksack, Ruth’s fingers closed about the handle of her sickle.  She withdrew the farm implement-turned-weapon and continued to back slowly away from the horrifying sight of men slaughtering one another.

Micah glanced over his shoulder to see that Ruth was indeed behind him.  She was and getting further behind him by the minute!  “I didn’t say that far behind,” he muttered.  With an oath, Micah turned and rushed forward, intent on attacking one of the enemy slingers before him.  The slinger was a taller, thinner, man and he deftly avoided the Israelite’s strike.

The leader of the avengers summed up the battle field in a glance.  Half his party was already down and even the spineless fish in Aphek would overwhelm them.

“MEN!  WE ARE AWAY!” he yelled.  He backed away from Joseph, just avoiding the roundhouse kick the Israelite launched at his head.  He turned and sprinted toward the horses a few paces behind him.

One of the avengers ducked under Barek’s sword slash.  Backing away, he turned to run toward the safety of the horses.  But Barek’s giant strides covered a greater expanse of turf and his second swing took the man at the place where neck meets shoulder.  The back of the fleeing avenger’s armor was rent in two and he was driven to the ground, face first.

Caleb would have loosed his arrow into the back of the retreating leader of the avengers of blood, but Joseph was interposed between them.  Sighing, Caleb tried to step around Joseph, to a clear field of fire, but only succeeded in bumping into Maaz.

Wide-eyed, Maaz turned on Caleb, brandishing his goad.  At the last moment, he recognized his comrade and aborted his attack.  “Caleb!” he said through gritted teeth.  “Watch where you tread!”

Hearing the leader’s command, the northernmost avenger slinger turned on his heel and sprinted toward the horses.  A pair of stones slung from the wall behind him slammed into the man.  One shattered his ankle, dropping him in mid-stride.  The second stone clattered against his helmet before he hit the ground.

One of the avengers ignored the behest of his commander and sank his spear into the throat of a gate guardian.  Dropping his own weapon and clutching ineffectually at the shaft of the spear, the guardian was driven down by the force of the dark avenger’s attack.

Joseph sprinted to catch the retreating commander of the avengers.  He leapt at the man, snatching at his billowing robe, but fell short of the mark as the avenger leapt onto the waiting horse.

“TAKE ME!” the Heshonibite boy wailed, but the leader of the avengers of blood merely spurred his horse over the top of the youth, crushing him beneath pounding hooves.

When one of the dark-clad avengers turned his head to see his commander galloping away, Micah pressed his sudden advantage and stabbed at him with his sword.  The avenger recovered in time, however, to deflect the force of Micah’s blow away with his shield.  They traded swings and parries before Micah’s blade bit flesh twice and his opponent fell backward.   He cast aside both weapon and shield and pleaded for mercy as his blood stained the soil.

Maaz spun away from Caleb and sprinted into the melee.  The thick goad in his hands described a wide arc that came to a sudden end when it struck the head of the avenger.  He crumpled against a man of Aphek, who stabbed him for good measure.

The last of the avengers discarded all pretense of bravery and sprinted toward the horses.  Maaz ran up and cried, “Let us give chase!” but Barek restrained him.

“Rather let him deliver a warning to his keepers that men of Israel are not idle while their enemies spin dark webs,” Barek said quietly, a little winded from his exertions.

Maaz relaxed in the giant’s grip, glaring at the retreating rider as if a look could kill.

Caleb considered shooting the rider, but weighing the distance and his expertise against the expense of arrows, decided against it.  He grunted and relaxed, replacing the arrow in his quiver.

Picking himself up off the ground, Joseph drew in a sharp breath and said to Maaz and Barek, “Let’s see who holds the leash of these dogs.”  He strode toward one of the fallen avengers, then knelt to search the man.  Maaz had joined him when he found the avenger’s purse and withdrew it from his sash.   Shaking the contents into his hand, Joseph showed Maaz the coins.

“Philistine,” Joseph said.

Maaz spit on the inert form and muttered, “Philistines, sure.”

Behind them, Barek cried out, “Ammihud!”  A few giant strides took Barek to his fallen comrade.  He knelt beside Ammihud and roughly hauled his fallen friend’s head and shoulders onto his lap.

“Ammihud!” he cried, “Do you live?”

Ammihud groaned.  “Only in this life could a clumsy, ham-handed oaf like you cause me such pain!”

Barek saw that the left side of Ammihud’s robe was stained with blood.

“MATTAN!” the giant thundered.  “BRING THE HEALER!”

Ammihud winced.  “You are so loud,” he said weakly.

Micah turned from his felled opponent and looked for Ruth.  He saw her kneeling next to the unmoving form of one of the avengers.  With hands that were adept and obviously experienced, she quickly found the man’s purse, cut it loose with her sickle, and hid it beneath her own robe.

Standing, Ruth turned to see Micah staring at her, agape.  She saw no shame in the dead providing for the living.  Spoils of war, she would call it.

She avoided Micah’s eye and moved on to the next slain adversary.  She had to reach around the gore of the man’s insides out to try to find his purse.  She nearly had it when something strong pulled her away from the corpse and to her feet.

The next thing she saw was Micah’s steely gaze beneath furrowed brows.

“Have you no shame?!” he growled.