Small, but Never Alone

Along the Way Graphic Template (1)

Gentle Reader,

Look up and see!
Who created these?
He brings out the stars by number;
He calls all of them by name.
Because of His great power and strength,
not one of them is missing.

– Isaiah 40:26 (CSB)

I grew up on three-and-a-half acres of rented land, close enough to town that a trip to the store was no big deal but far enough away from everything that I could hear the crickets chirp during the twilight hours. The soft neighing of horses floated across the dirt road, changing to excited whinnies as they began to run and play. Sky-high, skinny pine trees bent and waved in the wind, never breaking but coming perilously close to it in my eyes. A bullfrog lived near the water spigot, competing with the owls for noisiest nocturnal creature. The neighbors’ big black-and-white dog would lay in the middle of the road, always confident that cars would go around him.

We didn’t have air conditioning, so summers were brutal. If we weren’t at the beach or the library, my brother and I would sprawl across the living room floor, on a sheet my mother misted with water, underneath the ceiling fan buzzing at full blast. Fudgecicles melting quickly, we watched episodes of “I Love Lucy,” cracking up at the antics of the goofy redhead. Our dog was always close by, ready to catch any chocolately goodness we missed, but mostly just looking to find a cool spot.

Dinner, after my father got home from work, was usually something cold – salad, sandwiches, occasionally cereal. Sometimes, after eating, we would run through the sprinkler, giggling and competing to see who could do the best jumps through the streams of water. As the oldest, I of course always won, though my brother probably thinks otherwise.

On the hottest nights, when nobody could sleep, we would lay on an old quilt in the front yard and look up at the stars. Nobody said much. Just gazed at black velvet, decorated with sparkling diamonds. The wind in the trees, the frogs and owls and crickets singing, the horses playing, the stars slowly moving, as they do, across the sky. I felt very small, and oddly alone, in the midst of that.

I still feel that way when I stand out on my back porch of an evening, only now I know the proper label to attach to the emotion: awe. The stars remind me that He is interested in every detail, no matter how small. He creates only beautiful, good things. He is continually active and present in every aspect of life.

I think of the uncounted prayers that have been whispered, under the cover of darkness, with moon and stars as only witness. Of the animals who know it’s time to sleep, without anyone telling them, when the sky shifts from blue to black. Of the God who has ears to hear every cry and hands large enough to hold all His creatures close.

And I am small in the midst of that, very small. But nowhere near alone.

Who am I, that the God who breathes fire into the stars above, should notice me? Love me? Save me?

What an incredible God!

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To Wait on the Lord

wait

Gentle Reader,

Lead me in Your truth and teach me,
For You are the God of my salvation;
On You I wait all the day.

– Psalm 25:5 (NKJV, emphasis mine)

Wait.

Is there a worse word in any language?

Many, many articles have been written about our so-called recent inability to delay gratification, but this has always been a struggle. After all, the Apostle Paul wrote many centuries ago that patience is part of the fruit of the Spirit, something that we can’t manufacture on our own, and he did so as part of a list of contrasting character traits; sinful ones to the left, godly ones to the right. I can imagine that, in his day, people complained about the mail taking a month to arrive, while elders shook their heads and told stories about walking uphill in the snow, both ways.

Patience is hard. While it is true that some of us might have more of a bent toward handling the wait well, overall it’s just not something that humanity is good at. And so, as we walk with the Lord, part of His activity in our lives is to shape us into the people that He designed us to be. We become more like Him – millimeter by often screaming millimeter.

Frustratingly, this includes learning patience.

Pause and let this sink in: God teaches us to be patient because He is patient. Specifically, He is patient with us.

Patience is a God-trait, part of His nature. Looking at it from this angle helps us to realize that waiting is so much more than annoyed thumb-twiddling. God is ever-active, always working to draw the unsaved to Himself and to draw the saved into deeper relationship. In a mystery that none of us are fully equipped to explain, He, who could force anyone to do anything at any time, allows us the freedom to choose. If we don’t learn the lesson the first time, He’ll bring it up again. And again, until we’re ready to move forward in and with Him. He never gets tired and He never gives up.

The parallel does break down, because we, of course, are not God, and so we don’t see the whole picture. And unlike God, we have to submit ourselves to a higher authority. However, I believe that we can look at the character and activity of God and draw this conclusion: To wait is to engage in a robust activity.

For God: While He waits for us to get on board in a certain area, He keeps on working in another area, where we’re more receptive.

For us: Like a good physical workout, our spiritual muscles strain under the effort it takes to set aside our desire for right now and submit to His will and timing.

Waiting on the Lord is more than this, though. It isn’t as if we have to wonder if His response and work will be good for us. As we learn to depend on Him, we learn to anticipate His kindness. We learn to stay near and to be attentive. Like courtiers in a medieval court, we hover close to the King, ready to move when He moves and (learning to be) content to stay when He stays.

Yes, patience is hard. Waiting is challenge. Giving over the right to rule our own lives has to be done time and time again.

Ah, but as we are, bit by bit, transformed, there’s the prize!

Maybe not even what we were seeking, what we were asking for.

Maybe – God Himself.

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The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Conclusion

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

I almost quit.

It’s true.

I never expected to spend half the year blogging through Zephaniah. It’s three chapters! Around week 18, I realized that what began as a project for my own edification had turned into a chore. I’m not sure exactly when or how or why it happened. I began to dread Monday mornings and the stack of books and the research. The joy leaked out bit by bit until none was left.

That is where the discipline part of writing comes in. Having published one book and gearing up to begin the process of publication for a second, I know there are days when it’s all about gritting your teeth and slamming the keys. Writing can be so fulfilling, so fun. It can also be the longest, slowest slog.

I am glad I stuck with it, because God, as usual, is fascinating in His timing. We have lived in the hopeful passages for the entirety of the Advent season. I didn’t plan that. I had no plan when I began this, no set end date (though I never imagined I’d be closing this out six months and two weeks after starting). In His mystery, He moved me, the writer, and you, the reader, to see the grace and light in a book that many ignore. He opened our eyes to the real and deep consequences of sin, but didn’t leave us drowning there in the muck. He took us through the whole process of punishment and forgiveness and restoration, ending on the distant strains of kingdom music just as our mouths began to fill with Christmas songs.

How like Him.

How very like Him.

Every book of the Bible tells the whole story, but cannot be fully understood apart from the others. We’ll never make sense of that. All we can do is strive to live in the middle, resisting the urge to pick out the things we like and toss the rest. Every narrative, poem, allegory, oracle and letter contains the arc of sin and salvation, fall and uplift. Every line is rich, yet not fully grasped as a treasure without the others.

It is my earnest desire that you step away from this series with a solid foundation in how to study the Bible. Your interpretations may be different from mine. That’s okay. What matters is that you now know how to approach that big book. You’ve been exposed to commentaries, word searches and songs. You’ve read articles and answered questions. You know now that there is no “just Jesus and me” Christianity; that you need the input of other believers, both in your “real life” and from within the long tradition of the faith, to help you learn and live. Most importantly, you know now that you are, in fact, smart enough to study the Bible and that you do, in fact, have time to do so.

Yet my heart beats with a desire greater still than this. I hope that you come away with love. Love for the Bible, yes, but love for the God of the Bible. Maybe you didn’t know a thing about Him before reading this. Maybe you’ve known Him for years but have drifted away. Or maybe everything is perfectly fine. Wherever you are in relation to the Lord, I hope that your soul reverberates with, “I love You, too.”

God loved us long before we ever loved Him. He has said over and over, through every splash of ink in sacred writ and down through the ages. “I love you, child. I love you.”

May we love Him, too.

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For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: the Mighty One (3:16-17)

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Do not fear;
Zion, let not your hands be weak.
The LORD your God in your midst,
The Mighty One, will save;
He will rejoice over you with gladness,
He will quiet you with His love,
He will rejoice over you with singing.”

– Zephaniah 3:16-17 (NKJV)

Here we are, finally. These beautiful words that have been our focus for 24 weeks.

I have good news: These are true words.

I have bad news: These words are often misunderstood.

What it Means

I realize that I have very nearly beaten you to death with the word “context,” but it never ceases to be important. Many, myself included, have been guilty of using Zephaniah 3:17 in a way its author never intended and its original audience wouldn’t have understood. Consider:

Yahweh dwells among his people. They may rejoice and not be afraid, for they will be protected from any harm. Yahweh will be their God, a warrior of salvation. His people will rest securely in his covenantal love (v. 17). (1)

As well as:

…with exceeding great joy, not to be conceived of, or expressed; as a bridegroom rejoiceth over his bride: this will be the time of the open marriage of the Lamb with the Jewish church; and there will be strong expressions of joy on this occasion; Christ will rejoice over them to do them good; and there will be such singular instances of his goodness to them as will abundantly show the joy he will have in them… (2)

And:

He is a Mighty One, Who will save [Israel] from the enemy. … He will conceal your transgressions with His love…He will cover your sins with His love. (3)

This isn’t about God singing to you.

I know. Harsh.

We’ve learned so much about context and prophecy and layers. Don’t get upset and walk away now. Of course the metaphor can be extended and you can know that God takes delight in you. We simply must acknowledge that Zephaniah remains a Jewish man writing a Jewish book in a Jewish setting. God doesn’t dismiss non-Jews, but we are not His primary concern in these verses.

Don’t Miss It

How does verse 16 begin? “In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem.”To the Holy City. To the people who rightfully dwell there by virtue of having been given the Promised Land. The suffering is over. The centuries of back-and-forth have ended. The promise-keeping God does just that, keeps His promise.

…why is God so joyful? This passage of Zephaniah speaks of a future time when God has ended His judgment upon Israel. All of their enemies have been destroyed, and Israel is entering a time of safety and blessing (verses 8, 15, 19). Zephaniah is speaking of the future millennial kingdom when the Messiah (Jesus) will reign with His people in Jerusalem (Isaiah 9:7; Revelation 20:1–6). (4)

He rejoices over His people as they rejoice over Him. He pours out His love. Bonds of eternal, unbroken affection are renewed. Restored.

Jeremiah echoes the theme:

“Now therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning this city of which you say, ‘It shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence’: Behold, I will gather them out of all countries where I have driven them in My anger, in My fury, and in great wrath; I will bring them back to this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely. They shall be My people, and I will be their God; 39 then I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me. Yes, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will assuredly plant them in this land, with all My heart and with all My soul.’”

– 32:36-41 (NKJV)

The entire focus of the Bible is God. Not us. He does what He wants because what He wants is best and right and good. So the fact that He takes some time to enjoy the Jewish believers? It doesn’t diminish we non-Jewish believers in any way. In fact, we should (and I believe we will) celebrate. We, the Bride, will watch as Israel, the Wife, parties with her Husband. For just the briefest of moments, we will stand on the edges and watch the reunion. And then, wonder of wonders, we will be ushered in, invited to take our places as the family of God truly becomes one.

Imagine the singing.

Quiet, You

…God holds them next to His heart like a loving mother holds a baby; He quiets them with His love, and He even sings to them! This image of the “motherhood of God” assures forgiven sinners that God is with them, that He loves them, and they have nothing to fear. (5)

This is something that every Christian can take to the bank: God loves us. He loved us even when we didn’t know Him, when we were blind and stupid and wretched (Romans 5:6). He loves us when we choose to be blind and stupid and wretched even though we know better (Romans 7:15-25). We can race to the throne of grace at any moment (Hebrews 4:16). When we are born again into His family, we can call Him Abba – Daddy (John 1:12-13, Romans 8:17, Galatians 4:7).

Does it really matter if the music that Zephaniah writes of was composed for a specific moment in time and for a specific people? The point of the passage is not the song but the love. Our souls can be quiet, assured of His grace. We can hold up trembling hands to Him and know that He will pull us close.

Wait a Minute

So does God not sing over us as a mother does when she rocks her baby to sleep?

Never base your entire theological framework on a question that can’t be answered. Personally, I won’t be shocked if we do find out one day that God sang to each of us, a song that we understood in our spirits but could never fully comprehend. That would be quite like Him. All we can know for sure is that this is not what Zephaniah meant and that we are commanded to sing to God. We don’t need to wonder about whether He’s singing in return – that puts the focus on us and we are very much not the focus.

Reflection

  1. As we drawn near the end of our study, do you understand and embrace the importance of context?
  2. Does it bother you that Zephaniah 3:17 doesn’t mean what most people think it means? Why or why not?
  3. Read Jeremiah 33. Does it excite you to know that you will see the restoration of Israel?
  4. Read Ephesians 2. What verses stand out to you? How do they confirm God’s love?
  5. Spend some time in prayer. Ask God to open your eyes to His love.

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Sources

(1) Asbury Bible Commentary (under the “study this” tab)

(2) John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible

(3) Zephaniah 3 Commentary, Rashi

(4) Got Questions (note: not the best resource, but I like how this answer was phrased)

(5) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 160.

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.