Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Prayers of the Bible, Part 7--The Judges (cont.)

In continuing a look at a few of Israel's judges, a third one that is definitely interesting is Jephthah. He was a Gileadite who was driven away from his family and his home because he was not the son of his father’s wife, but of another woman. However, when the Ammonites were oppressing them, the Gileadites asked him to lead the fight against them. Before doing so, Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, saying, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”

This is intriguing for a couple of reasons. First of all, there’s once again an implication of bargaining with the Lord, as Jephthah’s vow begins with the word, “If”; IF the Lord will give, then Jephthah will offer. Also, there is the matter of the offering itself, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of his story. You’ll have to look into it yourself; look it up, Judges 11.

Finally, besides looking at the prayers of some of the individual judges, there is a situation that occurs in Israel, and afterwards, all of Israel petitions the Lord for guidance.  After some Benjamites rape a concubine, Israel is planning to go up in battle against the Benjamites.  Not once, but twice, they consult the Lord, asking Him, "Who of us shall go first to fight against the Benjamites?"  and "Shall we go up again to battle with Benjamin, our brother, or not?"  Each time, the Lord gives them positive confirmation, and they seem to follow His instruction.  And yet...

Each time, Israel is defeated by Benjamin.  When the Israelites again inquire of the Lord, He finally tells them, "Go, for tomorrow I will give them into your hands."  And it is on the third day that the Lord does, in fact, defeat Benjamin.  The only observation I have from this is not one that gives me any comfort, as I see that even when someone is following the Lord's instruction, he/she may still be defeated in battle.  I guess the idea there is to not quit...to keep doing what He commands.  I try to remember that success does not depend upon me, obedience does.  If I do what He asks, He is the One that can make me successful.

The last judge I want to take a quick look at is Samson. Oh, Samson. I have no words to describe him...he's quite a character. One of my favorite stories about Samson, though, is actually when the Lord appears to his parents, foretelling his birth and giving his parents instructions on raising him as a Nazirite, set apart for service to the Lord. When Manoah, Samson's father, hears that the Lord has appeared to his wife, he prays, "Let the man of God you sent to us come again to teach us how to bring up the boy who is to be born." Wow. What a wise prayer, asking the Lord for guidance in raising children...one that I'm sure has been prayed by countless parents. Also, with Samson's parents, we again see a desire to know the Lord and to honor him, as they ask, "What is your name, so that we may honor you when your word comes true?"

Throughout Samson's life, we see some familiar things that he prays for. He sounds kind-of accusatory (which we've heard from others before) when he asks, "You have given your servant this great victory. Must I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?" Also, though, is the redeeming prayer at the end of Samson's life. After he has been captured by the Philistines and blinded and is being mocked in the temple of their god Dagon, Samson prayed, "Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes." It seems to me that in this passage, and with this prayer, God's mercy is evident. Although Samson seems to have led a somewhat less-than-faithful life--in my opinion, he doesn't seem to have lived up to his calling, and in fact, he's really not all that likeable of a character in scripture--the Lord hears his prayer and honors his request, and in his death, he is able to defeat some enemies of Israel and of the Most High God.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Prayers of the Bible, Part 6--The Judges

I once heard one of my favorite ministers describe the book of Judges as being at least a PG-13, if not R, rated book.

He’s right.  You would not believe the some of the stuff that is in there.  If it were a movie, you probably wouldn’t let your kids watch it.

The reason for this can be found in a sad, sad verse that appears at least a couple of times in the book, to describe some of the goings on.  In fact, the book of Judges ends with this verse:

“In those days, Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”

See, the book of Judges is what happens when no one pays any regard to God or His laws and instead does, as the NASB puts it, “what is right in his own eyes.”  The period of the Judges is a dark one in Israel’s history, because it is a time in which they repeat a dreaded cycle of being faithful to God for a time, then falling away into idolatry and sin, then being oppressed by their enemies, then crying to God for deliverance.  When God, in His unimaginable mercy, steps in and delivers them, they praise Him and are faithful to God for a time, then fall away……you get the picture.  I confess that I don’t read this book often, simply because it’s frustrating to read the accounts of the same sinful things happening over and over again.  But still, in this book, there are some prayers, and some pray-ers to take note of.

One of the first is Deborah, who stepped up to do what a man named Barak was afraid to do on his own, to go up against the king of Canaan who had been oppressing Israel for twenty years.  What he didn’t realize was that he wouldn’t have been on his own; he had God on his side.  But because he didn’t recognize that and Deborah did, she said to him, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman.”  When the Israelites were successful at defeating the Canaanites, Deborah and Barak sang a song of praise to the Lord that ended with, “Thus let all Your enemies perish, O Lord; But let those who love Him be like the rising of the sun in its might.”

A second one of Israel’s judges to take a look at is actually my favorite of them all.  His name is Gideon.  I’m not sure I can do his story justice, so you’ll have to take a look at his account, which begins in chapter 6.  But he says several interesting things, and I can’t help but compare him, at least a little bit, to Moses.  When an angel of the Lord appears to him, he is hiding down in a winepress threshing wheat.  The Israelites have been oppressed by the Midianites, and Gideon is basically hiding underground, trying to gather enough food for him and  his family.  Some of the first things he says are, “If the Lord is with us, then why has all this happened?...Where are all His miracles?...The Lord has abandoned us…”  He’s not afraid to ask honest questions when he can’t see the hand of the Lord.  Gideon knows his place and where he has come from, so he doubts his ability to perform the task he’s been assigned.  He repeatedly asks the Lord for a sign, testing Him in a sense, in order to be able to know that he can rely on the Lord.  Amazing to me that both times, God grants his request and meets his “test”.  Also interesting is that Gideon asks, “Please do not depart from here, until I come back to You and bring out my offering and lay it before You.”  Gideon had a desire to offer a gift to the Lord.

I've got quite a bit more to write about the judges, so I'll split this into a two-parter, so that it's not too lengthy.  So for now I'll just stop here and make a couple of observations:

1.  The book of Judges, though one of my least favorites, might be one of the best as far as emphasizing the importance of prayer, because it highlights how terribly things can go wrong without God.

2.  In scripture, there are references in which people pray against their enemies.  (We'll get to them soon enough in the Psalms.)  But I do notice that in Deborah and Barak's song of praise, they end by not praying against their own enemies, but against the enemies of the Lord.  That may seem like a subtle difference, but I think it's an important one.  I think it might be the difference in a prayer centered on me and what I want versus a prayer centered on the Lord's will.

3.  As evidenced by the prayers of Gideon, there is a repeating pattern in some of the things people have prayed to God for, as he prays some of the same things that we've heard from Moses and from Abraham and even from Job.  Like his forefathers, Gideon says the things that are on his heart.  When he can't see the working of his God, he asks why.  He is not afraid to say that "the Lord has abandoned us" because it seems like He has.  And although that may not be accurate, God does not strike Gideon down for blasphemy.  God seems to accept Gideon's prayer, but he doesn't validate Gideon's complaint with an answer.  Rather, He just says, "Go."  Perhaps that's because when it seems like the Lord isn't working, it's really because we're not doing the work he's called us to?  Just a thought...

Thanks for reading.