|Vol. 12, No. 6, Nov. - Dec. 1983
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
LIGHT FOR THE LAST DAYS (1)
J. Alec Motyer
Reading: 2 Timothy 1
FROM 2 Timothy 3:1 we see that this letter was written for the last times.
As a matter of fact Paul was not so much looking forward into the future,
for he was dealing with Timothy's present circumstances. The things that
he wrote about were with Timothy: he was living in the last times. The New
Testament understands the age in which we live as "the last days", namely,
that period in the economy of God which lies between the Ascension of the
Lord Jesus and His Coming Again. The phrase seems to have a special significance
for us who feel that these "last times" are indeed right upon us.
These last days are marked in certain ways, both by ethical, moral and
social collapse and by the uprising of counterfeit alternatives to the gospel.
This is stressed in chapter 3 which we will consider later, but we remark
that this passage of Scripture gives a description which is distinctly relevant
for our own day.
Timothy was far from being an obviously suitable man to face such a time,
and here again I think that this particular portion of God's Word has the
most marvellous relevance for us. Timothy was by no means a striking person
to spearhead the gospel in a day like that. He did not find it easy to take
the lead, for Paul had to say to him, "Let no man despise thy youth" (1 Timothy
4:12). Timothy was a bit of a shrinking flower in his own nature and was
evidently rather unimpressive to others, for Paul wrote: "If Timothy comes,
see that he be with you without fear, for he works the work of the Lord as
I do; let no man therefore despise him" (1 Corinthians 16:10-11). Yet such
a shrinking and unimpressing person, who was nervous and in danger of being
despised, was the man chosen by God for responsibility in the last times.
The Church's Human Inadequacy
This is all the more striking when we consider that throughout the whole
period of "the last days", which has now run on almost two thousand years
since Paul wrote, the stress seems to be upon the human inadequacy of those
concerned. This shrinking, nervous, hesitant Timothy was placed at the very
point when the apostolic age was coming to an end and the post-apostolic
age commencing. As to the former, Paul wrote, "I am already being poured out;
the time of my departure is come" (4:6); as to the latter, it is remarkable
that when the leadership of the Church was falling out of those dynamic hands,
it was not falling into equally dynamic hands but into trembling, hesitant
and unimpressive hands.
Leadership was coming to Timothy, but the Scriptural evidence confirms
that this was a man who did not find it easy to be a Christian. Paul had
to urge him to "fan up the flame of the gift", as though the embers were
in danger of dying down and Timothy needed to get out the bellows and fan
up the flame of the gift of God which he truly had. He did not find it easy
to be forthright; it seems that holiness was a problem, for he was encouraged
to flee youthful lusts. Paul would hardly have given such advice if it were
not needed, if Timothy did not find it hard to walk in the pathway of holiness.
He seems also to have had to bear the handicap of something approaching
a broken home. His faith had been earlier experienced by his grandmother
Lois and his mother Eunice, but what about that father who was a Greek and,
as far as we know, not a believer?
Two things therefore seem to come together in Timothy; an enormous and
challenging situation and an apparently inadequate person. This is typical
of us all today, and therefore impresses us with the striking relevance
of this second letter to Timothy. But if it is typical in its humanity,
it is also typical in its responsibility, for the letter shows us that this
constitutes no excuse. "You don't find leadership easy, Timothy -- that
is no excuse. You don't find it easy to be a keen Christian -- that is no
excuse. You don't find holiness easy -- that is no excuse. You suffer from
disabilities in life -- that is no excuse. These must never be excuses for
they are, in fact, divinely chosen circumstances in which you are to serve
God in your generation."
The Church's Way Forward
The way forward for the Church in these last days is made as plain as
can be in this Scripture. [101/102] The way forward
is to preach the gospel. It is as simple, commonplace and unimpressive as
that. Conscious of the fact that he was laying down the leadership of the
Church and that things had to go forward without him, Paul had only one recipe
for church advancement, and that is the gospel.
"Suffer hardship with the gospel" (1:8), which can perhaps be paraphrased,
'Take all that is coming to you in the interests of carrying the gospel forward.'
"Hold the pattern of those sound, health-giving words" (1:13). Maintain
the gospel in purity. "The things which you have heard from me ... commit
to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2:2), in other words,
take steps to guarantee the perpetuation of the gospel. Timothy was told
to do this with patient work of ceaseless teaching so that men might recover
themselves out of the snare of the Devil (2:26). He was urged to be on duty
in season and out of season, "for the time will come when they will not endure
the sound doctrine ..." (4:2-3). He was to carry forward the work of the
gospel in the face of Satanic opposition, and he was to do it all in the
light of the fact that the Lord Jesus is coming again (4:1).
This, then, is the thread which runs throughout this letter; this is
what 2 Timothy is all about. Preach the gospel! It will involve you in suffering,
but stick to this task for, if the Church loses the purity of the gospel
it will cease to be effective. When Jesus comes again may He find you ignoring
the weight of opposition against you from other cults and false gospels,
and continuing faithfully and patiently preaching the gospel, even though
-- like Timothy with his fears and ill-health -- you are acutely aware of
your inadequacy. We now see that the major thrust of Paul's preaching, however,
is not the obvious, that the way forward is to preach the gospel, but the
reminder of what we can easily forget, namely, that God provides the necessary
power to enable us to fulfil our task.
The Church's Sufficiency
The theme of power is one of the central themes of this letter. At the
beginning we are told that "God gave us not a spirit of fearfulness, but
of power ..." (1:7). Note the past tense, "He gave", and note the pronoun
"us" which means that we are all included. Power is not something which will
be ours if only we can capture the technique of getting it, but it is ours
because God has given it to us.
It is a beautiful power, for it operates in love, "... the spirit of
power and love". It is also the spirit of discipline, or rather a state
of control whereby we are mobilised to operate. The word 'discipline' is
not a specially good translation, and I would like to help you to see and
then to feel what it means by pointing out that it is the same word in essence
that is used in the narrative of the Garadene demoniac. After Jesus had
cast out the legion of demons, we read that the townsfolk came and found
him "sitting clothed and in his right mind" (Luke 8:35). The man's poor
faculties which previously had been scattered to the four winds by the multitude
of demons in him, were co-ordinated and controlled. He then became a man
in perfect mastery and control of integrated faculties. That is what here
is said to be what the power of God will do for us. This, then, is the power
which operates to all others in love and which operates in the recipient
by bringing him into a position of utter control and integration.
First of all, then, we are told of the power that saved us" (1:8-9) and
then that will keep us: "I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that
he is powerful ..." (1:12). One hesitates even to touch the translation of
a verse which is so familiar and precious as 2 Timothy 1:12, but the phrase
"is able" is really the same power word. The same God who has power to save
has also power to keep. The third reference to power is found in the exhortation,
"Thou therefore, my child, be empowered in the grace which is in Christ
Jesus" (2:1). The same power which saves and keeps is also the power of
grace to make Timothy into a different person. Notice the emphatic "Thou"!
The message is especially for the individual, it is the message for you
, so that you may be the sort of person the gospel requires. Then again,
there is the power of the Holy Scriptures: "From a babe thou hast known
the sacred writings which are powerful ..." (3:15). The Scriptures are powerful,
powerful to make wise unto salvation. This use of salvation refers to so
much more than the initial saving of the sinner. It means the totality of
all that God intends to do for us. The inspired Scripture is profitable
... that the man of God may be complete(3:16). The power of the Word is
such that it makes the man of God a complete person, fully equipped for
every good work. We live in desperate days. We are totally inadequate. The
[102/103] gospel must go forth. There is a power adequate
to the task.
The Church's God
Within this framework we now approach the great theme of God Himself.
If we weak, trembling, frail and inadequate people are to carry the gospel
forward in our day, preserving it in purity and passing it on to the next
generation so that the Church will be preaching it when the Lord Jesus comes
again, then our prime necessity is to be convinced that God is God.
This is where Paul started. He did not start with 2:1, exhorting Timothy
to brace himself up for the task, nor did he start by prescribing direct
remedies for Timothy's weaknesses. He did not even start by reminding him
of the Holy Scriptures as the equipment available for his work. No, he started
by asking, "Timothy, do you realise what God is like? Is God really in focus
before you? As you face the reality of the greatness of the task and the poverty
of your own resources, take a closer look at your God." He is the God "who
has saved and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works,
but according to his own purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus
before times eternal, but now has been manifest by the appearing of our Saviour,
Christ Jesus, who broke the power of death and brought life and incorruption
to light through the gospel" (vv.9-10). We could use these verses to describe
the gospel which we are to preach, and we would not be misusing the words,
but we would be mistaking the reason why they are here. They are not just
to tell us the terms of the gospel but to show how the gospel illustrates
the power of our God.
The quotation begins in verse 8 -- "the power of God who saved us ..."
and the following verses are full of God. They give us a total revelation
of Him. It starts with the revelation of God the Father, the One who accomplished
salvation and apportions it; He saved us and called us. With that same pre-determination
which in eternity demanded the gospel, He also determined on the recipients
of that gospel -- He saved us. It had nothing to do with our works
but was "according to his own purpose and grace which was given us before
times eternal". What an incredible thing, and yet how plain it is in the
statement of it! One of the features of the Scriptures is that in them the
deepest and most mysterious truths are stated in language of incomparable
clarity. What could be clearer? Look at it again: "... not according to our
works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was given to us in
Christ Jesus before times eternal". There are only two words of more than
one syllable. It is as plain as daylight. "Before times eternal." How far
back is that? No-one can measure the eternal. And in those eternal purposes,
the Father who is the fountain of all grace, gave grace to us.
We have here also a revelation of the Son of God. He is the repository
of grace, for this eternal grace was planned and stored up for us "in Christ
Jesus". This same Christ Jesus is our Saviour, the agent of the outworking
of salvation in history, for it has all been "manifested by the appearing
of our Saviour Jesus Christ" (v.10). He is also the object of saving faith
and the pattern of loving life -- "Hold the pattern of sound words which
you have heard from me in faith and love in Christ Jesus" (v.13). So the Son
is brought into focus.
Furthermore, we have a revelation of the Holy Spirit: "God gave us ...
a spirit of power" (v.7) and "that good thing which was committed unto thee,
guard through the Holy Ghost who dwells in us" (v.14). This is the last reference
to the Spirit in this letter and it reminds us that the Holy Spirit indwells
to be the guardian of truth already given. There is no whisper about the
Holy Spirit revealing new truth. It is fascinating to note that Paul, at
the end of his apostolic career and with the mountain of teaching about the
Holy Spirit that we can glean in all his other letters, makes this statement
about the Spirit at this point. Looking forward into the history yet to come
of the Christian Church and not knowing for how long it will go on, Paul
says that the supreme thing which the Holy Spirit will do for the Church
is that He will indwell the believer as the great Guardian of divine truth
The Greatness of God's Power
There are three words which sum up the revelation of the power of God
in this opening section of Paul's letter; they are Accomplishment, Conquest
First of all there is Accomplishment, the power to get things done. This
is emphasised in the phrase "who saved us" (v.9). There is no
[103/104] halfway position and no merely hopeful prospect, but
it is stated in the past tense to show that it is really done. Now in order
that we may feel that element in the power of God, that is, the power to accomplish,
notice first of all that God's will to save is eternal. The gospel, the means
of salvation and the experience of salvation, was all planned beforehand.
Both the foundation work upon which the Good News would rest in the redemptive
work of the Lord Jesus Christ and the actual bringing home of that Good News
to sinners, were all settled in eternity. God's will to save is an eternal
will; it was before times eternal. The end was there in the beginning. We
must talk in these temporal, time-bound terms, so all we can say is that
the beginning was somewhere there in eternity, even before times eternal.
Of course, as creatures of time, we cannot comprehend this, but we do
believe that grace was given to us then, when God settled it in His own mind.
And He has never changed this eternal will of His. We find that in this
thought of God's power being that of accomplishment, there is the idea of
that which is immutable or unchangeable. We often lay plans, but then we
have to adapt them to changing circumstances. Our wisdom does not extend
far enough into the future for us to be able to make a plan at the beginning
which can be carried through without change until the final accomplishment.
We have to shift a bit here and there, to modify and to learn greater wisdom
from new experiences. We have to alter and adapt as we go on, but God is
not like that; He does not change and He does not need to change, for He has
it hammered out in eternity. It was settled then how Jesus would come and
what Jesus would do and the people to whom Jesus would become precious.
And as it was in the beginning, so it came to pass and it was manifested
by the appearing of our Saviour Christ. God's will is immutable; He makes
up His mind and goes forward without change, without alteration and without
adaptation. His power to accomplish contains the element of effectiveness.
God's power is effective in its own right, for we read here, "... not according
to our works". God did not and does not need any help. He did not need our
assistance to carry His plan forward; in fact He contradicted our works when
He brought salvation home to us. Not for one moment did God ever pick someone
who would be easy to save because the one concerned would help Him to do
it. The opposite is true, for it is from our works that He had to save us.
The remarkable conversion of Saul on the Damascus road is the model to show
us what lies behind every conversion; it was dramatic and clear, in black
and white, so that we may perceive this. Saul's whole tendency was contrary
to the gospel and the whole set of his works were in adversity to the gospel.
Ananias, when commanded to go and help this brother Saul, questioned the
Lord as to whether He was doing a wise thing. So, if the Lord had taken the
best human advice available, He would have been advised not to do it.
The whole tendency of the human mind is contrary in this matter of salvation.
So alone and unaided, God has accomplished the total work of salvation, and
in His own patient, gracious, changeless, unhurried and utterly sovereign
way, He has brought us by grace into Christ Jesus. That is why this whole
passage is wrapped around the Holy Trinity. In Scripture, the Trinity was
not revealed until Jesus came, but when He stepped into the waters of baptism,
identifying Himself with sinners and, according to His own testimony, fulfilling
all righteousness, the heavens were opened for the Father to acknowledge
the Son and the Holy Spirit to descend and remain upon Him. In this way we
are shown that the almighty and age-long plan of salvation had come to its
God's power is the power of conquest or overcoming; it is the power that
does not brook opposition. God does not ignore opposition; He overcomes it.
This is described in the words "abolished death" (v.10). The Lord Jesus broke
the power of death. Death is the concentration of all that is against God,
It is the summary of all that is arrayed against the welfare of man and
against the well-being of the saints. Death came in with sin: death is the
signal outworking of sin. The power of death is the incessant foe of the
gospel, both in the world and in the believer. Christ has broken the power
of death, however, for all those who trust in Him, so that His power becomes
the power for overcoming.
"For this cause I suffer these things, but I am not ashamed, for I know
whom I have believed and I am persuaded that He is powerful to guard"
[104/105] (v.12). He displays His power in keeping us, for He has
the power of security. It was good of Paul to take the time to tell us that
he was no armchair strategist, sitting back in the calm of his study and
writing to tell Timothy how to behave. Speaking out of his own adverse experience
he declared, "I suffer ... but I am not ashamed". He was well aware that
the cause of the gospel seemed to be going backward rather than forward; he
was wearing chains that bound him to the prospect of execution, but he was
not ashamed. From the darkness of his cell around him, he could affirm that
Christ had "brought immortality to light" so that, although he himself was
in pitch blackness, he was not abashed.
Why? Because he knew the One who is able to guard. Christ would see him
through. In this very lovely verse you will know that there is the possibility
of two translations. The Greek word translated "that which I have committed
unto him" is really "my deposit", and that can mean either that which I have
deposited with Him or that which He has deposited with me. Since Paul made
no effort to tell us which he meant, I think that it is fair to take them
both as representing the fullness of the meaning of Scripture.
He is able to keep that which I have deposited with Him. I have given
Him myself, haven't I? Then, come chains of imprisonment or the sword of
the executioner, He will not fail to keep that which I have deposited with
Him. He will keep His minister; He will see me through to eternal glory. He
will also keep the message. He is able to keep that which He deposited with
me. He charged me to preach the gospel and He will never fail to keep that.
"Yes, Timothy, I am on my way out and you are on your way in, but it is God
Himself who will keep the gospel intact." The power of God provides complete
security both for the messenger and for the message. Hence Timothy would
be an empowered individual, provided that his eyes were full of his God.
The assurance is bracketed by two references to the Holy Spirit: "God gave
us a spirit ... of power" (v.7) and "That good thing which was committed
to you, guard through the Holy Spirit who dwells in you" (v.14). The Holy
Spirit undertakes to empower the messenger and to guard the message.
In conclusion, let us consider the impact of all this on poor fearful
Timothy. "God has already decided what He is going to do, Timothy. He doesn't
make up His mind at the last minute but has settled in eternity what He proposes
to do. There are crowds of people yet, Timothy, who have not yet responded
to Christ and believed in Him, but you don't have to fuss and worry about
it in a way which imagines that it depends all on you." God cannot be deflected
from His purpose; nothing will ever stop Him forging ahead on His own self-appointed
course. He determined it in eternity, and He will truly accomplish salvation
in His own marvellous way. And the power -- the power that will bring it
all to pass -- well the power is all of God.
(To be continued)
THE IRREVERSIBLE RAIN
(Some comments on the Epistle to the Hebrews -- 6)
John H. Paterson
SOME passages in the Bible are difficult to understand. For the man who
approaches them critically and with disbelief, they serve merely to show
that his own scepticism is justified. For those who read the Bible in faith
and confidence that it is indeed the Word of God, these passages constitute
what Peter once called "some things that are hard to understand" (2 Peter
3:16). Since Peter was referring at that moment to the writings of his colleague
Paul, we may be prepared to admit that we, too, have our difficulties in
Among such passages, there is one in the Epistle to the Hebrews which
would probably be placed by almost any Bible student high on his list of
"things that are hard to understand". It is the first part of Chapter 6.
It says, quite clearly, that "it is impossible for those who have once been
enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly [105/106]
gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit ... if they fall away, to be
brought back to repentance" (Hebrews 6:4-5 N.I.V.). This has alarmed generations
of Christians by suggesting that a believer can be saved and lost: it has
fuelled a long-running theological debate on this subject and, I think we
can fairly add, it has caused deep anxiety to many, who fear lest they, too,
should fall away.
The text, as I have said, is quite clear: the difficulty arises because
the interpretation of it to which I have just referred runs counter not only
to any number of Scriptural assurances that our salvation is secure but
also, if we take it in the way suggested, it runs counter to what the writer
to the Hebrews is so cogently arguing. His argument is that the once-for-all
work of Christ is much better, much more secure, and much more permanent
than the former system of sacrifice and atonement known to Israel in Old Testament
days. Why, in that case, would he apparently contradict in the sixth chapter
what he was going to insist on in the eighth, ninth and tenth?
In Search of an Explanation
We certainly need the reassurance of some explanation. But before I offer
mine, let me say a word about the nature of this thing, 'explanation'. When
we speak of explaining something, we usually cherish -- even if subconsciously
-- the belief that what we are going to do is to explain it fully
. In reality, this is a vain hope for, logically, the only full
explanation of any event is the entire history of the world prior to that
event! Nevertheless, we still cling to the belief that, if we can only find
it, a single explanation will do the trick.
But there are a number of problems in every sphere -- in philosophy,
or physics, as well as in theology -- where this is not the case. In most
matters of importance our model of 'explanation' is not so much a clean
sweep, a single answer that settles all questions, as a nibbling away at
the problem; a clearing of the ground bit by bit; a removal, one by one,
of the barriers to understanding. Explanation of the origins of the First
World War is still most lively, nearly 70 years after the event, with new
insights being offered year by year. And if there was a single explanation
of, say, the problem of predestination, do you not think that thousands of
years of search would have uncovered it? Or if there was a single
explanation of the problem posed by Hebrews 6, do you not suppose that all
those arguments between Calvinists and Arminians would have brought it to
It seems to me that what we must do, and what I personally have gradually
learned to do, is to accept gratefully any partial explanation we
are offered, any partial easing of the problem, and then to press on
and look for a further part of the whole. This admittedly calls for patience,
for persistence, and perhaps for reserving judgement in the meantime, and
we should all prefer to receive our explanations in a single flash of inspiration
or insight! But God has given us minds, and one of their uses is to reject
facile 'explanations' of divine mysteries.
So all I shall try to do in these comments on Hebrews 6 is to set these
verses in their context. If by doing so I can relieve, even partially, the
anxiety of any believer who is troubled by this passage of Scripture, the
effort will have been worthwhile.
The Passage in its Context
Here, then, is my first suggestion. The Epistle to the Hebrews is clearly
made up of two types of materials. For simplicity's sake I shall call them
argument and application. The sections which I am calling argument
are just that: they are successive parts of an argument that the way to
God through Christ is a better way than the old way through priest and sacrifice.
They are, in a strict sense, theological; they explain the ways of God and
the way to God. They are not continuous; rather, after each section of argument
the writer pauses to make the practical application to the life
of the believer of those things for which he has been arguing. These 'application'
sections are easily recognised by the many exhortations they contain: draw
near, go on, don't give up.
Obviously, there is a difference in kind between facts about God and
advice to people; between eternal truth and our responses to it. And so
I simply point out that Hebrews 6, the 'problem passage' we are considering,
is not part of the argument but of the application. It is one of
those sections of the epistle where the writer is [106/107]
not arguing doctrine but advising on conduct. Indeed, the chapter begins,
as you will notice, with a rather dismissive reference to doctrines! (vv.1
and 2). Life as a believer is not to consist of the endless repetition of
doctrines. Argument without application would obviously be unproductive,
and defeat the object of the writer.
So one thing which Chapter 6 is not is a discussion of the doctrine
of salvation. It is not this writer's counterpart of, say, Paul's
fifth chapter of Romans. To me, and I hope to you, that does something to
ease the difficulty at once, even if it does not by any means solve it. Hebrews
6 is not one of those passages on which we should base our fundamental understanding
of the doctrines of salvation. Its purpose is not primarily to inform us
of facts about God but to advise us about ourselves and our own conduct.
What we have in this chapter is an attempt to apply the argument which
preceded it. What was that argument? Simply that Jesus Chris as made by
God a High Priest in perpetuity, perfect in every way and therefore far
superior to those other priests who had come and gone so often and, sometimes,
so ineffectually in the past.
Now the writer of the letter was addressing people, let us remind ourselves,
who had turned from their traditional Jewish faith to follow Christ and were
now evidently wondering whether they had been wise to do so. They were regretting
the upheavals -- indeed, the persecution -- which their conversion was causing
them and wondering whether it might be wiser to turn back; to try something
Context and Image
It was the writer's task to dissuade them from doing any such thing.
He evidently realised that these Christians had built up a false idea of
their position. They thought of themselves like people standing at a cross-roads,
where they did not know which road was the right one. They therefore proposed
to walk a little way down each road in turn, and to judge by the state of
its surface and the direction it took whether it was the road for them. If
they did not like the look of it, they would simply return to their starting
point and try again.
On ordinary roads, it is done easily enough; we have probably all had
this experience at some time or another. But the writer wants them to understand
that the way to God is not like this. The difference -- to continue my analogy
for a moment longer -- is that the way to God through Christ is not a road
on which you may come and go at will; it is a toll road on which a huge price
in toll has to be paid for entry -- a toll that has been paid for
us, by Christ Himself. If you decide, after going along the road for a while,
that you do not wish to continue, you cannot reclaim this toll; you cannot
'get your money back'. And if you abandon the road you cannot later return
to it and have the toll paid a second time, for who shall pay it? It would
be, says the writer, a matter of "crucifying the Son of God all over again"
I think that the picture of a toll road is a fair one, because the whole
epistle, as we have seen, is about the way to God. But the writer actually
uses here a different illustration to make his point, which is simply this:
some things are irreversible. One of them, of course, is the rain.
Supposing that, as a result of rain, the ground begins to show signs of growing
plants. In due course, weeds begin to appear. 'But', you say, 'I didn't
want weeds: I wanted corn. So I want the rain to go back up and fall again,
and this time I want corn to grow.'
The simple truth is: it never rains upwards! Once the rain has
fallen, there is no calling it back. You may get weeds or corn, but the one
thing you cannot do is to get one of them and then ask the rain for a re-run,
to give you the other!
In the lives of these Jewish believers, certain events had taken place.
They had turned to God through Christ and had embarked on the way He had
opened for them. If now they did not like this way, what were they to do?
Pretend they never started? But their initial entry upon that way had set
in motion the whole mechanism of God's salvation: it had set in motion all
those actions and reactions referred to in the first verses of Chapter 6.
The price of their entry had been paid for them. It happened; they
could not now undo it. It might appear to them that there was a choice of
ways to God, among which they could chop and change and to anyone of which
they could return as many times as they wished. But the unavoidable, absolute
barrier to that course of action was simply this: Christ has died.
No chopping or changing there. [107/108]
All of us who are human know the tendency of the human mind to try to
convince itself that something -- generally something we disliked or regretted
-- never really happened. Evidently, what these Hebrew Christians wanted to
do was to pretend that they had never really begun on the way to God. But
the writer, addressing them in the most down-to-earth practical fashion, not
as a teacher of doctrine but as an advocate of simple common sense, says to
them, 'You cannot deny your own past; you cannot unmake your own decision;
you cannot un-live your own history; you cannot pay back the price of redemption.
There is only one way to go and that is forwards. The rain only falls once!"
And should we not all agree?
(To be continued)
ABIDING SPIRITUAL PRINCIPLES
(Some lessons from the life of Solomon)
2. THE ESTABLISHING OF SOLOMON. 2 Chronicles 1 & 2
DAVID is at the heart of the two books of the Chronicles, and he is the
ideal by which all later ages are to measure themselves, however different
those ages may be. This, of course, is what makes the books so up-to-date
and relevant. The chronicler wrote to those who lived in very different circumstances,
but yet had much to learn from his portrait of David. We who live so much
later than those first readers and in even more different circumstances
must appreciate that it is also written for our learning.
As we come to Second Chronicles, we find that David has now died, and
the whole thrust of the message is to answer the question as to what we can
do now that David has gone. How can the gap be filled? It is to be filled
by Solomon. In our last study we learned something of the permanent principles
which David indicated would still remain. "After I have gone," David said,
"many things may be different and circumstances changed, but the Lord will
still be there to be acknowledged and the king must still be enthroned among
His people." Those are the constancies.
In these two chapters we are no longer concerned with the accession of
Solomon but with his establishing in the kingdom. He was no longer a cipher,
but he was now saddled with the responsibility amongst his people. How would
he measure up to this? The same question applies to us in our day. The responsibility
for the Lord's interests has devolved upon us. How are we to carry on?
We are going to consider a certain number of incidents connected with
this establishing of Solomon, and we must notice that in every case it is
Solomon himself who took the initiative. The Lord strengthened him and was
with him (v.1), and made him exceedingly great. First of all Solomon spoke
to Israel and took a representative assembly of the whole people to the high
place at Gibeon to offer sacrifices to God (vv.2-6). Then Solomon spoke to
God as He met him there and made his great request for wisdom (vv.7-13). Then
Solomon gathered chariots and horsemen, doing a roaring trade with neighbouring
nations, so that the wealth began to pour in (vv.14-17). Unlike the Kings
version of the matter, the Chronicler calls the King of Tyre Huram, and records
that Solomon took the initiative, writing first to him (2:3-17) and then tells
how Solomon took a census of all the strangers in Israel to provide building
labour for his project to build the Temple (vv.17-18).
In the last two chapters of 1 Chronicles, we saw how God was setting
the scene by telling David that He had so arranged things that they would
continue after David had gone by providing Solomon. Now in these first chapters
of 2 Chronicles we find that Solomon had to accept the responsibility and
act accordingly. It was as if God said to him, 'Well, Solomon, there is
the [108/109] grace, now where is the faith? Solomon,
like all of us with our responsibilities, found that when God had set it all
up for him, giving the plans and making the provision, the time came when
he had to act in faith. What did he do?
1. He sought the Lord (1:2-6)
"Solomon and the congregation sought unto it (the altar)" (1:5). The
Chronicler brings out what were presumably facts which the writer of Kings
did not include, showing that when Solomon went to Gibeon, he made it a
state occasion as the whole assembly went to where the altar was. He also
was concerned to explain that they went to Gibeon because that was where
the tent of meeting was, the tent which Moses had made for meeting the Lord
in the wilderness. There was another tent in Jerusalem, the one prepared
for the Ark by David when he brought it up from the house of Obed-edom (1
Chronicles 15:1), but the altar was still before the tabernacle of the Lord
in Gibeon. The Ark was the sign of the grace of God which was going to be
in the Temple at Jerusalem, but the altar was the place to which sacrifice
was to be brought. The Ark stood for grace, but the altar stood for the
response of faith.
The matter being stressed is the response of faith. God had asked Solomon
what he was going to do about his task, and Solomon's response was to seek
the Lord at the place of the altar where he could present his sacrifice as
symbolising the offering of himself. God had set everything up, the guidelines
were all laid down, how would Solomon react? He went first to the altar;
he determined to seek the Lord. He did not go alone, but led all the congregation
with him in making this response of faith. And he did not go empty-handed,
either, but offered a thousand burnt offerings (v.6) as the only kind of
sacrifice worthy of such a great trust. With a seeking heart he turned to
the Lord with all the assembly, for it was not just a matter of his own needs
as an individual, but his responsibility for his fellows.
And that was where the Lord began to bless. That is where it should always
start. How can any of us take up the responsibility that the Lord has lined
up for us? We feel left on our own, inexperienced and consciously inadequate
in coping with the weight of responsibility entrusted to us. What must we
do first? Solomon shows us that the very first thing to do is to come to
the altar, to make seeking of the Lord on that basis our primary concern.
We must bring all those involved to the Lord in prayer and make a new heart
committal to Him. Solomon sought the Lord, and so must we.
2. He asked the blessing (1:7-13)
The activity of worship was not enough. God accepted this approach of
Solomon with its association of all the people with him, but then said to
him "Ask what I shall give thee" (v.7). He had to think the thing through
and put into words what he actually wished God to do for him. Solomon rose
to the occasion and told God the blessing which he was seeking. I want you
to notice the terms in which Solomon asked for the blessing for himself as
he shouldered his responsibility: his prayer was based upon the grace of
God. "Thou hast showed great kindness unto David my father, and hast made
me king in his stead" (v.8). The point was that God had promised David an
everlasting throne and then allowed David to die. What had happened to the
eternal promise of God? Solomon's words showed that he saw that the promise
had not failed, and that his own place on the throne of Israel was a demonstration
that His mercy had not failed but His promise still held good.
Basing his prayer upon this, Solomon was able to ask that the promise
should be established (v.9), almost as if he were putting a challenge to
God who knew the poor sort of man he was to take up such responsibility and
must make him capable of fulfilling it. His request was that the faithful
God should fulfil His promise even in his case, pressing on with His divine
task even through one who knew himself to be insufficient for it.
This, then, was his prayer: "Give me now wisdom and knowledge, that I
may go out and come in before this people; for who can judge this people
that is so great?" (v.10). A delighted God replied, 'Isn't that grand? You
never asked for all the things you might have asked for, the things that
were the obvious trappings of kingship in the Middle East, the sort of things
that many a lesser man would have thought would make him a king, but you
asked that you might be made the right person for the task. I like that!"
How wise of Solomon to go beyond the outward things which might seem
to make possible a long and prosperous reign, knowing that such things were
of no account unless he were the kind of king that God wanted him to be. He
understood the knub of the matter, namely that the most important thing is
to be right with God. That is why the Lord was so pleased and gladly promised
him everything else beside. The most obvious cross reference is: "Seek ye
first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will
be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33). It was as if Solomon went right to the
heart of the matter saying, 'O Lord, I want to be right with Thee. I want
to be the kind of person Thou would'st wish me to be, even if I were to lose
my kingdom and be a poverty-stricken petty king and only reign for a week,
that would not matter, provided I was in the right relationship with my
This is the kind of prayer that God will honour. We are not to be conformed
to this world or to the kind of things that this world values and considers
essential, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds and then all
the other things will begin to take shape around us. The first concern must
not be to have the right possessions or experiences but to be the right kind
of persons. When we feel like saying that the task is too much for us and
requires better men than us to do it, then our right prayer is to ask God
to make us such men. If He has given us the task, He will delight to answer
such a prayer.
3. He related to the world around him (1:14-17)
In these few verses we have all that the Chronicler has to say at this
stage concerning Solomon's international relations. There is quite a lot
in 1 Chronicles about David's international relations, most of it being a
sorry tale of warfare and bloodshed, but that seems to have been David's
destiny. By the time that Solomon came to the throne, the wars were largely
over. He was a man of peace. So it is that what the Chronicler has to say
about these relations is peaceful; they concerned trade and commerce as his
kingdom was greatly enriched by them.
In our last article we concluded with the poetic recital of these in
Psalm 72, reading of the kings of Tarshish and the isles bringing gifts,
the kings of Sheba and Seba offering presents and the kings of Arabia falling
down before him as tributaries: The same thoughts are taken beyond the realm
of poetry into the realms of eschatology in Revelation 21, where we find
that the King who sits upon the throne of heaven has flowing into His great
city the wealth and honour of all the nations. Solomon is here described
as having that experience as the privilege of the man who takes on the responsibility
that God had given him. Because he was right with God and because he sought
the blessing, he found that he was related to the world around him in a remarkable
This seems to be the other side of the coin to the persecution which
is the lot of all those who will live godly in this present life. David
shows one side of the picture; people did not like him and his growing power,
so his relationships with them tended to deal with attack and warfare, but
Solomon shows us the other side, when God makes a man to be at peace: "When
a man's ways please the Lord He makes even his enemies to be at peace with
him" (Proverbs 16:7). Is it not true that when we are right with God, nothing
around us can hurt us and somehow we find that the world is a wonderful place
where all conspires to our benefit. At times the going is tough and we seem
always to be suffering persecution, yet at the same time there can often be
a sense in which, like Solomon, we are able to draw riches in abundance from
the world around us.
Such a man learns to turn even suffering to good account and his very
woes become blessings. Even his poverty becomes wealth and even his sickness
becomes health. As we move into chapter 2, we find an instance of this in
the dealings with Huram king of Tyre. It was on this basis that Solomon was
able to build the Temple.
4. He planned the Temple (2:1-18)
Our last point is connected with Solomon's plans for the Temple. Now
the Temple is a very important subject in Chronicles; there is going to
be lots more about it later on, so we pass quickly over this present chapter.
We can surely take this as the planning of our own worship and service to
the Lord, as the Chronicler and his readers must have done. In Solomon's
case it was a marvellous building, in the time of the Chronicles
[110/111] the building in question may have seemed rather second
rate, but for everyone who is called to God's service these principles must
apply. The first thing which God wants us to do is to seek Him personally.
The next is to seek His blessing in prayer. After that we must learn to relate
to the world, finding that God blesses us as we do so. Now fourthly, we see
what is our equivalent to Solomon's case and find that it means we must set
about planning how we are going to worship and serve Him. Chapter 2 makes
it plain that it was not simply a question of the building itself but more
of the worship that went on there, the events that took place, the offerings
and the festivals.
i. It must be Scriptural
We will notice three things about Solomon's plans for the temple service
and the first is that it must be Scriptural. In verse 4 Solomon goes right
back to the ordinances which were laid down by Moses at the beginning. Solomon
did not just go back to his father David, much as he respected him, but went
right back to the law, saying, "This is an ordinance for ever unto Israel".
So it must always be for us. We may get all sorts of bright ideas as to
what might be done for the Lord but must remember that enthusiasm may be
good and pleasing to God but it is not enough. The principles are laid down.
We must always go back to them and ask "what is the ordinance forever ...?
What does the Word of God say?"
ii. It must be spiritual
As we continue into verse 6 we see that it is also most important that
the work should be spiritual -- not just the letter of the law but the spirit
of the worshipper. Solomon insisted that he could not build a house for the
One whom the highest heaven cannot contain, except to burn incense before
Him. He did not pretend that God was going to be confined to the building
he was erecting; in a sense the Temple was only a convenient place for the
services of worship, since what he planned to do was to worship God in Spirit
and truth. This whole matter was amplified by the Lord Jesus when He told
the woman of Samaria that it was not the place that mattered but the spiritual
reality of the worship. We must always keep this in mind in our day and in
our buildings. Our service must be spiritual.
iii. It must be of the highest quality
From verse 7 to 10 We are told not only of the quantity, which was enormous,
but also the quality of the materials to be used. We read of gold and silver,
of purple, crimson and blue, and of the very best timber. It was to be "timber
in abundance" for the house was to be wonderfully great (v.9). Verses 17
to 19 tell of the vast amount of labour which was to be put into this work,
but stress is also laid on the skill involved, such skill as could not be
found in Israel but had to be brought in from abroad (vv.13-14). Nothing was
too good for that Temple, and nothing is too good for the service of God
to which we are called. It must be "worthy of the gospel".
We close this article by referring to two remarkable verses in the middle
of the chapter. They are the more remarkable because they record the opinion
of the king of Tyre: "Because the Lord loveth his people, he hath made thee
king over them. Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, that made heaven
and earth, who hath given to David the king a wise son, endued with discretion
and understanding, that he should build a house for the Lord ..." (vv.11-12).
We cannot tell from the words just how much Huram understood or believed
what he was saying. Perhaps it was just because it seemed the right message
to send. However it is not by accident that the Chronicler has recorded this,
taking the words and inserting them as the most fitting comment on Solomon's
response of faith to the Lord's call of grace. Whatever Huram meant, what
he said was absolutely right. Wouldn't you love this to be said of you?
All you know is that you have sought to respond in a Scriptural and spiritual
way in the responsibility committed to you by the Lord, but how wonderful
it would be if the verdict on your ministry was that the Lord put you just
where you are because of His love for those concerned. They may be few in
number and your service very small in your own eyes, but how gratifying
if the verdict could be that it was because the Lord loved them so much
that He put you there in the midst of them.
(To be continued) [111/112]
Reading: Luke 15:1-32
THE parable of the prodigal son has many lessons including a sharp contrast
between those who are happy and blessed and those who are grumbling and angry.
It may be helpful to consider this contrast as we attempt to discover to
which group we ourselves belong. God's service should always be happy, but
it is not always so even to those busily engaged in it.
Take the Pharisees and the scribes (Luke 15:2). They were knowledgeable
in the Scriptures, so much so that there seemed almost no limit to their
scriptural wisdom, yet somehow with all their ability in this respect they
were a murmuring, discontented and backbiting people.
Why did they complain? It was because Jesus was good to sinners. They
could not bear that. Their attitude revealed how unloving they were, in spite
of all this Bible learning. They thought that they were more concerned to
protect God's interests than Jesus was, so they grumbled at Him. Unloving
hearts always murmur at unreserved love, complaining that it goes too far.
The elder son, who stayed at home and never transgressed a single one
of his father's commandments, was also one of the discontented. He even became
angry. No doubt he called it 'righteous anger', as we always do when we
want to justify our unkind spirit.
What he lacked was liberating joy and gratitude. He claimed that he had
been devoted to the father's interests, yet he was chosen by the Lord to
represent that unattractive group of religious bigots who were His critics.
Why could not such people rejoice? Because they did not know themselves and
therefore could not know the Saviour. They regarded themselves as righteous
-- or at least more righteous than the prodigal son. From a human and religious
point of view this was doubtless the case, and yet for this very reason they
could not enjoy the experience of sinners saved by grace for, compared with
the prodigal, they had no need of grace. The previous parable of the lost
sheep and that of the lost coin could be applied to others, but it meant nothing
to them personally. Now this parable of the lost son aroused their indignation
for, according to their opinion, righteousness had been set aside.
They were offended, the stumbling-block being God's free love which was
illustrated by the generosity of the father who did not even have a serious
talk with his son about his bad behaviour, but reinstalled him at once without
further question. The father gave his erring son everything, without so much
as first putting him on trial for a probationary period.
These humourless, tied-up people felt that they had never done anything
wrong but they had not thereby fulfilled the will of God, for that is never
fulfilled by mere outward agreement with what is written. All their goodness
was self-goodness and all their righteousness self-righteousness, a thing
which is most repugnant to God. This they could not bear to accept. It was
completely objectionable to suggest that they had no better standing before
God than the prodigal son. This, therefore, was why they murmured and were
IT is sadly possible that this may be true of us. We can be surrounded
by joy and be offended by it and by those who have been made glad. It may
be good for us to take note of those who were so filled with joy.
i. There were firstly those who in heaven were said to rejoice more over
one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance (v.7).
What a pity that these 'righteous' complained while heaven rejoiced!
ii. Next our attention is called to the angels of God who are said to
rejoice over a sinner who has repented (v.10). The complainers here on earth
scowled and were unhappy while the angels of God were singing for joy. How
iii. Then there was the father, delightedly calling for the best robe
and the fatted calf and ordering all to be merry. See his great father-heart
[112/113] and contrast it with their petty self-righteousness!
See how good he is, and how evil they are! Hear his wonderful words, and hear
how they whisper in corners, scowling and complaining about what they regarded
as unseemly! There is as great a contrast as between a happy home and a den
of criminals, as between heaven and hell. They, however, could not understand
this; they would have nothing to do with it, being so sure that they were
right and knew what God wanted.
iv. Then there was the prodigal who had come home. It does not directly
say that he was glad, but we can be sure that he was overwhelmed with gratitude
and joy even in his contrition. His tears were tears of sorrow and yet of
deep joy. The self-righteous, however, begrudged him his joy just as they
begrudged the father's happiness. They felt that they knew better. They had
never done anything wrong. They had defended God's interests and been jealous
for what was right. They would not tolerate superficial dealing with such
an offender; no-one could convince them that he had suddenly changed and
could be trusted with his father's affairs and wealth.
It is written: "And they began to be merry" (v.24). Fjord Christianson
once remarked that the Scripture never says anything about their stopping
again once they had begun. Those who experience the free grace of God discover
an unending source of joy; they enjoy the perfect law of liberty which is
in such direct contrast to the gloomy complaining of the self-righteous.
v. What about us? How careful we must be not to place ourselves in the
company of those who in their humourless 'righteousness' make difficulties
both for the Father, whose joy they will not share, and for the son who
has come back home and had the reception which is given to all who come
to God by Christ Jesus. We must be careful to keep our souls from this poverty
and meanness of spirit depicted by the poor elder brother and all the discontented
Jews of Christ's day. Can we indeed keep ourselves from it? I doubt it,
for by nature we all want to have our rights. How often do children -- and
Christians -- complain that something 'is not fair'!! Can any of us claim
to be entirely free from affinity with the Pharisees, the scribes and the
elder son who stayed at home? We need the enabling of God's Spirit if we
are to keep ourselves in the liberty of love-service which this chapter
FIRST of all, though, I would emphasise that the important factor in
every relationship is the attitude of mind. There are no outward
rules in the New Covenant, for the only law which applies is the perfect
law of liberty which makes us blessed in our doing. We need the mind of
Jesus. The freedom which He has brought us into is based on service of love,
so that anything that is not done in true love is bound to be unblessed,
even though it wears a Christian disguise. We must therefore be careful
about our heart attitude if we are to be saved from having a place among
the unhappy and discontented.
This does not mean self-preoccupation, but it does mean constantly looking
into the perfect law of liberty, seeing what we are truly like and never
forgetting our own great need. If we minimise what we are like ourselves,
we will become a prey to self-righteousness and find ourselves all too soon
among the company of the moody and murmuring. When we remember with pain what
we are like in ourselves, then we will be aware of the infinite greatness
of the Father's love which covers a multitude of sins -- including ours! This
should make us more lenient with others.
Nothing seems more difficult than such a drastic change of mental attitude.
In most churches it seems to be a very slow process; there are happy exceptions,
but by and large such transformation of mind proceeds at a snail's pace.
It is to be feared that Christians do not change as they should, although
the transformation of an attitude of mind is so very important. It might almost
be thought that the terrible words of Revelation 22:11 in an applied form
are already at work in the church: "He that is a grumbler, let him continue
to grumble; he that is discontented, let him continue in his discontentment".
I visit many places and feel that this applies everywhere. Happily it is
also true that those who are glad can continue to rejoice and that those who
are loving and grateful continue to be loving and grateful.
It may be impossible for us to change, for we cannot change our nature,
but if we confess our condition as sin, then the Lord is well able to change
us. Otherwise we become resigned to unhappiness even while we seek to serve.
If we confess our complaining as sin, though, then there is hope and we will
find that we have left the ranks of the grumbling self-righteous and
[113/114] found ourselves in the company of the prodigal son, the
lost sheep and the lost coin. In that company, strangely enough, there is
comfort and hope.
It is not enough, then, to pride ourselves on our conscious rightness
and our devoted service as the elder brother did, for we can be bitter and
unblessed even while we work. Rather, as forgiven sinners who have no righteousness
of their own but revel in the grace of their God, we may rejoice and thrive
in that liberty which Christ has so dearly bought for us and be blessed in
A WOMAN OF GREAT FAITH
"And she answered, It is well." 2 Kings 4:26
IT has been my experience that some practical acquaintance with resurrection
forms an abiding principle in our life and work for God. What has been given
by Him so often has to go down into death and be raised up by a further divine
miracle if it is to function fully for Him.
The Bible is full of this principle and from the many examples I have
chosen the experience of this unnamed woman of Shunem whose simple faith
made possible the greatest of Elisha's many miracles. As to her faith, what
can be nobler and more inspiring than her reply to the question about her
family circumstances that all was well. This is surely one of the most eloquent
uses of the great Bible word Shalom -- peace. Our versions translate
it by the words, 'It is well', but the N.I.V. makes it even more vivid and
emphatic by its rendering, "Everything is all right!" Her story will repay
Her name is not given, but she is described as a great woman. It could
have been her size, though that is doubtful. It could have referred to her
possessions and is sometimes rendered "wealthy", but there is little in
the story to support that idea. It could even be a reference to her status,
though even that seems unlikely for she was, after all, a farmer's wife.
One thing we do know, however, and that is that when the crucial test was
applied to her, she proved to be a woman great in faith. She was like another
nameless woman of the New Testament who was commended by the Lord Jesus
in the words, "O woman, great is thy faith" (Matthew 15:28). This is surely
the most desirable greatness, and both cases encourage us, men as well as
women, to know that it is something which can be true of anyone of us.
There are many stories related about Elisha's demonstrations of the Spirit's
power and, as with the Gospel miracles, the chief value for us is the spiritual
lessons which we can learn from them. This story of resurrection is not meant
to suggest that our beloved dead can be brought back to life again (though
it does remind us of the infinite capacity of our God to do this), but rather
to illustrate for us a basic principle of our life and ministry, namely,
that "we should not trust in ourselves but in God which raiseth the dead"
(2 Corinthians 1:9). What are we to do in those situations when God-given
responsibilities die on our hands? How shall we react when that which was
truly brought into being by the power of God seems threatened by complete
failure? Perhaps the great woman of Shunem can show us.
The story opens with an explanation of how she met God. Elisha, the man
of the double portion of the Spirit, dropped in to have a meal at her home
and was clearly invited to come again, and did so. He was a man of miraculous
spiritual gifts but, so far as we know, she had not been informed of this
and did not witness any of his wonders. Though called a prophet, he seems
to have been a man of few words and we are not told that he gave any special
spiritual instruction during those recurring meal times, yet, to use her
own words, she came to "perceive" that this occasional visitor was "a holy
man of God".
She had made a discovery. What did it mean? I suggest that it implies
that on meeting Elisha, she found that she was meeting God. This is not fanciful.
There are times when one goes into an assembly of God's people and experiences
there a direct encounter with the Lord. Paul suggests [114/115]
that this is how a church gathering should affect people (1 Corinthians
14:25). Moreover there are homes into which one goes and somehow, in the
simplicity of that home life, the presence of God becomes much more real.
I have heard this repeatedly stated concerning a certain home. 'It is different,'
people have said, 'You sense the Lord's presence in the very atmosphere.'
And sometimes -- though not often -- one encounters individuals who carry
around with them something of the fragrance of God's holiness, not by any
effort of theirs but simply by a spontaneous ministration of the divine presence.
Such an awareness may bring comfort or it may bring a guilty unease, but
there is no hiding the fact that the woman or man concerned has a habit of
dwelling in the secret place of the Most High. Elisha was such a man. What
was registered by his presence in the home at Shunem was not through any
conscious effort on his part but because he gave an Old Testament foretaste
of what Paul calls, "a sweet savour of Christ" (2 Corinthians 2:15).
Having been struck by this fact, the Shunammite woman consulted her husband
as to how they could make provision for a more constant divine visitation
in their home: "Let us make, I pray thee, a small roof chamber with walls;
and let us set for him there a bed ...; and it shall be, when he cometh to
us, that he shall turn in hither". The spiritual emphasis seems obvious,
that is, that we should be careful to enjoy as much of the Lord's presence
as possible, and make every effort to welcome Him into our homes and into
our hearts. This simple couple did just that.
May I suggest that although no doubt every bit of furniture in that simple
room was important, it was the bed which proved to be of special significance
in the story. Can this be because in some way it became a symbol of the rest
of faith? "Is it well with the child?" the anguished mother was asked and,
because the dead body of her son now lay on Elisha's bed, she was able to
reply, "It is well. Everything is all right."
From that same bed, the prophet gave the woman promise of a miraculous
gift from God. Like many of us, she felt that though she had everything
else needed for a full life, there was one great lack which she could never
hope to have remedied. When the man of God gave her the promise that God
would give her this most desired experience, she was so incredulous that
she rebuked him for trying to raise her hopes to the impossible. She rebuked
him for attempting to mislead her. This could never be! It was an impossibility!
But our God is the God of the impossible and, so great was Elisha's confidence
in that fact, he did not need to strive in prayer or go through any kind
of religious performance, but could lie back on his bed and quietly tell
the woman standing in his doorway that when the time came round, it would
happen. And "at that season, when the time came round, as Elisha had said
to her", the son was born.
Came the happy years of fulfilment, which we can all appreciate when
they come to us, and then came the day of seeming calamity, which bewilders
us when it happens in our case. Through the morning hours of that day she
held in her arms the dying child whom God had given to her and who was her
heart's delight. It must have seemed like the end of the world. Many of
us in our own ministry have endured the same agony. Spiritual hopes and
expectations which once seemed so high, have gone down into apparent death.
We have felt overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all. The work which God Himself
had given us and for which we felt He had added such help and encouragement
looked as if it were crumbling to ruin before our very eyes. It was as though,
instead of enjoying the living evidence of God at work, we were now embracing
a corpse. In the case of the Shunammite, it went on all the morning. Those
hours must have seemed like an eternity. She clasped him; she willed him
to live; but at noon he died.
Her next action is of great significance. There were three beds on which
she might have laid that precious little body. She could have put him on
his own bed -- a death-bed -- and resigned herself to despair. Most of us
are vulnerable to the suggestions that what had been happening was too good
to be true, too good to last, and that after all we might have known that
the promise of God was a deceit. If she had laid the precious burden on his
own bed, she would have succumbed to that temptation. But she did not do so.
Nor did she lay him upon her own bed. Had she acted in this way, seeking to
grapple with the problem in her own energy, she would hardly have sent back
the message of peace to her puzzled husband. No, she would have said that
things were bad but that she was going to plead with Elisha and do her utmost
to get his help in this intolerable burden which lay on her bed.
Often we have done just that. We have wrestled with the matter, imagining
perhaps that we needed to wrestle with God as Jacob thought he had to do.
We have sent out the frantic message to others that we were determined yet
to try to salvage something from the threatening disaster and often tried
to implicate them in our struggle for survival. We could no longer carry
the matter on our lap but we have retained it on our bed as we went hither
and thither in our vain attempts to recover the situation for God.
She avoided this mistake also. In one symbolic act of faith's committal,
she went up to that prophet's chamber, laid the child on the bed of the man
of God and shut the door (v.21). This was not despair or resignation: it
was active faith. She proved this by requesting an animal on which she could
"run to the man of God, and come again".
The whole thing was a mystery. Even the discerning Elisha, who had a
divine gift for seeing through any situation as he showed on other occasions,
had to confess that this time it was something that the Lord had hid from
him and not told him (v.27). If he could not understand it, the Shunammite
certainly was unable to do so. Her mind was uninformed and her inner soul
was bitterly distressed. And yet -- and this to me is the crux of everything
-- she still insisted that everything was all right. She had no peace in
her emotions; she had no peace in her mind; but she had peace in her spirit,
for she had placed her charge on the bed of the man of God, and it was now
up to Him, so her answer to the enquiry not only about herself and her husband,
but also about the child was "Shalom" -- "Everything is all right".
This is the moment for faith to triumph, the moment when the mind is
perplexed and the heart deeply troubled. We are not 'know-alls' -- far from
it. "Did I not say, Do not deceive me?" she asked the man of God. "It seemed
a good dream then and it seems a very bad dream now. My mind is in a turmoil.
I cannot understand God's ways." How true to life this is! How strange and
inexplicable are God's ways with those whom He loves and who love Him! We
who have opened ourselves to Him in glad devotion and done our best to carry
the responsibilities committed to us, find ourselves completely baffled when
things go wrong.
We are not 'know-alls', nor are we made of steel, or professionals, glad
to succeed if that can be, but philosophical if we have to face defeat. No,
the responsibilities which God has given to us become our very hearts. This
woman was deeply distressed, broken-hearted we would say, as she lay clutching
at the prophet's feet in her anguish. Yet this was the same woman who had
just given the answer of "Peace". She had no peace in her mind, no comfort
in her emotions, but she was resting all on God.
Peace, perfect peace, with sorrows surging round?
In Jesus' presence naught but calm is found.
Peace, perfect peace, our future all unknown?
Jesus we know, and He is on the throne.
* * *
THERE is, of course, much more to be said. How the woman would not accompany
Gehazi, but persisted in staying with Elisha. How the child could not be
raised by Gehazi, even though he used the authority of Elisha's staff in his
efforts to recover life. How Elisha arrived at the home to find the child
lying on his special bed, and shut himself in that prophet's chamber with
the problem, getting on to the bed with it. My Bible tells me that he "stretched
himself upon him" (v.34), but the margin gives me a better alternative, "he
bowed himself". If ever a translation were unrealistic this is, for a grown
man could never by any possible reasoning have to stretch himself to measure
up to a small boy, who could sit on his mother's lap. The man did not have
to stretch himself, what he had to do was rather to contract himself in order
to be intimately identified with him. I notice that Ronald Knox gives the
translation, "bending down close", a picture, surely, of the Saviour's complete
identification with us in our mortal need. Elisha repeated this action seven
times (v.35 margin) (forget all about the "sneezing"); and so the miracle
happened. Elisha was proved indeed to be a man of God, and the woman's faith
affirmation that "everything was all right" was fully vindicated.
Once more the woman was found bowed to the ground at the feet of Elisha,
this time in wondering worship. Those who so bow as they cast their burdens
on the Lord and look in faith to Him will always find such a gracious response
that they will be overwhelmed by a similar sense of adoring wonder. It may
take time. It will probably involve a real test of patience. The principle,
[116/117] however, is absolutely certain, namely that
what God has given to us as a solemn and privileged trust may (and probably
will) have to go right down into death so that it may be established in
the power of resurrection. Have we left our dead hopes on their own bed and
given up in despair? Have we kept them on our own bed and given ourselves
to fruitless efforts of recovery? Or have we obeyed the Lord's command to
cast all our burdens upon Him? Paul told the Corinthians that he himself
had to learn this lesson, so it is not surprising if we have not yet learned
it. But it is there to be learned, and the Shunammite mother may help us to
grasp the principle.
Whether or not she was a great woman, she certainly had a great God.
And so have we! Her story is a challenge to our faith in the time of adversity.
In a sense, this was the greatest miracle, not the raising of the dead but
the divine gift of faith which could triumphantly remain unoffended and maintain
in the face of every evidence to the contrary that "Everything is all right".
"O woman, great is thy faith."
* * *
THE writer goes on to tell other stories of other people: "And Elisha
came again to Gilgal" (v.38). Is he going to leave us with the idea that
the mother and her son 'lived happily ever after'? If the Bible dealt with
fairy stories, that is how it would be, but since it deals with real life
we must not be surprised to find that there is a further incident in which
the Shunammite and her son were once again involved in real distress. The
story is told in 8:1-6. Gehazi comes into it again, but not now as an honoured
if ineffective servant, but as a man in disgrace. He had been smitten with
leprosy (5:27) but here we find him mixing with others and content to pick
up odd favours by reminiscing about his years with Elisha (8:4). In essence
this is another resurrection story.
It serves to remind us that the life of faith is not a once-for-all matter.
We cannot rest for ever on just one experience of God's power but have to
encounter new crises of death and resurrection. Perhaps it is not enough
to entitle this story 'Postscript' for it is more than that; it is a re-emphasis
of this great spiritual truth about the dealings of our God with His people
in terms of resurrection.
For over fifty years the man of God proclaimed by his name, Elisha, that
God is Saviour and he confirmed that claim by the series of stories in the
early chapters of 2 Kings. They make inspiring reading. In this story the
prophet himself hardly appears and there is little to strike the reader as
sensational but, since it is divinely recorded, we dare not overlook it.
If it does not tell us any more about Elisha, what does it tell us about his
1. God's Strange Ways
All God's servants find at times that His ways seem very strange. "Now
Elisha had spoken unto the woman whose son he had restored to life, saying,
Arise and go thou and thy household, and sojourn where thou canst sojourn;
for the Lord hath called for a famine ...". This seems almost like panic
advice from God's servant. It is true that we are glad to find the man of
God still caring for the woman. Having had such a remarkable experience,
he did not close her story in his case-book and leave her to her own devices.
The problem here, however, is that his advice sounded unspiritual.
Did not Abraham err by leaving the land because of famine? (Genesis 12:10)
Did not Naomi and her husband deny their faith and turn joy into bitterness
by leaving the land for fear of famine? (Ruth 1:1) How then could Elisha
instruct the woman to find safety among the Philistines just because a famine
was imminent? At the end of the seven years the result appeared to have been
disastrous. For all her faults, when Naomi returned from her exile, the family
property was still nominally hers, for she planned to provide for herself
and Ruth by selling it to a kinsman. In this case, though, the Shunammite
lost everything by her action -- even though she acted in obedience to the
word of the Lord. It must have been baffling to her. Elisha's instructions
had entailed letting go of all her family possessions and saying goodbye to
that sacred prophet's chamber with its inspiring recollections of the bed
of the man of God and its blessings. In a sense this proved a further 'death'
experience for her and her son. When the seven long years ended, the great
woman of Shunem came back there in seeming penury, being forced to appeal
to the king concerning her property of which some greedy neighbour had taken
God's ways are strange. Yet the woman of faith had to accept them. It
was no use her using Abraham's bad example as an excuse for personal disobedience,
nor did she find, as Naomi did, that her inheritance had been preserved intact.
No, she had to prove God for herself, as we all have to do. We learn spiritual
principles from others but we are never allowed to model ourselves on them.
We are told to imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7) but we must never let
our behaviour be governed by what they did or what happened to them. We
have to make our own spiritual history.
Elisha had said, "Arise and go!" She had obeyed. And now she returned
home to find that, in her case, obedience had seemingly meant the loss of
all. In fact there is no proof that the famine had been as severe as might
have been feared. In her absence someone had turned her property to good
use and reaped the fruits of her fields (v.6). To her, however, Elisha's
message had been a divine command. Happily, the story shows us that although
God's ways may at times seem strange, they are always right.
A further surprising feature of this story is that what we might call
the key man was the Gehazi who had been dismissed from Elisha's service in
disgrace (5:27). We can imagine the woman's dismay when, on entering the
king's presence, she found that this ne'er-do-well was already there. Presumably
she had been unable to get help from Elisha. It may be that by now he was
on his sick-bed (13:14). It could have been that he had already died, which
would explain the king's interest and Gehazi's story telling. When she came
into the king's presence, she may well have been flabbergasted to see this
man there. Here was the servant who had tried to push her away from Elisha
(4:27), who had proved such an ignominious failure when he laid the prophet's
staff on her child and who had been discharged in disgrace from God's service.
It was bad enough not to have Elisha, but infinitely worse to have to plead
her case in the presence of such a character.
The amazing thing is that she did not have to plead that case. Doubtless
Gehazi was glad to have a verification of his most unlikely story of resurrection.
He it was, though, who helped to decide the issue by exclaiming delightedly,
"My lord, O king, this is the woman and this is her son ...". So it was that
the king was ready to talk to her and quite prepared not only to restore
her land but to insist on the repayment of its income through the years. Gehazi,
then, was the divine instrument for meeting this need. 'Could God use such
a man,' we ask, 'one who had been so roundly and so justly condemned by the
prophet?' The answer is, of course, that "all things are his servants" (Psalm
119:91). His ways are both strange and wonderful.
2. God's Simple Ways
The very smoothness of the transaction may perhaps mask its miraculous
wonder. On the whole we tend to crave for the sensational. We can feel the
thrill of God's wonders when they are accompanied by noise and excitement.
This is such a homely story that it may hardly seem worthy of inclusion
in the record of the more startling things which happened through Elisha's
ministry. Was it anything more than just a happy coincidence? The fact is,
though, that simple unostentation was a chief feature of Elisha's service
When Elijah had arrived at Horeb for his appointed meeting with God,
he waited in the cave for the interview and doubtless expected the kind
of mighty manifestation which would appeal to his sense of the dramatic.
What would it be? A mountain-breaking hurricane? But no, "the Lord was not
in the wind". A shattering earthquake? That came, but "the Lord was not
in the earthquake". "After the earthquake a fire." Elijah was a man of fire
and must have longed for a repetition of the great moment when fire fell
from heaven, but no, "The Lord was not in the fire". Where was He then?
Came the moment of truth: "after the fire a still small voice" (1 Kings
19:12). Yes, this was the authentic manifestation of God for which he was
waiting. The prophet recognised it for "it was so, when Elijah heard it,
that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance
of the cave". The voice of gentle stillness first asked him what he was doing
there and went on to say, "Elisha, the son of Shaphat ... shalt thou anoint
to be prophet in thy room" (v.16); God had chosen the instrument for the
continuance and fulfilment of Elijah's great ministry.
The whole ministry of this new man, Elisha, was characterised by this
"sound of gentle stillness". In himself he was a nobody. The sons of the
prophets pitied him and virtually offered him [118/119]
their sponsorship (2 Kings 3 ff). The louts of Bethel mocked him, calling
him "bald-head" because he had not that hairy masculinity which characterised
his master Elijah (2 Kings 2:23). His only distinguishing feature which his
advocates could produce was that he had previously "poured water on the hands
of Elijah" (2 Kings 3:11). Yet this was the man whom God used so mightily,
the man of "the double portion of the Spirit". How simple are the ways of
Look at the means which Elisha used in God's service: a phial of salt
(2:20), a little pot of oil (4:2), a handful of flour (4:41), a dip in the
despised Jordan (5:13), a rough stick (6:6) and four leprous beggars (7:3).
Lovers of the sensational would despise this simple man. He had no charismatic
presence. When he was visited by Naaman and his impressive retinue, we are
told that Elisha did not even go to the door to meet the captain but sent
his advice about dipping in the Jordan by the mouth of a messenger. The enraged
Naaman protested, "Behold, I thought, he will surely come out to me, and
stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the
place ..." (5:11). But Elisha was not that kind of man. His ministry was
marked by a supreme simplicity.
Years before and earlier in his ministry, Elisha had been summoned to
help King Jehoshaphat in his acute dilemma in the wilderness of Edom. His
message to the kings was "Thus saith the Lord, Ye shall not see wind, neither
shall ye see rain, yet that valley shall be filled with water" (3:17). The
prepared trenches were indeed filled with life-saving water, but we are simply
told that "it came to pass in the morning, about the time of offering the
oblation, that, behold, there came water by the way of Edom and the country
was filled with water" (3:20). The miracle water brought deliverance to
the two armies and utter defeat to the enemy, yet nobody knew how it came.
God's ways are effective, but often they are so simple.
"Ye shall not see wind, neither shall ye see rain" -- this is all in
harmony with Isaiah's comment: "Verily, thou art a God that hideth thyself,
O God of Israel, the Saviour" (Isaiah 45:15). It was in this simple way,
therefore, that the woman of Shunem, who had been plunged into a new tasting
of death, came to enjoy a wonderful sequel of resurrection. Not only did
she receive back her home and lands, but the accumulated income of the years
was secured to her by a specially appointed official.
3. God's Perfect Timing
God's ways may be strange and they may be simple, but they are always
perfect and not least in the matter of timing. Perhaps the outstanding feature
of this incident of the woman's appeal for her lands was the accuracy of
divine planning which meant that she appeared before the king just as Gehazi
was finishing his story. If Gehazi's gossip had ended without the king asking
for more, or if the anecdote selected from so many had been other than this,
then the Shunammite's visit might have been in vain. Had she come a little
later, the ex-servant of the prophet might have wandered off with whatever
reward the king chose to give him, and there would have been no obvious link
between the story told and this later calamity. As it was, though, the timing
was absolutely exact. God is never too late: neither is He ever too early.
Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, Thou rulest in might.
It is a striking fact that, although our God is timeless and eternal
in Himself, He accommodates His ways with split-second accuracy for the
blessing or deliverance of His children. Most Christians of experience will
bear testimony to this gracious working of His.
The Bible gives us many examples of this exactness of God's timing, some
of them being so important as to constitute matters of life and death. Take
the Old Testament example found in Esther, the book which makes no mention
whatever of the name of the Lord. It was only in the nick of time that Mordecai
was saved from being hanged. Haman had the gallows all prepared for the hanging,
and had reached the very eve of the planned execution when, so we are told,
"That night could not the king sleep". The manner of how the insomnia was
dealt with and how the name of Mordecai was brought to the king's notice
just at this point is a romantic story, but for our purposes the significant
point is that it was that night when it happened. God was in time,
but only just!
We need not look beyond the stories of Elisha, though, to substantiate
this teaching about God's perfect timing. In 2 Kings 7 we have the account
[119/120] of a miraculous deliverance from siege
and famine in Samaria which came only just in time. The end of chapter 6
tells of Elisha's personal peril because he was blamed for Samaria's plight,
recording the question of the king of Israel: "Why should I wait for the
Lord any longer?" (6:33). Without any real chapter division, we are told
Elisha's reply: "Hear ye the word of the Lord; thus saith the Lord, Tomorrow
about this time shall a measure of fine flour be sold for a shekel ... in
the gate of Samaria" (7:1).
To a people in starving desperation this sounded incredible, so much
so that a chief captain declared that it could hardly happen if heaven itself
opened its windows. But it did happen. And it happened just in time and just
when God said it would. Elisha had no doubt that it would, for he had implicit
faith in God's Word, but even he could hardly have envisaged how such a
timely miracle could be.
I have already mentioned the four leprous beggars (7:3) who were just
outside that same city gate. They, too, had reached a condition of despair,
but made just one last bid for life by offering to give themselves up to
the enemy. Whether there was any spiritual connection between their shuffling
footsteps and "the noise of a great host" which the hostile Syrians thought
they heard, we do not know. All we do know is that when they arrived they
found that the camp had just been evacuated in confusion and all was well.
So the four unfortunates were able to feast to their hearts' content (7:8)
and it was they who brought the good news that the siege had been lifted.
In itself it was a minor miracle that the four were thoughtful enough
of others to hurry back to the city without waiting for the new day to dawn.
Not surprisingly, their report was doubted. It was "Too good to be true"
(What a faithless phrase that is!). Anyhow it was true and, after the delays,
consultations, investigations and arrangements were concluded, it was just
about that time on the morrow after Elisha's prophecy that flour was
on sale in the city gate at one measure for a shekel. Once again God had left
it very late. Yet He was not too late. He never is! What a comfort then for
us to be able to claim, "My times are in thy hand" (Psalm 31:15).
* * *
THE great experience of resurrection for which the whole Church looks
is yet to be. We know that the First Coming of Christ was accurately ordered,
for we are assured that it was "when the fullness of time came" (Galatians
4:4). We may therefore be confident that the Second Coming will be right
on time. Impatient saints have had to wait for God's hour, and we still have
to do so. God alone knows when it will be and it ill behoves any of us to
speculate about "times or seasons which the Father has set within his own
authority". The Lord Jesus even warned us that it will surely occur "in an
hour when you think not" (Luke 12:40). In John's visions relating to those
last things, he uses a phrase about judgments being "... prepared for the
hour and day and month and year ..." (Revelation 9:15). God's timings are
[Inside back cover]
OLD TESTAMENT PARENTHESES (6)
"(For Jordan overfloweth all its banks all the time of harvest
)" Joshua 3:15
IT might seem that, since the Israelites had been journeying in the desert
for so many years, the Lord could have chosen a better moment for them to
enter the land than just at the season when the Jordan was at its fullest
flood. Any other time would surely have been much easier for the crossing.
Could He not have planned a better and an easier time for this operation?
NO! God's timings are always perfectly exact. This was no accident and
it was no misfortune, though it may have seemed so to those of little faith.
This was part of the divine purpose for proving God's complete sufficiency.
It tested their faith, but it also demonstrated His supreme power.
THE whole undertaking was designed to do just this. "Hereby shall ye
know that the living God is among you" Joshua told the people, "... the
waters shall be cut off, even the waters that come down from above, and
they shall stand as one heap" (vv.10-13).
GOD does not choose easy circumstances for us, His people, nor does He
consult us as to what is the most suitable time; He glories in His own ability
to take the waters at their flood and then lead us safely through them.
Although He is the eternal God, He is absolutely accurate in the way He
governs time -- even to the day and to the hour.
IN this case it is not difficult to understand why He brought the people
to the crossing at this particular time, for the harvest was all important.
No sooner were they over the river than it was time for the manna to cease,
since there was food in abundance. "The day after the Passover, that very
day, they ate some of the produce of the land; unleavened bread and roasted
grain" (5:11). God had exactly arranged the time so that the harvest would
be waiting for them as soon as they had moved forward into the land.
THE Lord is the Lord of the harvest. He is also Lord of the overflowing
floods. Let us cease, then, from complaining or questioning His guidance
and His timing of events in our lives. 'If only it had been sooner; if only
the river had been shallow enough for fording' we foolishly murmur. With God
there can be no 'if only!' His ways are perfect and His timing is exactly
right. Blessed indeed are those who can wholeheartedly declare: "My times
are in thy hand."
A GLORIOUS THRONE, SET ON HIGH FROM THE
BEGINNING, IS THE PLACE OF OUR SANCTUARY.
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