Wearing the Crown

God gave David his word,
he won’t back out on this promise:
“One of your sons
I will set on your throne;
If your sons stay true to my Covenant
and learn to live the way I teach them,
Their sons will continue the line—
always a son to sit on your throne.
Yes—I, God, chose Zion,
the place I wanted for my shrine;
This will always be my home;
this is what I want, and I’m here for good.
I’ll shower blessings on the pilgrims who come here,
and give supper to those who arrive hungry;
I’ll dress my priests in salvation clothes;
the holy people will sing their hearts out!
Oh, I’ll make the place radiant for David!
I’ll fill it with light for my anointed!
I’ll dress his enemies in dirty rags,
but I’ll make his crown sparkle with splendor.” (Psalm 132:11-18)

Treaties and other contracts are simple things: they lay out the expectations that two parties have for one another. Assuming that both parties are honest, everything will go smoothly. In a treaty with God, there should be great confidence that he’ll do exactly what he says he’ll do. His promise regarding Zion—another name for Jerusalem—should have put the people at ease. All they had to do was love God—and how hard was that when all he offered them was prosperity and happiness?

And yet, human beings are perverse creatures. We love ourselves, but we’re afraid no one else does and so we devote ourselves to looking out for our best interests, or what we think are our best interests. God’s people only trusted themselves, and so they went off on their own, forgetting what God had promised.

He had not promised them only happiness, no matter what. He had promised them happiness in exchange for their loyalty. If they betrayed him—well, he had made a promise about that, too: the opposite of happiness. And God keeps all his promises, both good and bad.

No matter how far the people strayed from him, he guaranteed them that he would bring them back and fulfill every good thing he had ever promised. Ultimately, no matter how far they ran, no matter how hard they tried to get away, God would hunt them down and bless them.

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Looking Out for Number One

Then the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to lie in ruins?” Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: “Consider your ways!

“You have sown much, and bring in little;
You eat, but do not have enough;
You drink, but you are not filled with drink;
You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm;
And he who earns wages,
Earns wages to put into a bag with holes.”

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Consider your ways! Go up to the mountains and bring wood and build the temple, that I may take pleasure in it and be glorified,” says the Lord. “You looked for much, but indeed it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why?” says the Lord of hosts. “Because of My house that is in ruins, while every one of you runs to his own house. Therefore the heavens above you withhold the dew, and the earth withholds its fruit. For I called for a drought on the land and the mountains, on the grain and the new wine and the oil, on whatever the ground brings forth, on men and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.” (Haggai 1:3-11)

People often fail to recognize what is actually in their best interest. Upon returning to Palestine after seventy years of captivity in Babylon, the Israelites came home to find their cities in ruins and their farms overgrown with weeds. They set about repairing them. But despite their best efforts to bring the land back to productivity and order, nothing seemed to be working quite right.

The prophet Haggai identified their problem: just as their ancestors had gotten them into this mess in the first place by ignoring God and not loving him, so they were following in their footsteps. They had focused on themselves and their needs, not really believing that God would take care of them. Once again, the prophet pointed to the treaty and said, “look, if you seek God and his righteousness, all these things will be added unto you.” By rebuilding the Temple, performing the sacrifices, genuinely loving God and loving others, the stuff they wanted and needed—all those the necessities of life, like food and drink, clothing and shelter—would come. If they ignored God and focused on the stuff, then their lives would continue to be unfulfilling.

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Broken Promise

The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said to the Israelites, “I brought you out of Egypt into this land that I swore to give your ancestors, and I said I would never break my covenant with you. For your part, you were not to make any covenants with the people living in this land; instead, you were to destroy their altars. But you disobeyed my command. Why did you do this? So now I declare that I will no longer drive out the people living in your land. They will be thorns in your sides, and their gods will be a constant temptation to you.”

When the angel of the LORD finished speaking to all the Israelites, the people wept loudly. So they called the place Bokim (which means “weeping”), and they offered sacrifices there to the LORD. (Judges 2:1-5)

Broken promises hurt. And it is not just the one whose trust is betrayed who gets hurt. The one who betrays also suffers. Why did Israel betray God and not abide by the contract they had with him? Because they thought they knew better. They made treaties with the people of the land of Canaan, rather than wiping them all out. God told them what needed to be done, but they thought they could do better.

Israel didn’t want to destroy all their enemies. They thought they could negotiate with them instead. So their wish becomes God’s command. He would let them learn the hard way why God had asked them to destroy the Canaanites: they would lead his people to sin. The Israelites would start mixing the religious practices of the Canaanites with their own religious practices. They would start worshipping the gods of the Canaanites.

And of course, their rejection of God, already incipient in their refusal to follow his instructions, would only grow. Since God had no choice but to abide by his own promises to them, he would ultimately have to bring discipline upon them, ranging from famine and other suffering, to the ultimate pain of being exiled from their homeland in Babylon and witnessing the destruction of Jerusalem and the sacred Temple. God always gets his way. Whether it is the easy way or the hard way, the choice is yours.

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Do Something

So the LORD said to Joshua, “Rise up! Why is it that you have fallen on your face?

“Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them. And they have even taken some of the things under the ban and have both stolen and deceived. Moreover, they have also put them among their own things.

“Therefore the sons of Israel cannot stand before their enemies; they turn their backs before their enemies, for they have become accursed. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy the things under the ban from your midst.

“Rise up! Consecrate the people and say, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, for thus the LORD, the God of Israel, has said, “There are things under the ban in your midst, O Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies until you have removed the things under the ban from your midst.”

‘In the morning then you shall come near by your tribes. And it shall be that the tribe which the LORD takes by lot shall come near by families, and the family which the LORD takes shall come near by households, and the household which the LORD takes shall come near man by man.

‘It shall be that the one who is taken with the things under the ban shall be burned with fire, he and all that belongs to him, because he has transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he has committed a disgraceful thing in Israel.’ ” (Joshua 7:10-15)

“I’ll pray for you,” is not always the right response. God had been clear in his instructions about how Jericho was to be treated and he had warned what the consequences would be if anyone violated those rules. Jericho was to be “devoted to God” meaning that, like a burnt offering, nothing was to be left.

Joshua thought attacking Ai, a small city, would be easy compared to Jericho. He sent only a small group against it, anticipating an easy victory. Instead, he experienced a humiliating defeat. He should have prayed before he sent the army up. That was the time for prayer. After the defeat, there was little point. The reason for the defeat should have been obvious.

One man had decided to take a little for himself from Jericho. Because of that theft, when the Israelites went up against Ai, God did not let them win.

Praying can sometimes be used as a way of just looking busy. Telling someone you’ll pray for them when you know that what they really need is your hand is simple laziness. Joshua didn’t need to pray. He needed to judge.

The one who had stolen from God and betrayed his trust and by whose actions the nation had suffered, was caught and disciplined. Then the nation went on to defeat the city of Ai.

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The Day of Flint Knives

At that time the LORD said to Joshua, “Make flint knives for yourself, and circumcise the sons of Israel again the second time.” So Joshua made flint knives for himself, and circumcised the sons of Israel at the hill of the foreskins. And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: All the people who came out of Egypt who were males, all the men of war, had died in the wilderness on the way, after they had come out of Egypt. For all the people who came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the wilderness, on the way as they came out of Egypt, had not been circumcised. For the children of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, till all the people who were men of war, who came out of Egypt, were consumed, because they did not obey the voice of the LORD—to whom the LORD swore that He would not show them the land which the LORD had sworn to their fathers that He would give us, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Then Joshua circumcised their sons whom He raised up in their place; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way.

So it was, when they had finished circumcising all the people, that they stayed in their places in the camp till they were healed. Then the LORD said to Joshua, “This day I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” Therefore the name of the place is called Gilgal to this day. (Joshua 5:2-9)

Details are easily forgotten. Those born in Egypt had all been circumcised, since the Egyptians practiced circumcision. In fact, not being circumcised in Egypt would have been hard. But in the wilderness, wandering from place to place, surrounded by wastelands, picking up food that had fallen from the sky every morning without fail, drinking water from springs that magically sprang from the ground, led by a pillar of fire by night and smoke by day, with Moses up front, apparently it was hard to remember all the stuff God expected of them. Even the rituals seem to have been too much effort, let alone things like loving people and loving God.

When it was time to enter the land and conquer it, Joshua forced the people to finally start paying attention to the agreement they had with God. Circumcision was an easy part of that: it was just a ritual. Joshua hoped that by performing even the simplest of rituals, particularly a painful one, that perhaps the people would start to think more about God. Certainly the men, who endured the operation, would have time to reflect while they healed. God has different ways of trying to get our attention.

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Just Making It Up As We Go Along

Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back—those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the LORD. Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the LORD, who steal my words from one another. See, I am against the prophets, says the LORD, who use their own tongues and say, “Says the LORD.” See, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, says the LORD, and who tell them, and who lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or appoint them; so they do not profit this people at all, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:23-32)

In the ancient world, most gods were rather small: they oversaw a particular plot of land, a particular profession, a particular city. There were gods of hills, gods of the sea, gods of the valleys. The Israelites easily came to view Yahweh in a very parochial way. But God tried to remind them that he was not so limited.

That had implications for one particular group of people: those who claimed, without warrant, to speak for God. Rather than speaking what God said, they would hear the words of a real prophet and just repeat them, claiming to have received it from God rather than from people. What they couldn’t steal from their neighbors, they just made up, pretending a line to God so that they could profit from the role of an oracle. They could charge money for sitting around all day and doing nothing. Such false prophets were misleading the people, turning them away from God, endangering people by giving them false comfort and false information. By lying, they would make their hearers less likely to take the true prophets seriously. As people became more jaded, more distrusting of the words of the so-called prophets, how were they to know when a real prophet was standing before them? What would keep them from turning away from God entirely? False prophets betrayed a trust.

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Just Going Through the Motions

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message:

“‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

“‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 7:1-11)

The prophets of God, like Jeremiah, were the annoying bill collectors of their day. Israel had failed to make their latest car payment and God sent the prophets to remind his people that the payment was due. God’s agreement with the people stipulated that they must love God and love one another. Instead, the powerful and wealthy took advantage of the poor and disadvantaged. God had told them specifically that the aliens in their midst were to be protected as if they were fellow Israelites, imploring them to remember how bad it had been for them as aliens in Egypt and not to become like the Egyptians.

Instead, the Israelites failed utterly to love other people, breaking all those commandments that affected human beings. Likewise, they failed to love God, instead adopting the religious practices and gods of their pagan neighbors.

But they found the rituals of God worship easy to maintain: it took no thought to visit the temple, to perform a sacrifice, to wave some incense, to sing a hymn, to drop some money in the coffer—as if that’s all worshiping God meant. God disagreed. To him, true worship meant loving other people and loving God. But that got in the way of how they wanted to live.

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For the Kids

‘And it shall be that if you earnestly obey My commandments which I command you today, to love the Lord your God and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give you the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, your new wine, and your oil. And I will send grass in your fields for your livestock, that you may eat and be filled.’ Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, lest the Lord’s anger be aroused against you, and He shut up the heavens so that there be no rain, and the land yield no produce, and you perish quickly from the good land which the Lord is giving you.

“Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land of which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, like the days of the heavens above the earth. (Deuteronomy 11:13-21)

God’s will for your life is no mystery. What are the commandments that God gave his people? To love him and to love one another. It really wasn’t that complicated. In exchange for abiding by those simple terms of the contract, God assured his people his blessings. Making God’s words to be signs on their hands and between their eyes encouraged the people to put his words front and center in their lives: to live them in what they thought, what they saw and what they did.

Of course, the metaphor came to be literalized, even as the point of the metaphor was ignored. It is much easier to put the word of God in a little box that can be bound around the head and attached to the hands, or attached to the sides of the doors in one’s house, than it is to actually read what the words say and put them into practice. Living God’s words every day is hard, just as saying that you love someone is far easier than actually loving them.

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Do You Really Want to Know God’s Will?

The LORD told me to write down his message for his people, so that it would be there forever. They have turned against the LORD and can’t be trusted. They have refused his teaching and have said to his messengers and prophets:

Don’t tell us what God has shown you and don’t preach the truth. Just say what we want to hear, even if it’s false. Stop telling us what God has said! We don’t want to hear any more about the holy God of Israel.

Now this is the answer
of the holy God of Israel:

“You rejected my message,
and you trust in violence
and lies.
This sin is like a crack
that makes a high wall
quickly crumble and shatter
like a crushed bowl.
There’s not a piece left

big enough to carry hot coals
or to dip out water.” (Isaiah 30:8-14)

People rarely want to know God’s will, just as they really don’t want to know the future. Sure, they’d like to know that in the future they will be rich and famous. But they don’t want to be told about the failed relationships that are yet to come, the illnesses that will be endured, the financial hardships that will keep them up at night with worry. Likewise, people fear that God’s will for them will mean that they will wind up living in a hut somewhere on the Amazon, preaching in a foreign language. People don’t want the truth. They want what makes them feel good today. People who ask for advice usually just want approval for whatever it is they have decided to do.

But God points out that rejecting his message means a self-betrayal: the consequence of going one’s own way instead of God’s way is inevitably disastrous. Not only does God love his people, he also knows what they really want and what will really make them happy—and that’s what he’ll give them. A child might think a pony is ultimate joy, but in a one room apartment, it’s not really what’s best for either the child or the pony. But God loves you more than you love yourself. Sadly, few people really believe that.

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Promises, Promises

The LORD said to Moses, “Soon you will lie down with your ancestors. Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going; they will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them. My anger will be kindled against them in that day. I will forsake them and hide my face from them; they will become easy prey, and many terrible troubles will come upon them. In that day they will say, ‘Have not these troubles come upon us because our God is not in our midst?’ On that day I will surely hide my face on account of all the evil they have done by turning to other gods. Now therefore write this song, and teach it to the Israelites; put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be a witness for me against the Israelites. For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I promised on oath to their ancestors, and they have eaten their fill and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, despising me and breaking my covenant. And when many terrible troubles come upon them, this song will confront them as a witness, because it will not be lost from the mouths of their descendants. For I know what they are inclined to do even now, before I have brought them into the land that I promised them on oath.” (Deuteronomy 31:16-21)

God isn’t surprised by betrayal. In fact, he expected it and had made plans to deal with it; it was all part of the contract he’d made with the people of Israel. He even had Moses teach them a song about it. God knew that song would not keep them from going after the other gods. But he wanted them to know the song so it would bear witness against them, as a sort of divine “I told you so.”

God knew he would be angry and sad over their betrayal. But no matter what they did, he would not be the one to break the contract. In fact, when God punished them, he was keeping part of the very contract he had made with them. God’s loyalty to them was never at issue. All the pain that they had to endure was a consequence of his love and loyalty to them. God obligated himself to his people even though he knew they couldn’t reciprocate.

God did not enter the contract with them so they could fail. But he made allowance for the fact that they would fail. And he provided a way of success for them, dependent upon God’s faithfulness instead of theirs.

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