Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas in the Shadow of Tragedy

             I wanted to take a moment to share what my experience has been this Christmas.  Like others in our country and around the world, I was horrified and deeply grieved at the tragedy that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, when 20 children and 6 adults were murdered at an elementary school.  It has been difficult to look forward to Christmas after this tragedy, grieving with those who have lost loved ones.
            This year, I have approached the story of the birth of Jesus with a heavy heart, with questions, and with tears.  But as I re-read the familiar account in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, I am reminded that there is a deep purpose for the Christmas story, even (perhaps especially) in the aftermath of sorrow and loss.  God became a human being; a real, historical person who actually lived and died.  Jesus left his glory behind and came to earth to experience life as one of us.   "The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”) (Matthew 1:23, NIV).
            Of all religions and belief systems I have ever studied, this story strikes me as the most baffling, the most strange, and yet the most hopeful.  God is not totally separate from humanity, indifferent to our lives, refraining from becoming involved with us.  He could have left us to live and die on our own, permanently separated from him by sin.  Instead, he chose to live and die as one of us.
            Jesus came to earth as a baby, helpless and dependent on his parents just like any other baby.  He was born, not in a palace or place of high honor and wealth, but in a stable in a tiny, obscure town, to a poor couple living under Roman oppression.  He grew to adulthood just like any of us.  He experienced hunger and thirst (Matthew 4:2; John 19:28), grew tired (Matthew 8:24), wept (Matthew 26:38; John 11:35), and was subject to all of the temptations and frustrations that we face (Hebrews 4:15).  No human experience was spared him, not even suffering and death.  Moreover, his death on the cross to make us right with God gave life and hope to all humanity, forever (John 3:16; Romans 3:21-26; 1 John 5:11-12).  His resurrection from the dead was the first of many, for all who believe in Jesus will someday be raised to eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:12-26). 
            What does this mean for us?  This world is still full of pain and hardship.  Until Jesus returns, we will all experience pain, loss, suffering and death.  Tragedies such as natural disasters, sickness, abuse, and mass murder like the incident in Connecticut, still occur.  The story of Christmas will not stop these tragedies for now, nor will all of our pain instantly cease.  But this year as I approach the story of Christmas and think about the baby in the manger, I have begun to see the story in a new light.
            Jesus, God in human flesh, mourns with us.  He has entered our pain.  He has come down, not to immediately vanquish all of our enemies or eliminate all of our suffering, but to experience it with us.  He has come to give us love in the midst of hatred (John 13:34), light in the midst of darkness (John 8:12), and hope in the midst of despair.  Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world" (John 16:33, NIV).
            This Christmas as we grieve, let us remember why he came.    

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Punishment For Israel (Hosea 9)

The following quote is taken from

"God Will Kill Children - "The glory of Israel will fly away like a bird, for your children will die at birth or perish in the womb or never even be conceived.  Even if your children do survive to grow up, I will take them from you.  It will be a terrible day when I turn away and leave you alone.  I have watched Israel become as beautiful and pleasant as Tyre.  But now Israel will bring out her children to be slaughtered."  O LORD, what should I request for your people?  I will ask for wombs that don't give birth and breasts that give no milk.  The LORD says, "All their wickedness began at Gilgal; there I began to hate them.  I will drive them from my land because of their evil actions.  I will love them no more because all their leaders are rebels.  The people of Israel are stricken.  Their roots are dried up; they will bear no more fruit.  And if they give birth, I will slaughter their beloved children."  (Hosea 9:11-16 NLT)

You can read Hosea 9 in its entirety here:

            Hosea was a prophet who lived during the time of the split monarchies of Israel and Judah.  His life and prophecy was in the northern kingdom of Israel circa 785-725 BCE, just before Israel was conquered by the Assyrians.
            During Hosea's life, the kingdom of Israel had completely rebelled against God.  Since the time of King Jeroboam I (reigned circa 931-910 BCE), the people had turned to worshipping Baal and other idols, in direct disobedience to God's commandment (1 Kings 12:26-33, 13:33-34, 16:25-33, 22:52-53; 2 Kings 13:2-6, 17).  In response, God first sent prophets such as Hosea to warn them to repent or perish, but they would not listen.  As a result, the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed, and the people that remained were exiled into Assyria (2 Kings chapter 17).
            This is yet another example of destruction that came about because the people disregarded God's command against idolatry (see Exodus 20:3-6, 23; 23:13, 23-24; 34:17; Leviticus 19:4; 26:1; Deuteronomy 4:15-28; 5:7; 6:14-15; 8:19; 12:31; 17:2-7; 27:15; 29:17-18).  Idolatry is a very serious sin, one that God does not take lightly.  Since the Israelites had abandoned God and trusted in supposed gods of fertility (such as Baal and Asherah) to protect them, God withdrew his protection from them, and their fertility as well.
            It is important to note here that all life was created by, and belongs to, God.  He controls whether or not a person has children (Genesis 20:17-18, 25:21, 29:31, 30:22; Ruth 4:13; 1 Samuel 1:5).  Children are a blessing from God (Psalm 127:3).  God had warned the Israelites that if they broke their covenant with him, disobeyed his commandments and showed him contempt by worshipping idols, he would withhold blessings from them, including the blessing of children: "You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 28:62, NIV).
            We come now to the verse describing God taking the lives of Israelite children.  As in previous passages, this is a difficult issue.  There are a few things that we need to take into consideration.  First, God gave the people ample warning over many years to avoid destruction.  If they had repented, God would not have withdrawn his protection and allowed them to be overtaken by the Assyrians (Jeremiah 18:7-8, Jonah chapter 3).  Second, one of the reasons that God would have withheld children from being born during this time period was due to the widespread killing and destruction that occurred during the siege of Samaria (2 Kings 17; Hosea 13:16).  Finally, if the children had lived to adulthood, they most likely would have followed the idol-worshipping practices of their parents, and would have been lost for eternity.  God took their lives in childhood to prevent this from occurring.
            Passages such as this one are horrifying, and cause for sober reflection.  God's commands are not to be treated flippantly or disregarded.  He does not want anyone to perish, and he takes no pleasure in the death of anyone (Ezekiel 18:32).  However, there comes a time when his patience runs out and he abandons those who have rejected him to their fate.  The conquest of Israel by Assyria was such a time. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Prophecy Against Babylon (Isaiah 13-14)

The following quotes are taken from

"More Rape and Baby Killing - "Anyone who is captured will be run through with a sword.  Their little children will be dashed to death right before their eyes.  Their homes will be sacked and their wives raped by the attacking hordes.  For I will stir up the Medes against Babylon, and no amount of silver or gold will buy them off.  The attacking armies will shoot down the young people with arrows.  They will have no mercy on helpless babies and will show no compassion for the children."  (Isaiah 13:15-18 NLT)

"Kill Sons of Sinners - "Make ready to slaughter his sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and posses the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants."  (Isaiah 14:21 NAB)
You can read Isaiah chapters 13-14 here:

            The book of Isaiah was written around the 8th century BCE.  In it, the prophet Isaiah revealed visions and messages from God, predicting Judah's defeat by the Babylonians, and their subsequent exile and captivity in Babylon (which occurred over a century later, circa 588-586 BCE).
            Isaiah chapters 13-23 consist of prophecies concerning the doom of the surrounding nations; nations that God  had placed under judgment.  In chapter 13, a scene of war against Babylon is being described.  The Babylonian Empire angered God because of their arrogance, wickedness and pride (Isaiah 13:11, 14:13-15).
            When reading passages of war prophecies such as this one, we must take a few things into consideration.  First, God does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9).  He always gives people an opportunity to repent before the day of judgment comes (2 Chronicles 32:26, Hebrews 11:31).  "If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned" (Jeremiah 18:7-8, NIV; see also Jonah chapter 3).  Judgment and destruction only came if the people did not take God seriously.
            In Isaiah 13:16, a graphic description of war is portrayed, with infants being killed and women being raped.  This illustration was given to the Babylonians as a warning; their rebellion and sins would affect their children and cause their destruction, if they did not repent and turn to God.  This horrific description reveals the serious consequences of a nation's rebellion against God.
            It is important to emphasize here that God does not desire that these things should happen.  He is a holy and just God (Psalm 103:6), who must punish those who disregard his commands and those who oppress and destroy others; the Babylonian Empire was certainly guilty of oppressing and overthrowing other nations, and their ruthlessness and pride led to their end.
            In regards to infants and children being killed in war, this is a difficult issue; and one that is not easily answered.  We live in a broken and fallen world, infected by sin.  Death has come into the world as a result of sin.  Every human being that is born will die.  Some will have longer lives than others.  What is important to note is this: "For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord" (Ezekiel 18:32, NIV).  The Bible also seems to indicate that infants and children who die before the age of accountability go to heaven to be with God (2 Samuel 12:23; Matthew 19:14).
            War is terrible, and passages such as this one are a sober reminder.  What needs to be remembered is that God does not desire war or death.  He sometimes allows war to accomplish his purposes, but his primary desire is that people turn away from their evil ways and turn to him for salvation.  "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?" (Ezekiel 18:23, NIV).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Prophet Condemns Ahab (1 Kings 20:35-43)

The following quote is taken from

"Killed by a Lion  - "Meanwhile, the LORD instructed one of the group of prophets to say to another man, "Strike me!"  But the man refused to strike the prophet.  Then the prophet told him, "Because you have not obeyed the voice of the LORD, a lion will kill you as soon as you leave me."  And sure enough, when he had gone, a lion attacked and killed him."  (1 Kings 20:35-36 NLT)
            To get a better sense of what is going on in this passage, it might help to read the entire chapter.  You can read it here:

            To summarize, this event took place not long after King Ahab of Israel (reigned circa 869-850 BCE) battled against King Ben-Hadad of Aram, and God enabled Ahab and his army to win the battle (1 Kings 20:1-34).  However, instead of following God's instructions and executing Ben-Hadad for his crimes and threat against Israel, Ahab let him live and made a treaty with him.
            In response, God sent another prophet to confront Ahab and give him God's message of condemnation.  This was a warning, intended to get Ahab to repent and turn back to God.  God gave Ahab several warnings by prophets at various times during his reign and several chances to repent, but Ahab rejected them (1 Kings 18, 20:35-43, 21-22).  As a result, he was eventually killed in battle (1 Kings 22:34-38).
            In this instance, an unnamed prophet of God was given instructions to have his companion strike him and wound him (verse 35).  Why would God command this?  In ancient times, physical conditions were often used by God to get the attention of someone he wished to communicate to.  God often used physical illustrations to fully explain his message to people (Jeremiah 27-28; Ezekiel 4-5; Hosea 1, 3).  God wanted the companion to wound the prophet because the prophet would then disguise himself as a wounded soldier and tell Ahab a story about slacking in his duty and letting a captive escape.  This would drive God's point home to Ahab of the seriousness of his sin in letting Ben-Hadad go free.
            This was an urgent command, because Ahab was coming and the prophet had to immediately deliver God's message.  A reason is not given as to why the companion refused to strike the prophet; it may have been out of compassion, but could easily have also been out of disbelief at the command.  The death of the companion was a warning to those who did not take God's commands seriously.