Psalm 51:1-12 – Sin, Sinners, and God

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.
(New Revised Standard Version)

Sin. The word is rarely used anymore in places outside of churches. And when it is used within the church, sometimes it is grossly misrepresented, as if humanity’s identity is sin.

Although everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, our inherent personhood is not sinful. Every human is made in the image and likeness of God. Sin is like a permanent putrid abscess which never seems to go away.

Sin is everywhere – in our hearts, in our world, in our institutions, and in our families. It is on television, the internet, social media, and moves in and out of smartphones. Sin, apparently, is even in our desserts (oh, the decadence of chocolate!). If it takes one to know one, we are all experts on being sinners.

From a biblical vantage, sin is serious business. It is both the things we do (1 John 3:4), as well as the things we leave undone (James 4:17). Sin is both the breaking of God’s commands, and the lack of conforming to the teachings of Jesus.

Christians throughout the ages have generally understood that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Christ’s law of love (Luke 10:27) constitute a brief summary of God’s holy and moral instruction for humanity.  This is all based in the character of God as both holy and loving. 

Sin, then, might be defined as anything present within a person which does not express, or is contrary to, the basic character of God.

All sin, whether in actions or inactions, has at its root an attitude and activity of self-centeredness. It is a selfish bent of thinking, feeling, and acting. And, oh my, the consequences!

Sinful attitudes bring about an obsession with lust (1 John 8:34; Galatians 5:16); a broken relationship with God (Romans 3:23; Galatians 5:17); bondage to Satan (1 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:26); death (Romans 6:23; 8:6); hardening of the heart (Hebrews 3:13); and deception (1 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22, 26) just to a name a few.

Sin lurks in the shadows of the heart, drips from the tongue of the wicked, and lingers in the actions of the selfish and proud. Sin is not something to trifle with, dabble in, or even manage. No, sin, at its core, is a rebellion against God, a stiff-arm to the Lord that claims we know better than God about how to run our lives. 

Sin will eventually break us.  It may initially look good and meet a quick emotional need, but in the end it is like a poisonous snake bite that will kill unless treated.

People are guilty of transgressing basic morality, as well as failing to be ethically virtuous people on any on-going consistent basis. 

Well, that sounds like a total Debbie-Downer. Actually, it’s total depravity. Being depraved people does not mean we are never capable of doing good; it just means that sin has profoundly touched everything in our lives, without exception.

God is faithful and reliable. If we confess our sins, he forgives them and cleanses us from everything we’ve done wrong.

1 John 1:9, GW

When we come to the realization that we are in dire straits, then it is high time we blurt out a prayer of confession along with David. The book of Psalms is the Christian’s prayer book, and there is no better prayer to pray when we come to the end of ourselves than the psalmist’s plea for mercy, based in the steadfast love of God.

The ironic paradox of all this is that experiencing true joy and comfort comes through knowing how great our sin is. 

We can live above sin by being set free from it by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. If a person is to be redeemed from sin, then a provision must be made. Sin has been dealt with once for all through the person and work of Jesus. Christ is our representative, taking our place with the punishment we deserved (Galatians 4:4-5; Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:9-15; Hebrews 2:17-18; 1 John 2:1).

Jesus Christ is our ultimate substitute (Romans 5:8) which resulted in: our redemption (Galatians 5:13); satisfying all justice (Romans 3:25); and reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10). 

Therefore, the person who believes in Jesus is forgiven of sin because Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to deal with all the effects of sin.  The Christian is complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10).

A genuine prayer of confession asks for mercy based upon God’s character and ability to heal, rather than trusting in the attempted quality of our petition. In other words, neither the eloquence nor the sheer word structure itself is the proper basis for confession; utterances of a broken and contrite heart, submitted to God, trusting solely in his grace to transform, are the only kind of words appropriate for approaching God with our sin. 

Such prayers are not to be few and far between; they are to be a regular regimen, engaged on a daily basis. Just as we take pills each day for all that ails us, so we need to take in the mercy of God through prayers of confession that link us to the true healing power which brings spiritual health and life.

Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me! Please don’t throw me out of your presence; please don’t take your holy spirit away from me. Return the joy of your salvation to me and sustain me with a willing spirit. Amen.

1 Samuel 31:1-13 – Warning Signs from a Tragic Life

The Philistines made war on Israel. The men of Israel were in full retreat from the Philistines, falling left and right, wounded on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines caught up with Saul and his sons. They killed Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malki-Shua, Saul’s sons.

The battle was hot and heavy around Saul. The archers got his range and wounded him badly. Saul said to his weapon bearer, “Draw your sword and put me out of my misery, lest these pagan pigs come and make a game out of killing me.”

But his weapon bearer wouldn’t do it. He was terrified. So, Saul took the sword himself and fell on it. When the weapon bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. So, Saul, his three sons, and his weapon bearer—the men closest to him—died together that day.

When the Israelites in the valley opposite and those on the other side of the Jordan saw that their army was in full retreat and that Saul and his sons were dead, they left their cities and ran for their lives. The Philistines moved in and occupied the sites.

The next day, when the Philistines came to rob the dead, they found Saul and his three sons dead on Mount Gilboa. They cut off Saul’s head and stripped off his armor. Then they spread the good news all through Philistine country in the shrines of their idols and among the people. They displayed his armor in the shrine of the Ashtoreth. They nailed his corpse to the wall at Beth Shan.

The people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul. Their valiant men sprang into action. They traveled all night, took the corpses of Saul and his three sons from the wall at Beth Shan, and carried them back to Jabesh and burned off the flesh. They then buried the bones under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted in mourning for seven days. (The Message)

Life is a process. Rarely does anything happen instantly. Human growth, maturation, life, and death unfold over years. So, a major life issue is attending to what process are we given to – a process which allows for human thriving – or a process that causes a failure to thrive.

King Saul sadly gave himself to a downward spiral of jealousy, paranoia, and poor decisions. His end was tragic. Yet perhaps we might learn some lessons in the form of warnings. Let’s consider the life of Saul as a cautionary tale, heeding us to avoid his foibles and pitfalls.

Unfortunately, Saul made deliberate choices in his life which led to his ignominious death. In fact, Scripture makes it plain that Saul died because of unfaithfulness:

Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance and did not inquire of the Lord. So, the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse. (1 Chronicles 10:13-14, NIV)

Premeditated, deliberate, conscious wrongdoing can only expect a predictable process of moral failure and divine judgment. Consider some observations from Saul’s life so that we will be kept from going down his path of destruction:

  • Saul made decisions which solely benefited himself, and not the entire community. He deliberately disobeyed orders from the prophet Samuel and tried to justify his behavior with a godly veneer (1 Samuel 13:1-14; 15:1-26). Later, King David engaged in some deliberate acts of sin and disobedience. Yet, David did not share Saul’s outcome because he humbled himself before God, admitted his guilt, and turned away from disobedience (2 Samuel 12:1-13). There always remains the opportunity to turn to God, as long as we are alive.
  • Saul never owned his bad decisions, and it led to his paranoia and warped thinking. Saul kept believing he was okay – and that everyone else was wrong or against him. If we ever get to the point of living with our sin as if it’s acceptable, then we need a prophet to come along and show us the error of our ways and beliefs. Saul had a prophet in his life: Samuel, who was one of the best. Yet, Saul often altered Samuel’s advice or dispensed with it altogether.
  • Saul’s wrongdoing did not always lead to immediate negative consequences. That is the typical nature of sin. It bites, but the pain isn’t felt until later. Saul was rejected by God as king. In reality, this rejection did not occur until Saul’s death. Whenever Saul made poor decisions, he felt gratification in the immediate moment. Later, however, he was tormented by an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:14). Conversely, the righteous person understands the principle of delayed gratification.
  • It wasn’t just Saul who suffered because of his own jealousy and paranoia. Other people suffered, as well. David clearly suffered emotional and spiritual duress because of Saul’s jealousy. The priests and the people of Nob were mercilessly murdered because of Saul’s paranoia (1 Samuel 22:6-19). We must be quite careful to avoid being shortsighted about our decisions. Just because we might neither anticipate nor see any negative consequences to others doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Sin destroys, period, whether we know it, or not.
  • Saul’s identity and worth as a person was dependent on his title and position as king. So, when that position was threatened, Saul thought his very personhood was in grave danger. The truth is that our worth as humans is not tied to whether we have a lofty position, or a particular pedigree. Our dignity as people is forever tethered to bearing the divine image.

A healthy life process of decision-making which includes consulting wise voices and collaborating with people of integrity will surely result in good things, not bad. So, let us walk in the narrow path of wisdom, while continually forsaking the broad road that leads to destruction.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

*Above: woodcut of King Saul’s death by George Wigland, 1860

1 Samuel 8:1-22 – Be Careful What You Ask For: You Might Get It

Now when Samuel got old, he appointed his sons to serve as Israel’s judges. The name of his oldest son was Joel; the name of the second was Abijah. They served as judges in Beersheba. But Samuel’s sons didn’t follow in his footsteps. They tried to turn a profit, they accepted bribes, and they perverted justice.

So, all the Israelite elders got together and went to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So, appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” It seemed awfully bad to Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” so he prayed to the Lord.

The Lord answered Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods. So, comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them.”

Then Samuel explained everything the Lord had said to the people who were asking for a king. “This is how the king will rule over you,” Samuel said:

“He will take your sons and will use them for his chariots and his cavalry and as runners for his chariot. He will use them as his commanders of troops of one thousand and troops of fifty, or to do his plowing and his harvesting, or to make his weapons or parts for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, or bakers. He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his servants. He will give one-tenth of your grain and your vineyards to his officials and servants. He will take your male and female servants, along with the best of your cattle and donkeys, and make them do his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and then you yourselves will become his slaves! When that day comes, you will cry out because of the king you chose for yourselves, but on that day the Lord won’t answer you.”

But the people refused to listen to Samuel and said, “No! There must be a king over us so we can be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles.”

Samuel listened to everything the people said and repeated it directly to the Lord. Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Comply with their request. Give them a king.”

Samuel then told the Israelite people, “Go back, each of you, to your own hometown.” (Common English Bible)

“No one but a fool would measure their satisfaction by what the world thinks of it.”

Oliver Goldsmith

In the days of the prophet Samuel, the people asked for a king. They had never had one before. Samuel, and others before him, served as Judges, leading the people in special times and acting as intercessors between the people and God. 

Samuel was quite displeased that the people asked for a king. Ever the wise and discerning leader, Samuel understood there were two realities behind such a request:

  1. Israel wanted to be just like all the other nations in having a king.
  2. Israel was rejecting God as their rightful king.

The ancient Israelites wanted from an earthly king what God was really supposed to do for them. Whereas an earthly mortal king can only rule partially and temporarily, the eternal sovereign God reigns supreme over everyone and everything. 

It is impossible for an earthly king to provide the totality of everyone’s needs within a geographical realm. Yet, even in this present day and age, all kinds of people still look to earthly politicians, pundits, presidents, prognosticators, pastors, and/or people in charge to meet their every need. That’s likely why so many people get upset and have strong visceral reactions to politics and the church – far too many of them expect a human authority figure to do for them what God is supposed to do. 

No other human being can fight your battles for you. No other person can do your relational and spiritual work for you. We must all take charge of our own lives and be responsible to develop and cultivate spiritual and relational practices which connect us with the God who is in charge of the universe. 

We can then ask God for what we need and want according to divine purposes, and not ask for what everyone else has that we don’t. God ended up giving Israel a king, even when it was not the best of ideas on their part. 

Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it.

All-wise God, I look to you for the discernment to even know what I ought to be asking for in prayer. Guide me into truth and grace so that in everything I will make wise decisions that reflect your sovereignty over the church and the world. In Jesus’ name I pray.  Amen.

**Above art comes from the Morgan Picture Bible, c.1250. The aging Samuel is approached by four elders representing the people of Israel who ask him to anoint a King so that Israel will be powerful like other nations. Samuel warns them of the dangers a king would pose to the liberties of the Israelite people.

Amos 9:7-15 – A Promise of Restoration

“Are you Israelites more important to me
    than the Ethiopians?” asks the Lord.
“I brought Israel out of Egypt,
    but I also brought the Philistines from Crete
    and led the Arameans out of Kir.

“I, the Sovereign Lord,
    am watching this sinful nation of Israel.
I will destroy it
    from the face of the earth.
But I will never completely destroy the family of Israel,”
    says the Lord.
“For I will give the command
    and will shake Israel along with the other nations
as grain is shaken in a sieve,
    yet not one true kernel will be lost.
But all the sinners will die by the sword—
    all those who say, ‘Nothing bad will happen to us.’

“In that day I will restore the fallen house of David.
    I will repair its damaged walls.
From the ruins I will rebuild it
    and restore its former glory.
And Israel will possess what is left of Edom
    and all the nations I have called to be mine.”
The Lord has spoken,
    and he will do these things.

“The time will come,” says the Lord,
“when the grain and grapes will grow faster
    than they can be harvested.
Then the terraced vineyards on the hills of Israel
    will drip with sweet wine!
I will bring my exiled people of Israel
    back from distant lands,
and they will rebuild their ruined cities
    and live in them again.
They will plant vineyards and gardens;
    they will eat their crops and drink their wine.
I will firmly plant them there
    in their own land.
They will never again be uprooted
    from the land I have given them,”
    says the Lord your God.
(New Living Translation)

Guilt

Doom and hope, judgment and grace, suffering and glory. These are the movements and rhythms of the Old Testament prophets. The great sin of Israel which warranted divine wrath was not only that they trampled on the poor and needy. On top of it all, they saw nothing wrong with their way of life. 

This profound lack of awareness, rooted in the spiritual blindness of greed, is what led to judgment. It would take the form of having the Assyrian Empire come, seize the land, and take the people away to a place where they would have no chance to oppress others. Sadly, death would come to many.

“The work of restoration cannot begin until a problem is fully faced.”

Dan Allender

The sin of oppressing others and believing there’s nothing wrong with it comes with severe consequences. The people relied too much on their ethnicity. The ancient Israelites wrongly assumed that because they were the people of the covenant, this somehow inoculated them from disaster. Their belief in Jewish exceptionalism was their downfall.

Grace

Yet, all would not be an endless gloom. The Lord will not destroy completely. God’s anger lasts for a moment. However, God’s grace lasts forever. Restoration, renewal, and fruitful times will come because of God’s mercy. 

Yes, God pronounces judgment when it is warranted. But God also makes and keeps promises to people. In our lesson for today, the Lord promises to restore the fortunes of the people through rebuilding ruined cities and letting them inhabit them once again.

God steps in and graciously acts on behalf of all people because that is what God does. We might get the notion in our heads that God executes judgment to teach people a lesson or to make a point. In my line of work, it is common to hear people express the idea they are under divine punishment because of personal illness or hard circumstances. 

God, however, acts independently out of a vast storehouse of righteousness and mercy. The Lord maintains holy decrees while showing grace to the undeserving. The nation of Israel, in the days of the prophet Amos, deserved only judgment, not grace. 

It seems to me God would have been completely justified to never restore or renew a recalcitrant people. Yet, God’s grace overwhelms and swallows human sin. Try as you might to understand grace, you will end up befuddled. That’s because grace is wildly illogical, nonsensical, and unconditionally free. Grace shows radical acceptance where there ought to be only the punishing fire of hell.

Gratitude

The height of grace and the pinnacle of restoring the fortunes of Israel (from a Christian perspective) came through a baby and a humble birth in the small village of Bethlehem. Jesus came to save the people from their sins. God acted by entering humanity with divine free love so that there could be new life and fresh hope. 

So, let grace wash you clean. Allow mercy to renew your life. Receive the gift of gracious forgiveness, merciful love, and divine peace. Look ahead and see there is hope on the horizon. Give thanks for God’s indescribable kindness.

Merciful God, although you are careful to uphold your great holiness, your mercy extends from everlasting to everlasting. May the gospel of grace form all my words and actions so that true righteousness reigns in my life through Jesus, my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.