1 Samuel 16:14-23 – The Work of God

Now the Lord’s spirit had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. Saul’s servants said to him, “Look, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. If our master just says the word, your servants will search for someone who knows how to play the lyre. The musician can play whenever the evil spirit from God is affecting you, and then you’ll feel better.”

Saul said to his servants, “Find me a good musician and bring him to me.”

One of the servants responded, “I know that one of Jesse’s sons from Bethlehem is a good musician. He’s a strong man and heroic, a warrior who speaks well and is good-looking too. The Lord is with him.”

So, Saul sent messengers to Jesse to say, “Send me your son David, the one who keeps the sheep.”

Jesse then took a donkey and loaded it with a homer of bread, a jar of wine, and a young goat, and he sent it along with his son David to Saul. That is how David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked David very much, and David became his armor-bearer. Saul sent a message to Jesse: “Please allow David to remain in my service because I am pleased with him.” Whenever the evil spirit from God affected Saul, David would take the lyre and play it. Then Saul would relax and feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him alone. (Common English Bible)

In the realm of God, everything seems upside-down. Those who are first are last, and the last are first. The rich are really poor, and the poor are actually rich. People of low position are the highest in God’s realm, while those at the top are really at the bottom. The religious insiders, appearing close to God, are on the outside; and the outsiders, seemingly far from God, are really the insiders and close to the Lord.

If we judge circumstances according to human standards of fair-play and what seems right to us, God’s ethics might not make much sense. There are two extreme responses to this reality of God’s odd working in the world. 

One response is to try and nail down everything we don’t understand, to create a black and white world where every question has an answer, and all things are certain so that we know exactly how God works, all the time. 

The opposite response is to never try answering anything about the mysterious working of God, saying, “whatever will be, will be.” Somewhere in the middle of the extremes is probably a good place to be – working to know God better and how divinity operates in the world, while being comfortable with mystery and discerning we will never completely understand everything in this life.

There are times we feel confident of what God is doing. Other times, maybe most of the time, we are clueless as to how God is working. We do not have all the answers to God’s activity. Yet, there is still a lot we know about God. The Lord worked in quite different ways with Saul than with David.  

The difference in the two characters, Saul and David, hinges upon the presence and absence of God. God withdrew divine presence from Saul. King Saul’s deliberate and consistent disobedience of God’s direct commands led to the divine absence. Not only did God leave Saul, but an evil or bad spirit from the Lord tormented him. That reality might be something way off your understanding of how God works with people.  God departed from Saul and put him in a situation of inflicting pain.

Bear in mind, in a biblical worldview, there are not two equally opposing forces of God and Satan. Rather, Lucifer is a created being who aspired to be like God and fell from heaven. God stands alone as the one sovereign Being who controls all things in heaven and earth. 

Saul is not an isolated occurrence of experiencing a bad spirit. For example, God hardened the heart of Pharaoh so that he acted harshly against the people of Israel (Exodus 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10). From a strictly human perspective, it seemed God was kicking the can down the road, pushing off the people’s deliverance. Yet, the Lord was orchestrating deliverance from bondage, and a redemption far beyond what the Israelites could have ever imagined. 

Sometimes, we are privy to God’s working. For example, in the days of the Judges:

Abimelech ruled over Israel three years. But God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the lords of Shechem; and the lords of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech. This happened so that the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might be avenged and their blood be laid on their brother Abimelech, who killed them, and on the lords of Shechem, who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers. (Judges 9:22-24, NRSV)

In whatever way we understand an evil spirit from God in the life of Saul, the point to grasp is that God is aware and in control – whereas Saul is a disturbed man due to his own bad choices. Some ancient interpreters of the story view this as an act of mercy on God’s part, by not just eradicating Saul altogether, but, instead, giving Saul an opportunity to turn his life around and again experience the presence of God.

Keep in mind, just because someone experiences mental or emotional pain in the form of depression or anxiety or other disorder, does not necessarily mean there is a bad decision behind it. To go down that route is to take the extreme position of living in the black and white world of trying to be certain of everything. We only need consider the life of Job to know that pain, even extreme pain and horrible circumstances, does not necessarily mean sin is at the root of it all. (Job 2:7-10)

“People with absolute certainty are usually the misguided souls who confidently tell other people in terrible circumstances how God is either punishing them or that this will all work out in some fairy tale ending of the miraculous (which it rarely does).” 

Mit Tdrahrhe

On the other extreme, those embracing only mystery simply say to people in pain to trust God and accept your situation because God has a plan (not helpful, even hurtful). So, what is helpful?

The servants of Saul knew what was helpful. They asked the king to put out an ad for a music therapist. And the best one they could find was David. The problem of Saul’s anguish needed the answer of a good harpist. 

Saul got some relief from pain, got a chance to perhaps come back to God, and David (already the next anointed king) got to learn the job of leading first-hand from the bottom-up by being in Saul’s service.

David needed to learn lowly service before becoming an exalted king. God could have simply knocked Saul off the throne and did away with him (which would make sense to a lot of people). Instead, God graciously gave young David time to observe the duties of a king.

God isn’t off his rocker. God knows what he is doing. God knew both Saul and David, inside and out. And, the Lord intimately knows each person, family, faith community, nation, and people group. If anyone claims to know precisely what God is doing and should do, they are a spiritual huckster speaking from ignorant pride. Conversely, if anyone throws up their arms in exasperation, mumbling how nobody can know God’s working, they are spiritually immature and irresponsible.

How we act or not act, what we say and do not say, is all a function of our theology – our real view of God. So, what might we take away from this story?

  1. The mystery of God and the certainty of people do not mix well. Claiming to always know what God is doing is delusional and just doesn’t help anyone.
  2. The clarity of God through divine commands, and the apathy of people to them, is a bad situation.  Claiming to never know what God is doing is a cop-out (because God has spoken clearly about a lot of things, like the Ten Commandments).
  3. Unlike Saul, do the best you can in the circumstances before you. Many situations we cannot avoid. However, in every situation we can control our response.
  4. Like David, be an agent of comfort, healing, and blessing to others. Most of the psalms were written in times of doubt, distress, and disturbance. We can take those psalms and pray them directly to God in the midst of our own discomfort.

We are in God’s hands, all of time. There is never a time when we are outside of God’s sight or ability to work.  The Lord’s arm is not too short to accomplish good purposes. God is our strong tower and mighty fortress for every life circumstance.

**Above painting: David playing the harp for King Saul, by German painter, Januarius Zick, 1750

Psalm 98 – Sing a New Song

Sing to the Lord a new song
    because he has done wonderful things!
His own strong hand and his own holy arm
    have won the victory!
The Lord has made his salvation widely known;
    he has revealed his righteousness
    in the eyes of all the nations.
God has remembered his loyal love
    and faithfulness to the house of Israel;
    every corner of the earth has seen our God’s salvation.

Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth!
    Be happy!
    Rejoice out loud!
    Sing your praises!
Sing your praises to the Lord with the lyre—
    with the lyre and the sound of music.
With trumpets and a horn blast,
    shout triumphantly before the Lord, the king!
Let the sea and everything in it roar;
    the world and all its inhabitants too.
Let all the rivers clap their hands;
    let the mountains rejoice out loud altogether before the Lord
    because he is coming to establish justice on the earth!
He will establish justice in the world rightly;
    he will establish justice among all people fairly. (Common English Bible)

Please notice the point of today’s psalm: Sing to the Lord a new song. Yes, a “new” song. This means we have an obligation to bring fresh music to our worship of God. This is a summons to get an original voice. Rather than going down the same ruts in our speaking and living, we are to exercise some creativity.

It seems as if those who want to stick with the “tried and true hymns” of the church have forgotten those hymns are only a few hundred years old in a church which is two-thousand years old. Back in the nineteenth century, a bitter worship battle ensued between those who wanted to sing the new hymns and those who had been singing the psalter for the past few hundred years.

The reason we sing new songs is because God is continually performing wonderful deeds in every generation. God has not only worked in the past; the Lord is doing the miraculous in the present, as well. The psalmist is thinking in cosmic, not provincial, terms. Included in the praising of new songs are a variety of creatures, along with all of creation.

Rivers Will Clap and Mountains Shout by Itamar Raz

We sing because of what God has done in the past, is doing in the present, and will do for the future. Creative and fresh praise that remembers previous divine works, experiences the now of the Spirit, and anticipates the coming of the Lord is the sort of praise called for in the psalm.

Being attentive to God’s mighty deeds helps us breakout into new vistas of living. Considering God’s works through new songs can become so invigorating that everyone and everything on earth is encouraged to join into the imaginative expression of praise.

We are to praise the Lord in this present time because of what God has done in the past, with a continual eye to the future when Christ will come again. If we don’t make the effort to offer praise that is fresh, creative, and thoughtful for our present time, then we ought not be surprised when a watching world gives a shoulder-shrugging “meh” to our tepid singing. And if such vibrant praise seems foreign, then the time is past due for a renewed focus on the works of God because the Lord really has done miraculous things for us.

Let’s jump start your creativity a bit:

  • Do some prayer walking through your neighborhood. See the community through another’s eyes.
  • Write in a journal or collect photos of significant experiences. No one needs to read or see it unless you want them to. Although, it’s a good idea to share with others.
  • Sketch, paint, or sculpt. Make a visual depiction of your joy or experience. It doesn’t matter if it looks like a second grade art project. It’s the process of creating that matters.
  • Participate in a new activity, like taking an online class or developing a different routine.
  • Don’t just do what somebody else did. Reflect on what is important to you. Then, make something to remind you of its value.

You are already a creative artist. You just might not know it, yet. Since you carry within yourself the DNA of a creative God, the Lord’s image and likeness within wants a creative outlet. Open yourself to the possibility of smelling colors, talking to trees, and listening to what animals have to say to you. In doing so, you just might discover that the miraculous has been under your nose all along.

Mighty God, your holy arm of power has done incredible works in history. What’s more, you have done influential works in my life, especially through deliverance from evil and transformation of heart.  For this, and for all your miraculously good work, I praise the gracious and wonderful name of Jesus Christ, my Savior and Lord. Amen.

Psalm 86 – Theology Proper

Psalm 86 by Ann Williams

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
    for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
    save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
    for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
    for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
    abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
    listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
    for you will answer me.

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
    nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come
    and bow down before you, O Lord,
    and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
    you alone are God.
Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;
    give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
    and I will glorify your name forever.
For great is your steadfast love toward me;
    you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

O God, the insolent rise up against me;
    a band of ruffians seeks my life,
    and they do not set you before them.
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Turn to me and be gracious to me;
    give your strength to your servant;
    save the child of your serving girl.
Show me a sign of your favor,
    so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame,
    because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me. (NRSV)

Today’s psalm is a prayer of David, asking God for help against enemies. David was a guy who knew what it was like to have evil men hate him and pursue taking his life through no fault of his own. I am not sure about your experiences with such people. Although I have never faced adversity to such a degree as David, I do know something about people who, to put it bluntly, just flat-out hate my guts. It feels awful, and it can be terribly draining emotionally and spiritually. Having disrespectful and rude people talk behind your back (and sometimes even to your face) is in direct contrast to who God is.

God is described by David as merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and faithful. Whereas insolent people objectify others and seek their own selfish agendas, God always acts in accord with a basic character of love and grace. Based upon the nature of God, we can choose to cry out, just like David did, to show us a sign of God’s favor. We can pray for God to provide us with some tangible communication of divine love in ways we can understand so that we can be helped and receive the kind of comfort we need through our adversity.

Psalm 86, chalk art by Scottish pastor and artist John Stuart, 2009

Be assured that with such a God, our pleas, cries, and tears will be noticed, affirmed, and answered. We can trust the sovereign Lord of all creation to address the insolence and injustice that exists around us and toward us.

All of this gets down to our view of God, our theological understanding of the basic Divine nature and purpose.  For some people, God is up there, somewhere, like some white-bearded old guy who is aloof to what is going on down here – there is neither anything personal nor personable about him, at all. For others, God is a force which binds all things together. In this theology, God exists, but you are never quite sure how to connect – it is like a crapshoot trying to get in touch with him.  For yet others, God is perpetually perturbed about something; he has a bee in his bonnet, and it is apparently our job to figure out what he is so sullen and upset about all the time so that we can appease him in some way.

However, the psalmist, David, sees God in wholly other ways than this. For David, God is personal, knowable, and reachable. David thought about God in ways which transcend either gendered or personality-type categories. Note the descriptions David provided: a willingness to forgive; an abiding, consistent, and steadfast presence of divine love; always having the time and desire to listen; possessing the power and ability to provide help and protection; being kind and merciful; not being easily angered; and extending needed comfort and consolation.

Now this is a God you can sink your teeth into – attentive, engaged, and anything but upset all the time. This is the reason why David has confidence to ask for deliverance, direction, and delight. Such a God is like a caring grandmother who seeks to always love and serve, and not a crotchety old curmudgeon who always seems bothered by everyone and everything.

If your theology, your view of God, cannot support and bear the weight of life’s hardest circumstances, then you need a different view of God! I invite you to see the God of David. Theology proper discerns the being, attributes, and works of God as fundamentally faithful and loving. This God has both the ability and the will to meet and satisfy your life’s greatest needs.

Great God of David, you are above all things and beside all things and with all things. You are uniquely positioned and powerful to walk with me through all the situations of my life. Thank you for sending the Son of David to make real your promises to me.  Amen.

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 – Remember and Learn

My friends, I beg you
    to listen as I teach.
I will give instruction
    and explain the mystery
    of what happened long ago.
These are things we learned
    from our ancestors,
    and we will tell them
    to the next generation.
We won’t keep secret
    the glorious deeds
    and the mighty miracles
    of the Lord….

God made a path in the sea
    and piled up the water
    as he led them across.
He guided them during the day
    with a cloud,
    and each night he led them
    with a flaming fire.
God made water flow
from rocks
he split open
    in the desert,
    and his people drank freely,
    as though from a lake.
He made streams gush out
    like rivers from rocks. (CEV)

This is a psalm designed to recall historical events for the theological education of ourselves and the next generation. Through passing on eventful stories from the past to future generations, God’s people continue to remember and realize robust divine action in the world. In recalling stories of care and deliverance, God’s commandments are kept. Putting trust in a powerful and benevolent deity brings assurance and encouragement.

Using the psalter as a means of recollecting past events is a sage way of edifying God’s people and living into the command of the Law, according to Moses:

These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Deuteronomy 6:1-12, NIV)

Since psalms are meant to be recited repeatedly throughout one’s spiritual life, doing so inoculates the worshiper from faithless rebellion and counteracts temptations toward trusting in idols. It is a preservative, giving life, purpose, and wholeness. Regular spiritual consumption of the psalms provides a pattern of instruction which molds and maintains the soul so that, when hard situations arise, the supports are there to hold up under the adversity.

The life that is truly life, and life for those who come after us, comes through intentional remembrance and learning. Today’s psalm is a fitting invitation to set our hope in God, remember God’s wonderful works, and keep God’s commands.