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

Job 6:1-13 – A Response to Suffering

Job by French painter Léon Bonnat, 1880

Oh, that my grief was weighed,
    all of it were lifted in scales;
    for now it is heavier than the sands of the sea;
        therefore, my words are rash.
The Almighty’s arrows are in me;
    my spirit drinks their poison,
    and God’s terrors are arrayed against me.
Does a donkey bray over grass
    or an ox bellow over its fodder?
Is tasteless food eaten without salt,
    or does egg white have taste?
I refuse to touch them;
    they resemble food for the sick.

Oh, that what I’ve requested would come
        and God grant my hope;
    that God be willing to crush me,
    release his hand and cut me off.
I’d still take comfort,
    relieved even though in persistent pain;
        for I’ve not denied the words of the holy one.
What is my strength, that I should hope;
    my end, that my life should drag on?
Is my strength that of rocks,
    my flesh bronze?
I don’t have a helper for myself;
    success has been taken from me. (CEB)

The Old Testament character of Job is famous as the poster boy for suffering, grief, and sorrow. A divine and devilish drama was taking place behind the curtain of this world, of which Job had absolutely no clue about.  All he knew was that he lost everything – his family, his wealth, and his standing before others.  The only thing left was his own life – and he was in such physical pain and emotional agony that he was ready to die.

Yet, the greatest pain of all seems to be the silence of God. Job has no idea, nothing to grab ahold of no earthly sense of why he was going through such intense and terrible suffering. His cries, tears, pleas, and expressions of deep hurt seemingly go un-noticed. Job felt truly alone in his horrible pain of body and spirit.

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Job’s story is as old as time – probably having taken place 4,000 years ago. And here we are, all these millennia later, knowing the story of why Job suffered, as well as the end of the story. But Job himself never knew why he suffered, even when God spoke and restored his health and wealth.

It is so extremely easy and normal to ask the question, “Why!?”  When we are in the throes of emotional pain and our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, there is only trust left for us. We do what is unthinkable to others who have never known God – place our complete reliance and hope on the God for whom we know is not really sleeping or off on a vacation. We believe, even know, God is there. For whatever reasons which we might never know this side of heaven, God chooses to remain silent.

The genuineness of faith is not determined by giving the right answers to a theology questionnaire. Genuine faith is made strong through the trials, sufferings, pain, and lack of understanding in this life. We all suffer in some way. How we choose to respond to that suffering, either by cursing God and becoming bitter, or holding to God even tighter and becoming better, is totally up to you and me.

God of all creation, you see and survey all your creatures here on this earth. Sometimes I just do not understand what in the world you are doing or not doing. Yet today I choose to put my faith, hope, and love in you.  I may not know what the heck I am doing, but you always work to accomplish your good purposes, through Jesus Christ, my Savior, along with the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jeremiah 20:14-18 – Overwhelmed with Grief

By Unknown artist

Cursed be the day I was born!
    May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,
    who made him very glad, saying,
    “A child is born to you—a son!”
May that man be like the towns
    the Lord overthrew without pity.
May he hear wailing in the morning,
    a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb,
    with my mother as my grave,
    her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb
    to see trouble and sorrow
    and to end my days in shame? (NIV)

Perhaps you feel as though you must put on a good face, a decent front for others to see. You don’t like other people seeing you upset or cry because it can be embarrassing. Maybe you believe others don’t need to be burdened with your sadness. The last thing you want is to be a killjoy.

Sometimes you might even put up a front with God.  Maybe you think God wants everyone to be perpetually happy and always sing with the birds in blissful joy and gladness, or whistle while you work. However, that would not be an accurate view of God.

One of the most faithful people in Holy Scripture, Jeremiah, freely and unabashedly lamented before God – to the point of wishing he were dead. Jeremiah, the incredible prophet of God, closer to the Lord than anyone of his generation, was so despondent and ashamed that he wished he were never even born. The suffering and the shame were just too overwhelming.

To say that Jeremiah had a difficult ministry is a gross understatement. He literally had the ministry from hell, prophesying to people who neither liked him, nor his message to them. In the middle of it all, Jeremiah threw up his hands and let out his complaint to God. Jeremiah was in such ministerial misery that he wished he had been a stillborn baby.

Lest you think Jeremiah was sinfully depressed or just cuckoo, he is far from alone in the Bible. King David had no scruples about letting God know how he felt about his dire circumstances. Job, likely the most famous sufferer of all, spent time doing nothing but lamenting his terrible losses for months. What all three of them have in common is that they openly grieved with great tears, yet neither cursed God nor forsook the Lord.

Lamentation is the sacred space between intense grieving to God without blaming the Lord for our significant changes and losses in life. I would even argue that lamenting and grieving before God is a necessary spiritual practice which needs full recognition in the Body of Christ. Please sit with that last statement for a bit and consider how it might become a reality in your own life and context.

Grief can and does attach itself to any change or loss. It is the normal emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational reaction to that injury of the heart. There is only one way through grief. We must tell our story to another. It is both biblical and quite necessary.

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.”

galatians 6:2, NLT

We need our spirituality to support us in such times – not drive us away through a misguided theology of believing you must keep a stiff upper lip. It is critical to have safe and supportive people in our lives when going through overwhelming circumstances.

“Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.”

Brené Brown

Our tears are holy. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. The prophet Jeremiah was doing a very godly thing in expressing his grief. And Jeremiah’s lament is what helped steel him for the several attempts on his life that he faced.

Let the tears do their intended work in your life.

God of all, you feel deeply about a great many things.  As your people, we also feel a great depth of emotion when our lives go horribly awry from our dreams and expectations.  Hear our lament as we pour out our grief before you, through Jesus, our Savior, with the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jeremiah 20:7-13 – Let It Out!

The Prophet Jeremiah by Michelangelo, c.1545

You tricked me, Lord,
    and I was really fooled.
You are stronger than I am,
    and you have defeated me.
People never stop sneering
    and insulting me.
You have let me announce
    only destruction and death.
Your message has brought me
nothing but insults
    and trouble.
Sometimes I tell myself
not to think about you, Lord,
    or even mention your name.
But your message burns
in my heart and bones,
    and I cannot keep silent.

I heard the crowds whisper,
    “Everyone is afraid.
Now’s our chance
    to accuse Jeremiah!”
All of my so-called friends
are just waiting
    for me to make a mistake.
They say, “Maybe Jeremiah
    can be tricked.
Then we can overpower him
    and get even at last.”

But you, Lord,
are a mighty soldier,
    standing at my side.
Those troublemakers
will fall down and fail—
    terribly embarrassed,
    forever ashamed.

Lord All-Powerful,
    you test those who do right,
and you know every heart
    and mind.
I have told you my complaints,
so let me watch you
    take revenge on my enemies.
I sing praises to you, Lord.
You rescue the oppressed
    from the wicked. (CEV)

The prophet Jeremiah had a tough gig. The Lord God almighty didn’t give him much choice about his life’s work. Jeremiah was commissioned by God with a message of doom and destruction. If that weren’t enough, God promised him that no one would respond, nobody would repent, and not one person would listen to what he had to say. Sheesh, talk about a tough ministry!

But Jeremiah was compelled to speak. He just could not hold it in. His calling, his life’s work, bubbled up and out of him, no matter what he did to try and keep a lid on it. Whenever Jeremiah would try and walk away and say, “Forget it! No more God-Messages from me!” then the words from God burned like a fire in his belly. Jeremiah got worn out trying to keep the message domesticated within him.

Maybe you can relate in some small way.  It isn’t always easy talking about God to others, let alone talking about some subject other people really don’t want to hear.  Yet, as the people of God, we discover it is much more painful to keep it inside than it is letting it out and taking the consequences as they may come.

Or it could be that you resonate with Jeremiah’s trying to distance himself from God.  You were hurt, wounded in some way, and no matter how hard you run from God, your inner sacred space will not leave you alone – it relentlessly tracks you down and hounds you, barking to be heard and expressed.

What then, should we do? How, then, shall we live? Don’t keep silent. Speak! Let your voice out. Say what is important to you. Because ignoring it, wishing it would go away, or thinking God will eventually give-up isn’t going to happen, my friend.  Let the Word have its way.

God Almighty, you have your ways in this world, and they don’t always make sense to me.  Sticking my fingers in my ears trying to pretend you are not there isn’t working – my heart burns within me.  So, help me to speak with all the confidence of the message I have, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit.  Amen.