|Series Theme: Hound of Heaven Meditations|
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 1. Where are you?
Gen 3:9 “ the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
"The Hound of Heaven" is a poem written by poet Francis Thompson, conveying the idea that as a hound pursues a hare, so God's grace pursues the fleeing sinner, without hurry or haste, but with a perseverance. I use this phrase in these studies simply because it seems to me that throughout Scripture, God is the one who takes the initiative and reaches down to us, who pursues us.
I start our journey down this path reflecting on God's very first words to sinful mankind. ‘The Fall', as Adam and Eve's disobedience is called, has just occurred in the Garden of Eden, they are a new species of creature on earth – sinners.
Now the truth is we don't like that designation, we prefer to pretend we are something other than we are. Yet the truth is living as real people, not pretend people, starts when we can be honest about ourselves.
That is what we find in Eden now. Adam and Eve are in this wonderful land – but it is now spoilt. Now their relationship with God has been spoiled although, almost certainly, they don't really realise that yet. It takes the call of God to realise it.
He doesn't quietly come upon them and pretend nothing has happened. He knows what has happened – God knows everything. He knows where they are but He wants them to have the space to think, to realise, to feel, and so He calls from a distance, “Where are you.”
Now part of that call appears necessary because, “the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” (v.8) As we said, even though they are hiding, God knows where they are because nothing is hidden from the Lord (Psa 139) and so His voice comes to them in their hiding and they know they cannot remain hidden and they become aware of their state: “I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (v.10) They were now ‘self'-aware, aware of themselves in a way they had not been before – those who had disobeyed God and would now be looked on by God in a different way, and they felt exposed, naked, and felt a need to cover up.
So much of human experience is hiding away from God. We feel His penetrating eyes will reveal us for what, deep down, we know we are – those out of kilter with Him.
So we try to cover it up and pretend we are all right, perhaps even pretend we are successful. The thing is that God knows we are not, not while we are not living in harmony with His perfect plans for us, not while we determine to let ‘self' rule to His exclusion, so He comes looking to us, calling to us, seeking us out to restore us to what we should be. That's why He's coming.
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 2. Face it.
Gen 32:27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.
The Hound of Heaven, we said, is a phrase in a poem referring to the way God pursues us sinners. In the first study we noted how He comes after us with the express purpose of helping us face ourselves so that He may then help change us.
Perhaps nowhere is this clearer in Scripture than in the history of Jacob. His story is too long and complex to detail here. Suffice it to say that everything about him and his life shouted, “Twister, crook, cheat, deceiver!” He took the birthright from his slightly older twin brother Esau, then conned his aging father to give him the prophetic blessing reserved for the first-born son. He escapes north to Haran and spends the next decades competing with his crafty uncle Laban. He is a schemer and plotter and his very name, Jacob, means grabber, deceiver.
And yet there is something quite amazing about Jacob; it is that even before he was born, God was on his case and had told his mother that, “the older will serve the younger.” (Gen 25:23) When he was fleeing from Esau's wrath at being cheated out of his blessing, the Lord gives him a dream and the Lord told him He would bless him, the same sort of wording He had given Abraham and Isaac previously. (Gen 28:13-15) Yet still he was not a believer, but still a schemer.
It wasn't until many years later when he is taking his now large family, and even larger flocks and herds, home, still scheming how he could win Esau over, that God comes to him in the form of a man who wrestles with him throughout the night. Eventually the man demands, “What is your name.” No doubt through gritted teeth he utters, “Jacob.” He faces who he is and the Lord blesses him.
The end of Jacob's story reveals an old man, now in Egypt, who is committed to return to the land God promised him, albeit after death. But before he dies he has shown he is a man honoured by the king of Egypt and, even more, he prophesies over his twelve sons and two grandsons in most remarkable ways. He is a transformed spiritual man.
If we had been observers of Jacob through his life we would have given up on him, walked away and gone to look for a more godly looking subject, but not God. God knows outcomes, potential, and possibilities, and He sees past the outside and knows what can be.
That, I would suggest, is why He pursues some people, not all, but many, because He knows we will eventually respond to Him, become His children and be transformed. He is not put off by appearances but looks at the heart potential.
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 3. No!!!!!!!!!!!
Ex 3:6 Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
When God first turns up, He evokes different reactions I believe. I suspect for most of us, we don't even realise initially what is going on, that it's God knocking on the door, that we are approaching a divine encounter, because for most of us it is the Holy Spirit quietly nudging our conscience or quietly prodding questions, preparing us for the time when suddenly (to our awareness at least) we are confronted with the Gospel – whether by reading the Bible, hearing it from a friend or preached in a church – and suddenly it becomes serious.
God encounters in the Bible are many and varied and the first ones are often low key and we're just told, “God said to….” but for Moses there was drama and it's his response in our verse above that has grabbed my attention. Why was he afraid to look at God, to face God?
Have a new look at the passage in Exodus 3. He is in the desert with his sheep, a place of familiarity and therefore confidence. He's been there for forty years. His life as a prince of Egypt is a distant memory and time heals thoughts of failure – and boy, had he failed, throwing it all away by killing an Egyptian slave overseer.
So here he is, and he sees this bush on fire. Nothing terribly unusual about that but what is unusual is that the flames don't seem to be destroying it, so he wanders over to take a closer look. And then it happens! A voice speaks to him, apparently from the flames, calling his name. His name? This is getting personal. Is this a hallucination? Then he's told to be careful this is holy ground (what does that mean???) but then the voice identifies Himself – the God of his famous forefathers. At this point he bows down, covers his face with his hood and is afraid. Why? Come on, really, why is he afraid?
Well, for a start he realises this God from the accounts passed down through the families is real. This is not a mere hallucination. Second, this God obviously knows him – He called him by name. When such a twofold awareness breaks into to our hitherto self-centred and godless life, that can be scary.
Now what is amazing about this Ex 3 & 4 God-encounter is that nowhere does the Lord bring up Moses' past, nowhere does He point out that Moses is a failure. Moses knows that, he's had forty years to try and forget it, but can you tell me that deep down, Moses hasn't got a horrible feeling that, to coin an expression, ‘the chickens are about to come home to roost'. But actually they are not.Do we fear to face God because of what we fear He will bring up? Relax, He'll only do it when He sees you're ready for it. In the meantime He wants to bless you. More tomorrow.
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 4. No!!!!!!!!!!! (2)
Ex 3:11 “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh”
This conversation between God and Moses is highly revealing and sheds light on what I see in myself and other people. Yesterday we started to examine Moses' response when God spoke to him from the burning bush. This was the first time God had spoken to Moses or, to put it the other way round, the first time Moses had heard God speaking to him, and whether it was fear of the God of his forefathers, fear of the unknown, or fear of God confronting him with his life failures, it was fear. And fear makes us want to hide – like Adam and Eve did after the Fall (Gen 3:8-10) – so Moses hid his face.
But God carries on talking and is Moses first response to encountering God was, “No!!!!!” It gets worse as God shares His heart. He tells of His desire to go and set His people, Israel, free in Egypt – and He wants to use Moses. And Moses response is (in modern language), “You've got to be joking! I'm no great leader, great reformer, great deliverer. I'm a scruffy shepherd who has spent the last forty years in the wilderness. I now prefer sheep to people. I'm a nobody. I don't rub shoulders with kings. No, you've got the wrong man!”
Well you won't find all that there in the text but surely that is what is behind Moses words in our starter verse. You want me to go on this certain death mission? No!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Wrong man, wrong day, wrong calling, wrong strategy!
Now we may not make quite such a meal of it as that but I have noticed that, so often, that is in fact how so many of us respond when God speaks visionary words over us. I have had the privilege of giving many personal prophetic words over many people over the years and so often when you hear, “Right, thanks,” you know they are the tip of the iceberg that says all these other things, and this is why God needs to be ‘the hound of heaven', ever in pursuit of us.What is it, even in myself that grumbles back to God, “I can't live this good life, I've tried and can't do it!”? Again that is the tip of the iceberg of unbelief that we struggle with. Why? Because the effect of sin is not to believe. We may have been ‘born again' but when the apostle Paul wrote, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God,” ( Rom 6:11) and then in Rom 7 unpacks the struggle we so often have, so that only Jesus can enable us to overcome it (Rom 7:24,25), that is exactly what is going on so often – Jesus comes to help us overcome this offshoot of this sin-virus, this unbelief and, as I said just now, this is why God has to come as the ‘hound of heaven' who will not give up His pursuit of us, because He knows exactly what we're like and He WILL persevere with you and me!
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 5. What!!!!!!!!!!!
Ex 3:18 “ The elders of Israel will listen to you.”
The conversation between God and Moses continues. God lays out His plans and His part in them which He knows will be essential. Moses lays out his reasons why he's not up to the job. One of our problems is that we think we know the limit of our capabilities. Before we came to Christ we worked on the basis of our own human reasoning and intellect, and our own human strength of will, and we know how far that got us, and we have the bad memories and the scars to prove it. So, yes, we think we know what we can do – and it is limited! Put a big achievement before us and we balk at it. Just like Moses.
But we are following a train of thought in these meditations whereby we are using the picture conjured up by a poet that God is the ‘Hound of Heaven' whose grace pursues us, the fleeing sinner, without hurry or haste, but with perseverance. He keeps on with us knowing that we need Him behind us harrying us onwards, and we have been noting reasons why we need Him to do that.
But there is one aspect to this that I think we should observe before we go any further. I have just used the expression about Him ‘harrying us onward' and watching Him with Moses (and us), I think the picture could be changed from a ‘hound' (as in a fox hound say) to sheep dog. I have watched sheep dogs as they steer the sheep in a flock toward the destination where the shepherd wants them to get to. I don't in any way want to be disrespectful but I think the Lord's activity has to be like this with us. The enemy seeks to get us to go in one (wrong) direction and the Holy Spirit has to reach out and get us back.
Maybe it is that we just started off this new life with so many wrong presuppositions that we need a lot of pursuing to get to a place of right thinking. I have input into a group where we are fielding questions and answers about faith and I have been watching one particular person struggling with the idea where she feels she needs to work to achieve God's approval. So I put up one set of verses to show her that grace is free and Jesus has done everything to achieve our salvation, so she skuttles in another direction and like God's sheepdog I dash round the other side with more verses and so it continues.God is having to counter all of Moses moves as he seeks to weave this way and that to avoid the truth – he IS up to it! But God keeps on. If it is us, we hit an apparent brick wall of unbelief and want to give up, but God doesn't. These two chapters of Exodus are a unique example of God pursuing His goal. How knows His man, He knows what He wants to achieve, He knows what He Himself will have to do and He knows what Moses will be capable of, once he gets under way!
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 6. Yes!!!!!!!!!!!
Ex 3:22 “ you will plunder the Egyptians.” (ESV)
We are following the conversation between the Lord and Moses, not so much to observe each of the things being said, but more to note the nature of what is happening. We are using this to think more of this concept of the Lord being referred to as the ‘Hound of Heaven' who pursues us with His grace.
We have observed Moses' negativity and suggested that in different forms it is what we all suffer and have to overcome. Indeed this is the very reason the Lord pursues us, to help us overcome all those negativities that accompanied the old self-centred, godless life of Sin. In our new life it is all ‘Yes' in Jesus (2 Cor 1:19,20) but we struggle to believe that, and so we can empathize with Moses. But at the same time we are now looking to see the nature and the activity of this ‘Hound of Heaven' and yesterday I dared suggest that sometimes the Lord has to be more like a sheepdog harrying us to get us to stay away from danger, stay away from wrong thinking and go in the direction of pasture the Shepherd seeks to lead us to.
But there is now something noticeably big to be observed, something that few seem to appreciate. I confess I hardly noticed it before in this account until I was pondering it recently. (I did briefly mention it earlier). As the Lord keeps going with Moses in this conversation there is one significant thing that is missing from it – criticism of Moses' past.
One might think that out of frustration at Moses' attempts to deny the Lord's assertions that he is up to this job, the Lord might turn round and use some uncomfortable logic: “Moses, don't you realise that I AM WHO I AM and I am the Creator of all things; my knowledge has no end, my understanding has no end, and my wisdom has no end. Now let's think about you. You are stupid! You had a wonderfully privileged position as a Prince of Egypt and you threw it all away. You could have had such influence in the palace but you lost it in one hasty moment. Now let's do it my way!”You know, I look back on my life and I could have been on the receiving end of such comment but I never was – just encouragement. When I felt rubbish, He encouraged. That is not to say that He never confronted me with the truth, for He did, but it came so gently. I once remember having a conversation with an apostle about the evening that had just passed that I had led, and it wasn't until a couple of hours later that I suddenly thought, “Oh my goodness, he was telling me off!” It had been so gentle I hadn't realised at the moment – but it sunk in and had effect, and that is how I have found it over the years with the Lord – His harrying is definite but so gentle. Think on it.
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 7. Yes!!!!!!!!!!! (2)
Ex 3:22 “ you will plunder the Egyptians.” (ESV)
We need to follow up this idea of the Lord pursuing us with gentleness. It is something many of us really struggle with. I have referred to a small group into which I input, and in it half of the group have come from evangelical backgrounds with pious and even zealous parents, but the teaching they received through their early years was saturated with legalism. As one of them expressed it, “We were taught rules to control us, it was manipulation. Instead of setting us free it enslaved us,” and they each have confessed how they have to constantly struggle to overcome the “I must work for my salvation,” feeling, instead of the “I am loved so much it sets me free.”
I didn't pick up on our verse above yesterday, so let me do it now. Remember yesterday I did comment that God didn't come to Moses with a “I've come to sort you out sunshine!” and said nothing about his past failures. Instead He says, as one version puts it, “You will plunder the Egyptians.” i.e. you will be victorious and they will end up paying you to leave! If that isn't prosperity teaching, I don't know what is! OK, let's be honest, it isn't you give me your money and God will bless you, it is you lay down your life for God to do the things He calls you to do AND He will bless you. Yes, that is behind this, but this tough message comes with such encouragement.
Pause a moment and consider God's encouraging elements in this conversation: You can tell them who I am (3:14,15), the elders will listen to you (3:18), I will do mighty signs and wonders (3:20), the Egyptians will bless you (3:21), I will enable you to do mini-miracles (4:1-8), I will enable you to do big miracles (4:9), I will help you speak (4:12) and I will give you your brother to help you (4:14-16). That is eight different encouragements! They cover revelation, God's activity, God's enabling, God's miracles and finally family support. If this isn't God pursuing Moses I don't know what is.In the previous study I spoke of the Lord's gentleness. Don't be misled; the Lord does know all our failings and our foibles and our tendency to do our own thing, get down and dejected, feel a failure and so much more AND He does want to change us for the better AND yes, He will sometimes speak challenging words, but check out the New Testament and you will find it is packed with words of encouragement. The apostle Paul is classic in this. Check out his letters. So often he lays out the theology for all that God has done for us and what He has made us, and only then does he give us the ways to live. The instructions how to live flow out of who we now are, the abilities we now have. When God comes to Moses, it is with encouragement after encouragement.
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 8. But….
Ex 4:13,14 “Please send someone else.” Then the Lord 's anger burned against Moses”
There are some aspects of this idea of the Lord being the ‘Hound of Heaven' that are not so comfortable. It may be nice to think of Him pursuing us to help us get to the destination we struggle to believe in (us being gloriously transformed even before we leave this earth), but there is something about who God is that is more disconcerting: He doesn't accept failure.
Now look at that statement some more. If you read Ex 3 & 4 you find a long conversation between God and Moses in which again and again Moses is making the case that he's not up to the things God is talking about – and he's got good reasons to think these things. But the thing is that Moses – at this point at least – doesn't really know God. So far, according to the absence of record, he hasn't had any experience of God. No doubt he has learnt things about him as he had learnt about his own people while he lived back in Egypt, but it didn't go beyond that.
And there is a lesson inherent in that: we can only know about God until we encounter Him. Up until that point it is all of academic interest and no more. But then we find questions arising, challenges being brought as the Gospel is unfolded before us and conviction comes. We surrender and then we encounter Him and His Spirit comes and we are born again and then we start on a completely new plane: the plane of experiencing Him. And as the years go by (and it needs years) we start to learn things of Him and of His expectations of us, and all the time He is pursuing us to get us to the better place than today. It is always that – He wants tomorrow to be a better day than today; He wants us to learn more tomorrow than we know or experience today. I think that is the reason I look back so often with a sense of failure, because I know and understand more today than I did say ten years ago.
So in C.S.Lewis's Aslan terms, at this point in the conversation He growls. Have you read the Narnia stories? Do you remember the conversation: “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”?The ‘Hound' who pursues us is the Lord of Lords, King of Kings and we argue with Him at our peril. That we need to remember because He is the One who knows all things, knows us and DOES know what we can achieve with His enabling and His guiding. If we keep on making excuses, He loves us so much, and wants so much to get us to that better place, that eventually we may just hear the growl that, translated, says, “Enough!”
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 9. Can't be!
Judg 6:13 if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?
In the previous study we suggested God has to pursue us simply because the sin-virus so pollutes our thinking it makes us struggle to believe. Sometimes our home circumstances make it difficult to believe. We didn't really pick it up with Moses, but it was true of him. A Prince of Egypt with a big ‘Failed!' on his report card and then a shepherd in the wilderness for forty years. In many ways it is not surprising that he struggled to cope with God was saying to him. Thank goodness the Lord perseveres in His pursuit of us!
The same thing soon becomes clear in the case of Gideon who is minding his own business threshing wheat when an angel turns up (though initially he's not sure he's an angel – see v.17). This man addresses him as a ‘mighty warrior'. More than that, the Lord is with him. At this point Gideon is sure he's got the wrong guy.
He doesn't say it but he knows that threshing wheat in a wine press (dip in the ground not a small hill where the wind would blow the chaff away) is not what mighty warriors do and he knows why he's hiding there doing it – his land is under constant threat from Midianites. If he was a bit more sure of himself, in modern terms we might find him saying, “All right, wise guy, enough of the sick humour. If God was with us we wouldn't be in such a pitiful state, oppressed by Midian!”
When the angel tells him to go and bring change to the situation, again Gideon is sure he's got the wrong person: “My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (v.15) i.e. I'm a nobody! Now if God turns up it is no bad thing to recognise how small, weak and insignificant you are, but when He is pursuing you and keeps on pressing you, quit the whining!You see Gideon's outlook on life needs readjusting on three levels – just like ours often does. First he needs to recognise WHY the nation is in the state it is – they've turned away from the Lord. Second, he needs to catch God's heart which always looks for repentance, change, and restoration (check out 2 Pet 3:9). Third, if God calls us to a task, He knows our capabilities – or lack of them – and His answer, as He said to Gideon, is, “I will be with you.” (v.16a) and because of that, in Gideon's case, “and you will strike down all the Midianites.” (v.16b) Strangely enough, with Moses, when he objected to God's call, we find the Lord saying, “ I will be with you.” (Ex 3:12) It was a follow up to what Moses told Israel about God, “he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deut 31:6) and the New Testament also tells us (Heb 13:5,6) and He will keep on pursuing us until we believe it! So first thing in the morning, look in the mirror and say, “Hail, mighty warrior!”
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 10. The Unseen Hand
Gen 37:5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more.
The Hound of Heaven is more often than not, unseen – but He's there! As we continue to observe this activity of our God – pursuing unworthy sinners to draw them into His family – as we noted previously, it takes a certain perspective to realise that He is there, following doggedly after us. Gideon hadn't realise that their national plight was because of their own godlessness but God was still there looking to save them the moment they started to come to their senses. We see it again and again in Judges, His willingness to raise up a new deliverer.
But the bigger truth is that so often, because of the blinding effects of sin, we just don't realise that everything going on in our lives has the touch of God on it. In the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, he never used the words, “Hey guys, you'll never believe this but God has given me two dreams.” He was just taken up with the wonder of the fact that he would be superior to the rest of his family!
That helped him end up as a slave in Egypt and there are not yet any signs that he realises that, “his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did.” (Gen 39:3) When he then ends up in prison because of false accusations by his master's wife, was he aware that, “The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph's care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.” (Gen 39:23) No, it would appear awareness of God's activity in our lives is something we only become aware of later. Later Joseph is able to testify to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Gen 50:20)
So, let's be honest. How many of us can look back on our lives and see the hand of God there? We often talk about God guiding us, but if I am honest, when I look back at the big changes that took place in my life – and there were a good number (having had what might be described as four careers) at the time I was rarely conscious of being guided (although I was being), more of taking the ‘sensible' path. But now as I look back I am utterly sure that my life has been the product of the Providence of God, the hidden hand of God guiding me in the midst of the confusing circumstances. The Hound of Heaven remained there the whole time bringing little inputs, little directions, little nudges, that never overruled my free-will, but nevertheless still guided my ways.And isn't this how it is for each of us who call ourselves believers, that life is a mixture of outside events and circumstances, mixed with the decisions we make PLUS the hidden hand of God? Hallelujah!
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 11. No Mistakes by God
1 Sam 16: You are to anoint for me the one I indicate
Yesterday we were considering the hidden hand of God, but when God speaks it is no longer hidden, but obvious. We don't know when and how David came to know God, how much environment or family contributed to his faith, we can only go on his own testimony, “ The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” (1 Sam 17:37)
The Lord obviously had His eye on David because earlier Samuel had been able to rebuke Saul saying of another, “ the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart,” (1 Sam 13:14) picked up centuries later in Acts 18:32. Thus it is that we find in 1 Sam 16 the Lord telling Samuel to go and anoint another to be king who will obviously take over from Saul, who is obviously this man “after his own heart” and it turns out to be David.
In the text, in the accounts of David, initially at least David doesn't seem to say much about the Lord but the way he approaches Goliath indicates he clearly has clear understanding of covenant relationship when he says, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Sam 17:26b) and then when he addresses Goliath: “This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I'll strike you down and cut off your head.. and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.. that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord 's, and he will give all of you into our hands.” (1 Sam 17:46,47) What an awesome testimony.
But as we follow David's story we see the awful account of his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11) and later his pride in numbering Israel (2 Sam 24), yet in the latter case it was more the Lord allowing Satan to provoke David (1 Chron 21:1) to bring to the fore Israel's state that angered the Lord. Yet it would appear, according to the chronicler, that the Lord only condemned the Bathsheba incident (see 1 Kings 15:5). In that incident, when he his confronted by Nathan the prophet, his instant response is, “I have sinned against the Lord .” (2 Sam 12:13).We know the sort of heart David had by his over 70 psalms. We know what the Lord thought of him right to the end by the way He referred to him again and again. Check out 1 Kings 11:32,34,36,28, 14:8, 2 Kings 19:34. Again and again God subsequently acts in line with what He feels about the sort of man David had been. This is amazing. The Hound of Heaven pursued David and then, because he had been a man after His own heart, allowed that heart to move His heart. Imperfect yes, pursued by God yes, but able to move God's heart as well. And that can be you and me as well.
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 12. Long Term
2 Chron 33:13 Then Manasseh knew that the Lord is God.
Anticipating this particular series will produce about a month's worth of daily readings, we must be just over a third of the way through. So far we have been looking at people in the Bible who demonstrate how God pursues us to get us to the destination He has on his heart for us. This is the last of those before moving on to four studies examining more what it is He wants to get us to and then for the rest of the series we will see this same characteristic of God in the big picture of His plans throughout the Bible.
Manasseh is not the most endearing Bible character to study. To sum him up (and his story is worth reading), he did evil and was carried to Babylon (2 Chron 33:1-11) but eventually repented & was restored (2 Chron 33:12-20). In some ways it is that simple and that amazing. When you read the accounts of his evil in 2 Chron 33:2-7,9, you will see he followed the ways of the Canaanites (v.2), rebuilt high places, erected altars to Baal, made Asherah poles (v.3), built wrong altars in the temple (v.4,5). sacrificed his sons and practiced sorcery, divination and witchcraft (v.6), put a carved image in the temple (v.7) and generally did more evil than the Canaanites had done (v.9). Now you can't get much worse that that! He was taken to Babylon in chains. Now watch!
“In his distress he sought the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his ancestors. And when he prayed to him, the Lord was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea; so he brought him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord is God.” (v.12,13) Read on and you find him working to completely put right everything in the land. He is a changed man! It is possibly one of THE most dramatic changed in the whole of the Bible. Why? Because God pursued him – disciplined him, convicted him, listened to his repentance, released him and restored him. That is possibly one of the greatest examples of mercy you can find.Go through that awful list of his sins again. They are absolutely terrible and you wonder why God didn't strike him down. I mean there are people He did strike down in Scripture for far smaller sins, but why not Manasseh? The answer, I suggest yet again, is that God knows the potential of us, knows what is possible and so knows that even in the midst of this man doing such terrible things – there is still something in him that can come to repentance – and that is what God is pursuing us for, because He sees where we can get to and if there is a hope of that change, then He will pursue and pursue and pursue. Hmmm. Think of your prodigals – and yourself – and pray with fresh hope.
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 13. Where we're going
Psa 23:2 he leads me beside quiet waters
Moving on from thinking about lives of individuals, we move on to what is probably his most famous psalm and we're going to see that what he learned of God is what the hound of heaven is pursing us for, where He's working to get us to.
As a boy, David had been a shepherd and knew something of sheep and what the shepherd did with the sheep. Thus he pictures the Lord as his shepherd (Psa 23:1). One day Jesus would use the same analogy when he twice said, “I am the good shepherd.” (Jn 10:11,14)
Whether it is as a hound, a sheepdog or actually as the shepherd the Bible shows us God as the one who first pursues and then leads us. As the God Shepherd Jesus pursues us, calls us and then leads us: “ He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (Jn 10:3,4)
But back to Psa 23 where David conveys what he has learned about the role and goals of a shepherd and thus what he has learned what the Lord wants to do for us. He shows us the end picture, if you like. The Lord has pursued us, called us and now leads us and David says that one of the things He does (and we'll see some more goals in the next two studies) is lead us beside quiet waters.
Other versions have ‘still waters' or ‘peaceful streams' or ‘calm pools of water' or ‘calm water' or ‘waters of rest', but they all seek to convey the same idea. God's goal is to lead us in life to a place of peaceful provision, tranquil and calm drinking.
Compare this picture with so much that is seen and experienced in the twenty-first century: a life of activity and busyness, a life of hustle and bustle, a life of anxiety and stress, a life of noise, commotion, turmoil, upheaval, constant communication, of challenging ideas and ideologies, thoughts and ideas competing for our allegiance, newscasts seeking to grab our attention every minute of the day, programs, podcasts, texts, e-mails, Instagrams and so much more.Now come back to this picture of our shepherd pursuing us, calling us and then leading us into a place of calm, peace, tranquility, serenity. What a difference! Perhaps you have struggled with this idea of the hound of Heaven pursuing us, but this is where He desires to take us, a place that is only possible through, first the work of Jesus on the Cross, then of being filled with and led by his Spirit, and then simply ‘knowing him' day by day. Meditating for us is not emptying our minds as the world does, but by filling it with His presence and thus His peace, for wherever He makes His presence manifest, there is peace.
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 14. Where we're going (2)
Psa 23:4,5 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…
We continue to think to where the Hound of Heaven is pursuing us, where it is He wants to get us to. We have turned to Psalm 23 and changed the analogy from Hound to Shepherd for as a Shepherd the Lord wants to get us to various experiences as His sheep – and as His children. The old sin-nature that still lurks in the background that Satan seek to play on, struggles with these things. That old self-centred and godless outlook that the apostle Paul tells us to put to death, still sometimes hangs over us saying that surely this is all too good to be true to believe. But it isn't too good to be true, it is what Jesus has earned for us to receive. These things are all the work or expressions of his grace, freely available to us today.
So now David in this psalm declares his confidence, his assurance, that however dark things get, the Shepherd is always there with us and for us. In the times of the 2020-21 Pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns, these were very real challenges. Many struggled with the feelings of loneliness and the fear that was abroad. For many these were times that fitted that description – the darkest valley, where an evil virus lurked, picking off tens of thousands and cutting their lives short, afflicting tens of thousands more with an illness that left some feeling debilitated for months to follow.
Jesus, when he was praying in his closing hours with his disciples before the cross, prayed, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. ” (Jn 17:15) We are to live out our lives in this world where the evil one roams – but not fearful off him or of his works.
How can this be? Well how as it that David was able to say it? I will fear no evil, for you are with me… but then he added something quite significant: “your rod and your staff, they comfort me .” (Psa 23:4c) The Living Bible simply puts it, “I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me, guarding, guiding all the way.” That's what the tools of the shepherd did – warded off predators and guided the sheep.That's the experience that the Shepherd is leading us towards, knowing He is with us and that He will protect us and guide us. That is the confidence the Lord wants us to have, that is what He is harrying us towards, that is why He is pursuing us onwards because He knows that if left to our own devices, we will wander aimlessly, a prey to the predators that the enemy will send. No, that is not the life He wants for us. He wants us to know a closeness, an intimacy with Him whereby in His presence we feel safe and secure. May it be so.
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 15. Where we're going (3)
Psa 23:5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies
So for a third time we pause in our ponderings on the Hound of Heaven to reflect for a moment what it is He is chasing us towards, what goal the ‘sheepdog' has in mind, the place the Good Shepherd is steering us toward, and we do it all at this moment at least, by the words of the shepherd boy with a heart after God who would become His king over His people.
We considered the wonder of being led into an experience of peace and tranquility and we considered the reassurance that even through the most darkest of days, He would be there beside us, guarding us from predators, guiding us forward to pasture. Comforting words in a fallen world that sometime, unexpectedly, locks us in and limits our lives. But instead of cowering in the shadows in the valley of death, the Shepherd presents us with another picture that is so alien to worldwide ‘religions' as to almost make it laughable!
I don't know if you have ever truly taken in the words of the fifth verse of this psalm. Look at them addressed to the Good Shepherd: “You prepare a table before me.” Jesus makes me sit down and as I sit there, HE serves ME, HE prepares a meal for me. In the Song of Songs the Loved One speaks of her lover leading her into the banqueting hall (Songs 2:4) and the same idea of being led by the One who loves us, into a place of wonderful communion and eating together, a place he has had prepared for us. We didn't prepare it, we were just taken to it and invited to sit at the table and enjoy.The coming together of Jesus and his church, was portrayed by Jesus as a wedding banquet (Mt 22:1- and 25:10), a time of great rejoicing over food and drink, because we know and have experienced such times and we know they are good, and so that is what he uses to convey what he has on his heart for us, where he is shepherding us towards. And then of course there are those famous words from Revelation, “ Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Rev 3:20) and what I always marvel at is that that invitation came to a half-hearted, lukewarm church that Jesus was on the verge of spitting out! What does that say? Yes, we may be like that but, to quote of oft-quoted phrase, we are just ‘works in progress' and the Hound has still some way to go to get us to where He invites us to be – in a place where lukewarm half-heartedness gives way to abandon of love in the incredible presence of the One who has won us and now lavishes us with all good things at his banquet. Chase on, Lord!
“Hound of Heaven” Meditations: 16. Where we're going (4)
Psa 23:5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies
I was going to make yesterday's study the final one looking in Psalm 23 before we moved on to a new phase, but it ran away with us and we didn't have time or space to complete the verse. Just a reminder we are considering where it is that the Hound of Heaven is seeking to get us to, why He is pursuing us, keeping us moving forward. In this psalm we've seen His goal of bringing us into a place of peace, a place of security and a place of intimate sharing over food. But that last one had something else linked to it – He does it in the presence of my enemies.
Now so often we wish, and maybe even pray, that God would remove our enemies. Indeed David often in his psalms asks God to destroy his enemies, but the truth is that sometimes God does remove them but much of the time, it seems, he leaves them and just ‘gets on with business'. So, for example one of the prophetic words about Jesus in the Old Testament says, “Rule in the midst of your enemies!” (Psa 110:2)
The apostle Paul wrote, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:25,26) “Rule in the midst” suggests he rules while his enemies exist around him while Paul suggests Jesus' rule is expressed as he works to destroy all his enemies, death being the last one. Now Jesus' ‘enemies' have got to be everything in the fallen world that came out of the Fall – sickness, pain, hurts, wrongs, etc. etc.
Now our verse from Psa 23 indicates we are able to celebrate with Jesus while in the background our enemies look on powerless. If only we could comprehend and appropriate this! Consider Satan. Often when teaching about Eph 6 where it tells us to stand, I imagine that that ‘standing' means holding firm the life we have inherited from Jesus, like a plot of land we stand on. Satan is not allowed into the plot of land (my life) but he can shout or even whisper over the fence. It is down to me to just draw near to the Lord at our banquet on my land and reject or resist the lies Satan seeks to convey over the fence (Jas 4:7) Yes, he's there in the background but I'm too busy enjoying my banquet with Jesus to listen to his lies.Whatever the enemy of Jesus, I think we have got to learn to see them in the same way and say, “This has no part in my life, I will not allow it entry or existence on my ‘land', I will not allow it to spoil my banquet with Jesus. As we do that – with Jesus' help – it will be another of those enemies that he will be putting under his feet. This is where he is shepherding us to. Hallelujah!