Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles
Recently a friend of ours died of leukaemia. His family cared for him while he was in palliative care. It was a hopeless situation. They knew he wasn’t going to be healed. Yet they prayed for God’s will to be done and the funeral was a celebration that he had been delivered from his suffering and was now with the Lord.
Jeremiah’s letter to Jewish exiles in chapter 29:4-23 shows that for God’s people, the situation is never helpless or hopeless because He promises ultimate deliverance and restoration.
Jeremiah prophesized during the last 40 years of the nation of Judah (626 – 586 BC). At this time Judah was influenced by three foreign powers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. There was tension between these super powers for world supremacy (like between USA, Russia and China today). Power shifted from Assyria and Egypt to Babylonia when Assyria was conquered in 612BC and Egypt conquered in 605BC. These large nations dominated the smaller ones. The Assyrians and Babylonians used their overwhelming military force to terrorize the people of the lands they invaded. They also took heavy tribute and deported masses of people into slavery. So Judah was a weak nation that was surrounded by many enemies.
Jeremiah prophesized during the reign of five kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jahoiakim, Jehoichin and Zedkiah. All of these kings except Josiah “did evil in the eyes of the Lord”.
Jeremiah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. At the beginning he was a contemporary of Zephaniah and Nahum and later of Obadiah and Habakkuk.
The prophets before Zephaniah announced God’s judgment and God’s restoration of Judah. This was also Zephaniah’s message. Nahum predicted the destruction of Nineveh, the largest city of the time. This would have been good news for Judah who had been threatened by Assyria since the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. It showed that God judges His enemies.
Later in Jeremiah’s period, Obadiah pronounces judgment on Edom, one of Judah’s closest enemies and predicts Israel’s restoration. Habakkuk complains to God because He’s doing nothing about the terrible violence, wrongdoing, destruction, strife, and injustice in Judah. He is perplexed when told that the pagan Babylonians were going to invade Judah. But God reassures him that the Babylonians will eventually be punished as well.
In the book of Jeremiah, he speaks out against the sins of Judah (Ch. 1-38). He warned them for at least 23 years (Jer. 25:2-3). The punishment for these is that they will be invaded by Babylon and taken captive. Chapter 29 is a letter that Jeremiah wrote to all the Jewish captives in Babylon (Jer. 29:4). After chapter 29, Jeremiah predicts that the Jews will be released from captivity and able to return to re-establish their lives in their homeland. He also predicts living under the Messiah with a new covenant.
The letter, written by one of God’s prophets, is comprised of commands and promises (Jer. 29:45-23). This means that it was a command to be followed by the Jewish exiles and promises they were to believe.
The Babylonians attacked Jerusalem three times. On the first occasion in 605 BC, Judah became a vassal state and paid tribute to Babylon and a group of people including Daniel was carried off to Babylon (2 Ki. 24:1-2). Then they laid siege to Jerusalem in 598-597 BC, replacing the king, taking tribute, and taking about 10,000 Jewish captives to Babylon (2 Ki. 24:8-17). Then they laid siege to Jerusalem again in 588-586 BC, destroying the city and taking more Jewish captives to Babylon, including the king (2 Ki. 25:1-21). Instead of being a nation, Judah was now a province of the regional superpower. The remaining Jews, including Jeremiah, fled to Egypt for safety (Jer. 41:16 – 44:30). This wasn’t unexpected because it was the ultimate punishment for breaking their covenant with their God (Lev. 26:31-33; Dt, 28:49-68). Everything that God had done for them since they left Egypt would be destroyed. The goal of the punishment is their repentance (Lev. 26:40-41).
So after being warned for at least 100 years, Judah has finally been punished for their sins. The captives in Babylon were suffering grief and loss, forced relocation and slavery. They probably feared the worst and thought their fate was similar to that of Israel in 722 BC. Over 136 years ago, the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the kingdom of Israel and took captives and the people were scattered to other nations. That was the end of the kingdom of Israel and there was no way it could be restored. It seemed the same when Babylon invaded Judah. So the Jews in Babylon thought this was the end of their nation. They cried in despair as they were in a helpless and hopeless situation (Ps. 137:1). Jeremiah also lamented because he saw the destruction of Jerusalem (Lamentations).
Jeremiah also predicts the destruction of those who didn’t go into exile (v.15-19). It’s punishment for their disobedience. They didn’t deserve God’s protection like those sent into exile (Jer. 24:5-7).
What a surprising letter from Jeremiah! They are told to prepare for a long captivity (v.4-7) by settling down to live for a long time in Babylon. To establish families and raise children among themselves; but don’t intermarry with foreigners. God wanted them to grow in number, not dwindle.
Usually captives hate their captors. But the Jews are told to pray for Babylon! To pray for their enemy! To seek Babylon’s peace and prosperity so things will go well for them as well. To pray for the prosperity of their enemy!
What did the exiles think of Jeremiah? Whose side was Jeremiah on, first he says to surrender to the Babylonians and now when they are prisoners of war (POW) he says this? Has he lost his marbles?
Australian POWs in World War 2 endured hard labor working on roads and battling to survive the harsh Austrian winter. Under their German masters, it seemed a hopeless situation. But after 12 months they began receiving Red Cross packages with food clothes and medicine, which were like a ray of light in a sad, dark part of the world. These helped many POWs to survive.
Through the fall of Jerusalem, the exiles learnt that God eventually judges sin (many died, others were POWs, some escaped and their capital city was destroyed). Also, what seemed to be the worst to the captives (being POWs), was actually the best because they would be kept safe in Babylon (most of the rest died). Also, they were to accept the situation that God had placed them in and not hope for something better.
Then God warns the exiles not to be deceived by false prophets who were prophesying lies in God’s name (v.8-9, 21). They contradict the words of Jeremiah (Jer. 27:16-22; 28:3). The captivity was to be 70 years, not two (Jer. 25:11-12; 28:3, 11; 29:10)! God’s prophets predicted disasters, but the false prophets predicted peace (Jer. 14:13-16; 23:17; 28:8). One of them sent a letter to the priests rebuking them for not putting Jeremiah in prison (v. 24-27). Because of their lies and adultery, Jeremiah predicted they would be put to death by the king of Babylon (v. 21-23).
Jeremiah tells the captives to not be gullible by believing their lies. Instead, they should ignore them and not listen to them.
After the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the Ukraine in 2014, the Russians claimed that the missile was fired by a Ukrainian fighter jet. They were telling a lie.
So the lesson for the exiles to learn was to be discerning and listen to God’s prophets and not the false ones. They needed to know the difference between the two.
Next Jeremiah predicts deliverance and restoration for the exiles. He says that God will bring them back to their homeland after 70 years of exile. Those still alive at the time and their descendants would be able to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem, including the temple and the city walls. This restoration was predicted over 900 years beforehand (Dt. 30:3-5).
“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 29:11-14NIV).
God hadn’t forgotten them. In fact He had planned their future lives. These plans were for their collective good, to prosper them collectively and give them a hope and future to look forward to. There was hope for their nation after all. But the benefits wouldn’t come for 70 years! In the meantime they were POWs.
God’s plans to prosper the exiles and give them hope and a future (v.11) are described as their return to Judah from exile (v. 10, 14) and these plans were fulfilled with the decree of Cyrus in 538 BC (Ezra 1:2-4; Jer. 29:11). So this promise has already been fulfilled.
God also predicts that by that time they will return to following Him once again. This implies that they will confess and repent of their sins. The Bible teaches that their restoration was conditional on their repentance (Dt. 4:29-31). This shows God’s mercy and His commitment to the covenant made with their ancestors.
Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste has just been released after 400 days in an Egyptian prison. He said the experience was a “baptism of fire” that helped him learn more about himself. It felt like a “near-death experience”, but also like a “rebirth” because he was given an opportunity to look back at his life.
So the lesson for the exiles to learn was that repentance was the way to a restored relationship with the Lord and to their release from being POWs in Babylon. This repentance was essential for their deliverance and the restoration and rebirth of their nation.
They also learnt that their situation is never helpless or hopeless because God promises ultimate deliverance and restoration from whatever situation they are in. The way to optimism is to remember that God has plans for their future. But there was no shortcut; they had to go through suffering along the way.
What are the lessons for us today?
What’s changed since then? We are God’s people today, but we are not a nation with their own home-land like the exiles. Jesus brought a new covenant. He prayed for His enemies (Lk. 23:34) and taught His followers to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44-45). Paul taught that we are to never take revenge, but leave that up to God (Rom. 12:19-21). Because, doing good to one’s enemy, instead of taking revenge, may bring about repentance.
The lesson that God eventually judges sin applies to us as well. People say, what’s God doing about the evil in the world? He seems absent. But the Bible says that He is patiently waiting for more people to turn to Him before He brings judgment (2 Pt. 3:9).
Also, what seems to be the worst for us may be the best because He knows us better than we know ourselves and He ensures that everything that happens to us is for our benefit (Rom. 8:27-28). That’s why God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the way we would like it.
The lesson to accept the situation that God had placed us in and not hope for something better applies to us as well. Paul gives an example of this for marriage (1 Cor. 7:17-20). He also wrote, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 5:16-18).
Do we believe all we see on the internet? How gullible are we? How do we know what to believe? Do we compare what people say and write with Scripture? Because there are false teachers out there. In Jeremiah’s day they ignored gross sinfulness and said, God’s not going to judge us. They wanted God’s blessing without going through the suffering of the captivity. But the Bible teaches that suffering precedes blessing and glory, with Jesus the greatest example (Rom. 8:18; 1 Pt 3:18, 22). Christians should expect to suffer for their faith (1 Pt. 4:12-19). We should be skeptical of those who teach an “easy” Christianity that brings lots of benefits because our benefits are largely spiritual (Eph. 1:3-14). Also, beware of false hopes.
The lesson that repentance is the way to a restored relationship with the Lord applies to us as well. In the New Testament, God doesn’t promise to release us from our physical problems (if this happens it is a mercy), but deliver us from our spiritual ones. The steps of repentance include “Come near to God and He will come near to you” (Jas. 4:7-10).
As God’s plans to prosper the exiles and give them hope and a future was fulfilled in 538 BC, this promise isn’t for us today. But what sort of plans does God have for us? We can ask God in prayer (Jas. 1:5). Of course, He wants us to be faithful to Him in everything we do by following the commands and principles He gives for believers in the New Testament. We can begin by being faithful where we are (Mt. 25:21). As we do this, God usually reveals the next step. It’s one step at a time, not a jump to our final destiny.
The lesson that our situation is never helpless or hopeless applies to us as well. However, our ultimate deliverance and restoration is spiritual, not physical. When there’s despair, discouragement or bad news our hope is the good news of Jesus. Heaven is the ultimate hope for Christians, though we may have to go through suffering along the way.
We have seen from Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish exiles that God judges sin (which is why they were POWs), and cares for His people and warns them not to be deceived by false prophets.
It shows that for God’s people, the situation is never helpless or hopeless because He promises ultimate spiritual deliverance and restoration.
Written, February 2015
Based on a message given at my mother’s funeral on 3 April 2013
A funeral usually involves memories and reflections of the life of the person who has died. But the funeral of a Christian can also look ahead in anticipation of what lies ahead.
Help from God the Creator
The source of a Christian’s help and protection throughout life is described in Psalm 121NIV.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm— He will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
When this song was written about 3,000 years ago, God’s people knew that the only reliable help and protection comes from the God who made the universe – “the Maker of heaven and earth”. In this context the Hebrew word for “heaven” means the atmosphere and the stars and galaxies. A God with the intelligence and power to create the universe and populate it with living plants, animals and people was surely able to help them! The Bible says He was the source of life on earth whereas all other gods and philosophies are the product of the human imagination.
Unfortunately in our modern world we have largely lost this knowledge and this confidence. We have forgotten about God the Creator. Even though we have wonderful technology, science can’t explain how matter was created from nothing or how life originated, and we often replace God the Creator with the idea that things created themselves.
So when we struggle in life where does our help come from? Some people go to counsellors for help who encourage them to get help from outside themselves. Because people usually can’t solve their own problems, they need to get help from someone else. In a similar way, we all need “outside help” to sustain us and God the Creator is the ultimate outside help!
Psalm 121 ends with, “The Lord will watch your coming and going both now and forevermore”. Here those who trusted God the Creator were promised that God would protect them throughout life and into the future. They could live with assurance and confidence that God would continue to help them. Likewise Christians can have the assurance that God will sustain them during their life and afterwards.
A different world
You may ask if God created everything in the beginning, why is there so much suffering in the world? The world today is very different from the one God made originally. We live in a different world. In the beginning it was a perfect world with harmony between God, people and the natural environment. But when people turned against their Maker, it changed and sin, evil, suffering and death came into the world. This change was caused by people like us. We live in a world with consequences – an act has a consequence and an effect has a cause. Because people turned against God our relationships have been ruined. We ignore God and are separated from Him, we can’t get along with other people, and we exploit the natural environment. Another consequence is that the Bible says we are destined to eternal punishment. Because we are the cause of this problem, we need outside help. Because each of us is guilty, we can’t help each other. The only reliable help available outside humanity is God the Creator.
Help from God the Lifesaver
Fortunately, God didn’t only create the universe and the laws of nature in the beginning, but He also continues to sustain it. He is not only incredibly powerful, but He is also incredibly loving. We remember His special act of love at Christmas and Easter when we celebrate the unique birth and death of Jesus Christ. God knew that mankind was doomed to eternal punishment unless He provided them with outside help. He did this about 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ lived on earth and died and came alive again. Jesus was unique; He was God living as a human being. He showed His power over our world by the miracles He did. When He died by crucifixion, He took the eternal punishment that we deserve. If we turn towards God by being sorry for our behaviour and accepting the fact that Jesus has taken the penalty for our sin, then He promises eternal joy instead of eternal punishment. This is called eternal life. So Jesus is like a lifesaver – He can rescue us from the eternal consequence of our selfish behaviour. In this way God is making a new creation and He gives us the choice of being a part of it. Although we spoilt God’s original creation, and there is now sin, evil, pain, suffering and death, these will be absent in God’s new creation. Instead we can be reconciled with God, we can love one another and we can look forward to the restoration of creation like it was in the beginning.
Because a Christian has accepted Jesus as their Savior they can have an inner assurance, joy and peace.
What happens when a person dies? Not only do the lungs stop breathing and the heart stops pumping. The Bible says that at death a person’s invisible soul and spirit is separated from their body. If they trusted in Jesus the Savior, their soul and spirit goes immediately to be with God in heaven. After death they are enjoying a perfect place. That is why Paul could say, “To die is gain” (Phil. 1:21) and that he preferred to be “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). So they are in a better place. Their death is a loss for us, but a gain for them.
But there is more! On Easter Sunday we recall that the body of Jesus was raised back to life after being buried in a grave. The Bible describes a coming day when the bodies of believers, who trusted in Christ the Savior will also be raised back to life:
“What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:50-57NLT).
This is also described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. As part of God’s new creation they will have new bodies which won’t wear out and die (1 Cor. 15:42-49; Phil. 3:21; 1 Jn. 3:2) and they will be transported to be with God in heaven – spirit, soul and new body. This will be a great victory over the sin, suffering and death of our world. That’s why Christians can look forward confidently to the coming resurrection. There’s victory ahead!
The hymn, “How great Thou art”, summarises the greatness of God and the reasons for our Christian faith.
The first verse is about God the great Creator and source of life on earth. It says “Your power throughout the universe displayed”. Do we see God’s power in His creation?
The third verse is about Jesus Christ the great Lifesaver and source of eternal life. It says “On the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin”. When we stand before God, will He be like a lifesaver or like a judge? If we turn towards God by confessing our sins we can be ready to meet Him.
The last verse is about the great resurrection when the bodies of those who have trusted in Christ will be raised and changed to be with Him forever. It says “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home – what joy shall fill my heart”. Are you ready to experience this joy?
Written, April 2013
When I read Job and Psalms recently, I realised that Job and David both suffered life threatening situations and went through times of anguish and despair. In this article we look at David’s trials and troubles when he was a fugitive.
David’s burdens as a fugitive
David was a shepherd who became the king of Israel in about 1010 BC. But he had good times and bad times before this happened. In the good times he became king Saul’s musician and armour-bearer. Then he killed the taunting Philistine champion Goliath, married Saul’s daughter and was given a high rank in the army. Because of his military victories, he became a national hero.
ButSaul became jealous of David and when this developed into hatred, he tried to kill him. First he hurled a spear towards him on three occasions, which would have been terrifying as Saul was a head taller than anyone else (1 Sam. 9:2). Then he gave him a military mission hoping that he would die in battle. After these attempts on David’s life failed, Saul remained David’s enemy for the rest of his life (1 Sam. 18:28-29). Next, Saul commanded his men to kill David. They ambushed David’s house, but his wife helped him escape that night.
David’s life had changed drastically. He now feared for his life and was a fugitive on the run from Saul and his men (1 Sam. Ch. 19-30). David said, “there is only a step between me and death” (1Sam. 20:3). He fled to Samuel in Ramah where he was given refuge among the prophets (1 Sam. 19:18). When Saul discovered David’s whereabouts, David escaped to Nob (1 Sam. 21:1-9), and then to Gath among the Philistines and from there to the cave of Adullam (1 Sam. 22:1-4; 1 Chron. 12:8-18) where 400 men joined him and accepted him as their leader. David’s parents joined him too, but for their safety he took them to Moab east of the Dead Sea. A prophet then told him to move to the forest of Hereth. Meanwhile, Saul was so desperate that he ordered the murder of 85 priests and their families who had innocently given refuge to David at Nob (1 Sam. 22:11-19).
For a while, David found himself in the bizarre situation of fighting Saul’s enemies and fleeing Saul at the same time. David and his men drove the Philistines from Keilah (1 Sam. 23:1-14) and then moved to the hill country of Judah to escape Saul in the deserts of Ziph and Maon. When Saul’s forces almost caught David’s men, they were called away to fight the Philistines. Then David escaped to En Gedi on the Dead Sea. After Saul arrived with 3,000 soldiers, David went to the region of Maon once again. David spared Saul’s life on two occasions when Saul was hunting him (1 Sam. 24:10, 26:9). He was still loyal to the king.
David and his 600 men and their families then returned to Gath and settled in Ziklag because he thought he was safer amongst the Philistines. As Saul stopped searching for them, they were able to stay there for 16 months until Saul was killed in battle against the Philistines (1 Sam. 27:1-6; 31:1-6). David was probably a fugitive for about 4-5 years; assuming he was about 16 years of age when he defeated Goliath (2 Sam. 2:2,10; 5:4).
When David was on the run as a fugitive, he hid from his pursuers; Saul and his men. His life was in danger because Saul feared and hated him. Instead of addressing the Philistine threat, Saul’s attention was diverted to the pursuit of David.
David’s songs as a fugitive
Today we see people walking and running around with headphones listening to songs. Well David also had songs in his head, but he didn’t need headphones because he was a singer, songwriter and musician!
Here are some songs that David composed when he was a fugitive, which show his feelings and responses to his burdens of life.
Psalm 59 is a prayer for deliverance when Saul’s men ambushed David’s house (1 Sam. 19:11-17).
“Deliver me from my enemies, O God;
be my fortress against those who are attacking me.
Deliver me from evildoers
and save me from those who are after my blood.
See how they lie in wait for me!
Fierce men conspire against me
for no offense or sin of mine, LORD.
I have done no wrong, yet they are ready to attack me.
Arise to help me; look on my plight!” (Ps. 59:1-4NIV)
He trusts in God in such times of trouble and the song finishes with praise.
“I will sing of Your strength,
in the morning I will sing of Your love;
for You are my fortress,
my refuge in times of trouble.
You are my strength, I sing praise to You;
You, God, are my fortress,
my God on whom I can rely.” (Ps. 59:16-17)
Psalm 7 is a prayer for deliverance from one of Saul’s men.
“LORD my God, I take refuge in You;
save and deliver me from all who pursue me,
or they will tear me apart like a lion
and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me.” (Ps. 7:1-2)
The song finishes with praise.
“I will give thanks to the LORD because of His righteousness;
I will sing the praises of the name of the LORD Most High.” (Ps. 7:17)
In Psalm 56 David experiences waves of fear and faith as he seeks refuge from Saul amongst the Philistines (1 Sam. 21:10-15; 27:1-4).
“Be merciful to me, my God,
for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
all day long they press their attack.
My adversaries pursue me all day long;
in their pride many are attacking me.” (Ps. 56:1-2)
“When I am afraid, I put my trust in You.
In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?” (Ps. 56:3-4)
In Psalm 57 David fluctuates between faith in God and fear of his enemies when he is hiding from Saul in the cave (1 Samuel 22:1-2; 24:1-22).
“Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
for in You I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of Your wings
until the disaster has passed.
I cry out to God Most High,
to God, who vindicates me.
He sends from heaven and saves me,
rebuking those who hotly pursue me—
God sends forth His love and His faithfulness.
I am in the midst of lions;
I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts—
men whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.” (Ps. 57:1-4)
Even though God and his enemies were ever-present, the song finishes with praise.
“I will praise You, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of You among the peoples.
For great is Your love, reaching to the heavens;
Your faithfulness reaches to the skies.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
let Your glory be over all the earth.” (Ps. 57:9-11)
In Psalm 142 David is overwhelmed with stress when he is hiding from Saul in the cave (1 Samuel 22:1-2; 24:1-22). So, he prays for deliverance.
“I cry aloud to the LORD;
I lift up my voice to the LORD for mercy.
I pour out before Him my complaint;
before Him I tell my trouble.” (Ps. 142:1-2)
“I cry to You, LORD;
I say, “You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.”
Listen to my cry,
for I am in desperate need;
rescue me from those who pursue me,
for they are too strong for me.
Set me free from my prison,
that I may praise Your name.” (Ps. 142:5-7)
Psalm 54 is a prayer for deliverance when the Ziphites betrayed David twice (1 Sam. 23:19-28; 26:1-4).
“Save me, O God, by Your name;
vindicate me by Your might.
Hear my prayer, O God;
listen to the words of my mouth.
Arrogant foes are attacking me;
ruthless people are trying to kill me—
people without regard for God.
Surely God is my help;
the Lord is the one who sustains me.
Let evil recoil on those who slander me;
in Your faithfulness destroy them.” (Ps. 54:1-5)
He then offered praise and thanksgiving.
“I will sacrifice a freewill offering to You;
I will praise Your name, LORD, for it is good.
You have delivered me from all my troubles,
and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.” (Ps. 54:6-7)
Some other songs may have been composed when David was a fugitive.
Psalm 13 is a prayer for deliverance from his enemies.
“How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in Your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in Your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise,
for He has been good to me.”
So although David felt forgotten, depressed, humiliated faced the risk of death and defeat, he finished with praise.
Psalm 17 is a prayer for deliverance from enemies who had tracked him down.
“Keep me as the apple (or pupil) of Your eye;
hide me in the shadow of Your wings
from the wicked who are out to destroy me,
from my mortal enemies who surround me.” (Ps. 17:8-9)
Psalm 31 is prayer and praise for deliverance.
“But I trust in you, LORD;
I say, ‘You are my God.’
My times are in Your hands;
deliver me from the hands of my enemies,
from those who pursue me.” (Ps. 31:14-15)
Psalm 109 is prayer for God’s judgement of enemies.
“My God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent,
for people who are wicked and deceitful
have opened their mouths against me;
they have spoken against me with lying tongues.
With words of hatred they surround me;
they attack me without cause.
In return for my friendship they accuse me,
but I am a man of prayer.” (Ps. 109:1-4)
Psalm 35 is a prayer to be rescued from those who taunted him. As usual, he finishes with praise.
“May those who delight in my vindication
shout for joy and gladness;
may they always say, ‘The LORD be exalted,
who delights in the well-being of his servant.’
My tongue will proclaim Your righteousness,
Your praises all day long.” (Ps 35:27-28)
Psalm 120 is a prayer for deliverance from lies and slander.
“I call on the LORD in my distress,
and He answers me.
Save me, LORD,
from lying lips
and from deceitful tongues.” (Ps. 120:1-2)
Finally, in Psalm 22 David feels forsaken by God and rejected by people and surrounded by his enemies.
“Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.” (Ps. 22:12-13)
Lessons for the children of Israel
All these songs are recorded in Scripture for the benefit of God’s people. What was the lesson for the children of Israel in Old Testament times? As a fugitive, David’s life was in danger because he was outnumbered by Saul’s men and he was under continual stress. How did he handle this burden and the fact that his father-in-law hated him? He used the weapon of prayer to get God’s help; he said “Cast your cares on the LORD and He will sustain you” (Ps. 55:22). He dealt with his burdens by directing them to the Lord. So, he laid the situation before God, recalled who God was, what God was able to do, and his status before God. He requested God’s help, affirmed His power, and offered thanks and praise. It was a pattern of prayer and praise. After all, David said, “I am a man of prayer” (Ps. 109:4). He also said: “In the morning, LORD, You hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before You and wait expectantly” (Ps. 5:3). He prayed when his mind was clear and the temperature was cool. Being “a man after God’s own heart”, he was a model for the Jews to follow (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22).
David’s suffering was also prophetic of the suffering of the Messiah; they both felt forsaken by God (Ps. 22:1; Mt; 27:46) and they were both taunted with “let God rescue him” (Ps.22:8; Mt:27:43). Jesus was a descendant of David who suffered, yet was innocent. Like David, He responded to His burdens with prayer and endurance.
Lessons for us
First, are we like Saul or like David? Who do we trust? Saul trusted himself, but David trusted in God. David knew that God created the universe and rescued his nation from slavery in Egypt. Do we realise that God created the universe? Through trusting in Christ we can be rescued from the consequences of our sinful ways and have peace with God. That’s real security.
Second, if we are trusting God, we need to be careful when applying Old Testament verses to us today because since then Jesus has come and the church has formed. God’s people today are Christians whose sins have been forgiven by the death of Christ and who live under God’s grace, not the children of Israel who lived under the Old Testament laws (Rom. 6:14).
Is David’s pattern of surviving burdens by prayer, praise and endurance consistent with the New Testament? Yes it is, but with the following changes because of what Jesus and the apostles taught:
- Like Jesus, we are to love and pray for our enemies, instead of hating them like David (Mt. 5:44). Although David did respect Saul as king of Israel.
- We shouldn’t pray vindictive prayers or seek vengeance on others like David in Psalm 109, but leave such judgment up to God (1 Cor. 5:13; 2 Pet. 2:9). Although vindictive prayers were proper for a Jew living under the law, they are not for a Christian living under God’s grace. The time of God’s vengeance will come after the church is raptured to heaven.
- Also, we should be willing to endure suffering, taunting and slander like Jesus did and not react against it like David (Mt. 5:11-12; 1Pet. 2:20, 23; 3:9)
- Today people are not our enemies like they were for David; instead it is our sinful desires that war against our soul (1 Pet.2:1). Our enemies are within; they are internal not external (Mt. 15:11, 19). They are spiritual not physical. Keep that in mind when you read the Psalms.
There are two similarities to note between today and David’s time:
- As Saul’s men followed David relentlessly, so our emotional and spiritual burdens follow us around.
- Prayer is still important for New testament believers: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). Like David, let’s be people of prayer.
So although our burdens are ever present, remember that our God is also ever present and that prayer and praise are essential for surviving the burdens of life.
Written, October 2011
Life inevitably has its peaks and valleys; its good times and its bad times; its easy times and its hard times. We all experience burdens of some kind. Life doesn’t always go the way we would like it to. In this article, we look at what the Bible says about how to survive the burdens of life, which may be our circumstances, or our perceptions, or our fears and anxieties. In particular, we will focus on the example of Job who lived about 4,000 years ago, after Noah, the global flood and the ice age, but before Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. He was a godly man with eight children who was wealthy with many animals and many servants.
One day his animals were stolen and destroyed by lightning, his servants killed, and his children all died in a tornado (Job 1:13-19). Next there was health crisis when his body was covered with painful sores. They itched so badly that he scraped himself with a piece of broken pottery (Job 2:7-8). Because his wife couldn’t bear to see him suffering so much, she said “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9NIV). He was tempted to give up on God; but he did not.
What a catastrophe! He lost his family, his possessions, his health and the support of his wife. His life was “full of trouble” and he suffered alone (Job. 14:1). He asked “Why me?” “What did I do to deserve this?”He put his questions to God. He called out to God for relief, but his prayers weren’t answered (Job 30:20). His suffering was so bad that he cursed the day he was born and wished that he had died at birth because then he would be resting in peace instead of being in misery and turmoil (Job 3:1-26). He longed for death to release him from his difficulties and troubles. He was haunted by depression, mockery and pain (Job 30:1-31).
Job had a big problem. He thought his suffering was undeserved and unfair. Job was doing everything right when suddenly everything went wrong. That’s why he protested to God. His burdens and emotional struggles raise questions such as: Why do godly people suffer? Will Job’s faith endure or will he give up on God?
Job’s friend’s response
Four of his friends seek to comfort Job. Their debate is given in Job 3-37. Their argument was: God is righteous; He punishes the wicked; if Job is being punished it proved that he is wicked. But this is poor logic. Evil isn’t always punished in this life and all human suffering is not a punishment from God. Not all suffering is a direct result of sin in one’s life. For example, God can use suffering to refine the character of the godly. Instead, his friends only thought of God’s justice and not His love and compassion.
But Job defends his integrity and strenuously claims his innocence (Job 27:1-6; 31:40). He is not a wicked person.
Finally God speaks. How will He deal with the problem of Job’s suffering? Instead of answering Job’s questions, God asks a series of questions that reveal His divine wisdom and power and Job’s insignificance.
The first series of questions address the fact that God provides the conditions for life on earth (Job. 38:4-38). The examples given include: He created the earth; He provided water in clouds, rain, hail, snow, the water cycle, and the sea; He provided light; and He provided the stars of the universe. Then God asked Job, “Were you there when I made this?”; “What do you know about the natural world?”; “Can you do what I have done?”. Scientists may understand aspects of how these components of our universe work, but God is their ultimate cause; He designed them and created them.
The second series of questions address the fact that God sustains life on earth (Job. 38:39 – 39:30): The examples given include: lion; raven, ostrich, hawk, and eagle; goat, donkey, ox, and horse. God asked Job, “Do you provide food for all these creatures?”; “Can you tame wild animals?”; “Did you design and create these creatures”; “Can you manage the creation as well as God does”? Of course, the answer is “no”! Job would have felt small and insignificant compared to God’s might.
Job’s first response
“Then Job answered the LORD: “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer—twice, but I will say no more” (Job 40:3-5). Overwhelmed by God’s divine greatness, wisdom and power, Job realised his insignificance. He couldn’t answer God’s questions, but he knew what the answers were. He felt so weak that he was speechless. But now that had no more to say, he was ready to listen to God.
God’s second response
Then God responded again by asking questions about two of the greatest creatures He ever made. People debate about whether these are mythical or real and living today or extinct. The Bible says that they were real and it is clear that was familiar with these giant creatures (Job 40:15). Their description matches those of the largest dinosaurs, which are now extinct. Contrary to what many scientists say, the Bible teaches that people were on the earth at the same time as the dinosaurs.
Behemoth, which lived on the land, marshes and rivers, was “first among the works of God” (Job 40:19). This means that it was God’s best, chief, foremost, greatest and supreme creation. Metaphors are used to convey that its skeleton seemed to be as hard as iron (Job 40:18). God asked Job, “Can you capture it?”. Of course, Job couldn’t control this monster; but God controlled the world.
Leviathan lived in the sea. “Nothing on earth is its equal—a creature without fear” (Job 41:33). “When it rises up, the mighty are terrified” (Job 41:25). Once again God asked Job, “Can you capture it?”. If no one can stand up against it, no one can stand up before its creator. After all God made everything and runs the universe! God is much greater than any of His creation.
Job’s second response
“Then Job replied to the LORD: I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me’. My ears had heard of You but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:1-6).
Job was overwhelmed by God’s power and greatness and he repented of his arrogance in questioning God. He was ashamed and sorry for the things he had said. So through his suffering he gains an accurate impression of almighty God and his own failures and limitations. He thinks more of God and less of himself. He accepts his place in the universe and submits to God’s will for his life. His faith endured the test of suffering. It proved that Satan was wrong; Job didn’t curse God in his afflictions (Job 1:11; 2:5).
Although Job was, “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil”; his trials led him to repent of his arrogance and pride (Job 1:8; 42:1-6). This domonstrates that pride is the root of all our sin.
The Christian view of suffering
Now we look at what the New Testament says about when God’s people suffer. “They (our fathers) disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:10-12).
Christians are children of God; He is our spiritual Father. As human fathers discipline and train their children, so God disciplines and trains us. As fathers love their children and want the best for them, so God loves us and wants the best for us. Fathers train their children to become mature adults; but God trains us so that “we may share in His holiness”. His goal is that we may become mature as our life becomes purified and the fruit of the Spirit grows. The result of the discipline and training is pictured as a harvest. Crops are harvested when they are mature. Christians are mature when they practice love, joy, peace, forbearance (or patience), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control and holiness (Gal. 5:22-23).
This discipline and training is painful like it was for Job. So the suffering that Christians endure isn’t punishment, it is training and education. In many ways it is “no pain, no gain”, because it is possible to go through trials and never have them do a thing for us if we complain all the time. But if we persevere, suffering leads to patience and hope: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3). Job persevered: “Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (Jas. 5:10-11).
Christians are to endure hardship and suffering because it is divine discipline, “God is treating you as His children” (Heb. 12:7). We are to “Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:3). If we think of all the suffering that Jesus went through for us, then we won’t become weary and give up. It can sustain us through the burdens of life.
So, don’t give up in the tough times. Persevere and endure. Hang in there like Job and Jesus did. Remember it is training for your spiritual growth. Job said “He (God) knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). So the Christian view of suffering is to never complain or give up in despair.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from this? Firstly, the burdens of life don’t necessarily cease at death. Although God has provided eternal life for those whose sins have been forgiven through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, this is only available to those who have repented and turned to trust in God’s provision like Job did. That is the only way to survive the burdens of life in the long term. The future is dark for those without God in their life. They are not survivors.
Secondly, we need to normalise burdens and suffering. Job suffered as a godly man. Even the godliest people suffer; it’s part of the normal Christian life. We need to expect it and not be surprised when it happens. God doesn’t always explain the reason for our suffering. But we shouldn’t blame ourselves because suffering is not necessarily the result of our sins, although it is a characteristic of our sinful world.
Thirdly, suffering keeps us humble. By enduring the burdens of life we can realise that God controls the universe, not us. We need to submit to His will, rather that demand that God submit to our desires. So, the suffering of the godly has a purpose, even though we often don’t realise at the time.
Fourthly, enduring suffering can be a great witness for the Lord. Job suffered. Jesus suffered. As a result, God was praised and served because He deserved it, no matter the circumstances, and not because of how they benefited, but despite the trials of life. Likewise, if we persevere in suffering, we demonstrate God’s worth. We are given the privilege of suffering for Christ and demonstrating our faith in God by enduring life’s trials (Phil. 1:29). What a witness that can be!
Fourthly, suffering develops endurance and perseverance. God’s discipline and training also helps our growth towards spiritual maturity. So, don’t give up in the tough times.
Fifthly, suffering tests our faith. Are we only serving God on the good times? That is a weak faith. Strong faith also serves God in the tough times; when you can say to God, not my will, but Yours be done. Because Job didn’t give up on God, he was an example of great faith.
Don’t be misled by people like Job’s friends who say if we follow them we can be exempt from suffering. That we will be healthy, wealthy and wise instead of suffering the burdens of life. No one is exempt from the burdens of life, particularly the godly.
Finally, those who are suffering don’t need advice. They are on the road to maturity. So don’t feel sorry for them but join them and like Job we may learn more about God and more about ourselves in the journey.
That’s how the Bible says we can survive the burdens of life.
Written, September 2011
Suffering comes before glory
At Easter we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, events unique to the Christian faith. In this article we will look at what happened after His resurrection, and at four contrasts between His death and heavenly reign.
After the resurrection
After Christ’s resurrection, He appeared to His followers over a period of 40 days (Acts 1:3). Then “He was taken up into heaven and He sat at the right hand of God” (Mk. 16:19 niv). Luke reported, “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid Him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as He was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:9-11). The disciples were given a promise by two angels that in the future Jesus would return to earth in an event as spectacular as His ascension.
The Bible says repeatedly that Jesus Christ is now at God’s “right hand” – a place of honor, power, dominion and authority. His exalted position was noted by Peter (Acts 2:32-33a; 5:30-31; 1 Pt. 3:21-22), seen by Stephen (Acts 7:55-56) and mentioned in Hebrews (Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). Paul added that Christ is above all other powers (Eph. 1:20-21) and that while He is at the right hand of God, He intercedes with the Father on our behalf (Rom. 8:34). Furthermore, believers will reign with the Lord in His coming kingdom: “I will give the right to sit with Me on My throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21).
People sometimes say this was the greatest comeback since Lazarus because Lazarus came back from the dead, but died again because he was still mortal. But the resurrected Lord had a redeemed immortal body. He was the first to be resurrected to eternal life (1 Cor. 15:23). His was a different resurrection because He ascended into heaven to live forever. That’s a much greater comeback than Lazarus. In fact, Jesus went from the lowest place on earth, where He endured the suffering and humiliation of execution as a criminal, to the highest place in heaven, where He reigns over all creation. What a contrast!
Two types of crown are mentioned in the New Testament: a garland worn by a victorious athlete, and a diadem worn by royalty that symbolized the power to reign. Both of these crowns are used in the Bible to describe Jesus. Crowns are also mentioned in respect to His cross and reign.
Crown of thorns. Humanity, by way of the Roman soldiers, gave Christ the crown of thorns (Mt. 27:27-31; Mk. 15:16-20; Jn. 19:2-5), a purple robe and a staff in a mock coronation of the “king of the Jews.” Thorns are a product of the curse, which was God’s judgment on humanity’s fall into sinful behavior (Gen. 3:17-19). In Genesis thorns are associated with sin, struggle, sweat and death. At the cross, Christ had a symbol of the curse on His head.
Crown of glory. “We … see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because He suffered death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). He was lower than the angels for 33 years. At His death He was the lowest of humanity, executed as a criminal. He came down to the cross and the grave. Now He is crowned with glory and honor, His exaltation a result of His suffering. The cross led to the crown. His glory was the reward of His suffering (Heb. 2:9; Phil. 2:7-9; Rev. 5:12). Seeing Jesus in His glory will give us great joy (Jn. 17:5,24).
Jesus prayed, “I have brought You glory on earth by finishing the work You gave Me to do. And now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world began” (Jn. 17:4-5). Before He came to earth, He lived with the Father in heaven and reigned over all creation as the Creator. He regained this when He ascended, but gained the additional glory of being the Redeemer of the fallen creation. So, at the cross, He was given the crown of thorns, but when He ascended to heaven, He was given the crown of glory.
Christ was crucified between two criminals (Mt. 27:38). It was a shameful death and a time of much grief and sorrow (Lk. 23:27-28,48). However, before going to the cross He prayed, “Father, I want those You have given Me to be with Me where I am, and to see My glory” (Jn. 17:24). At the cross He was in the company of criminals, but in heaven He is in the company of the redeemed and of angels (Rev. 5:11-12).
Different comings of Christ
The Lord was here once, and He’s coming again – the invisible God visibly present on earth. The purpose for His first coming was to die on the cross for sinners like us; to be a sacrifice. The purpose for His second coming will be to reveal His great power and glory (Mt. 24:30; 2 Th. 2:8; Rev. 1:7). It is the most prophesied event in the Bible. At that time, He will wear the crown of authority, dominion, government and sovereignty, judge all evil and set up His kingdom on earth. That is when all the wrongs done on earth will be made right, all crime will end, and justice will prevail.
In His first coming the Lord entered Jerusalem on a donkey. In His second coming He will be on a war horse: “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice He judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on His head are many crowns” (Rev. 19:11-12). His supremacy is emphasized by His wearing “many crowns.”
Suffering before glory
Although Christ’s suffering and glory were both foretold in the Old Testament, their relationship was not obvious at that time. Psalm 22:1-21 describes the Lord’s suffering. For example, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me? Why are you so far from saving Me, so far from My cries of anguish?” was spoken at the cross (Ps. 22:1; Mt. 27:46). Psalm 22:22-31 describe His millennial reign over the earth. For example, “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before Him, for dominion belongs to the LORD and He rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:26-27). We see in the same passage the cross and the crown; the suffering and the glory.
Likewise, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Isa. 9:6) describes Christ’s first coming which led to the cross, while the rest of this verse and the next describes the millennial kingdom established after His second coming: “And the government will be on His shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of His government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” Once again we see in the same passage the cross and the crown; the suffering and the glory. Other references to the Lord’s suffering and reign are Isaiah 53 and Psalm 110.
Christ’s cross and crown are keys to understanding the Bible. And aspects of His sacrifice and death for sinners, and His kingdom and future glory can be seen in many passages of Scripture. “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:10-11). The Old Testament prophets predicted the Lord’s sufferings and the glories that would follow, but they didn’t know that there would be thousands of years between these events.
Christ’s mission was to go to the cross to die for our sin. Now, having paid the price for sin, He is highly exalted at God’s right hand and will come again as King of kings and Lord of lords. His cross had to precede His crown: “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).
Lessons for us
Jesus went from the lowest place on earth (the cross) to the highest place in heaven where He reigns over all creation. What a change there is between His two comings to earth – from crown of thorns to crown of glory, from criminal to the redeemed, from death to dominion, and from suffering to glory.
Because Jesus endured the cross, He now wears the crown and we can have the assurance of eternal life with Him in heaven. For Jesus, suffering had to precede glory. The New Testament pattern of suffering followed by glory applies to us as well: believers suffer now, but will be released into the glory of immortal bodies at the resurrection (Rom. 8:16-25; 2 Cor. 4:16-18). Like the Lord, believers must be willing to suffer and lose their lives for His sake (Lk. 9:23).
Paul wrote, “if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:17-18). Meanwhile, “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17).
The Biblical pattern is that suffering in this life will lead to an inheritance of eternal glory. We should not be focusing on our present physical situation, but be looking ahead. We are not promised a trouble-free life; in fact the opposite is the case because Jesus tells us that trouble is inevitable (Jn. 16:33). Look at His life as an example, and focus on the One who went to the cross and who now wears the crown.
Published, April 2012
See the other article in this series:
- From the Cradle to the Cross
Please explain Romans 8:28 in light of such disasters as the earthquakes in Haiti in 2010 and in Japan in 2011?
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Rom. 8:28-29NIV).
Disasters are one of the characteristics of our sinful world. Our present suffering and future glory is the theme of Romans 8:18-30. In this passage believers are given three things to help us through times of suffering. They are truths that we should know (eido in Greek). First, “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time …” (v.22-25). Christians are not the only ones suffering and it won’t last forever. As “the whole creation” is suffering, Christians are affected as well as the rest of God’s creation. Our suffering ends either when we die and go to be with the Lord or when we are resurrected to receive new bodies (1 Cor. 15:51-57; 2 Cor. 5:1-10; 1 Th. 4:15-18). Second, because “we do not know what we ought to pray for …”, the Holy Spirit prays for us (v.26-27). So, we can know that the Holy Spirit prays for us when we are going through difficult times. Third, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him …” (v.28-30). God’s desire is that believers would be “conformed to the image of His Son” because they have been “called”, “justified” and will be “glorified” (v.29-30). So, Romans 8:28 is set in the context of things to help us through difficult times.
Romans 8:28 mentions two things to help Christians through difficult times:
- Believers have “been called according to His purpose”. God wants to make all believers like Jesus Christ; so they share His character. He wants their lives to be transformed (2 Cor. 3:18). Everything that happens, whether good things or bad , has this purpose. This includes disasters, suffering and tragedy.
- “In all things God works for the good of those who love Him”. What does “for the good” mean? Surely anything that is consistent with God’s purpose, which is to transform our lives to be more like our Lord’s. “All things” includes all the circumstances of life. So this verse is saying that God uses them to achieve His purposes. For example, although Joseph was treated harshly, he recognised that “God intended it for good” because it was used to save many lives, including the descendants of Abraham (Gen. 50:20). Also Hezekiah recognised that the anguish he went through during his serious illness “was good for me” (Isa. 38:17NLT) as it enabled him to praise God when his health was restored (Isa. 38:18-20).
How can good come out of disasters such as the recent earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes that resulted in so much suffering and tragedy? We need to realize that “the good” Romans 8:28 is addressed to believers. God permits suffering and uses it for our good, for the blessing of others, and for His glory. The writer of Hebrews wrote, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). Also, when Peter addressed the end times, which are characterized by disasters, he advised us to keep praying, help the needy, and use our gifts to serve others (1 Pt. 4:7-11). Disasters provide opportunities for us to bring comfort and relief to those in need, and pray for them. Disasters provide opportunities for us to develop our divine nature by becoming more Christ-like (Eph.4:22-24).
But what about death? Death is the worst thing that can happen to unbelievers; but it ushers believers into God’s presence, which is the best thing that can happen to us! Paul said “to die is gain” because it means going to be with Christ (Phil. 1:21).
But it can be difficult to balance the physical and spiritual aspects of life. Paul said that God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). Here we see that the blessings that are promised to believers are spiritual, not physical. Although disasters, suffering and tragedy may destroy our physical possessions, they don’t take away our spiritual blessings. God gives us what we need, not what we want. After all, Jesus died to save our spirits and souls, not our bodies. Of course, at the resurrection He gives us new bodies. We know God loves us, not because of how our lives go, but because of Christ’s death at Calvary.
So, Romans 8:28 says that God uses “all things” for our spiritual growth. When we apply this principle to disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes we begin to realize that even they can be used to help us become more Christ-like.
Written, April 2011
Also see: Where is God when disaster strikes?
We live in a creative world. People are very creative. For example, artists create works of art, architects create buildings, inventors create inventions, engineers create hardware and software, and authors create novels. Even animals are creative. They make sounds to communicate with each other and make homes including nests and holes in the ground.
The creative process involves two nouns and one verb:
- The creator – someone or something who creates
- The creation – what has been brought into existence. It’s something new.
- To create – is to bring something into existence. It’s an action.
The creator is always more intelligent than the creation (except biological offspring). This should be obvious from the examples given above.
Creation is a major theme of the Bible. It begins with God creating everything and ends with God remaking everything in a new heaven and a new earth (Gen. 1:1-2:3; Rev. 21:1-5).
This article is based on Bible passages that use the words “create”, “creation, or “creator”.
God has revealed Himself to everyone in His creation. Isaiah wrote, “Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars?” (Is. 40:26NLT). This is a good question. When we look at creation we should be reminded of their Creator. Science today misses the main point of God’s revelation through the creation, which is that the creation requires a Creator.
We live in an amazingly complex world. Each year scientists reveal more detail; but each discovery just leads to more questions and things to investigate. Look at all the information in the human genome; it’s wonderfully complex. The DNA sequence in each cell of our bodies is made up of about 3 billion pairs of molecules. Scientists certainly can’t make life. They can’t even manufacture a single living cell. That’s why they use stem cells in their research. So the Creator of life on earth is more intelligent than modern scientists!
The complex design of our world requires a Designer. The information in the genetic code requires a source. Complex creation, design and information can’t occur by chance. That would be like a computer that occurred by chance and we all know that doesn’t happen. Instead what happens is that computers break down, they devolve. Likewise, instead of getting more complex with time, the natural world is devolving; extinction is evident, not evolution. Did you know that most mutations involve a loss or corruption of genetic information? They are malfunctions that can cause illness, such as cystic fibrosis.
Also, nothing can create itself, because that would mean that it existed before it came into existence, which is nonsense! Instead, the logic is that everything which has a beginning has a cause. As the universe has a beginning, it has a cause, which is that it was created by God. So, we live in a cause and effect universe.
David knew this 3,000 years ago when he sang, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display His craftsmanship” (Ps. 19:1). This means that God’s existence can be inferred from nature, which is His creation. Because the universe is awesome and immense, God must be immensely powerful. That’s what omnipotent means. Paul said that His eternal power and divine nature are evident in all we see, “The truth about God is known instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Rom. 1:19-20). “Eternal power” means there is no limit on what God can do.
The Supreme Creator
Our knowledge of God’s nature and how He created everything comes from the revelation of Scripture, as it is the only clear revelation from God – it has not been tainted by sin. God was the only One who was there and He tells us how it happened. We are told, “By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen” (Heb. 11:3). Here we see that in the beginning God spoke and created what can be seen from what was invisible. In Genesis 1:3 we read “Then God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light’”. In Genesis 1, “God said” is mentioned 8 times before something new was created.
Paul gives more information, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through Him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through Him and for Him. He existed before anything else, and He holds all creation together” (Col. 1:15-17). So God created an invisible spiritual world as well as the visible physical world. Because He made everything in the universe, He is supreme over all creation (Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). God continues to sustain the creation by holding it all together.
God also created time. He created our ancestors Adam and Eve “in His own image” so He could have a special relationship with humanity (Gen. 1:27). He is the “author of life” (Acts 3:15). So, God is certainly creative.
Another of David’s songs says, “When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place—what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” (Ps. 8:3-4). Looking at creation should cause us to feel humble as we recognize the greatness of the God who chose to create us in His image.
However, the truth of the greatness of God is suppressed today as it was when Paul wrote; “God shows His anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:18). Paul explains how this truth is suppressed: “they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship Him as God or even give Him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom. 1:21-23).
First, they ignore God. They don’t glorify Him as the great Creator or thank Him for sustaining them by His creation. Instead of acknowledging what should be obvious, people act as though there is no God. In this sense they are ignorant. God is replaced by nature; they say that nature does this and nature does that. Paul says that ignoring God leads to futile thinking and darkened hearts. Their plans come to nothing and there is no compassion.
Second, they claim to be wise. They claim to know everything and are able to handle all the problems of life. They act like God. But in this they become fools.
Third, they worship the creation. Because people are instinctively religious, when they reject this revelation of the true God through His creation they worship idols. Paul repeats, “They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator Himself, who is worthy of eternal praise!” (Rom. 1:25).
Godlessness results in wickedness. The consequence of suppressing the truth of the greatness of God is sexual immorality and all kinds of sinful behaviour (Rom. 1:24-32). That’s why the wicked are condemned by God and under His judgement and why there is a universal need for the gospel.
Isaiah wrote, “For the Lord is God, and He created the heavens and earth and put everything in place. He made the world to be lived in, not to be a place of empty chaos. “I am the Lord,” He says, “and there is no other” (Is 45:18). So, the Creator is unique.
Because God had no beginning, He doesn’t need a cause (Dt. 33:27; 1 Tim. 1:17; Heb. 7:3; Rev.1:8; 22:13). In fact God has no beginning, no end or limits; He is infinite, eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. God is omni (from the Latin word meaning “all”)! God’s power was demonstrated to Job though the wonders of creation (Job 38-41).This caused Job to realise that God could do anything (Job. 42:2).
Because God is perfect, His creation was perfect. The Bible says that it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). But it didn’t stay that way.
Creation’s Suffering & Redemption
God told Adam “Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat, the ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains” (Gen. 3:17-18). So Adam’s fall into sin affected the world around him.
Although the original creation was “very good”, because of people’s rebellion against God, the universe has been cursed with suffering, disease and death. It has been spoilt, although we see shattered remains of the original creation. “Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse … For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:20, 22). When people say, “how could a loving God create such a world?”, they show their ignorance of the history of our world. He didn’t create it that way in the beginning. We are reaping what Adam sowed. Today, life is a struggle for all creation and there is much suffering. This affects Christians as well as the rest of God’s creation. We “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23).
However, together with the rest of God’s creation, we can look forward to the Lord’s coming reign over the earth: “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who His children really are” (Rom. 8:18-19). When the Lord returns to set up His kingdom, the creation will be redeemed from the affects of the curse and re-created to be “very good” once again. The Garden of Eden will be restored (Acts 3:21). This is when: “the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. … as the waters fill the sea, so the earth will be filled with people who know the Lord” (Isa. 11:6-9).
An understanding of creation is the foundation of the gospel message. When he spoke to Gentile audiences at Lystra and Athens who were ignorant of the Old Testament, Paul appealed to God’s handiwork in nature as evidence of the existence of the Creator (Acts 14:15b-17; 17:24-27). He was the one they should be worshiping, not worthless idols.
The grand message of the Bible is that in the beginning God created everything, then when Adam and Eve disobeyed God the creation came under God’s curse and evil, sickness, suffering and death became prevalent. In this sense the whole creation is suffering. But Jesus came to die on the cross and was resurrected back to life so that those who trust in His work can have a new spiritual life and look forward to living in His new creation. After He returns believers will receive new bodies and will leave the suffering world to eventually reign with Him in His kingdom of the restored world.
What about someone who has never heard the gospel message? The Bible says, “it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to Him must believe that God exists and that He rewards those who sincerely seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). Two steps are necessary: to believe that God exists, and the creation tells us that, and to earnestly seek Him. If they seek Him, He will led them to a knowledge of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12).
Psalm 95 is a song of praise that the Jews sang to God for being a great Creator. When Christ returns to set up His kingdom, all creation will praise Him (Ps.98:4-9). That’s what the song “Shout to the Lord” is about. In Psalm 104, the God of creation is praised for His work as the great Creator and Sustainer. All creation praises God in Psalm 148, which includes “Let every created thing give praise to the Lord, for He issued His command, and they came into being” (Ps 148:5). All creation is to praise the Lord because He spoke the universe into existence.
In heaven the redeemed bow down before God on His throne and praise Him because He created everything: “You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power. For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased” (Rev. 4:11). Finally, at the end of time, after God has dealt with people’s sin and rebellion, every creature praises God (Rev. 5:13).
Lessons for us
Do we appreciate the grandeur, majesty, power, wisdom and beauty of the creation? Do we realise that because it didn’t make itself, it requires an awesome Creator who continues to uphold and maintain it? He rules over all creation. Let’s keep aware of God’s greatness, power and sovereignty. Are we humble before Him? Do we thank Him for sustaining us by His creation? Do we acknowledge His work of creation in songs of praise?
Do we realise that, like humanity, the whole universe has been cursed with suffering, disease and death? Are we looking forward to the day when the curse is removed?
Are we worshiping the Creator or the creation? Who are our heroes? What images are occupying us on the movies, TV, and internet? Are we ambitious or greedy? Are we chasing the good comfortable life or always seeking good health?
Creation is a major theme of the Bible. The sequence is creation, fall into sin, release from the penalty of sin (redemption) through Jesus Christ, and creation of the new heavens & the new earth. Do we begin at the beginning of the gospel message, particularly for those who are not familiar with the Bible?
The fact that God has created the universe is fundamental to the Christian faith because it leads to:
- Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of all believers. If God couldn’t create life in the beginning, how could He bring the dead back to life?
- The ultimate restoration of the fallen creation. If God couldn’t create life in the beginning, how can He create life in a new creation?
Written, November 2009