What do you associate with each place: Gettysburg, New York, Las Vegas, Hiroshima, Hollywood, London, Salt Lake City, Paris, Yosemite, and Bethlehem? For most of us each place name arouses particular connotations, connections and feelings.
You may say that Bethlehem was the birth place of Jesus Christ. But what did the word “Bethlehem” mean to those who lived before Christ was born?
Let’s look at what the Old Testament says about Bethlehem, a town which is about 10 km south of Jerusalem. Both of these towns are on a north-south range of hard limestone hills rising midway between the Mediterranean coast and the Jordan rift valley. Bethlehem is 775 metres above sea level, 30 metres higher than Jerusalem. It was previously known as Ephrath(ah), a name that refers to that area of Judea (Gen. 35:19; 48:7, Ruth 1:2; 4:11; Mic. 5:2).
A family crisis
In about 1300 BC, Elimelek and his wife Naomi lived in Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1). Because of a famine in Israel, Elimelek’s family migrated to Moab, which was south-east of the Dead Sea. In Moab, Naomi’s husband and two sons died. She was left alone and destitute. It was a family crisis. It looked like the end of the family line. So she decided to return to Bethlehem, her husband’s home town. Her daughter-in-law Ruth, went with her. Now we have two destitute women, one of them a foreigner.
God provided a solution to this crisis when Boaz let Ruth glean in the barley fields, by gathering stalks of grain left behind by the harvesters. So they had food to eat. But they were helped even more when Boaz married Ruth. This preserved the family name and the family property through Boaz, the kinsman-redeemer. Also, both women were sustained in the long term. Naomi was cared for in her old age and she had a grandson called Obed whose grandson was David.
So at Bethlehem God provided a solution to a family crisis.
A national crisis
This family lived in Bethlehem for the next few hundred years. Because the Israelites hadn’t driven out all the inhabitants of Canaan, they faced constant opposition from the Philistines who lived on the coastal plain. During the reign of the first king, Saul, a national crisis arose. The Philistine army penetrated into Israelite territory and was gathered in the valley of Elah. And they had a giant called Goliath who terrorised the Israelites. Because the valley of Elah extends from the coastal plain eastwards towards Bethlehem, this threatened Bethlehem and after that Jerusalem (1 Sam. 17).
God provided a solution when David killed Goliath with a stone. David lived in Bethlehem where he was a shepherd. He was sent to the valley of Elah by his father to take provisions for his brothers in the Israelite army. When their hero was killed, the Philistines turned and ran back to Gath. David saved his nation from the enemy and became a national hero. So from Bethlehem, God provided a solution to a national crisis.
Another national crisis arose soon afterwards when Saul changed from being a godly king to an evil tyrant. God provided another solution when he sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David privately to be the next king (1 Sam. 16:1-13). So at Bethlehem, God once again provided a solution to a national crisis. Later David was publicly anointed as king of the tribe of Judah and king of the whole nation (2 Sam. 2:1-4; 5:1-5). David established the kingdom of Israel. So he was the most famous person to live in Bethlehem.
Next in the 7th century BC, Micah predicted that the Jewish Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). This was known by the Jewish religious leaders after the birth of Christ, because it was in their Scriptures (Mt. 2:4-6). Also some of the Jews thought that the Messiah would be a descendant of David (2 Sam. 7:16; Ps. 89:3-4; Isa. 9:7) born at Bethlehem (Jn. 7:42). So it’s not surprising that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which was called the “town of David” (Lk. 2:4, 11NIV) because David lived here before he became the king. Jesus was also a descendant of David (Lk. 4:23, 31; Rom. 1:3).
But although Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, His mission was to the whole world.
A global crisis
In 2015 terrorist incidents occurred in Cameroon, Philippines, Tunisia, Nigeria, Mali, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, France, Lebanon, China, Ukraine, Israel, Libya, Niger, Denmark, Japan, South Korea, Tunisia, India, Somalia, Kenya, Thailand, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, United States, Chad, Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Germany, Australia, and United Kingdom. Today terrorism is an international crisis that threatens peace across the world. Countries and airlines now have anti-terrorism measures. Terrorism is an extreme symptom of humanity’s rebellion against God (also called “sin”) and failure to respect one another.
God provided a solution when Jesus was born in Bethlehem and He later died in Jerusalem for the sin of mankind and then rose again to give new life to all who put their faith and trust in Him. Jesus is the source of peace with God (Lk. 2:14). When Jesus was born at Bethlehem, it was the beginning of His mission on earth to demonstrate God’s love and give up His life to free us from the penalty and power of sin. He came for everyone. His coming was welcomed by lowly shepherds and the wealthy Magi. The shepherds were Jews and the Magi were Gentiles.
So from Bethlehem, God provided a solution to a global crisis.
What about us? You may think, I’m not destitute like Naomi and Ruth, or threatened like the nation of Israel. I’m not a terrorist! But what about ignoring the God who created our universe to whom we owe so much ?
This Christmas, let’s recognize our personal crisis and accept God’s solution that was revealed at Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. Let’s celebrate by praising Him like the shepherds (Lk. 2:20), and worshiping Jesus like the Magi (Mt. 2:11).
Written, December 2015
Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles in Jericho
Rebellion and deception at Samaria
Nineveh experienced God’s mercy and justice
Worshipping God and idols at Bethel
Prayer calms anxiety & relieves stress
I’m in France where thousands rallied in the streets after the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in a massive nation-wide demonstration of solidarity. “I am Charlie” (“Je Suis Charlie”) signs are still posted on city buildings.
Some people felt helpless and feared for their safety. I was asked: “Are you still going to France?” How can we cope when we feel helpless when facing trials, troubles and tragedies? In this blog we see that Psalm 4 shows that because God is in control, if we pray in these times, He calms our anxiety and relieves our stress.
Psalm 4 was written when the Israelites were living in Canaan under King David, one of their greatest kings. It was about 1,000 BC and before the division into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. These are the lyrics of one of the songs they sang when praising God. So it has a poetic structure.
It was a model for the Israelites to follow, not a command or a report of events. As they sang it they would have been reminded to pray when they are in trouble. And that the fact that God would look after them and replace anxiety with peace.
The surrounding texts (Ps. 3 and 5) also cover the topic of praying for deliverance from enemies. It’s a major theme in many of the Psalms.
“Answer me when I call to you, O God who declares me innocent. Free me from my troubles. Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies?
Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies? Don’t sin by letting anger control you. Think about it overnight and remain silent. Offer sacrifices in the right spirit, and trust the LORD. Many people say, “Who will show us better times?” Let your face smile on us, LORD.
You have given me greater joy than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wine. In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O LORD, will keep me safe” (Ps. 4:1-8NLT).
David addresses both God and David’s enemies in turn. He begins with a prayer of request for God’s help (v.1). Then he addresses his enemies asking questions, making statements, and giving advice (v.2-5). He seeks the Lord’s favor and praises Him for the change he has experienced already (v.6-8). David finishes with a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has already done (v. 7-8).
David has a problem. Although he was a godly king, some of his subjects were trying to bring him down by using slander, lies and false accusations to ruin his reputation (v.2). They were blaming David for the nation’s problems saying he should be replaced as their leader so they could have better times (v.6). It looks like he’s going to be deposed. This had been going on for some-time and there was nothing David could do about it (v.2). So he seeks relief from his distress. And prays for deliverance from these attacks.
“Answer me when I call to you, O God who declares me innocent. Free me from my troubles. Have mercy on me and hear my prayer.” (v.1)
He knows that God is a righteous judge who knows the facts of the situation and isn’t deceived by David’s enemies. That’s why he goes to God for help. He wants relief from his anxiety and stress.
Then he names the problems and challenges the offenders.
“Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies?” (v.2)
This means that they have an opportunity to consider the situation, to acknowledge their part in it (their sins) and repent and change their ways. Obviously this didn’t happen because David needed to challenge them again (v.4-5).
After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the people of France responded in public rallies. They didn’t pray to God or ask spiritual questions, because they live in a secular society that seeks all its answers in humanity.
We mightn’t be a king facing his downfall or someone facing a terrorist attack, but we all face trials, troubles and tragedies that worry us from time to time. How do we manage when these bring depression and anxiety and there seems to be no relief? Do we seek help? Or do we give up? Do we pray to God?
“Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies?” (v.3)
David warns his enemies that God will answer his prayer and intervene because he is part of God’s Old Testament people, the Israelites. So they should realise that their efforts to bring down the king will be futile. Paul wrote, “If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).
“Don’t sin by letting anger control you. Think about it overnight and remain silent. Offer sacrifices in the right spirit, and trust the Lord.” (v.4-5)
Then he tells them what to do. Instead of blaming someone else for their troubles, they needed to tremble with fear before God and change their sinful ways by meditating as they lay in bed and then repent of their ways and trust God.
His enemies needed to control their anger and not let it lead to violence. Paul told Christians they could be angry for God, but it should be limited and not carried over into another day (Eph. 4:26-27).
At night they were to think about the stupidity of fighting against God. This should lead them to acknowledge, confess, and repent of their sin. And “trust in the Lord”. David told them to offer sacrifices in the right spirit to demonstrate this change in their lives.
Offering animal sacrifices was part of a godly life for an Israelite. We live under a different covenant. The new covenant brought in by Jesus has replaced the Old Testament law. We don’t approach God through the sacrifice of animals, but through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
‘Many people say, “Who will show us better times?” Let your face smile on us, LORD.’ (v.6)
Here David contrasts himself with his enemies. They are blaming David for their problems and are looking for another leader to replace the king, but David looks for God’s favor. He does this because He knows that God is the one we should trust in, not just another human leader. God is the only one who can bring lasting improvement in the situation. They seek all the benefits of a godly life, but they don’t want God.
A smiling face was a common expression for acceptance and favour. It was a metaphor for blessing and deliverance. Though many are discouraged, David asks the Lord to intervene and transform the situation. The opposite is to hide your face or turn your face from people’s need. In this case there is no blessing and no deliverance. David knew the image of God’s shining face from the priestly blessing (Num. 6:24-26).
Australian Prime Ministers are usually replaced when their approval rating gets too low. Kevin Rudd’s rating dropped to 58% and Julia Gillard’s to 53% before they were replaced. But now her replacement Tony Abbott is rating at 50%! What a big change since he was elected 16 months ago in September 2013. In fact the two major national political parties in Australia have gone through 10 leaders in 10 years!
Are you like David? If you trust in God are you assured that He will answer your prayers?
Or are you like David’s enemies? Can you control your anger? Do you know that human solutions will disappoint if you ignore God? Are you willing to look at the sins in your life with a view to acknowledging, confessing, and repenting of them?
“You have given me greater joy than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wine” (v.7)
God has already answered his prayer by giving him inner joy even though He hasn’t been delivered yet. But he is confident that God will deliver him.
“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe” (v.8)
We’ve now come to the end of the song. It began with David pleading to God to free him from his troubles and give relief for his distress. It ends with David sleeping well because he leaves his safety up to God. So his anxiety has subsided and been replaced with assurance and peace. He is confident of God’s protection. He found that prayer relieves anxiety and stress.
Paul said, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7).
A new mobile phone app enables children and other users to send emergency alerts and broadcast their GPS location to trusted contacts. It’s called Thread. It can connect users immediately to 911 (or 112 or 999 or 000) and their nominated contacts. It can allay someone’s anxiety and fears. Likewise, Christians have a hotline to God that can allay their anxiety and fears.
Have you accepted God’s provision for our trials, troubles and tragedies? Or do you face them alone?
What about terrorism?
Terrorists are enemies of particular groups of people. What else can we learn from what the Bible says about dealing with our enemies?
In Psalm 109, David uses strong language to ask God to judge and punish his enemies (v.6-21). He wants them to receive the consequences of their sinful behavior. He wants revenge. This language is acceptable for Old Testament times, but not now.
What’s changed since then? 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.
Our real enemy is Satan who directs the terrorists (Eph. 6:12). This means that it’s spiritual warfare that requires spiritual weapons. That’s why when facing all kinds of dangers and threats, the Psalmist could say “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!” (Ps. 121:1). We need the God who made the universe on our side, because He’s stronger than Satan.
Do we have the same attitude as Jesus and Paul? Do we leave the problem of terrorism up to God? Do we pray to God about it? Do we pray for our enemies?
We have seen that David prayed for help and deliverance when he faced serious trials, troubles and tragedies. His song taught that God answers prayer and that prayer relieves anxiety and stress.
When we feel helpless when facing trials, troubles, tragedies or terrorism we need to realize that because God is in control, if we pray in these times, He calms our anxiety and relieves our stress.
Written, January 2015