Tag Archives: Protection

Foolish Anxiety and Real Threats

They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
Nehemiah 1:3 (NIV)

The immigration of large people groups tend to happen in waves. The town of Pella, Iowa, where I live was founded by a group of Dutch immigrants in the 1800s. It happened, however, in waves. The first group arrived on the Iowa prairie in 1847 and began a settlement. They were the trailblazers. In his book Iowa Letters, Johan Stellingwerff, chronicles the letters sent back and forth between the first wave of settlers and their families back home who were still preparing to make the voyage:

“Dear Parents,

I write specially about the expenses of my journey…The journey from Borton, New York, or Baltimore is tiresom and damaging for freight because of reloading. It is better and cheaper via New Orleans…..

Hendrik Hospers

It is important for readers to understand that for the exiles returning to the city of Jerusalem from their captivity in Babylon and Persia, the same is also true.

For many years, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were considered one book with two sections. They were authored by two different leaders of the waves of returning exiles. There were actually three waves of people who returned. The first was c. 538 BC led by Zerubbabel (the rebuilt Temple of Solomon is commonly referenced by historians as Zerubbabel’s Temple). Ezra led the next wave c. 458 BC. Nehemiah led the third c. 432 BC.

In today’s opening chapter of Nehemiah, the author records the word that came back to him from the returned exiles in Jerusalem. The news was not good. The walls of Jerusalem were in ruins and the gates of the city were burned and useless. It’s hard for us to appreciate the magnitude of this reality for the people of that time. Raiding armies were common among the many tribes and factions in the region. Plundering and pillaging were common and walls were an essential deterrent. The success of the exiles in their return and rebuilding of the city was in peril if there were no walls or gates to protect them from outside armies and/or raiding parties.

It may be hard to relate to everyday life in the 21st century, but the truth is that in life and in business, I find myself mindful of potential threats. There are threats of weather for which we must prepare our home and property. There is the threat of catastrophic life events against which we buy insurance for our health and lives.

Along my life journey, I have struggled to find the balance between being prepared for unexpected threats and being worried about them. I am more convinced than ever that I live in a culture in which politicians, media, special interest groups, and corporations peddle a non-stop stream of fear and apocalyptic predictions, which in turn create human reactions in large numbers of people, which in turn leads to clicks, views, ads, votes, sales, revenues, and etc. Wisdom is required.

Yesterday, among our local gathering of Jesus followers I was reminded that the Kingdom of God is not in trouble.

Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to my wife, my family, my employees, and my loved ones. There is wisdom in taking honest stock of potential threats that could seriously affect our well-being, and to take realistic precautions. When Nehemiah heard that the walls of Jerusalem were in ruins and the gates of the city had burned down, he was not motivated by unrealistic fear but by wisdom with regard to very real threats to his loved ones and his people. Two previous waves of exiles had failed to address a very real threat to their existence, and Nehemiah immediately knows that something must be done.

As I begin this new day and this new work week, I find myself asking for wisdom in discerning between fear-mongering, foolish anxiety, and real threats.

Lesson of the Prophetic Prodigal

In that day people will look to their Maker
    and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel.
Isaiah 17:7 (NIV)

Isaiah is taking a prophetic tour of the region of his day. In previous days we’ve been to Moab and Aram. The tour of doom continues today to the kingdoms of Syria, and even to Israel’s northern kingdom.

The Kingdom of Israel split during the time of David’s grandson (Solomon’s son). The southern Kingdom of Judah (David’s tribe) along with the tribe of Benjamin, continued to make Jerusalem its capital city, and continued to put descendants of the line of David on the royal throne. Isaiah was a prophet of Judah. With Solomon’s temple a prominent fixture in Judah, the worship of God was more likely to be central to the lives of citizens there.

The northern kingdom was made up of the other ten of Israel’s tribes. There were different capital cities, but in the days of Isaiah it was in Samaria. The monarchy in Israel was a political free-for-all, and religion was seemingly a free-for-all as well. While Judah was more apt to be faithful to God and the worship of God at Solomon’s temple, the tribes of the northern kingdom were more given to worship of Canaanite deities.

In today’s chapter, Isaiah’s apocalyptic, regional prophecies include their northern kin, though the coming doom does not mean total destruction for Israel. Isaiah speaks of a gleaning (harvest) in which some fruit remains. Isaiah’s message predicted the regional invasion of the Assyrians, in which the Assyrians would take many captive and leave a few behind. This was a common practice of siege warfare in that day.

From a spiritual perspective, the tribes of Israel and Judah are bit like Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. While Jesus’ parable was not intended as a political allegory, the the metaphor of the parable resonates. Judah the more dutiful older son and Israel the rebellious younger son. God has a pattern of allowing His children freedom of will to accept or reject His ways, and equally allowing his children to experience the painful fruits of their own actions and decisions.

This morning I am thinking about how easy it is as parents to want to protect our children from themselves. When we control all behavior, control all exposure to the world, and protect children from all harm they are more likely to be safe. They are also less likely to be wise. It is only in the distant country, and in the painful consequences of his own actions, that the prodigal realizes his folly and makes a choice to return home.

Isaiah’s prophecy of Israel pre-figures the lesson of the parable. Israel will suffer the devastation of an Assyrian siege, its best and brightest will be taken into captivity, but the painful lesson will turn the hearts of the prodigal back to their spiritual Father.

Hedge of Protection

And now I will tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
    and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
    and it shall be trampled down.
Isaiah 5:5 (NRSV)

One of the more fascinating aspects of our recent vacation on the island of Kauai was being introduced to the wild chickens that roam the entire island. Feral chickens are literally everywhere on the island. It’s a rather humorous thing to see, though it’s not so funny when they all start crowing together in the wee hours before dawn!

As Wendy and I walked along the ocean to the coffee shop in Kapa’a we noticed one property which we regularly passed. It was surrounded by a chain-link fence, which was a rather rare sight in those neighborhoods. We both assumed that it was, in part, to reduce the wild chickens from running free on the property, but the numerous “No Trespassing” signs made it clear that the fence was also about keeping tourists from cutting through the yard on their way to town.

In today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah gives a word picture in which the people of God were a beloved vineyard intended to provide God with ripe fruit for his good pleasure. Around the vineyard was a hedge, the ancient version of a fence, which provided protection to vineyard. When the the vineyard produced wild grape, the hedge was removed. Protection was lifted and the vineyard was exposed to  be raided. It was a prophetic warning. Jerusalem was eventually ransacked by the Babylonians.

Wendy and I often debate our present day concerns between government surveillance protecting our safety and infringing on our right to privacy. Wendy’s argument is always, “If I’m not doing anything wrong I have nothing to worry about.” That’s similar to what Isaiah was getting at. Consistently doing the right thing is like having a fence of protection around myself. I have less worries and anxieties. It’s when I willfully do the wrong things that I expose myself to all sorts of chaos.

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featured image: walkingf via flickr

When the Walls Come a Tumblin’ Down

[The travelers from Judah] replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
Nehemiah 1:3-4 (NRSV)

In ancient days, a nations walls were everything. Every major city (which subsequently controlled the nearby lands) was surrounded by walls. Walls were your security, making it impossible for enemies to easily invade. Walls were your pride. Their height, width, and engineering told the world how prosperous, industrious, and educated you were. Your gates were your calling card. Being the weakest point of defense, your gate said everything about you. The more secure, enamored, and embellished the gate, the more your city state would be held in high esteem.

The book of Nehemiah is about the walls and the gate of the city of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed (along with Solomon’s temple) by the Babylonian empire in 587 B.C. Most of the nations best and brightest were carried off into captivity in Babylon. Ezra, Nehemiah and their families were among them. As the scene is established in the opening sequence of today’s chapter, Nehemiah runs into some travelers who had arrived in Babylon from back home. He inquires about the state of their homeland and capitol city, and learns that the walls and gates had been utterly destroyed. The remnant back home feel utter shame.

If you have no walls, you are nothing.

Nehemiah’s reaction to the news was telling. He is grief stricken. He weeps. He fasts. He prays and confesses to God his sins, the sins of his family, and the sins of his nation.

We don’t have literal walls surrounding our homes and capitols [Unless you live in a gated community…there’s a good conversation to be explored there. Trump’s promised border wall is another interesting parallel conversation, but I digress] Walls as a line of defense became obsolete hundreds of years ago. The word picture, however, still carries weight for me in my personal life. I still build walls, metaphorically, around my heart and life. I build walls of protection against forces spiritual, emotional, relational, and cultural. I erect walls of possessions and words revealing to others what I want them to see, while hiding safely that which I desire to hide. I engineer relational walls that warn people off, walls that keep people out, and gates of relationship that open and close at my will.

And, my walls can crumble and fall just like Jerusalem’s.

On my left bicep I have a tat that references Psalm 51. It is an ancient song of confession, the lyrics written by King David at a moment when the walls of Jerusalem stood tall and proud, but the walls of his personal life had come crashing to the ground. The gates to his soul lay in utter ruin. It is on my left bicep because the ancients identified left, and left-handedness (I’m a lefty, btw), with foolishness, iniquity, and sin. It is on my bicep because it is a reminder to me that my strength is not in the quality of the walls I build around myself, but in humility and the utter honesty of my confession.

Nehemiah is having a Psalm 51 moment. I have had my own (multiple times). Walls crash and burn. Life sometimes lays in ruin before us. I have learned along the journey that in those moments when life crumbles around me the key to finding seeds of redemption and restoration lie not in the strength of my biceps, but in the condition of my spirit. Nehemiah gets it, too.

Divinely Sanctioned Detours on Life’s Road

Judah and Tamar (painting circa 1650–1660 by t...
Judah and Tamar (painting circa 1650–1660 by the school of Rembrandt) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tamar was aware that Shelah had grown up, but no arrangements had been made for her to come and marry him. So she changed out of her widow’s clothing and covered herself with a veil to disguise herself. Then she sat beside the road at the entrance to the village of Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. Genesis 38:14 (NLT)

Interesting that as Joseph is taken off to Egypt and sold into service of the man in charge of Pharaoh’s  house guard, the writer of Genesis gives us a literary aside. As Joseph lives out his unintended exile, we now get a picture of what’s going on in the lives of one of Joseph’s brothers back home. It’s no surprise that we see a perpetuation of the back-dealing and deception that has marked the family system to this point. Judah deals falsely with his daughter-in-law and forces her to resort to her own deception to survive and force Judah to lawfully provide for her.

I am reminded this morning that sometimes when circumstances force us to make detours on life’s road, God can actually use them to protect and provide. No doubt Joseph had every reason to feel angry at his brothers, miss his home, and bemoan the difficult circumstances into which he was forced. At the same time, he was placed into one of the most prominent households in Egypt where he would have opportunity to be trained, educated and to become his own person. Had he not been removed from the family system at a relatively young age, one wonders what affect it would have had on him. As we will find, the “detour” on which his brothers forcibly sent him would arguably be the best thing that ever happened to him.

When life throws you a wicked curve ball, just wait for it. Time and time again I’ve witnessed God knock it out of the park.

Chapter-a-Day Exodus 27

Burning the midnight oil. "Now, order the Israelites to bring you pure, clear olive oil for light so that the lamps can be kept burning. In the Tent of Meeting, the area outside the curtain that veils The Testimony, Aaron and his sons will keep this light burning from evening until morning before God. This is to be a permanent practice down through the generations for Israelites." Exodus 27:20-21 (MSG)

There is a light above our kitchen sink that remains on 24/7/365. The practice of keeping a light burning through the night was not motivated by any kind of spiritual reasoning. With teenage daughters often coming home well after we've gone to bed, it's there to help them not stumble on their way into the house. If we have to get up in the watches of the night for some reason, we have a light to guide us.

As I read God's command for Aaron and the priests to keep the oil lamps burning in the tent of God's dwelling, it struck me that there are parallel reasons with our little kitchen light. You need light for protection and safety. You need light if you're going to be active. What a daily word picture for the people of Israel who, at this point in the story, are still uprooted and wandering through the wilderness. The lamps in the night send a subtle, but powerful message. God does not sleep at night. God is active. God will protect and watch over you in the depths of daily darkness.

Today, I'm thankful for God who is vigilant in watching over me and my family even when I am asleep or distracted by the unimportant things of this world.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and tlindenbaum