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Day 166

When You Don't Understand God

Wisdom Psalm 74:1-9
New Testament Acts 9:32-10:23a
Old Testament 2 Samuel 23:8-24:25

Introduction

John Newton, whose life we looked at yesterday, mentored a man called William Cowper (1731–1800). Cowper had experienced tragedy. His mother died when he was six. His father died while he was still young. He qualified as a barrister. Outwardly he was successful. However, he suffered from serious depression. When applying for an administrative post in the House of Lords that entailed a formal examination, he was so disturbed by the prospect of the exam that he attempted to take his own life. For the rest of his life he suffered from mental illness.

When he was in his thirties, John Newton encouraged Cowper to begin composing hymns. He wrote powerfully of the joys and sorrows of everyday life. In 1774, he suffered such a severe episode of mental illness that he was prevented from entering into his intended marriage to Mary Unwin. He was crestfallen. Shortly afterwards, in perhaps his most famous hymn, he wrote:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform

God is good. God is love. God loves you. God has revealed himself supremely in Jesus. All this we know. Then you read passages in the Bible that don’t seem to fit with your understanding of God. You may also have experiences in life that don’t seem to fit either.

You cannot put God in a box. He is far greater than you could ever conceive. Some passages in the Bible are mysterious. Jesus said on one occasion, ‘You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand’ (John 13:7). Sometimes that understanding may come in our lifetime. Some things we will only understand when we meet the Lord.

How should you respond when you don’t understand God?

Wisdom

Psalm 74:1-9

A maskil of Asaph.

1 O God, why have you rejected us forever?
        Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?
2 Remember the nation you purchased long ago,
        the people of your inheritance, whom you redeemed —
        Mount Zion, where you dwelt.
3 Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins,
        all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.

4 Your foes roared in the place where you met with us;
        they set up their standards as signs.
5 They behaved like men wielding axes
        to cut through a thicket of trees.
6 They smashed all the carved paneling
        with their axes and hatchets.
7 They burned your sanctuary to the ground;
        they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
8 They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!”
        They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.

9 We are given no signs from God;
        no prophets are left,
        and none of us knows how long this will be.

Commentary

Be honest with God

Are there times in your life when you simply do not understand why certain things are happening to you? Does it almost feel like God has rejected you? If so, your experience is common in the history of the people of God. This psalm opens with this question: ‘Why have you rejected us for ever, O God?’ (v.1).

Sometimes it may seem as if God is silent and not intervening to help you in any way. As the psalmist says, ‘There’s not a sign or symbol of God in sight, nor anyone to speak in his name, no one who knows what’s going on’ (v.9, MSG).

When you go through times like this, you never know ‘how long’ this will be (v.9). You might have questions about why a part of your life is working out as it is. Or perhaps you just feel that God is distant. St John of the Cross (1542–1591) referred to these times as ‘the dark night of the soul’.

What should you do in times like this?

  1. Ask the questions

    The psalmist does not beat around the bush. He pours out his heart to God. He asks God the difficult questions. ‘You walked off and left us, and never looked back. God, how could you do that? We’re your very own sheep; how can you stomp off in anger?’ (v.1, MSG).

  2. Ask for answers

    ‘Refresh your memory of us... you actually lived here once! Come and visit the site of disaster...’ (vv.2–3, MSG).

    You are not alone when you have these kinds of experiences and emotions. One of the great blessings of the Psalms is that you can turn to them in times of mysterious suffering and echo these prayers in your heart.

Prayer

Lord, thank you that even when I can’t understand what is happening to me, I can be honest with you when I pray and pour out my heart to you.

New Testament

Acts 9:32-10:23a

Aeneas and Dorcas

32 As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the Lord’s people who lived in Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, who was paralyzed and had been bedridden for eight years. 34 “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and roll up your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up. 35 All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.

36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. 37 About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”

39 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.

40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.

Cornelius Calls for Peter

10At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”

4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.

The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”

7 When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8 He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.

Peter’s Vision

9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.

19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”

21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”

22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.

Peter at Cornelius’s House

The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along.

Commentary

Be open to God

Jesus told his disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead and preach the gospel. The early church got on with doing exactly what Jesus told them to do. They must have been very surprised by what happened. Yet they were open to his leading.

  1. The mystery of healing

    They continued to see God’s extraordinary power at work. Peter said to a man who was bedridden for eight years, ‘Jesus Christ heals you’ (9:34). He immediately ‘jumped right out of bed’ (v.34, MSG). ‘Everybody... woke up to the fact that God was alive and active among them’ (v.35, MSG).

    Yet not all are healed. Why doesn’t God heal everyone? I don’t know. Sometimes it is really hard to understand why God has not healed someone we have prayed for so much. It is a mystery.

  2. The mystery of raising the dead

    Next, Peter raised the dead! Accounts of the dead being raised are rare in the Bible. It happened twice in the Old Testament – once with Elijah and once with Elisha. Jesus raised the dead three times, Paul once, and Peter raised Dorcas from the dead. The command to raise the dead occurs only once (Matthew 10:8).

    In almost every case, it was a young person who was raised from the dead. None of them lived forever – but their lives were not cut off prematurely. Very occasionally God intervenes in this way. We don’t know why. It is a mystery.

    Here God did intervene. Dorcas, ‘who was always doing good and helping the poor’ (Acts 9:36), became sick and died. Peter got down on his knees and prayed. She opened her eyes, sat up, and Peter took her by the hand and helped her to her feet! As a result, ‘many people believed in the Lord’ (v.42).

  3. The mystery of the gospel

    The apostle Paul was later to explain, ‘This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 3:6).

    Up until this point in the book of Acts, all the followers of Jesus had been Jewish. In fact, they did not think it was possible to become a Christian without being a Jew. But God surprised them. He prepared Peter with a vision. In a trance he saw heaven open and he was told to kill and eat ‘impure’ and ‘unclean’ animals and birds. His response was, ‘Surely not, Lord!’ (Acts 10:14).

    The vision, and God’s voice that accompanied it, challenged Peter not to make distinctions between clean and unclean food (vv.13–15). However, Peter also realised that this vision meant that he should not make distinctions between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ people – that is, Jewish and non-Jewish people. In tomorrow’s reading, we discover that Peter says, ‘No race is better than any other’ (v.28, MSG).

    At the time, it was a mystery. ‘Peter, puzzled, sat there trying to figure out what it all meant’ (v.17, MSG). He did not realise what God was doing. Only later did he understand. God had plans that were far bigger than theirs. The good news of Jesus was not to be confined to the Jewish people – it was for everyone in the world. Thankfully, Peter was open enough to respond to God’s guidance, whether through a vision or even when ‘the Spirit whispered to him’ (v.19, MSG).

Prayer

Lord, thank you that even if we do not understand some mysteries in this life, we can trust you and know that you always have a reason.

Old Testament

2 Samuel 23:8-24:25

David’s Mighty Warriors

8 These are the names of David’s mighty warriors:

Josheb-Basshebeth, a Tahkemonite, was chief of the Three; he raised his spear against eight hundred men, whom he killed in one encounter.

9 Next to him was Eleazar son of Dodai the Ahohite. As one of the three mighty warriors, he was with David when they taunted the Philistines gathered at Pas Dammim for battle. Then the Israelites retreated, 10 but Eleazar stood his ground and struck down the Philistines till his hand grew tired and froze to the sword. The Lord brought about a great victory that day. The troops returned to Eleazar, but only to strip the dead.

11 Next to him was Shammah son of Agee the Hararite. When the Philistines banded together at a place where there was a field full of lentils, Israel’s troops fled from them. 12 But Shammah took his stand in the middle of the field. He defended it and struck the Philistines down, and the Lord brought about a great victory.

13 During harvest time, three of the thirty chief warriors came down to David at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim. 14 At that time David was in the stronghold, and the Philistine garrison was at Bethlehem. 15 David longed for water and said, “Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!” 16 So the three mighty warriors broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David. But he refused to drink it; instead, he poured it out before the Lord. 17 “Far be it from me, Lord, to do this!” he said. “Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?” And David would not drink it.

Such were the exploits of the three mighty warriors.

18 Abishai the brother of Joab son of Zeruiah was chief of the Three. He raised his spear against three hundred men, whom he killed, and so he became as famous as the Three. 19 Was he not held in greater honor than the Three? He became their commander, even though he was not included among them.

20 Benaiah son of Jehoiada, a valiant fighter from Kabzeel, performed great exploits. He struck down Moab’s two mightiest warriors. He also went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion. 21 And he struck down a huge Egyptian. Although the Egyptian had a spear in his hand, Benaiah went against him with a club. He snatched the spear from the Egyptian’s hand and killed him with his own spear. 22 Such were the exploits of Benaiah son of Jehoiada; he too was as famous as the three mighty warriors. 23 He was held in greater honor than any of the Thirty, but he was not included among the Three. And David put him in charge of his bodyguard.

        24 Among the Thirty were:
        Asahel the brother of Joab,
        Elhanan son of Dodo from Bethlehem,
        25 Shammah the Harodite,
        Elika the Harodite,
        26 Helez the Paltite,
        Ira son of Ikkesh from Tekoa,
        27 Abiezer from Anathoth,
        Sibbekai the Hushathite,
        28 Zalmon the Ahohite,
        Maharai the Netophathite,
        29 Heled son of Baanah the Netophathite,
        Ithai son of Ribai from Gibeah in Benjamin,
        30 Benaiah the Pirathonite,
        Hiddai from the ravines of Gaash,
        31 Abi-Albon the Arbathite,
        Azmaveth the Barhumite,
        32 Eliahba the Shaalbonite,
        the sons of Jashen,
        Jonathan 33 son of Shammah the Hararite,
        Ahiam son of Sharar the Hararite,
        34 Eliphelet son of Ahasbai the Maakathite,
        Eliam son of Ahithophel the Gilonite,
        35 Hezro the Carmelite,
        Paarai the Arbite,
        36 Igal son of Nathan from Zobah,
        the son of Hagri,
        37 Zelek the Ammonite,
        Naharai the Beerothite, the armor-bearer of Joab son of Zeruiah,
        38 Ira the Ithrite,
        Gareb the Ithrite
        39 and Uriah the Hittite.
    There were thirty-seven in all.

David Enrolls the Fighting Men

24Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”

2 So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, “Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enroll the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are.”

3 But Joab replied to the king, “May the Lord your God multiply the troops a hundred times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?”

4 The king’s word, however, overruled Joab and the army commanders; so they left the presence of the king to enroll the fighting men of Israel.

5 After crossing the Jordan, they camped near Aroer, south of the town in the gorge, and then went through Gad and on to Jazer. 6 They went to Gilead and the region of Tahtim Hodshi, and on to Dan Jaan and around toward Sidon. 7 Then they went toward the fortress of Tyre and all the towns of the Hivites and Canaanites. Finally, they went on to Beersheba in the Negev of Judah.

8 After they had gone through the entire land, they came back to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days.

9 Joab reported the number of the fighting men to the king: In Israel there were eight hundred thousand able-bodied men who could handle a sword, and in Judah five hundred thousand.

10 David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing. ”

11 Before David got up the next morning, the word of the Lord had come to Gad the prophet, David’s seer: 12 “Go and tell David, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.’”

13 So Gad went to David and said to him, “Shall there come on you three years of famine in your land? Or three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you? Or three days of plague in your land? Now then, think it over and decide how I should answer the one who sent me.”

14 David said to Gad, “I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into human hands.”

15 So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. 16 When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.

17 When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the Lord, “I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall on me and my family.”

David Builds an Altar

18 On that day Gad went to David and said to him, “Go up and build an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” 19 So David went up, as the Lord had commanded through Gad. 20 When Araunah looked and saw the king and his officials coming toward him, he went out and bowed down before the king with his face to the ground.

21 Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?”

“To buy your threshing floor,” David answered, “so I can build an altar to the Lord, that the plague on the people may be stopped.”

22 Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take whatever he wishes and offer it up. Here are oxen for the burnt offering, and here are threshing sledges and ox yokes for the wood. 23 Your Majesty, Araunah gives all this to the king.” Araunah also said to him, “May the Lord your God accept you.”

24 But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”

So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen and paid fifty shekels of silver for them. 25 David built an altar to the Lord there and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. Then the Lord answered his prayer in behalf of the land, and the plague on Israel was stopped.

Commentary

Be mystified by God

This is one of the most mysterious passages in the whole Bible. All seemed to be going well. David had good people around him. He was greatly helped and supported by his three mighty men, as well as a wider inner circle of ‘the Thirty’.

Yet something terrible happened. Who incited David to count his fighting men? In this passage it appears to be God. Yet in the equivalent passage in Chronicles we are told, ‘Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel’ (1 Chronicles 21:1). This is one of only three times in which Satan is mentioned in the Old Testament.

David apparently knew that what he was doing was wrong (‘because he had counted the people, replacing trust with statistics’, 2 Samuel 24:10, MSG). He was ‘conscience-stricken… and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing”’ (v.10).

Given the various options, spoken by the prophet Gad, he chose to fall into the hands of the Lord, for ‘his mercy is great’ (v.14). He refused to offer a sacrifice that cost him nothing (v.24). After his sacrifice, ‘the Lord answered prayer on behalf of the land’ (v.25).

There is still much here that is difficult to understand. But the passage finishes on a note of hope and renewed relationship.

Prayer

Lord, help me to trust you even in the midst of confusion and uncertainty. Thank you that, one day, your wisdom will be fully revealed. Thank you that you are good and that your love endures for ever.

Pippa adds

2 Samuel 24

Is anyone else confused by the census?

Verse of the Day

Acts 9:34

‘Jesus Christ heals you’.
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References

St John of the Cross (Mirabai Starr Tr.), The Dark Night of the Soul (Riverhead Books, 2003).

Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.

Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

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