Deuteronomy 31, Isaiah 58

Read Deuteronomy 31 and Isaiah 58.

This devotional is about Isaiah 58.

There is a place for symbolism and ceremony when it comes to following the Lord. In the Deuteronomy 31 chapter that we also read today, God commissioned Joshua (vv. 14-15), a symbolic act where the Lord officially recognized Joshua as Israel’s leader. So, symbolism sometimes is useful.

Here in Isaiah 58, however, God confronted the mere symbolism of fasting. In verse 2 he said, “day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways….” Fasting was the symbol they chose to signal their sincerity and desire to know the Lord. But they were unhappy that their humility in fasting did not give them the answers to prayer they had been seeking (vv. 2b-3d). In response, the Lord called attention to the ways in which they were living disobediently to him while they attempted to show their devotion through fasting.

Fasting was regarded as a way to express humility (v. 3c, 5b). Humility is about unselfishness; it is about acknowledging that God is the Creator and Lord and we belong to and serve him. But the Lord was unimpressed by the pretense of humility symbolized by fasting. Instead, he wanted to see some actual humility, some real unselfishness, expressed in giving your workers some time off to rest (v. 3f), not bickering and arguing with others (v. 4a) or using violence to get your way (v. 4b). If you make your workers work while you take time off, argue with people to get your way, and even beat someone else while you are fasting, you’re not humble or unselfish; just the opposite.

God wanted his people to skip the fasting and be generous in sharing food with the hungry, shelter with homeless, and clothing with those who need it. In these ways you aren’t symbolically depriving yourself but rather depriving yourself in the sense that you give up some of your food, some of your space at home, and some of your clothes to someone who needs them. Generosity for those in need, then, is a greater expression of faith and devotion to God than a religious symbol like fasting.

How does this apply to us today? We don’t have many symbolic or ceremonial practices in our faith because Christ fulfilled the ceremonial law for us. But we do sometimes measure our spiritual life by how faithfully we practice things like church attendance, serving in the ministry, or reading the Word. When done from the heart, these change us to live more in line with the image of Christ but they can also be done to reassure us of our spirituality or to signal to other believers how devoted to God we are. We can have perfect Sunday attendance but still be mean and quarrelsome and cranky. We can read the word everyday and not miss one verse in this devotional plan but still selfishly take advantage of others.

We don’t feed the poor or shelter the homeless to earn favor with God. We also don’t read the Word or pray to gain his favor either. All of these things are expressions of a heart that loves God. Verses 13-14a spelled this out in connection to observing the Sabbath: “if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord….”

So, do you enjoy reading the Word, praying, serving, and worshipping on Sunday because you want to connect with God? Do you show love and generosity toward others because you are grateful for God’s love and desire to share it with others? This is the kind of worship God wants. It is worship that does what he commands but does it from the heart, not to impress God with our consistency.

So, how can you show genuine generosity to someone today?

Deuteronomy 26, Isaiah 53

Read Deuteronomy 26 and Isaiah 53.

This devotional is about Deuteronomy 26.

But, about Deuteronomy 26, yesterday I wrote about Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 25:4 and how it teaches us that God’s word has ongoing relevance to every believer in any age, even if if doesn’t directly apply to you. In other words, you don’t have to own oxen to be obedient to Deuteronomy 25:4.

As I mentioned yesterday, Paul saw the command in Deuteronomy 25:4 not to muzzle the ox as a specific instance of a universal truth: people who work should benefit from their labor. Specifically, he argued in 1 Timothy 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 9:9 that people who benefit from the ministry of apostles, evangelists, pastors, etc. should provide financial support to those church leaders. Today, in Deuteronomy 26, Moses commanded the people entering the promised land to bring 10% (a tithe, v. 12) of what the land produced and dedicate it to the Lord. This initial tithe was a thank-offering; they were to rehearse Israel’s history from Abraham to the present day when they brought it (vv. 5-10). It was an offering to God because it was called “the sacred portion” in verses 13 and 14.

But, although it was an offering to God, it was given for the benefit and blessing of specific people. Namely, it was giving to “the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow” (v. 13). The foreigner, the fatherless and the widow were people who unable to provide for themselves so they needed to be provided for by others. This tithe was God’s way of doing that.

The Levites, on the other hand, did not have an allotted portion of land like every other tribe. Instead, they were scattered among the towns and villages of all the tribes in order to teach the Law of God to the people. They were allowed to own and farm land, but their primary responsibility was to teach God’s people his word and to minister at the tabernacle (later, the temple) during assigned times. God’s command was that the tithe would provide financial support to these ministers of his word so that they could serve the spiritual lives and needs of his people.

There are no commands to tithe in the New Testament and some believers are convinced that tithing is not for the New Testament age. In principle, I agree. We are not under the law so Moses’s command to tithe does not have the same force as it did for the people of Israel.

However, as we saw yesterday, all of God’s word is written for us even though it was not written to us. God’s work still needs to be financially supported somehow and the New Testament (like the aforementioned 1 Timothy 5:18 & 1 Corinthians 9:9 but also Galatians 6 and other passages) commands believers to give financially for God’s work. The 10% rule is not commanded but God’s people are encouraged to give generously, to store up treasure in heaven.

Think about this: do you think that Paul, who was raised in Judaism and taught to give 10% would think that a few hundred bucks, or 1% or 5% or anything less than 10% would qualify as giving “generously?”

So, God’s word does not require anyone in this age to tithe but it does command God’s people to give to provide for the poor and for the work of God’s ministry. Here at Calvary, our membership covenant requires tithing so, if you’re a member, you agreed to tithe to our church even if you don’t think tithing is for Christians today.

But beyond all of this, notice what Moses said would happen when God’s people brought a tithe to the Levites and the poor:

  • Verse 11: “Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.
  • Verse 12: “you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.”

These passages show the human benefit, the personal blessing that giving to God’s work and to the poor will bring. You will rejoice (v. 11) and so will the recipients (v. 11) because they will “eat in your towns and be satisfied.”

Do you tithe to our church? If not, do you think the Lord is pleased by your decision?

Deuteronomy 12, Isaiah 40

Read Deuteronomy 12 and Isaiah 40.

This devotional is about Deuteronomy 12.

People have a tendency to borrow cultural items from different people around them. Other nations like American movies and we like Chinese food and Germon cars, for example. Moses was concerned that God’s people would start to assimilate religious elements from the false religions of the nations around them after they entered the land. This chapter reminds Israel to worship the way God commanded without mixing their worship with the practices of false gods (vv. 4-8, 29-31).

But notice that in the middle of this chapter, Moses commanded the people to bring their offerings to the tabernacle (v. 11) and, while worshipping the Lord there, they were to “…rejoice before the Lord your God—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants” (v. 12). This language reminds us that worshipping the Lord is not supposed to be something that is unpleasant. It isn’t something we dutifully do because it is good for us, like eating vegetables instead of steak. Instead, God designed us for worship and, when we come alive to him by his grace, we rejoice in the worship of the Lord. In our context as Christians, that would meaning singing with joy, learning and receiving his word with joy, praying and giving thanks with joy, fellowshipping around the word with good friends in joy, as well as serving and giving to the Lord’s work in joy.

Certainly there are churches and ministries that try to manufacture joy by being more entertaining or trendy than churches like us. That’s a danger we should watch out for. But we also should be careful not to equate genuine worship with an attitude that is so solemn and serious that “joy” never enters the picture. Solemnity and seriousness are part of worship but so is joy, rejoicing, sanctified laughter, godly friendship, and feasting together.

Most of the time the difference between joyful worship and unpleasant worship comes down to the state of our hearts. When we are preoccupied with the problems and things of this life, we may not be very excited or joyful when we worship together or separately. Certainly sin changes what is important to us and prevents us from wholeheartedly entering into the worship of the Lord.

So how have you felt about worship on Sundays lately? How are these devotionals for you? Is your time of prayer something dry and difficult or is it life-giving and hopeful? If your personal worship or coming together in worship as a church is not something that you rejoice in lately, why not? Are you asking God to change your heart so that you can rejoice in your worship of him?

Numbers 21, Isaiah 10:5-34, Psalm 126

Read Numbers 21, Isaiah 10:5-34, and Psalm 126.

This devotional is about Psalm 126.

As with many Psalms, we don’t know who the songwriter was or what the circumstances around its writing were. Because verse 1 says, “the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion” we know that some kind of calamity had come to Jerusalem and that this Psalm was written after that calamity was reversed. And whatever it was must have been major because even the nations were saying, “The Lord has done great things for them” (v. 2c-d). The Psalmist agreed (v. 3) and God’s kindness to them seemed too good to be true (v. 1b) and caused them to rejoice (v. 2a, 3b).

Still, there must have been more restoration needed because the second half of the Psalm calls for God to “restore our fortunes” (v. 4a) even though verse 1 said that the Lord had “restored the fortunes of Zion.” Verse 5 continues by saying, “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.” That indicates that there was still work to be done.

Perhaps literal sowing was meant; maybe the farms around the areas had been left uncultivated and much more work than usual would need to be done to make the land productive again. The promise of this Psalm is that sowing may be done in sorrow (v. 4a, 5a) but harvest time will bring joy and songs (v. 5b, 6c-d). Nobody likes to rebuild something that has been wiped out be it your farm, your personal finances, your career, your relationship with your family, or whatever. Starting over brings sorrow because it reminds you of how much you lost and where you would be if calamity hadn’t struck. But if you allow sorrow to overtake you and you don’t sow, you will never know the joy of reaping.

The point of the Psalm is that you should do the hard work you don’t want to do so that you can reap the benefits that only hard work can bring. This is a good definition of self-discipline which I heard someone else define as “Doing what you don’t want to do so that you can have something (or be someone) that you want.”

But note that the Psalm puts this call to hard work and self-discipline in the context of faith in God. The Psalmist has already seen God do great things (vv. 1, 3). Now, by faith, he was calling on God to keep restoring their fortunes (v. 4) while they sowed in tears. God the creator made the world so that sowing predictably and normally brings reaping. Those who work hard get rewarded. Calamities happen–crop failures, drought, war, etc.–but those are rare events. Usually the person who believes that hard work will be rewarded gets the rewards of hard work. That’s because God the creator made the world to respond to the faithful efforts of humanity.

Are you trying to rebuild something that fell apart–your marriage, your career, your retirement, or something else? Does the sorrow of loss tempt you not to try anymore? This Psalm calls you to have faith in God and put in the work even when you don’t feel like it. Even if you’re crying while you do the work, the work will matter. The ground doesn’t care if you sow in tears or in joy. It doesn’t respond any better or worse based on your mood; it responds to faithful effort. So let this song encourage you to keep doing the work despite how you feel and to pray over your efforts by saying, “Restore our fortunes, Lord, like streams in the Negev.”

Leviticus 22, Ecclesiastes 5, Psalm 108

Today we’re reading Leviticus 22, Ecclesiastes 5, and Psalm 108.

This devotional is about Ecclesiastes 5.

Here in Ecclesiastes, Solomon has been reporting on his experiments in lavish living. He has taken the wealth God gave him and the wisdom God gave him and invested these things in searching what the best way to live might be. Everything he tried, however, turned out to be a frustrating enigma. It satisfied for a brief time, then offered ever-diminishing returns, then emptiness.

Many people who have achieved wealth and/or success in this life have proved this to be true. Some of the most miserable people you may ever meet are the people who got everything they wanted in life. That is, if everything they wanted was something in this life, for this life. Solomon’s oft-repeated phrase, “under the sun” (for example, v. 13) indicates the human-only realm. It is a phrase that indicates “apart from God.” Apart from God, wisdom is a frustrating enigma (1:12-18, 2:12-16) pleasure is a frustrating enigma (2:1-11), work is a frustrating enigma (2:17-3:22), life itself is a frustrating enigma (4:1-3), success is a frustrating enigma (4:4-8), career success is a frustrating enigma (4:13-,16), and wealth is a frustrating enigma (5:8-17).

So did Solomon find anything worth pursuing? Yes, but… two things must be said:

  • First, he found human relationships to be something worthwhile (vv. 9-12) but more as an advantage (“a good return” – v. 9, “one can help the other up” – v. 10, etc. Still, this was one positive thing he observed.
  • Second, he “saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work” (3:22). But this truth is tied to another which is, “…to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil… is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness” (vv. 24b-26). Did you catch that? The simple things in life are satisfying only if you are a person who pleases God.

This chapter, Ecclesiastes 5, developed that thought even more. Life can be rich and fulfilling if you walk with God. So Solomon advised his readers to fear God in their worship (vv. 1-7) and be satisfied with whatever God gives them (vv. 18-20, esp. v. 19: “to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.”). Why would one person find pleasure and wealth to be a frustrating enigma while the guy in verses 18-20 can “eat… drink and find satisfaction”? Because the person in verses 18-20 walks with God. He may have “wealth and possessions” (v. 19b) but he sees them for what they are–a gift from God (v. 19a). Because his walk with God is most important, “God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart” (v. 20).

The book of Job taught us that suffering and trials are part of life, so don’t think that walking with God means that everything will always go smoothly and that your life will be a straight line upward. But when you survey a person’s entire life, Solomon’s conclusion was that a person who walks with God will find the simple things in life satisfying because he finds his joy in God.

How about it? Do you find life to be frustratingly enigmatic? If so, it might be that your walk with God includes a season of suffering for now but it might also be that you’re looking to life “under the sun” for satisfaction instead of looking for life “in the Son” by walking with him daily. If Solomon of all people couldn’t find satisfaction under the sun with all the resources he had at his disposal, we would do well to take his advice and focus on our walk with God. He is the source of true satisfaction.

Exodus 16, Job 34, Psalm 64

Today’s readings are Exodus 16, Job 34, and Psalm 64.

This devotional is about Psalm 64.

David had a lot of enemies. Saul was his enemy, the Philistines and other pagan nations were his enemies, even some his own sons became his enemies. In all these cases, these enemies battled him physically and their goal was to kill him.

Here in Psalm 64, David speaks of his enemy (v. 1) but the weapon that he feared was not a literal weapon but the warfare of words. Look at how frequently words come up in this psalm:

  • v. 2: “conspiracy” and “plots” are formed in conversation using words.
  • v. 3a: “They sharpen their tongues like swords”
  • v. 3b: they “aim cruel words like deadly arrows.”
  • v. 5: “They encourage each other in evil plans… they talk…. they say….”
  • v. 6: “they plot injustice and say….”

Words are not as dangerous as swords or guns or other instruments of war. But they are dangerous in their own way. People use words to overthrow rulers, to damage reputations, to wound emotions, to separate friends, to end careers, to create problems in families, and more.

David was confident that God would win anyway, despite the words of evildoers. In verse 7, he envisioned God riding in like the cavalry to save the day. In verse 8, he was more specific about how God would save him, “He will turn their own tongues against them and bring them to ruin.” We can use words to cause a lot of damage to others but, if you do that enough, eventually people will figure you out. They won’t trust what you say and won’t even want to listen to what you say. In the end, “all who see them will shake their heads in scorn.”

A better way for us to use words is described in verse 9: people “will proclaim the works of God.”

Are you careful about the words you use when talking with others or to others? The Bible commands us to watch what we say because we love God; this passage also tells us that our words will eventually catch up with us and be our undoing. If you have a problem with destructive, uncontrolled speech, ask God for help and memorize some verses from his Word about the power of speech.

If you’ve been the victim of someone else’s destructive speech, let verse 10 give you comfort and hope: “The righteous will rejoice in the Lord and take refuge in him; all the upright in heart will glory in him!” God knows if you’ve been unjustly and unkindly wounded by the words of others. Trust him to come to your aid and vindicate you.