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Occasional Letters: Looking Ahead and Looking Behind

D Newell, Glasgow

I don’t know whether it springs from the cessation of employment or the commencement of senility, but I have to confess that I love curling up with a children’s book. Reading old Bunter stories from the 1930s indulges my appetite for schooldays nostalgia, and battling with Biggles against the malevolent Von Stalhein sates my craving for simulated wartime excitement. But it was a moment in J R R Tolkien’s lovely fantasy tale The Hobbit that recently caught my attention. Bilbo Baggins, the unadventurous food-loving and home-loving Hobbit (how much we have in common!), has been persuaded by Gandalf to join a dwarf treasure hunt which, early on its journey, runs into some seriously nasty trolls. The party is eventually rescued from its predicament by the return of Gandalf, who happened to be absent when disaster struck. Asked where he had gone when they fell into trouble,

"To look ahead," said he.

"And what brought you back in the nick of time?"

"Looking behind," said he.

And that, it seems to me, is a good recipe for getting the most out of God’s Word. Wherever you are reading in Scripture make sure you always look ahead and look behind so that you are alert to those amazing connections which hold the Bible together and confirm the consistency of its teaching. Divine inspiration has ensured that 66 books by 40 very different authors written over a period of around 1,600 years using three distinct languages are seamlessly joined in theme and purpose. Every time you open your Bible you are opening up a miracle.

Let’s take an example from 1 Kings. The story of Elijah begins in chapter 17 with his unheralded irruption onto the scene. And it is a spectacular introduction: "Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." Right at the beginning of his great oratorio Elijah, Mendelssohn superbly captures the drama of this entrance by having the prophet announce judgment in vocal recitative even before the conventional orchestral prologue. Elijah appears with the shocking suddenness of a whirlwind. But don’t forget to look behind. Towards the close of the previous chapter we learn that wicked King Ahab "took to wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshipped him" (16.31). His father-in-law’s name means "with Baal" (presumably signifying his allegiance to the Canaanite deity who was reputed to control the weather and protect the crops), for Ahab’s marriage signalled Israel’s formal departure from the Lord; but Elijah’s name, by contrast, means "my God is Jehovah". In other words, however many might stand with Baal, Elijah stood fearlessly with the Lord. The prophet’s very name was a testimony against Israel’s idolatry.

But to fill out the picture we also have to look ahead. Not until the end of the New Testament do we learn that Israel’s terrible drought was a direct result of Elijah’s prayer: "Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit" (James 5.17-18). Although the Old Testament indirectly records the latter prayer (1 Kings 18.42) it says nothing about the former. Isn’t it remarkable how the New Testament so often illuminates the Old? And that of course raises another question: why ever should Elijah pray for a drought, of all things? Had he received some hint from heaven, or did he concoct the idea out of his head? Neither. He had been reading God’s word. If we look behind we can locate the precise passage which stimulated his prayer. Deuteronomy records the conditions upon which Israel would safely occupy its land: "Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; And then the Lord’s wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord giveth you" (Deut 11.13-17). Isn’t that crystal clear? Material prosperity and continued enjoyment of the land depended upon obedience to Jehovah.

But what had happened in the break-away northern kingdom? The royal family had declared itself for Baal. So Elijah simply prayed that God would be true to His word and chastise His covenant people by withholding the rain. We cannot go wrong if our prayers are based upon Scripture rightly understood. The contest on Carmel in chapter 18 left no doubt that it was the Lord and not Baal who controlled the weather. And He still does.

Let’s take another instance. When Jeremiah was cast into a dungeon because of his faithful prediction of Judah’s impending judgment he received support from an unexpected quarter. "Now when Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, one of the eunuchs which was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah in the dungeon…Ebedmelech went forth out of the king’s house, and spake to the king, saying, My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet, whom they have cast into the dungeon; and he is like to die for hunger" (Jer 38.7-9). Chapter 38 simply records his actions without explanation, but if we look ahead the following chapter gives us an inside view of the man. Why did he do as he did? It was certainly not because he was immune to fear – indeed, the Lord graciously acknowledges his anxieties, saying, "I will deliver thee in that day…and thou shalt not be given into the hand of the men of whom thou art afraid" (39.17). Nor was it simple humanitarianism which caused him to intercede for God’s servant, but "because thou hast put thy trust in me, saith the Lord" (39.18). Godly works spring from genuine faith.

Here’s one final example. Nehemiah, that great and generous governor of Judah, faced hostility without and hindrances within in his endeavours to strengthen the remnant that had returned from captivity. For those few Jews life was not easy. Nehemiah 5 used three words which summarise the state of affairs in the land: "dearth" (v.3), "tribute" (v.4), and "bondage" (v.18). There was a famine, the Persian imperial taxes were crippling, and the demands of the wall rebuilding programme took their toll on the people. But to make matters worse, the rich were exploiting the poor by lending to them at exorbitant rates of interest. Nehemiah"s reaction is recorded in his journal: "And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words. Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother…Also I said, It is not good that ye do: ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?" (Neh 5.6-9). Now’s the time to look behind. Although he does not quote directly, his rebuke is plainly based upon the law. There are several passages which forbid such abuse, but here’s the one I think he had in mind: "if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee. Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee" (Lev 25.35-36). Nehemiah has basically paraphrased the command, citing the key words "brother", "usury", and "fear…God". The fear of God is that deep reverence for His majesty which leads to godly action. To relieve our brethren in distress is to be counted a privilege, not a profit. Like Elijah, Nehemiah knew the word and acted upon it. So should we. By the way, if they are not there already, why not write these cross references in the margin of your Bible? They will encourage you to keep looking ahead and looking behind.

To be continued.

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