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Occasional Letters: The Inside Story

D Newell, Glasgow

The effect of what used to be called 'the thirty-year rule' (altered in 2013 to 20 years) is that old Cabinet papers and secret Government documents are released into the public domain, giving us glimpses into the mysterious thinking processes of politicians. The Whitehall inside story is sometimes intriguing, sometimes surprising, sometimes (for professional historians at least) almost revolutionary.

One of the marvellous features of God's Word is its capacity to offer the inside story behind well known historical episodes. And we don't have to wait 20 or 30 years! As long as we are reading through the entire Bible on a regular basis, every child of God is privileged to experience some fascinating 'fly-on-the-wall' moments which enlarge our understanding. It could be argued that the entire book of Psalms constitutes an inside story, in the sense that many of these poems offer a window into David's inmost soul at critical moments in his turbulent life. There we discover, for example, his deeply troubled conscience after the murder of Uriah (Ps 32); the genuineness of his repentance when Nathan drew his sin into the open (Ps 51); the gnawing distress he suffered when he learned of his trusted friend Ahithophel's defection to Absalom (Pss 41, 55). The man after God's own heart was a man of deep sensitivity.

Other examples offer illuminating insights into men of God living in a raw world of peril and anxiety. In Genesis 37, for instance, Joseph comes across as a silent, passive victim of his brothers' heartless conspiracy. Here's the historical record:

…when Joseph was come unto his brethren … they stripped Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many colours that was on him; And they took him, and cast him into a pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it (Gen 37.23-24).

It all sounds austere and unemotional. By contrast, permitted to eavesdrop years later on the same brothers' private conversation, we get an entirely new perspective on a teenager's trauma:

And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us … And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for he spake unto them by an interpreter. And he turned himself about from them, and wept (Gen 42.21-24).

A rerun of past sorrow generated tears of memory in the present. Later still, the psalmist, placing Joseph's experience in the context of the grand plan of God, gave further detail: "He sent a man before them, even Joseph, who was sold for a servant: Whose feet they hurt with fetters: he was laid in iron: Until the time that his word came: the word of the Lord tried him" (Ps 105.17-19). Don't miss the key words: "hurt … fetters … tried". The ESV¹ vividly paraphrases the text: "His feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron". Two glimpses we are given; one of Joseph in the pit, the other of Joseph in the prison. There was nothing cosy about his misery. Scripture, the most honest book in the world, never soft-pedals the agonies of physical and mental suffering. And saints still suffer.

Another case study is Jeremiah. This faithful prophet endured appalling indignities at the hands of Jerusalem's ruling class. The factual narrative of one such instance is recorded like this:

… the princes said unto the king, We beseech thee, let this man be put to death … Then Zedekiah the king said, Behold, he is in your hand: for the king is not he that can do any thing against you. Then took they Jeremiah, and cast him into the dungeon of Malchiah the son of Hammelech, that was in the court of the prison: and they let down Jeremiah with cords. And in the dungeon there was no water, but mire: so Jeremiah sunk in the mire (Jer 38.4-6).

Again, the victim of the outrage says nothing, and shows no flicker of emotion. But, later, the city having fallen to the Babylonians, Jeremiah revisited that very episode. Notice the startling difference:

Mine enemies chased me sore, like a bird, without cause. They have cut off my life in the dungeon, and cast a stone upon me. Waters flowed over mine head; then I said, I am cut off. I called upon thy name, O Lord, out of the low dungeon. Thou hast heard my voice: hide not thine ear at my breathing, at my cry. Thou drewest near in the day that I called upon thee: thou saidst, Fear not (Lam 3.52-57).

In that miry cistern, apparently abandoned to a wretched death from starvation, Jeremiah was brought to the end of himself, and cried out to his God. The Lord, who "knoweth our frame" (Ps 103.14), urged him to "fear not". Even the most courageous of God's servants may draw near a precipice of unimaginable terror. It is therefore a great consolation for those in distress that our God knows all about it, even if no one else does. Listen: "Thou countest my wanderings; put my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?" (Ps 56.8, JND²). In Heaven's register of sorrow nothing is omitted and nothing is forgotten.

Sometimes the inside story is a real eye-opener. The bare Genesis record of Lot presents a man who cheerfully tagged along with his nomadic uncle but, given the opportunity to better himself, quickly opted for a more comfortable lifestyle. We often point out his steady downhill slide: he first of all "pitched his tent toward Sodom" (Gen 13.12), then "dwelt in Sodom" (14.12), but later still "sat in the gate of Sodom" (19.1), the centre of civic administration. Lot, it seems, rose to public prominence in his new home. His drift into worldliness was gradual but inexorable. Don't overlook the fact, however, that the man who chose the city ended up, ironically, as the Bible's first caveman (Gen 19.30). That said, the Mosaic narrative gives away remarkably little about his spiritual life. His wife's heart, we discover, was wedded to Sodom; his sons-in-law were surprised when he spoke of divine judgment (obviously not his normal conversation); and his daughters were morally corrupted by their environment (and, one would have to add, by the shameful conduct of a father who was willing to offer them up to a predatory street gang). But, 2,000 years later, Peter's second letter includes an unexpected inside view which indicates that Lot was utterly miserable in Sodom. The God who destroyed those wicked cities also "delivered just Lot, vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked: (For that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds)" (2 Pet 2.7-8). Notice the emphatic threefold use of the word dikaios, rendered 'just' and 'righteous'. The same adjective describes Joseph in Matthew 1.19, and the Lord Jesus in Luke 23.47. Whatever his outward behaviour might suggest, Lot, like his uncle, was a justified man with an instinctive abhorrence of wickedness. His miraculous rescue proves it, for "the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished" (2 Pet 2.9). Whether we would have suspected it or not, Lot was one of the godly. Asked what, for him, would be the greatest wonder of Heaven, John Newton is said to have responded, "The first wonder will be to see many people there whom I did not expect to see; the second wonder will be to miss many people whom I did expect to see; and the third, and greatest wonder of all, will be to find myself there". The God who saved undeserving Lot has also, through the atoning death of His beloved Son, rescued helpless (and equally undeserving) sinners like you and me. Perhaps only in Heaven will the astonishing inside story of God's free, sovereign grace to each of His redeemed be disclosed. But we already know why He chose to save such people, because Paul tells us three times; it was "to the praise of the glory of his grace" (Eph 1.6, 12, 14). To magnify God's grace will be our eternal delight.

¹ English Standard Version.

² J N Darby, The Holy Scriptures - A New Translation from the Original Languages.

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