God delivers his people, but, in different ways, at different times, in different circumstances.
As I look at the history of God’s Old Testament people (Israel/Judah) I find that there are three ways the LORD has his people act in various troubling circumstances. I think these are instructive for the Church, for us as God’s people today.
There is a reason I draw parallels between Israel and the Church, but not Israel and the nation. It is because I believe that, while the Kingdom of God was manifested in a nation that had a government and a religion in the Old Testament times, after the coming of Christ, the Kingdom of God is manifested in the Church. The Church is a real visible institution on earth, that transcends all nations and nationalities, whose government is the spiritual rule of elders and whose religion is faith, worship, and practice established by the Apostles in the light of the coming, person, and work of Christ.
When we look at the Old Testament people of God, it seems to me that there are three primary ways that God works when his people are in trouble.
(1) Sometimes God has his people do something that he uses for their deliverance. Abraham (Genesis 14) raised an army and fought the alliance of kings from the north to save his nephew Lot and the other hostages that the alliance had captured. Abraham fought, but as Melchizedek said, “Blessed be God Most High,who has delivered your enemies into your hand." When Joshua led the people into the land of Canaan, they took possession of the land promised to them mainly by military action. Before Joshua ever fought a battle, a man (the angel of the LORD?) appeared to him who was “the commander of the army of the LORD” so that Joshua would never doubt who won the victories for Israel. God used David 1 Kings 16 – 2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 11 – 29), sometimes singly (David against Goliath), and sometimes with an army, small or large. It was a relatively small company who joined with him in his wilderness years, but he had the whole army of the nation to use later. But as David told Saul before he ever put a stone in his sling and faced Goliath, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” Abraham, Joshua, and David are examples of God’s delivering his people by an armed force. But who does the delivering? The Scriptures make it clear that it is God working through individuals and groups to accomplish his purposes.
(2) Other times God has people do something that does not have any direct bearing on the outcome. There is no cause and effect relationship between what God’s people do and what follows as there is when an army of God’s people fight against and kill their enemies. During the reign of King Jehosaphat (1 Kings 22: 41-50; 2 Chronicles 16 – 20) of Judah, a coalition of Moabites and Amonites and some others invaded Judah. Jehosaphat was afraid and along with the people asked the LORD to deliver them. The LORD sent a prophet who told them what to do: “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s…Tomorrow go down against them…You will not need to fight this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf, O Jerusalem and Judah. Do not be afraid, do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go up against them, and the LORD will be with you.”
The prophet told them to go out against the enemy army. The next day the King told the people, “Believe in the LORD your God, and you will be established; believe his prophets, and you will succeed.” Jehoshaphat ordered singers praising the LORD to lead and the army to follow. But the army never drew a sword. Their enemies ended up attacking each other. When the King and his people came to the location of the attacking army, they found nothing but dead bodies and the spoils of war. They did what God told them to do. The singers sang, the army marched, but neither of these caused the defeat of the enemy.
(3) On other occasions God has his people do nothing. At another time when Hezekiah (2 Kings 18 – 22; 2 Chronicles 17 – 20) was King of Judah, Sennacherib and Assyrian army invaded Judah. Assyria was the dominant empire and had already defeated and deported Israel to the north. They had come into Judah, won victories, and now threatened Jerusalem. Messengers from the Assyrian king called up Hezekiah to surrender Jerusalem. King Hezekiah went to the temple and laid before the LORD a threatening letter he had received. He also called together the army he had in Jerusalem, and told the men: “Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyrian and all the horde that is with him, for there are more with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh, but with us is the LORD our God to help us, and fight our battles.”
The LORD said of Sennacherib, “He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there, or come before it, or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into the city, declares the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake, and for the sake of my servant David.” The army of Judah never left Jerusalem. One night the angel of the LORD attacked the Assyrian army at night and killed 185,000. The next morning people from Jerusalem went out to where the Assyrians had been encamped and found it strewn with dead bodies, as those a great battle had been fought there. The Sennacherib went home in shame, and later when he was worshiping at the temple of his god, his sons assassinated him.
Sometimes we face situations where it is clear there is something we can do. You can have the operation; you can put money into your retirement plan; you can arrange a job interview. These are means available to us, which God may be pleased to use to help us. As a general rule, anytime there is something you can do to try to help your situation, so long as it is lawful (does not do what God forbids, or not do what God commands), we should do it. It may be that the LORD will choose to bless our use of the means. They will be secondary causes used by God, the Primary Cause of everything. In these times, we must remember that God did it and give him the praise and thanksgiving for it.
Sometimes we face situations where there are things we can try to do, though we do not know if they will have any effect. You decide to take the chemotherapy; you put an ad in the paper that you have a car to sell; you get couples counseling for your marriage. These are things that might have some role to play but may not. God may work through them or through some other means. You put the ad in the paper, but nobody calls. Later someone asks you, “You wouldn’t have a car you want to get rid of do you?” You did what you could think of to try to sell your car, and you sell your car, but it turns out that what your action had not direct impact on the outcome.
Sometimes we face situation where there is nothing we can do, or, we have tried everything we know to do and nothing has worked. These situations can be very frustrating. The plant closes, and there is nothing you or anyone else can do to save the jobs. You do everything you know to bring your child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, but despite all your efforts, he grows up, turns away from the Lord, and there is nothing more you can do. These are times when there is nothing we can do except put the whole situation before God, tell him if anything is going to happen he will have to do it, and ask him to be pleased to help you.
When faced by challenges or crises in life, do what you can, pray, and see that the Lord will do.
It is not only as individuals that we face challenges and crises. We have the same experience as the Church, as a community of people called out from the world to be in covenant with the Lord. We must not forget that God has permanent placed in the Church’s hands three powerful weapons, the public means of grace – the church hearing the Word of God, the church celebrating the sacraments, the church lifting up its voice in prayer. The world is not much impressed by these weapons. Sometimes the Church herself is not much impressed, thinking, “Surely these weapons are not enough.” But remember what Paul said, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh, For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10: 3,4).
As you encounter the hard things of your life, as you think about the nation in which you live, and as we as the Church universal and the church local seek to serve the LORD amidst the world’s opposition and our own weakness, we are not helpless. That is, we are not without help. “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”