Staying the Course

Rebecca Van Noord

Proverbs 4:18–27

“May your eyes look forward and your gaze be straight before you. May the path of your foot be balanced and all your ways be sure. Do not swerve right or left; remove your foot from evil” (Prov 4:25–27).

These verses reflect someone who has incredible purpose. I imagine an acrobat walking a tightrope—knees bent, one foot carefully placed in front of the other, and nothing but a slender rope keeping him from plummeting to the ground. Such efforts would require incredible calm, effort, and focus—especially focus. The body naturally follows the path of our eyes, which is detrimental if we’re focused on the wrong thing.


The idea of staying the course illustrates God’s path and purpose for us. When we act, speak, and follow that path, we are carrying out His will for our lives. But there’s a problem: We can’t. All of our efforts are tainted. Our knees are bound to buckle, we’re sure to misstep, and it’s just a matter of time before we swerve to our own disadvantage.

Before we lose hope, though, we can remember God’s sacrifice. Jesus’ work of redeeming us has reversed our fate. The threat is gone—and that changes everything. Our lives are infused with the incredible purpose of His costly death. We have a renewed sense of hope because of His resurrection.

The cross puts everything in perspective. It is the new focus of our gaze. From His sacrifice to the time when redemption is complete, we are meant to live intentional lives that reflect His purpose. Keeping our eyes on Him helps us to stay on the path.

How are you staying the course?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.

Shelf Life Book Review: The World of the New Testament

Elliot Ritzema

The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts
Baker Academic, 2013

The New Testament was written in a culture vastly different from our own. If we want to understand what the New Testament writers intended to say, we must understand the context in which they lived and wrote.

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Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald have gathered a cast of contributors to illuminate the cultural background of the New Testament. The 44 essays that compose the book fall into five sections: Jewish heritage, Roman Hellenism, Jewish people in the context of Roman Hellenism, literary context and geographical context. Notable essays include the following: McDonald on the chronology of the New Testament, Green on healing and healthcare, Nicholas Perrin on the imperial cult, Ben Witherington III on education in the Graeco-Roman world, Larry R. Helyer on apocalypticism, David A. DeSilva on Jews in the Diaspora, and Michael F. Bird on Josephus and the New Testament. Many of the essays feature maps, pictures and diagrams.

Each essay is a self-contained primer on a subject. Unlike many dictionaries, the essays are not simply about a subject in general; they focus on how each subject relates to the New Testament. This book is a welcome resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the world in which the New Testament was written.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3

Tithe and You Shall Receive?

Douglas Magnum

“God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7) might sound familiar if you’ve heard a sermon on tithing lately. Many such sermons focus on this type of New Testament passage. But recently, I heard a pastor read Malachi 3:8–10, where God scolds Judah for robbing Him by neglecting to tithe ten percent of their produce. Then came the startling words that the pastor claimed as a promise for us today.

Test me in this … and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it (Mal 3:10).

The Bible says that if I give the church a full ten percent of my income, then God will bless me beyond my wildest dreams. Or at least that was the impression I got from the sermon.



The message that I would get only if I would give troubled me. It conflicted with everything else I had been taught about giving—that it should be willing, not coerced (2 Cor 9:5), and that it was more about the attitude than the amount (9:7). This “give and you shall receive” concept seemed uncomfortably like the rhetoric of those who promise worldly prosperity in return for contributions.

As I studied the text of Malachi, I realized this claim does not fit the historical and literary context of the book. Malachi was writing to the community of Jews who had reestablished themselves in Judah after the Babylonian exile. They had rebuilt the temple and Jerusalem at the prodding of the prophets (see Ezra–Nehemiah; Haggai). But there was one problem: The beautiful picture of restoration and God-given prosperity those prophets promised had not materialized. 1

Promised Prosperity

Malachi explains why this vision had not yet become reality: While the people had returned physically, they were still far from God spiritually. They had not kept their covenant with Yahweh. Yet they blamed Him for their situation: Clearly, He had changed His mind and decided not to bless them after all. God answers that charge in Malachi 3:6–7:

For I, Yahweh, have not changed, and you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. From the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my rules, and have not kept them! Return to me and I will return to you.

God had not changed but neither had they. Before the exile, the prophets told the people of Israel they would be punished for their sin, but repentance could stop that judgment (e.g., Jer 9:12–16, 17:19–27). Their lack of repentance resulted in exile (Lev 26:33; Deut 28:36). Even now their restoration was the result of God’s mercy, not His response to their repentance (Isa 43; 48:9–11).

Blessings and Curses

So what exactly was God saying in Malachi 3:6–10? Would repentance result in overflowing blessing? That depends on how we understand the last few words of the passage. Many English translations say something like “overflowing blessing” (LEB; NRSV), “blessing until it overflows” (NASB) or blessing “without measure” (HCSB). Others take the phrase as a reference to meeting needs, like “blessing until there is no more need” (ESV; CEB; NCV). That idea of sufficiency and contentment aligns much better with the New Testament attitude toward wealth and giving (see 2 Cor 8:3; Phil 4:11), but the idea of “overflowing blessing” also fits the Old Testament context for understanding Malachi 3:10.

We can better understand this concept of “overflowing blessing” by looking at the biblical law codes found in the Pentateuch. These codes end with warnings about the conditions attached to the Israelites’ covenant with God (Lev 26; Deut 28). Disobedience would bring punishments such as famine, disease and invasion (Deut 28:15–68). Obedience would bring blessings such as agricultural abundance, fertility and military victory (28:1–14). The promised blessings describe a similar result as that described in Malachi 3:10–12. However, the conditional nature of these promises can easily be lost if we read only isolated fragments that say God will “make you successful and prosperous” or will defeat your enemies or will bless all your hard work.

We can work hard at obeying the letter of the law for the wrong reason, like tithing because the pastor says God promises to bless us if we do, and miss the reality that our attitude and intent are just as important as our actions. The prophets repeatedly call Old Testament Israel to a repentance that goes deeper than external obedience (Isa 1:11–17; Micah 6:6–8). Jesus also criticized the religious leaders of His day who similarly overemphasized externals and missed “the more important matters of the law—justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23).

Malachi 3:10 likely draws on the language of the covenant blessing in Deuteronomy, “Yahweh shall open for you his rich storehouse, even the heavens, to give the rain for your land in its time and to bless all of the work of your hand” (28:12), but the tithe represents the bigger issue of obedience to the covenant. Malachi’s audience still lived under the covenant based on obedience to the law. Their failure to tithe represented a continued failure to return to God. By alluding to Deuteronomy 28, the prophet was reminding the Jewish exiles otf their covenant relationship: You keep your part, and God will keep His. This covenant represented salvation and the restoration of their relationship with God—the ultimate overflowing blessing eventually provided to all through Christ.

In context, the passage in Malachi is about obedience and faith in God. Malachi 3:10 challenges Israel to test whether God will really keep His word. Bringing in the full tithe was a test of their faith. For Christians today, tithing should reflect faith and trust in God despite doubts over our own finances. We shouldn’t simplify Malachi 3 to a formula for “give-and-ye-shall-receive.” We’ll give for the wrong reasons—all the while missing out on the real message of Malachi.

Read more about Malachi in The Prophets as Preachers by Gary V. Smith. Go to

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3

1. See also Isaiah 2; 11; 35; 49; 66; Ezekiel 36; 47; Joel 1–3.

The High Cost of Sibling Rivalry

Stephen Witmer

During my years in pastoral ministry, I have discovered a strange reality: It seems more conflicts occur within the church than without. This dysfunctional church-family dynamic is a far cry from the Apostle Paul’s admonishments to “Love one another with brotherly affection” (Rom 12:10). Shouldn’t people who have the Holy Spirit living inside them get along better?

The book of Obadiah offers a stark reminder of the rifts that can form when family conflict goes unchecked—and why it is so vital that members of God’s family treat each other with love.

Obadiah, the shortest book in the Old Testament, was written after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 587 bc. It’s an oracle of doom against the nation of Edom. Judgment will fall upon Edom through a coalition of other nations, but the ultimate indictment will be from God Himself (Obad 2; see also Lam 4:21–22). And His punishment will be remarkably severe (Obad 5–6).


Why such harsh judgment? Obadiah 10–14 tells us Edom had not only failed to intervene in the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem—they had encouraged it and rejoiced over it (Psa 137:7; Obad 11–12). Taking advantage of the situation, Edom had looted Judah’s wealth and captured Judaean fugitives (Obad 13–14). On their own, these crimes against God’s chosen people would deserve a curse from God (see Gen 12:3). But Obadiah pinpoints another factor that makes Edom’s transgressions even more intolerable: Edom treated Israel like a stranger even though Israel was Edom’s “brother” (Obad 10, 12).

The nation of Edom was descended from Jacob’s brother, Esau (Gen 25:19–28). Though Edom was not part of God’s covenant people, God nonetheless continued to bless and provide for them (Deut 2:22). Because of their common ancestry, Israel and Edom were like “brothers” (Deut 2:4–5, 8). But the two nations did not act like siblings. They engaged in constant antipathy and war, with Edom revolting against Judah’s rule and each nation hating the other (2 Kgs 8:20–22).

For Obadiah, this “brotherly” relationship between Israel and Edom heightened the wickedness of Edom’s actions. The prophet Amos similarly noted that God judged Edom fiercely “because he [Edom] pursued his brother [Israel] with the sword and cast off all pity” (Amos 1:11, my emphasis). Apart from the superpowers of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, Edom is condemned more often in the Bible than any other enemy nation, likely because it broke bonds of brotherhood and kinship. 1

As Christians, we’ve been adopted into God’s family. If God held Edom responsible for treating Israel with care, how much more are we responsible for loving other members of the body of Christ? The New Testament encourages us to love our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 3:16–18) and to do good to everyone—“especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10).

Although we might bicker like siblings, the Bible points us to a better way: family love within God’s family. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are to be known by our love for one another (John 13:34–35).

Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3

  1. See Jeffrey Niehaus, “Obadiah,” in The Minor Prophets, ed. Thomas Comiskey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 496.

Malachi as Cliffhanger

Eli T. Evans

The hero dangles by one gloved hand from the wall of a steep ravine. The heroine, lashed to the railroad tracks, struggles to escape as the train rushes toward her. The villain looks on gleefully, twirling his mustache. Will the hero fall? Will the heroine be crushed? Will the villain get away with it all? You’ll find out—in our next installment!

The cliffhanger, so named for melodramatic scenes such as this, is used to ramp up suspense and dramatic tension just before a break in the story. Cliffhangers tend to bring the conflict into sharp focus, sometimes by putting the main characters into impending danger, other times by suddenly revealing a plot twist or introducing a new character. The point is to keep the audience guessing about what happens next.


Malachi is the cliffhanger to the Old Testament—not that the period between the Testaments is completely silent. (Many Christian communities recognize books that were written in the 400-odd years between Malachi and Matthew as Scripture.) Rather, Malachi is the last book of the “thus sayeth the Lord”-style of discourse that typified the golden age of Israelite prophecy.

Malachi sets a scene of impending doom: The people have returned from exile in Babylon, Israelite society is being painfully rebuilt and the temple worship is functioning once again—or would be, except that the priesthood is desperately corrupt. Malachi demonstrates how low the Israelites have sunk by putting a series of petulant questions into their mouths:

“How have you loved us?” Israel’s first failure is that they have forgotten the nurturing and preserving hand of Yahweh (Mal 1:2). “How have we despised your name?” By offering polluted food on the altar (1:6). “How have we polluted you?” By offering blind or lame animals as if they were acceptable (1:7).

At this point, the priests protest, saying “What a weariness this is!” (1:13). They apparently see no use in serving Yahweh in the proper way. Later, Malachi has them say that “It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts?” (3:14). The fundamental issue in Malachi is a lack of real respect for God—the façade of the temple worship is there, but there’s no substance behind it.

The protests continue: “Why does he not [accept the offerings with favor]?” (2:14). “How have we wearied him?” (2:17). “How have we robbed you?” (3:8). The cumulative effect of these “hard words” against Yahweh is startling: When confronted with their sin, the priests stubbornly respond with slander, blasphemy and demands for more evidence.

The sins we see in Malachi are no different from those in Jesus’ day: cheating with the sacrifices, mishandling the tithes, profiteering, oppressing the poor and rampant divorce. “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts.” That’s Malachi 2:7–8, but it could just as easily have come from one of Jesus’ tirades against the “blind guides” who “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces,” as in Matthew 23:2–36.

As Malachi comes to a close, all hope appears lost. The should-be-heroic priests are playing the villain while the fledgling nation of returned exiles dangles over the precipice by its fingertips. Will the priesthood remain corrupted? Will Israel and Judah join Edom as “the people with whom God is angry forever” (Mal 1:4)? Find out in our next exciting episode!

Just as the peril reaches its peak, the plot shifts, and a new character is introduced: “For behold, the day is coming” when the tables will turn and “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (4:2). Malachi doesn’t say who this “sun of righteousness” is, but he does tease us with something to look forward to: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before that great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (4:5).

Malachi’s cliffhanger ends abruptly with both imminent danger and two mysterious new characters. After a prophetic intermission of four centuries, a lone preacher appears in the desert, dressed in a hair shirt and belt, proclaiming repentance and prophesying like a man from another time. For someone who claims not to be Elijah (John 1:21), John the Baptist certainly dresses, speaks and acts just like him. John’s protestations notwithstanding, Jesus confirms that John is the prophet promised in Malachi 4:5—if we are “willing to accept it” (Matt 11:14). John the Baptist, “one like Elijah,” prophesies of this Jesus, this “sun of righteousness” (Mal 4:2). Thus the cliffhanger is resolved by the arrival of the only true hero in the story. There’s a new sheriff in town, stirring up trouble, ready to pardon any villains who will lay down their arms and follow Him, putting life and limb on the line to pull us all back from the brink.

Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3

God of War or Peace?

Robert B. Chisholm

It’s easy to become confused while reading the prophets’ depictions of God. Malachi, for instance, warns that God is a powerful warrior who will consume all evildoers in the fire of His judgment (Mal 4:1). In contrast, Isaiah anticipates God’s kingdom as a time of peace—when nations will beat their weapons into farming tools (Isa 2:2–4). God Himself looks forward to the day that “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9). So, is God for war or for peace?

God as Warrior

Among the sixth and fifth century bc Minor Prophets, three prophets—Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi—repeatedly call God “Lord of Hosts.” This title portrays God enthroned among His heavenly assembly, whom He sometimes leads into battle. It can also be translated “Lord of Armies” in some contexts. For these prophets, it epitomizes God’s identity as the mighty warrior-king who rules over all.


Like the prophets who came before them, the prophets of this era describe startling images of God as warrior-king. Joel describes an army that burns like fire and destroys everything in its path (Joel 2:3). God Himself rides as general of these fearsome troops (2:11). In Obadiah, God warns the nations—and Edom in particular—that He will avenge His people (Obad 15). He will transform His people into a fire to consume the Edomites as easily as if they were stubble (Obad 18).

Depictions from other prophets can be equally as frightening. According to Haggai, the Lord will shake the cosmos and overthrow the earth’s kingdoms, destroying warriors and their chariots (Hag 2:21–22). In Zechariah 14:12, the prophet warns about the terror that meets those who defy God: “And this shall be the plague with which the Lord will strike all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem: their flesh will rot while they are standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths.”

The prophets match anything Hollywood could dream up. It’s easy to excuse this imagery as not representative of the true God revealed through Jesus—as if it is only Israel’s conception of Him. But it’s much more than that, and it seems wrong to set aside Scripture so easily.

Divine Ideal: Peace

The Bible provides us with a picture of God’s ideal for life, harmony and peace. Genesis tells us that God desires us to be fruitful, multiply and rule the world as His representatives (Gen 1:28; 9:1, 7). His intention for this world was a place of peace: Violence (like murder) is an attack upon His image (Gen 9:5–6).

The prophets tell us God intends to establish His kingdom on earth; when He does (in fullness) there will be peace among the once-warring nations (Isa 2:2–4; 11:1–10; 19:23–25; Mic 4:1–4; Zeph 3:9). We see a foreshadowing of this day in God’s choice of Solomon (whose name means “peace”) over David as builder of the temple. God said to David, “You have shed much blood and have waged great wars. You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me on the earth. Behold, a son shall be born to you who shall be a man of rest … He shall build a house for my name” (1 Chr 22:8–10; see 28:3).

The Ever-Present Reality

Peace is God’s ideal, yet the Old Testament affirms that the God of Israel is also a “man of war” (Exod 15:3), who is “mighty in battle” (Psa 24:8) and stores up weapons for the fight (Job 38:22–23). God’s actions show us there is a time for war and a time for peace (Eccl 3:8)—but what prompts Him toward one or the other?

In Exodus, we find an example of God’s warrior-king behavior. Moses and the people of Israel sing a song of praise in Exodus 15. They have just passed through the sea after being pursued by Egyptian chariots and horsemen:

The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’ You blew with your wind; the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters (Exod 15:9–10).

These actions are part of God’s work of redemption, which the Israelites acknowledge: “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode” (15:13).

The prophets elaborate on this picture of God. One day, God will intervene as warrior-king to judge the earth (Isa 24:5–6; 26:21). His wars implement His justice and become, ironically, the avenue to His peaceful ideal. In Revelation 19:11–16 we see a vision of Jesus as a mighty warrior-king, descending from heaven to ride into battle with His army behind Him. He strikes the ungodly nations, thus clearing the way for His kingdom of peace. This is not senseless violence; it is the only way that violence can be removed from the earth. It is the only way that God’s peace can be established for good.

The Battle Today

God does not advocate violence. When Jesus was taken in the garden, He told Peter to put away his sword, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt 26:52). Jesus’ statement reflects the ultimate futility of human violence: Those who embark on a path of destruction will fall victim to it themselves.

Yet, today, Christians are involved in a different sort of battle. Prior to the ultimate battle in which Jesus establishes His kingdom on earth, the New Testament depicts the Church engaged in war. We take on the chaos of this world with the “gospel of peace” that Paul talks about in Ephesians 6. This war takes up arms, but not the physical kind. The spiritual instruments for this battle are faith, perseverance and prayer.

Paul says this battle is not against flesh and blood, but against all spiritual forces that oppose God. God has given us victory in Christ and His resurrection against spiritual forces. We see this when the Holy Spirit, evoked in Jesus’ name, does the miraculous. Until Christ comes and brings the final victory, we fight for the peace He desires in the world.

Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3

The Spiritual Battle

John D. Barry

1 Kings 18:1–46; Mark 10:17–52; Proverbs 4:8–17

Sometimes our work for God requires severe actions. In these times—ones that we can’t possibly prepare for—we need to rely on the Spirit and its work to empower us.

I have always admired Elijah the prophet because he goes into firestorms with little, if any, preparation. The Spirit of God is his leader, sword, and shield. One of the most frightening moments in Elijah’s life is his encounter with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. How could Elijah prepare to face 450 prophets from the enemy nation who are endorsed by Elijah’s own king? He faced certain death. Perhaps he had even reconciled himself to the idea that his life would end on that mountain.

Elijah’s supreme confidence in Yahweh is inspiring. He instructs the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are the majority, and call on the name of your god, but don’t set fire under it” (1 Kgs 18:25). After the other prophets fail to bring down fire from heaven, Elijah does what must be done: He calls down fire, and then he kills the evil prophets (1 Kgs 18:30–40).

Although Elijah’s particular actions do not apply directly today, his boldness certainly does. We should never fear walking into a fight against evil; instead, we should be ready to engage those who lead others astray. We must be certain that God will give us His words. He will act through us.

Whenever we’re in need, no matter how severe the situation, God can deliver us. We cannot prepare for the battle against the great evil that lurks in the world, but we can be certain that God will be with us.

What evil must you face? What do you need? Have you asked God for it?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.

John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at

Shelf Life Book Review: The Message of Malachi

Jason Brueckner

The Message of Malachi
IVP Academic, 2013


The book of Malachi seems tucked away in the Bible, seldom visited or preached from.

In this resource, Peter Adam urges us that the news of Malachi is relevant for the church today for three vital reasons: (1) God’s people must have a “deep, radical, and overwhelming conviction that God loves them”; (2) Although we know not to sin against others, the source of all sin is sin against God, something Adam says “we find … hard to take seriously”; and (3) Malachi is God’s effective remedy for Christians living in neutral, who think there is no need “to respond whole-heartedly to God, nor refuse him.”

These ancient themes still challenge us today, and Adam continually points us toward the saving work of Christ while reminding us of them. The Message of Malachi will prove a valuable resource for those who desire to preach from Malachi or simply understand it better.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3

God of Fire and Storm

Michael S. Heiser

God is the central character in many Bible passages. This should come as no surprise to us. How His presence is depicted, however, can be quite unexpected. We typically think of God as an invisible spirit, as Jesus describes Him in John 4:24, or as a man, even before Jesus was born (e.g., Gen 18; 28:10–22; Exod 23:20–23). But Habakkuk pictures Him differently:

God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power.… You stripped the sheath from your bow, calling for many arrows. You split the earth with rivers. The mountains saw you and writhed; the raging waters swept on; the deep gave forth its voice; it lifted its hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear (Hab 3:3–4, 9–11).


The portrait of God as Divine Warrior in Habakkuk 3 is a theophany—an appearance of God. Old Testament theophanies can be frightening. This particular one harkens back to Mount Sinai, where the Israelites witnessed the appalling power and overwhelming glory of God, who arrived with “thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud” to speak to Moses and the people (Exod 19:16). The mountain trembled and was “wrapped in smoke” when God descended on it “in fire” (19:18). Prophets like Habakkuk who call up the “flashing fiery mountain” imagery wanted their readers to experience the emotion and fear of the Sinai encounter, an event that precipitated the conquering of the promised land. But this military metaphor is not all Habakkuk has in mind. A close look at the weaponry symbolism turns the focus. The most common type of Old Testament theophany relies on the phenomena of nature—lightning, thunder, dark clouds, flooding, hailstones and violent winds. To the people of the ancient biblical world, these natural forces were a terrifying mystery. They were also an essential part of survival, since the storms brought life-giving rain and subsequent good crops. Habakkuk 3 contains several “storm theophany” elements used throughout the Old Testament: God riding on a chariot through the heavens and through thick, dark clouds (Pss 18:11; 104:3)—commanding the winds and sending thunder and “arrows” of lightning, which He wields like weapons (Job 36:29–30; Psa 77:17–18; Zech 9:14).

Second Samuel 22:8–16 uses these elements in a similar way: He made darkness around him his canopy, thick clouds, a gathering of water. Out of the brightness before him coals of fire flamed forth. The Lord thundered from heaven, and the Most High uttered his voice. And he sent out arrows and scattered them; lightning, and routed them. Then the channels of the sea were seen; the foundations of the world were laid bare, at the rebuke of the Lord, at the blast of the breath of his nostrils (2 Sam 22:12–16).

Prophets like Habakkuk wanted to connect their audience to the Sinai encounter; they also wanted to communicate that God is the creator and master of the natural forces that both terrified and sustained them. He can summon the elements—rain, hail or fire—and make the earth tremble and split.

The message is simple but profound. God is not only the awesome power behind nature—He is greater than those incomprehensible forces. He can control that power and use it to punish or provide. He can wipe out the enemies of His people with the maelstrom, or throttle that fury to preserve life. When He speaks, we should listen.

Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3

Building God’s Church

Aubry Smith

For the first time in two years, my husband had steady employment. With a 10-month-old baby and a newborn on the way, I clung to the promise of stability. I dedicated myself to readying the nursery, organizing the house, sewing curtains and finding ways to make our lives more comfortable. I guarded our time from intruders with imposing needs and developed hobbies and plans for fun family activities instead.

Another year and baby later, I realized that there is fallout to security and a well-ordered home: I had successfully walled us off from anyone who was not a Christian. I had prioritized a comfortable family life over obedience to God’s commands to love my neighbors and make disciples.


Haggai’s prophetic call drew me back into obedience. After generations of exile under the Babylonians, the Israelites were finally permitted to return to a wrecked Jerusalem. Home at last, they rebuilt their lives and created comfort and stability for themselves. But they overlooked rebuilding the temple, which the Babylonians had left in ruin. The prophet Haggai had stern words from the Lord for Israel: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (1:4). It’s staggering that the Israelites needed such a reprimand. The temple was the central site for worship, atonement, and above all, God’s presence. The Babylonian exile had been horrific, precisely because the Israelites had separated from the promised land (their inheritance) and the temple, where they experienced God’s presence. How could they go on so easily with their lives while the temple lay in shambles?

Haggai warns, “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (1:5–6). God reminds them that even the fruit of their labor is a gift from Him and they will not find satisfaction in their work if they do not obey and worship Him.

The Spirit of God now dwells in the Church, the living temple (1 Cor 3:16). He is our source of life and well-being, so we worship Him and call others to worship so that they may also find life in Him. This is the mission of the Church. Yet in building my life of security, I had failed to invite others to worship God with me.

Using temple-building language, Paul warns us that our works will be tested when Christ judges all, upon His return: “If anyone builds on this foundation [Jesus Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work” (1 Cor 3:12–13). In my quest for stability, I had become absorbed with temporal things—home décor and hobbies—and I had ignored the things that would last into eternity. My investments promised a poor return.

So we shifted. We began restructuring our family life around God’s desire to build up a worshiping Church. We invite nonbelievers into our home to show and share the gospel. We mentor young believers with babies crawling around our feet. We teach our children to worship God. And we are finding immense satisfaction in building God’s house rather than settling in a paneled house for ourselves.

Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (NIV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3