Inspiring Music: The Connection Between Song and Prophecy

Years ago when I was studying the topic of prophecy in the Bible, I noticed a link between prophecy and music that I thought seemed strange at the time. When we think of prophecy, we typically think of foretelling future events. We might also think of “inspired speaking,” which is the more general sense of both the Hebrew naba (H5012 “prophecy”) and the Greek propheteia (G4394 “prophecy”). Thus, a prophet (nabiy [masculine] or nebiyah [feminine] in Hebrew and prophetes in Greek) is someone who shares a message inspired by God; they’re a spokesperson for Him.

It’s likely impossible to read the Bible without noticing the importance of music, especially in the Psalms. People of God sing a lot, often accompanied by lively music and dancing. With this in mind, perhaps the link between music and prophecy shouldn’t surprise me, but it did. I hear this much less often now, but when I was a teen I was warned repeatedly against the dangers of getting too caught up in the emotions of worship music. Those emotions could stir you up to ignore theologically questionable lyrics or make a fool out of yourself swaying and back and forth in church (or so the argument went). And yet, people in the Bible deliberately sought out music as part of not only their praise but also to help them hear God’s voice.

Prophets as Singers

Revisiting this study started with my mom suggesting that someone should put together a study on music for our monthly scripture writing group. So far, I’ve come up with 20 scriptures for the topic “Inspiring Music.” They’re not all direct links between prophecy and music, but they all have to do with inspiration and singing or playing musical instruments. Several of these verses have to do with prophets and prophetesses who used music when sharing inspired words.

Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances. Miriam answered them,

“Sing to Yahweh, for he has triumphed gloriously.
He has thrown the horse and his rider into the sea.”

Exodus 15:20-21, WEB

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, judged Israel at that time. …

Then Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying,

“Because the leaders took the lead in Israel,
    because the people offered themselves willingly,
be blessed, Yahweh!

Judges 4:4; 5:1-2, WEB

With two of the Old Testament prophetesses singing like this, Brown-Driver-Briggs dictionary even includes “gift of song” as part of their definition for nebiyah. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes that it’s rare, but musicians are “designated nebi’im” (entry 1277). We see another example of this when David appointed “some of the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun to prophesy as they played stringed instruments and cymbals” (1 Chr. 25:1-3, NET). It shouldn’t come as any surprise to us that music can be divinely inspired, but seeing it linked with prophecy underscores the importance God places on musical praise, worship, and teaching.

Inspired By Music

In addition to these examples of prophets and prophetesses as musicians, we also have an example of a prophet who listened to music.

Elisha said, “As Yahweh of Armies lives, before whom I stand, surely, were it not that I respect the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look toward you, nor see you. But now bring me a musician.” When the musician played, Yahweh’s hand came on him. 

2 Kings 3:14-15, WEB

Here, three kings came to Elisha asking him to talk with God for them. Though he wouldn’t have responded to the kings of Israel and Edom, Elisha said he would seek God’s guidance out of respect for the king of Judah. In order to do that, he asked for a musician and it was while he listened to music that “Yahweh’s hand came on him.” It’s a fascinating precedent for someone using music to help them communicate and connect with God.

Music was a key part of worship in God’s temple, particularly after King David appointed singers and musicians for worship in the tabernacle. That type of ministry through music continued into Solomon’s day and beyond whenever kings and righteous leaders reinstituted true worship (1 Chr. 6:31-32; 2 Chr. 23:18; Neh. 12:44-46).

He [Hezekiah] set the Levites in Yahweh’s house with cymbals, with stringed instruments, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, of Gad the king’s seer, and Nathan the prophet; for the commandment was from Yahweh by his prophets.  The Levites stood with David’s instruments, and the priests with the trumpets. Hezekiah commanded them to offer the burnt offering on the altar. When the burnt offering began, Yahweh’s song also began, along with the trumpets and instruments of David king of Israel. All the assembly worshiped, the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished.

2 Chronicles 29:25-28, WEB

Share Your Song

The emphasis on music isn’t just an Old Testament thing. Much as there was music in the physical tabernacles and temples of old, God expects to see music in His spiritual temple that’s made up of all faithful believers.

 Let the peace of Christ be in control in your heart (for you were in fact called as one body to this peace), and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and exhorting one another with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, all with grace in your hearts to God.

Colossians 3:15-16, NET

When God looks at His church, there are some specific things He expects to see. He wants us to be at peace with each other and have peace inside us. He wants to see Jesus’s words in us “richly,” overflowing in “teaching and exhorting with wisdom.” And He wants to see us “singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The context indicates that singing is part of our teaching and exhortation (our inspired and inspiring words); a conclusion reinforced by another letter Paul wrote.

And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Ephesians 5:18-20, NET

When we’re filled with the Spirit, that’s going to inspire music both aloud and in our hearts. I know it can be hard sometimes to get excited about singing. Maybe you don’t like the way your voice sounds or you’re turned-off by the style of music at your church. I like singing, but there are some hymns that sound an awful lot like a funeral dirge to me and I just can’t work up much involvement singing those. But there are other hymns that I love, and when I’m at home I’m free to pick a style of Christian music I like and dance around singing them all I want. If we want to make music part of our worship, surely we can all find songs that match our tastes well enough that we can sincerely use them to glorify God. At the very least, we can appreciate the words of the music we sing at church and recognize the value God places on music.

In addition to the encouraging and exhorting aspect of “speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” there’s also a link to thankfulness. Thanksgiving is a key aspect of praise and of song, and it should accompany our teaching, exhorting, and singing. (2 Sam. 22:50, Ps. 33:2, and others). In this as in so many other things, it comes down to the state of your heart. When we have God’s spirit inside us, want to encourage others, and have a thankful attitude, then godly music is one of the ways for us to both express our appreciation for the Lord and strengthen our relationship with Him.

Featured image by Wolfgang Heubeck from Pixabay

How I Bible Study: Tips, Recommendations, and Resources

I’ve been going back and forth on making a post like this for quite some time now. There isn’t one right formula for studying your Bible, and I’m not saying there is. As long as you’re reading God’s word, praying for His guidance, and working to know Him better then you can have a productive study. I don’t want to imply the way I study is the “right” or “best” way. But a few people have asked me to recommend Bible study resources, and I also realized that some of the study tools I use to help me understand the Greek and Hebrew behind our English translations aren’t familiar to everyone.

In this post, I’ll go through resources I use frequently and highly recommend. If you have other resources that you like to use, I’d love to learn about them. Please leave a comment so everyone reading can benefit from the recommendations 🙂

Disclaimer: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links (marked with an *). This means that if the resource I mention is available for purchase on Amazon, I provide a link and if you use that link to make a purchase I will receive a commission (at no additional cost to you).

Background Reading

Whenever I’m reading a text, I like to ask myself contextual questions. When was this written? Who was it written for? What culture(s) influenced the writer? When reading the Bible, the ultimate author behind the text is God, but He used human beings who were influenced by the world they lived in. Modern, Western Christians often think of Christianity as a Western/European religion and either don’t think about or misunderstand the ancient Eastern cultural context. This can lead to misinterpretations of the Bible and misunderstandings about underlying concepts such as how language works.

Misreading Scriptures with Western Eyes (coupled with attending a Messianic congregation for several years) fundamentally changed how I read the Bible, I think very much for the better. The modern world, particularly modern Western culture, is not very similar to the Biblical world. While God’s message is simple enough for a child to understand and His word can speak to everyone where they are, it’s also full of riches so deep we’ll never reach the bottom. Familiarizing yourself with the cultural context is key to understanding the Bible on a deeper level. These are my two favorite books I’ve found so far on that topic:

Digital Tools

There are three free digital resources that I use to support a deeper study of God’s word. These tools provide a variety of Bible translations, the ability to compare those translations, resources for studying the Greek and Hebrew behind our English translations, and a variety of commentaries. I use all of these tools to varying degrees, depending on exactly what I’m trying to study.

  • MySword app–this is a free-to-download Android app. I use this app on my phone as my Bible when at church, traveling, and often when studying at home. It makes it easy to compare translations, look up words in a dictionary, and do pretty robust word studies all in the palm of your hand. It’s also a great supplement to the language tools I’ll talk about in the next section.
    • The search tool for MySword is pretty good, and you can search for Greek and Hebrew words by searching for the Strong’s number in translations that include those. However, the free version of MySword doesn’t include all the search tools that eSword has and it limits you to 100 results.
  • eSword for PC–a free-to-download Bible study program. I mostly use this one if I want to search for specific words or topics in the Bible. The search tools are robust (even more so than MySword) and make it easy to search for parts of words, whole words, and Greek and Hebrew words (by searching for the Strong’s number). You can also have a Bible, dictionary, commentary, and your own notes all open on the same screen.
  • BibleGateway–an online resource that makes comparing Bible translations very simple. It’s the easiest tool I’ve found for looking at multiple translations side-by-side and doing full text searches of more than one translation at the same time. I use it all the time when writing my blog posts for this site. One thing I like about this website compared to MySword or eSword is that it includes full footnotes (very handy with translations like NET).
screenshot of eSword Bible program showing search tools using the example  of searching for partial matches to the words "love law"
Screenshot showing eSword search tool

Language Tools

I’ve done some formal study of Greek–enough to recognize words, understand basic grammar, and read it a little–but not much for Hebrew. The tools I use to study the Bible’s original languages aren’t a perfect substitute for really learning the languages, but I think they do make it easier for someone with a basic understanding of how language works (something any of us can learn relatively easily) to get a deeper look into the nuances of the Bible without devoting their lives to a study of ancient languages.

In both eSword and MySword, I recommend Thayer’s Dictionary for Greek and Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) for Hebrew. Both of these digital tools offer downloadable modules that link those dictionaries to Strong’s numbers. For any Bible translation that includes Strong’s numbers, you can click on that number and go right to the dictionary. Some of the translations also offer codes that give you more insight into how the word is used. For example, here’s what John 1:1 looks like in the MySword module for A Faithful Version with Strong’s numbers and Morphology (AFV+) if you click on more detail for the word translated “Word.”

I don’t read AFV+ much just because all those codes can get confusing to look at, but it is great for looking up the nuances behind a translation. If you click on the Strong’s number (G3056), it takes you to Thayer’s dictionary. I don’t have this in the screenshot, but if you scrolled down it would also provide Strong’s definition and a list of all the places this word is used in the New Testament (you could also search for G3056 in the AFV+ or other Strong’s coded translation to see all the places its used).

If you click on the morphology link (N-NSM) this translation shows you linguistic information for the word. Logos is a noun, and here it’s in the nominative case (identifying logos as the subject of the sentence), singular in number, and masculine gender (Greek has gendered nouns much like French or German). I use this tool most often to look up whether a word is singular or plural since you can’t always tell in English (e.g. when Paul says “you are the temple of God,” “you” is plural in the Greek but ambiguous in English).

Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries

In addition to these digital language tools, I also have two print dictionaries that I really like. These provide more complete definitions than the tools in eSword or MySword and also help you understand how different words relate to each other.

  • The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: New Testament* by Spiros Zodhiates—my favorite Greek dictionary. It uses Strong’s numbering system and is simple to use.
  • Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament* (TWOT) by Laird R. Hariss, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke — my favorite Hebrew dictionary. Rather than being tied to Strong’s numbers, this dictionary groups Hebrew words by their root, which provides a much deeper look at the nuances of the Hebrew language. The different numbering system can make this one a bit more challenging to use, but in MySword the BDB dictionary module makes things easy by telling you where to look up the word in TWOT.

Google Is Your Friend

Another general tool that I use a lot is a simple Google search. Don’t know what the Genitive Case is in Greek? There are language-learning tools to help you understand Greek grammar. Partly remember a verse but can’t find it in eSword, MySword, or BibleGateway? Try Googling the words you remember with the word “Bible” and it’ll help you figure out if it’s in a translation you hadn’t thought of or if it’s a quote from something else. Suddenly need an interlinear version of the Septuagint? I recently found one on StudyLight.org. We’re fortunate to live in a time when we have access to Bible Study tools people even just a few decades before could only dream about or could only access in specialized print books.

Finding Study Topics

Most of my Bible studies end up on this blog. That means I’m usually looking at specific topics when I study, so being able to search the Bible effectively, look up Hebrew and Greek words, and compare translations is super helpful. It’s also helpful to be listening to and reading things that prompt Bible-related ideas that can turn into studies which then show up here on my blog. Here are some of my favorite Christian resources for inspiring new studies:

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned before, not everyone Bible studies the same way, and that’s okay. We have different spiritual temperaments and different ways we most easily connect with God and His word. Some might spend more time reading whole books rather than focusing on topics. Some might find the most value in picking one verse and meditating on it for their whole study time. Others could read, then search for ways to put those lessons into real-world action. And I’m sure there are way more study styles than I could list here.

I like Gary Thomas’s book Sacred Pathways* as a tool to describe those temperaments (you can read my full review by clicking here). I most closely align with what he calls the “Contemplative” and “Intellectual” temperaments, and I suspect others with similar ways of relating to God will be the ones that find this post most useful (if they haven’t already tracked down similar resources of their own). Still, I hope some of these tools and resources will be helpful for you whatever your spiritual temperament. And I hope you’ll share some of your own favorite resources in the comments.

Featured image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

Don’t Despise Your Role

I caught myself doing something I’m not proud of a few weeks ago. I was talking with someone about why I’d been traveling last month for the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) and made a comment about the “weird religious things” I do. I felt bad about it immediately, repented and asked God’s forgiveness, but it still kept bugging me. Why was my first reaction to downplay rather than to explain my faith?

Just a few weeks later in a sermon, I heard a speaker at church using a similar phrase in the context of explaining our “weird religious stuff” to people who have no background with our faith. I’m not the only one doing this, and I think I know why. We recognize that our faith is very different than what the world thinks is “normal” and that’s becoming increasingly apparent. Religious people are no longer the majority in the United States. According to Gallup, “In 2020, 47% of U.S. adults belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque,” which is 20 points lower than it was in 2000 (“U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time“).

When you’re going to church on Saturday and keeping God’s holy days (as I do), then you have some very visible differences from other Christians as well. We laugh self-consciously at the King James Version of 1 Peter 2:9, which says “ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people,” and agree that we’re certainly peculiar. We know we’re odd, and so we laugh at ourselves before someone else can.

The thing is, “peculiar” comes from the Latin word peculiaris, which relates to private property (Oxford Languages via Google). That’s why modern translations say things like, “you are … a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9, WEB). Our peculiarity isn’t because we’re strange and odd; it’s because we belong to God. That will make us look strange to the world that we’re living in without being a part of it (John 17:14-16), but that doesn’t mean we should think of ourselves as weird.

Being self-effacing and deflecting conversations about your faith in certain situations isn’t necessarily a sin. You don’t always have to engage with people who are actively hostile or have zero interest in learning about God. But evading or downplaying is not the best thing to do. Especially if it might come across as you being embarrassed about your faith or unwilling to confess that you follow Jesus Christ, because then we are getting into sin territory. God wants us to be lights in a dark world, not cover up the light He’s shining through us. He wants us to speak about Him boldly because we love Him too much to stay silent and we respect Him too much to downplay His importance.

Image of a woman studying a Bible overlaid with text from 1 Peter 1:14-16, NET version: “Like obedient children, do not comply with the evil urges you used to follow in your ignorance, but, like the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in all of your conduct, for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, because I am holy.’”
Image by MarrCreative from Lightstock

Esau’s Problem

There’s a story in the Old Testament that comes to mind when I think about the value we place on God’s gifts. Part of God’s law includes a special place for the firstborn. He told Moses to write, “Sanctify to me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of animal. It is mine” (Ex. 13:2, WEB). Culturally and theologically, the firstborn had a special role in the ancient Biblical world. They were set apart for God’s own use, and they inherited a more significant blessing from their father. Even before Exodus, we see this pattern in the stories of the patriarchs. There were rights and privileges that should belong to the firstborn. We also see this disrupted several times–Isaac was the son of the promise, but not Abraham’s firstborn, and Joseph was chosen for special blessings over his older brothers. That disruption also happens for Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau.

Jacob boiled stew. Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Please feed me with some of that red stew, for I am famished.” Therefore his name was called Edom.

Jacob said, “First, sell me your birthright.”

Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die. What good is the birthright to me?”

Jacob said, “Swear to me first.”

He swore to him. He sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew. He ate and drank, rose up, and went his way. So Esau despised his birthright.

Genesis 25:30-34, WEB

This didn’t turn out so well for Esau. He lost the firstborn blessing and it was his younger twin Jacob who became the patriarch of Israel and is part of the lineage of Jesus Christ. But what does that have to do with us?

Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through it many become defiled. And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal.

Hebrews 12:14-16, NET (italics mark allusions to Deut 29:18 and Gen 27:34-41)

There’s a danger that we could also become like Esau. The writer of Hebrews warned about it strongly. We’re to diligently follow peace, holiness, and grace, avoiding things like bitterness, immorality, and godlessness that’s here exemplified by Esau selling and despising his birthright. He didn’t value that gift and so he let it go in exchange for something relatively worthless. There’s little chance Esau was actually “about to die” after a day of hunting in the field, especially when he had a tent to go back to where his whole family lived. They likely had a whole household and if there wasn’t other food available right that moment there would be later. But he didn’t consider consequences or think through his options. He wanted immediate gratification of his hunger more than he wanted significant, long-term blessings.

Image of a man reading a Bible overlaid with text from Luke 9:25-26, NET version: “For what does it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”
Image by Creative Clicks Photography from Lightstock

Firstborn Inheritance with Jesus

There’s another question earlier in Hebrews that also seems relevant to this conversation. Near the beginning of this book, the writer reminds us of God’s revelation through Jesus Christ and of how important it is to properly reverence and appreciate Him. Then, he says this:

Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

Hebrews 2:1-4, NET

For Esau, the problem was that he despised his birthright. Here, the danger is that we might neglect the great salvation offered through our elder brother Jesus Christ, who is sharing His firstborn inheritance with us. In both situations, improperly valuing the gifts, inheritance, and roles that God gives you leads to a poor outcome.

And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears.

Hebrews 12:16-17, NET

God offers abundant forgiveness for sins, but sometimes you still have to deal with the consequences. In Esau’s case, he couldn’t get his birthright back. In our case, continual and deliberate neglect of God’s word and despising His gifts can have eternal consequences.

Image of a woman reading a Bible overlaid with text from Phil. 3:13-15, NET version: “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let those of us who are ‘perfect’ embrace this point of view.”
Image by Pearl via Lightstock

Living With Joyful Integrity

The question of whether or not you can “lose” salvation is hotly debated in Christian circles. At one extreme, some say that anyone who confesses Jesus is permanently saved regardless of how they live after. At the other extreme, some say you can’t have any certainty that you’re saved until the very end and live in fear that they won’t measure up.

Bible writers strike an interesting balance between the two–teaching and displaying both a sense of urgency and a sense of confidence. Paul, for example, said in Philippians that he was still striving “to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8-16). He hadn’t been perfected yet, but he was confident God could get him there and by the time he wrote 2 Timothy he was sure that God would reward him for his faithfulness (2 Tim. 4:6-8). Similarly, Jesus promises that His father wants to give His children the kingdom and that no one will ever take them out of His hand (Luke 12:32; John 10:28-29) while also warning that people who claim to follow Jesus without sincerely doing God’s will won’t inherit the kingdom (Matt. 7:21-23; 25:1-13; 31-46).

Image of a man sitting on a beach with the blog's title text and the words "God has blessed us with incredible gifts and roles. When we see Him and His work in us as precious, we’ll align the way we talk about our faith and live our lives with the value we place on following Jesus."
Image by Aaron Kitzo via Lighstock

Basically, if we do our best to follow God, obey Him, honor Him, and keep growing closer to Him then He’ll make sure we succeed. He even calls us perfect so long as we’re heading that direction. On the other hand, if we “deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth” and show “contempt for the Son of God” then we’re not on a path toward eternal life in His kingdom (Heb. 10:19-39).

This might have taken too harsh a turn from our starting point of referring to some aspect of your faith as a “weird religious thing.” However, if we’re downplaying the importance of our faith in a little thing like that, will we be faithful when we’re confronted with choosing between our faith and fitting in with the world for a larger thing? It’s a question I ask myself, especially when I read stories of people being persecuted and killed for their faith. If someone put a gun to my head and told me to deny Jesus or die, I intend to stay faithful. But what if the compromise is easier to justify, such as staying quiet about a moral issue so you can get a promotion? Can I really expect to respond with faith then if I’m reluctant to express how important He is to me now when there aren’t even any negative consequences?

We need to live with integrity, aligning the way we talk about our faith and live our lives with the value that we say we place on following Jesus. In writing this, I’m speaking to myself as much as (and perhaps more than) anyone else. I pray this study helps keep me on-track. I pray the next time I could describe my faith as weird, I instead let others see how much joy following Jesus brings me. And I hope this gives you something to think about as well, even if you are always honest and joyful about your faith when talking with other people.

Featured image by Matt Vasquez via Lightstock

Anger, Perspective, and Character: The Questions Between Jonah and God

Have you ever been angry?

Everyone can say “yes” to that. What about being deeply, exceedingly angry? So angry it burns you up?

That’s how angry Jonah was after God chose to spare the people of Nineveh. We know this story–God told Jonah to go preach against Nineveh because of its wickedness. Jonah didn’t like that and fled on a ship. God sent a great storm, so great the ship could have sank, but Jonah confessed what he’d done and told the sailors to throw him overboard. They did, the storm stopped, and “The Lord sent a huge fish to swallow Jonah” (Jon. 1:17, NET).

After three days and three nights in the whale, Jonah was ready to do what God told him to and the fish spit him out on land. Jonah went to Nineveh and warned the whole city that it would be overthrown in 40 days. Remarkably, the people listened. They repented with fasting, cries for mercy, and a change in their behavior. God saw this, and responded by not destroying the city.

That’s when Jonah got angry. He went through a huge storm, the whole belly of the fish thing, and shouting a message of destruction only for God not to follow-through? If nothing was going to happen, why bother sending Jonah at all? He certainly hadn’t wanted to come!

In today’s study, we’ll dig into the questions Jonah and God ask each other. I also want us to think about how we might have responded in this situation, and how we respond to other things in our own lives that don’t go as we expect. Do we get angry? And if so, are we right to be so very angry?

Background image of parchment paper with a tree, overlaid with text from James 1:19-20, NET version: "Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. For human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness."

So Very Angry

As Jonah looked at Nineveh after the people in the city repent, he noticed God didn’t destroy everyone. “This displeased Jonah terribly and he became very angry” (Jon. 4:1, NET). In Hebrew, it’s literally saying God’s choice to show mercy “was evil to Jonah, a great evil” (NET footnote).  He’s actually so angry that he tells God, “take, I beg you, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jon. 4:3, WEB). God asks a question in return, and there are two possible ways to translate it:

Yahweh said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Jonah 4:4, WEB

The Lord said, “Are you really so very angry?”

Jonah 4:4, NET

“Angry” comes from the Hebrew kharah (H2734 “to burn”). The word before it is yatav (H3190), which either refers to ethical right and wrong or “it may mean ‘well, utterly, thoroughly,’ as an adverb” (NET footnote). Depending how you translate it, God is either asking if Jonah is correct to be so exceedingly angry or He’s questioning Jonah about the depth of his anger. Either way, I think God seems a bit surprised here. Jonah isn’t being reasonable, and God tries to show him that with an illustration.

Background image of parchment paper with mountain image, overlaid with text from Jonah 4:3-4, TLV version: “So please, Adonai, take my soul from me—because better is my death than my life.” Yet Adonai said, “Is it good for you to be so angry?”

The Little Plant

While Jonah was pouting on a hill and watching Nineveh, God made a little plant grow up and provide shade. “Now Jonah was very delighted about the little plant”–a phrase which “ironically mirrors the identical syntax of v. 1: ‘he was angry with great anger'” (NET footnote on Jon. 4:6). When God strikes down the plant the next day, Jonah cries out in renewed rage. Again, we’ll look at this in two translations:

the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he fainted, and requested for himself that he might die, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the vine?”

He said, “I am right to be angry, even to death.”

Jonah 4:8-9, WEB

So the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he grew faint. So he despaired of life and said, “I would rather die than live!”

God said to Jonah, “Are you really so very angry about the little plant?” And he said, “I am as angry as I could possibly be!”

Jonah 4:8-9, NET

That’s a lot of anger. It makes me think of a child throwing a temper tantrum while a bemused parent tries to ask them why they’re so upset. Jonah is just as angry about God not striking down a whole city as he is about losing a little plant that shaded him from the hot sun. He doesn’t even see how comically absurd this is, particularly in light of Jonah’s earlier claim that he knows Yahweh is “a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness”, and you relent of doing harm.” (Jon. 4:3, WEB).

I wonder how often I’m just as blind as Jonah was? Probably more often than I realize. I’m so thankful for God’s patience. Not only did He spare Nineveh when they repented, but He’s also patient with Jonah. Instead of striking him down for questioning God (again) and throwing a tantrum, God just asks him questions and gives him a concrete illustration to try and guide him toward understanding.

Background image of parchment paper with leaves, overlaid with text from Jonah 4:10-11, TLV version: Adonai said, “You have pity on the plant for which you did no labor or make it grow, that appeared overnight and perished overnight. So shouldn’t I have pity on Nineveh—the great city that has in it more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left—as well as many animals?”

God’s Final Question

The book of Jonah ends with a question. The verses we’re about to look at are the last ones in the book. God asks a question, and there’s no record of Jonah’s answer. Leaving off his response makes it feel less like a question to Jonah and more like a question to us, the readers.

 Yahweh said, “You have been concerned for the vine, for which you have not labored, neither made it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night. Shouldn’t I be concerned for Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred twenty thousand persons who can’t discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much livestock?”

Jonah 4:10-11, WEB

How many times have you heard someone complain about how “it’s not fair” that God would let people get away with doing terrible things ? Or how many times have we said that ourselves? How often have we gotten irritable and even exceedingly angry about something that should have woken us up to a more accurate perspective on life?

There’s a lot we can sympathize with in Jonah’s story. We live in a world that is not Godly, and it often seems like our preaching to it doesn’t do any good. Jonah felt that way even when the people he delivered God’s message to repented! There’s also a lot we can learn from. We shouldn’t respond to the darkness of our world with Jonah’s first response (running away) or his second (anger and condemnation). We should be like God, who takes a firm stance against sin but also hopes for repentance and is eager to show mercy.

God’s True Character

In the ending dialog for the book of Jonah, Jonah seems so concerned about how God inconvenienced him that He doesn’t even notice God is doing something wonderful. God was showing His true character, much as He did to Moses when He proclaimed His own name (remember: names in Hebrew thought are linked with someone’s reputation and character).

Yahweh descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed Yahweh’s name. Yahweh passed by before him, and proclaimed, “Yahweh! Yahweh, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and disobedience and sin; and who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children’s children, on the third and on the fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:5-7, WEB

Jonah actually references this verse at the beginning of his conversation with God (Jon. 4:3), but doesn’t connect the dots as far as we can see. God does eventually take down Nineveh around 612 BC, that’s at least a century after Jonah’s message (Amazing Bible Timeline: “Nineveh Destroyed” and “Jonah and the Whale”). With that longer perspective on history, we can better see how God showed His character in His dealings with Nineveh. He is slow to anger and quick to forgive, but He also won’t leave the guilty unpunished (you can read Nahum to learn more about why Nineveh was eventually destroyed).

Jonah didn’t have that longer-term perspective, but his reaction still wasn’t what it should have been. He knew God’s character; he should have trusted that He was working things out the right way. Perhaps he did learn that in the end. And hopefully, we can read his story and also learn to trust God more fully.

Featured image by Jeff Jacobs from Pixabay

Song Recommendation: “Alive” by Big Daddy Weave

Giving to God the Things Made in His Image

 Last week when I was studying one way women reflect God’s image, a familiar verse caught my eye in a new way. It’s a verse we usually quote when talking about why you need to pay your taxes. A group of people came to Jesus asking, “Should we pay taxes?” hoping to trick Him into saying something that would get Him into trouble (Matt. 22:15-22). Jesus does answer that question, but it’s not the only thing He talks about in this verse. He uses their wicked attempt to entrap Him to teach a valuable spiritual lesson.

“Show me the coin used for the tax.” So they brought him a denarius.  Jesus said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?”  They replied, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Matthew 22:18-21, NET

Jesus answered a question they thought would back Him into a corner in a way that left them marveling (v.22). Then on top of that, He gave them–and us–a deep lesson to ponder. The thing stamped with Caesar’s image belonged to Caesar. The things stamped in God’s image belong to God.

Made In His Image

When Jesus pointed out that we should give “to God the things that are God’s,” He isn’t just talking about paying God our tithes or owing Him things like worship, praise, and thankful offerings. We do owe Him those things (Mal. 1:6-8; 3:6-18), but the context here has to do with giving someone the things which bear their image.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.”

God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them,
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26-27, NET

We are made in God’s image. We are what we’re supposed to be giving to God. Just as the coins stamped with Caesar’s face showed that the money circulating came from and ultimately belonged to Caesar, we’re “stamped” with God’s image. We come from Him and belong to Him.

Image of a man reading the Bible, with text from Malachi 1:6, WEB version: "A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, then where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is the respect due me?"
Image by Matt Vasquez from Lightstock

Owe Him Our Lives

Paul also teaches about the idea that we owe all of ourselves to God. “You are not your own,” he writes, “for you were bought with a price. Therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:19-20, WEB). Here, the focus is on the service we owe Jesus as our redeemer–the one who saved us from death and now has a claim on our lives. We also owe Him and the Father service as our creator. We’re loyal to God and serve Him because “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20, NET). We belong to God and, following Him, our lives are on a path toward spending eternity in His kingdom.

 Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice—alive, holy, and pleasing to God—which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.

Romans 1:1-2, NET

We would be dead–or we wouldn’t even exist–if it wasn’t for God. It’s reasonable and logical (G3050 logikos) to present ourselves to God as a sacrifice. Not a dead sacrifice laid once on an altar, but an ongoing, holy life devoted to following the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. That’s how we give ourselves–the things made in God’s image–back to God: by serving Him faithfully.

Image of a young woman reading the Bible, with text from Titus 2:14, NET version: "He gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good."
Image by José Roberto Roquel from Lightstock

Everything is Already His

God has the right to demand anything He wants of us. And yet all He asks is that we give Him things that are already His. It is–as Paul said of us being living sacrifices–a reasonable request.

“The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone. From one man he made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth, determining their set times and the fixed limits of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move about and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ So since we are God’s offspring, we should not think the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image made by human skill and imagination. Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent”

Acts 17:24-30, NET

Here, Paul presents a reasonable case to the Athenians. They already worshiped an “unknown god,” so he uses that to introduce the one true God (Acts 17:16-23). They already know the writings of Cretan philosopher Epimenides and Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus, so the idea of being God’s created children ought to be familiar (NIV footnotes on v. 28). The big, stunning new idea here is that the “Lord of heaven and earth” is the only real God. He can’t be represented by “an image made by human skill” or contained “in temples made by human hands.”

People like to make gods in their own image. Much like the Greeks and Romans, we often imagine a God who’s flawed like us, or who needs something from us, or who does chaotic things without reason, or who could be swayed to do things our way if we could just find the right bribe. But that’s a backwards idea. God is the one who makes us in His image. We belong to Him and we need to do things His way, not the other way around.

Courage in Knowing

Sometimes, the idea that we belong to God and owe Him everything rankles us. Humanity’s independent spirit often rebels against the idea that we have a Creator to whom we owe our existence. It’s easier in some ways to believe that we just happened; the product of lucky chaos and millennia of evolution. But God reveals that He created us in His own image. We’re precious and we’re made for a purpose.

We can see owing all of ourselves to God as stifling, or as encouraging. Jesus modeled the latter response. In John’s gospel, we learn this about Jesus’s mindset going into the Passover right before His crucifixion.

Just before the Passover Feast, Jesus knew that his time had come to depart from this world to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now loved them to the very end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, that he should betray Jesus. Because Jesus knew that the Father had handed all things over to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, he got up from the meal, removed his outer clothes, took a towel and tied it around himself. He poured water into the washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.

John 13:1-5, NET

Jesus knew He was facing a horrible death. He also knew “he had come from God and was going back to God.” Though it’s different for us, we also know we’ve “come from God.” For Jesus, He was God already and had been with the Father forever before coming into this world as human. For us, we came into existence through the creative work of both Father and Son. We’re also heading toward God, though for Jesus He was “going back” and for us we’re looking forward to being there for the first time. Despite the differences in why we can say we’ve come from God and are going toward God, we can have the same focus Jesus did here.

Knowing we’re made in God’s image opens our eyes to marvelous truths and gives us courage for whatever we face in this life. We can love “to the very end” and keep following God’s will, knowing that we belong to Him and He cares for us. We know we are special to Him. We know He made us for a purpose, which involves looking fully like Him in the future if we follow Him faithfully now (1 John 3:1-3). We also know that we owe Him all of ourselves. We’re stamped with His image, marking us as belonging to Him and (if our lives are oriented properly) we’ll be giving ourselves to Him as well.

Featured image by Med Ahabchane from Pixabay

Song Recommendation: “In His Eyes” by 1 Girl Nation

Helper: One Way Women Reflect God’s Image

There’s an infamous verse in the King James Version of the Bible with phrasing that sets some people’s teeth on edge. Here, God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” We’ve sometimes read this as “help-meet” as if it’s all one word and is somehow demeaning women as nothing more than an assistant or something. Really, though, “help” and “meet for him” are two separate words and they mean something different than you might htink.

“Help” comes from the Hebrew word ezer, which we’ll be spending most of our time with in this study. “Meet for him” is an old Englishy phrase that means comparable to or suitable for. It’s from the Hebrew word neged, which speaks of something conspicuously placed before someone, as well as something beside or parallel to something else (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [TWOT] 1289a; Brown-Driver-Briggs H5048). For example, God commanded “read this law before all Israel in their hearing” (Deut. 31:11, WEB) once every seven years during the Feast of Tabernacles. His law is important, and so He wanted it placed before His people to regularly remind them of what to focus on.

Setting negad aside for now, let’s go back to the word translated “helper.” The really interesting thing about the word ezer is that with just one exception, it’s only used to describe women and God. The word shows up 21 times in the Hebrew Bible. Twice it’s used in Genesis 2 to describe women. Once it refers to God scattering away anything else His people might try to rely on for help (Eze. 12:14). All the other times, ezer describes God.

Image of people holding hands and praying, with text from Psalm 20:1-2, WEB version: "May Yahweh answer you in the day of trouble. May the name of the God of Jacob set you up on high, send you help from the sanctuary, grant you support from Zion"
Image by Claudine Chaussé from Lightstock

Reflecting God’s Image

Right from the get-go, God makes it clear that He created both man and woman in His image. Though God is consistently described as masculine, both men and women bear His image and reflect who He is. We also have the same spiritual potential as “fellow heirs of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7, NET).

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.”

God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them,
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26-27, NET

In addition to being made in God’s image, we’re also supposed to grow into reflecting His character. We don’t look or act exactly like God right now, but He wants us to in the future (1 John 3:1-3). God the Father wants us “to be conformed to the image of his Son” and “put on the new man who has been created in God’s image—in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth” (Rom. 8:29 Eph. 4:24, NET). We’ve “borne the image of the man of dust”–we’re human, just like Adam and Eve– and now we should “also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49, NET).

One of our main goals as Christians is to become like God the Father and Jesus Christ. We’re already like them in a few ways since we’re made in their image, but we’re supposed to become more and more like them the longer we’re in a covenant relationship with them. Studying God’s character traits helps us understand Him better and it also helps us understand what we’re supposed to be like.

Image of people holding hands and praying, with text from Psalm 121:1-2, WEB version: "I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth."
Image by Prixel Creative from Lightstock

The Lord As Our Helper

Most of the 21 uses of ezer are found in the Psalms . Here, the writers talk about God as their help. Often, He’s described as help and shield. He shows up as a helper when we need a deliverer to protect and save us.

Our soul has waited for Yahweh.
He is our help and our shield.

Psalm 33:20, WEB

But I am poor and needy.
Come to me quickly, God.
You are my help and my deliverer.
Yahweh, don’t delay.

Psalm 70:5, WEB

You who fear Yahweh, trust in Yahweh!
He is their help and their shield.

Psalm 115:11, WEB

There’s a lot of martial imagery here. It makes sense; the root word for ezar “generally indicates military assistance” (TWOT 1598). Yahweh is our shield and deliverer. The connection between helper and battle is even more pronounced when God describes Himself to Israel as “your help.” All of us who are honest will admit we need help, particularly the sort of help God provides. And look at what a powerful sort of help this is:

“You are happy, Israel!
    Who is like you, a people saved by Yahweh,
    the shield of your help,
    the sword of your excellency?
Your enemies will submit themselves to you.
    You will tread on their high places.”

Deuteronomy 33:29, WEB

In addition to God’s role as help being linked with protecting and fighting, it’s linked with happiness. When He’s talking to His people, He says they are a happy “people saved by Yahweh, the shield of your help” (Deut. 33:29, WEB). When they turn away from Him, He tells them, “You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your help” (Hos. 13:9, WEB). If we go against God, our help, then we face destruction. But when we stay close to Him, we’re safe and happy (Ps. 146:5).

Image of a smiling woman with her hand raised in worship with text from Psalm 146:5, WEB version: "Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Yahweh, his God"
Image by Pearl from Lightstock

Deborah’s Example

If we were just reading those verses that talk about God as help, shield, sword, and protector, we’d likely link ezer with God as a Warrior and assume helper is a masculine role. But God uses it for women at creation (Gen 2:18, 20). It’s not used to describe human beings in a positive way again, but we can’t dismiss this verse lightly. This is how God describes His intention when creating women. We weren’t afterthoughts because He forgot to create a female version of the human animal. No! He carefully sculpted man in His own image, then carefully sculpted woman from man (also in His own image).

We don’t usually think of women in the Bible as offering military assistance. One notable exception is Deborah, so let’s take a look at how she modeled God’s image as a help to those around her. You’ll find her story in Judges 4-5. She led Israel when King Jabin of Canaan was oppressing Israel. He’d been a problem for 20 years before God called someone to do something about it.

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, judged Israel at that time. … the children of Israel came up to her for judgment. She sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh Naphtali, and said to him, “Hasn’t Yahweh, the God of Israel, commanded, ‘Go and lead the way to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun? I will draw to you, to the river Kishon, Sisera, the captain of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into your hand.’”

Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”

She said, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the journey that you take won’t be for your honor; for Yahweh will sell Sisera into a woman’s hand.” Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh.

Judges 4:4-9, WEB

Deborah and Barak went to war together, along with 10,000 men. It doesn’t look like she strapped on armor and fought, but she was there to help. King Jabin’s military commander Sisera met them with 900 chariots and an unnamed number of other fighters described as “all the army.” Israel won the battle decisively. Only Sisera escaped, and then only for a short time. He took shelter in Jael’s tent since he knew her husband had a peace treaty with Jabin, and Jael killed him by driving a tent peg through his head. Deborah and Barak’s victory song celebrates Jael for her military assistance (though I recommend not following her model today if you’d like to help someone). Also in this song, we learn more about Deborah’s role.

Warriors were scarce;
they were scarce in Israel,
until you arose, Deborah,
until you arose as a motherly protector in Israel.”

Judges 5:7, NET

There are some questions about how to translate this section, but it looks like Deborah arose as a leader and protector in Israel to fill a gap when other warriors and rulers were scarce. God used her as a help that the whole nation needed.

Women As Helpers

Image of two women's clasped hands with the blog's title text and the words "r we aid someone facing a spiritual battle, encourage someone to keep going, or stand up for what's right, we're modeling God's role as 'help.'"
Image by Jantanee from Lightstock

What about us today? Deborah is an Old Testament example, and the idea of women as leaders, protectors, and warriors might not seem like it shows up in the New Testament at first glance. But there’s actually quite a bit of evidence for women teaching, leading, and protecting in the church. Paul mentions several at the end of his Romans letter.

Now I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, so that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and provide her with whatever help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many, including me.

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life. Not only I, but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Also greet the church in their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my compatriots and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.

Romans 16:1-7, NET (emphasis added)

Here, Paul mentions four women who played a key role in the church. Phoebe was “a great help to many” in her role as a servant or possibly a deaconess (“servant” here is the same word that’s translated “deacon” in 1 Tim. 3:8, 12). Prisca, also called Priscilla, and her husband worked alongside Paul, hosted a church, and taught God’s way accurately (Acts 18:2-3, 24-26; 1 Cor. 16:19). Mary worked hard enough for the church that Paul noted her in this letter. Junia is a prisoner for her faith, just like Paul was at this time. The Greek wording used here is ambiguous; either the apostles took note of her or she was considered an apostle (Misreading Scriptures with Western Eyes, p. 172).

We could turn to other examples as well, but that seems sufficient to show that women in the New Testament still help in powerful ways. In addition, we’re involved with fighting spiritual battles, just like every follower of God throughout history. For both men and women, you’re a warrior even if you never pick up a physical sword or strap on armor. God puts His own armor on you and arms you with the Shield of Faith and the Sword of the Spirit. Whenever we aid someone facing a spiritual battle, encourage someone to keep going, or stand up for what’s right, we’re modeling God’s role as a help.

Featured image by Jantanee from Lightstock

Song Recommendation: “Onye-Inyeaka (My Helper)” by Mr. M & Revelation (lyrics translation in comments on YouTube)