"Keeping the Charge of the Lord"
(Delivered New Year's Sunday, December 28, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
Whenever we come to the last Sunday of the year, I feel that it's good to look to the Scriptures for something God would want us to put into practice in the coming year. For that reason, I was drawn to this morning's passage from the Old Testament.
This particular passage has to do with a cloud. It was the cloud that God gave to the people of Israel after their delivery from bondage in Egypt - a cloud that rested above them, to lead them when they camped and traveled in their wilderness journeys. It made its first appearance in the book of Exodus - just before the people passed through the Red Sea. The Bible tells us;
So they took their journey from Succoth and camped in Etham at the edge of the wilderness. And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night from before the people (Exodus 13:20-22).
We read of this cloud when, a year later, the tabernacle was first constructed - that tent-like structure that the Lord gave the people of Israel to serve as a portable "temple". After all the different parts of the tabernacle had been made and put in place according to the Lord's instructions, and after it had been erected for the first time, the Bible tells us,
Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of meeting, because the cloud rested above it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken from above the tabernacle, the children of Israel would go onward in all their journeys. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not journey till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was above the tabernacle by day, and fire was over it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys (Exodus 40:34-38).
This cloud, then, was a visual demonstration of God's presence (Numbers 12:5; Deuteronomy 31:15), and of His protection (Exodus14:19-20), and - most relevant to our passage this morning - of His leading of the people of Israel.
Our passage is found in the ninth chapter of the Old Testament book of Numbers. After all the parts of the tabernacle had been constructed, and after the tabernacle itself had been erected; after God's laws had been given to the people, and the Levitical priesthood had been established, and all the people of Israel had been numbered and arranged according to their groups, they were finally ready to begin their march to the land God had promised them. And its then that we learn that God was going to lead the traveling armies of Israel to the promised land by means of this cloud. We read;
Now on the day that the tabernacle was raised up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the Testimony; from evening until morning it was above the tabernacle like the appearance of fire. So it was always: the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. Whenever the cloud was taken up from above the tabernacle, after that the children of Israel would journey; and in the place where the cloud settled, there the children of Israel would pitch their tents (Numbers 9:15-17).
The cloud was God's way of visually - and we could also say unmistakably - communicating His command to the people of Israel to either move on, or to set up camp. Can you imagine what a sight it must have been to see this vast multitude of people marching across the landscape - all in perfect formation - with this wondrous cloud leading the way? Can you imagine the sight of the multitudes at rest around the tabernacle, with this cloud in the sky above it?
Thanks to this cloud, God's will for each step of the journey was made as clear to them as it could possibly be; so clear, in fact, that the movement of the cloud was identified as God's "command" to the people of Israel to either move or stay. This passage goes on to say;
At the command of the LORD the children of Israel would journey, and at the command of the LORD they would camp; as long as the cloud stayed above the tabernacle they remained encamped. Even when the cloud continued long, many days above the tabernacle, the children of Israel kept the charge of the LORD and did not journey. So it was, when the cloud was above the tabernacle a few days: according to the command of the LORD they would remain encamped, and according to the command of the LORD they would journey (vv. 18-20).
And because this cloud was clearly identified with the command of the Lord, they did not move out unless the cloud had lifted from the tabernacle and moved out. And likewise, they did not stop in their journey and set up camp unless the cloud had ceased its movement. The passage tells us;
So it was, when the cloud remained only from evening until morning; when the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they would journey; whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud was taken up, they would journey. Whether it was two days, a month, or a year that the cloud remained above the tabernacle, the children of Israel would remain encamped and not journey; but when it was taken up, they would journey. At the command of the LORD they remained encamped, and at the command of the LORD they journeyed; they kept the charge of the LORD, at the command of the LORD by the hand of Moses (vv. 21-23).
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I believe that there are many principles for us to learn from this passage about God's leading in our lives. The Old Testament scholars Keil and Delitzsch stated it well when they wrote,
The elaboration of the account . . . , which abounds with repetitions, is intended to bring out the importance of the fact, and to awaken the consciousness not only of the absolute dependence of Israel upon the guidance of Jehovah, but also of the gracious care of their God, which was thereby displayed to the Israelites throughout all their journeyings.1
Do you realize that this same mighty God, who so faithfully and graciously led the people of Israel, is our God also; and He is very able and very willing to lead your life and mine in the coming year? This mighty God knows perfectly the way we're to go and the direction we're to take. He knows in advance the trials and pitfalls we may encounter; and sovereignly leads us to the things we can handle, and away from the things that we cannot. And He knows perfectly the right timing of that journey - when we're to stop and wait; and when we're to move on. He is able to lead us wonderfully in the coming year, if we are faithful to follow His lead.
And that brings us to a very important phrase repeated in this passage. It is found twice; once in verse 19, and once again in verse 23. It's that the people of Israel - in the light of God's faithful leading through this cloud - "kept the charge of the LORD".
God did His part for the people of Israel - that is, He faithfully led them. But the people needed to do their part - that is, to faithfully keep the charge of the Lord. It's that phrase that I wish to draw our attention to this morning; and that I hope will grow to characterize us in the coming year. I pray that, when we reach the end of the coming year - Lord willing - we will have grown to be a people who faithfully "kept the charge of the LORD".
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Let's begin by thinking about that phrase itself. Let's consider . . .
1. WHAT IT MEANS TO 'KEEP THE CHARGE OF THE LORD'.
I have found this to be a fascinating phrase in the original language; because it's constructed from the verbal form and the noun form of the same basic root. (Now, please bear with me if this is beginning to sound like a grammar lesson. I believe if you understand something of this phrase in the original Hebrew, you'll find it to be fascinating too.)
The first word is the verbal form shămar; which means to "keep" or "guard" or "watch" or "attend to"; and the basic idea behind it is the act of giving great care or attention to something. When it has reference to a command or an obligation, the idea is that of "giving heed" to it in such a way as to perform it carefully and diligently. Such "keeping" implies faithful "doing", as we see in Deuteronomy 7:12; "Then it shall come to pass, because you listen to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the LORD your God will keep with you the covenant and the mercy which He swore to your fathers."
And the second Hebrew word - mishemeret - is the noun form of the same word. It basically means a "charge" or an "official function" or a "service" that has been entrusted to someone. It can either refer to a thing to be carefully "guarded" and "kept"; or it can refer to a duty or obligation to be faithfully "fulfilled" or "attended to".
And so, they were to shămar the mishemeret of the LORD; that is, "guard the guard," or "watch the watch," or - perhaps most clearly to us - "keep the charge" of the LORD. And in this context, it means that the people of Israel had a mind-set of watching carefully and attentively for the Lord's leading and command, and that they did exactly as the Lord commanded them with respect to their journey under God's protective and leading cloud. They did not break camp and depart unless the Lord commanded them to, and they did not go in any direction but the way that the Lord led them, and they did not stop and set up camp until the Lord indicated to them that it was time to do so. They faithfully kept the charge of the Lord.
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I was surprised to find how often this phrase shows up in the Old Testament Scriptures; and you can clearly appreciate its meaning from the ways it's used. In Genesis 26:5, for example, we find that God promises to bless Isaac, the son of Abraham, "because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws." In Deuteronomy 11:1, we read that God commands the people through Moses, "Therefore you shall love the LORD your God, and keep His charge, His statutes, His judgments, and His commandments always." In Joshua 22:2-3, we read that Joshua commends the men of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh, "and said to them: 'You have kept all that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, and have obeyed my voice in all that I commanded you. You have not left your brethren these many days up to this day, but have kept the charge of the commandment of the LORD your God."
In 1 Kings 2:2-4, we find a very descriptive example of this phrase. King David is about to die; and he leaves his son Solomon with these words: "I go the way of all the earth; be strong, therefore, and prove yourself a man. And keep the charge of the LORD your God: to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His judgments, and His testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn; that the LORD may fulfill His word which He spoke concerning me, saying, 'If your sons take heed to their way, to walk before Me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul,' He said, 'you shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.'"
The Bible even gives us a vivid illustration of what it means to fail to do as this phrase commands. In Malachi 3:13-15, God rebukes the priests of Israel through the prophet and says, "'Your words have been harsh against Me,' says the LORD, yet you say, 'What have we spoken against You?' You have said, 'It is useless to serve God; what profit is it that we have kept His ordinances, and that we have walked as mourners before the LORD of hosts? So now we call the proud blessed, for those who do wickedness are raise up; they even tempt God and go free.'" They did not "keep" the charge of the Lord in that they abandoned the authority of His ordinances, and called the wicked "blessed".
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The Holy Spirit has seen fit to include this phrase often in His inspired Scriptures. It seems to me that it's a phrase our God loves; and I would suggest that He loves the phrase, because He loves the thing itself. He loves to find the kind of attitude of heart in us that is faithful and diligent to seek out His leading and guidance in our lives; and that once that leading and guidance is found, is faithful and diligent to follow Him and "keep His charge" - wherever it may lead, or however long it may call us to wait upon and trust in Him.
This leads us, next, to consider . . .
2. WHY WE MUST 'KEEP THE CHARGE OF THE LORD'.
I find an interesting illustration of why we must keep the charge of the Lord in the passage that first introduces the cloud to us. As the people are leaving Egypt - just before we're told of how the cloud would lead the people - we read;
Then it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, "Lest perhaps the people change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt." So God led the people around by way of the wilderness of the Red Sea. And the children of Israel went up in orderly ranks out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 13:17-18).
Now think of that! God knew - in His great wisdom - just how much His newly delivered people could take. He knew - well in advance - the pitfalls and temptations they might encounter that were too great for them. And He, in His great mercy and love, intended to only bring them into the challenges and experiences that would help them grow when the time was right for them. And so, rather than lead them in the way that would have seemed most logical (from a strictly human standpoint), He took them around the long way - by way of the Red Sea. In doing so, He both protected them from a challenge they were not yet ready for, and led them to an experience that would remarkably display the greatness of His power toward them once for all, in delivering them from the armies of Egypt. But what a disaster it would have been if they had chosen instead to disregarded the leading of the Lord and take matters in their own hands! Had they failed to keep the charge of the Lord, they would have encountered a situation they were not yet ready for!
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we must keep the charge of the Lord - in the sense of waiting patiently for His leading and direction in the issues of life, and following that leading and direction carefully and faithfully when it is finally revealed - because we simply don't have the wisdom to direct our own steps in life. God has not designed us with the capacity to walk through life independently from Him and His leading. The Bible doesn't pay us much of a compliment in speaking of this (but it does tell us the truth) when the prophet Jeremiah humbly admits, "O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps" (Jeremiah 10:23).
We also must "keep the charge of the Lord" in our journey through life, not only because God hasn't given us the ability to guide our own steps, but also because He hasn't given us the ability to see into the future. We must live in utter dependency upon God's leading every day; because every "tomorrow" is an uncertainty to us. The apostle James wrote,
Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit"; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that." But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin (James 4:13-17).
O, how utterly helpless we are! How completely dependent we are - by very nature - on God's leading! But how good and safe a thing it is to "keep the charge of the Lord" as He leads us through the challenges of life! He is good, and faithful, and mighty, and wise, and immeasurably loving; and He cannot fail to bring about good in the lives of those who trust Him to guide their steps. The apostle Paul tells us, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). He can be absolutely trusted to lead us in the right way.
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This leads us, naturally, to next consider . . .
3. THE BLESSINGS OF 'KEEPING THE CHARGE OF THE LORD'.
A first blessing, I would suggest, is a frame of mind that is confident and peaceful. A great peacefulness and assurance of heart characterizes the man or woman who keeps the charge of the Lord through the challenges of life. And this is because they know that they are under the watchful care and leading of Someone who is all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving, and always there for us. "You will keep him in perfect peace," Isaiah writes, "whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You. Trust in the LORD forever, for in YAH, the LORD, is everlasting strength" [or literally, "Rock of ages"] (Isaiah 26:3).
A second blessing that comes from keeping the watch of the Lord in the steps of life is, if I may put it this way, success! Proverbs 3:5-6 says, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths" [or literally, "make your paths straight"].
We are so often prone to ignore the charge of the Lord; and we instead try to take matters in our own hands - to vindicate ourselves, or take our own revenge, or execute our own plans and schemes. And whenever we do so, we inevitably bring about more troubles upon ourselves in the end. But the Bible says,
Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the LORD, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit you way to the LORD, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass. He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for Him; do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who brings wicked schemes to pass. Cease from anger, and forsake wrath; do not fret - it only causes harm. For evildoers shall be cut off; but those who wait on the LORD, they shall inherit the earth" (Psalm 37:2-9).
A third blessing that comes from keeping the charge of the Lord is strength. Many people would think that it's a sign of weakness to 'sit' and 'wait' until God gives His command to move and provides the leading we need. It's more of a sign of "strength", they think, to take initiative for one's self and guide one's own steps. But the truth is that it's a wearisome task to try walk through the troubles and trials of life while seeking to guide your own steps. People who serve as their own 'compass' in life end up going around in circles! Instead, the Bible tells us that "Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall, but those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:30-31). Great enthusiasm and energy can be ours, even in the midst of trials and challenges, when we know that God is guiding our life, and that we are in the center of His good will - looking to Him and keeping His charge.
A forth blessing that comes to mind is stability. A man or woman who is keeping the charge of the Lord, and is faithfully in His will - waiting for His call, or moving forward only at His command; whichever way the Lord directs - doesn't have to fear anything in this world. He is a man or woman who is in the will of God; and that's the safest place in the world to be. "I will bless the LORD who has given me counsel," King David wrote, "My heart also instructs me in the night seasons. I have set the LORD always before me; because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved" (Psalm 16:7-8). Psalm 91 says, "Because you have made the LORD, who is my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling; for He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone" (Psalm 91:9-12).
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Obviously, then, all this should encourage us to 'keep the charge of the Lord.' But this was easy for the Israelites to do, since there was a great cloud to guide them by day, and a pillar of fire to guide them by night. We don't have as obvious a visual guide as they did. How do we know the direction the Lord is leading us? How do we perceive the Lord's timing - when it's time to move, and when it's time to wait? And once on the move, how do we know the specific commands He calls us to obey in the different situations and decisions of life? This leads us to a final consideration . . .
4. HOW WE RECOGNIZE 'THE CHARGE OF THE LORD'.
We may not have a cloud to guide us; but God has given us several very sure and reliable guides that we can look to in keeping His charge. First, we have His Holy Spirit living in us. God has not left us alone in this world to figure out what steps to take; but the Father has even gone so far as to send the Holy Spirit - the third Person of the triune Godhead - to take up residence in us, to lead us, guide us, instruct us, live the life of Jesus Himself through us, and empower us in keeping the charge of the Lord. Just before He went to the cross, Jesus told His disciples;
If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever - the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you (John 14:15-17).
Jesus said this about this One who would take up residence in His disciples:
. . . He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you (John 16:13-15).
What a great Friend and faithful Ally we believers have in the Person of the indwelling Holy Spirit, when we face the trials of life! He is an ever-present, unfailing Guide and Instructor who helps us in keep the charge of the Lord. That's why Paul encourages us, "I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16). If we walk in faithful accordance with His leading and guidance, we will be keeping the charge of the Lord.
But another help we need to look to faithfully in determining the charge of the Lord is the Scriptures themselves. God has not left us on the earth to solve the mystery of what His will is. He has clearly expressed His will in the Scriptures. He has laid out His commands and instructions for us in the pages of His inspired word; and when we study diligently to keep true to the Scriptures in the challenges and tests of life, we are "keeping the charge of the Lord."
Paul wrote, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 2:16-17). Everything we need, for the guidance of our feet through life, is found in the Scriptures. And so, the psalmist could write, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 119:105). I love what Moses told Joshua, because there couldn't there couldn't be a clearer assertion to those of us who wish to keep the charge of the Lord:
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success (Joshua 1:8).
A third help we should rely on is prayer. When we don't know the way to go, or we require God's leading and direction in the challenges we face, we should simply ask God. He loves us; and is more than happy to give us the wisdom we need. As the apostle James promises us; "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him" (James 1:5). Whenever we pause in the trials of life to ask God for His wisdom and leading in facing them, we are keeping the charge of the Lord. And He will provide what is needed!
A fourth help in determining the charge of the Lord is the good, godly council and instruction of mature believers in Christ. Proverbs 11:14 says, "Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety." The writer of Hebrews said, "Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called OToday,' lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin" (Hebrews 3:12-13). As believers, God has placed us in the Body of Christ; and He uses the other members of that Body to encourage us and call us to His charge. When we reverently heed and faithfully follow good, godly council from mature members of our spiritual Body - council that is in conformity with God's word, and that clearly has the stamp of the Holy Spirit's approval - then we are keeping the charge of the Lord.
I'd like to suggest one more thing. Sometimes, even when we sincerely seek God's leading in the challenges of life by praying for and trusting the Holy Spirit's guidance, searching carefully the instruction of the word, humbly asking for wisdom, and hearing the godly council of other mature believers and leaders, we still may find that we don't know what God wants us to do. It may seem as if, looking over all the options laid before you, you find that none of them seem to be the right thing to do at the time. What should you do then?
Do you remember that the cloud that was over the tabernacle not only indicated when it was time to move out, but also when it was time to stay put? Sometimes, keeping the charge of the Lord means doing something very hard to do - and that is patiently "waiting" until clearer direction is given.
I have followed a principle over the years; and it has helped me greatly to determine the sort of situations in which I must "wait on the Lord". It's this: Whenever it seems I can't do anything but sin, that's when I wait. Whenever I'm faced with a challenge, and when looking over all the options it seems that the only actions I could take involve sin or harm, or disobedience to God's clearer commands - and I feel boxed in - those are the times when I know God is leading me to wait on Him and trust Him to give what is needed in its proper time.
I have learned that, when God is doing something that I know about, He is also doing a whole host of other things behind the scenes that I don't know about. In His perfect timing, those things will all fall into place perfectly; and I'll stand amazed at His sovereign providence. But until that time, I just don't see all that He is doing. And so, at such times, I've found it best to pray and ask God to give me His clearer direction when He is ready, and to open up a clear door for action in its proper time, and to grant me the patience to wait until that time comes. I've found that He eventually does give the clearer direction I need - and that His timing always proves perfect in the end!
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Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; the coming year is filled with uncertainties - but they're only uncertainties to us. There are no uncertainties to the God who loves us and desires to guide our lives. He will tell us where to go, when to go, and what to do when we get there; but it's our duty to be constantly looking to Him for His leading, and faithful to His call when He gives it.
Let's, in the coming year, make it our ambition to be people who grow to faithfully "keep the charge of the Lord."
1C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on The Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.), vol. III, p. 54.
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