"A Process of Holy Humbling "
(Delivered Sunday, October 17, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)
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I heard a story once about a man who had a dream. In this dream, God had placed before him a huge boulder; and then commanded him, "Push that bolder with all your might." So, the man pushed and pushed and pushed - straining against the boulder all day. But for all his pushing, the boulder wouldn't budge. Then God commanded him to stop and come back the next day.
In his dream, he came back the next day; and the same impossible task was given to him. God commanded him to place his hands on the boulder and push against it all day long until his arms ached; and then again - even though the boulder didn't move - God commanded him to stop and come back the next day.
In this strange dream, the man kept coming back to push at the command of God - never making the boulder to move at all; and yet, finding God commanding him to come back again and again to repeat the same frustrating task.
And then, finally, God commanded him to cease pushing, because his task was through. The man was bewildered and sad. "Father", the man said; "How can my task be through? I feel so useless and unfruitful! What was the point of all that pushing? Nothing happened!" "What do you mean, nothing happened?" God replied. "Look at how strong your arms are!"
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I thought of that story when I read this morning's passage. The context of this passage is one of the most horrible, dark and sinful periods in the history of Israel. There isn't time to go into the details - and that's just fine with me, because I frankly don't wish to. Let's just say say that it was a story of sin so shocking and evil that it became etched into the memory of the Israelites from that point on. (Hosea 9:9 and 10:9 make reference to it many years after the facts.)
The background of this passage involved a display of wicked depravity on the part of the men of Gibeah - one of the cities of the tiny tribe of Benjamin - that was so horrible that the whole rest of the nation of Israel became shocked out of its sinful apathy. It caused the covenant people of God to realize how bad things had become, and to join together and demand that those who had done this great act of wickedness be brought forth to justice.
But this passage is also a picture of frustration. It was as if God was calling them to push against a bolder that would not budge. In fact, it was as if God called them to do something repeatedly that resulted in the nation suffering the loss of many of its greatest soldiers. And yet we find that, in the process of their 'pushing' as it were against an unmovable 'boulder', they became broken and humbled. In the end, they became humble before God. In the end, they cried out to God in such a manner, and with such an attitude of heart, that He was able to answer them and give them what they asked. In the end, they could look at themselves and see that God did something - in them!
This passage, I believe, presents to us a picture of a process of holy humbling that God must bring His people through before He is able to use them. We all want to be used by God. We all want to fit into His plan and be His instruments for the fulfillment of His work. But many of us are not yet in the place in our lives where we can be useful to Him. There is still too much self-will in us. Just as a craftsman cannot use a tool that has a will of its own, neither can God use a people until they have been broken free of their self-will and their trust in their own fleshly strength and resources. He cannot use us until we are humbled and brought to a place of full submission to Him.
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If you look carefully at this passage, you'll find this process of holy humbling presented to us in three distinct stages. Let's begin by looking at the stage in which all of us begin . . .
STAGE ONE: CONFIDENCE IN THE FLESH (vv. 18-21).
This is the story of a civil war among the people of Israel. They rose up in holy indignation, and sought to bring evil-doers to justice in their own midst. But if you look at the scriptural details that precede this passage, you wont find any indication that they asked God whether or not they should have even done so. They indeed asked God which of them should rise up first to go to war against Benjamin; but they never first asked if it was God's will that they should go to war at all. In short, they presumed upon God.
This, I believe, exhibits their confidence in the arm of the flesh. They didn't go to God about this matter because they didn't believe they needed to. They believed that they were able to bring about righteousness without His help. And you can see clear signs of this throughout the preceding passages.
First, we see that the military forces of Israel were so confident in the greatness of their own numbers that they didn't bother sending everyone. They had an army that was composed of 400,000 solders; and so, they only chose to send a small portion of their forces. In verses 8-11, we read;
So all the people arose as one man, saying, "None of us will go to his tent, nor will any turn back to his house; but now this is the thing which we will do to Gibeah: We will go up against it by lot. We will take ten men out of every hundred throughout all the tribes of Israel, a hundred out of every thousand, and a thousand out of every ten thousand, to make provisions for the people, that when they come to Gibeah in Benjamin, they may repay all the vileness that they have done in Israel." So all the men of Israel were gathered against the city, united together as one man (vv. 8-11).
We read that the soldiers of the tribe of Benjamin only numbered 26,000. So, the full number of the armies of the other tribes outnumbered the army of Benjamin by over fifteen-to-one! And just the small portion they sent outnumbered the forces of Benjamin nearly 2-to-one!
Not only did they trust in a superiority of numbers, but they were also sure that they held the moral high-ground in this conflict. The sin of the Benjamites was a sin of unspeakable sexual immorality; and of the brutal rape of a man's concubine that eventuated in her murder. The Law of God says, "If a man is found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die - the man that lay with the woman, and the woman; so you shall put away the evil from Israel" (Deut. 22:22). And this perhaps explains their motive for demanding, as they did, that the men who committed this act be brought forward. We read in verses 12-13;
Then the tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin, saying, "What is this wickedness that has occurred among you? Now therefore, deliver up the men, the perverted men who are in Gibeah, that we may put them to death and remove the evil from Israel!" (vv. 12-13a).
No doubt, their sense of righteous indignation was strengthened even more by the reaction of the Benjamites to this demand. Verse 13-14 tell us, "But the children of Benjamin would not listen to the voice of their brethren, the children of Israel. Instead, the children of Benjamin gathered together from their cities to Gibeah, to go to battle against the children of Israel." Apparently, the tribe of Benjamin sought to protect those who did this great evil, and rallied their forces to fight against the other tribes.
And this leads us to see even more how the other tribes of Israel trusted in the arm of the flesh. Though the Benjamites constituted a formidable force, the Israelites believed that their experienced and vastly greater fighting force ensured success. Verses 15-17 tell us;
And from their cities at that time the children of Benjamin numbered twenty-six thousand men who drew the sword, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah, who numbered seven hundred select men. Among all this people were seven hundred select men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair's breadth and not miss. Now besides Benjamin, the men of Israel numbered four hundred thousand men who drew the sword; all of these were men of war (vv. 15-17).
400,000 to 26,000? No wonder they had such confidence in their own ability! You can even see the depths of their self confidence in the fact that they came to God, not to ask whether or not they should go; but to ask, "Which of us shall go up first to battle against the children of Benjamin?"
God's answer to their request was amazingly non-committal. His wasn't an answer of command; but rather, an answer of permission. He didn't say, "None of you should go at all!" Instead, He let them have what they wanted, and said, "Judah first."
Think of it! In this passage, we see the people of God running ahead of God in a presumptuous manner - inflated with confidence in the power of their own fleshly resources. Plainly, they were not in a state of being in which God could use them. They were "tools" with wills of their own. They were running where God was not sending them. They were headed for disaster. And then, when they turned to God in a superficial way, and asked Him which of them should be the first to run out and smack their faces against a brick wall, God said, "Judah first." Judah was the lead tribe of the nation. If the whole nation should run into error, God permitted the lead tribe to be the first to get a spanking.
And the results were, indeed, disastrous! They were sorely beaten; and in one day, the Benjamites killed 22,000 of their men - 'cutting them to the ground' - with no apparent losses to the Benjamites themselves! That was the result of this first stage - the stage of confidence in the flesh!
How dangerous this first stage is! In it, we dare to put our primary trust in the resources of the flesh rather than in God; and on that basis, run ahead of God's will and right into disaster. In it, we foolishly make our own plans and schemes on the basis of our own strength; then dare to pray and expect God to bless us!
And here's the sobering lesson of this first stage: in order to teach us not to trust in ourselves, God will let us have what we want, and will permit us to run on ahead without Him and into trouble.
May God help us to learn what James taught us in James 4:13-17:
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).
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That first stage is where we all start in our foolishness - the stage of confidence in the flesh. And before God can use us, He must move us on from that stage and on to maturity. This leads us to the next stage in the process of humbling that God brought the people of Israel into . . .
STAGE TWO: BROKENNESS OF SELF (vv. 22-25).
This second stage is a very crucial stage on the way to becoming a useful tool in the hand of God. It definitely involves a brokenness and a humbling of self. Look carefully, and you'll see how, after this awful defeat, the people of Israel began to change.
In their first approach to God, they were arrogant. They inquired of God; but it was from the standpoint of self-sufficiency, and on the basis of what they already purposed to do. They presumed before God. But now, they were no longer displaying an absolute confidence in the flesh. They sought "council" of God with weeping before Him until evening (v. 23). They came to Him with a sense of sorrow and shame and ignorance.
They also displayed a difference in how they perceived God. The first time, they approached Him as "God" (that is, Elohim; which was a common name for any deity); but now, they approached Him as "LORD" (that is, as YHWY; the covenant name of the God of Israel - the name He used before Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3:14, when He declared Himself as "I AM WHO I AM"; the very name He used to introduce Himself as the mighty deliverer of His people.
They even displayed a difference in how they perceived the Benjamites. Before, they simply referred to them as "Benjamin" - as if the tribe of Benjamin were one of the heathen nations God had called them to destroy. But now, they wept before the LORD until evening, and asked council of Him, saying, "Shall I again draw near for battle against the children of my brother Benjamin?"
The people where definitely softened as a result of their first disastrous effort. They were "broken of self". But please note that I have chosen my words carefully. I didn't say that they were 'broken FROM self'; but only that they were 'broken OF self'. 'Self' had been badly wounded. 'Self' was no longer seen as infallible. But 'self' was still a significant influence. They were still 'tools' with wills of their own. You can see the abiding influence of 'self' in that, even though they sought "council", it was still sought from the standpoint of presumption; because they still had not asked if it was even God's will that they fight Benjamin in the first place. And you can see that they still trusted in the flesh - living a double-life, so to speak; because before they came with weeping before God, they first "encouraged themselves and again formed the battle line at the place where they had put themselves in array on the first day" (v. 22).
Again, the results were disastrous. 18,000 more soldiers were cut down. This means that the entire force that they trusted in, in a fleshly sense, was now gone. They sent out 40,000; and they lost 40,000. One-tenth of their force was taken from them. It's as if they had presumed to be on equal footing with God; and as a result, God demonstrated His Lordship over them by extracting His tithe of soldiers from them. And all of this with little or no loss to the Benjamites!
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There are times when God allows us, in our sinful presumption, to run ahead of Him in such a way as to let us bring disaster upon ourselves. These times are very instructive and life-changing. They certainly humble us; don't they? They bring to us a fresh sense of just how weak and fallible we are. They remind us that we cannot live independently from God. That's when we move from stage one to stage two. That's when we pass from a confidence in the flesh to a brokenness of self.
But as important as this second stage is, it's still not enough. It's as if we've learned how weak and frail 'self' is, while still keeping 'self' on the throne. We trust in God; but we have not yet been stripped of all the other things we still trust in besides God - or even before God. We're not yet in the place where we trust in nothing but Him. We are not yet to the place that Peter spoke of when he wrote, "'God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.' Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time" (1 Peter 5:5-6).
God's process of full humbling is painful and scary one. The second stage is less painful, and still sufficiently flattering to our sense of 'self'. I suggest to you that very few of us ever allow ourselves to be brought past this second stage. And as a result, very few of us are used by God as He desires to use us.
But God loves us so much that He will take us all the way through to the final stage - where He has us completely - if we will simply let Him. Then, at last, He can really use us! This leads us then to consider . . .
STAGE THREE: SUBMISSION TO GOD (vv. 26-28).
Before this second defeat, the people of Israel seemed to have been broken OF self. And now, after this second defeat, they seem to be fully broken FROM self. Now, they were completely humbled before God. Look carefully, and you can see how this was so.
In their second appearing before God, only the men went before Him to inquire of Him. Now, we're told, "all the children of Israel, that is, all the people, went up" before Him! The process of humbling had reached everyone!
Then we see that they all "went up and came to the house of God and wept". Before, only some wept; but now, all felt a sense of sorrow and shame and deep, deep need.
We see that all "sat" at the house of the Lord "and fasted that day until evening". Before, they were "encouraging" one another. But now, there was a sense of self-denial and personal humiliation before God.
We read that they offered "burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD". The burnt offering was an offering of complete dedication to God; and the peace offering was an expression of restored relationship with Him in holiness. This implies that the people underwent a personal searching of the heart before God; confessing their sins, and repenting of their evil ways. A personal revival before God was occurring.
They inquired before the Lord at "the ark of the covenant". The ark of the covenant was the place at which God had established His presence to the people of Israel. It was the place at which they sought His mercy. They met with God on His terms - at His appointed place of meeting.
They also resorted to the spiritual leadership that God had established. They sought Him through the leadership and counsel of Phinehas, the son of Elieazar who was priest according to the order God established through Aaron.
And this time, they asked with a spirit of complete submission to God's will. They didn't presume to run out ahead of God again. But neither did they turn tail and run away from the fight. Instead, they said, "Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of my brother Benjamin, or shall I cease?" It was all up to God - whether to stop or to go on. This is truly the prayer of a people who were humbled under the mighty hand of God!
And now at last, with His people properly humbled, the Lord said, "Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hand." It would be the Lord who would do it - not they themselves. They now were tools in His hand without wills of their own. They were, at last, in a position to be used by Him. They had become broken FROM 'self'. They were submitted to God's will. And they manifested the right attitude - calling Benjamin (a tribe that God had purposed to preserve) "brother".
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I believe that the apostle Paul was brought through a process of humbling very much like this. God had purposed to use Paul in great ways. Paul was given insight into the deep things of God through Christ. But he wrote,
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me (2 Cor. 12:7-8).
What was this "thorn in the flesh"? We don't know. Some scholars say that it was a debilitating illness or an eye disease. Others say that it was a temptation that he struggled with. Still others say that it was a person that was bringing him down and causing him trouble. In any case, isn't it interesting that he asked three times for it to be taken from him - just as the Israelites approached God three times?
But Paul tells us that God's response was, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness" (v. 9). That thorn in the flesh frustrated Paul; but God didn't take it from him, because it had a divine purpose in afflicting him. It was breaking Paul of 'self'. It was making Paul "weak"; so that God's grace would prove sufficient for him, and God's strength could be perfected in him. Just as God had to strip Israel of all that it trusted in besides Himself, He also had to make Paul weak - had to break him of his sense of self-sufficiency - before he could be fully useful.
And look at what happened to Paul as a result! These are the words of a man humbled-down to the place where a great God can use him for great things:
Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (vv. 9-10).
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Dear church of God at Bethany; let's let God progressively humble us, so that He can use us to display the greatness of His power in us!
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