Musings of an antipodean contrarian

Is casting lots a justification for gambling?

What were people in biblical times doing when they cast lots? Should Christians practice this in decision-making today? Is casting lots a justification for gambling?

Casting lots in biblical times

The practice of rolling dice or selecting the short straw to make important decisions was common in biblical times. The practice often appears to relate to inheritance or entitlement rather than fate.

  • The Israelites sometimes determined the will of God by casting lots (e.g. Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8).
  • Special favours were granted by lot (e.g. Leviticus 16:8-10; Micah 2:5; Nehemiah 10:34; 11:1).
  • The tribes of Israel divided the promised land by casting lots (e.g. Numbers 26: 52-56; 33:54; 36:1f; Joshua 14:1-2; Ezekiel 45:1; 48:29).
  • Charges of guilt were confirmed by casting lots (Joshua 7:13-18).
  • Israelite kings were chosen and tactical military decisions decided by lot (e.g. 1 Samuel 10:20-23; 14:41f; Judges 20:9).
  • Saul determined that his son Jonathan had eaten honey by drawing lots (1 Kings 14:58).
  • Priests and administrators were assigned duties by lot (e.g. 1 Chronicles 24:5-7, 31; 26:14-16; Luke 1:9).
  • The practice of casting lots is commended as a reliable means of conflict resolution (Proverbs 18:18).
  • Pagan sailors used lots to identify Jonah as the source of ill fate and threw him overboard (Jonah 1:7).
  • God’s will is said to be revealed to pagan kings through lots (Ezekiel 21:21).
  • Lots were cast to determine the recipients captives and booty in wartime (Obadiah 11; Nahum 3:10; Psalm 22:18).
  • All four Gospels have the soldiers casting lots for the garments of Jesus at his crucifixion (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24) – and John sees this as the fulfilment of Psalm 22:18.
  • Apostles cast lots, following a time of prayer, to determine who should succeed Judas as one of the Twelve (Acts 1:23-26).
  • Paul teaches that Christians were chosen in Christ (lit. [Christ] “in whom our lot is cast” – Ephesians 1:11).

It appears that guidance by casting lots was permitted in ancient Israel only when carried out in obedience to God, who was free to refuse to give an answer (e.g. 1 Samuel 14:37; 28:6). Although lots may appear to be ruled by fate, or the randomness inherent in the universe, it seems that it was generally understood in ancient Israel that the sovereignty of God overrides this (Proverbs 16:33).

The book of Esther celebrates the Jewish festival of Purim, named after the pur, small clay cubes, similar to modern dice, used by ancient pagans to discover the will of the gods. Ironically, Haman, the main antagonist in the Esther narrative, used the pur to determine the date on which the Jewish people were to be annihilated, but it was actually the day of his own death by impalement. What appeared to be coincidence ultimately delivered extraordinary favour for the people of God, but there is no indication that they were required to use the pur to discover God’s will.

Christian philosopher Dallas Willard observes that God “spoke” to individuals or groups within the biblical record in six ways:

  • phenomenon plus voice
  • supernatural messenger or angel
  • dreams and visions
  • audible voice
  • the human voice
  • the “human spirit,” or the “still small voice.”[1]

To this list we could legitimately add the casting of lots.

Decision-making in the church today

Should our churches, then, reintroduce the practice of casting lots? Could decisions at Association meetings be made in this manner? Is the casting of lots, undergirded by the faithful prayers of God’s people, preferable to other reliable methods of discerning the will of God? Or is it merely arbitrary, capitulation to fate, an easy way out? Did the need for decision by lots pass away after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, or when the canon of Scripture was completed or determined?

Throughout history, theologians and pastors have offered different answers to these questions, and this is not the place to assess the reasonableness of their thought or motives. However, it seems clear that, when accompanied by prayer, and by godly leadership and administration, the casting of lots is a legitimate means for decision-making.

The fact that the practice has fallen out of favour, or into disuse, in an era devoted to the exaltation of human agency and rational argument in church life (ironically despite the encouragements of postmodern ways of thinking), does not necessarily imply that it is careless, out-dated or ungodly. Perhaps we shall see a resurgence of the practice in church life. Perhaps we should cast lots to determine whether this is the way to go.

Casting lots and gambling

Is the biblical practice of casting lots a justification for gambling? There are analogies between the presumed randomness of the outcome of casting lots and modern gambling activities such as lotteries, pokies and other games of chance. However, there is no logical link between gambling and the biblical practice of casting lots. The detrimental impacts of gambling illustrate the substantive difference between gambling for monetary gain and casting lots for decision-making.

Gambling is a popular form of entertainment, but its addictive potential and capacity to subvert the common good leads many Christians to conclude that it should be avoided – especially when there are many other less harmful forms of entertainment available for consumption.


[1] Dallas Willard, In Search of Guidance: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), pp. 93-105.

Reflections on ordination

A sermon by Rod Benson

Sunday 10 October 1999

The great nineteenth-century Christian leader, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, described by many as “the prince of preachers,” occupied the pulpit of London’s New Park Street Baptist Church and its successor, the renowned Metropolitan Tabernacle, from 1854 to 1892.

When asked if he were a Doctor of Divinity, he is said to have replied, “I was not aware that the Divinity was in need of a doctor!”

On another occasion, when asked if he was ordained, Spurgeon is reputed to have replied, “I cannot see what putting your empty hands on my empty head would accomplish!” Spurgeon was never ordained, never used the title “Reverend,” and remained Mr Spurgeon to the end of his life.[1]

Regardless of Spurgeon’s personal convictions and practical conventions – and, I should add, those of a number of prominent Baptist leaders today – ordination was practised and commended in the Bible, and some form of ordination is practised today by almost every Christian denomination.

Today I want to consider the biblical and theological foundations of ordination, and close with some personal reflections in view of my recent ordination to the ministry of the Word.

The words “ordain” and “ordination” derive from the Latin meaning “to set in order” and implying appointment to an office or function. The KJV uses the verb “to ordain” to render about 30 different Hebrew and Greek words. But general biblical principles and practices are not hard to identify.

In the Old Testament, for example, we read that God has “set in place” the moon and stars (Psalm 8:3). God “provided a place” for his people Israel to dwell (1 Chronicles 17:9).  Aaron and his sons were consecrated to serve as priests offering blood sacrifices to God on behalf of the people (Exodus 28-29).  Levites were appointed as servants of God (Numbers 3-8). The seventy elders were appointed to assist Moses (Numbers 11, 24-25). Joshua was commissioned as Moses’ successor (Numbers 27). Jeremiah was appointed by God as a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:5). And so on.

In the New Testament we find a similar pattern. Jesus appointed the Twelve to serve in apostolic ministries (Mark 3:14). The Apostles appointed Matthias to replace Judas among the Twelve by casting lots (Acts 1:12-26).

God appointed Paul “as a servant and as a witness” (Acts 26:16). Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the new congregations (Acts 14:23).

In a more general sense, the Lord commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:14); and the Great Commission effectively appoints every follower of Christ to specialised Christian ministry (Matthew 28:18-20).

The New Testament provides five passages of special significance for the practice and protocols of ordination. First, in Acts 6:1-6 we read how seven leaders of the early church were set apart to specialised ministry in order to allow the Twelve to concentrate on prayer and ministry of the Word.

They were all men of spiritual distinction, chosen by the church at Jerusalem to assume new roles. The original language of the text does not clarify whether it was the Apostles or the whole church who laid hands on them, but the practice may have followed the mass ordination of the Levites (Numbers 8:10).

Along with the laying on of hands, prayer was offered – probably that the Lord would bless the seven in their new sphere of Christian service.

Second, in Acts 13:1-3, we find Barnabas and Paul set apart for missionary service. Here the Holy Spirit spoke, presumably through a prophet, and again we find the church engaging in prayer and laying on of hands. Both candidates were already recognised leaders, commissioned for a new sphere of service.

Third, in Acts 14:23, while on their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the churches at Derbe, Lystra and Iconium, committing these leaders of new churches to the Lord with prayer and fasting.  In a more established church, of course, it would have been appropriate for the congregation to identify and appoint their own leaders.

Fourth, in 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul advises his young ministry partner, and eventual successor, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.”

It is important to keep in mind that when Paul wrote to Timothy he was not writing a church handbook nor a theological treatise. He was writing a letter of encouragement and instruction to a friend.  But through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the providence of God such letters also inform our faith and practice.

Fifth, in 2 Timothy 1:6, Paul further instructs Timothy, “. . . fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” – probably a reference to 1 Timothy 4:14.

Why does Paul say “my hands” here? In 1 Timothy 4, Paul sought to authenticate Timothy’s spiritual leadership gifts, rather than have him quench the Spirit through natural timidity. Here, he focuses on his own involvement in Timothy’s ordination, and appeals to their close personal ties.[2]

We may conclude, then, that in the New Testament ordination usually has the sense of divine appointment, designated authority and (spiritual) ministry to people. Ordination recognises the personal character and leadership gifts, and the prior call of God, in the life of the ordinand.

In our Baptist churches, we usually only ordain men and women who have:

(a) sensed the subjective call of God to serve, usually full-time, in ministry;

(b) evidenced appropriate leadership gifts;

(c) evidenced a godly Christian character;

(d) been recognised by the people of God as appropriate ordinands;

(e) been tested by the wider church in a range of areas;

(f) received training to stretch and inform the mind, and learned practical ministry skills;

(g) had their call confirmed by receiving and accepting a pastoral call from a local congregation to exercise pastoral leadership among them.

The preconditions are significant, and the process of gaining ordination is rigorous – as it should be for such a high calling.

In New South Wales, for example, the testing by the wider church includes a series of interviews with the Committee for the Ministry on the candidate’s call and commitment, personality and pastoralia, doctrine and denominationalism, academic potential, gifts for ministry, and any area of speciality deemed appropriate, such as fitness for missionary service.

You can have every confidence in the people accredited and ordained by our Baptist family of churches. You are well served.

I want to make five brief theological comments about ordination as we practise it.

First, while we ordain our leaders, we recognise the biblical principle and Baptist distinctive of the priesthood of all believers. Ordination is not about privileged status but about particular function.  It does not change the candidate’s standing before God; it does not impart a special measure of grace to the ordinand; it does not signify apostolic succession, as implied in Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches.  And ordination is certainly not an initiation to priesthood, authorising the ordinand as a priest offering blood sacrifices and mediating between God and the church, as in Roman Catholic teaching. All the people of God are priests.

Nor does ordination convey special authority to preside at the Lord’s table, or to preach the Word of God, or to baptise. As Paul Beasley-Murray says,

Where the pastor baptizes or presides at the Lord’s Table, the pastor does so, not by virtue of being a priest mediating between God and his people, but by virtue of being the recognised and trusted leader of God’s flock. Indeed, there is no Scriptural reason why anyone may not perform either function provided it is at the initiation of the church.[3]

Second, ordination represents a person’s setting apart for ministry without denominational or geographical qualification, and without differentiation of roles and functions.

There are moves today to discontinue the practice of ordination entirely in Baptist church life, and replace it with denominational accreditation alone. In my opinion this seriously devalues Christian ministry and ignores our rich heritage as Baptists.

As I see it, ordination is about consecration, and accreditation (while absolutely necessary) fills a distinctly secondary function of certification. Ordination is universal and general, while accreditation is the recognition of a person by a particular body for a certain role or position.

Third, in a Baptist context ordination is to be viewed as indelible: it is for life and is not rescinded. Once ordained, always ordained. There is no need to be re-ordained when one moves to a new church or a new sphere of service.

Fourth, in ordination the church recognises God’s prior ordination and gifting of the candidate, and ratifies the candidate’s inner conviction, calling and fitness for ministry.

Fifth, ordination recognises the candidate’s new responsibility and sphere of service within the local church, and the wider fellowship of churches.  Christian ministry in general, and leadership in the local church in particular, is often a difficult, painful, exhausting and thankless task. That is why, as I said last week, the Chief Shepherd promises a crown of glory to pastors and elders who serve God faithfully and well (1 Peter 5:1-4).

I close with some personal remarks. Why was I ordained? Despite my strong Plymouth Brethren heritage, with its general eschewal of professional pastors and a “paid ministry,” I believe ordination and full-time Christian ministry, and effective spiritual leadership are absolutely vital to the health of the church. I sought ordination because I felt called and gifted by God to teach and preach his Word, and to lead the people of God according to his will.

My ordination service represented the end of a long process of training, equipping and accreditation. It represents the threshold of a new stage of life and ministry. And, importantly, it represents the formal recognition and affirmation of my call to ministry by the churches.

May we see many more young men and women of God counting the cost, preparing for ministry, and serving the Lord Jesus Christ with their whole lives. And may we see our churches grow and prosper under godly and excellent leadership, and thus reach out to others in evangelism and mission and social transformation. For that is why God calls and equips his people.



Copyright © 1999 Rod Benson. Sermon 275 presented at Blakehurst Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 10 October 1999. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).

[1] Peter Cotterell, “The ministry: Time for reformation,” in Paul Beasley-Murray (ed.), Anyone For Ordination? A Contribution to the Debate on Ordination (Tunbridge Wells: Monarch Publications, 1993) 35, 43.

[2] Gordon Fee, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus (Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1984) 226.

[3] Beasley-Murray, 168.

Justice for the unborn

A sermon by Rod Benson, 8 June 2014

Job 31:13-15

According to new Family Planning data, NSW teenagers have the highest abortion rates in the country, with more teens ending pregnancies than choosing to become parents.  Estimates suggest there were 4053 abortions among NSW teens aged 15-19 in 2009, roughly double the number in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland.

Family Planning NSW Chief Executive Ann Brassil said a parent’s ability to give their child the “birds and bees” talk could be the key to combating “unwanted” pregnancy.

For many of us, this information raises more questions than it answers:

  • Why are abortion rates seemingly so high in NSW?
  • In what sense can a pregnancy be defined as “unwanted”?
  • Why are precise data not available for the number of abortions performed in Australia?
  • Surely there’s more to good sex education than a parent’s ability to explain copulation?

Those are important questions for another day, but they do get us thinking. Today I want to talk about abortion and social justice and God.  And I want to frame my sermon by taking some words out of the mouth of that great Old Testament patriarch Job, who suffered so terribly, and learned so painfully, and lived so faithfully, and in doing so discovered that God is transcendent but also trustworthy; he can be perplexing but he is always patient; he is great but he is good.

In Job 31:13-15, toward the end of his last speech, Job says to his companions, the well-meaning clowns who have tried their best to comfort him in his affliction and failed:

If I have denied justice to any of my servants, whether male or female,
when they had a grievance against me,what will I do when God confronts me?  

What will I answer when called to account?

Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?

Job lived in a traditional community where a slave was regarded as a chattel, as property. Job is a very rich man who has wielded enormous power and influence, but he recognises that claims to justice override ownership rights.  And he believes that if he withholds justice from anyone, God may well withhold mercy from him when he appears before God to be judged in the afterlife.

The reason for this conviction is clear: both he and the slave – any slave – started out as absolute equals in their respective wombs.  Social class and status do not matter. Nor do place of birth, or religious adherence, or cultural identity, or skin colour or other physical attributes. All are equal in conception and birth from the perspective of social justice.  Even a slave in the time of Job had rights at law, guaranteed by God, including the right to initiate a lawsuit against his or her master.

Our common humanity levels all, and elevates all, to a position of intrinsic worth as persons made in the image of God and therefore precious to God and deserving of justice and mercy and compassion (see Job 10:8-13; Eph 6:9).[1]

So too the unborn child.

This is the principle underlying the so-called Zoe Bill currently before the NSW Parliament. The bill was introduced by Member for The Entrance, Chris Spence, in 2013 to amend the Crimes Act to allow criminal liability for the death of a foetus at least 20 weeks old.

The bill was prompted after a baby was delivered stillborn when her mother was struck by a car in Mr Spence’s electorate in 2009. Under current law, the destruction of an unborn child constitutes grievous bodily harm to the mother only and does not recognise the unborn child in its own right.

Legal and medical experts have expressed concern that the bill might limit women’s access to late-term abortions, while others have questioned giving personhood to a foetus. But this is arguably a case of the law catching up with informed public sentiment, and I believe politicians should support the bill.

Let me be clear: the Zoe bill specifically excludes abortion from its reach. But the principle of protection and justice on the basis of intrinsic worth also applies to unborn children at risk of abortion.

If our society has denied justice to any child, whether male or female, when they were at risk of being killed by medical or chemical abortion,what will we do when God confronts us?  

What will we answer when called to account?

Did not he who made us in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us all within our mothers?

In what ways do we routinely deny justice to those not yet born?

In what ways do we deny justice to persons for whom God declares we have both a theological responsibility and a social obligation to uphold their rights, administer justice, and provide adequate care and protection?

We are all priceless gifts from God. Each of us is of equal value, possesses equal rights, and should have equal freedom to take their first breath, and to be loved, and to flourish and in time give back to the community that has nurtured them.

As Job recognised, each of us has ultimate and personal accountability to God, and to divine justice, the serious business of living before a holy and Almighty God, at once both blissful and terrifying if we care to think deeply about it.

Why do we believe all human life is sacred? Because God created us all in his image; because of the emphasis in Scripture on the serious consequences of murder; and because God in his wisdom and grace ordained for his eternal Son to be incarnated in Mary’s womb and be born in Bethlehem, just as you and I were born to our mothers.

God profoundly values the unborn child. The Bible speaks of God’s intimate knowledge of, and relation to, the person-yet-to-be-born.  The church follows God’s lead in affirming this intrinsic worth, and in defending the defenceless, the vulnerable, the least influential members of our community, one life and one breath and one heartbeat at a time.

In his commentary on the book of Job, and in particular what it was that made Job’s reputation as a just person, Mike Mason suggests that

what makes an act truly great is not its bigness, but the purity of heart of the one who performs it. Practically speaking, purity of heart is difficult to achieve on a grand scale. Rather it springs from one pure thought, one pure act, one thing done in perfect purity. Purity begins when our whole lives are narrowed to one fine focus, when the whole world falls away except for the one thing that stands before us needing to be done.

When the one thing that stands before us has to do with another person’s welfare, then we have the makings of social justice … The essence of social justice is the assumption of personal responsibility for the quality of others’ lives.[2]

So don’t let anyone silence your opposition to the practice of abortion by arguing that abortion is about the exercise of free personal choices and not a matter of social justice. It is.

And don’t let anyone pressure you into letting go of what the Bible teaches about the nature of personhood, and the responsibility of female and male parents, and the sheer joy of bringing a child into the world and raising him or her with the support of a vibrant community of faith and care and unconditional love.

And if you have had an abortion, or someone close to you has had an abortion, don’t let anyone convince you that you (or your friend) are evil, or worthless, or second-rate, or beyond forgiveness.

You too are made in God’s image, precious to him, and worthy of all his love and mercy and grace. God knows your heart, and he is gracious, and he is faithful – as Job discovered long ago in a similarly overwhelming and lonely context.

Sermon 619 copyright © 2014 Rod Benson. Preached at Christ Church Blacktown, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 8 Jun 2014. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] Francis I. Andersen, Job (Leicester: IVP, 1976), p. 241.

[2] Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), p. 322.

A young person’s wisdom

Sunday 28 October 2001

Job 32-37

Toby Nelson worked as a volunteer chaplain at the site of the demolished twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. He writes:

In between spontaneous comfort and counseling sessions, one could see the enormity of this disaster. TV images and words fail to capture what I saw. Before me lay what used to be the 1300 foot twin towers, but is now in a densely packed mound 80 feet tall and four city blocks around.

In one section, large Tonka Toy-like cranes pulled and tugged at twisted I-beam steel girders reluctant to let go of other spaghetti layered wreckage. These hardened steel beams that once lifted over 2 million tons of sheet rock, copy machines, desks, and souls of the assumed dead, were no match for the destructive forces of brilliant, bold, and creative evil. From a spiritual perspective, the cultural god of materialism was now reduced to a humiliating monument of debris …

One conversation with a firefighter characterized many paradoxical outbursts of complaints and confessions: ‘Why would a loving God allow this to happen?’ Together, we were pondering mysteries that could not be fully answered. And like so many others, he asked, ‘Pray for me to find God. I haven’t been in church in along time, but I believe . . .’

One attractive 30 year old woman searching for her husband of less than a year pleaded, ‘How could people do these evil things and kill so many innocent people?’ Tears in her desperate eyes and convulsing body begged for answers about the problem of suffering.[1]

It is not hard to ascribe the horror and suffering of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to Satan.  The word “evil” is increasingly on the lips of world leaders today. We often find it easy to identify evil actions, and to condemn evil people. But where does evil come from? Why do innocent people suffer? Why do I suffer?

In The Pleasures of God John Piper asks,

Do we charge God with wrong when we say that [God is somehow responsible for the destruction of thousands of lives by drowning because of the storms and hurricanes and tornadoes and monsoons and typhoons which God has ‘brought forth from his storehouses’ over the centuries]? Might it not be Satan who makes destructive wind blow?

This is a good question. The answer is not simple. I don’t mean the answer is hard to find. I mean that the answer is complex. Satan does have great power in this world to do harm … We know that he can cause sickness (Luke 13.16; Acts 10:38) and, since he is called a ‘murderer from the beginning’ (John 8:44), we may infer that he can indeed kill, whether by sickness or by stirring up people to kill or in other ways as well.

It is hard not to see his hand in the tragic deaths, for example, of missionary children. I remember receiving a phone call that the son of a missionary friend was killed in a car accident. Another missionary family in Cameroon lost two of their three children in one day to malaria within days after coming home on furlough. And such stories are multiplied almost every day.[2]

Can we speak of a God of love and grace when we observe so much un-love and un-grace in our world – and, if we are honest, in our own hearts?

Long ago Job wrestled with questions like these. As we have seen, as the dialogue of chapters 3-31 continues between Job and his three friends, Job’s focus slowly moves from his own abject experience toward broader existential horizons until his mind’s eye rests on the apparent absence of God.

Eventually the three friends exhaust their store of wisdom and theology and fall silent. In chapters 26-31 Job presents his final extended speech, and he too falls silent. On the ash heap outside Uz, these four men sit, waiting patiently – hoping for God himself to speak to Job’s situation.

God does speak, but before that there is one more surprise: expecting God, we discover in God’s place a young man named Elihu. I imagine him dressed in torn jeans, hair outlandish and eyebrow pierced, wearing a T-shirt advertising St Matthias Anglican Church.

Elihu appears to me, as I read the words placed in his mouth, as a brash and bombastic young man who believes he has all the answers. He says, “You’re old enough to be my father, so I wasn’t going to tell you how I see it (cf 32:16). But now that these three so-called intellectuals have failed, God has called me to put things in their true perspective (cf 32:19).

“And boy! Are you fortunate that I’m here! I have listened to all your speeches; I have something new and insightful to say; and I speak not from observation or experience alone but also by divine inspiration” (cf 32:8).

No one interrupts him (not even God!), and Elihu gives four speeches. In the first speech he makes a good start (32:6-33:33). Against Job, Elihu says:

(a)          God is not ignoring you (33:15-16; cp Job in 33:13)

(b)         God is not misusing his power (33:19-28; cp Job in 33:8-11)

(c)          God is not beyond forgiving (33:26; cp 33:8-11)

Elihu questions Job’s assertions of blamelessness, but reassures him that God is wise and good. Elihu also seems to say that while suffering is not good, it can produce good results.

In his second speech Elihu’s wisdom falters (34:1-37). He sides with the philosophers of his day and attacks Job’s character. He argues that it is foolish to question God, and stupid to blame God, for human suffering (vv 12-20).

God is just. He is Almighty. His might is right, whether we like it or not, in theory or practice. We must humbly accept whatever comes to us. This is Elihu’s worldview. Elihu knows nothing of the arrangement between God and Satan (1:6-2:8). But even if he had, I suspect his advice would not change.

Australian boxer and Muslim Anthony Mundine expressed this same sentiment when he said on national television last week that, on September 11, America got what it deserved. In Elihu’s world you get what you deserve.

Elihu is a victim of his own coldly rational black-and-white worldview. But our world is not simply black and white. There are people like Job who are righteous yet who suffer intolerable injustices. Some live in New York; some live in Kabul.  And there are people like Satan who seem to live a charmed life. Some of these live in America; some in Afghanistan; some in Australia. Such people are everywhere.

Against Elihu, I believe it is both natural and necessary for us to question God at times. We often do not get what we deserve, and we have a right to feel angry, unjustly treated, and deserving of an explanation from God.

In the third speech, Elihu suggests that “from a distance God is watching us” (35:1-16). In verse 3 he recalls Job asking, “What do I gain by not sinning?” Elihu’s shocking reply is that it does not matter to God whether you sin or not: God could not care less about you.

Elihu implies that not only is God impartial but he is indifferent. This is not what Job needs to hear. It is not what he deserves from Elihu. But there is worse to come.

Elihu now addresses Job’s accusation that God does not answer his prayers. He says, “Job, you are proud; you have wrong motives; and you lack faith” (cf 35:12, 13, 14).  The reality is that Job is humble, pure in motive and faithful to God in the face of huge temptation to give up his faith and deny God’s very existence. Elihu may have been listening to Job’s speeches, but he does not know Job’s heart.

Here Elihu is scraping the bottom of the barrel. But in 35:10-11 he approaches Job’s experiential and spiritual darkness with a lighted candle: God gives us songs in the night to lighten our darkness.

In the fourth speech Elihu rises from the barrel bottom and breaks the surface (36:1-37:24). In a surprise move, he turns toward God, and intelligently and sensitively speaks about reward and punishment (36:5-12).

There is also a wonderful new insight here – all the more startling because it comes from the lips of a young man and not from the three seemingly wise and venerable and pastorally experienced friends.

Elihu says, profoundly, “Those who suffer [God] delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction” (36:15). Has Elihu personally experienced this? It is certainly the kind of thing Job needs and appreciates.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the children’s novel by C.S. Lewis, the obnoxious character Eustace is transformed by magic into a dragon. In great pain from an amulet he had slipped on before the transformation, and frantic to resume his usual appearance, he scrapes away one set of scales only to find another underneath. He relates what happened:

Then the lion [Aslan, symbolic of Christ] said – but I don’t know if it spoke – ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty near desperate now … The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt … Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water … as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I had turned into a boy again.[3]

God’s ways are sometimes painful, but good comes from them. God’s wisdom may lead through suffering and darkness, but it delivers healing and renewal.

Don’t worry about what life throws at you. You are loved by God; you have been rescued by Jesus; you are purified by the Holy Spirit; you have access to God’s timeless written word, and God’s flawed but holy people, to guide and support and encourage and challenge and shape you into the person God wants you to become.

Elihu concludes his fourth speech with a beautiful evocation of God’s power and glory demonstrated in a thunderstorm (especially 36:27-30; 37:10-13). He finishes with a call, echoing Job’s words in 28:28, to approach God with confidence and reverence (37:24).

Elihu was a young and brash person, but there is wisdom to be found in his words for those who take the time to listen. God is transcendent but also trustworthy; he can be perplexing but always patient; he is great but he is good.


Copyright © 2001 Rod Benson. All rights reserved. Sermon 424, Blakehurst Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday October 28, 2001. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).

[1] From Toby Nelson, “Work at Ground Zero,” Clergy/Leaders’ Mail-list No. 1-180, email received October 18, 2001.

[2] John Piper, The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God (second edition; Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 2000), p. 67.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (London: Penguin, 1965), p. 96.

Finding God in the most unlikely places

Sunday 8 January 1995

Genesis 28:10-22

The life of the ancient character Jacob makes great reading – comparable, perhaps, to the unfolding dramas portrayed by the soap operas we see on television, featuring as it does a story of greed, deceit, plots, lies, intrigue, favouritism, jealousy and murderous intent. The Old Testament tells the story of the Hebrew people, the children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham.

The book of Exodus relates details of God’s greatest redemptive act prior to the coming of Jesus: the release of Israel from slavery in Egypt and their deliverance across the inhospitable desert to the land promised long before to Abraham.

The book of Genesis shows how they came to be living in Egypt, and this has much to do with the great patriarchal dynasty of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Jacob’s twelve sons.

As we look at our reading for today, let me summarise the story so far. Isaac and Rebekah had twin sons named Esau and Jacob. Now grown to adulthood, Esau comes home hungry from a long day of hunting, and trades his birthright (his inheritance) for nothing more than a meal prepared by his brother Jacob.

Then, as though to add insult to injury, Jacob masquerades as his brother and tricks his father into bestowing the family blessing on himself rather than on his older brother Esau. When he discovers what has happened, Esau plans to murder Jacob, and Jacob runs away at his mother’s advice to Paddan Aram, the region in upper Mesopotamia where Jacob’s maternal family lived.

On his first night away from home Jacob finds no convenient motel to pull into, so he camps under the stars with a stone for a pillow. Have you ever slept under the stars? It’s not unusual for a starry night to invoke in us thoughts of God and his creative power. As Bruce Prewer expresses in a poem,

Blessed is your name, God of the universe,
For the insistent questions and the wild wonder
That are awakened when we walk out at night
And take a long, long look at the work of your fingers.

Jacob’s parents and grandparents possessed a living faith in God, but as far as the biblical record reveals, Jacob has been silent until now about his relationship with the God of the universe.

In 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly outside earth’s atmosphere, he apparently said, “We’re up here in space where God is supposed to live, and we don’t see him anywhere!”

In contrast, when Apollo 14 commander Edgar Mitchell landed on the moon on 5 February 1971, he left on the moon’s surface a small capsule containing a microfilm package. What was in the capsule? Written in sixteen languages were the words of Genesis 1:1 - “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

It’s not for you and me to decide whether God exists, but to acknowledge that he is there, and to respond to him in a positive and reverent manner.

Under the witness of those stars, then, Jacob falls asleep, and dreams of a stairway or ladder “resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).

In his grandfather’s birthplace, the great Sumerian city of Ur, stood a great terraced stone ziggurat soaring above the otherwise flat plains of the Tigris/Euphrates river valley. A temple dedicated to the worship of the moon god Nannu lay at the summit. Worshippers apparently ascended to the temple, while the deity descended to commune and receive sacrifices.

The biblical tower of Babel may have served as an early prototype of this structure. But whereas Babel symbolised human arrogance and led to confusion, Bethel (the place where Jacob experienced his dream) served as a demonstration of divine grace and led to conversion.

What formed the focal point of the dream was not the ladder itself, nor the angels upon it, but the figure who stood at the top. It was the Lord, the God of Abraham and Isaac, who now revealed himself to Jacob.

Notice carefully what he says to Jacob:

I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.

I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you (Genesis 28:13-15).

This demonstrates the grace, the extravagant goodness of God. Despite Jacob’s flawed character and selfish actions, God reveals himself to him, assures him of his presence, and promises to protect and guide him through his travels, eventually bringing him back to this very place.

Imagine Jacob waking from sleep, darkness still across the land, the dream still fresh in his mind. “Surely the Lord is in this place,” he says to himself, “and I was not aware of it” (verse 16). This is his first personal encounter with God; it leaves him trembling with fear. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven” (verse 17).

Whatever unfortunate and regrettable events lay in the past, this moment was for Jacob a new beginning; we might even call it the moment of his conversion. The immediate result was that his vision was filled by the One he had encountered, not by the promises God had made to him.

He rises and worships his new-found friend, taking the stone he had used as a pillow and setting it as a pillar, and pouring oil on top of it (verse 18). Then, in his first recorded prayer, he dedicates his life to the Lord (verses 20-22):

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”

Jacob promises three things to God. First, his allegiance: “the LORD will be my God.” Second, his worship: “this . . . pillar will be God’s house.” And third, his possessions: “of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” A voluntary offering, motivated by his heart emotions, long before such a practice became the norm in Israel. Perhaps this was the beginning, the seed, of the tradition of tithing our resources for investment in God’s mission.

Jacob’s response to God’s self-revelation indicates that there were no doubts in his mind about the reality of his experience. He took God seriously from the start, and sought to follow God for the rest of his life.

Have you found God, as Jacob did? Has God been speaking to you, revealing himself to you, waiting for you to respond? Even in our moments of personal crisis, or deep shame, or unremitting depression, when God may seem far away or unconcerned, God is near you, and will meet your need, and bring you through the dark night to a better morning.

Sometimes it takes a crisis, or an extraordinary event, for God to reach through our human defences and capture our heart, but when he does, we may be certain it’s for our good. Wherever you are today, whatever your circumstances, no matter how close or how far you seem from God’s heart, he wants to gently draw you closer to him.


Copyright © 1995 Rod Benson. Sermon 005 presented at Flinders Baptist Fellowship, Ipswich, Australia, on Sunday 8 January 1995. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).

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