Ask the LORD for rain in the springtime; it is the LORD who makes the storm clouds. He gives showers of rain to men, and plants of the field to everyone. The idols speak deceit, diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd. ‘My anger burns against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders; for the LORD Almighty will care for his flock, the house of Judah, and make them like a proud horse in battle. From Judah will come the cornerstone, from him the tent peg, from him the battle-bow, from him every ruler’ [and so on to the end of the chapter].
This chapter is totally theocentric, in other words it is all about the living God. The reason for that is this; the fact that God is and God lives is always the foundation of his people’s comfort. It was so in Jerusalem after returning there from exile, and it is also our hope wherever in our pilgrimage we may be today. Whatever our troubles we will find strength and renewal in a consideration of God. If you are a Christian you will come to church and your heart will be crying, “Preacher, tell me about God. Show me the living God. I want to see God” There is no rest and no hope without that. What do we learn about God here?
1. GOD IS THE GOD OF PROVIDENCE.
That is where this chapter begins: “Ask the LORD for rain in the springtime; it is the LORD who makes the storm clouds. He gives showers of rain to men, and plants of the field to everyone” (v.1). My middle daughter Catrin, taught for many years in a good private school in Corsham, Wiltshire. She was the reception class teacher, the first exposure that many of the children had to another teacher besides their parents, and so uniquely conducive to bonding and affection. Her vocation was to teach them to read and write and she was a popular teacher with children, staff and parents. She taught as a Christian and led them in an act of worship each day – as the law requires – praying for them and reading and explaining the Bible to them. The children loved that part of the morning and suggested subjects she should pray about.
Some years the school went on a day trip to Bristol Zoo, and the day ended with a session at the zoo-keepers’ classrooms. The children would sit there eagerly as the man spoke to them. “Good afternoon, children,” he began that day, “let me ask you a question. Where does the rain come from?” They glanced at one another and then gave him the answer that they all knew so well: “God! God sends the rain.” And then with growing confidence and volume they chanted out their answer with smiling faces, “God sends the rain! God sends the rain.”
The other teachers looked across at Catrin and Catrin smiled back at them, with a thumbs up sign; “My kids. These are my children who have learned well.” The zoo-keeper had expected the answer to be ‘clouds’ but the children had gone to the primary source, as we all must. God sends the rain. The keeper was a bit flustered and blurted out, “Well, I don’t know if God sends all the rain!” He believed in a doctrine of limited providence, but the children believed in the total providence of a Sovereign God. They were merely repeating what the Bible teaches, for example in our text, “It is the LORD who makes the storm clouds. He gives showers of rain to men” (v.1).
So we are to ask God for showers of rain in drought, and also sunshine before the harvest, and for the stormy winds to cease, and for the breezes to blow in the right direction to take our sailing boats to their desired destination. Our God is the Creator of the cosmos and the God of providence. The Catechism tells us that, “God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” So in the recent violent storms doing millions of pounds of damage, our chapel building, just one block from the sea was preserved by God, for which we give him thanks, but not entirely so, that none of us might presume on his providence. Let us daily cast ourselves upon him that he might preserve us. This chapel has lost slates in several places, so that the roof is leaking and it needs to be repaired swiftly before more rain enters and damages the ceiling. Maybe there will be someone in the church who has been blessed by God in the last months and would like to show his indebtedness to God by paying the bill for the roof repair. Please talk to one of the elders about this. This would be one of your acknowledgments that God is the God of providence. Some of you have seen the Puritan house in Chester with the aphorism written prominently across its front, “God’s Providence is Our Inheritance.” No one can ever take away from you the providential preserving and governing of God. Your inheritance for the rest of your life, in all your goings out and comings in, is to receive the providence of God, so that you can confidently say, “Every day will I bless you, and I will praise your name for ever and ever.” You will not always understand the reason for God’s providences, but they will never be removed from you.
2. GOD IS THE GOD WHO LEADS HIS PEOPLE.
Monday morning what will tens of thousands of people do for guidance and leading – tomorrow and every day of the week? They will turn to their horoscopes in the daily paper, or they will even have a daily horoscope sent to them on line. The women in the open plan offices in our town will read to one another their guidance for the day and giggle, and say that it’s only a laugh, but still, they won’t stop that foolishness. I came across the horoscope section in our local paper, the Cambrian News this week and so I read what someone had written about people born in my month – my own horoscope. It was totally ridiculous and I could see in a moment why I’d never read it and will never read it again. This is what it says in today’s edition, “You’re witty, creative and intelligent. Don’t chase anyone who isn’t instantly captivated by these qualities.” Fawning flattery! A man meets you in a wedding and instantly he tells you that he thinks you are witty, creative and intelligent. He doesn’t know you. Why does he speak to you like that? What does he want from you? Do you see the hazard lights flashing?
Something very similar occurred at the time of Zechariah in Jerusalem. “The idols speak deceit, diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams that are false, they give comfort in vain” (v.2). A Jewish woman needing leadership went secretly to a grove on the hill outside the city and she asked advice from a priest of Baal. Or she asked if there were a diviner in the cult who had seen a vision that might give her help in her life? Maybe he’d had a dream that might explain to her what way she should go.
What happens when you look to the stars, or try to communicate with the dead for advice, or go to the crystal balls or to witches or horoscopes? Zechariah warns the people, “The idols speak deceit, diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd” (v.2). Such dark devices cannot help you. They will lead you astray. You are turning away from the Word of God; you are ignoring the shepherds and the pastors whom God has given you to direct your ways. Having a preacher called by God who brings you the word of God each week is the principal way that God tells you how to live. “Believe these things! Behave like this! Conquer these wrong feelings! Be this kind of husband or wife or pastor!” That is how I live. I cannot survive without that. I cannot! I would make an even greater mess of my life if I did. I was in a fraternal of nine ministers this week and a fellow preacher spoke to us about God’s directives about how we should behave as ministers from a passage in the next book in the Bible to Zechariah. Turn four pages in your Bibles and you will read the passage. It is Malachi chapter 2 and verses five through seven: God is speaking about how the pastor and teacher after his own heart lives; “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin. For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction–because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty.” God was speaking to us ministers in that fraternal through the Bible, and he was saying, “Live like this!” Leadership is not found in horoscopes or in agony aunts. Go to God and his word and his preachers! They will lead you. Jesus claimed, “I am the truth.” Those are the words of a megalomaniac or they are the words of the living God. He can guide you: “Learn of me,” he says. If you ignore Christ you will wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd.
What blessed influence such a man of God as Malachi describes can have. I spoke to a preacher this week who told me of a woman who was a new convert in his congregation and she is now anxious that others should come to know the God she now trusts. So she has an acquaintance whose children go to the same school as hers and they meet their children regularly outside the school. She wondered how she could become closer to this woman and she discovered that the woman was a keen golfer, and so the Christian took golf lessons – they were not cheap – so that they could play golf together. Now the golfer has started in the last month attending church with the Christian, and she is interested and learning fast. Last week a meal was arranged by the Christian lady with the minister and his wife for them to meet at a more casual level this golfer. The Christian woman warned the preacher; “She is pretty outspoken, and sometimes she goes too far; so don’t be offended.” Well, they sat around the table and talked and ate, and he spoke of the Christian faith, and then something funny was said. “Oh,” the golfer said, “I must say this . . . and I’ve got a wicked sense of humour . . .” So the Christian lady looked wide-eyed at the preacher, and then something happened. I don’t know what it was, whether the golfer spotted the look, or sensed that it would be better not to say what she was going to say. Whatever it was, when the Christians were feeling uncomfortably apprehensive, she spoke again, “Maybe I’d better not say it. No I won’t say it,” and there was a palpable release of tension around the table. They moved on; other things were spoken of. The preacher was there. The man of God was there, and the salt had not lost its savour. And his being there prevented the golfer embarrassing herself and the others. Leadership doesn’t have to depend on preaching and pronouncements and frowns, but just being there as someone filled with the Spirit of God who loves Jesus Christ.
Do you see how dangerous it is to set yourself up as a bit of an adviser and counsellor? Do you understand how foolish words provoke to anger the living God? What is his response to these evil pastors? He says, “My anger burns against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders” (v.3). God is not indifferent to sin especially in those who have places of authority. God is a God of anger when he sees his children being led astray. God himself says these sober words, “I will punish the leaders.” The Lord has spoken. Let us make sure that it’s godly leaders we esteem.
3. GOD IS THE GOD WHO LOVINGLY CARES FOR HIS PEOPLE.
“For the LORD Almighty will care for his flock, the house of Judah,” (v.3). You hear of a man and a woman living together who discover that they are going to have a baby, but when the child is born they don’t care for the little one. The child is neglected and abandoned and mistreated and eventually dies. What a crime! To all who receive Jesus Christ, to each one God gives the right to be called the children of God. What manner of love from Almighty God that this should be their genuine title. He gives them a new birth, and the authority to run up to God and see his smiling face and call him Abba Father. He cares for each one of them. He is the good shepherd, and a good shepherd doesn’t care merely for the strong ewes and healthy rams but for the weakest, newest members of the flock. This is the Shepherd Lord who was prophesied by Isaiah, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isa. 40:11). Can you imagine all the other flocks of the Middle East being so envious of this flock having so magnificent a shepherd – Jehovah, patient, loving and tender? Jesus claimed, “I am the good shepherd.” The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep – rather than abandon them when a mountain lion attacks them. He will sacrifice his own life to care and protect his sheep.
What a caring God we have. He cares for all his creatures. He so cares for you that he has brought you here today to learn from the Bible. Paul speaks to the pagans of Lystra and he begins evangelising them by telling them of the caring God that they’ve been ignoring. Paul says, “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). “Stop sinning against such divine kindness,” we say. God cares for animals, opening his hand and filling them all with good. If an ox were to be distressed on the Sabbath day that animal was to be delivered on the Sabbath day. God even cares for blades of grass in the field and for flowers. He tells masters they are not to abuse their slaves. The poor must be allowed to glean the fields at harvest. A criminal must not be given more than 40 lashes. God cares for all men and women.
God cares for human society. He gives us the Ten Commandments. He has ordained human government. He gives us talents, vocations and gifts by which we can serve all human society. He gives us Bibles, his own holy words. He encourages its translation into hundreds of languages. He converts sinners; he gives them new hearts. He gives them faith in Christ. He gives them repentance and a change of life – even the most vile of men and women. He makes them hunger and thirst for righteousness. We see his care in the ways that he answers our prayers. We see his care for us in the manner in which he accepts our poor and imperfect obedience. He blesses our sufferings so that we say, “It was good that I have been afflicted that I might learn thy statutes.” He is so good to us that in every trial and temptation he makes a way of escape that we’re not destroyed. There is no situation in which we find ourselves where we are faced with no alternative but to sin whatever we choose to do. Never! He cares for us too much to allow that. When we are surrounded by one difficulty after another then the devil will tempt us to deny that our heavenly Father is caring and loving. Whatever the reason for the pain that we are enduring the explanation is not that God has changed and has ceased to care for us.
4. GOD IS THE GOD WHO MAKES HIS PEOPLE STRONG.
It’s this juxtaposition that is so remarkable. See it in verse 3 “The Lord Almighty will care for his flock . . . and make them like a proud horse in battle.” None of us expected that. We expected something like, “and he will make us caring shepherds too.” No. The caring God knows that we are sheep and we can’t run fast, or climb or have the protection of leathery skins like a hippo, or fangs like a lion. We must have a shepherd to keep us, and we do, but that shepherd gives each one of us an extraordinary metamorphosis. He changes a lamb into a battle-horse. You see him sensing the atmosphere, danger and excitement, and the other horses pawing the ground and whinnying, all of them readying themselves for the charge. That is the church militant. We are not a herd of scary sheep like the disciples before they had seen the risen Lord. Locking the door, keeping people out, afraid of what was going to happen. We are the post-resurrection disciples, like Peter standing up in the precincts of the temple and preaching to thousands of men and telling them that the Jesus they had crucified God had raised and made Lord and King, urging them to repent, and then telling the Sanhedrin who’ve threatened them that they could not but speak the things they had seen and heard. God has given Christ a name above every name! And off into battle they went, fighting against principalities and powers and the rulers of the darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high place, unafraid of the god of this world, the prince of the power of the air. God was with them, the God who worked all things after the counsel of his will, that not a sparrow can fall to the ground without his decrees. All things are of God.
You see how Zechariah makes vivid that statement in verse 4? God cares for the house of Judah so that out of it comes the cornerstone. That is Christ whom God has made the head of the corner, Jesus of the tribe of Judah is going to appear and you can build your lives and families and futures on him. He can take the strain. From Judah will come the tent peg, that symbol of solid stability. God will make secure favoured men from Judah so that there will be no panic when they face the enemy. They will teach the people to stand firm. From Judah will come the battle bow, all that is needed for victory in the conflict, all the weapons of our warfare, God will provide for us. And every ruler God will raise up for Judah, our generals and commanders in chief, to lead us to victory.
What is the result of God’s provision and transformation of little lambs to battle-horses? “Together they will be like mighty men trampling the muddy streets in battle. Because the LORD is with them, they [the lambs] will fight and overthrow the horsemen” (v.5). You see the great word, ‘together.’ An army is not a group of individuals. We are not a collection of lone rangers. We are a body, the body of Christ, and he is our head and all of us are fitly framed together:
We are not divided, all one body we;
One in hope and doctrine; one in charity.
And there is a strength that every member of the body supplies to everyone else in the body. We cannot overcome the enemy by ourselves. We need one another; we need the help that other Christians can give us. Verse five tells us that we are to be together with the Lord in our midst to fight and overthrow the mighty anti-Christ forces that are in this world today. And God assures us of this through a chain of his great words, “I will.” “I will strengthen . . . I will save . . . I will restore . . . I have compassion, I will not reject them . . . I will answer them” (v.6). Exceeding great and precious promises made to these people and even to that long exiled tribe of Ephraim, or Israel, that was taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 722, a group that had declined cobweb thin by Zechariah’s day, but the Lord knew about them two centuries later and this is what he promised, “The Ephraimites will become like mighty men, and their hearts will be glad as with wine. Their children will see it and be joyful; their hearts will rejoice in the LORD” (v.7). Not Israel, surely! Not the Ephraimites, they must have gone for ever. No hope for them now. God says “Hope! Joy and rejoicing! They will become mighty men again.” We think of the mighty North African church which raised up men like Augustine and then how devastated the church was and wiped out by Islam’s Jihads. How paper thin the Christian church is in North Africa, for well over a thousand years, but God knows about it and has heard the prayers that have ascended to the head of the church for the people there: “May your kingdom come in North Africa again!”
David Feddes has pointed out, “There’s a lot more to following Jesus than being a nice, tame pussycat. The Bible speaks of Jesus as a lion (Revelation 5:5), and Scripture says, ‘The righteous are as bold as a lion’ (Proverbs 28:1). Do you see Jesus as a lion or as a fluffy kitten? Do you want to be a tame pet in a safe home that does nothing but lie around and eat? Or do you want to be a lion in the service of the ultimate lion, Jesus Christ? To live as a real Christian, it’s not enough to be tame and safe. You need to be bold, strong, even fierce.
“By the way, lack of this warrior mentality may be one reason many churches have little appeal to men. Instead of God’s call to be strong, some churches merely call men to be nice. Author John Eldredge says, ‘Christianity, as it currently exists, has done some terrible things to men. When all is said and done, I think most men in the church believe God put them on earth to be a good boy… If they try really hard they can reach the lofty summit of becoming … a nice guy. That’s what we hold up as models of Christian maturity: Really Nice Guys.’ Wouldn’t the evening service be more exciting if it became a strategy session of warriors? Wouldn’t our meetings be different if they became a place to rally for war against Satan? Church might then be a place not just for children, women, and old people, but for men – bold, vigorous, dangerous men who are strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Church would then invigorate, not emasculate.
“In any case, whether the church has turned men off by becoming too wimpy or men have simply hardened their hearts against the Lord, the fact remains that all of us – men and women alike – are living in a spiritual war zone. You might want nothing but a peaceful, easy feeling, but if you aren’t prepared to fight sin, if you’re not ready to battle Satan, if you’re not on a mission to win victories for Jesus, you are doomed. You can’t negotiate or make peace with Satan. In the 1938 before World War II, the British government was so eager to avoid conflict that it stood back as Adolph Hitler invaded one country after another. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain boasted of solving disputes ‘by discussion instead of by force of arms’ and spoke flattering words about Hitler and Mussolini. After the Munich agreement giving Czechoslovakia to Hitler, Chamberlain said, ‘I believe it is peace for our time. Go home and get a nice, quiet sleep.’ Many British people cheered wildly. But there would be no peace and very little quiet sleep. The only way to stop Hitler was to fight.
“When a tyrant wants to conquer everything he can, there can be no peace. Satan is a tyrant, and he wants to conquer everything he can. Satan wants to dominate you and hold you under the power of sin. Satan wants you to die in your sin and end up in hell with him. He wants people around you to perish too. He wants them to ignore Jesus, believe false religions, and end up in hell. If you expect peace in our time, a life without struggle or conflict, Satan will completely control you. Don’t be a spiritual appeaser. Stand against Satan. Fight him. Be a warrior. Join Jesus’ army, and don’t expect an easy, peaceful life. It’s hard to stand against Satan’s attacks. It’s hard to go into enemy-occupied territory and bring the liberty of Christ to those ruled by Satan. There will be no peace in our time. There will be spiritual warfare till Jesus comes again. As Paul says, ‘Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.’” (David Feddes, The Radio Pulpit, July 2003, “Call to Combat.”)
5. GOD IS THE GOD WHO RESTORES HIS PEOPLE.
He does this to us individually. David said of the Lord who was his Shepherd, “He restores my soul.” There were times when he knew a freshness of faith and a clarity of vision. He was delivered from luke-warmness. But God also restores his assemblies. He revives his work. He fills a church with reverence and godly fear and a sense of decency and order and evangelistic success. And so we have it in this vivid poetry. He signals to his flock like a shepherd does by whistling and waving his staff and the flock begin to move. He gathers them into the safe place for protection at night and sleeps across the entrance (v.8). He redeems them, and multiplies them so that they are as numerous as at any time in their history (v.8). Do you believe that God can do that today in such a way that this trend of the emptying and closing down of our churches will cease, and again there will be expansion and extraordinary growth. What Korea and China have seen in the last fifty years could as easily, if God wills, be seen all the world over in this century, a latter day glory to be witnessed in many places. “In distant lands they will remember me” (v.9) – what a promise that is for us all, and an encouragement to us to go on praying. You print it on a card on your desk, IN DISTANT LANDS THEY WILL REMEMBER ME, and you pray, “May it be so Lord.”
He tells the people in Zechariah’s congregation that this will surely happen to them, “They will return,” from Babylon and even from Assyria. Gilead and Lebanon will be the places that will first be filled, the most fertile parts of the Middle East will be inhabited by the people that God has saved, and restored. But those places will not be spacious enough to contain the multitudes who are returning to stand in solidarity of faith with the people of God; “there will not be room enough for them” (v.10). They had returned from Babylon for ten years to the ruins of the city, and he had given them two prophet preachers, Haggai and Zechariah to boost their morale and encourage them in building the city and temple. He gave them enlarged hope, and then one day he tells them that their vision is too small, that they must not look at a strong little city with high walls and a beautiful Temple as the finished product. Think big! Think Lebanon! Think Gilead! Think of nations in captivity for 200 years coming back. Think of Egypt giving up her exiles. Think Babylon being abandoned by a hundred thousand believers in the Lord.
What seas of difficulty lie in the way of this being achieved! “Do not fear!” God says, “They will pass through the sea of trouble; the surging sea will be subdued and all the depths of the Nile will dry up” (v.11). You stood near the promenade during the mighty storms of February. You saw pictures of the waves breaking over the five storey buildings and hiding them. You saw the power of the waves in moving rocks that were tons in weight, and then you remembered the power of the Lord over the sea. He could open the Red Sea that the people of God could march across on dry land. The Lord could speak and the waves and the wind obeyed him. The Lord could walk on the sea and enable Peter to do so also – the Master of ocean and earth and sea. They all so sweetly obeyed his will, “Peace be still!” So we understand the ground of his promise here that tells them they should never be discouraged, “They will pass through the sea of trouble; the surging sea will be subdued and all the depths of the Nile will dry up” (v.11).
God looks at the mightiest enemy facing us today, whoever or whatever that might be and God says, “Assyria’s pride will be brought down and Egypt’s sceptre will pass away.” Then he turns to his people and says of them, “I will strengthen them in the LORD and in his name they will walk, declares the LORD.” That is our future, the gates of hell are not going to prevail against the church, rather we are being more than conquerors through his love. We are walking in his name, and obtaining new strength day by day. That is most certainly the future of every single Christian. Let us never be discouraged; let us pray on and work on, always abounding in the work of the Lord.
9th March 2013 GEOFF THOMAS