Open Your Ears

Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor
will himself call out and not be answered.

– Proverbs 21.13

 

Does God always answer prayer? Generally we answer “Yes, though sometimes His answer is ‘No.'” This passage makes us think twice.

The word in the passage translated as “cry” (za’aqah) is a technical term. It is not just any cry. It is not simply “Woe is me, for I am poor,” or “Please give me money.” Rather, it is a cry against injustice. It is the cry of the oppressed. It is the cry of a plaintiff to a judge. It is the cry of the poor for justice in the face of injustice. Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright says it is “the technical term for the cry of protest or pain out of a situation of injustice, cruelty or violence” (Christopher Wright, The Mission of God, p 272, n7). See its usage in the following passages:

“Then the LORD said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.'” (Genesis 18.20-21, NRSV)

And what exactly was the sin of that most infamous pair of cities which typifies rebellion against God’s good design throughout the whole Old Testament? What was this “outcry” about?

“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16.49–50, ESV)

How easily could this same thing be said of us in the West? Yet Sodom and Gomorrah were wiped off the map and serve as paradigmatic objects of God’s wrath for this reason: they did not aid (i.e. listen to and care for) the poor and needy. (See also Gen 19:13.)

But this outcry against injustice does not only provoke wrath, it also provokes deliverance. In fact, just as it provokes that most paradigmatic expression of wrath in the Old Testament, it also provokes that most paradigmatic act of deliverance in the Old Testament: the exodus.

“Then the LORD said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.'” (Exodus 3.7–10, ESV)

(For more uses of the same word, see also Gen 18.20; Isa 15.5, 8; 65.19; Jer 18.22; 20.16; 48.4, 34; 51.54; Job 16.18;Est 4.1; 9.31; Neh 5.6; 9.9.)

So God listens to outcries against injustice, and it provokes both judgment and deliverance. God listens. But do we?

“Whoever closes his ear to the outcry of the poor against injustice,
he himself will also call out but he will not be answered.” (Proverbs 21.13)

I have a pastor friend who said, “My Bible says God answers my prayers if I listen to the poor. And I want God to answer my prayers.” Yes, we can argue about the theological nuances, but don’t let the force of what God is saying get lost in the arguments about what He’s not saying. Let’s not use our theology to blunt the force of God’s Word. Let us let Him speak.

To whom do we need to be listening? Where is the cry against injustice among the poor in your world? Is it the refugees (Muslim, even?) in Syria, Sudan, Somalia? Is it Black Lives Matter? We don’t have to agree with or affirm everything, but we do need to listen to the stories, listen to the cries against injustice. Listen to the pleas for justice and equity. Is it the person living on the street that you see every morning on the corner? Is it the housekeeper? Is it the immigrant, documented or not? To whom do you need to listen?

God will listen. God will answer. And it may provoke Him to act in both judgment and deliverance. How will He judge us? How will He judge our country and society for closing our ears to the outcries of the poor against injustice? To whom do you need to listen?

“They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

Martin Niemoeller, Protestant pastor opposed to Nazi regime, served seven years in concentration camp

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He Restores My Soul

[NERD ALERT! This is something I wrote a while ago for a friend who was having a rough time, and who also loves Psalms and Hebrew. That said, there are only like three people who actually read our blogs (hi moms!), and they already know I’m a nerd and love Hebrew. So I have no qualms with potentially appearing to flaunt. I just love Hebrew. For those that don’t, skip this blog, or skip to the end. Also, (soap box moment!) I hope this at least demonstrates the value of learning Greek and Hebrew for actual, practical, relevant, helpful study of Scripture that can actually be encouraging. It’s not irrelevant for today, or for the things that trouble us. Encourage your pastor to know the languages, or learn it yourself!]

 

נפשׂ ישׂובב

“He restores my soul” (Psalm 23.3)

 

I was reading Psalm 23 again recently and it occurred to me to share this with you as an encouragement. I know this season has been a difficult one for you. I hope encouragement and hope are restored to you. And what better way to do that than Hebrew + Psalms!

Word Studies

נפשׁ is not just “soul,” but that which gives rise to life. It is life and liveliness and vitality.

ישׂובב is fundamentally to turn around and return to a previous position.

Piel

The verb is piel not polel. Factitive or frequentitive: either causing a state (a restored soul), or repeated/iterative action, respectively. I think it is factitive (i.e. causative [it causes a new state of being]). The iteration comes next…

Imperfect / yiqtol

As with most of the verb in this beginning section, this is in the imperfect “tense” (a.k.a. yiqtol). This is not so much a temporal “tense” in the English sense so much as an aspectual form. In this case it functions as iterative – repeated action (to the point of almost being gnomic – a general statement of universal truth).

Translations

HALOT [Hebrew dictionary]: “literally ‘to bring back liveliness, vitality’”
Mine: “He will cause my life/vitality to return” or “He regularly causes my vitality to return”

 

The sum total of these elements is that David is delighting in the fact that while some seasons might be as through the valley of deep darkness and others are at the banquet table, Yahweh, as the Good Shepherd of his נפשׁ [soul], regularly, repeatedly, often, dependably, iteratively brings David’s liveliness back to him. Yahweh regularly causes David’s vitality to return to him. Granted, it is in God’s timing and ways, and sometimes the valleys are longer and darker than we’d like. Nonetheless, [Yahweh regularly, dependably brings us back to life]. May Yahweh likewise restore your vitality, [for the sake of His name].

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A Word for Those with Lots to Do!

Most of us know that life can get overwhelming at times. You likely don’t need to be told that. “So much to do, so little time.” I recall my own grad school days: sometimes it just feels like the work never ends, and there is absolutely no way you can get it all done in time. Sound familiar? Furthermore, when we go about doing our best to get as much done as possible, we do so anxiously, fretfully, feeling the pressure that it all rides on our shoulders. And for the rest of us that aren’t students any longer, we know that it doesn’t get easier—it only gets more demanding.

We may know somewhere in our minds that we need not be anxious (Matt 6.25-34), but we can’t help it! We may know that we can do nothing apart from Christ (John 15.5) or that apart from Him our work is in vain (Psalm 127.1-2; cf. 1 Cor 15.58), yet we still feel it all depends on us. What shall we do?

While the Bible has plenty to say about all this (see below for a few suggestions), I’d like to offer just one verse and a practical suggestion to help us in this. (I learned this one the hard way: through the fire of experience myself.)

Paul is writing about the nature of his ministry, the challenges of proclaiming the good news that Jesus reigns as King, and helping them grow in maturity, and he concludes with this:

“For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”

(Col 1.29 ESV)

Notice the switches in the pronouns (underlined), and the verbs (italicized) they’re combined with. Who is doing the work? Is Paul working or is God?

You are correct! Both! Trick question! (And you thought you could be free from pop quizzes!)

Similar to Philippians 2.12-13, Paul is showing us here that God calls us to work hard while trustingly depending on Him to provide the strength, energy, and ability to do so without fretting and worrying and anxiety. Yes, we are called to work hard within limits that God has established for us as finite beings (see Ps 103.14; for example sleep, good food, church, exercise, Sabbath/Lord’s Day, community, etc.). He know our limits — He made them! But when it comes time to get to work, we can do so without anxiety or undue stress or trusting in ourselves and depending on our own abilities. So many times this was drilled into me: I was all worried about an exam or a paper or something at work, yet God came through in miraculous ways. And this was not in spite of my laziness, but by means of hard work, the energy for which God provided. Faith and hard work are not mutually exclusive. Rather, faith and hard work can combine in a way that results in peaceful trust and dependence, and praise to God.

So how can we enjoy this seemingly impossible combination of peace and trust with hard work and lots to do? I’m sure there are many ways; I’ll suggest just one. Start your day / studying / work with a prayer, based on one of the following passages, to put your trust in God and ask for His help and strength, confessing that you depend on Him, not on your abilities or efforts. Then end the day with a moment of prayer recognizing His help through the day and praising Him for it. If this is established as a regular rhythm, you will find over time that you can lean more and more into it, and that He is indeed faithful. May we all learn the rhythms of working hard “by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4.11).

Suggested passages for meditation:

Ps 121, 127:1-2; Isa 41.10, 41.13, 43.1, 64.4; Matt 6.25-34; Col 1.29; Phil 2.12-13; 1 Peter 4.11.

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The God Who Celebrates

A Meditation on The Parables of the Two Sons (read Luke 15:1-3; 11-32).

Many of us today feel that God plays sternly by the rule book. Unbendingly. While we acknowledge with our minds that He is just and good, and His instructions in Scripture are for our good, and He will by no means let wickedness go unpunished, we take this a step further and we feel like that means He is morose, removed, and demanding. Tit for tat. Get it right and He’ll be happy; but if you mess it up don’t come to Him until you’ve set it right. And He most surely does not laugh. He is loving, but in a stern kind of way. Often we would not say we believe these things. We believe that God is gracious. But often we feel otherwise. We often feel like God is really pissed off at us and we have to clean up our mess first. And what we feel about God is often more telling than what we say we believe.

Think about the last time you messed up before God, whatever that means for you. Think about the last time you recognized your brokenness and sin before God. Maybe you lost your cool with your child or spouse, or were jealous of your coworker, or anxious about your exams, or lusted after another, or killed someone with your words. In that moment, in that very moment, what did you imagine God thinking and feeling about you at that moment? How did you imagine God would respond to your return to Him at that moment? Was He approachable?

These ideas about God are not new. The Pharisees and the scribes, the really religious people, thought God was unbendingly by the rules. Get your act together and then you’ll be in His good graces. But Jesus showed something different. And all the “bad people” in town, the tax collectors and sinners, actually liked to hang out with him (how many “sinners” like to hang out with Christians today?), and He actually liked to be associated with them (how many Christians have this reputation today?)! So the Pharisees were complaining about the situation, and Jesus responds with three parables, of which we have read the last.

All three have the same main point: God seeks and saves people who are lost and celebrates with great joy at a massive party when they are found. In this parable, the younger son represents the sinners and tax collectors, the older son represents the Pharisees and scribes, and the father in the story represents God, as embodied in Jesus. But I’d like to concentrate here on just one verse, because it offers us probably the most profound look into the very heart of what makes God tick.

This verse first struck me roughly ten years ago. I was in a really dark spot one day while on a short term mission trip in India: discouraged, lonely, generally very pessimistic about my own faith. I did not feel that God was pleased with me. I was reading through some passages, when I came to verse 20, and it pierced me to my core, shook me right up, broke me, and I wept. For a long time. Verse 20 reads:

“And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

The father was keeping a keen eye out for him. And when he saw him, his insides got all twisted up with affection, with gladness, with empathy, with deep deep love. And he ran! This old, dignified, respected man ran in front of everyone! Shameless and undignified! And instead of lecturing him, and asking if he had cleaned up his mess and if he was sorry and wouldn’t do it again, without a single question or word he ran and he embraced him and kissed him! And as the kid tries to give his prepared lecture of remorse, the father interrupted him, welcomes him back into the family as his son, because he just couldn’t wait to get the party started.

This is how God responds when we come home to Him. This is the reality, regardless of how you and I feel about what God must think of us. Jesus tells us, and demonstrates for us, that God is not morose, detached, and unbendingly by the rule book. Jesus shows us that God delights to show mercy, and He loves to celebrate.

Is that what we imagine when we recognize our own brokenness and look back to God in hope or longing? Probably not for most of us, most of the time. But I’d like to suggest one thing based on this parable. And I think this one thing makes all the difference in the world. I’d like to suggest that you dare to believe that God would celebrate your homecoming (next time you mess up).

Or perhaps you are not the younger son. I am an oldest son, and an older brother. To some extent, I identify more with the older son in the parable who is responsible, obedience, faithful son who never abandoned his dad, but is resentful on the inside and actually unsure of the father’s love for him, thinking it is earned and not free. To the older sons and daughters among us as well, God invites us to come home fully into His love for you, and promises He will celebrate over you too. For the older sons and daughters: Dare to believe that God would celebrate your homecoming.

Commenting on the fact that in all three parables the main character says “Rejoice with me,” Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen says: “All these voices are the voices of God. God does not want to keep his joy to himself. He wants everyone to share in it. God’s joy is the joy of his angels and his saints; it is the joy of all who belong to the Kingdom.” This is the heartbeat that motivates His welcoming of the younger son back home. This is the heartbeat that motivates His yet-unaccepted invitation to the older son to be fully loved. This is a God who celebrates. He is the absolute opposite of morose, detached, disinterested, or unbendingly by the rule book. God is the happiest being in the universe. He delights to show mercy — it makes Him happy! This is the God who celebrates.

I dare you to believe that God would celebrate your homecoming too.

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He stands ready to be found

Sometimes we feel like our worlds (figurative or literal) are falling apart. And sometimes we wonder if God cares, because He seems absent. Or at best, the Bible seems simply disinterested, being preoccupied with pie-in-the-sky praise of God disconnected from our struggles. But the hymn and prayer book of the people of God (Psalms) is quite the opposite.

In Psalm 46, we find two themes smashed together. First is that of chaos. Much like our internal and external worlds, the writer of this prayer/song looks around and sees utter chaos. He articulates this metaphorically (the psalms avoid abstract thought and instead concentrate on concrete expressions) as the mountains moving (sliding) into the sea and the whole earth giving way (verse 2); the waters of chaos roar and foam, the mountains tremble (verse 3); the nations raging and kingdoms falling apart (verse 6). Everywhere he looks, his world seems to be falling apart. Everywhere he looks there is chaos.

Where is God?

One could translate verse 1 as this: God is “a helper very ready to be found in times of chaos.” When we find God in the midst of this chaos, what do we find?

A second theme throughout the psalm explains what we find when we find God: a safe place. The psalm starts with saying God is a “refuge” and “strength.” A refuge is a safe place. One writer says this: “This idea of taking refuge may well derive from the common experience of fugitives or of men at war, for whom the adjacent hills provided a ready ‘safe height’ or ‘strong rock’ to which the often helpless defender could hurry for protection.” The repeated theme verse of the whole psalm (verses 7 and 11) summarizes this idea of protection and safe space: “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

A strange combination: chaos and safe place. How can this be? Because God reigns. God is King. Yes, there are kingdoms and nations and countries here and there that seem to be in control, that hold sway with their good or bad or mediocre authority. But the supreme authority over them all is God. The one who reigns with absolute justice and goodness is God. And now He is patient. But make no mistake, He will return, and He will make all things right again, either through judgment or through deliverance.

How can we find Him as a safe place in the midst of chaos? When the doctor calls with the results or the boss invites you into the office for ‘that talk’ or your significant other hurts you deeply or you don’t know where the next meal will come from — how do we find God as a safe place in the midst of chaos? Because it says he stand very very ready to be found. But that’s passive; He is found. How do we find Him?

Verse 20 gives us the answer: STOP. Stop. Cease. Stop fretting. Stop trusting in your own abilities and contingency plans. Stop planning in a fretful way as if it all depends on you. Stop acting as if your God didn’t exist, as if He didn’t reign. Be still, and recognize, call to mind, the reality that God reigns as king in absolute authority. In the end, He will be made much of among all the nations, and among all the earth. He will make all things right again in the end, whether through judgment or deliverance.

In the midst of this chaos, He stands ready to be found as our help. We are invited, in the midst of the chaos, to STOP, to cease from all our chaotic thrashings in attempting to contain and control the chaos, and recognize/remember that Yahweh is God alone. In this way He will be exalted among the nations.


Though the whole world is falling apart around us, God stands ready to be found as a helper to all who stop and recognize that He still reigns, and so He will be made much of among the nations.

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He Who Dwells in Unapproachable Light

The God of the universe dwells in unapproachable light
Whose glory is so great that mortal men
would crumble in its afterglow
Whose mind and knowledge is so vast that
neither man nor woman,
neither orca whale nor faithful ant,
neither the universe nor the atom
is a mystery

The God of the universe dwells in unapproachable light
Whose brilliance both warms the soul with steadfast love
but also quakes knees with righteous judgement
The light contains all of who he is: not diluted, not adulterated,
but pure, absolute truth
Yet we cannot perceive it

We cannot perceive it because we
shade our eyes to the things we can’t comprehend
We cannot perceive it because unapproachable light
shines radiantly on the darkest parts of our souls
And we hide

We interpret that when the Psalmist says, “such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain”
that he has found a legitimate reason to stop. trying.
It is too difficult, so I won’t go there
It is too painful, so I can’t touch that
I am too unworthy so I will sit in the shadows

But even the shadows cannot shade
the one who dwells in unapproachable light

Now hear the mystery and beauty of this glory
Hear what should stir our souls
to rejoice and dance and laugh and sing with tentative exuberance
because of how deeply profound this mystery is:

That the one who dwells in unapproachable light
Became approachable.

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But God…

One hundred and forty characters.

That’s how many you’re allowed in a tweet.

 

One hundred and sixty characters.

That’s how many you’re allowed in a standard text message (unless, of course, you’ve joined the 21st century and gotten an iPhone and use iMessage).

 

In our 24/7 world of non-stop action, there’s a premium on brevity. How briefly can you condense your message, your tweet, your opinion, your news headline, your status update? Because it’s got to catch attention and make an impact. It’s got to stick. And making it brief and memorable is what matters.

 

What if I told you that I think the most important news in the history of the entire world has been condensed into two words?

 

Two words.

Six characters. Not 160, but 6.

 

Here it is:

“But God…”

 

The greatest, happiest, and most important news in the history of the world is that God came down in the person of Jesus to reconcile us to Himself — to overcome and forgive sin, vanquish death and evil, and restore all of creation to His good kingdom, in spite of our disobedience, rebellion, treason, and unthankfulness. It’s not just that He came to rescue humanity. It’s that He came to rescue humanity when we didn’t want Him to. We were lost and helpless and enjoying our rebellious sinfulness, but God came!

 

The Bible is full of passages that show God’s good and loving initiative to save humanity in spite of our rebellion. Let’s start with

 

And you [all] were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:1–3, ESV)

 

That’s a pretty dire situation. This was our situation. Every one of us (at least at some point) stood here. Perhaps you still do. I know I did. Dead in my sin, following the course of this world, ruled by Satan rather than God, living according to my own desires of body and mind which lead to death. By nature a child of wrath. That’s not a good situation. Then what?

 

BUT GOD, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4–7, ESV)

 

That’s great news! And the contrast couldn’t be clearer. Notice the writer, Paul, doesn’t say “and God.” “But” indicates a contrast, a surprising turn of events, something different than what has previously been said, something discontinuous and otherwise unexpected. It is as much as to say, “In spite of the fact that we were in this situation [“even when we were dead in our trespasses”], nonetheless God came.” And what did God come to accomplish? He made us alive together with Christ. Though once we were dead in sin, deserving just punishment for our sins (the punishment of which is death [Romans 6:23]), God came to make us alive. And not just alive, but spiritually alive such that our souls can feast on the infinite goodness of God which we are enabled to see in Jesus. It would not be good news to be simply alive, yet still deserving judgment. It is, however, good news to be alive with Jesus. Because Jesus is the only Reality which satisfies. He made us alive together with Christ in sweet and intimate and eternal fellowship as we join into the love between God the Father and God the Son in God the Holy Spirit.

 

And why did God do this in spite of our persistent rebellion, when we hadn’t asked Him to come and save us? He was “rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us.” We were not entitled to be rescued. We deserve death and hell for our treason. A traitor is not entitled to presidential pardon. But while God is just, He is also rich in mercy. So He made a way to rescue us because He loves us. Greatly.

 

To me this is not just good news. This is great news. And it’s the only news of hope on which I can stake my life. Four years ago I read this passage and it struck me like an arrow through the heart — what I’ve been saved from, what I’ve been saved for, and the great cost and great love involved. It brought me to tears. Sobbing. There is no other hope — at least not once you’ve come to realize your own sin. But this is a sure hope and anchor for our souls.

 

But it’s not just in Ephesians that we find this theme. In fact we find this great contrast of God’s saving initiative in spite of our rebellion throughout the entire Bible. I could probably find multiple occurrences in every one of the 66 books of the Bible. But I’ll just share four that have really brought me hope.

 

  1. Psalm 106

    starts with 43 verses outlining the entire history of Israel. God was good and kind to Israel, giving all kinds of gifts and promises and protection. Yet Israel sinned, forsaking God and going after other gods. Verse 44 brings the gospel climax:

    NEVERTHELESS, he looked upon their distress, when he heard their cry.” (Psalm 106:44, ESV)

    In spite of centuries of their rebellion, God still looked upon their distress, had compassion and pity, heard their cry, and did something on their behalf.

  2. Psalm 78:38

    “They remembered that God was their rock, the Most High God their redeemer. But they flattered him with their mouths; they lied to him with their tongues. Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not faithful to his covenant.” (Psalm 78:35–37, ESV)

    And what was God’s response to this adulterous and faithless bride?

    YET HE, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often and did not stir up all his wrath.” (Psalm 78:38, ESV)

  3. Psalm 73:21-22

    Perhaps you’re thinking that Israel had a bad track record, but did the individual ever give voice to this?

    When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.” (Psalm 73:21–22, ESV)

    And what was God’s response to this person — embittered, brutish and ignorant, acting like an unthinking and unthankful beast toward God? Did God give up on him? Did God discard him?

    NEVERTHELESS, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:23–26, ESV)

    The psalmist is not continually with God because he is such a good guy and faithful believer — he has just confessed as much in the previous verse. He is continually with God because God is continually with him.

  4.  Nehemiah 9:17

    This is one of my favorites. Speaking of the history of Israel (our spiritual forebearers, made of the same stuff as us) in a long prayer of repentance, Nehemiah says:

    They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. BUT you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.” (Nehemiah 9:17, ESV)

“But God,” “nevertheless,” “yet He,” “But you,” are all words that point us, in one or two words, to the greatest news in history. In spite of our sin, God loves us and came to rescue us. Condensed into two words, six characters. That’s worth a tweet.

MDL

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