Twelve more favourite Bible characters
I count myself blessed for having been sent along to Sunday School as a child. One of the characters that kept cropping up in our lessons was Moses. Stories of him being put in a basket and hidden in the bulrushes away from the clutches of the wicked Pharoah, meeting with God at the burning bush and him leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt bondage, crossing the Red Sea and wandering in the wilderness are three of many that come to mind. In my teens, I remember reading a commentator make the point Moses spent forty years thinking he was a somebody, forty years learning he was a nobody and forty years experiencing how God could use a nobody, and the thought impacted me. Given how much is written about Moses, much of which is positive, for after all he is the major figure in four of the books of the Bible and is referred to in many more, we have no shortage of evidence of Moses’ qualities. Yet the fact he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, despite being the one person more than anyone else, other than the Almighty, who had made it possible, only goes to show his human failures were significant enough for God not to allow it – it was the high price he had to pay for his disobedience when he struck the rock. After Moses had his God encounter, aged 80, while looking after his father-in-law’s sheep, putting aside his striking the rock, he was obedient in all what God told him to do, keeping faith and being faithful, even when the natural odds for the desired outcome and the going was getting tough with God delaying doing what He promised. While he could only get a glimpse of God’s backside, given he could not stand in the midst of His glory, he did in effect speak to God face to face and God confided in Moses in a way he has rarely otherwise done with others. Moses showed his compassion and was able to successfully intercede on behalf of Israel when God said He would cut them off because of their unbelief and even managed to change God’s mind, because of the Golden Calf incident, one of many when Israel rebelled against God. Perhaps the one thing that stands out among his many other qualities was Moses meekness: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” Numbers 12:3. While this quality is often not one that is highly rated according to many human standards, it is important when it comes to God deciding to use us.
Not long after entering into the wilderness, Caleb was one of the twelve spies sent by Moses into Canaan (one from each of the twelve tribes). Their task, over a period of 40 days, was to explore the land God had promised to Israel, and to make an assessment of the geographical features of the land, the strength and numbers of the population, the agricultural potential (including bringing back samples of the produce), actual performance of the land, and settlement patterns (including where there were strongholds). Moses asked them to be courageous and to bring back reports. All the spies came back and testified that this was indeed a land flowing with milk and honey, but ten of them advised against trying to possess it because of the giants who lived there would prevent them. Caleb (aged 40) along with Joshua gave contrary counsel and said Israel could and should enter the land because God was with them. Tragically, Israel was persuaded by the argument of the ten and it was not until 45 years later Caleb, who kept the faith throughout and along with Joshua were the only people allowed in to possess the land, under Joshua’s leadership. In laying claim to his inheritance, Caleb reminded Joshua of the promise God gave Moses many years prior: “Surely there shall not one of these men of this evil generation see that good land, which I sware to give unto your fathers. Save Caleb the son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him will I give the land that he hath trodden upon, and to his children, because he hath wholly followed the Lord” Deuteronomy 1:35,36. Moreover, it was the land where those very giants that so frightened off the people were concentrated, he asked for: “Now therefore give me this mountain, whereof the Lord spake in that day; for thou heardest in that day how the Anakims were there, and that the cities were great and fenced: if so be the Lord will be with me, then I shall be able to drive them out, as the Lord said. And Joshua blessed him, and gave unto Caleb the son of Jephunneh Hebron for an inheritance” Joshua 14:12,13. What I find attractive about Caleb is he kept his strong faith over all these years, not allowing age or fear to get in the way of claiming his inheritance, holding onto the promise he had received, maintaining his commitment to the Lord and, unlike many, was whole hearted.
Boaz was an amazing guy that was lucky enough to marry one of the loveliest ladies in the Bible – Ruth – the entire story being told in the book of Ruth. All of which took place in a tumultuous time in Israel’s history – as recounted in the Book of Judges. I love Boaz because he was an honourable and God-fearing man, who lived in a time when honour and the fear of God were at a premium. He was, from what we can make out, a prosperous land owner, who happened to care for the poor. If anyone wants an example of why capitalism is better than communism, Boaz is it. The fact there was not too many of his ilk around is a reason why it may not be. The Law, under which Israel was meant to operate, made few demands on individual entrepreneurs, but made ample provision where the haves had to take care of the have nots, and when that happened society thrived. Boaz discharged all his obligation, e.g. relating to gleaning – and more. It happened (brilliant Bible euphemism for a God instance) that at that time impoverished Ruth gleaned in Boaz’s field and he ensured she was more than taken care of. I particularly like his first entrance on the scene when he greeted his workers with “the Lord bless you” (now wouldn’t that be nice if it happened today). The wonderful happenstance bit concerns Boaz as Ruth’s kinsman redeemer, who being a close relative of Ruth’s late husband had the right to marry her according to Jewish Law – except he was not first in line to marry the widow Ruth and someone else had first refusal, so to speak. Which brings me to another great aspect of Boaz’s character and why honour comes to mind – he did everything by the book (something this ducker and diver has taken note), treating Ruth after she dropped the bombshell in what had been a beautiful set-up and everyone involved with the greatest respect. In the end he married the lovely Ruth and their son, Obed, was a direct ancestor of Jesus. There is no better example in the Bible of how to conduct oneself than Boaz.
There are two amazing things about Hannah that makes her one of my favourite Bible characters. Firstly, she was a barren woman who desperately wanted a child, not helped as she was taunted by her husband’s other wife, and so she prayed to the Lord … “she vowed a vow, and said, O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head” 1Samuel 1:11. God answered Hannah’s prayer and the result was Samuel, him eventually becoming one of the great prophets, her fulfilling her vow and God giving her five more children. When she handed Samuel over into the custody of Eli the priest, she prayed a remarkable prayer that revealed such a tender heart, a love for the poor and lowly, and a simple trust in the Lord that is reminiscent to that of Mary, in her Magnificat, that was likely inspired by Hannah’s prayer: “… My heart rejoiceth in the Lord, mine horn is exalted in the Lord: my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in thy salvation. There is none holy as the Lord: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God … The Lord killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up. The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and he hath set the world upon them …” (1Samuel 2:1,2;6-8). The second amazing thing about Hannah’s story is it reminds us that there have been many great men of God down the ages who were indebted to a praying mother, and while we cannot make our children into what we would like them to be, we can still pray for them that God will have His way in their lives.
David is an interesting character – there are things about him I dislike and that goes beyond his murder of Uriah the Hittite to cover up his adulterous affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. While David lived in a violent age, he could also be violent toward those who crossed him. He couldn’t have been much of a father – two of his sons tried to steal the throne from him. His ego led to him doing a not needed census and this attracted divine judgment. YET how many among the good and the great in the Bible could be called a man after God’s own heart, besides David? It was David’s heart that drew him to our attention in the first place. He was the youngest among eight brothers – a mere shepherd boy, who was almost overlooked when the prophet Samuel called by to anoint the next king Israel, knowing only it was to be a son of David’s father, Jesse. In checking out sons one to seven, God had to tell him that while man looks at the outward appearance, God looks at the heart, and as David, who fitted the bill, was the one who was God’s choice, it was he who Samuel anointed. Soon all could see that special quality what God saw, as the armies of Israel was set against those of the Philistines, and their champion, Goliath, challenged Israel’s champion to single handed combat, with the winner taking the spoils. David alone responded to the call because Goliath had defied the armies of the living God and all what mattered was to fight in God’s name. There is much about his story that is of interest, including how he established the kingdom, going from his father’s house, to part of the Royal Court, an outlaw and then king, and that from his line the future Messiah would come. Incredible but true, but half of the 150 Psalms were likely written by David and these have blessed many besides myself in the 3000 years that followed. Back to the business of the heart, David could and did stray from the Lord, but was willing to be corrected. Besides establishing Israel to be the most secure it has ever been, because his heart was for God, incorporating doing His will and a desire for God to be honoured and glorified, the messianic promise, and his amazing Psalms that still bless many, all that and more are reasons for his greatness and making him a favourite.
When I look at Isaiah, I do not see an outstandingly, charismatic in personality, character but rather a modest, faithful servant of the Lord who effectively wrote what my early mentors referred to as the fifth gospel, touching on all aspects of the gospel story, combining magnificently aspects such as judgement and mercy, holiness and love, righteousness and hope, and whose wonderfully memorable quotes, taken as a collective, exceed that of any other book of the Bible in terms of number, profoundness, sublimity. Isaiah is known as the court prophet and was of royal descent and was able to regularly rub shoulders with the high and mighty, yet in having that access it did not corrupt him. Yet over a period of more than forty years he faithfully prophesied without fear or favour, and under five different kings, ranging from the very good to the very bad. It is believed under the fifth, wicked Manasseh, he was told to not prophesy and he was so hated that he suffered a martyr’s death. But Isaiah first comes to our attention under, what started off as good and ended up as a bad king, Uzziah, for: “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple … And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” Isaiah 6:1,3. It was his vision of this thrice holy God that defined his ministry from then on. He would afterward repeatedly refer to God as “the Holy One of Israel”. Following that vision, there was the call of God, which the now humbled Isaiah responded to, but it came with the salutary warning that people were not going to heed his words: “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed” Isaiah 6:8-10. How blessed, we who live now are, that Isaiah was able to prophesy such tremendous stuff; much of which has been fulfilled down to the letter, e.g. concerning the first coming of the Messiah, and will be, e.g. the second coming of the Messiah, but that he faithfully and consistently responded to God’s call.
When we think of Hosea, we might well want to compare him with another outstanding prophet, his near contemporary, Amos (whose concern for social justice, for example, could also qualify him as a favourite). Both prophesied to the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and were the last to do so before Israel was taken into captivity by the Assyrians. What they each saw was quite similar – a nation where many (but not all) were doing well, often were smug and self-satisfied but, as was manifest in many different ways, had turned from God and broken their covenant with Him, and it was only a matter of time for God to judge, unless they repented. While, as would be expected, Amos and Hosea messages had much in common, their approaches were far different. One commentator has associated the notions of affection, wooing, tender and mercy with Hosea and justice, accusation, warning and tough with Amos, and the truth for any gospel preacher today is both are needed. Hosea introduces and develops the importance of what is encapsulated in the Hebrew as “Chesed”. This is used to depict kindness or love between people, of the devotional piety of people and faithfulness towards God and love or mercy of God towards humanity. It is seen in the marital motif of troth and betroth. The thrilling thing to note in Hosea’s story, is how the message and the man interacted, for God often used the life experiences of individual prophets in their respective ministries. Hosea married a prostitute but despite her unfaithfulness went out of his way and at personal cost to woo her back into the marital home. What Hosea was doing with Gomer, his wife, is what God has been doing all along with his faithless people, Israel. From his own painful experience, he gained insight into how God felt. “Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain righteousness upon you” Hosea 10:12 and “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him” Hosea 14:4, have ever been God’s desire for His people. I am encouraged God uses our painful experiences as we serve Him.
As for reasons for making Hezekiah a favourite, we need go no further than how he is introduced in the Book of Kings: “Twenty and five years old was he when he began to reign; and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name also was Abi, the daughter of Zachariah. And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that David his father did. He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan. He trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him. For he clave to the Lord, and departed not from following him, but kept his commandments, which the Lord commanded Moses. And the Lord was with him; and he prospered whithersoever he went forth: and he rebelled against the king of Assyria, and served him not” 2Kings 18:2-7. As for context and what makes Hezekiah so remarkable is that his father Ahaz was a bad king, the people had largely turned away from God and he had his work cut out in order to turn things around. While good and bad can be seen as relative terms, following the divided kingdom, all 19 kings of Israel may be deemed as bad and 12 of the 20 kings and Judah. Hezekiah went that step further as far as good is concerned by removing the High Places, but even though we read he stopped serving the king of Assyria, he paid a hefty price to be left alone, by having to pay him tribute, as well as later in life when his flaws could be seen and he faced an early death at the hands of God for not putting his house in order, although he was granted a reprieve due to his repentance. Hezekiah’s finest hour perhaps, that showed his admirable character, was when the Assyrians invaded, threatening to completely subjugate Judah, just as they had done not so many years earlier with Israel and, humanly speaking, there was little to be done to stop them. What follows is one of many amazing prayers we find in the Bible, as he laid the threatening letter from the Assyrians, which advised surrender, before the Lord: “Incline thine ear, O Lord, and hear; open thine eyes, O Lord, and see: and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which hath sent to reproach the living God. Of a truth, Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations, and their countries, And have cast their gods into the fire: for they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone: therefore they have destroyed them. Now therefore, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou art the Lord, even thou only” Isaiah 37:16-20. As for the answer to prayer: “Then the angel of the Lord went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses” Isaiah 37:36.
Like most of our chosen favourites, if we wanted to know what made them tick, we should get to know the context in which they operated. This is particularly so in the case of Nehemiah, and to which readers are referred to earlier chapters of this book and the Books of Nehemiah and of his close contemporary (another amazing fellow) Ezra. Nehemiah appears on the scene nearly one hundred years after the first exiles returned to Judah – and things weren’t looking good – and if the truth be known, other some notable highlights, the glorious return that had been anticipated, culminating with the arrival on the scene of Israel’s Messiah, had not materialised and wouldn’t do so for another 400 years. Most of those who were exiled never returned. Nehemiah’s job was interesting – he was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, there in Babylon, watching the fortunes of the returnees with concerned interest from afar. While his job meant that if, when tasting the king’s food and drink, it was found to be poisoned, he would be the first to know, it was a responsible position and he was able to gain the king’s confidence – a thing he could exploit to bring about the purposes of God. News about those exiles who had returned was not good – “Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire” Nehemiah 1:2,3. Where Nehemiah’s greatness stood out was in his prayerful response: “And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven, And said, I beseech thee, O Lord God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments: Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned …” Nehemiah 4:3-7. This was followed by Nehemiah claiming God’s promise and asking God’s favour regards what he could do about remedying the situation. The rest of the Book of Nehemiah revolves round narrative of his practical response, including supervising building the wall and encouraging and organising the people, often taking the side of the underdog and joining with them, while at the same time taking to task without fear or favour those who had acted wrongly, despite all sorts of barriers – both from within and without, but always prayerfully entreating God, often with pithy, down to earth prayers. One can’t help but admire his tenacity and long for Nehemiah types in our own day!
John the Baptist
John the Baptist is the NT version of Elijah and the reasons that draw me to Elijah, draw me to John as well. While Elijah suddenly appears on the scene to prophesy a period of drought, John was in action before he was even born, when he leaped in his mother’s womb when she came face to face with Mary, who was herself carrying Jesus. Then before Jesus starts His ministry, being himself baptized by John, we find him as “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” Isaiah 40:3. Like Elijah, he was fully sold out doing the job God had given him to do and was living a no frills existence: “John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey” Matthew 3:4. It appears he was effective as many showed their repentance by being baptized. His message was simple, fearless, direct and effectual: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” Matthew 3:2, but it gained him some powerful enemies, such as the religious establishment who he referred to as a generation of vipers and King Herod, who he rebuked for taking his brother’s wife, which led to John’s arrest, a period of self-doubt and finally losing his head. But always he was pointing people to the Christ: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29 and away from himself: “He must increase, but I must decrease” John 3:30. There is no greater commendation than that given by Jesus: “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force” Matthew 11:11,12. While the vital task of preaching the gospel nowadays requires wisdom and sometimes tact and discretion, we could do with more John the Baptists who say what needs saying, without fear or favour or concern at upsetting those sinners who need to repent. While one may question use of his methods in today’s snowflake culture, his message remains pertinent. We are all grateful John prepared the way for Jesus.
I was reticent including Paul in my favourites list as I felt sure if I were around in his day we might not have got on and I might have reacted against his self-assuredness, or to put it in another way – his perspective was the only one that truly mattered. The parting of ways between him and Barnabas suggests it may not just be me! Yet it is also easy to see why Paul should be included, if for no other reason than, if you are on my theological wavelength, your understanding of the glorious gospel likely owes more to the writings of the Apostle Paul than to anyone else. After all, having set out his store: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” Romans 1:16, he then meticulously provides the most powerful argument as to why the gospel needs to be proclaimed, received and lived out that I have ever come across. His writings virtually dominate the NT – 13 of its 27 books were written by Paul and in one other (Acts) Paul is the major player. And there are so many more strings to Paul bow, beginning with his conversion experience. No one is born a Christian and to become one you need to be converted. As for Paul, his conversion experience was as dramatic as it comes, encountering the risen Christ on his way to Damascus to arrest the very Christians, who he was persecuting. From that point onward he was whole hearted in discharging the commission Jesus had given him, by way of his various missionary journeys, culminating in his imprisonment in Rome and likely execution. The variety of approaches and methods Paul used is text book stuff when it comes to carrying out the Great Commission. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” Philippians 1:21 and “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” Philippians 3:14 are two of many memorable, profound Pauline quotes. Paul will be forever remembered as the great apostle, serving the Church that Christ himself had founded and His cause, yet was also Christ’s humble servant, who could say: “by the grace of God I am what I am” 1 Corinthians 15:10. Like me, Christians down the ages owe Paul a huge debt.
So we come to the last of my favourites, notwithstanding there is still room for many more. While Priscilla is part of a formidable husband and wife team: Aquila and Priscilla, for every time her name is mentioned: Acts 18:2, Acts 18:18, Acts 18:26, Romans 16:3, 1 Corinthians 16:19 and 2 Timothy 4:19, so is Aquila’s, but I have selected Priscilla even though I could have Aquila. We live in a day when there are attempts to redress millennia of gender imbalance, even re-writing history, but the fact remains that the Bible, like most ancient books, says a lot more about men than it does women. Without wanting to patronise, Priscilla’s role, in what might be seen as a minor character portrayal, was a very significant one, not just because of the part they both played in the lives of two significant men: Paul and Apollos, but because they showed what is so often is sadly not seen – how husbands and wives can play a powerful complementary role in the cause of the Kingdom and much else besides. We come across them first when they had been expelled from Rome and set up in their business as tent makers in Corinth, at a time when the Apostle Paul was about to come to town. They were kindred spirits in sharing the same trade and the same faith, and Paul lodged with the couple for over a year before they all moved onto Ephesus. That is where they met an earnest, eloquent preacher, Apollos, who was deficient in certain important aspects of doctrine. The way the couple took Apollos under their wing and explained the faith more fully to him is a great example of how “it” should be done. As for the rest of their story, we are left to reading between the lines, but their impact on the early church was considerable, evidenced when Paul warmly commends the couple as his co-workers in three of his letters. As for hospitality, this is further seen with them hosting a house church. As for business, which they were likely proficient in, this was a vehicle they used to share the gospel. As for how couples ought to work together, there is no better example in all of the Bible than Aquila and Priscilla. While in failing to live up to the demands of being “head of the house” men often have a lot to answer for, if the household happens to be a dysfunctional one, there is a lot to commend the supportive role of women like Priscilla, reminiscent of Proverbs 31:10-31.