Psalm 100; Jeremiah 13:20–14:22; 1 Timothy 1:1–11

Originally published 8/18/2015. Revised and updated 8/17/2019.

Psalm 100: When I was in the 5th grade Sunday School at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena, I memorized this psalm (in the King James Version, of course). The joy of thanksgiving is palpable. We can easily imagine—and hear—the worshipping throngs crowding into the Temple courtyard singing loudly:
Shout out to the Lord, all the earth
worship the Lord in rejoicing,
come before Him in gold song. (1, 2)

And later:
Come into His gates in thanksgiving,
His courts in Praise.
Acclaim Him,
Bless His name. (4)

In my old age, though, the true centerpiece of this psalm is its acknowledgement that God is God and we are his creatures—not the other way round as it is so much today where we humans hold ourselves so highly that we think we don’t even need a God because we are god-like ourselves:
Know that the Lord is God.
He has made us, and we are His,
His people and the flock He tends. (3)

Has there ever been a more compact statement of worship–and of the theology of our relationship with God? First, we are to acknowledge that God is God. Second, we are to acknowledge that we are God’s creatures. Third, that by virtue of being God’s creation, we belong to Him. And finally, in just four words—”the flock He tends“—we know that this relationship is that of a shepherd to his sheep: that we will always be protected and cared for.

As Jesus made clear in his parable, even when we wander off or even abandon God because we think we know better and decide we don’t need God, he will still relentlessly seek us out. As the final verse of this psalm makes clear God loves us:
For the Lord is good,
forever His kindness,
and for all generations His faithfulness. (5)

Would that we be so faithful to him in return.

Jeremiah 13:20–14:22: Even though the people of Israel seem to have abandoned God permanently, hope persists: “Then also you can do good/ who are accustomed to do evil.” (13:23) But this is a single glimmer of hope in a relentlessly pessimistic chapter where the eternal question hangs in the air:
Woe to you, O Jerusalem!
    How long will it be
    before you are made clean? (13:27)

This question seems especially relevant in today’s culture that continues to abandon God as much as or perhaps even more than Jeremiah’s Jerusalem.

Chapter 14 opens with a perfect description of the effects of drought on humans and animals: ”
Judah mourns
    and her gates languish;
they lie in gloom on the ground,
    and the cry of Jerusalem goes up.
Her nobles send their servants for water;

       they come to the cisterns,
   they find no water,
       they return with their vessels empty.
   They are ashamed and dismayed
       and cover their heads,
   because the ground is cracked.

       Because there has been no rain on the land
   the farmers are dismayed;
       they cover their heads.
    Even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn
       because there is no grass. (2-5)

Of course, to Jeremiah, this is a direct consequence of Judah’s abandonment of God. Things are so hopeless that God even instructs Jeremiah, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people.” (14:11) Drought in that land is seen by the people as punishment and they seem to realize that their idols are ineffectual and that God may be their only hope in ending their misery as they plead,
Can any idols of the nations bring rain?
Or can the heavens give showers?
Is it not you, O Lord our God?
We set our hope on you,
 for it is you who do all this. (14:22)

But the question hangs in the air: Is Judah truly repenting or is this a foxhole prayer asking for rescue that will only result once again in abandoning God once the crisis has passed?

Of course, that’s a question that is completely relevant today. There is no better recent national example when in the days following 9/11 the churches were full and people cooperated and helped each other. Of course, now that is merely fond memory as our society seems more contentious than ever and even more resolute in its mission to abandon of God.

1 Timothy 1:1–11: There’s lots of controversy about whether or not Paul actually penned the Pastoral Epistles (1, 2 Timothy and Titus). Personally, I think the evidence is that Paul did not. That used to matter to me more than it does now, and I will write presuming that Paul is indeed the author.

If nothing else, the concerns about which Paul writes about here are the same as those in his letters to Colossae and Thessalonia: that the churches have fallen under the influence of false teachers. Here, he asks the folks to take action: “that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training  that is known by faith.” (3b, 4) This verse also lays out the theme of this book. What we could call “divine training,” or more commonly, discipline. Our author endeavors to tell us that the Christian faith is not just a random experience to be enjoyed serenely, but that like other disciplines it requires instruction and constant practice.

Equally important is the attitude with which such training and discipline is carried out: “The aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” (5) This of course is the question each of us must ask regularly. DO we have pure hearts, good consciences, and sincere faith?

The problem this letter addresses is that “Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.” (7) Wow! How much “meaningless talk” spews forth today, asserting itself as wisdom and insight? The explosion of social media, blogs, and on-line discourse suggest that there are more opinions than actual knowledge, more unfounded assertions than wisdom.

[My hope is that this blog, by hewing close to Scripture and attempting to be observational rather than instructional, does not fall into the meaningless category…]

Psalm 99; Jeremiah 12:1–13:19; 2 Thessalonians 3:6–18

Originally published 8/17/2017. Revised and updated 8/16/2019.

Psalm 99: This is yet another psalm that celebrates God’s kingship over all the earth. However, I’m glad the psalmist didn’t lead off with the “Sing to the Lord a new song” line since this psalm is far less musical and a little more scary than the preceding one. Lines about nature being part of God’s dominion is pretty much missing, although we do get to meet the heavenly beings who hold up God’s throne:
The Lord reigns—peoples tremble,
enthroned upon cherubim—the earth shakes.
The Lord is great in Zion
and exalted over all the peoples.
They acclaim Your name:
‘Great and fearful,
He is holy’ (1-3)

It’s worth remembering that cherubim are not the cute little angelic beings found in baroque paintings. Instead, they are pretty fearsome creatures with the body of a lion, a human face and multiple wings. Not anything you’d want to encounter on a dark night…

Unlike the previous psalm there seems to be little joy here. God is “great and fearful,” and generally seems pretty unapproachable. But thematically throughout this entire series of God-as-king psalms, God is all about justice. In fact, God is the creator of justice as well as the righteousness and the judgements that accompany justice:
And with a king’s strength He loves justice.
You firmly founded righteousness,
judgement and justice in Jacob You made. (4)

I’m pretty sure ‘Jacob’ in this usage is a reference to the nation of Israel, not to the human who stole his brother’s birthright. The psalmist is asserting that God’s judgement, righteousness, and justice were first expressed in the laws brought down from Sinai by Moses to all Israel.

The psalmist reminds us that all people are to “bow down to His footstool/ He is holy.” (5) Then we encounter a brief catalog of the great men in Israel’s early history who bowed down before God, prayed and listened for God’s answer:
Moses and Aaron among His priests
and Samuel among those who call on His name
called to the Lord and He answered them. (6)

For this psalmist, God has indeed answered and spoken:
In a pillar of cloud did He speak to them.
They kept His precepts and the statute He gave them.
Lord our God, it was You Who answered them,
a forbearing God You were to them
yet an avenger of misdeeds. (7, 8. )

God answered the prayers of these great men, and even though they sinned, God remained patient with them. But if they did not repent, then God would punish them. The psalmist’s message is clear: if these great men obeyed God, prayed, listened for God’s response, and repented, then that’s also the duty of we who are the hoi polloi as well.

And above all is our duty to worship God:
Exalt the Lord our God
and bow to His holy mountain,
for the Lord our God is holy. (9)

Obedience and worship is all that God asks of us, as well.

Jeremiah 12:1–13:19: So far, Jeremiah has done and said everything God has asked him to. But his latest jeremiad to Israel has resulted in a conspiracy to kill him. Sounding very much like the author of a psalm of supplication, Jeremiah asks the question every sentient human has asked at one time or another. What is life so unfair?
You will be in the right, O Lord,
    when I lay charges against you;
    but let me put my case to you.
Why does the way of the guilty prosper?
    Why do all who are treacherous thrive? (12:1)

Like a good politician, God does not actually answer Jeremiah’s question, but once again he reminds the prophet that everyone—even his own family—has conspired against him and has abandoned God. So, God announces his quid pro quo that he has abandoned Israel:
I have forsaken my house,
    I have abandoned my heritage;
I have given the beloved of my heart
    into the hands of her enemies.” (12:7)

God goes on to point out that it is those who have abandoned him who are ultimately responsible for the destruction to come:
They have sown wheat and have reaped thorns,
    they have tired themselves out but profit nothing.
They shall be ashamed of their  harvests
    because of the fierce anger of the Lord. (12:13)

Which is a good lesson for us that when we sin the consequences are our problem, not God’s. Even though we may be forgiven we must bear the “harvest” of sinful seeds we have sown.

Nevertheless, there is always hope. As always and despite their misdeeds, God still loves them. Like a father who punishes his wayward child, he will then embrace them once again: “And after I have plucked them up, I will again have compassion on them, and I will bring them again to their heritage and to their land, every one of them.” (12:15) But if repentance is still lacking, “then I will completely uproot it and destroy it.” (12:17)

In one of the more almost amusing commands of God, he tells Jeremiah to buy a new loincloth and wear it. (Did he wear anything else or did Jeremiah go around in his underwear?) In any event, God commands Jeremiah to take off the loincloth and bury it by the Euphrates—which is a long way from Jerusalem. “After many days” Jeremiah is commanded to dig it up and he sees that it is ruined.

The loincloth is an obvious metaphor for Judah. Once they followed God and like the new loincloth were pure and unsullied. And as a man’s underwear is the closest thing to his body, God’s relationship with his people was equally close: “For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord.” (13:11a)

But then the people buried themselves in sin and idolatry, which ruined them. All because “they would not listen” to God. Jeremiah is commanded to speak to the people that they are like wine-jars and that God will fill them with drunkenness. “And I will dash them one against another, parents and children together, says the Lord. I will not pity or spare or have compassion when I destroy them.” (13:14) This is certainly not a loving or forgiving God. In fact, this whole theme of God’s vengeance is pretty distressing.

But regardless of God’s attitude, the real lesson in this chapter is about the consequences of not listening to God:
But if you will not listen,
    my soul will weep in secret for your pride;
my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears,
    because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive. (13:17)

Like Judah, America is in the process of failing to listen to God and going on its merry, dissolute way. Will we meet the same fate as the king and queen mother in this chapter, who are brought low?
Say to the king and the queen mother:
    “Take a lowly seat,
for your beautiful crown
    has come down from your head.” (13:18)

2 Thessalonians 3:6–18: Apparently some people at the Thessalonian church have decided they are above others and do not need to work in the church. Even worse, they may be enjoying benefits and living off what others are working to produce. Paul is clear that this kind of freeloading is unacceptable, citing his own actions as an example to follow: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.” (7,8)

Paul boils it down to one simple statement: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” (10b) And as we know from simple observation today those who do not work tend to become “mere busybodies.” (11) Paul makes his stance on the people very clear: “Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” (12)  And if these folks still refuse to work they need to be shunned: “Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed.” (14). But Paul also warns us that we shouldn’t see these people as enemies, although they certainly need to be warned because they are undermining the very church itself.

I wonder how Paul would view our present day welfare state where many too people find it preferable to live off the work of others? Obviously, there are situations where people cannot work but Paul would have no patience with the entitlement state that we have become.

Of course, he’s speaking not of society at large, but the church in particular. Yet, in too many ways the church has also become a consumer product where too many people go to be receive the benefits of the work of others but do nothing themselves to advance the cause of the kingdom.

Psalm 98; Jeremiah 10:17–11:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:13–3:5

Originally published 8/16/2017. Revised and updated 8/15/2019.

Psalm 98: One begins to think there was a psalmists contest at some point where competing poets announced their new compositions with “Sing to the Lord a new song” as their opening line in order to distinguish their hymn from the competition’s.

Like the previous few, this psalm again celebrates God’s victorious kingship over all his creation, including the nations beyond just Israel:
The Lord made known His victory,
before the nations’ eyes He revealed His bounty. (2)

Not surprisingly, Israel comes in for special mention as God’s chosen nation but God’s triumph is visible throughout all of natural creation, not just the nations:
He recalled His kindness and His faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God. (3)

The remainder of the psalm is simultaneously hymn and instructions to the choir and the orchestra that accompanies them:
Shout out to the Lord, all the earth
Burst forth in glad song and hymn.
Hymn to the Lord on the lyre,
on the lyre with the sound of hymning.
With trumpets and the sound of ram’s horn,
sound loud before the king, the Lord. (4-6)

I’ve always wondered what kind of musical scale they used. Probably not the chromatic scale. Perhaps the pentatonic? It would be cool to hear this music. Would it be closer to the organ or to a praise band? Probably the latter…

All creation then joins in the music-making with their own sounds in some of the most beautiful verses (for me, anyway) in all the psalms:
Let the sea and its fullness thunder,
the world and those dwelling in it.
Let the rivers clap hands,
let the mountains together sing gladly
before the Lord, for He comes
to judge the earth. (7-9)

Well, it wouldn’t be a true psalm if it didn’t invoke at least one of God’s qualities or actions. Here, it’s judgement, but as always justice accompanies judgement:
He judges the world in justice
and peoples righteously. (10)

What’s remarkable to me here is that God’s judgement occurs in an atmosphere of joy, not in anxious trepidation. But to those who are righteous—and for us Christians, those who are righteous (justified) in Christ—God’s judgement is truly an occasion of celebration. For it is then we will hear the famous words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Jeremiah 10:17–11:23: Jeremiah’s mood has not improved as he predicts the scattering and exile of Israel and Judah. Once again, God speaks:
I am going to sling out the inhabitants of the land
    at this time,
and I will bring distress on them,
    so that they shall feel it. (10:18)

This dispersal from the land certainly has a note of finality in the metaphor of Israel and Judah being a shelter that has been ruined:
My tent is destroyed,
    and all my cords are broken;
my children have gone from me,
    and they are no more;
there is no one to spread my tent again,
    and to set up my curtains. (10:20)

As before, the leadership—the officials, priests, prophets, and I presume, the kings themselves—that are metaphorically shepherds, bear ultimate responsibility for all that has gone awry in the land:
For the shepherds are stupid,
    and do not inquire of the Lord;
therefore they have not prospered,
    and all their flock is scattered. (10:21)

Given what is currently going on in Washington DC, an erratic over-verbal president, his opponents, and the in the media itself, I think these verses have real—and rather portentous— relevance. We are being scattered as a nation that has become a panoply of self-identified tribes.

Nevertheless, Jeremiah’s God loves the people despite their sins. The prophet now speaks and begs for mercy on behalf of his wayward people, asking God to punish the conquerors rather than the conquered:
Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not know you,
    and on the peoples that do not call on your name;
for they have devoured Jacob;
    they have devoured him and consumed him,
    and have laid waste his habitation. (10:25)

At the chapter break we appear to begin all over again as the word of the Lord comes once again to Jeremiah, this time focusing on the Covenant between Israel/Judah and God himself: “And the Lord said to me: Proclaim all these words in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: Hear the words of this covenant and do them.” (11:6)

Unsurprisingly, Jeremiah treads pretty much the same prophetic ground as before. Israel and Judah have sinned and thereby broken their side of the Covenant: “And the Lord said to me: Conspiracy exists among the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.They have turned back to the iniquities of their ancestors of old, who refused to heed my words; they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken the covenant that I made with their ancestors.” (11:9,10)

Equally unsurprising, God therefore “is going to bring disaster upon them that they cannot escape; though they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.” (11:11) This is one of those places where God, as described in the Old Testament, seems somewhat petulant—not a desirable quality in anyone, much less God himself. The loving God we’d rather think about seems to be on hiatus.

In fact, God instructs Jeremiah quite specifically about his misguided attempts at asking for mercy: “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble.” (11:14)

Jeremiah, faithful prophet that he is, speaks this word of God to the people and they are not terribly pleased to hear his dire words. He realizes the “people of Anathoth” are conspiring against him and want to kill him. He prays to God,
But I was like a gentle lamb
    led to the slaughter.
And I did not know it was against me
    that they devised schemes, saying,
“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,
    let us cut him off from the land of the living,
    so that his name will no longer be remembered! (11:19)

However, God is always on Jeremiah’s side and promises, “I am going to punish them; the young men shall die by the sword; their sons and their daughters shall die by famine; and not even a remnant shall be left of them. For I will bring disaster upon the people of Anathoth, the year of their punishment.” (11:22, 23)

Which we presume is exactly what happened. The lesson here is that God-inspired prophecy is protected speech, even when it delivers the most dire news possible to convict listeners of their sins.  I wonder: are there any truly God-inspired prophets among us in the midst of the unceasing babble warning us of the consequences of our sins?

2 Thessalonians 2:13–3:5: This is one of those places where we have to be careful in interpretation as Paul asserts, “God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” (2:13b) I presume that for Calvin and others this is a key passage used to support the idea of predestination, i.e., that God specifically chose those whom he would save ahead of time. This gets us into lots of theological conundra such as, ‘If God has chosen us ahead of time, what’s the point? I have no say in the matter.’

Personally, I think it’s simpler than that. Jesus is reaching out to everyone on earth. Some choose to follow; others don’t. But the sheep and goats have not been sorted out ahead of time. Each of us, being blessed by God with a free will, is free to accept or reject. And when we accept, we look back and feel chosen, just as Israel was chosen so many years ago. As Lutherans put it, it is Jesus who comes to us, not the other way round.

In any event, those who are Jesus-followers are to follow Paul’s correct instruction, to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” (2:15)

This short letter ends with Paul’s prayer request: “Finally, brothers and sisters,  pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just  as it is among you, and that we may be rescued from wicked and evil people; for not all have faith.” (3:1,2) Which is a request that’s as relevant to the church today as two millennia ago. It is a prayer that each of us called to carry out Jesus’ Great Commission and be effective evangelists must do so not only throughour words, but more importantly, I think, through our actions.

But it is Paul’s concluding sentence that resonates for me: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.” (3:5) In the end, it’s the condition and focus of our hearts that matters most. And the foundation of all is our love for God—realizing that he loved us first. God’s love is what is predestined.

Psalm 97:7–12; Jeremiah 9:10–10:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12

Originally published 8/15/2017. Revised and updated 8/14/2019.

Psalm 97:7–12: Our psalmist points out not just the futility of idol worship, but also its negative impact on their worshippers:
All idol-worshippers are shamed
who boast of the ungods.
All gods bow down to Him. (7)

At first read the last line of this verse about small-g gods seems to contradict the the first two lines. After all, aren’t idols mere inanimate human constructions? Here, I go with my personal theory here that the small-g gods refers to the host of heaven as our poet once again reinforces God’s preeminence over nature but also over the population of heaven itself.

In any event, the realization of God’s power and majesty as the one true king, who is bringing judgement over creation, generates true joy in all of Judea’s precincts, be it Jerusalem or its suburbs:
Zion heard and rejoiced,
and Judea’s villages exulted
because of Your judgements, Lord. (8)

And to make sure we get the point about God reigning over all creation, our poet reiterates his ascendancy over both heaven and earth:
For You, Lord, are most high over all the earth;
You are greatly exalted over all the gods. (9)

At this point our psalmist turns his attention to those who love and follow God, reminding them that they, too, must follow God’s example. In return they receive God’s protection:
You who love the Lord,, hate evil!
He guards the the lives of His faithful.
From the hand of the wicked He saves them. (10)

Of course as we learn in Jeremiah, not that many in Judea were actually faithful to God, and the wicked were certainly the ones in power.

In a beautiful agricultural metaphor, our poet reminds us that if we indeed follow God we will receive the light. This line has a prophetic impact on me because this is exactly the point Jesus made when he told his followers that “I am the light of the world.” It is at that point in history where God has indeed “sown light” in the Incarnation in order to save all humankind.
Light is sown for the just,
and for the upright of heart there is joy.”(11)

The psalm ends where it began—on a note of rejoicing and worship, which also suggests elements of the structure of worship: We enter rejoicing and we depart rejoicing:
Rejoice, O you just, in the Lord,
and acclaim His holy name. (12)

Jeremiah 9:10–10:16: OK, Jeremiah, we get it. He reminds us once again that the people of Judah have abandoned God, turning to wicked ways. Once again, speaking in God’s voice, he warns that they will pay a heavy price for their apostasy:
I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins,
    a lair of jackals;
and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation,
    without inhabitant.” (9:11)

When that awful time of judgement and desolation comes, Jeremiah promises that there will be the proverbial weeping and gnashing of teeth. The prophet evokes the image of the professional mourning women of that day:
Hear, O women, the word of the Lord,
    and let your ears receive the word of his mouth;
teach to your daughters a dirge,
    and each to her neighbor a lament.
“Death has come up into our windows,
    it has entered our palaces,
to cut off the children from the streets
    and the young men from the squares.” (9:20, 21)

In the end God is asking but one thing: that we abandon our illusions of wisdom, might, and wealth and that we come to “understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” (9:24)

And that’s just as true today. If we put God at the center of our lives we will come to understand that he is not just the God of vengeance for wickedness, but the God who wants nothing more than to have us love him as he loves us. But like the people of Judea, our society just as willfully worships our own idols of greed, sex, wealth, and power.

Jeremiah concludes this chapter by observing “all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” (9:25) Stephen references Jeremiah’s theme in his sermon just before he is stoned to death  that his accusers are “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” (Acts 7:51) In short, not much had changed in the centuries between Jeremiah and Stephen—nor between Stephen and today.

In chapter 10, Jeremiah turns his gaze away from Judah and on to Israel, the northern kingdom. First, there are various warnings to avoid emulating their apostate neighbors:
Do not learn the way of the nations,
    or be dismayed at the signs of the heavens;
    for the nations are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the peoples are false. (10:2,3a)

The foreign custom to be avoided specifically is—no surprise here—the creation of idols:
For the customs of the peoples are false:
a tree from the forest is cut down,
    and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan;
people deck it with silver and gold;
    they fasten it with hammer and nails
    so that it cannot move. (10:3b, 4)

Jeremiah spends the remainder of today’s reading on a tear about the stupidity of those who worship powerless idols, reminding us that they are inanimate, powerless objects as he denigrates them with a rather nice simile:
Their idols  are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
    and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
    for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them,
    for they cannot do evil,
    nor is it in them to do good. (10:5)

Sounding almost like the psalmist above, Jeremiah contrasts their powerlessness with God’s power:
There is none like you, O Lord;
    you are great, and your name is great in might.” (10:6)

Jeremiah goes on to contrast the pathetic artisanship of humans with the magnificent creative work of God, forcing us to draw the obvious conclusion that there is but one true God:
[Idols] are the work of the artisan and of the hands of the goldsmith;
    their clothing is blue and purple;
    they are all the product of skilled workers.
But the Lord is the true God;
    he is the living God and the everlasting King.
At his wrath the earth quakes,
    and the nations cannot endure his indignation. (10:9, 10)

To make sure we understand God’s true power as over against the impotence of idols, Jeremiah makes his point about impotent idols vs. God one more time:
They are worthless, a work of delusion;
    at the time of their punishment they shall perish.
Not like these is the Lord,  the portion of Jacob,
    for he is the one who formed all things,
and Israel is the tribe of his inheritance;
    the Lord of hosts is his name.” (10:15, 16)

But alas, like Israel’s failure to recognize these truth, so we too in our own delusions pursue our idols and reject God—at increasingly great cost. Exactly as both today’s psalmist and Jeremiah warned us.

2 Thessalonians 2:1–12: Paul continues his apocalyptic theme, warning the Thessalonians that contrary to what they have concluded (probably from the persecution they are enduring), that the Day of the Lord—the end of history—has not yet come. That will not happen before the arrival of the person Paul designates as “the lawless one.” The end of history will not happen “unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.” (3) The thing to watch out for, Paul warns, is that this person “opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.” (4)

This would be the same person identified in Revelation as the Antichrist, whose true identity will be revealed at the Day of the Lord. [My own view is that Paul is referring to the Roman emperor.] As Paul points out this is not to say wickedness isn’t already afoot, but its most dire consequences are being held back from their full fury by someone: “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed.” (7) Paul is making it clear that Satan is the person behind it all and he is presently giving everyone on earth a foretaste of the horrors to come at the end of history: “The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders,” (9)

Like Jeremiah, Paul points out that those who refuse God and the saving power of Jesus Christ will perish: “every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (10)

But then Paul says something that is truly puzzling. Referring to those who rejected salvation, he says “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.” (11, 12) Really? God purposely deludes those who reject salvation? I think Paul is referring back to the Antichrist, who uses false religion to delude the gullible. If we reject the truth about Jesus Christ, Paul implies, we will by default turn to the delusions created by the Antichrist.

Identifying the Antichrist has been a popular sport in various churches down through the centuries with theories ranging from various popes to Hitler, Stalin, and today, terrorists. But as I read Paul here, we have not yet seen truly powerful evil. Which is a difficult idea to get my head around when yet another mass shooting occurs. Powerful evil certainly seems to be stalking the world these days.

Psalm 97:1–6; Jeremiah 8:1–9:9; 2 Thessalonians 1

Originally published 8/14/2017. Revised and updated 8/12/2019.

Psalm 97:1–6: Like the two preceding psalms, this one celebrates God’s kingship over his creation using a series of striking images. The opening verse leaves no doubt as to who is in charge of the earth and what our response should be:
The Lord reigns—let earth exult,
let the many islands rejoice. (1)

Alter informs us that “islands” is the Hebrew usage for “remote lands,” i.e., everyone on earth should rejoice in the reality of God’s kingship regardless of their geographical location. While God himself, represented here by clouds and fog, is somewhat shrouded in a magisterial mystery that we cannot fully comprehend there is no ambiguity as to what God’s throne stands for:
Cloud and dense fog around Him,
justice and judgement the base of His throne. (2)

For me, the most important part of these few verses is that God remains active in the world he created, dispensing judgement and justice described in metaphors that connote immense power over all creation:
Fire goes before Him
and all round burns His foes
His lightnings lit up the world:
the earth saw and quaked.
Mountains melted like wax before the Lord,
before the Master of all the earth. (3-5)

Fire, lightning, earthquakes, and volcanoes: these remind us that while God loves us as individuals, he is still almighty God. And we’d better not try to domesticate him, (as so many praise choruses seem to do).

Notice how the theme of justice is intertwined with the demonstration of God’s power:
The heavens told His justice,
and all peoples saw His glory. (6)

As far as this psalmist is concerned, justice is God’s ultimate purpose over humankind. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as societies reject God they see a woeful increase of injustice, especially to the poor and downtrodden. What can we say about our own? I think it’s the growing perception that the 1% elite are exempt from justice is one major factor that is eating away at our own society.

Jeremiah 8:1–9:9: Although today’s reading begins in prose, its themes are pretty much the same we’ve encountered in the poetry of previous chapters. Jeremiah, continuing to speak in God’s voice, describes the grim fate of those who have disobeyed and abandoned God.  A haunting image of disinterred officials, priests, and yes, prophets who have abandoned God is capped off by a dark prediction for those still living: “Death shall be preferred to life by all the remnant that remains of this evil family in all the places where I have driven them, says the Lord of hosts.” (8:3)

Reverting to poetic form, Jeremiah’s God reminds us that he has been patient, yet the entire nation persists in its wickedness:
Why then has this people turned away
    in perpetual backsliding?
They have held fast to deceit,
    they have refused to return. (8:5)

What is even worse is that despite God’s patience there has been a refusal to repent. Jeremiah warns that these recalcitrant people, who profess innocence, have finally worn out God’s patience:
I have given heed and listened,
    but they do not speak honestly;
no one repents of wickedness,
    saying, “What have I done!”
All of them turn to their own course,
    like a horse plunging headlong into battle. (8:6)

Jeremiah is holding officialdom to greater account than the people as a whole. The great sin of leadership is that in their pride and refusing to repent and ignoring God, they have become absolute hypocrites and are misleading those who they lead. Even worse, they seem to believe their own press releases:
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
    saying, “Peace, peace,”
    when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;

    yet they were not at all ashamed,
    they did not know how to blush. (8:11, 12a)

Those words certainly seem to describe those leaders who inhabit and have power in the Washington “swamp.” As always, the prophetic promise of dire retribution follows:
[Enemies] come and devour the land and all that fills it,
    the city and those who live in it.
See, I am letting snakes loose among you,
    adders that cannot be charmed,
    and they shall bite you,
says the Lord. (8: 16b, 17)

There is pride-filled willfulness creates an intense and doleful effect on Jeremiah of these collective sins and refusal to repent is causes the prophet mourn for the hoi polloi, who have been so badly misled by the priests, prophets, and officials that purportedly lead them:
My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
    my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
    from far and wide in the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
    Is her King not in her?” (8:18, 19a)

And in one of those famous lines that was once well known in American culture but that today only provoke unknowing stares, Jeremiah asks,
Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
    not been restored? (8:22)

Those to whom Jeremiah prophesies are so relentlessly evil that the prophet wishes he could hide in the desert, free from his prophetic duties:
O that I had in the desert
    a traveler’s lodging place,
that I might leave my people
    and go away from them!
For they are all adulterers,
    a band of traitors. (9:2)

Tragically, in their flight from God and self-centered perversity, the trust that was once prevalent among neighbors has evaporated:
Beware of your neighbors,
    and put no trust in any of your kin; 
…They all deceive their neighbors,
    and no one speaks the truth;
they have taught their tongues to speak lies;
    they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent.
Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit!
    They refuse to know me, says the Lord. (9:4-6)

As always, evil begins to manifest itself in words and speech that seeks to deceive:
Their tongue is a deadly arrow;
    it speaks deceit through the mouth.
They all speak friendly words to their neighbors,
    but inwardly are planning to lay an ambush. (9:8)

I think these verses are playing themselves out right here in 21st century America as we see increasingly less trust among different groups as our various tribes grow increasingly polarized—a tendency all too eagerly exploited by those who claim virtuous victimhood. We hear cries for peace, but as Jeremiah makes so abundantly clear there is no peace where God has been cast out.

2 Thessalonians 1: As with the case of the Corinthians, there must have been some now lost response from the people at Thessaloniki that has generated Paul’s second epistle to them. And, as with II Corinthians, we can only guess at the what the contents of that letter (or perhaps verbal report by someone such as Timothy, who has returned to Rome from Thessaloniki).

This time Paul’s words of praise and gratitude for the Thessalonians is more brief than the invocation of his first letter. However, he remains as encouraging as before, especially since that church appears to be under severe persecution, perhaps by Jews in the city who see Christianity as a dire threat to their religious hegemony: “Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.” (4)

Sounding somewhat like Jeremiah, Paul promises them that at the end of history, God’s judgement will be meted out to those who oppress them now: “For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels .” (7) And in a distinctly Old Testament tone, Paul goes on to note that this judgement will occur “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (8, 9)

These verses form the basis for the Christian concept of judgement and hell—a theme which in today’s feel-good churches is distinctly ignored, but which historically has been much more at the forefront of theology and sermonizing—perhaps most famously in Jonathan Edward’s famous sermon titled, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.”

Our ancestors took hell much more seriously than we who live in a therapeutic culture. There is Michelangelo’s fresco, “The Last Judgement” on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. And we should never forget Hieronymus Bosch’s famous vision of hell in his paintings, The Last Judgement and The Garden of Earthly Delights. Perhaps these illustrations are over the top but I think we ignore the consequences of evil at our peril. Neither Jeremiah nor Paul are irrelevant in our modern world that denies death and the consequences of evil.

Hieronymus Bosch : “The Last Judgement”

I confess to great ambivalence on the topic of eternal punishment being meted out at the end of history, but as we also read in Matthew 25 in Jesus’ Olivet discourse,’ judgement for wrongdoing awaits all of us. Judgement Day will be binary as we are divided into metaphorical sheep and goats.  It would do me good to reflect more frequently on which category I belong to.

Psalm 96:10-14; Jeremiah 7; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-28

Psalm 96:10-14: The second theme of this psalm is God’s justice:
Yes, the world stands firm, will not shake.
He metes out justice to peoples righteously. (10)

By concatenating justice with creation, the psalmist forces us to confront the reality that any injustice we commit is a sin against God’s created order. God’s justice is not an occasion of foreboding and terror for those who trust in God, but a time to sing with the joy the new song. As the psalmist puts it so beautifully, Creation itself sings in joy:
Let the field be glad and all that is in it,
then shall all the trees of the forest joyfully sing… (12).

Why does Creation sing? Not because it’s a nice day, but because creation knows its Creator, who is the source of all justice in creation:
He comes to judge the earth.
He judges the world in justice 
and peoples in His faithfulness. (14)

Jeremiah 7: The chapter opens with a new sermon once again spoken in God’s voice. The warning is familiar: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you[a] in this place.” (3) But there’s a new twist: “Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” (4) I take the meaning to be that the people just assume God is present at the temple when in fact he has abandoned it because of the people’s wanton sinfulness.

Jeremiah gives a succinct summary of God’s expectation of his people if they wish repent and will be able to avoid losing their land to the enemy:  For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.” (5-7) These commands are exactly what God is asking of us today. Given the turmoil at our southern border, the command to not “oppress the alien” rings especially loud.

But that is what God desires. The reality on the ground is the complete opposite. The greatest sin is Judah’s refusal first to even listen: “when I spoke to you persistently, you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer,” (13) The consequences of failing to listen to God through his prophets are dire: “…therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors, just what I did to Shiloh.” (14) In short, destruction and exile.

God asks but one thing: “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.” (23) We have no reason to believe that even though God is ever graceful that our willful refusal to listen to God’s message will cause our society likely to suffer the same fate as Judah. The means will be different, but the end will be destruction.

And if ever we needed a reminder of where we as a nation seem to be headed it is this: “You shall say to them: This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips.” (28) For indeed, truth and truth spoken to power seems to have vanished from our cultural DNA. Truth has become whatever some individual declares it to be.

The chapter concludes with a prediction of exactly what ultimately came to pass in Judah as God speaks the doom that awaits: “And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.” (34) All empires collapse because the people have refused to listen to God and worship their own small-g gods. Like Judah, unless there is repentance, the signs of the destruction of our present culture are ominous indeed.

1 Thessalonians 5:16–28: Even in his benediction, Paul continues to give advice to the little flock at Thessalonika. And we can be grateful that he does so, for he gives the Thessalonians (and us) one of the most encouraging verses found anywhere in his epistles. First the positive “do this” advice: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (16-18) Joy. Prayer. Thanksgiving. These are truly the key elements of the Christian life well-lived. And a challenge for me: how often do I truly rejoice of give thanks. And I certainly don’t pray without ceasing. We need to reflect on how much these qualities would positively impact our lives—especially in this era of unrelenting bad news delivered to us so efficiently by the media.

Paul wouldn’t be Paul if he didn’t add a couple of negative “avoid this” pieces of advice: Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets.” (19, 20) I’m particularly struck by “do not quench the Spirit. I think we do this every time when we focus on the negatives around us, especially in the church or when our negativity, sarcasm, or cynicism will (even inadvertently) quench the Spirit in the people around us. Never mind ourselves.

Paul concludes with the simplest, yet most difficult advice of all: “but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” (21, 22) In “testing everything,” Paul means don’t be fooled by words from others—especially church leaders—that seem too good to be true. Especially those who misinterpret Scripture to their own ends such as the “prosperity gospel.” Or as I’ve noted many times what my dad used to say, “Don’t leave your brains at the door.”

Paul’s benediction is for all of us, not just the Thessalonian church: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” (23, 24) The question is, do I really keep my spirit (emotions), soul, and body “sound and blameless?” It’s a high bar, but we are all the better for striving to achieve this noble goal. As Paul notes, Jesus is faithful;. The question is, are we?

Psalm 96:1–9; Jeremiah 5:26–6:30; 1 Thessalonians 5:4–15

Originally published 8/11/2017. Revised and updated 8/10/2019.

Psalm 96:1–9: Aside from the 23rd Psalm, the opening lines of this psalm are perhaps the most familiar (and upbeat!) in all the Psalms and has been set to music numerous times:
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless His name,
Bring tidings every day of His rescue.
Recount among the nations His glory,
among the peoples His wonders.
For great is the Lord most praised,
awesome is He over all the gods. (1-4)

As in the preceding psalm, God reigns over all the small-g gods, which I take to be the host of heaven. At the next line however, it appears other small-g gods are the creation of idol-worshippers:
For all gods of the peoples are ungods,
but the Lord has made the heavens. (5)

I really like Alter’s neologism, “ungod,” because it is the complete opposite, the negation if you will, of everything the one true God is and stands for. The word perfectly communicates the emptiness of the numerous ungods that we create—or purchase— for ourselves, be it various toys, status symbols, wealth, success, physical acumen, or power over others.

Following this brief interlude, our psalmist returns to his joyous vein as each verse ascribes to God what we must acknowledge belongs solely to him:
Greatness and grandeur before Him,
strength and splendor in His sanctuary.
Grant to the Lord, O families of peoples,
grant to the Lord glory and strength.
Grant to the Lord His name’s glory,
bear tribute and come to His courts.
Bow to the Lord in sacred grandeur;
quake before Him, all the earth. (6-9)

The alliteration (which Alter tells us replicates the alliteration in Hebrew) and repetition*—greatness, grandeur, grant, glory—communicates a majestic musicality (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and captures the spirit of joy that should suffuse our worship.

*Notice however that this is not the rote repetition (sorry again!) of the same line over and over that is found in so many boring praise choruses. Each line that includes the same verb ‘grant’ illuminates a different quality of God’s magnificence—in turn creating a sense of ascending step by step to summit of the final command in today’s reading: “quake before Him, all the earth.”

Jeremiah 5:26–6:30: I’m not exactly sure why the Moravians insist on readings in this book that are not aligned with chapters, so we pick up in the middle of Jeremiah’s prophecy, which continues in God’s voice. The prophet does go on and on about the wickedness of so many people in Israel and Judah:
For scoundrels are found among my people;
    they take over the goods of others.
Like fowlers they set a trap;
    they catch human beings. (5:26)

As far as Jeremiah is concerned, the greatest scoundrels of all are his prophetic competitors who falsely influence the religious leaders—not too different from Jesus’ own comments about the religious leaders of his time, who surely knew these passages from Jeremiah:
An appalling and horrible thing
    has happened in the land:
the prophets prophesy falsely,
    and the priests rule as the prophets direct. (5:30, 31)

It’s really not too surprising that Jeremiah’s jeremiads (more alliteration!) did not endear him to anyone. No treacly Joel Osteen-like sermonic love-fests for him. He truly was a prophet without honor in his own country. And as is the case today, people speaking truth, especially to power, are just as reviled as I’m sure Jeremiah was in his time.

Fully in his dire your-world-is-about-to-end mode, Jeremiah returns to his favorite topic, warning Israel and Judah of the disasters to come:
Flee for safety, O children of Benjamin,
    from the midst of Jerusalem!
…for evil looms out of the north,
    and great destruction. (6:1)

In a brilliant piece of writing, Jeremiah casts his warning in the various voices of those who are about to invade Jerusalem:
Prepare war against her;
    up, and let us attack at noon!”
“Woe to us, for the day declines,
    the shadows of evening lengthen!”
“Up, and let us attack by night,
    and destroy her palaces!” (6:4,5)

God then speaks again:
For thus says the Lord of hosts:
Cut down her trees;
    cast up a siege ramp against Jerusalem.
This is the city that must be punished;
    there is nothing but oppression within her. (6:6)

These lines certainly seem relevant today where so many cities and countries are such hotbeds of oppression against those with whom the oppressors disagree.

Jeremiah knows that his warnings are falling on deaf ears and that he is being reviled for his efforts to warn the people:
To whom shall I speak and give warning,
    that they may hear?
See, their ears are closed,
    they cannot listen.
The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn;
    they take no pleasure in it. (6:10)

Goodness knows, there are plenty of closed ears around us today that resist the gospel message and view God as irrelevant at best and non-existent at worst. Rather than following God, Jerusalem has become a cesspool of wickedness:
For from the least to the greatest of them,
    everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
    everyone deals falsely. (6:13)

And in lines that echo down to today, leaders are hoodwinking those whom they lead, betraying them with empty words, especially that much overused word, ‘peace:’
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
    saying, “Peace, peace,”
    when there is no peace. (6:14)

Still more descriptions of the destruction to come follow. As Jeremiah admits up in 6:11, “I am full of the wrath of the Lord;/ I am weary of holding it in.” So he really lets go and lets his words spill into the streets and announces once again his central warning:
Thus says the Lord:
See, a people is coming from the land of the north,
    a great nation is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth.
…they ride on horses,
    equipped like a warrior for battle,
    against you, O daughter Zion! (6:22, 23)

These armies are coming up a against a people who have been weakened by their relentless corruption, which the prophet describes in a metaphor of metals being refined by God. The people he finds are almost worthless bronze and iron when God is looking for precious metals. Even worse, they look like silver but are in fact the basest metal of all: lead.
They are all stubbornly rebellious,
    going about with slanders;
they are bronze and iron,
    all of them act corruptly.
The bellows blow fiercely,
    the lead is consumed by the fire;
in vain the refining goes on,
    for the wicked are not removed.
They are called “rejected silver,”
    for the Lord has rejected them. (6:28-30)

So the question is, are we like Jerusalem? Do we look like silver before others but in the end our hypocrisy fails to hide the fact that we are merely worthless lead?

1 Thessalonians 5:4–15: Paul echoes Jesus’ parable of the watchmen who need to be alert for the return of the master. Here, Paul asks the Thessalonians to remain sober and alert to the imminent Second Coming: “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.” (6,7) While they wait for Jesus’ return, Paul advises them again, “be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (8)

And since (to use the old phrase) Jesus still tarries today, Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians is his advice to us. We are assured of our salvation and ultimately, Jesus will return to bring us back with him to heaven: “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep [i.e., alive or dead] we may live with him.” (9,10)

So, more advice for how to live in the interregnum between Jesus’ ascension and his eventual return: “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” (11) Which I know is something I have so often failed to do.

Paul then gets quite specific about exactly what this encouragement consists of. First, to our leaders: “respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” (12, 13a) Then to each other: “Be at peace among yourselves.” (13b) Then, what we should do about those who are not carrying their fair load in the community: “admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” (14)

Finally, “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” (15) The best place to put Paul’s commands into practice is exactly where Paul is pointing: within the church—especially the Christian communities in which we are members.

There is nothing theologically abstract going on here. These are all straightforward personal responsibilities expected of each person who calls himself or herself ‘Christian.’ Alas, churches are so often hotbeds of exactly the opposite behaviors. Or as Jeremiah might put it, we may look like silver, but we’re acting like lead.  

Psalm 95; Jeremiah 4:23–5:25; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:3

Originally published 8/10/2017. Revised and updated 8/9/2019.

Psalm 95: As with other celebratory psalms, this one also opens with the joyful command to sing to the Lord, reminding us that singing has always been a central element of worship:
Come let us sing gladly to the Lord,
let us shout out to the Rock of our rescue.
Let us greet Him in acclaim,
in songs let us shout out to him. (1,2)

Also as usual, the main topic of these worship songs is God as being the sole and mighty Lord over all creation, including over other small-g gods:
For a great god is the Lord
and great king over all the gods. (3)

So, who are these other small-g gods? They are not human-fashioned idols but rather what I take to be the host of heaven. (Alter speculates this verse may be a linguistic leftover from ancient Canaanite mythology.) In any event, it is the Lord as creator of the natural world, including humans that this psalm celebrates:
In Whose hand are the depths of the earth,
and the peaks of the mountains are His.
His is the sea and He made it,
and the dry land His hands did fashion.
Come, let us bow before the Lord our Maker. (4-6)

Our psalmist emphasizes Israel’s special relationship with God using the (ever-popular) shepherd-sheep metaphor. But like stupid sheep, too often we fail to heed God’s voice:
For He is our God
and we the people He tends
and the flock of his hand.
If you would only heed His voice! (7)

At this point the tone of the psalm shifts from celebration to a rather tense sermon written in God’s voice. The psalmist reminds the congregation of Israel’s historical acts of disobedience during the wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land:
Do not harden your heart as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when in the wilderness,
when your forefathers tested Me,
tried me, though they had seen My acts. (8,9)

In fact, the entire psalm becomes rather downbeat as the poet continues in the voice of God, emphasizing God’s memories of Israel’s stubbornness and cowardice that resulted in wandering in the wilderness for forty years:
Forty years I loathed a generation,
and I said, ‘They are a people of wayward heart.
And they did not know my ways.’
Against them I swore in My wrath,
‘They shall not come to my resting place. (10,11)

The psalmist’s implicit warning is that if the Jews of his generation do not come to worship God and follow him they will be denied the metaphorical ‘resting place’ (aka the Promised Land) as well.

The same goes for us. When we rebel against God, or as is more common these days, deny his existence, we will also never find true peace for ourselves because the true ‘resting place’ does not exist within us. It exists only in God. Which also explains the size of the therapy industry as lost souls attempt to find that God-free resting place. Like the end of the rainbow it will never be found unless one turns to God.

Jeremiah 4:23–5:25: Jeremiah continues his prophetic speech in the voice of God using a depressing description of a ruined creation consisting only of darkness, earthquakes, and emptiness:
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
    and all its cities were laid in ruins
    before the Lord, before his fierce anger. (4:26)

However, while Israel’s land will be made desolate, God keeps his promise to Noah and is not ending creation itself. But Jeremiah promises that destruction will indeed be visited on a sinful nation whose futile attempts to make peace with surrounding nations—the metaphorical ‘lovers.’ He lampoons these pointless efforts as an ugly woman trying to make herself beautiful:
And you, O desolate one,
what do you mean that you dress in crimson,
    that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
    that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself.
    Your lovers despise you;
    they seek your life. (4:30)

Jeremiah shifts to yet another feminine metaphor to describe a dying Israel. And it is even less pleasant:
For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,
    anguish as of one bringing forth her first child,
the cry of daughter Zion gasping for breath,
    stretching out her hands,
“Woe is me! I am fainting before killers! (4:31)

Jeremiah finally relents with the descriptive metaphors of a destroyed nation to explain—again speaking in God’s voice—reminding his listeners as to why this national destruction will occur. As at Sodom, God will forego destruction if he can find but one truly faithful soul:
Search its squares and see
    if you can find one person
who acts justly
    and seeks truth—
so that I may pardon Jerusalem. (5:1)

But everyone there is a hypocrite—”they say, “As the Lord lives,”/ yet they swear falsely.” (5:2)—and worse,
...they refused to take correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
    they have refused to turn back. (5:3)

Having found no righteous people among the poor, God examines the rich, thinking,
surely they know the way of the Lord,
    the law of their God.”
But they all alike had broken the yoke,
    they had burst the bonds. (5:5)

But as we know from experience today the rich are no smarter than the poor. They are just stupid about different things. Because of their collective sinful intransigence, God writes them all off:
For the house of Israel and the house of Judah
    have been utterly faithless to me,
says the Lord. (5:11)

As with our culture today, everyone remains in denial that God will finally act should the prophet’s warnings go unheeded:
[They] have said, “He will do nothing.
No evil will come upon us,
    and we shall not see sword or famine. (5:12)

Jeremiah makes a very specific prophecy to Israel that they will be conquered by “a nation from far away,” (5:15) that brings only death and destruction:
They shall eat up your harvest and your food;
    they shall eat up your sons and your daughters;
they shall destroy with the sword
    your fortified cities in which you trust. (5:17)

But as always, there is a glimmer of hope. Some will survive: “But even in those days, says the Lord, I will not make a full end of you.” (5:18) Nevertheless, Jeremiah concludes ·still speaking as the voice of God),
this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart;
    they have turned aside and gone away.
They do not say in their hearts,
    “Let us fear the Lord our God,
who gives the rain in its season,”
…Your iniquities have turned these away,
    and your sins have deprived you of good. (5:24, 25)

These words are a stern tocsin for us as well. Just like Israel and Judah we as a people—especially our leaders—are equally in denial about our collective sinfulness. Without acknowledgement followed by repentance things will not end well for American society just as they didn’t for Israel and Judah so many centuries ago.

1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:3: We arrive at the most controversial part of this epistle and one of the most controversial in the entire New testament: Paul’s description of what will happen at the end of history at Jesus’ second coming. Somebody certainly must have asked him what happens when Jesus comes again, which in those days was seen as imminent:

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (15, 16)

OK, I can accept that as a reasonably rational description of what might happen when Jesus returns. But the next verse has become the ‘go-to’ verse for those who believe in the pre-tribulation Rapture: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” (17)

Many interpreters have stretched this verse to conclude that Jesus will come take believers out of the world and up into heaven before various prophecies in Revelation come to pass, specifically the 7-year tribulation. This is the plot of the novel, Taken, from some years back. This belief is particularly widespread among Evangelical and Pentecostal believers.

But I see nothing of the sort here. Paul is simply using his relentlessly logical thought process to deal with the problem of how already dead Christians and living Christians will get to heaven at the Second Coming. It’s a reasonable explanation unadorned by concatenating it with parts of Revelation. But who knows? There are more important things for us Christians living in the here and now—which was certainly the thrust of Jesus’ own teachings. And Paul’s, as this is the only place in his epistles where he attempts to grapple with this issue.

There’s one thing we can be sure of, though. When the end comes it will be a surprise: “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (5:2)

As for me I’m content to leave it all at the level of abstraction we find in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds: “He will come to judge the living and the dead.”

Psalm 94:12–23; Jeremiah 3:14–4:22; 1 Thessalonians 4:1–12

Originally published 8/9/2017. Revised and updated 8/8/2019.

Psalm 94:12–23: We arrive at the turning point of the psalm where the broad rhetorical questions become personal as our psalmist rationalizes the pain he is personally enduring as God’s lesson:
Happy the man whom Yah chastises,
and whom from His teaching He instructs,
to make him quiet in evil days
until a pit is dug for the wicked. (12, 13)

At first, I have trouble with the argument that God causes us to suffer as a way of teaching us. Yet, there is suffering in the world and I have certainly learned life lessons from my own experiences. I think it is more that since we already live in a fallen world, God allows us to suffer—after all, we can’t avoid it—and because we are God-followers, we become wiser from that suffering. As Rahm Emanuel famously said, ‘Why let a crisis go to waste?’ It seems God is way ahead of Rahm on that score.

In this suffering, our poet finds a modicum of comfort in the assurance that God will not abandon the nation of Israel and that those unjustly treated will one day find justice:
For the Lord will not abandon His people,
and His estate He will not forsake.
For justice will join with judgement,
and all upright will follow. (14, 15)

Of course that’s not exactly how Jeremiah sees it, as the prophet warns Israel that God is indeed about to give up them. But even our poet seems to realize his optimism is a bit overblown as he asks himself:
Who will rise for me against evildoers,
who will take a stand for me against the wrongdoers?” (16)

The answer to these questions is that justice will not be brought from among his neighbors or the established political order. Only God provides the rescue and justice he seeks:
Were not the Lord a help to me,
I would have almost dwelled in the silent realm.
When I thought my foot had stumbled,
Your kindness, Lord, sustained me.
With my many cares within me,
Your consolations delighted me. (17-19)

In fact, injustice and corruption emanates from the highest levels in the nation:
Will the throne of disaster consort with You,
that fashions trouble against the law?
They band together against the just man’s life,
and innocent blood condemn. (20, 21)

Only God can provide protection against the predations of institutional evil:
But the Lord became my fortress,
and my God, my sheltering rock. (22)

In these politically fraught times of our own we can take comfort in those words if not in the rather vengeful conclusion of this psalm. Although, I wonder if this is America’s fate:
[God] will turn back against them their wickedness,
through their evil He will destroy them,
the Lord our God will destroy them. (23)

Jeremiah 3:14–4:22: Jeremiah beautifully conveys God’s frustration with his chosen people. On the one hand, God wants to be done with them; on the other he wants to redeem them as we read lines that seem to say God wants nothing greater than for his people to come back:
Return, O faithless children,
says the Lord,
    for I am your master; (3:14)

This thought leads to Jeremiah’s reflection written in God’s voice in a remarkable verse expressing God’s sorrowful regret on that which once was:
I [God] thought
    how I would set you among my children,
and give you a pleasant land,
    the most beautiful heritage of all the nations.
And I thought you would call me, My Father,
    and would not turn from following me. (3:19)

Alas, it is not to be, and we feel Jeremiah’s sorrow at Israel’s and Judah’s present generation which has corrupted all that went before it: “But from our youth the shameful thing has devoured all for which our ancestors had labored, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters.” (3:24) To draw a modern parallel, I think that the Baby Boomer generation in its self-centeredness has accomplished much the same kind of destruction to the work and values of the generations that have preceded it.

As always, there is the promise of God’s blessings of Israel would only repent and turn back to God:
[Thus] says the Lord,
    if you return to me,
if you remove your abominations from my presence,
    and do not waver,
and if you swear, “As the Lord lives!”
    in truth, in justice, and in uprightness,
then nations shall be blessed by him,
    and by him they shall boast. (4:1, 2)

Jeremiah asks the same of Judah and Jerusalem in a memorable metaphor of repentance as  circumcision of the heart. (Where’s the praise song for that?):
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
    remove the foreskin of your hearts,
    O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, (4:4a)

But as usual, God’s pleas are accompanied by the threat of the consequences of non-compliance:
...or else my wrath will go forth like fire,
    and burn with no one to quench it,
    because of the evil of your doings. (4:4b)

Jeremiah pretty much predicts that God will carry out his punishment by means of an invasion by a hostile power, which of course is exactly what happened to both Israel (Assyrians) and Judah (Babylonians). As for Israel, Jeremiah writes:
A lion has gone up from its thicket,
    a destroyer of nations has set out;
    he has gone out from his place
to make your land a waste;
    your cities will be ruins
    without inhabitant. (4:7)

Judah and Jerusalem will meet a similar fate:
Look! He comes up like clouds,
    his chariots like the whirlwind;
his horses are swifter than eagles—
    woe to us, for we are ruined! (4:13)

Jeremiah makes it perfectly clear that Israel and Judah have brought this disaster upon themselves. They cannot play the victim card:
Your ways and your doings
    have brought this upon you.
This is your doom; how bitter it is!
    It has reached your very heart. (4:18)

And for all these woeful prophecies, what does Jeremiah himself feel?
My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
    Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly;
    I cannot keep silent; (4:19)

But as God has made clear and Jeremiah must utter, again in God’s voice:
For my people are foolish,
    they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
    they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
    but do not know how to do good. (4:22)

Which pretty much sums up the human condition even today, doesn’t it?

1 Thessalonians 4:1–12: Paul is in serious advice-giving mode in this epistle and he does not hesitate to instruct the church he loves so much. He reminds them what he told them when he was physically present in Thessaloniki: “For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus” (2) in order to become sanctified. Specifically, to:

  • abstain from fornication” (3b)
  • know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God;” (4,5)
  • “[not] wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things“(6)  (a little bit of Jeremiah there!)

To make it clear he’s serious, Paul reminds them, “whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you.” (8) Some have argued that this means one can lose one’s salvation through evil acts. I think it’s much more a question of us abandoning God rather than God abandoning us. Which is exactly what’s happening in Jeremiah’s time—and ours.

Paul turns from his warnings to one of his favorite topics: love, at which the Thessalonians seemingly excel. He remarks that They are exemplars in the matter of love: “you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” (9) However, the lesson for them and for us is that we can always love even more: “But we urge you, beloved to do so more and more.” (10b). And it is in love that we are to lead our quotidian lives as noted in yet another but really very appealing (and short!) Pauline list reminding us that labor is how God designed us: “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you.” (11) Paul explains why: “so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.” (12)

I think this reading is good evidence of Paul’s belief that the church must fit into society and not raise a social ruckus, especially around controversial issues such as slavery in his time. In those days the last thing the nascent church needed to do was to undertake actions that would be viewed as radical or even revolutionary. Better to quietly carry out its work and be effective, loving witnesses on a one-on-one basis within the community. Paul is implicitly saying that is the best way to bring people to Christ.

Which makes me wonder about the efficacy or wisdom of the church participating in public protests and/or taking public positions on controversial social issues beyond communicating what Paul wants in Thessaloniki: sincere love for everyone. A militant church is not necessarily a loving church and social pronouncements tend to be polarizing. Nevertheless, I think the church has a social role in reaching out to the poor and distressed among us.

Psalm 94:1–11; Jeremiah 2:20–3:13; 1 Thessalonians 3

Originally published 8/8/2017. Revised and updated 8/7/2019.

Psalm 94:1–11: Wow. So much for ‘God is love’ as our psalmist boldly asks God to strike down the haughty and wrongdoers. Unlike other psalms, there is no gentleness or reflection on God’s justice. There is just a bold request for God to take vengeance. This is as aggressive an opening as we are likely to see in the Psalms:
God of vengeance, O Lord,
God of vengeance, shine forth!
Rise up, O judge of the earth,
bring down on the proud requital. (1,2)

The psalmist then asks the question that we encounter so often in psalms of supplication. But here it is more of an angry disquisition on the evil that the wicked commit as these verses catalog the types of sin committed by people who ostensibly and hypocritically follow God:
How long the wicked, O Lord,
how long will the wicked exult?
They utter arrogance, speak it,
all the wrongdoers bandy boasts. (3,4)

Notice that again the first thing on the mind of the psalmist is sin committed by speech, causing us to reflect on the destructive power of words—something we certianly see on display daily in Washington DC by politicians of all stripes. And here, we see the effects of evil words on and wicked actions against the innocent:
Your people, O Lord, they crush,
and Your estate they abuse.
Widow and sojourner they kill,
and orphans they murder. (5,6)

Along with the poet we wonder why God is silent as this evil mayhem persists. Amplifying their evil acts is the fact that these wrongdoers think they can get away with it:
And they say, ‘Yah will not see,
and the God of Jacob will not heed.’ (7)

Our poet is warning the people, who obviously aren’t listening, that the consequences of their deeds will inevitably come back to haunt them:
Take heed, you brutes in the people,
and you fools, when will you be wise? (8)

I think I know the answer to that question: very rarely, if ever. But our psalmist is going for the logical approach. After all, he argues, God has created humankind so he is well aware of the evil being committed and will eventually act to rectify it:
Who plants the ear, will He not hear?
Who fashions the eye, will He not look?
The chastiser of nations, will he not punish,
Who teaches humankind knowledge? (9,10)

Wrongdoers must understand that God is not missing a thing regarding what evil they are committing:
The Lord knows human designs,
that they are mere breath. (11)

Yes, we humans may be ephemeral, but what we fail to understand is that our evil acts have long-lasting effects. In a world where skepticism about God’s very existence seems on the rise, there is little to hold back the rise of evil that I think we see all around us increasing each day as our culture unravels.

Jeremiah 2:20–3:13: Speaking in God’s voice as he continues his speech to unfaithful Israel, Jeremiah expresses his frustration toward a people gone bad with the famous line:
On every high hill
    and under every green tree
    you sprawled and played the whore. (2:20)

Metaphors tumble out of Jeremiah’s pen. Israel is a wild vine; (21), a camel in heat (23); a “wild ass in the wilderness” (24). Without question, Israel’s most egregious sin has been its embrace of idolatry as Jeremiah writes with dripping sarcasm, noting their hypocrisy:
who say to a tree, “You are my father,”
    and to a stone, “You gave me birth.”
For they have turned their backs to me,
    and not their faces.
But in the time of their trouble they say,
    “Come and save us!”

I remember after the national trauma of 9/11 the churches were full for a time. In a time of deep trouble people tend to turn to God. But only for a while as previous behavior resumes. Human nature has not changed a whit since Jeremiah’s time. We Americans much prefer our idols of technology and wealth. Jeremiah’s sarcasm continues as he asks rhetorically,
But where are your gods
    that you made for yourself?
Let them come, if they can save you,
    in your time of trouble;
for you have as many gods
    as you have towns, O Judah. (2:28)

All around us today are the small-g gods that people think will bring them satisfaction. If that were really true there would be far fewer people in therapy! Israel—and we—are like an adolescent, always going after the next adventure. But without maturity or wisdom or heeding consequences
How well you direct your course
    to seek lovers!
So that even to wicked women
    you have taught your ways.
How lightly you gad about,
    changing your ways! (2:33, 36a)

Nor do they (we) appreciate the consequences until they come whining back to God:
  Yet in spite of all these things
you say, “I am innocent;
    surely his anger has turned from me.” (2: 34b, 35a)

But God can spot hypocrisy from a mile away and he’s not letting anyone off. Their humiliating comeuppance awaits:
You shall be put to shame by Egypt
    as you were put to shame by Assyria.
From there also you will come away
    with your hands on your head; (2:36b, 37a)

I wonder what consequences await our own culture. God will not abandon those who seek after him, but he has no particular interest in saving those who have rejected him.

Jeremiah is on a tear, and the same topic of evil deeds and hypocrisy occupies the beginning of chapter 3:
You have polluted the land
    with your whoring and wickedness.
…Have you not just now called to me,
    “My Father, you are the friend of my youth—
will he be angry forever,
    will he be indignant to the end?”
This is how you have spoken,
    but you have done all the evil that you could. (3:2, 4,5)

Here we learn that God is equally angry at Judah as he is of Israel. Perhaps  that upon seeing the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, Judah would repent. Alas, that was not to be: “[Judah] saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce; yet her false sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore.” (13:8)

In fact, Judah has been the greater hypocrite than even Israel: “Yet for all this her false sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but only in pretense, says the LordThen the Lord said to me: Faithless Israel has shown herself less guilty than false Judah.” (13:10, 11) Which serves as a serious warning to the church those of us who profess to follow God. We are better off to be like Israel and reject God altogether than to profess faith as Judah did but to fail to have our actions follow our words.

1 Thessalonians 3: Paul continues in autobiographical mode, noting that after the events at Philippi he went by himself to Athens, where as we learn in Acts, he was not particularly effective. Rather than going himself, he sent Timothy to Thessalonica, “proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions.” (2,3)

In a time without instant communication Paul still worried that his beloved Thessalonians had suffered persecution. That’s the real reason he sent Timothy and he’s thrilled to learn that Timothy “has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us—just as we long to see you.” (6)

It’s difficult to describe how greatly this news encouraged Paul, although he tries: “For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith.” (7) And then, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” (9)

The question I ask myself here is, do I rejoice in the same way that Paul does when someone I know returns to Jesus Christ? Or do I merely say, “Well, that’s nice…” and then go about my business.

Paul concludes this chapter (but not the epistle itself) with a wonderful benediction:

And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (12, 13)

I think it would do us good to hear the words, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” every week at worship. After all, it’s all about love, isn’t it? Love for God; for Jesus; for each other and yes, even for ourselves.