Psalm 132; Daniel 10:8–11:19; Revelation 1:1–8

Thanksgiving 2017

Psalm 132: This psalm celebrates David and his unflagging efforts to bring the Ark if the Covenant to Jerusalem, which Alter informs us is recounted in 2 Samuel 6 and 7. The psalm’s opening verses describe David’s single-minded dedication:
“Recall, O Lord, for David
all his torment
when he swore to the Lord,
vowed to Jacob’s Champion:

I will not give sleep to my eyes
nor slumber to my lids
until I find a place for the Lord,
a dwelling for Jacob’s Champion.” (1-5)

“Jacob’s champion” is a name for God I’ve not heard before and it must refer to the incident in Genesis where Jacob wrestled with God—and God won. It’s worth remembering that as far as the Jews were concerned, God was not omni-present but quite literally dwelled in one place: the Ark, hence the requirement for a permanent holy place for the Ark to rest.

David succeeds in the task and there is rejoicing:
“Rise, O Lord, to Your resting place,
You and the Ark of Your strength.
Let Your priests don victory,
and let Your faithful sing gladly.” (8, 9)

At this point the psalm recalls how the Davidic dynasty was God-ordained:
“The Lord swore to David
a true oath from which He will not turn back:
‘From the fruit of your loins
I will set up a throne for you.” (11, 12)

Crucially, the psalmist reminds us that the dynasty remains in power only, “If your sons keep My pact/ and My precept that I shall teach them,/ their sons, too, forevermore/ shall sit on the throne that is yours” (12) Of course by reading the Histories, we know how well that turned out…

The psalm then returns to the topic at hand, which is that as long as the Ark remains at Jerusalem, all will be well. Writing in God’s voice, the psalmist asserts that all will be well:
‘This is my resting place evermore,
Here I dwell, for I desired it.
I will surely bless its provisions,
its needy I will sate with bread.” (14, 15)

Alas, it’s tragic that the great promise of this psalm was undermined by the failure of Israel to continue to worship God. But we need to remember that God didn’t abandon his side of the promise.

Daniel 10:8–11:19: For me this passage is much more valuable as a description of Daniel’s emotions—mainly fear— than the content of the vision. An angel appears to Daniel and encourages him. Like most angelic visitations, there’s the invocation not to be afraid: “Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.” (10:12)

But Daniel replies, My lord, because of the vision such pains have come upon me that I retain no strength. How can my lord’s servant talk with my lord? For I am shaking, no strength remains in me, and no breath is left in me.” (10:16, 17) Once again, the angel encourages Daniel, “Do not fear, greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous!”  (10:19)

With Daniel apparently recovered, there’s a really long discourse about kingdoms rising and being broken apart. There is a king from the south who makes an alliance with a king from the north via an arranged marriage. The princess will have a son, and “He shall come against the army and enter the fortress of the king of the north, and he shall take action against them and prevail.” (11:7)  I wouldn’t be surprised if someone out there has tried to make this a prophecy about Jesus, but that seems pretty farfetched to me.

Anyway, our eyes glaze over as we read of still more there are lots of battles, another marriage and ultimately defeat: “Then he shall turn back toward the fortresses of his own land, but he shall stumble and fall, and shall not be found.” (11:19)

This is one of those places in the Bible where one can only wonder why it’s there. It must have had meaning to the author’s contemporaries, but it seems a futile effort to try and sort all this out and align it to actual events, which I’m pretty sure have been lost to history.

Revelation 1:1–8: As if the puzzlement of Daniel weren’t enough, we now embark on the wild ride that is Revelation. A political prisoner named John (certainly not the same John of the eponymous gospel or epistles) writes to seven churches in Asia.

Things start out calmly enough as John reprises the Gospel message in an opening invocation: “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made  us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” (5b, 6) 

But then John shifts his view up toward heaven and the second coming, giving us a brief introduction to the apocalyptic feast to come:
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
    every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
    and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.” (7)

This sense that we about to encounter something greater than mere theology is intensified when he focuses on God’s eternality over all things: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (8) We are left with the feeling that just as God knows no boundaries in spacetime, so too, what John is about to write will also transcend the boundaries of the quotidian world in which we live.

Psalm 131; Daniel 9:1–10:7; Jude 1:11–25

Psalm 131: This psalm evokes the humility that all of us would do well to emulate:
Lord, my heart has not been haughty,
nor have my eyes looked too high,
nor have I striven for great things,
nor for things too wondrous for me.” (1)

This is pretty much the opposite state that our ambitious culture espouses. “Reach for greatness,” we tell our youth. We judge financial success and celebrity as the ne plus ultra of achievement. But this kind of achievement leads too often to self-centeredness and pride. And as we watch celebrities and politicians implode due to accusations of sexual harassment, we all should learn the lesson that pride and a sense that one has power over others inevitably leads to a fall.

Rather we should follow the psalmist:
But I have calmed and contented myself
like a weaned babe on its mother–
like a weaned babe I am with myself.” (2)

Think about that image: a contented humility that brings the peace of a baby asleep on its mothers shoulder. Am I calmed and contented with myself? Am I humble? Too often I have considered myself to be pretty good, pretty smart, pretty accomplished. This psalm is a wake-up call for me. And it should be a wake-up call for our culture.

Daniel 9:1–10:7: We encounter a welcome interlude from bizarre visions and interpretations as Daniel  prays for Israel’s forgiveness—a prayer that seems completely appropriate to American society today: “To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him, and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.” (9:9, 10) He continues, observing that ” this calamity has come upon us. We did not entreat the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and reflecting on his  fidelity.” (9:13)

We can see Daniel down on his knees, begging God to forgive Israel, clothed in the he humility of the psalmist above: “We do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies.” (9:19) Something we need to remember: grace comes from God, not by anything we ourselves have said or done.

Alas, the interlude of prayer ends and we are back to vision-land. Gabriel comes to Daniel in a vision and tells him his prayer will be answered because “you are greatly beloved.” (9:23)

Gabriel tells Daniel that Jerusalem will be an interval of seven weeks “from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince” (9:25a) Then “for sixty-two weeks [Jerusalem] shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time.” (9:25b) But at the end of this 62 weeks, “[Jerusalem’s] end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed.” (9:26)

As if this isn’t enough, this anointed prince will “make a strong covenant with many for one week,” For half a week things will be normal activity at the temple, but then the anointed prince will place “abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator.” (9:27)

Much has been made of the 7, 62, and 1/2 weeks: the conventional interpretation is that a “week” equals 7 years. This vision again seems to refer to Antiochus Epiphanes who by virtue of sacrificing a pig in the temple did indeed create an “abominable desolation.” But many conservative evangelicals interpret this vision is a prediction about the Antichrist and events such as the Tribulation that will occur at the end of history, i.e., events still to come. As before, I go with the Antiochus Epiphanes interpretation.

Today’s reading ends with yet another Daniel vision: “I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.” (10:5, 6) Even though Daniel is amidst a crowd he (unsurprisingly) is the only ne who sees and hears this vision. 

I guess we’ll just have to wait until tomorrow to see what happens next….

Jude 1:11–25: Jude is on a tear as he excoriates those who are corrupting the Christian community to which he is writing by citing three OT examples of the fruits of corruption: “Woe to them! For they go the way of Cain, and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain, and perish in Korah’s rebellion.” (11)

Then, he launches into some colorful metaphors as he struggles to communicate just how awful these apostates are: “They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved forever.” (12, 13)

At this point he gets downright apocalyptic, citing Enoch’s curse that these corrupters will meet a very bad end. Out of breath and metaphors at this point, he calls them “grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.” (16) Let’s hope we never get in Jude’s cross-hairs…

He concludes this passionate letter by addressing those who have remained faithful and giving advice that is pretty much the author’s message: “But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” (20, 21)

Equally important, we are to be merciful to others: “have mercy on some who are wavering; save others by snatching them out of the fire; and have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.” (22, 23) In other words have mercy on people we intensely dislike and/or we see as hopeless sinners. 

These words of advice are a pretty good encapsulation of the faithful Christian life.

However, the implication that we have to do good in order to “keep yourselves in the love of God” suggests that God will cease loving us when we sin or stray from him. On the contrary, I think God always continues to love us; it is our own actions that pull us away from him. But there’s just a skosh too much Catholic works righteousness for me here. Jude is clearly not a Lutheran who sees grace in all that God does. 

 

Psalm 130; Daniel 7:23–8:27; Jude 1:1–10

Psalm 130: This psalm opens with the stark image of a person seeking God from a position that is very near to death:
From the depths I called You, Lord.
Master, hear my voice.” 
May Your ears listen close to the voice of my plea.” (1, 2)

The psalmist is grateful—as should we be—that God does not seek out to punish sinners as that would be too much to bear. Rather God is a God of forgiveness:
Were You, O Yah, to watch for wrongs,
Master, who could endure?
For forgiveness is Yours,
so that You may be feared.” (3, 4)

This is something that too many forget when all they see is a God of punishment and vengeance. Tis psalm reminds us that those qualities are not God’s essence.

As usual in a psalm of supplication there is also the reality of God’s silence. Here, the psalmist beautifully conveys the intensity of hope—hope that God will hear and forgive:
I hoped for the Lord, my being hoped,
and for His word I waited.” (5)

This anticipation consumes the poet’s entire being:
My being for the Master—
more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn.” (6)

The question for me, of course, is do I wait upon God with such intensity? The answer is clearly ‘no. ]’ I may pray, but the anticipation of God’s answer does not become the singular focus of my life. I think  that happens only when I relinquish my own ego and desire for control and let jesus take over my life. Alas, I am still very far away from that.

The psalm’s focus shifts from the cries of a single man to the entire nation of israel, which hopes forgiveness for its collective sins:
Wait, O Israel, for the Lord,
for with the Lord is steadfast kindness,
and great redemption is with Him.
And He will redeem Israel
from all its wrongs.” (7,8)

If we substitute the name of our particular Christian community for ‘Israel,’ we can see just how important collective confession becomes—and why it should be at the start of every time the community comes together to worship.

Daniel 7:23–8:27: It seems only proper that Daniel—the great interpreter of king’s dreams—would have his own dream interpreted for him. The watcher, or whoever is interpreting the dream, focuses on the fourth beast—the one with iron teeth:
there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth
    that shall be different from all the other kingdoms;
it shall devour the whole earth,
    and trample it down, and break it to pieces.” (7:23)

In any event, the talking horn—what some see as the Antichrist—will work against all that is holy:
He shall speak words against the Most High,
    shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High,
    and shall attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law;
and they shall be given into his power
    for a time, two times,[a] and half a time.” (7:25)

My own take is that this is a description of the subjugation of Israel under the Greek empire featuring Antiochus Epiphanes and his attempt to suppress Israel’s worship. Nevertheless, many prefer to interpret Daniel’s dream as a forecast of the end of history—or at least have a lot of fun doing so.

Not content with a bizzaro dream, Daniel then has a vision down by the riverside of a powerful ram “charging westward and northward and southward. All beasts were powerless to withstand it, and no one could rescue from its power; it did as it pleased and became strong.” (8:4) A goat with four horns then tackles the ram. Then—you guessed it—another little horn which “grew as high as the host of heaven. It threw down to the earth some of the host and some of the stars, and trampled on them.” (8:10)

The reference to suppressed worship seems quite clear: “it took the regular burnt offering away from him and overthrew the place of his sanctuary.” (8:11) Daniel now hears “the Holy One” speaking and he asks, “For how long is this vision concerning the regular burnt offering, the transgression that makes desolate, and the giving over of the sanctuary and host to be trampled?” (8:13) The answer is strangely precise: “For two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful state.” (8:14)—or about six years.

Daniel is frustrated that he cannot interpret his own vision: “I tried to understand it.” So the Holy One (God?) sends the angel Gabriel to explain, who suddenly makes it quite clear that the vision is about the end of something. “Understand, O mortal, that the vision is for the time of the end.” (8:17) End of history? Or the end of Israel?

Gabriel then explains, “As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia. The male goat  is the king of Greece, and the great horn between its eyes is the first king.” (8:21) Greece then breaks apart and “a king of bold countenance shall arise,/ skilled in intrigue…By his cunning he shall make deceit prosper under his hand  and in his own mind he shall be great..” (8:23, 25)

Gabriel concludes that the vision “refers to many days from now.” (8:26)

Needless to say there have been all kinds of attempts to fit contemporary history into this scenario of end times. But again, I think it’s a reference to the Greek conquest of Israel and the desecration that happened then. But if you’d rather try to fit all these signs and symbols into a scenario for the end of history, have at it.

Jude 1:1–10: We know very little about Jude beyond surmising that he was an apostle that like Paul, Peter, James, John, et al was writing against those who would corrupt the early church. I’m pretty sure Thomas Hardy had this short book in mind when he titled one of his novels, “Jude the Obscure.” That title certainly seems to fit here. But then so would “Jude the Angry.”

Whatever church it is to which he is writing, Jude is quite direct. Apostasy is afoot: “I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (3, 4)

Jude does not pussyfoot around. He cites some dramatic examples of how God punished wrongdoers: Even though God saved the Israelites, “he afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” (5) Likewise, he points out, Sodom and  Gomorrah “indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” (7)

Something that in his opinion is just as bad is apparently going on at this church and Jude does not mince words: “Yet in the same way these dreamers also defile the flesh, reject authority, and slander the glorious ones.” (8) Jude goes on to accuse these miscreants not only of slander but also of ignorance: “But these people slander whatever they do not understand, and they are destroyed by those things that, like irrational animals, they know by instinct.” (10)

I suspect one of the reasons that this little letter is in the Canon is that it is a great example of the intensity with which the original battles were fought over what was orthodox and what was not. The first verses of this short book are a statement by the winners of the orthodoxy battles that the stakes continue to be very high and subsequent generations should stick to the straight and narrow and avoid Jude-like accusations of apostasy.

 

Psalm 129; Daniel 6:19–7:22; 3 John

Psalm 129: This song of ascents celebrates how despite their torturous methods Israel’s long-time enemies have not triumphed. Israel still stands tall:
Much as they beset me from my youth
–Let Israel now say—
uch as they beset me from my youth,
yet they did not prevail over me.
My back the harrowers harrowed,
they drew a long furrow.” (2, 3)

For me, this vivid agricultural image of a plow cutting open a lengthy laceration communicates searing pain more dramatically than almost any other metaphor in the psalms. And despite the pain, our psalmist can still celebrate God’s mercy in how the captives have been set free:
The Lord is just.
He has slashed the bonds of the wicked.
May they be shamed and fall back,
all the haters of Zion.” (4, 5)

The haters of Zion have persisted down through history, most tragically in the Holocaust. So we can be sympathetic to the psalmist’s wish that they will suffer mightily as the poet continues with the agricultural metaphors—only this time turned against the enemy:
May they be like the grass on rooftops
that the east wind withers,
which no reaper fills his hand,
no binder of sheaves his bosom.” (6, 7)

Worse than that, these enemies lie outside the realm of God’s favor and they will miss God’s blessing:
and no passers-by say, “The Lord’s blessing upon you!
We bless you in the name of the Lord.” (8)

For me, this separation from God is what sin is all about.

Daniel 6:19–7:22: Daniel keeps setting an example of the godly life and he keeps outwitting the wiles of his enemies in court, this time the satraps of King Darius. Once again an appeal to a king’s outsize ego and his narcissistic stupidity in singing an ordinance that everyone has to pray to him that cannot be rescinded lands Daniel in harm’s way. Since he prays only to God his jealous enemies see that he is tossed into the lion’s den. Darius wants to save Daniel, but there’s no escaping the legality of the law he’s signed. Daniel is famously tossed into the lion’s den, and anxiety-ridden Darius neither eats nor sleeps that night.

Next morning, the king rushes to the den, finds Daniel quite alive “because he had trusted in his God.” (6:23)  The king makes sure that Daniel’s accusers suffer the fate they had arranged for Daniel. Darius issues a decree that is actually a wonderful psalm, doubtless written by the authors of this book than by Darius:
For he is the living God,
    enduring forever.
His kingdom shall never be destroyed,
    and his dominion has no end.” (6:26)

For me, this famous story is all about trusting God in dire circumstances.

The lion’s den story would have been a great place to end this book. But alas, somebody—perhaps another author—has tacked on what is basically a postscript: Daniel’s own dream of things to come. It’s certainly an imaginative dream featuring four fearsome hybrid animals:

  • a lion with eagle’s wings which morphs into a human with a human mind.
  • a bear with three tusks that eats people
  • something like a leopard with four wings and four heads
  • a frightening ten-horned beast with iron teeth devouring everything in sight.

The ten-horned beast suddenly sprouts a “little horn…with eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.” (7:8)

Then there’s a throne room judgement scene—and we can see some of the source material used by the author of Revelation in the throne room scene:
A thousand thousands served him,
    and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
    and the books were opened.” (7:10)

The three beasts are usually interpreted as the empires of Babylon, Persia and Greece. The fourth beast with iron teeth is the Roman empire. The talking horn is typically interpreted as the Antichrist. Needless to say, a lot of ink has been consumed by people attempting to link these images to world history—together multiple and IMHO, inevitably futile attempts at interpreting just who the little horn represents. One interpretation may be Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek ruler who sacrificed pigs in the temple at Jerusalem.  Or perhaps someone yet to come. During the Reformation the pope served as a handy interpretation of the little horn.

But perhaps the strongest image in this passage is the one we could interpret as Jesus Christ come to earth as Daniel exclaims,
I saw one like a human being
    coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One[f]
    and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
    and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him.” (7:13, 14a)

I think we can leave it at that. God wins at the end of history by virtue of having sent Jesus into the world to save us.

3 John: I’m not sure why this short little letter is its own epistle in the NT. It’s essentially a thank you note to a certain Gaius whom John commends for how well he hews to the Gospel: “I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth, namely how you walk in the truth.” (3)

On the other hand, there’s “Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority.” (9a) Even more scurrilous than spreading “false charges against us” (9) is that he lacks hospitality and has arrogantly put himself in charge as “he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church.” (10) However, John has the ultimate revenge as Diotrephes goes down in history as a miscreant. I strongly doubt if any Christian mother ever named her child Diotrephes.

The example of Diotrephes once again causes John to remind us, “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” (11) Which I think is the theological heart of this little letter. In the end, if we imitate Christ himself we are on the right path.

Finally, John endorses a certain Demetrius, as “Everyone has testified favorably about [him], and so has the truth itself.” (12)

John concludes by telling his correspondents that he has much more to write, but “instead I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face.” (14) One of the great unanswered questions is whether or not that meeting actually took place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Psalm 127; Daniel 4:19–5:16; 1 John 5:6–21

Psalm 127: This psalm is dedicated to Solomon probably because of the clear reference to the temple in the first verse:
If the Lord does not build a house,
in vain do its builders labor on it.
If the Lord does not watch over a town,
in vain does the watchman look out.” (1)

I think the first two lines are directly applicable to the church of Jesus Christ. ot just in the physical building sense, but when a congregation drifts away from the central mission of the church, which is to bring the good news of the Gospel to others, then the whole project of “church” is pretty much in vain.

The next verse communicates how our own lives and especially our own efforts at salvation are ultimately futile. We are mere mortals. Rather, the gifts we receive, such as rest and renewed energy from being able to sleep at night, come from God, not our own work:
In vain you who rise early, sit late,
eaters of misery’s bread.
So much He gives to His loved ones in sleep.” (3)

The subject suddenly changes to a celebration of the joys of male progeny, which for Jews was one of the central purposes of life. As a reflection of the time in which the psalm was written, notice that the reward is sons, not daughters, since it is sons who carry on the ancestral line and therefore the memory of fathers and grandfathers in subsequent generations:
Look, the estate of the Lord is sons,
reward is the fruit of the womb.” (3)

The emphasis on the crucial importance of having sons is carried further with the militaristic image of a warrior holding arrows:
Like arrows in the warrior’s hand,
thus are the sons born in youth.
Happy the man
who fills his quiver with them.” (4, 5a)

Of course in those days it was the sons who went to battle to preserve the nation and therefore, its families. From the context of our own culture many may denigrate that society’s emphasis on male progeny as being unfair to daughters. But it’s worth remembering that without sons to go to battle the tribes and nations would be annihilated and ultimately forgotten. WHich I think is exactly the point of the last two lines:
They shall not be shamed
when they speak with their enemies at the gate.” (5b)

We may scoff at such a stark emphasis on male children, but in many respects I certainly miss the clear delineation between sexes and more recently, the concept that gender is a choice not a biological fact. Ultimately, our culture will meet the enemy at the gate and alas, we will welcome them in.

Daniel 4:19–5:16: Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream. Ever wanting to appear strong and invincible, the king projects his own anxiety on Daniel, “Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or the interpretation terrify you.” (4:19) Daniel tells Neb that the fruitful tree is the king himself. Well, this seems like good news until Daniel gets to the part about the tree being cut down. The cutting down means that the king has been judged by God and that Neb “shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the wild animals. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen, you shall be bathed with the dew of heaven, and seven times [years, I presume] shall pass over you, until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and gives it to whom he will.” (4:25) In other words, the king will go mad, for his prideful arrogance has been judged by God.

Nothing happens until one day Nebuchadnezzar exclaims pridefully, “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” (4:30) At that moment God strikes him down and he becomes insane, driven away from human society and ends up eating grass. Our authors, who clearly despise Neb’s arrogance, add the detail that “his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws.” In other words, Neb has lost his humanity.

We arrive an odd intermezzo of Nebuchadnezzar regaining his reason and having a “conversion experience,” as he comes to understand that God has ultimate power over human affairs: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven,

for all his works are truth,
    and his ways are justice;
and he is able to bring low
    those who walk in pride.” (4:37)

Which for me is the central moral of the Nebuchadnezzar story: pride does indeed go before a fall. Only by realizing that God is in charge, not our own efforts, can equilibrium be restored.

Nebuchadnezzar exits the stage and is replaced by his son Belshazzar, who obviously did not learn anything about pride from his father’s experience. He throws a party with the unforgivable (to our Jewish authors) desecration of drinking and feasting using the stolen vessels from the temple followed by blasphemy: “They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.” (5:4)

The famous handwriting on the wall appears and our Jewish authors gleefully mock the king’s reaction: “the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.” (5:8)

Belshazzar calls in his wise men to interpret the writing. Unsurprisingly, they cannot figure it out and our authors twist their disdainful knife further: “King Belshazzar became greatly terrified and his face turned pale, and his lords were perplexed.” (5:9)

The queen remembers about Daniel being “an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems.” (5:12) So they fetch Daniel and Belshazzar tells him, “if you are able to read the writing and tell me its interpretation, you shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around your neck, and rank third in the kingdom.” (5:16)

The Moravians end the reading here. But the suspense is missing since we already know what happens next…

1 John 5:6–21: John’s theology gets pretty dense here: “ This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.”  (6) I think we can unpack it as the two defining moments of Jesus ministry on earth: his baptism by water and the shedding of his blood on the cross. John asserts that the testimony to this truth is not via a mere human eyewitness accounts, but by the Holy Spirit itself, which by definition cannot lie.

He returns to his binary theme, which I think is a response to an accusation that since the people in the Johannine community were not eyewitnesses to the events surrounding Jesus, they cannot be telling the truth. John asserts that on the contrary, “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.” (10)

He concludes with the famous concluding statement, beloved by evangelicals who eschew all ambiguity: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (12)

Like Paul, John cannot leave it there but concludes his letter with a statement that I’m sure is the basis of the Roman Catholic definition of two classes of sin: “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.” (17) In other words, some sins (mortal ones) are more sinful than others (venial ones).

Once again, John makes his point about Jesus being the son of God, ending with the bold assertion that “we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” (16) There’s no mistaking that Jesus is indeed true God, a reality testified by the Holy Spirit, whence the doctrine of the Trinity.

Psalm 126; Daniel 3:19–4:18; 1 John 4:16b–5:5

Psalm 126: This is another psalm that appears to have been written during the Babylonian captivity as its opening verse envisions restoration—both of the land of Israel and the consequent joy of its people. This act of God will border on the unimaginable, as if it were a dream fulfilled:
When the Lord restores Zion’s fortunes,
we should be like dreamers.
Then will our mouth fill with laughter
and our tongue with glad song.” (1, 2a)

This restoration will be sufficiently unexpected that surrounding nations will not only be amazed, but like the people of Israel itself, will realize this can only be God’s doing:
Then they will say in the nations:
‘Great things has the Lord done with these.’
Great things  has the Lord done with is.
We shall rejoice.” (2b, 3)

How often has God done the unexpected for me that causes me to rejoice? Surely the fact that I am still here after dealing with advanced cancer more than 8 years ago is cause for rejoicing. I, too, have been restored.

In eager anticipation of that wonderful day of restoration our psalmist turns to supplication with a simile that restoration will come unexpectedly like a dry wash in the desert suddenly overflowing with water:
Restore, O Lord, our fortunes
like freshets in the Negeb.” (4)

The water image becomes tears in a metaphor of a man—obviously representing Israel itself—sowing seed in despair but reaping a crop of joy:
They who sow in tears
in glad song will reap.
He walks along and weeps,
the bearer of the seed-bag.
He will surely come in with glad song
bearing his sheaves.” (5,6)

I remember well the sense that my life was over when I was diagnosed with cancer. But through excellent care and above all, the prayers of those around me, I live now in gladness. Truly, I have been able to gather in sheaves of healing out of the misery of disease.

Daniel 3:19–4:18: Although biblical knowledge is quickly fading in our culture I think it’s a fairly safe bet that most people have heard the story of the fiery furnace. Narcissistic king Nebuchadnezzar demands that the recalcitrant Jews, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, be bound and tossed into the furnace. [And again, I wonder, where is Daniel in all this? Surely he knew what was going on.] The furnace is so overheated that “the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.” (3:20)

Neb looks into the furnace and sees “four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” (3:25) The king commands the three men to come out of the furnace. Mercurial as always, the king  goes with his latest impression as he decrees, “Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.” (3:29) And he promotes S, M, & A to high positions of authority.

This story is all about trusting God, for which S, M, & A are the poster children. But who is the fourth man with them in the furnace? One’s first guess is that it was an angel, but angels are merely messengers. I doubt that a conventional angel could perform this miracle. Which brings us to the second guess—and one I heard in Sunday School—that the fourth man was Jesus Christ himself, appearing in a hint of another miracle to come. Personally, I think it ws one of the “watchers” that Neb refers to in describing his second dream.

In chapter 4 the scene in this most cinematic of OT books shifts back to Neb’s palace where he continues to worship the Jewish God, even to the point of singing a song of praise:
How great are his signs,
    how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
    and his sovereignty is from generation to generation.” (4:3)

[You have to love the author of this book: it has everything! Drama, bizarre dreams, miracles, theology, poetry, predictions of things to come. It is truly the work of an inspired writer.]

But then Neb has a second dream; this one more ominous than his first: “I saw a dream that frightened me; my fantasies in bed and the visions of my head terrified me.” (4:5). Neb goes directly to Daniel [whom he has named “Belteshazzar after the name of my god, and who is endowed with a spirit of the holy gods.” (4:8)] and tells him the dream.

This time it’s a tall tree, which
grew great and strong,
    its top reached to heaven,
    and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.” (4:11)

But then a “holy watcher, coming down from heaven” (4:13) commanded that the tree be cut down with only the stump remaining. The core of the dream for me is Neb’s statement, “Let his mind be changed from that of a human,/ and let the mind of an animal be given to him./ And let seven times pass over him.” (4:16)

Neb goes on to tell Daniel that this transformation has been the “decree of the watchers,/ the decision is given by order of the holy ones,/ in order that all who live may know/ that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals.” (4:17)

I have a feeling that the king is not going to be happy with Daniel’s interpretation of the dream. I know I have many dreams at night, but I can recall none so fraught with symbolism as these two dreams of Nebuchadnezzar…

1 John 4:16b–5:5: Far more than Paul in his famous I Corinthians 13 passage on love, John develops an entire theology around God’s love. There may have been love in the world before now, but through Jesus Christ, “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.” (4:17)

And then the famous verse that concatenates love and fear: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (4:18) That is, our love that we express to others is a direct gift from God. And by Johannine logic, God-given love cannot coexist with hypocrisy: “We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars” (4:19) It all boils down to being commanded to love others: “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (4:21)

Which is really, really difficult when it comes to people we don’t particularly like. Yet, here it is: we are commanded to love others, even the unlikable ones. I know that I have failed again and again in this regard. I think it’s virtually impossible to truly love someone we dislike. It certainly is impossible under our own steam. It takes God’s love filtering through us in order to love others. In fact, in God’s eyes we’re all pretty unlikable and yet God expressed his love for us by sending Jesus into the world.

Love is far more than an emotion or romantic feeling. It is a state of being. We are commanded to love and likewise, God’s love for us motivates us to keep his commandments: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (5:3) And out of that love comes victory over the wiles of the world: “for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” (5:4)

Which causes me to reflect on the nature of that victory. It’s pretty clear that God’s “victory” is not some coup d’etat over the culture that many well-meaning evangelicals would like to see. In fact, here in America very little appears to be going God’s way—or at least what we’d like to imagine is God’s way. No, I think the victory John is describing is God’s victory over our own hearts‚ which happens when (as Oswald Chambers would put it) we abandon our egos and our desire to control by truly handing our lives over to Jesus Christ. That is what “victorious love” means, I think.

Psalm 125; Daniel 2:34–3:18; 1 John 4:1–16a

Psalm 125: Given that this song of ascents refers to Mount Zion and not to the temple, it’s likely this psalm was written after the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 589 BCE:
Those who trust in the Lord
are like Mount Zion never shaken,
settled forever.” (1)

Even if the temple has been destroyed, the mountains still stand. Likewise, the psalmist is saying, if we trust God through our trials we too shall stand tall. In the same way that the mountains surrounding Jerusalem form a defensive perimeter, God will protect us through dire times:
Jerusalem, mountains around it,
and the Lord is around His people
now and forevermore.” (2)

Now the psalm takes on a patriotic tone. Even though Israel is under the oppression of Babylon, it will endure. As indeed it has while Babylon—the “rod of wickedness”—fell millennia ago:
For the rod of wickedness will not rest
on the portion of the righteous,
so that the righteous not set their hands
to wrongdoing.” (3)

Those who trust God may suffer under oppression, but those who follow God will stand firm and not be tempted to be consumed by the oppressor’s culture. This is a message of relevance to Christians today as we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture. As we pray in the Lord’s prayer, if we remain faithful, God will preserve us from temptation:
Do good, O Lord, to the good
and to the upright in their hearts.” (4)

As usual, there is a bifurcation between those who do good and those who do evil as the psalm prays that the evildoers will receive their just desserts:
And those who bend to crookedness,
may the Lord take them off with the wrongdoers.” (5a)

This patriotic psalm ends with the exclamation: “Peace upon Israel!” I suspect that this song brought patriotic succor to those Jews being held captive in Babylon. And I assume it brings pride to Jews around the world today.

Daniel 2:34–3:18: Daniel describes Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: The statue with a head of godl and feet of clay that the king saw in his dream is destroyed by “a stone was cut out, not by human hands” (2:34) The stone then transforms itself into a mountain.

Daniel then famously interprets the dream. The king himself is the head of gold. Inferior kingdoms will follow his on down to a divided kingdom represented by two legs of iron. But as Daniel points out, “As the toes of the feet were part iron and part clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle.” (2:42)

Since iron does not mix with clay, Daniel continues, “in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people.” (2:44) He concludes his interpretation that the stone, which represents God, has “crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. The great God has informed the king what shall be hereafter.” (2:45)

This dream, which Daniel makes clear represents the arc of history, has been the subject of numerous reinterpretations down through the centuries. Those fascinated by end times have attempted to identify the earthly powers are represented by the legs of iron and feet of clay. When I was growing up there was speculation that the the legs represented the opposing powers of east and west and that the feet of clay represented the Soviet Union. Today, I’m sure there are more updated prophecies having to do with the Middle East and perhaps China. But as Freud’s famous dictum notes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a dream is just a dream.

Needless to say, Nebuchadnezzar was impressed by his interpretation and appointed Daniel “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.” (2:48)

I’m not sure why the Moravians have extended the reading to include both the statue dream and the even more famous fiery furnace story…

Nebuchadnezzar, full of pride doubtless amplified by Daniel telling him that he is the golden head of the statue, erects a 60 cubit high statute. He then invites the kingdom to come to its dedication. When they hear “the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble” (3:5) they are to bow down and worship. Failure to worship results in being cast into the furnace.

Jealous Babylonians, eager to see Daniel and his friends suffer, point out that the Jews, notably, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are not participating in this mandatory mass worship. Ever the narcissist, Nebuchadnezzar is enraged and announce that the three men must worship his statue on pain of being tossed into the furnace. Needless to say, they refuse, stating, “be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”” (3:18) Upon reading this story again I’m puzzled as to Daniel’s absence. Did he receive a special dispensation from the king?

Reading these two stories together shows us the arbitrary fickleness of Nebuchadnezzar. I think he is the prototype for every monomaniacal leader that has followed him down through history from Roman emperors like Caligula and Nero to 20th century despots like Hitler to 21st century Islamist fanatics. Evil seems to always find its way to dictatorship, which then inevitably falls but not before exacting tremendous suffering. And that, I think, is the lesson of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Every man who aspires to despotic leadership also has feet of clay.

1 John 4:1–16a: John continues his teaching on discernment, which in his time was testing “the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (4)  He then asserts that “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.” (3) It’s one or the other. We can’t have it both ways. As I’ve noted in a previous essay I think that John is railing against those in the church who were preaching a gnostic gospel viewed Jesus as the exemplar of the gnostic goal and that excluded Christians who had not attained the apotheosis of “inner knowledge” or self-awareness. Pretty similar to today’s gurus who preach self-actualization and to recognize our “inner godlike qualities.”

The lesson for us is that we need to discern as well as those early Christians. There are numerous false prophets out there, many of them on TV collecting money from naive widows. I also think that John’s warning is equally against the so-called Prosperity Gospel that promises wealth to followers—when the only ones who get wealthy are the ones preaching this false message.

The reading includes with John’s famous essay on love: Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (11, 12)  What’s important here is that true love is not self-generated; it does not live within us but comes directly from God.

John concludes with the Good News being the key to Christian  love: “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.”  (15, 16) In short, we cannot have a relationship with God that is not based on love because “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (18)

But when I look around the church I’m afraid that that love is not always on display.

Psalm 124; Daniel 2:1–33; 1 John 3:11–24

Psalm 124: The opening verse of this psalm of thanksgiving for what appears to be a military victory has the leader addressing the congregation:
Were it not for the Lord Who was with us
—let Israel now say—”

And the congregation replies:
were it not for the Lord Who was for us
when people rose against us,
then they would have swallowed us alive
when their wrath flared hot against us.” (2, 3)

The metaphor of death by fire is followed by a metaphor of drowning by flood:
Then the waters would have swept us up,
the torrent come up past our necks.
Then it would have come up past our necks—
the raging waters.” (4,5)

It is God who has rescued them—expressed in a third metaphor—this one of being eaten alive by a wild beast:
Blessed is the Lord,
Who did not make us prey for their teeth.
Our life is like a bird escaped
from the snare of the fowlers.
The snare was broken
and we escaped.” (6,7)

The song ends on the famous expression of the great truth:
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
maker of heaven and earth.” (8)

This psalm and its unsurpassed poetic images is a beautiful encouragement for all who find themselves in a perilous situation and then are rescued. The three different metaphors remind us that God will rescue us from all kinds of different situations. In our increasingly hostile culture this psalm applies not just to physical peril, but to emotional danger as well. We are reminded that even when all seems lost, God is still there.

Daniel 2:1–33: King Nebuchadnezzar is driven to insomnia by disturbing dreams. HIs court officials offer to interpret the dream but only if he tells them what the dream was. Neb replies that if they’re as insightful as they say they are they should be able to tell him both the dream and its interpretation. If they fail, “you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins.” (5) But great rewards await if they succeed. They are understandably hesitant to take the king up on his offer.

Neb tells them they are stalling for time but the only way he’ll trust their interpretation is if they can also tell him what he dreamt. The officials understandably respond that “The thing that the king is asking is too difficult, and no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals.” (11) The king is outraged and demands their execution. Just about the time that’s about to happen, “Daniel responded with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the king’s chief executioner” (14) asking why the executioner was in such a rush. Daniel asks for time and that he will both reveal and interpret the king’s dream.

Daniel and his three companions pray fervently in what is essentially a psalm of supplication and then thanksgiving because God has revealed both the dream and interpretation to him:
[God] reveals deep and hidden things;
    he knows what is in the darkness,
    and light dwells with him.
To you, O God of my ancestors,
    I give thanks and praise,
for you have given me wisdom and power” (22, 23a)

Daniel asks the executioner to bring him to the king so he can tell the dream and its interpretation. The key to this entire story is what Daniel first tells the king: No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking,  but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days.” (27, 28)

Daniel makes sure that the king understands that “this mystery has not been revealed to me because of any wisdom that I have more than any other living being” (30)  but that the insights come from his God.

Daniel then tells the king that he dreamt of looking at a huge statue: “The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.” (32, 33)

I take this story as a reminder that it is God who has given us humans the talent and capability not necessarily to interpret dreams but to use the scientific method to explore the world around us and the skills to create ever more impressive technology based on that science. Our gifts of knowledge and insights are truly God-given. It is God “reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness.” Unfortunately, most of us think these insights arise from our own internal smarts, which leads inevitably to pride.

1 John 3:11–24: At its heart John’s message is really quite simple: “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” (11) This love is the mark of the true Christian and “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” (14 a) In fact, he continues, “Whoever does not love abides in death.” (14b) There is no ambiguous gray for John. It’s all black and white.

Christ is the great example of true Christian love: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (16) And if we truly love others as Christ has loved us, we will love “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (18) In fact, he asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (17)

Wow. I stand rightly accused as a Christian who has been pretty poor at this love in action thing. If we Christians were truly what we say we are churches would be island of love in an unloving world. Yet, churches are too often bastions of unloving. And I know that I am guilty of failing to love my fellow believers all too often. John is talking right to me when he says, “whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (20)

The reading ends with yet another verse that I memorized as a fifth grader back in 1957. I think it is the core definition of what it really means to be a Christian: “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” (23) In the end we don’t really need fancy theology. Belief in what Jesus did for us and the resulting love that emerges from that belief is wholly sufficient.

Psalm 123; 
Ezekiel 48:23–Daniel 1:21; 1 John 3:1–10

Psalm 123: This short “song of ascents” does exactly that: it moves our vision from earthly things straight upward to heaven with two remarkable similes of the relationship of slave and master:
To You I lift up my eyes,
O dweller in the heavens.
Look, like the eyes of slaves to their masters,
like the eyes of a slavegirl to her mistress,
so are our eyes to the Lord our God
until He grants us grace.” (1, 2)

There’s no mistaking the hierarchy here: we are the lowly slaves looking up in supplication to our master. I’m intrigued by the inclusion of both sexes in the simile: male slaves to their master and female slaves to their mistress. That is to say both men and women are equal in their relationship with God.

What begins as a song ends as a psalm of supplication. The psalmist has apparently been treated with severe contempt as he turns to God as his only potential source of succor:
Grant us grace, Lord, rant us grace,
for we are sorely sated with scorn.
Sorely has our being been sated
with the contempt of the smug,
the scorn of the haughty.” (3, 4)

The choice of “sated” as in the feeling of over-fullness dramatically communicates the sense of feeling overwhelmed by the scorn and contempt of oppressors. We certainly see that same scorn and contempt in contemporary attitudes of many elites toward people of faith that believes that they are weak and need the “psychological crutch” of religion.

These scorners will one day find out that they are not as independently strong as they think they are. How much better it is to turn our eyes upward to God in times of distress than to pretend we are capable of handling every trial without God’s aid.

Ezekiel 48:23–Daniel 1:21: This over-long book of Ezekiel and its incredibly detailed allocation of territory winds to an almost anticlimactic end by renaming Jerusalem: “the name of the city from that time on shall be, The Lord is There.” (48:35) Which is a fine name, but unless it’s referring to the New Jerusalem that we learn about in Revelation, it’s a name that didn’t stick. Jerusalem is still Jerusalem some 2500 years after this book was written. Happily for us, the Lord is not just “there” but is everywhere.

The book of Daniel opens at the beginning of the Babylonian captivity. King Nebuchadnezzar orders that his palace master Ashpenaz  to identify and bring “young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans.” (4) Subsuming potential leaders into the conqueror’s culture is actually a pretty enlightened way to deal with a conquered land.

We meet four men: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, all from the tribe of Judah. (7) The latter three are famously renamed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Life at the palace is pretty sybaritic to the point of unhealthiness so “Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.” (1:8) The palace master is afraid that this will lead to a “poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, [and] you would endanger my head with the king.” (1:10) Daniel  says let us try this other diet for ten days and then “You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe. ” (13)

Unsurprisingly, Daniel’s diet is a success, and “At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations.” (14).

Not only are the four healthier than all the others but they are smarter and more skilled. Our author observes that “To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom.” (17a). And in a hint of things to come, “Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams.” (17b)

The four men become the go-to guys as far as the king is concerned: “In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.” (20) But as we will see, their wisdom foments resentment among the others in the king’s court.

The takeaway for me in this story is that a healthy diet is an important element of becoming a leader. But more importantly, whatever gifts of intellect and wisdom we may possess ultimately comes from God.

1 John 3:1–10: John really digs into the theme of us Christians being God’s children because of his love for us. This love is beyond the world’s ken: “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” (1) There is an eschatological note here as well in the suggestion that at some point in the future we will be transformed with bodies like Jesus’ resurrected body:”Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (2)

John then launches into a disquisition on the stark binary contrast between a state of sinfulness and the state righteousness: “Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” (7, 8) He makes this point even more dramatically a few verses down: “The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.” (10)

What’s clear here is that as long as we are in a “state of sin” we are effectively separated from Christ. 

I’m pretty sure that this passage is one of the roots of the practice of weekly confession in the Roman Catholic church, as well as the sacrament of extreme unction performed by the priest for people on their deathbed. John seems to be saying that unless we are in a state of righteousness before God we run the risk of being separated because as he puts it, “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil.”  Personally, I think there’s too strong a sense that we can lose our salvation and I’m not sure if Paul would necessarily agree with John on this matter.

Psalm 122; Ezekiel 47:13–48:22; 1 John 2:18–29

Psalm 122: This “song of ascents” is a probably hymn sung by pilgrims from the surrounding countryside making their annual trek to Jerusalem to give sacrifice and worship at the temple. We have an example of this in Luke when Jesus and his family travel from Nazareth to Jerusalem and Jesus remains dialoguing with the rabbis after the rest of his family leaves town.

The goal of the journey is obvious and it is suffused with joy:
I rejoiced in those who said to me:
“Let us go to the house of the Lord.’
Our feet were standing 
in Your gates, Jerusalem.” (2)

This worshipful pilgrimage is part of the law and is expected of every faithful Jew:
An ordinance it is for Israel
to acclaim the name of the Lord.” (4b)

Growing up, my siblings and I were expected to go to church every Sunday because that was my father’s rule. I unwillingly obeyed until I graduated from high school. This ordinance became part of my resentment against the church for the ten years while I was at college and throughout my 20’s. But looking back I see that it was a good discipline to go to worship every Sunday—even though the 45-minute long sermons were dull and boring.

Jerusalem is not just the seat of worship, it is the center of judicial and political power:
For there the thrones of judgement stand
the thrones of the house of David.” (5)

The psalm concludes with a prayer for Jerusalem and its inhabitants and pilgrims that we would probably do well to update to our own center of judicial and political power in Washington DC:
Pray for Jerusalem’s weal.
My your lovers rest tranquil!
May there be well-being within your ramparts,
tranquility in your palaces.” (6, 7)

Finally, the psalm turns inward to our own desired attitude toward God:
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
let me seek your good.” (9)

Would that we all turn even briefly away from our individual desires to pray and seek the good the church and of our own Jerusalem.

Ezekiel 47:13–48:22: This section is as enjoyable as reading the county records that delineate property borders. Which is to say not at all.

The motivation for this lengthy screed appears to be reestablishement of tribal boundaries when Israel returns from its babylonian exile.  Undergirding the entire project is God’s demand that fairness and equality prevail in the allocation process: “You shall divide it equally; I swore to give it to your ancestors, and this land shall fall to you as your inheritance.” (47:14)

Although the land was Israel’s, God’s command includes the requirement to non-Jews, who received full citizenship rights: “You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.” (47:22) Perhaps we should look back 2500 years to see how an enlightened immigration policy actually works…

As unbelievable as it may seem, chapter 48 is even more boring than 47 as God describes the exact plots of locations of the temple and Jerusalem’s city limits and surrounding suburbs devoted to agriculture. The focus is what land is “holy” and allocated to the temple, what belongs to the king, and what belongs to the agrarian inhabitants of Israel.

Although I’m tempted to scoff at this level of detail occupying Scripture, these description are a stark reminder that God is a God of order and fairness. There is nothing random happening here. And since it is written as prophecy it doubtless served to quell any territorial disputes that may have arisen as the process of reinhabitation took place. Lawyers would have little ground to stand on to argue for their clients who may have wanted a bigger piece of land.

1 John 2:18–29: John becomes downright apocalyptic as he warns his audience against being duped by various antichrists appearing on the scene. Doubtless they were preaching an anti-gospel that John condemns in the strongest possible terms: “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.” (22)

John must have been a philosopher because he uses a philosophical argument to make his point that the Christians to whom he is writing are anointed in the truth because they have been baptized: “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth.” (20, 21) 

My guess is that these antichrists  were preaching a gnostic message that implied everyone could ascend in self-knowledge to achieve what Jesus had achieved and themselves become divine.  John wants to make sure this whole business is squashed in its crib. As we know, battles to fight off gnostic influences raged on for a couple hundred years until the New testament canon was finally agreed to at Nicea. And they rage on today…

 John’s solution is really quite simple. Rather than listening to these antichrists, he advises his followers to look inside themselves where the Holy Spirit already dwells: “As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.” (27)  

If we really accept that as Christians that the Holy Spirit dwells in us and we follow what the HS is telling us in our hearts, all will be OK. Unfortunately, what the Holy Spirit says to us is usually not means we have to give up control and our own efforts to achieve the quasi-spiritual self-fulfillment that so permeates our culture today. As always, when it’s all about what we can do ourselves to achieve “spiritual enlightenment” rather than letting the Holy Spirit work within us we will inevitably go astray.