Psalm 139:1–6; Joel 2:15–3:21; Revelation 6:9–7:8

Psalm 139:1–6: This remarkable psalm of introspection meditates on the incredibly close connection between we humans and God, or more personally, between God and me. As his created beings, God knows everything there is to know about us, including our innermost thoughts: “It is You Who know when I sit and rise,/ You fathom my thoughts from afar.” (2) He knows our every action and decision: “My path and my lair You winnow,/ and all my ways are familiar.” (3) Knowing what we think, God obviously knows what we are going to say: “For there is no word on my tongue/ but that You, O Lord, wholly know it.” (4)

What’s fascinating to me here is not the omniscience of God–after all, that’s an essential quality of God–but the freedom he has given us. Even though there we are no surprise in any dimension to God, this intimate connection between God and us is free of judgement. It’s not that God knows only our pleasurable or “religious” thoughts; he knows our darkest secrets. God knows where we are going, but he makes no judgement about our often poor choices. God knows what we are going to say, but he does not intervene to prevent us from saying stupid or hurtful things. (Although sometimes I wish he would!) These verses are doubtless the Bible’s best description of what it means to be God’s creature, yet to enjoy autonomous free will.

Once again we encounter the implied metaphor of God the potter shaping us: “From behind and in front You shaped me,/ and You set Your palm upon me.” (5) This is not a palm of correction or punishment, but of a loving God gently applying pressure to the clay that forms us. It also suggests to me that each of us is a uniquely “custom” work shaped and molded by God.

The psalmist’s contemplation on these wonders of this relationship adds up to the acknowledgement that “Knowledge is too wondrous for me,/ high above–I cannot attain it.” The psalmist knows that God is Creator and we are the created. Like the jars and pots of the potter we can never know the thoughts and skills of our creator. Too bad that we humans think we can outsmart God and know more than him. This arrogance leads inevitably to a bad end.

Joel 2:15–3:21: Joel imagines that the people repent and return to God and that they
call a solemn assembly;
   gather the people.
      Sanctify the congregation;
      assemble the aged;
   gather the children,
    even infants at the breast.
  Let the bridegroom leave his room,
    and the bride her canopy. (2:16)

And God responds “and had pity on his people.” (2:18) What follows is a remarkable poem describing how God will keep enemies at bay (2:20); return nature to a pristine state (2:22), including rain (23). Agricultural bounty returns as well:
The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
    the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. (2:24)

The relationship between God and his people is reestablished, and he will return to his people with enormous generosity. Above all–and of enormous importance to we Christians who have received the Holy Spirit–Joel tells us:
 I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions. (2:28)

But in the context of Joel’s prophecy this statement is also a bridge to an apocalyptic vision where “ I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (2:30, 31) Jesus surely had Joel in mind when he spoke to his disciples in the Olivet discourse. Joel goes on to describe in great detail what seems to be the end of history as the wicked world comes to judgement:
Multitudes, multitudes,
    in the valley of decision!
For the day of the Lord is near
    in the valley of decision. (3:14)

I’m intrigued by “valley of decision.” It implies that each of us has a choice to make about whether we will follow God or not. Unlike John’s Revelation which envisions a new Jerusalem, Joel understandably restricts the victory to Judah and a restored Jerusalem:
you shall know that I, the Lord your God,
    dwell in Zion, my holy mountain.
And Jerusalem shall be holy,
    and strangers shall never again pass through it.” (3:17)

As always, we need to look to the Old Testament to even begin to comprehend the full implications of the New. Joel speaks directly to John.

Revelation 6:9–7:8: The opening of the fifth seal speaks directly to the church suffering under Roman oppression–and of course to the many martyrs that have followed down to our present time: “the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given.” (6:9) The martyrs understandably seek vengeance: “cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (6:10) But they are told to be patient, “given a white robe and told to rest a little longer.” (6:11a) That’s a potent message to those of us who seek vengeance on our own. John reminds us that vengeance is God’s and he will do it in his own time.

Notice how John includes those still alive but facing martyrdom: “their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.” (6:11b) There’s no question that John was writing to Christians living in an incredibly hostile world–something to think about when we whine about how we’re being oppressed here in a post-Christian America.

The opening of the sixth seal seems to be the anti-creation: “ The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (6:14) which is understandably terrifying as “the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains,” (15). The feelings of God’s wrath and humankind’s doom here are remarkably similar to Joel’s vision of the nations being trapped in the “valley of decision.”

In chapter 7 we come to the 144,000 who are “marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.” (7:3). The Jehovah’s Witnesses have claimed they are the 144,000, but ran into trouble long ago when more than 144,000 adherents showed up. I think John’s vision is much simpler. He is describing the final restoration of Israel at the end of history–a wrapping up, if you will, of the Old Covenant. The number 12 is symbolic of governmental or administrative perfection: 12 tribes of Israel 12 disciples, etc.  I think John simply wants to address the fact that God will never forget Israel at the end of history. God will not abandon Israel, but he will bring it to a final indescribable perfection squared (12 X 12). In short, God will make his original compact with his chosen people perfect in a way that we simply don’t understand.

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