Psalm 139:17–24; Amos 5; Revelation 9:1–11

Psalm 139:17–24: Our poet–deep on thought–begins to reflect on God’s thoughts: “As for me, how weight are Your thoughts, O God,/ how numerous their sum.” (17) But I think he may be referring not to God “out there” abstractly ruminating, but about the insights in the preceding verses, which he senses God has placed in his own mind. Perhaps these insights come in a dream as he wonders, “Should I count them, they would be more than the sand,/ I awake, and still am with you.” (18) I think the lesson here for us is that while we are reflecting on God’s greatness and love, God places these wonderful thoughts in our mind–a way of being in relationship with God.

But now the contemplative party is over and our psalmist is awake as he is forced to confront the realities of the real world. Yes, God is still with him, but now in full consciousness of who surrounds him he prays, “Would You but slay the wicked, God–/ O men of blood, turn away from me!–” (19) These are not only his enemies, but God’s enemies as well and they are of the worst kind: hypocrites: “Who say Your name to scheme,/ Your enemies falsely swear.” (20)

Suddenly, the poet is overtaken by righteous indignation as he passionately swears that his feelings are completely aligned with God’s, “Why, those who hate You, Lord, I hate,/ and those against You I despise.” (21) Overcome by his passionate love for God and just to make sure God gets his point, he repeats himself in the strongest possible terms: With utter hatred I do hate them,/ they become my enemies.” (22)

But just as his hatred built so quickly, it dissipates just as fast and he returns to his contemplative state in the famous verse, “Search me, God, and know my heart,/ probe me and know my mind.” (23) And here we have it: our relationship with God involves both our mind—just as the majority of this psalm is a mindful reflection on who God is and what God has done for us. But God is in our heart and our love for God fires our passions and yes, our hatred for God’s enemies. Above all this psalm tells me a relationship with God cannot be only be in my head, but just as much that love also cannot exist solely in my heart. Our relationship with God must be a balance of the two.

Amos 5: Following four chapters of listing the sinful intransigence of Israel, Amos comes to lamentation. Israel’s sins are so great that the prophet can only mourn:
Fallen, no more to rise,
    is maiden Israel;
forsaken on her land,
    with no one to raise her up. (5:2)

He realizes that God, who cannot abide injustice, has abandoned Israel. But as always, he prays Israel will turn around: “Seek me and live” (4) he says, and repeats this phrase: “Seek the Lord and live,” (6a) because if there is no repentance “will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,/ and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.” (6b)

Then follows a catalog of Israel’s many sins, these stubborn people who”turn justice to wormwood,/ and bring righteousness to the ground!” (7) Amos begs them, “Seek good and not evil,/ that you may live;” (14) and to “Hate evil and love good,/ and establish justice in the gate;” (15) 

As always, the thing that angers God the most is not just the idol worship, but the falsity of their professed love for God which has been betrayed by their hypocrisy:
   I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
   Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them. (21, 22a)

Instead–and this is the lesson for us here and now–there must be repentance. But this is not repentance expressed by mere rhetoric, but it must be accompanied by action: “But let justice roll down like waters,/ and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (24) There is nothing passive about the metaphor of rushing water. Instead, Amos is pleading for repentance that is demonstrated by justice and righteousness, not just good intentions.

Without that repentance followed by its proof, Israel is doomed and Amos writes, “therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.” (27) Which of course is exactly what happened to unrepentant Israel. Does the same fate await our own unrepentant culture?

Revelation 9:1–11: Now we come to John’s rather wild description of the armies of Satan, whose kingdom is the bottomless pit: “the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit;” (1) Stan–the fallen star–opens the bottomless pit and its dreadful contents pour out. Devilish locusts torture but do not kill the inhabitants of the earth. Oddly, John gives a precise duration of this torture: “They were allowed to torture them for five months,” (5) During this time, “people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.” (6)

My own sense here is that John is promising an eye-for-eye recompense to people in the early church who may have been tortured in exactly this way, “like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone.” These tortured souls may not find justice in the here and now, but they surely will at the end of history as their torturers are themselves tortured.

John describes the torturing locusts as members of a great army of evil coming directly form the pit of hell. But these locustshave distinctly human characteristics: “On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth;” (7,8) Notice “what looked like” and “faces like human faces.” John has dehumanized the oppressors. These creatures are a distorted mirror-like reflection of a real army and real kings wearing real crowns that refer, I think, to a real enemy, i.e., Rome and its corrupt leadership and emperor. Moreover, the “likes” remind us that these creatures of hell are counterfeit imitations of God’s creation of humans as imago deo. Toliken seems to repeat this same theme of counterfeit creation in Lord of the Rings in his descriptions of the sub-human orcs, who were the creation of the evil wizard Saruman.

John’s description of this “army of locusts” even seems to become over-the-top satire. Something he could write, making his clear point to the seven churches, but sufficiently disguised that he could reasonably call it fiction if challenged by the actual Roman authorities. One thing John makes clear, though, this army of locusts is the spawn of Satan: “They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.” (11) His readers could take comfort in the truth that some day, the empire of Rome–itself the spawn of Satan as far as John was concerned–would be overtaken by the real thing. Which of course it eventually was by the Huns from the north.

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