Archives for December 2015

Psalm 144:9–15; Habakkuk 2,3; Revelation 16:1–11

Psalm 144:9–15: Our psalmist turns to worship– “God, a new song I would sing to You,/ on a ten-stringed lute I would hymn to You.” (9)–as the thanksgiving for God’s rescue of David continues: “Who grants rescue to kings,/ redeems David His servant from the evil sword.” (10)

However, an odd interlude of supplication amidst the joy follows: “Redeem me and save me from the foreigners’ hand,/ whose mouth speaks falsely,/ and whose right hand is a right hand of lies.” (11) Assuming this is a psalm of thanksgiving about David as king, this verse suggests the reality that enemies are still out there although they are presently being held at bay. But at the moment the defenses of the land remain secure and at peace. There is bounty: Our granaries are full,/ dispensing food of every kind./ Our flocks are in the thousands,/ ten thousands in the fields.” (13) There is security: “There is no breach and none goes out,/ and no screaming in the squares.” (14) A prosperous and secure land ruled by a gracious king who worships God is the best of all possible worlds as the conclusion of the psalm tells us: “Happy the people who has it thus,/ happy the people whose God is the Lord.” (15)

Above all, though, peace and security yield the greatest treasures: sons and daughters. The psalmist’s similes are at once sweet and striking. Sons “are like saplings, / tended in their youth.” Sons who are well-tended by their parents do indeed grow to be strong trees.  Daughters are “like corner-pillars hewn for the shape of a pa;ace.” I presume these corner pillars were carved into shapely attractive elements, and in the patriarchal land, one could ask for nothing better than comely daughters, who would become married wives.  As a father, watching my son and daughter become caring, giving adults is the greatest reward of all.

Habakkuk 2,3: God answers Habakkuk’s plea, telling him, “Write the vision;/ make it plain on tablets.” (2:2) God reminds Habakkuk to “Look at the proud!/ Their spirit is not right in them,/ but the righteous live by their faith.” (2:4) Living by faith is always better because “Pride will never endure” and “Moreover, wealth is treacherous;/ the arrogant do not endure.” (2:5) As always, pride and arrogance will come to a bad end and the prophet spends the remainder of this chapter cataloging the woes that come to the wicked, “Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed,/and found a city on iniquity!” (2:12) and that the wicked will be “sated with contempt instead of glory.” (2:16) Idolatry is ultimately empty and lifeless:
Alas for you who say to the wood, “Wake up!”
       to silent stone, “Rouse yourself!”
    Can it teach?
        See, it is gold and silver plated,
       and there is no breath in it at all. (2:19)

The lessons of Habakkuk are lessons for our present age that is prideful, arrogant and obsessed with the idols it has created: celebrity, technology, and above all wealth. It is existentially empty, leading only to despair.

But there is always hope and this book ends on a far more optimistic note than Nahum’s. Chapter 3 is Habakkuk’s prayer for revival among the people:
O Lord, I have heard of your renown,
    and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work.
In our own time revive it;
    in our own time make it known;
    in wrath may you remember mercy. (3:2)

The prophet knows that disaster is not far away: “I wait quietly for the day of calamity/ to come upon the people who attack us.” (3:16). But in this psalm of thanksgiving spoken in the midst of impending doom, Habakkuk holds on to the One Sure Thing:
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
       I will exult in the God of my salvation.
   God, the Lord, is my strength;
       he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
       and makes me tread upon the heights. (3:18, 19)

And in the midst of culture disintegrating before our eyes, so must we cling to the rock that is Jesus Christ.

Revelation 16:1–11: It would seem by this point that the earth has seen enough battles, disasters, and death. But John persists in his catalog of woes as the bowls of wrath are poured out one by one.

Bowl 1: “foul and painful sores” (2) come to those who worshipped the 666 beast.
Bowl 2: the sea “became like the blood of a corpse” (3) killing everything in it. I will take this as some sort of dreadful pollution. And in John’s time perhaps he had witnessed a deadly algae bloom.
Bowl 3:  Fresh water also becomes hopelessly polluted. The angel makes it clear that the water punishments of bowls 2 and 3 are just desserts for the 666 people “because they shed the blood of saints and prophets.” (6)
Bowl 4: The sun scorches people with fire in what must be a prolonged heat wave.
Bowl 5: Darkness (an eclipse perhaps) overcomes the earth and “people gnawed their tongues in agony, and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores. (10,11)

One has the feeling that John witnessed various disasters during his lifetime and has decided to list them in dramatically amplified form as sure signs of the end of history. Which I’m sure he expected to see come shortly. Which it eventually did as the seemingly unconquerable Roman Empire decays from within and is ultimately vanquished several hundred years after John wrote. But to borrow from TS Eliot, it didn’t end with the bang John forecasts, but with the whimper of internal decay.

The punishment is just because as John observes, “they did not repent of their deeds.” (11). These bowls of wrath are plainly recompense for the sins of the people who refused to acknowledge their misdeeds and repent. One wonders if John has attempted to preach to people who refused to listen and taunted him. In any event, there is certainly no shortage of acts of God’s vengeance here and one wonders why grace has disappeared. Are John’s vision the result of a deep-seated anger?

In any event he is certainly demonstrating to his readers that while they may be suffering now, their oppressors will come to a dreadful end. Like Habakkuk, detailing his list of woes, John uses dramatic imagery to make his point that failing to repent and follow God will come only to an unhappy and painful end.

Psalm 144:5–8; Nahum 3; Habakkuk 1; Revelation 14:17–15:8

Psalm 144:5–8: The psalmist moves from his reflection on humanity’s ephemerality [“his days like a passing shadow”] to a vision of God as creator and therefore master of the universe. He prays that God will demonstrate his inherent power in a dramatic fashion through natural phenomena with the remarkable image: “Lord, tilt Your heavens and come down,/ but touch the mountains and they smoke.” (This is certainly one of those verses which reenforce the image of being “up there” above us.) The psalmist asks specifically for God to use this power to defeat his enemies so they are no longer a threat: “Crack lightning and scatter them,/ send forth Your bolts and panic them.” (6)

At the same time, the psalmist prays, asking God to use this same power over nature to rescue him, apparently from a real or metaphorical flood: “Send forth Your hand from on high,/ redeem me and save me from the many waters.” (7) The hand of God which shoots lightning bolts at his enemies is the same hand that rescues him. Clearly the psalmist understands that God is at once the all-powerful master of nature and vanquisher of enemies while also the loving rescuer, who stretches out his hand to the person he loves. This rescue will also save him “from the foreigners’ hand,/ whose mouth speaks falsely,/ and whose right hand is a right hand of lies.” (8)

Given that this is a David psalm we can imagine it was written to describe the king as soldier protected by God (verses 1-2), philosopher (verses 3,4), and political figure who is facing foreign enemies and who calls upon God to act against his enemies and to rescue him (verses 5-8). For me, it demonstrates the impossibility of ever getting a complete handle on who God is and what he is capable of, but that above all we can trust in him and call on him to rescue us just as David did.

Nahum 3; Habakkuk 1: Nahum’s vivid description of the destruction of Nineveh continues apace in gruesome detail:
Horsemen charging,
    flashing sword and glittering spear,
piles of dead,
    heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
    they stumble over the bodies! (3:3)

Dreadful sins committed by the inhabitants of Nineveh lies at the root of God’s anger:
Because of the countless debaucheries of the prostitute,
       gracefully alluring, mistress of sorcery,
    who enslaves nations through her debaucheries,
       and peoples through her sorcery. (3:4)

Is this the same Nineveh converted to worshipping God through Jonah? Has it fallen so far? Nahum reminds Nineveh that she is in a long line of once-great empires such as Thebes which have fallen to ruin. Despite the assistance of Ethiopia, Egypt, Put, and Libya, Thebes
became an exile,
    she went into captivity;
       even her infants were dashed in pieces
    at the head of every street;
       lots were cast for her nobles,
    all her dignitaries were bound in fetters. (3:10)

Nahum’s prophecy ends without hope for rescue because of the brutality of its sins:
There is no assuaging your hurt,
       your wound is mortal.
   All who hear the news about you
       clap their hands over you.
   For who has ever escaped
       your endless cruelty?  (3:19)

Is the fate of Nineveh a warning to us? As we have observed again and again, empires rise and they fall. And they fall because they fall into depravity and cruelty. Why should America, given its cultural trajectory, not meet a similar fate?

Habakkuk’s writings begin as a psalm of supplication. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,/ and you will not listen?” (1) The prophet is greatly distresses at the violence and injustice of Israel that he sees everywhere around him:
Destruction and violence are before me;
       strife and contention arise.
   So the law becomes slack
       and justice never prevails.
   The wicked surround the righteous—
       therefore judgment comes forth perverted. (3b, 4)

And then a prophetic warning:
For a work is being done in your days
       that you would not believe if you were told.
    For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
       that fierce and impetuous nation, (5b, 6a)

What’s striking here is that the people Habakkuk is warning remain in complete denial that anything could possibly go wrong or that they could be overrun by an enemy. But the prophet knows that:
O Lord, you have marked them for judgment;
       and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment.
   Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
       and you cannot look on wrongdoing; (12b, 13a)

The question Habakkuk, like Nahum poses for me is our own state of denial in our wickedness as a culture. Given current circumstances the moral threads that hold our civilization together are fraying rapidly. To me, it seems that our collective sins and depredations, many in the name of “tolerance” will be our ultimate undoing. These prophets have much to say to us, but they pretty much remain ignored.

Revelation 14:17–15:8: The winnowing of the wicked from the earth continues at the end of history as “another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” (14:18) The image of the winepress crushing out its rivers of blood of the wicked–“blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.” is worthy of any OT prophet.

This image reminds us that John speaks of the vineyard (“I am an the vine, you are the branches”) in the Upper Room Discourse in his Gospel. Here in a strikingly similar image, the fruit of the world’s evil comes to its well deserved but ghastly end. There is a vine of the righteous, but then there is the much larger vineyard of the wicked that bears fruit which must ultimately be destroyed. Thus it ever is: the righteous are always vastly outnumbered by the wicked, hence the river of blood 6 feet high and 200 miles long.

But wait, there’s more. We now come to the final images of destruction: the bowls of wrath. What’s fascinating here is that this final judgement opens with yet another dramatic scene of worship of the Lamb: “and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.” (15:2,3). John even records the song, a compendium of quotes from Jeremiah and Isaiah.

Following worship, we meet the “seven angels with the seven plagues, robed in pure bright linen, with golden sashes across their chests.” (6) One of the four living creatures, whom we met back in the throne room scene of chapter 4, hands each angel a “golden bowl full of the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever.” (7,8). The temple is filled “with smoke from the glory of God and from his power” as we await the outpouring of the seven bowls.

At this point, given all the destruction that John has described thus far, is there anyone left to even experience these bowls of wrath? But as we know from apocalyptic writing, logic is not at the top of the author’s list. Rather, image after image is slammed against us because I think it’s the only possible way to use words as pictures to even partially and inadequately describe the affairs of heaven which lie so far beyond our limited human comprehension.

Psalm 144:1–4; Nahum 1,2; Revelation 14:6–16

Psalm 144:1–4: That God is the foundation of our very being opens this David psalm that celebrates victory in battle. But as always, the victory comes from God, here first in the form of training and preparation: “Blessed is the Lord, my rock,/ Who trains my hands for battle,/ my fingers for the fray.” [At first, “fingers” seems an odd reference until we remember that that the skill of the bowman lay not only in his arms for strength, but in his fingers for accuracy.]

The military imagery continues with the metaphor of God as “My strength and my bastion,/ my fortress and my deliverer.” (2a) The idea of God as bastion or fortress of protection is clear, but until now, my eyes have slid right over “my deliverer.” To be sure, God protects us safely behind his metaphorical walls, but in the heat of battle out in the midst of the enemy, it is God who protects us there as well. In other words, don;t just hide in the safety of church, but get out into the battleground of the world. God will indeed protect us when we are willing to take risks. But only after we’ve been in training.

Nevertheless, the idea that it is God “Who tramples down peoples beneath me” (2b) is uncomfortable reminding me, anyway, of “God is on our side” thinking. But the psalmist uses this phrase, I think, to make it clear that it is God who gives the victory. We are merely the means to that victory.

At verse 3 the psalm turns meditative and strongly reminiscent of the ideas of Psalm 139: “Lord, what is a human creature that You should know him,/ the son of man, that You should pay him mind?” But rather than going on to describe the glory of God’s creative activity in forming humankind that we find in 139, the psalmist reflects instead on our evanescence: “The human is like unto breath,/ his days like a passing shadow.” (4) At first this seems like an abrupt change of direction from the earlier military imagery, but what serious warrior would not contemplate the reality of his potential death before commencing battle? I know that I had those same thoughts that conflated God’s protective power and my own mortality while being treated for cancer.

Nahum 1,2: All we are told of the mysterious Nahum is that he wrote “An oracle concerning Nineveh” and that he was from Elkosh. (1:1) The prophet does not bother to write a gentle introduction but opens in a brutal description of God’s wrath:
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,
    the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
    and rages against his enemies. (1:2)

God is neither to be trifled with nor discounted as ineffectual simply because he does not act right away: “The Lord is slow to anger but great in power,/ and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.” (3)

After describing God as master over creation [His wrath is poured out like fire,/ and by him the rocks are broken in pieces.” (6)] Nahum reveals God’s other qualities of patiences and protection:
   The Lord is good,
    a stronghold in a day of trouble;
he protects those who take refuge in him,
    even in a rushing flood. (1:8)

It is these qualities of wrath and gentleness held in opposition that make understanding the OT God so frustratingly difficult. If we aren’t careful, it’s easy to make God come off as an angry teenager bouncing around from anger to kindness. But the reality of God is much more profound: it is disobedience, idolatry and injustice that anger God. He will be patient for a very long time, but  since God ultimately demands justice his very nature as God requires him to act. Otherwise he wouldn’t be God.

How do we as Christians saved by grace think about this wrathful OT God? I guess the best way is that God has revealed his ultimate kindness in sending Jesus to earth to save us all. This is kindness and mercy trumping wrath. We know that God can be wrathful, but Jesus is our shield against that wrath.

The second chapter of Nahum is a vividly dramatic description of the destruction of Ninevah by God’s army (Judah?). First, its threatening presence as it stands outside the city walls ready to invade. Nahum brilliantly uses language to describe its majestic potential power:
The shields of his warriors are red;
    his soldiers are clothed in crimson.
The metal on the chariots flashes
    on the day when he musters them;
    the chargers prance. (2:3).

Then, as the army moves into action, Nahum’s words are cinematic:
The chariots race madly through the streets,
    they rush to and fro through the squares;
their appearance is like torches,
    they dart like lightning. (2:4)

Finally, the horrible consequences for the invaded city:
Devastation, desolation, and destruction!
    Hearts faint and knees tremble,
all loins quake,
    all faces grow pale! (2:10)

Sometimes we read the Bible simply to bask in its powerful and beautiful language and not concern ourselves with its theological implications. Nahum 2 would seem to be one of those times.

Revelation 14:6–16: After chapter after chapter of the horrors to come at the end of history, John looks up toward heaven and describes the end that his readers in the seven churches must have longed for with all their hearts: God wins.

First, an angel arrives “with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live  on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people.” (6) Then a second angel announces the fall of Babylon (Rome):  ““Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” (8). Finally a third angel announces that “Those who worship the beast and its image…will will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” (9, 10) Even better, these oppressors will be punished “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.” (11)

But this promise of the three angels lies in the future at the end of history. It is indeed encouraging but in the meantime, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.” (12) Regardless of the evil that happens in the present, John is saying, the future is bright.

For me, this is John’s central theme of his apocalyptic writing. No matter how weird things may get, he is encouraging endurance in the present trials and suffering in order to reap the future rewards. And John is careful to note that his readers may very well die in the interim either as martyrs or even form natural causes. So he is careful to add: “Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”” (13)

John continues with the dramatic imagery of how God wins in the end. And for Jesus’ enemies it will not be a happy outcome: “ Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!” (14) A crown and a sickle representing power and vindication. and the Son of Man–Jesus Christ–“swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.” (16) What evil has sewn will ultimately be cut down by Jesus Christ.

What Nahum described in the destruction of Nineveh will become the foretaste of John’s description of the ultimate destruction of evil in the world by the Son of Man.

Psalm 143:7–12; Micah 6,7; Revelation 13:11–14:5

Psalm 143:7–12: There’s a certain air of desperation as the psalmist, speaking as David, continues to plead with God to appear: “Do not hide Your face from me,/ lest I be like those gone down to the pit.” (7) He reiterates how much he trusts in God and how important God is in the conduct of his life, in fact the entirety of his life: “Let me know the way I should go,/ for to You I lift up my being.” (8b) The core of the psalm lies in his fervent desire for rescue, knowing it is only through God that there is any hope: “Save me from my enemies, Lord/ with You is my vindication.” (9a).

There’s no question that David faces the greatest dilemma of his life up to then as he turns to God to provide guidance for an enormous decision: “Teach me to do what will please You,/ for You are my God.” (10a) We can see him in the cave standing over the Saul’s sleeping body, knife in his hand, begging God to tell him whether to kill his enemy or let him continue to sleep.  What’s crucial for us here is that he is asking what “will please God,” not what will please himself, or what will feel good for the moment but morph quickly into regret.

This is the question I must ask when faced with a decision (hopefully one never as dire as David’s!): What do I need to do that will please God? The next verse is the prayer I must pray: “Let Your goodly spirit guide me. on level ground.” (10b) We know what David did: he relented from killing Saul. Clearly, he remained on God’s level ground. But it’s worth noting that doing what he knew would please God did not make him hate his enemies any less. But he has turned the problem over to God and looks to God to take action: “And in Your kindness devastate my enemies…for I am Your servant.” (12). Would that we do the same.

Micah 6,7: Writing in the voice of God, Micah challenges Israel “for the Lord has a controversy with his people,/ and he will contend with Israel.” (6:2) Israel is confused. It thinks that sacrifices and burnt offerings are what will please God. Bt that has become mere empty ritual while Israel has become innately corrupt. There is only one thing which God requires:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
       and what does the Lord require of you
    but to do justice, and to love kindness,
       and to walk humbly with your God? (6:8)

This is the ur-theme of the OT: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. It’s really very simple in concept but as Micah goes on to point out, Israel has done none of these things. It ignores justice in its cheating: “Can I tolerate wicked scales/ and a bag of dishonest weights?” (6:11)  It ignores justice as “the official and the judge ask for a bribe,/and the powerful dictate what they desire;/ thus they pervert justice.” (7:3)

It is cruel, untruthful, and unfair: “Your wealthy are full of violence;/ your inhabitants speak lies,/ with tongues of deceit in their mouths.” (6:12). And above all, it doesn’t even walk with God, much less humbly, having fallen so deeply into idolatry: “For you have kept the statutes of Omri/ and all the works of the house of Ahab,/ and you have followed their counsels.” (6:16)

These verses are of course a perfect description of the corruption of every civilization that followed–right down to 21st century America. The question is, have we ourselves become like Israel: “The faithful have disappeared from the land,/ and there is no one left who is upright.” (7:2)

But… As always, there the eternal promise of restoration, “A day for the building of your walls!/ In that day the boundary shall be far extended.” (7:11) God will one day “again have compassion upon us;/ he will tread our iniquities under foot./ You will cast all our sins / into the depths of the sea.” (7:19). As Christians, we know exactly how God accomplishes this restoration through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But that doe snot absolve us from our responsibility to do what Micah demands: “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” In fact, if we truly love jesus and love God we will run toward those qualities not  run from them as ancient Israel did even in the midst of the corruption and idolatry that surrounds us.

Revelation 13:11–14:5: As if a dragon and one beast are not enough, a second beast emerges “from the earth,” which I take to be Satan’s domain. Featuring “two horns like a lamb and speaking “like a dragon,” this one seems to be sort of an administrative assistant to the first beast “and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed.” (13:12). One suspects John may have been referring to some sort of charismatic leader of a religion that practices dark arts since it “performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all;  and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth.” (13:13, 14) Zoroasterism, perhaps?

This beast, aka the antichrist, also wields great economic power, and “causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.” (13:16, 17). This is the verse that causes some fundamentalists to avoid credit cards. Now that technologies exist where chips can be implanted that would identify us and allow us to conduct transactions, John’s prophecy could very well come true!

We encounter the famous “number of the beast,” which is 666. Six is the number of man, who was created in 6 days. The triple 6 is seen by some as a human mockery of the Trinity. Whatever its meaning to John, there’s no question it connoted evil.

The scene shifts as John’s camera points away form the earth and up to Mount Zion and back to the throne room. Here he sees the Lamb (Christ) and “with him were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” (14:1) The Jehovah;s Witnesses long ago claimed they were the 144,000. But if we think of 12 as the number of “governmental perfection” (12 tribes, 12 disciples, etc.) then this number simply means perfection upon perfection (12 x 12 = 144) and of enormous magnitude (144 x 1,000). John is simply describing a big, perfected crowd, who are engaged in worshipping the Lamb as “they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders.” (14:3).

To me, they represent the Church–all of us who “have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, and in [our] mouth no lie was found; [we] are blameless.” Which is our state upon baptism–or as Luther has it, our daily baptism wherein the blood of the Lamb forgives us again and again when we confess our sins.

Psalm 143:1–6; Micah 3:8–5:15; Revelation 12:1–13:10

Psalm 143:1–6: The familiar language of supplication in this David song reminds us once again that much of our lives seem to be spent while God is silent. In times of trouble, we turn to God and ask, “Lord, hear my prayer,/ hearken to my pleas.” But the psalmist also reminds himself that God is faithful and that he is listening, as he asks again, “In Your faithfulness answer me, in Your bounty.” (1)

Then confession, as the supplicant remembers that he comes in sin, asking “Do not come into judgement with Your servant,/ for no living thing is acquitted before you.” Not only is every member of humankind sinful, but Alter’s translation suggests that every creature is fallen. Such are the consequences of our own fall that we live in an imperfect world that will be fully restored only at the end of history.

The psalmist then lays out his personal situation: “For the enemy pursued me,/ thrust my life into the ground,/ made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.”  (3). Inasmuch as this is a “David psalm” (1) this is doubtless a direct reference to David’s pursuit by Saul and his having to hide out in the cave. In these dire straits David laments, “And my spirit fainted within me,/ in my breast my heart was stunned.” (4). This is a beautiful description of how we feel when we have been attacked, not by a pursuing king, but at bad news such as a cancer diagnosis or the loss of a loved one–or even at harsh words directed our way. We feel a gray fog surrounding us; rational thought is impossible. We are trapped in a dark cave.

David recovers his equilibrium with memory of better times: “I recalled the days of old,” and above all, his memory of the his relationship with God: “I recited all Your deed,/ of Your handiwork I did speak.” (5) And in this memory of this unbreakable relationship, we come before God as a drought receives rain: in supplication, looking upward: “I stretched out my hands to You–/ my being like thirsty land to You.” (6) Our situation remains desperate, but in remembering that God is there we can fall to our knees, stretch our our hands, and looking upward be assured that God is listening.

Micah 3:8–5:15: Like David, who turns, arms outstretched to God, Micah realizes that he is equipped by God to speak harsh truths to Israel:

I am filled with power,
        with the spirit of the Lord,
       and with justice and might,
   to declare to Jacob his transgression
       and to Israel his sin. (3:8)

Prophets were able to speak with boldness, saying things people did not want to hear because they knew they were filled with the Holy Spirit’s power. And so with us: If we are confident in the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, we are also equipped to speak truth to power.

Like other prophets, Micah is bold and direct as he addresses the power structure, accusing them (as always!) of injustice:
Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
    and chiefs of the house of Israel,
   who abhor justice
    and pervert all equity, (3:9)

After predicting the demise of Israel [“Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins”  (3:12)] Micah turns to describing the restored Israel where “ the mountain of the Lord’s house/ shall be established as the highest of the mountains.” (4:1) The porpohecy is not only of a restored Israel but of all nations and God “shall judge between many peoples,/ and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away.” (4:3a)

But above all, in this restored earth to come only at the end of history,
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
       and their spears into pruning hooks;
    nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
        neither shall they learn war any more; (4:3b)

We see these lines inscribed on the wall of the United Nations, but it’s clear that humankind will never be able to do this on its own. Only God will bring about the restoration of a fallen world that will make these words reality. In our fallen state we can think these beautiful thoughts, but our own efforts–especially now that we have banished God from the scene–will always be futile. As Jesus says, there will always be wars and rumors of war. It is the reality of our fallen state.

Micah goes on to describe the pure wonderfulness of that restoration. And then we come to one of the most famous prophecies of all, especially appropriate at this time of Advent:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
    from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to rule in Israel,
    whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days. (5:2)

For Israel this simply means the long-promised Messiah will be born on Bethlehem. But for us Christians this reference is absolutely clear. Jesus has come from Bethlehem, and as John tells us in his own nativity narrative, Jesus’ “origin is of old/ from ancient days” since the Word has always been with God from the beginning of time.

Revelation 12:1–13:10:John gives us a dramatic narrative as he describes a kind of proto-Mary, a “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (1) giving birth “to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” (5). But unlike angels announcing the birth of Jesus, a dragon appears in the sky standing ready to “devour her child as soon as it was born.” (4). But as soon as the child is born, it is “snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness” (5,6) where she is to remain hidden for 1260 days.

The angel Michael fights and defeats the dragon in the skies, but does not kill it. The dragon returns to earth, where “he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child.” (13) But the woman miraculously sprouts two wings, flies to the desert, where the dragon finds her, sprouts a river from his mouth threatening to drown her.  But the “earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river.” (12:16). The frustrated dragon then “went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” (12:17).

As if the pursuing dragon isn’t enough, John now describes a ten-horned, seven-headed beast “like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.” (13:2) which is given power to rule over humankind by the dragon. Now that the beast has appeared, people “worshipped the dragon.” (13:4)

The beast is blasphemous, is worshipped by all, “makes war on the saints.” and “it was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation.” That phrase suggests a direct reference to the Caesar in power in Rome. Whoever it is, John makes it clear that this is a time of great trial for the saints and tells them this “is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” (13:10)

So, what do we make of this imaginative fantasy? I go with the theory that it’s some kind of code to the churches in Asia of persecution to come and the woman, the dragon, and the events current at the time John writes. One thing I’m sure of: It’s the sure way to madness to try to link these images to future events from here in our perch in the 21st century. Instead of wasting time trying to attach John’s images to future events, we need to focus on John’s simple message to the end: regardless if how much the people of the world worship the beast and the dragon, it is our duty as saints to remain faithful to Jesus.

 

Psalm 141:1–4; Obadiah 1; Jonah 1,2; Revelation 11:1–14

Psalm 141:1–4: This prayer of supplication begins with the usual formula asking God to come and listen: “O Lord, I call You. Hasten to me./ Hearken to my voice when I call You.” (1) To make sure God gets his point, he emphasizes his posture of holiness, which unlike praying on one’s knees in a gesture of humility is standing, arms raised, looking up toward heaven: “May my prayer stand as incense before You,/ my uplifted hands as the evening offering.” (2)  Here, prayer is compared to a sweet-smelling sacrifice, an act of formal worship.

More important than his posture is the content of his prayer–and what he asks for right off the bat: “Place, O Lord, a watch on my mouth,/ a guard at the door of my lips.” (3) As usual, it is what we say that can do the most damage and our psalmist opens his prayer by asking God to help him speak with thoughtfulness and even caution. No matter how benign our thoughts may be when we open our mouths to speak, it is the words that come out of our mouth and are heard by others that define our relationships and how we are seen by others. To try to excuse ourselves and say, “that really isn’t what I meant to say” may help, but too often the damage has been done.

The psalmist seems to realize this as he asks God to “incline not my heart to an evil word/ to plot wicked acts.” (4a). In fact, he is asking to avoid the temptation of falling in with those who are “wrongdoing men/ and let me not feast on their delicacies.” (4) I don’t think “delicacies” here refers to what they eat, but their plotting and conniving against others.

What we learn here is that we can go to God and pray for wisdom in what we say aloud and for God to “lead us not into temptation” and fall in with the wrong crowd.

Obadiah 1; Jonah 1,2: At first glance we may wonder why Obadiah is even in the OT canon. The entirety of his single chapter is about how Edom will be conquered and how the Edomites will get their just desserts for their longstanding cruelty against Israel.
On that day, says the Lord,
I will destroy the wise out of Edom,
and understanding out of Mount Esau. (8)

The inhabitants of Edom are the descendants of Esau, the twin of Jacob. And as Esau and Jacob’s relationship did not come to a good end, so too Israel and Edom. Obadiah reminds us of the fruits of that broken relationship as Edom stands aside as the Israel (the Northern Kingdom) is invaded by the Assyrians and then Judah by the Babylonians. He reminds them that “you should not have gloated over your brother
on the day of his misfortune;/ you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah/on the day of their ruin;” (12) Because now they are meeting the same fate.

The clear lesson to us is to never gloat or be happy at another’s misfortune because the same things is all too likely to happen to us.

If gloating over another’s misfortune comes to a bad end, so does trying to run away from God. We all know Jonah’s story as he heads by boat to Tarshish, in the opposite direction from Ninevah. What we don’t learn in Sunday school is that when the storm comes, the frightened sailors cast lots to see whose fault the storm is and cast lots “and the lot fell on Jonah.” Unlucky or God-inspired, part of his larger plan?

Jonah admits he’s a Hebrew and “Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.” (1:10) After they toss Jonah into the sea and the storm abates, “the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” (16). While the men’s action may have looked like murder for self-preservation, the author’s point here is that God has a plan for Jonah and God has also deeply impacted these men, who come to see who the True God is compared to the small-g gods to whom they prayer earlier for rescue.

Jonah’s residence in the big fish leads him to prayer and he promises to sacrifice to God, saying, “what I have vowed I will pay./ Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” What’s interesting here is that it is not a prayer of desperation but a beautiful psalm of thanksgiving. It’s one of the aspects of Jonah’s story to lead me to believe we are not reading history, but a marvelous story of our relationship with God, who indeed loves us and whom we should not fear even when we’re asked to do tough things.

As Christians, we see the “three days and three nights” Jonah is in the belly of the fish and then his deliverance as predictive of Jesus death and resurrection. But I’ve always wondered if this is over-interpretation.

Revelation 11:1–14: A measuring rod again. Is it the same one we saw in Ezekiel? Like Ezekiel, John is invited by the angel to “Come and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there,” (11:1)  Then the two witnesses appear, who have the “authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth.” (3). Once again we have the precision of numbers juxtaposed against remarkable imagery. These witnesses are apparently prophets sent directly from God, and they have been given great power to consume by fire anyone who opposes them. They also have the power to “to shut the sky, so that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying” (6) as well as replicate the plagues that befell Egypt so long ago.

But like the prophets of old, and despite their power, most people do not even listen to them. Once that 3 1/2 year period of witness ends, the “the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically  called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. (7,8). As if this isn’t bizarre enough,there is a grisly image where “For three and a half days members of the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb” (9) Is this a perverse and distorted reenactment of Jesus death?

Like the Edomites in Obadiah, “the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them.” And then in what seems like a perverted Christmas, they will also “celebrate and exchange presents.” (10) But John reminds us that “these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth.” (10b). We just don’t like prophets who tell us things we don’t want to hear. But like the Edomites, the people get what’s coming to them. After these 3 1/2 days, the prophets are resurrected (resuscitated?) and “those who saw them were terrified.” (11) An earthquake then kills 7,000 people.

So, what is this about? It seems to be some sort of distorted mirror image of Jesus’ ministry on earth. But perhaps the lesson is much simpler: even prophets who come directly from God are ignored by gloating, self-centered humans who think God is unnecessary and probably doesn’t even exist. That attitude certainly sounds awfully modern.

Psalm 140:7–14; Amos 8,9; Revelation 10

Psalm 140:6–13: Having described his circumstances where his enemies conspire against him, our supplicant psalmist asks God to listen: “Hearken, O Lord, to the sound of my pleas.” (7) He recalls how in the past, “You sheltered my head on the day of the fray.” (8).

Always remembering that it is God who acts, not he, the poet asks, “Do not grant, O Lord, the desires of the wicked.” (9a). Interestingly, it appears that his enemies are also praying to God at this time , as the psalmist asks God to not answer their prayers, “do not fulfill his devising.” (9b) because it will give them power that because of their corruption they do not deserve, and “They will rise.” (9c) (Presumably in power.) In fact, the psalmist asks God to answer his enemies in such a way such that their conniving prayers will backfire on them: “May the mischief of their own lips/ cover the heads of those who come round me.” (10) Then, he asks for God to mete out an even harsher penalty: “May he rain coals of fire upon them,/ make them fall into ravines, never to rise.” (11)

We have to admit that some of this rhetoric, especially the wish for God to annihilate his enemies in verse 11, is words borne out of anger. But the really intriguing issue here is, is it OK to ask to God to countermand the prayers of others? Jesus, in his command to love our enemies, seems to have neutralized the act of praying for others destruction, much less raying that their own prayers not be answered.

Nevertheless, this psalm expresses deep emotion, and it seems is not entirely inappropriate given that the psalmist’s enemies appear to be in positions of power, while he counts himself among the weak: “I know the Lord will take up/ the cause of the needy.” (13) And that victory—here, God’s answered prayer—will come to those who are worthy: “yes, the righteous will acclaim Your name,/ the upright will dwell in Your presence. (14).

But should I go out and pray for the downfall of my enemies even if they are conspiring against me? Probably not. But maybe I could pray for obstacles to appear in their path…

Amos 8,9: God tells Amos that he reached the end of his rope with by holding a basket before Amos and asking what it is: “Summer fruit,” Amos replies—the symbol that harvest is over and the land is about to be plowed under. Which is exactly what God promises he will do to Israel: “The end has come upon my people Israel;/I will never again pass them by.” (8:2).

Much of God’s anger at Israel seems to arise from its devious economy, which preys on the poor. Amos warns the merchants, “Hear this, you that trample on the needy,/ and bring ruin to the poor of the land.” (4). These corrupt merchants cheat their weights and measures (5) and sell shoddy goods at a high price, “buying the poor for silver/ and the needy for a pair of sandals,/ and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” (6)

Again and again, we come to understand that God’s anger is directed at the powerful for oppressing and exploiting the poor and needy. Practices that alas continue down to today.

Amos, speaking in the voice of God, also predicts the Jewish diaspora, “They shall wander from sea to sea,/ and from north to east;/ they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord.” And then the final curse, “but they shall not find it.”(12) What if I were searching for God but could not find him?

Chapter 9 begins in the same angry vein, as Amos “saw the Lord standing beside the altar, and he said,: Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake” and the temple comes down and “shatters…on the heads of all the people.” (9:1) Which of course is what eventually happened.

But…as always, there follows God’s promise of future restoration: “On that day I will rise up/ the booth of David that has fallen,/ and repair its breaches,. And raise up its ruin,/ and rebuild it as in days of old.” (9:11). Like so many prophecies, this one seems to point to both a near-term fulfillment and one farther out in time. The near-term fulfillment is of course described in Nehemiah, where the walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt and the temple reconsecrated.

For me, the longer term points of course to Jesus Christ and the New Covenant, which as the author of Hebrews explains, the “new Israel” is the church itself.

Revelation 10: We have been witnessing the succession of trumpets; each bringing increasing levels of disaster upon the earth and humankind, especially once the door to Satan’s domain has been unlocked and all kinds of hideousness emerges. This chapter is at once a climax—the seventh trumpet is about to be sounded—and an intermezzo.

Intermezzo: An angel “wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head” descends from heaven and ”he held a little scroll open in his hand.”(2) The angel opens his mouth and “he gave a great shout, like a lion roaring.” (3) Nature answers back with seven thunders, which apparently contain language intelligible to John. Ever the faithful witness, he’s about to tell us what the thunders said, but is is commanded by the angel, “do not write it down.” (4) The angel swears “by him who lives forever” and announces, “there will be no more delay, but in the days when the seventh angel is to blow his trumpet, the mystery of God ill be revealed, as he announced to his servants, the prophets.” (7)

John must have been pretty frustrated. He’s about to find out the solution to the greatest mystery of the universe and now it’s been grabbed away! He knows, but like someone with a Top Secret clearance, he cannot speak.

Instead, the angel hands John a little scroll, which he must have seen as some sort of consolation prize. And rather than read it, he’s commanded by the angel to eat it. Apparently it’s like a heavy, too-rich dessert because the angel warns him that it will taste sweet as honey but will upset his stomach. John obeys and swallows it. It tastes good, but as promised it upsets his stomach.

So, what’s written in the little scroll? People have speculated for centuries. My own sense is that while John will go on to describe the end of history in the remaining chapters of this remarkable book, there are still some mysteries that will not be revealed until God really does end history. Some things just need to be swallowed–like the book of Revelation– and we need to accept that there are aspects of God that remain a mystery. Which is why I think it’s also a warning not to try to over-interpret the meaning of this book.

 

 

Psalm 140:1–6; Amos 6,7; Revelation 9:12–21

Psalm 140:1–5: This is a “pure” psalm of supplication from beginning to end and seems to follow a pretty formulaic structure. The psalmist’s first desire is to be free of the evil people that surround him but then seems to focus on a single individual: “Free me, Lord, from evil folk,/from a violent man preserve me.” (2) From his perspective they are conspirators and instigators, “Who plot evil in their heart,/ each day stir up battles.” (3). As usual, it is speech that reveals their evil intentions as our psalmist invokes images of the most vile creatures he can imagine: “They sharpen their tongue like a serpent,/ venom of spiders beneath their lip.”

In addition to speech, there is physical threat as he prays, “Guard me, Lord from the wicked man’s hands,/ from a violent man preserve me,/ who plots to trip up my steps.” (5) He clearly feels he is the victim of a conspiracy by those who claim to be better than he: “The haughty laid down a trap for me,/ and with cords they spread out a net.” (6)

So here’s my dilemma. Jesus said we are to pray for our enemies and yes, even love them. But as in all psalms of supplication, the psalmist is praying to be freed from their influence and plotting. Can we do both? I think it’s worth noting that the psalmist is not praying for the destruction of his enemies; he seems to accept their continued existence. He is praying only that God removes him from their powerful grip. That does not seem to violate Jesus’ command since he, the oppressed, could still be in a position to pray for his oppressor—although he obviously does not do so in this psalm, anyway. So, with the psalmist, if someone is saying evil things about me—an experience I’ve had—I can still pray to God to remove me from their presence or influence. I don’t have to become their friend. But I guess I can still love them from a safe distance.
Amos 6,7: Amos castigates the self-satisfied leadership of Israel, that care only about their personal comfort while ignoring their duties to the people:
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria! …(6:1)
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,…
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,…
who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! (6:4-6)

The prophet tells them they will meet a bad end for having ignored their duties:
Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. (6:7)

That is certainly a challenge to us right here right now who lead extremely comfortable lives. It’s the toughest question of all: Do we let our personal desires and creature comforts trump the needs of the less fortunate. Unfortunately, I know the answer for myself.

The next chapter describes God’s acts of mercy when Amos appeals to him to spare Israel from locusts (7:1) and fire (7:4): ““O Lord God, cease, I beg you!/How can Jacob [Israel] stand?/ He is so small!” (7:2 and 7:5) In both cases, “The Lord relented concerning this;/ “This also shall not be,” said the Lord God.” (7:3 and 7:6)

God is indeed merciful, but he also has standards and expectations and nowhere do we find a better illustration than here in the vision of the plumb line that God shows to Amos. Rather than destroying Israel by natural causes, he will bring judgment down on its idle leadership that worships idols “in the high places:”
See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;…
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” (7:8, 9)

Again and again in the Bible, we see that those in power have a profound responsibility to those over whom they have power—and especially to the poor. Unfortunately, history also demonstrates again and again that this requirement is observed mostly in its breach.

Clearly, Amos’s words are disturbing to the complacent leadership of Israel. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, complains about him to King Jeroboam, accusing the hapless prophet of conspiracy. Amos replies that “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,” who was commanded by God to prophesy.

Amos then explains that if he refused God’s command, God would turn his wife into a prostitute, kill his children, destroy his land and Amos himself would be sent into exile. This is a stark reminder that one does not enter casually into the role of prophet. Prophets are called by God. As Amos points out, to refuse God’s call is certainly problematic. But likewise, to become a false prophet is an act against God as well. That’s why I think there are fewer real prophets around today. In my opinion, those who claim to hear “prophetic words” or “words form the Lord” are not truly prophets. While I would not accuse them of being false prophets, I’m also not inclined to take them solely at their word. Prophesy is a serious business reserved for very few.

Revelation 9:12–21: The sixth angel blows his trumpet, four angels, who have been held captive in hell are released “to kill a third of humankind.” John then does something that other apocalyptic writers have not. He assigns numbers to his vision that creates a perception of precision that I think has ended up sending people off in directions John never intended. He says of this army coming from hell, “The number of the troops of cavalry was two hundred million; I heard their number.” (16) He does the number prophecy once again: “By these three plagues a third of humankind was killed,” (18) Couple that with the imaginative detail of the instruments of destruction—“the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they inflict harm.” (19) and we definitely have a formula for over-interpretation as people try to ascribe every detail to a specific action.

In fact, I think John’s real prophetic message is in verse 20: “The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk.” That is a classic OT prophecy that could just as easily been spoken by Hosea or Amos.

In short, while I think we can enjoy the imaginative imagery and the precision of the numbers that John gives us, his real point is the one that prophets have been making all along: the failure to repent has dire consequences. Including at the end of history.

 

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.

Psalm 139:13–16; Amos 3,4; Revelation 8

Psalm 139:13–16: We come to what I believe is the most beautiful description of conception, birth, and our physical reality as imago Deo ever written. That this psalm was written a couple of millennia before we came to understand how genetics and gestation work speaks to its inspiration by the Holy Spirit. We move from the external darkness the poet has described in verses 11 and 12 to the darkness of the womb: “For You created my innermost parts,/ wove me in my mother’s womb.” (13) The verb, “wove” speaks directly to how our cells divide and multiply, literally weaving our body together.

The psalmist speaks to the individual and unique nature of each human being by acknowledging that it is God who creates our individuality, our “set apartness” as he writes,”I acclaim You, for awesomely I am set apart,/ wondrous are Your acts,/ and my being deeply knows it.” (14) The last phrase speaks, I think, to the fact that each person ultimately seeks transcendence–our longing (“sehnsucht” as the Germans have the better word here) for God. Even those who deny the reality of God, never mind the necessity of God to make us his complete creature, must experience this sense of “deep knowing.”

“My frame was not hidden from You,/ when I was made in a secret place,/ knitted in the utmost depths.” (15) Here the psalmist reveals a truth I had not thought about. Our relationship with God begins at conception, not just at birth. God is aware of what is going on inside our mother’s womb, our “secret place.” This verse amplifies the tragedy of abortion because that relationship is cut off in utero.

Finally, we see a hint of genetics, although the psalmist certainly did not: “My unformed shape Your eyes did see,/ and in Your book all was written down.” (16a) It’s impossible in our DNA age not to think of our genetic code being “written down,”–the means by which God has fashioned each of with both our common physiognomy but also with our emotional and psychological individuality. God is behind it all. The psalmist concludes this beautiful description with the observation, “The days were fashioned,/ not one of them did lack.” (16b). Our lives have been laid out. God, who transcends time, knows what will happen. But we, who have the gift of free will, do not. The message is clear however; we men and women, being made imago deo as so beautifully described here are completed only by walking with God.

Amos 3,4: Amos continues the accusations against Israel by reminding them of the special relationship they have had with God and that it brings the responsibility to worship and obey God–things they have forgotten:
You [Israel] only have I known
    of all the families of the earth;
   therefore I will punish you
    for all your iniquities.” (3:2)

Amos  reviews the ways in which God operates in their lives, providing clear signs through the prophets of the disaster that will befall them if they do not repent. But they have ignored the prophetic warnings:
Surely the Lord God does nothing,
    without revealing his secret
    to his servants the prophets.” (3:7)

Once again Amos, like the prophets who have gone before him, warns of imminent destruction if Israel does not abandon its idols:
On the day I punish Israel for its transgressions,
    I will punish the altars of Bethel,
    and the horns of the altar shall be cut off
    and fall to the ground.” (3:14)

Amos expresses special disgust for the wealthy and indolent wives of Israel because they do not care for the poor. Social injustice is always an element of self-centered idolatry.
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
    who are on Mount Samaria,
   who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
    who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!” (4:1)

Amos then relentlessly reviews how God has already brought suffering to Israel because of its intransigence. Hunger [“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,/ and lack of bread in all your places,” (4:6)]; drought [And I also withheld the rain from you/ when there were still three months to the harvest;” (4:7)]; agricultural disaster [“I struck you with blight and mildew;/ I laid waste your gardens and your vineyards;” (4:9)] disease and war [“I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt;/ I killed your young men with the sword;” (4:10)]; political unrest [“I overthrew some of you,/ as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, (4:11)]

But each of these verses ends with the same refrain of refusal to repent:
yet you did not return to me,
       says the Lord.”

And the final warning whose words have echoed down through the ages:
Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;
        because I will do this to you,
         prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” (4:12)

Even though we do not live in a theophany, and even though we live under the terms of the New Covenant, we must never forget that our actions and our rejection of God’s provenance will have consequences–almost always negative. The question obtains: can we lay the present disorder of our time at our own feet for thinking that we do not need God and worse, that we are greater than God and can control our own outcomes–and ultimately our own destiny? One thing I think is self-evident: like ancient Israel we ignore God at our peril.

Revelation 8: The seventh seal is finally opened and “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” (1) This is ominous. I can only imagine the tension that would build were I present and the seal is opened and absolutely nothing happens for 30 minutes. And angel with a golden censer comes before the great altar of God. John tells us twice that the smoke of the incense in the censer is the “prayers of the saints.” Incense is pleasing to God and it’s clear that John is informing his readers that their prayers for God to act in the world will be fulfilled at the end of history. Prayers may not be answered in the here and now, but they are never worthless but always pleasing to God and they will eventually be answered.

The angel fills the censer with fire, “and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” (5). As we see so often in the Psalms, these disturbances of nature are seen as a premonition of God’s ultimate power, which is amply demonstrated in the violence of the verses that follow.

The angels with the seven trumpets “made ready to blow them.” And each angel in turn blows his trumpet and in what seems to be an amplification of the plagues that befell Egypt for its intransigence, a stunning variety of disasters is visited on the earth:

— “…hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were hurled to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up.” (7)
— “a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea became blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.” (8, 9)
—  “…a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water.” (10)
—  “…a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light was darkened;” (12)

These are all natural disasters: a giant forest fire; a volcanic eruption; a meteorite; what seems to be a permanent eclipse–all phenomena that terrified the ancient world since their cause was a mystery. 

But wait. Worse is yet to come: “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!” (13).  We have seen apocalyptic visions before in the Old Testament, but nothing with the power and imagination that John brings to us. His word images are his best but ultimately futile attempt to convey the unimaginable power and majesty of God. And even in the dramatic images it is clear that John’s words–our language–is completely inadequate to convey God’s true majesty and power.