Archives for March 2017

Psalm 35:11–18; Nehemiah 2:11–3:32; Romans 3:3–18

Psalm 35:11–18: Speaking in David’s voice, our psalmist perfectly describes the feelings of being unjustly accused. The setting is a courtroom and David is on trial for a crime he did not commit, accused by people he had treated well:
Outrageous witnesses rose,
of things I knew not they asked me.
They paid back evil for good—
bereavement for my very self.” (11, 12}

“Bereavement” is exactly the right word here. To be wrongly accused by people whom you once trusted is like having become dead and useless to them. The sense of abandonment is palpable. Intensifying these awful feelings is the fact that depsite treating them well and being at their side when they were suffering loss, they have in turn betrayed you—and all for naught:
And I, when they were ill, my garment was sackcloth,
I afflicted myself with fasting.

As for a friend, for a brother,
I went about mourning a mother,
in gloom I was bent.” (13, 14)

These feelings of betrayal are all too familiar to us. Our psalmist continues his lamentation that not only was there no quid pro quo for his generous actions, there was both mockery for his dire straits—and conspiracy as well:
Yet when I limped, they rejoiced, and they gathered,
they gathered against me
like strangers I did not know.
Their mouths gaped and they were not still.
With contemptuous mocking chatter
they gnashed their teeth against me.” (15, 16)

It is in this deep despair that David turns to his God who is silent and asks the question we have all asked at some point in our lives. Why won’t God see what we are experiencing, take mercy, and rescue us?
O Master, how long will will You see it?
Bring back my life from their violence,
from the lions, my very being.” (17)

And the psalmist makes that promise we have all made, asking God to make a deal. If he will rescue us, then, “I shall acclaim You in a great assembly,/ in a vast crowd I will praise you.” (18) The problem for David, for our psalmist, and for us as well is that no matter how unfairly we’ve been treated, God does not make deals. That life is unfair and that God often seems silent and uncaring through our tribulations is a reality of our fallen world.

Nehemiah 2:11–3:32: Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem and “got up during the night” to inspect the city walls. He does this at night by himself so that the “officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work.” (2:16) There’s good reason for this secrecy since Nehemiah knows there are people like Sanballat who will do everything in their power to prevent rebuilding of the walls.

Ever the  careful engineer, Nehemiah prepares his thorough report and persuades the officials to “let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” (17) They enthusiastically agree to the project and “said, “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good.” (18) Notice that they are building “for the common good,” not just their own benefit.

Like any building project today, there is immediate opposition: “when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, “What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” (20) Nehemiah retorts that it is “the God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building,” pointing out to the opposition that “you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.” (20) His argument wins the day.

So the work begins. The gates are the first to be rebuilt and in the long list of names in chapter 3, it appears that every man in Jerusalem, including the Levites, was involved in the rebuilding project. Each task along the wall and the gates is assigned to a specific family.

Nehemiah knows how to organize and motivate people. Families that live along the wall repair the walls adjacent to their own houses or places of business, as for example, “Above the Horse Gate the priests made repairs, each one opposite his own house. After them Zadok son of Immer made repairs opposite his own house.” (3:28, 29) Obviously people are more enthusiastic to work on a project where they can see personal benefit. Which is still quite true today. Nehemiah understands human nature.

Romans 3:3–18: Paul addresses the question of the impact of unfaithful people on God (and I presume the church). He is not particularly worried about them: “What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!” (3,4) Even better, although we are unjust toward God, he never returns the favor. In fact, “if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us?” (5) Which is another way of saying that God abounds in grace.

Nevertheless, even though God is merciful, we are not to take advantage of this grace and does not allow us to say, “Let us do evil so that good may come”? Their condemnation is deserved!” (8)

But God’s grace neither makes us sin-free nor better people under our own power. Rather, we all “both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.” (9) In fact, we must face up to our inherent sinfulness: There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding,” (10) 

By quoting this OT passage Paul is reminding us of our inherent sinfulness and depravity. And if we ever needed a relevant description of today’s culture and the power of debased speech, it is right here:

Their throats are opened graves;
    they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of vipers is under their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery are in their paths,
and the way of peace they have not known.” (13-17)

And perhaps the best description of our culture in a single line:
There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (18)

On our own, human beings are a hopeless case and we cannot fix ourselves. We need something—or Someone— far greater.

 

Psalm 34:20–23; Ezra 10:7–44; Romans 2:5–16

Psalm 34:20–23: To my mind, these last four verses, which are the coda to this psalm, are the most honest of the psalm.
Many the evils of the righteous man,
yet from all of them the Lord will save him.” (20)

At one level, our psalmist is saying that the righteous man will encounter “many evils” from which God will protect him. But I think we can also read this verse as a rare admission in the psalms that even those who are righteous are nevertheless sinners. In short, I think we can read this that we both encounter evil and we commit evil.

Following what seems to me to an obligatory non-sequitur—”He guards all his bones,/ not a single one is broken” (21)—the psalmist writes what I believe is one of the great truths of humankind—and God doesn’t even have to intervene:
“Evil will kill the wicked,
and the righteous man’s foes will bear guilt.” (22)

The continual practice of evil and yes, even an intrinsically evil person, does eventually kill them. While evil may not always kill literally, it invariably kills the soul. And those who commit evil against another, even if they are found innocent in court, will still bear the guilty consequences of their deeds and words—no matter how much they deny their guilt.

In one of those endings that for us Christians looks forward to Jesus Christ, our psalmist  writes:
The Lord ransoms His servants’ lives,
they will bear no guilt, all who shelter in Him.” (23)

Jesus’ death on the cross is God’s  Great Ransom for all of us. And despite our human predilection to go on sinning, by confessing we always stand forgiven before God.

Ezra 10:7–44: Now comes the time to carry out the promise that Ezra made and the agreement he extracted from the people that any Jew who has married a “foreign woman” must divorce her.

Ezra calls a compulsory meeting in Jerusalem. Those who failed to attend would have their property confiscated and “they themselves banned from the congregation of the exiles.” (8)

The people gather and “sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain.” (9) [I think this is the first mention of weather in the Bible since Noah…] Ezra tells them they must confess before God and “separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” (11)

Someone rather logically points out that the people cannot stand in the rain waiting for this large and complex task, which will take days, to be carried out. Rather, they suggest, “Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town.” (14) With only two objections, this plan is carried out. The entire process takes two months.

Ezra preserves the names of every man who came forward and divorced his foreign wife “and sent them away with their children.” (44) If nothing else, at least they get their names remembered in the Bible. Does that offset what must have been immeasurably painful? Not really.

The societal impact of this event must have been enormous. Yet, Ezra believed it was the only way to appease an angry God. One wonders what the course of Jewish history might have been had Ezra’s act been carried out much earlier in Israel’s history. Would a people who worshipped only God and who did not intermarry have prevented the breakup of Israel and its eventual fall? This of course is what God had demanded when the Israelites entered Canaan but they did not carry out.  It is one of the great “what if’s” of the OT—and of history itself.

Romans 2:5–16: Like Ezra, Paul believes that there will be a day of reckoning when “by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (5) Ezra took action to appease God’s wrath; Paul is more theological.

Paul, the scholar comes to the fore here when he reiterates the deuteronomic reality that Jesus describes in Matthew when he talks about the sheep and goats. There are only two paths available to us to choose: good or evil: God “will repay according to each one’s deeds.” (6) The righteous who are “patiently doing good” will receive eternal life, “while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” (8) It’s a straightforward choice, guys.

Then, as we have seen at various points in the OT readings, Paul reminds us that God is not just a Jewish God, but the God of all humankind: “glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.” (10, 11)

It all has to do with our own choices and how we live our own lives. Just because we Greeks are exempt from Jewish law does not make us exempt from God’s judgement. Paul makes this abundantly clear: “All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” (12) One way or the other, we stand rightly accused in God’s court.

Paul connects Jews who have the Old Covenant law, and Gentiles, “who do not possess the law, [but] do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves.” (14)  Which I take to be the fact that every human has a conscience and deep down every human knows what is right and what is wrong.

Paul states this truth about us Gentiles very famously: “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them.” (15) We need no more succinct definition of how our conscience operates and our instinctual moral compass, which we ignore at our peril. And in the end, even if we have not spoken our thoughts aloud, “God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” (16)  In short, whether Jew or Greek, there’s no escaping the judgement of Law (Jews) or of conscience (Gentiles).

Psalm 34:8–18; Ezra 8:21–10:6; Romans 1:26–2:4

Psalm 34:8–18: Our psalmist is totally confident that God is our protector in all kinds of danger and that his angels guard over us: “The Lord’s messenger encamps/ round those who fear Him and sets us free.” (8) What a great gift from God: to rest in him, or as the famous next verse has it, “Taste and see that the Lord is good,/ happy the man who shelters in him.” (9) In fact, not only happiness, but all our needs (and wants?) will be fulfilled to those who fear God:
Fear the Lord, O His holy ones,
for those who fear Him know no want.
Lions are wretched, and hunger,
but the Lord’s seekers lack no good.” (10, 11)

But this confidence that God will always hear, protect, bring joy, fulfill our wants seems just a tad too pat to me. And I think it would be all too easy to swerve off into using these verses to justify a prosperity gospel theology. Is this psalmist really free of the agonies of those other psalmists we read (or of Job), who beg for an absent God to hear them?

Be that as it may, our psalmist than launches into religious instruction seasoned with not a little advice: “Come sons, listen to me,/ the Lord’s fear will I teach you.” These include, “keep your tongue from evil/ and your lips from speaking deceit.” (14) And the even more general admonition is to, “Swerve form evil and do good,/ seek peace and pursue it.” (15) Easy to say, hard to do.

Then we read the restatement of the deuteronomic pact that God will protect only those who are his followers and that God rejects those who reject him, even to the awful fate of having their name forgotten by God and humans:
The Lord’s eyes are on the righteous
and His ears to their outcry.
The Lord’s face is against evildoers,
to cut off from the earth their name.” (16, 17)

Our poet concludes this section by asserting again that if we but ask, God will rescue us: “Cry out and the Lord hears,/ and from all their straits He saves them.” (18) But as I think we all of us have experienced, there are times when we have cried out to God and have been met only with silence. I confess I find this psalm to be just a little too formulaically smooth and its theology a bit questionable.

Ezra 8:21–10:6: In this autobiographical section, Ezra basically echoes the psalmist above as he and his band proceed across dangerous territory unaccompanied by the king’s soldiers, but confident that God would protect them under the terms of the same deuteronomic deal: “we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him.” (8:22)

Ezra distributes the substantial wealth gathered in Babylon and that they’re traveling with to twelve trusted priests: “the silver and the gold and the vessels, the offering for the house of our God that the king, his counselors, his lords, and all Israel there present had offered.” (8:25) He instructs them to guard these riches until they arrive at Jerusalem.

Ezra’s band arrives in Jerusalem reporting with gratitude that “the hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes along the way.” (8:31) The gifts are delivered to Eleazar, the high priest. Then, the “returned exiles, offered burnt offerings to the God of Israel, twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and as a sin offering twelve male goats; all this was a burnt offering to the Lord.” (8:35)

Once the sacrifices are complete, temple officials tell Ezra that many Israelites are intermingling via mixed marriage and have “not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.” (9:1) Ezra is appalled and tears his clothes. He and his equally distraught companions “trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.” (9:4)

After the evening sacrifice, Ezra rises and prays, beginning with a confession that suggests far less confidence that God will relent from punishment than our psalmist above: “O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.” (9:6) Ezra’s long prayer observes that the people are back to exactly the same sins that caused them to be conquered by the Assyrians 70 years earlier. He knows that God is right to be angry as he concludes, “O Lord, God of Israel, you are just, but we have escaped as a remnant, as is now the case. Here we are before you in our guilt, though no one can face you because of this.” (9:15)

Ezra’s rather dramatic confession, “weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God,” (10:1) makes a definite impact on the people and they also “wept bitterly.” He asks them all to “make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, …and let it be done according to the law.” (10:3) Ezra pleads for them to “Take action, for it is your duty, and we are with you; be strong, and do it.” (10:4) And the people swear to do it.

It is impossible in this day and age to understand the sheer enormity of what Ezra has asked the people to do. Would I be willing to break up my family because I have offended God? I can think of few greater trials of one’s faith.

Romans 1:26–2:4: Like Ezra, Paul is outraged at sin and comes down particularly hard on the sin of homosexuality in a way that’s difficult to square with our current cultural attitudes: “in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (1:27)

Even worse, because “they did not see fit to acknowledge God,” God appears to have given up on them: “God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.” (28) This applies not only to homosexual acts, but then, in the first of many Pauline lists, these people are “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters,  insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (29-31) But perhaps worst of all, “they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.” (32) Which is certainly an apt description of the rapid acceptance of new cultural norms that’s happened in Americas over the past 15 years.

In short, Paul writes off an entire sinful culture. But then he warns us who profess to follow Christ that we have no excuse to judge these people because we’re guilty of the same sorts of sins. In fact this kind judgement is a greater sin than that committed by the “God-haters.” Just because we profess to love God does not give us a free pass: “Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? ” (2:3, 4)

My takeaway here is that we in the church, who are so quick to judge others, are committing a greater sin than those who are doing the sins we are condemning. In this regard, the church has failed and continues to fail mightily. For there are few institutions skilled and adept at judging others than those of us in the church. It also means that if as a Christian you’re going to condemn someone else for a sin you are probably guilty of the greater sin of judgement. So, don’t quote the anti-homosexual verses without including the judgement verses.

 

Psalm 34:1–7; Ezra 8:1–20; Romans 1:13–25

Psalm 34:1–7: The superscription of this psalm, “For David, when he altered his good sense before Abimelech, 1 who banished him, and he went away,” is a direct reference to I Samuel 21:14 where David, surrounded by Philistines, is able to escape with his men by playing the madman.

It’s not clear to me why the psalmist decides to dedicate this psalm of thanksgiving to that particular incident since the psalm is really pretty conventional. The opening verses describe a personal response to worshipping God and an invitation to others to join in:
In the Lord do I glory.
Let the lowly hear and rejoice.
Extol the Lord with me,
Let us exalt His name one and all.” (3,4)

Unlike the silence of God that suffuses so many psalms of supplication, the psalmist here remarks that God responded and rescued David quickly because he heard David’s plea:
I sought the Lord and He answered me,
and from all that I dreaded He saved me.” (5)

In fact God rescued David’s men as well, and they were, shall we say, quite happy about that:
They looked to Him and they beamed,
and their faces were no longer dark.” (6)

This verse is certainly a reminder that when we see God answer it is an occasion of joy. Here, unlike so many other psalms, is sheer confidence that when we call upon God for rescue. Even better, God rescues everyone regardless of their societal status or regardless of what circumstance in which they find themselves:
When the lowly calls, God listens
and from all his straits rescues him.” (7)

These verses are an excellent rmeinder to me that God is not always silent and that we should pray to him with confidence rather than hesitancy.

Ezra 8:1–20: Ezra himself has become the first-person narrator of his eponymous book as he lists the companions and their families who “who went up with me from Babylonia, in the reign of King Artaxerxes” (1) and returned to Jerusalem.

We probably should not be surprised that he lists only the males, although they add up to a goodly number of people, one family to a verse, totaling 1696 males. (150 + 200 + 200 + 300 +50 + 70 + 80 + 218 +160 + 28 + 110 + 60 +70) Obviously, along with females and servants, it was quite a crowd tagging along with Ezra as they head back to their ancestral homes.

However, at a campsite along the journey, Ezra runs into a snag: “As I reviewed the people and the priests, I found there none of the descendants of Levi.” (15) The implication is clear: There’s no point in retruning to the temple if they cannot worship there. Ezra gathers his leaders for a council as well as “Joiarib and Elnathan, who were wise.” (16)  He then sends his team off to “Iddo, the leader at the place called Casiphia, telling them what to say to Iddo and his colleagues the temple servants at Casiphia, namely, to send us ministers for the house of our God.” (17)

Ezra, acknowledging that “the gracious hand of our God was upon us” (18a) relates how Iddo and his colleagues “brought us a man of discretion, of the descendants of Mahli son of Levi son of Israel, namely Sherebiah, with his sons and kin, eighteen.” (18b) Now that there are Levites to serve in the temple, the journey can continue.

This list of names is noteworthy as an example of how the great goal of every Jew is to be remembered by those who come after him. The naming of names for posterity was an honor devoutly to be wished—and Ezra certainly delivers for his companions here.

Romans 1:13–25: Paul continues his greeting to the church at Rome by telling them, “that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles.” (13) He makes it clear that he is eager to preach and, to be blunt, he’s more than happy to preach to anyone who will listen: “Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish —hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” (14, 15)

Paul’s life is centered around the Gospel because “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (16) And then come the words that changed Martin Luther’s life from works-centric to faith-centric: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (17)

Paul then launches into heavy theology, observing that God’s wrath comes down “against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” (18) One suspects he has the Jews who rejected him in mind here.

In fact, people are all too willing to ignore or deny the obvious evidences of God’s creation: “because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (19b, 20) That is certainly a good description of materialists in the world today, who reject any idea of God or that there is even a spiritual dimension to life.

Contrary to what these non-believers may think, Paul makes it clear that by rejecting God, they are doomed to stupidity: “for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.” (21)

If there was ever a line to describe the state of those professing to be wise today, it is right here: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” (22) We certainly see these fools on all sides, including at the highest reaches of government.

Paul is adamant: the fate of those who reject God are on the downward path. As long as they reject God, God rejects them—which is truth even though it seems somewhat tautological: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”  (24)

Of course the root sin here is pride. We can either foolishly set ourselves up as the center of our universe and “serve the creature” or we can put the Creator at the center. But there is no room for both.

 

Psalm 33:12–22; Ezra 6:13–7:28; Romans 1:1–12

Psalm 33:12–22: In these verses about God’s creative power, our psalmist interjects that the welfare of an entire nation rests in God’s hands. That nation is the one God has chosen: Israel. “Happy the nation whose God is the Lord,/ the people He chose as His estate for Him.” (12)

He quickly returns to God’s point of view looking down on his creation:
From the heavens the Lord looked down,
saw all the human creatures.
From His firm throne He surveyed
all who dwell on the earth.” (13, 14)

It is form this perspective that God oversees all human affairs. Our poet makes it clear that it is God’s omnipotence and omniscience that accounts for whatever victories humankind (at least in Israel) enjoys because God can see into the depths of each person’s heart, not least because he created us: “He fashions their heart one and all./ He understands all their doings.” (15)

As far as the psalmist is concerned whatever is accomplished by humans is God’s work, not our own strength or wisdom: “The king is not rescued through surfeit of might,/ the warrior not saved through surfeit of power.” (16) In fact, God’s power operates the same way in the animal kingdom: “The horse is a lie for rescue,/ and in his [the horse’s] surfeit of might he helps none escape.” (17)

This is good news—but this rescue is available only to those who follow God:
Look, the Lord’s eye is on those who fear Him,
on those who yearn for His kindness
to save their lives from death
and in famine to keep them alive.” (18, 19)

Because we are recipients of God’s protection, we worship God who brings us hope and joy:
“For in Him our heart rejoices,
for in His holy name do we trust.
May Your kindness, O Lord, be upon us,
as we have yearned for You.” (21, 22)

The thrust of this psalm is our relationship with God who knows our innermost thoughts, who guides and helps our actions and who is at the center of our very being. This is what Oswald Chambers keeps getting at: abandon our self-centeredness and rely on God to carry us through life’s trials and joys.

Ezra 6:13–7:28: Happily, “Tattenai, the governor of the province Beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai, and their associates did with all diligence what King Darius had ordered.” (6:13) The Jews remain diligent followers of God and they pay attention to the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. The temple reconstruction project is complete. As their ancestors did under King Josiah when the temple was repaired back then, the Jews celebrate Passover. As our psalmist above observed, it was God who brought them hope and joy—and it was God who spoke to King Darius’ heart to allow them to complete this all-important project: “for the Lord had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.” (6:22)

Now that we are seven chapters in, and we finally meet the man of the eponymous book: “[Ezra] was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him.” (7:6) It’s clear that not every Jew went back to Jerusalem, but that many remained in Babylon. But now Ezra leaves Babylon and returns to Jerusalem, where the becomes the teacher of restored Israel: “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel.” (7:10)

This book is certainly one of the most well-documented books in the Bible, as its authors provide us the entire text of King Artaxerxes’ (that name again, but we assume the one who followed Darius) decree allowing Israel to return to Jerusalem. The king has given Ezra serious power, : “All who will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on them, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of their goods or for imprisonment.” (7:26).  Notice that they are to “obey the law of your God and the law of the king,” which works well when the king is aligned with God. But when secular power is at odds with God’s power, trouble begins. Just as it does today.

Romans 1:1–12: We now enter the second half of the New Testament, leaving narrative behind and engaging in the serious theology that undergirds the church—mostly as Paul laid it out, but the reflections and instructions of other apostles as well.

While there is disagreement among scholars about the Pauline authorship of some later epistles, notably Ephesians and the Pastoral epistles, all scholars agree that Paul is the author of this greatest or theological treatises, the letter to the Romans.

The letter opens on an autobiographical note: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” (1) Then Paul writes a precis´of the Good News, the essential elements of the Gospel, which I quote in its entirety here since it contains every theme on which Paul will expand in this profound letter:

God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,” (2-6)

This lengthy paragraph turns out to be the preamble of Paul’s greeting to the Christians at Rome: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (7) Today, we would call this paragraph the abstract of the treatise to follow.

Paul’s opening prayer reveals his intrinsic nature. While he is certainly tough and a formidable opponent—as we just saw in the final chapters of Acts—he is also a warm human being. But it is a warmth that comes from his close relationship with “my God through Jesus Christ.” (8)

Paul is what some call a ‘prayer warrior,’ and he tells his audience at Rome that it is “without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you.” (9) This sentence tells us that Paul wrote to Rome, probably from Ephesus, some years before he got there.

What must be immensely gratifying to Paul is that he indeed did arrive in Rome to met these people in person.

Finally, something we should all remember in Christian community: “that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” (12) How much better to do that than to complain about others, especially our leaders.

Psalm 33:6–11; Ezra 5:1–6:12; Acts 28:17–31

Psalm 33:6–11: Our psalmist now turns to God’s action as Creator and overseer of the affairs of humankind. In an echo of the opening verses of Genesis, we are reminded that
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of His mouth all their array.
He gathers like a mound the sea’s waters,
puts in treasure houses the deeps.” (6,7)

As with so many of the psalms, speech—here God’s voice—takes center stage as the engine of creation. Of course this makes sense in a book that is all about speech as singing and poetry.

Still writing about pre-history, our poet recalls that “All the earth fears the Lord,/ all the world’s dwellers dread him.” (8) Of course even by the psalmist’s time, “all the world” had found other small-g gods—just like our own world. But once again, we are reminded that it was God’s utterance that brought the world into being: “For He speaks and it came to be,/ He commanded and it stood.” (9) We encounter God as Word again not only in other psalms but for us even more importantly in the opening verses of John’s gospel.

In a clear reference to the audacity of Babel, the poet observes that the words of men do not outrank the Word of God: “The Lord thwarted the counsel of nations, overturned the devisings of peoples.” (10) Unlike the ephemerality of humankind’s pronouncements, God’s  actions and words are eternal: “The Lord’s counsel will stand forever,/ His hearts’s devisings for all generation.” (11)

In our world of information overload coming at us from all sides. In a world of talking heads and endless pronouncements, it’s encouraging to be reminded once again that only God’s Word—and for us Christians, that’s Jesus Christ—”stands forever.” The babbling hubbub that surrounds us will eventually pass away.

Ezra 5:1–6:12: After a long while, with temple reconstruction still halted, “the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them.”  (5:1) Thus encouraged, Zerubbabel, the high priest, resumes construction.

Needless to say, this action upsets the neighboring provinces, which believe that the Jews are violating the terms of Artaxerses’ decree. “Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and his associates” (6) send a letter to King Darius reporting that the Jews are defying the long-standing order to cease rebuilding the temple. Their letter reports that the Jews are rebuilding because they have asserted after their return from Babylon, King Cyrus “made a decree that this house of God should be rebuilt.” (13)

The letter goes on, quite reasonably IMHO, to ask King Darius to search the archives to see if Cyrus’ decree can be found: “if it seems good to the king, have a search made in the royal archives there in Babylon, to see whether a decree was issued by King Cyrus for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem.” (5:17)

Darius agrees and a search is made of the archives in Babylon, “but it was in Ecbatana, the capital in the province of Media, that a scroll was found.” (6:2) This scroll contains the decree of King Cyrus, which provides specific details about the temple to be rebuilt, including its size: “its height shall be sixty cubits and its width sixty cubits, with three courses of hewn stones and one course of timber.” (6:3, 4a)

As far as Darius is concerned, the decree of Cyrus remains in force and he writes back to Tattenai et al, “let the work on this house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site.” (6:7)  For having troubled the Jews, Darius continues, “the cost is to be paid to these people, in full and without delay, from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province Beyond the River.” (8)  That seems a clear rebuke to everywhere in Darius’ kingdom that they had better not object to the Jewish project or they would wind up like Tattenai having to pay for it.

To ensure his decree is enforced, Darius adds, “if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of the house of the perpetrator, who then shall be impaled on it. The house shall be made a dunghill.” (11) Truly one of the more imaginative curses to be found in the Bible!

So work on the temple resumes under royal protection and a nifty source of outside funding. But it’s worth noting that had Haggai and Zechariah not prophesied and Zerubbabel not courageously resumed work on the temple and withstood the pressure from the surrounding provinces, the temple may never have been rebuilt.

These men trusted God and stood up for their rights in the face of fierce opposition. The question is, would I have the same faith and courage in the face of opposition? This event reminds us that trust in God is not a philosophical concept but must undergird our every action.

Acts 28:17–31: Now in Rome, Paul summons the “local leaders of the Jews.” (17) He outlines what has happened to him: the accusations in Jerusalem, the trial, and “the Romans wanted to release me, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case.” (18) But, Paul continues, “when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor—even though I had no charge to bring against my nation.” (19)

The Jews respond that no one in Jerusalem had written to them and “none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken anything evil about you.” (21), making it clear this was a local conspiracy.  In fact, they go in, “we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.” (22) Needless to say, Paul is more than happy to comply with their request: “From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.” (23)

As usual, “Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.” (24) As the disagreeing parties get up to leave, Paul quotes Isaiah:
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes.” (26, 27)

Paul’s utters the last words in this book, “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” (28) In short, the Jews have become a lost cause—truly one of the tragedies of the church. But in the end, Isaiah was absolutely right.

So, we come to the end of this fascinating book. Its last words leave us with Paul who is “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (31) Which makes it clear that is also our duty.

When I was once in Rome, I was able to visit the purported site of where Paul lived under guard and taught about Jesus Christ “with all boldness.” I came away convinced that had Paul not brought the message of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, the world would have turned out to be far worse place than it is. In the end, it is Christianity that brought us western civilization. And the great tragedy is that we—our culture— are in the process of squandering this magnificent inheritance. But we also know that in the end, the Holy Spirit lives in each of us and the church will never die.

 

Psalm 33:1–5; Ezra 4; Acts 28:7–16

Psalm 33:1–5: This first stanza is clearly a hymn—and to be sung at worship by those who are ‘righteous’ and ‘upright’ before God, i.e., those who have cleansed themselves via sacrifices at the temple:
Sing gladly, O righteous, of the Lord,
for the upright, praise is befitting.
Acclaim the Lord with the lyre,
with the ten-stringed lute hymn to him.” (1, 2)

Our poet advises us famously to “Sing Him a new song,/ play deftly with joyous shout.” (3) To me, this verse has always meant that we are to be open to new songs and happily sing something besides the old hymn ‘standards.’ I need to remember this when I’m grumpy about some of the praise choruses we sing. Although at this point, very few of them are new anymore.

As a marketing guy, this verse is also a clever advertisement on the part of the composer as he tells his congregation in effect, ‘Hey, guys, listen up; I’ve written a new hymn you’ll really like!’

The remainder of this stanza celebrates the qualities of God that we should happily emulate:
For the word of the Lord is upright,
and all His doings in good faith.
He loves the right and the just.
The Lord’s kindness fills the earth.” (4,5)

Even though there’s a bit of self-congratulation here —”He loves the right and the just.—our mission is clear: As followers of God do we do or part to fill the earth with kindness? Because if we aren’t we really shouldn’t be singing this song.

Ezra 4: Some things never change. Every building project has its opponents. Here, the long-time adversaries of Judah and Benjamin approach Zerubbabel and the heads of the leading clans, asking if they can participate in the rebuilding of the temple, claiming, “for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here.” (2) Wisely, Zerubbabel and the others decline the offer. I’m pretty sure they smelled something conspiratorially rotten.

Their fears are proven right when these same folks do everything in their power to frustrate the rebuilding that “discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build.” (4) Moreover, Judah’s enemies resort to bribery and eventually, “In the reign of Ahasuerus, in his accession year, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.” (6)

Later, there’s a further, more powerful attempt to halt the rebuilding. A certain “royal deputy Rehum and Shimshai scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to King Artaxerxes.” (8) The authors of Ezra have preserved the letter’s contents. Unsurprisingly, the claim appeals to Artaxerses’ greed as the the deputy and scribe claim the people rebuilding Jerusalem are rebellious. They argue, “if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be reduced.” (13) To not pay taxes to the king, they point out, not only reduces revenue but is a sure sign of rebellion.

The deputy and scribe—who are surely lawyers— buttress their case by citing precedent: “a search may be made in the annals of your ancestors. You will discover in the annals that this is a rebellious city, hurtful to kings and provinces, and that sedition was stirred up in it from long ago” (15)

Artexerxes responds and declares, “someone searched and discovered that this city has risen against kings from long ago, and that rebellion and sedition have been made in it.” (19) Worse, they failed not only to pay taxes but once were so powerful that they once ruled “over the whole province Beyond the River, to whom tribute, custom, and toll were paid.” (20)

Thus, Artexerxes is convinced that the inhabitants of Jerusalem are up to no good and represent a political threat. So, he issues a decree halting further work on rebuilding Jerusalem or the temple. Decree in hand, Rehum and the scribe Shimshai rush to Jerusalem and happily announce Artexerxes’ cease and desist order. So, “work on the house of God in Jerusalem stopped and was discontinued until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia.” (24)

What’s so striking here is just how contemporary this all feels. NIMBYism has deep roots and parties are always seeking to prevent others from building in order to preserve their own political power. This descendants of Artaxerses are certainly inhabiting Washington DC even now.

Acts 28:7–16: Now on Malta, Paul and his companions are hosted by a “leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days.” (7) Publius’ father is sick with fever and dysentery. “Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him.” (8) [Notice that prayer is the engine of healing here.] This act naturally makes Paul very popular and “the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.” (9) The population of Malta “bestowed many honors on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed.” (10)

Paul’s unintended visit to Malta has salutary effects, but he was not there long enough, nor really in any position to establish a church there. Christianity came to Malta by another route. Nevertheless, the Maltese are a great example to us of true hospitality regardless of religious persuasion.

After three months on Malta, they set sail for Rome. Luke rather inexplicably tells us about the ship’s figurehead, the “Twin Brothers,” which I take to be Castor and Pollux or the Gemini as they were known in Rome. Still in travelogue mode, Luke tells us they arrive at Puteoli, now part of Naples, and finding believers there, they spent a week there.

They arrive at Rome at last and are greeted by believers there, who “came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us.” (15) Paul is greatly encouraged not only by the greetings of believers but by the fact that Christianity was rapidly infiltrating places where he had not yet been. Luke is making it clear in his description of this final Pauline journey that the Church is nearing critical mass, and believers will soon be found everywhere in the Roman Empire.

 

 

Psalm 32; Ezra 3; Acts 27:39–28:6

Psalm 32: Although he’s speaking in the third person, I suspect the psalmist is writing about himself, admitting that he has sinned, but now having been forgiven has again found joy:
Happy of sin forgiven,
absolved of offense.
Happy, the man to whom
the Lord reckons no crime,
in whose spirit is no defeat.” (1,2)

One of the marks of humankind is that except for sociopaths, we are are conscious of having sinned—especially against someone we love—and we relentlessly seek forgiveness. So too, our relationship with God. This is why I believe that worship can never begin without confession.  As the psalmist notes here, having confessed to God clears our hearts in order to experience the joy of true worship. Worship with out confession is a shadowed affair.

Our psalmist also observes that keeping our sins hidden rather than confessing, is an exhausting process: “When I was silent, my limbs were worn out.” (3) Conscience, especially before God, always weighs heavily when we are in a state of unconfessed sin. Joy is blocked by guilty emptiness. Life becomes as dust:
For day and night
Your hand was heavy upon me.
My sap turned to summer dust.” (4)

This psalm also reminds us that confession must be a conscious decision; we must take the initiative to confess: “My offense I made known to You/ and my crime I did not cover.” (5) No dissembling or excuses are allowed. We must echo the psalmist with a direct admission before God, who grants us immediate forgiveness: “I said, ‘I shall confess my sins to the Lord,’/ and You forgave my offending crime.” (6) But absent that admission there is no forgiveness.

There is a sudden shift in the psalm at this point and our psalmist becomes an instructor in wisdom, wishing to convey to students—or perhaps his sons— the insights and joy he has discovered for himself by virtue of confessing his sins:
Let me teach you, instruct you the way you should go.
Let me counsel you with my own sight.” (8)

I think teaching our children about sin and confession is a key element of effective parenting. Too many people in our culture are completely unaware that they commit wrongdoings and too few are aware of the necessity of confession and forgiveness s being the key to a more joyful life.

Ezra 3: Seven months after the Jews return, they all gather in Jerusalem to make sacrificial offerings in the vicinity of the still-ruined temple. Even though they are back in their homeland it is not necessarily sake and, “they were in dread of the neighboring peoples, and they offered burnt offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening.” (3)

But an altar out in the open air in view of potentially hostile neighbors is insufficient. As a result, the people now give freewill offerings to rebuild the temple. All Levites twenty years old and older are given oversight on the temple rebuilding project. [We will get to the details of this project in the next book, Nehemiah.]

The temple foundation is laid and there is worship and great rejoicing: “the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals…” (10) This worship brings us one of the most joyous statements in the OT that echoes down through the centuries as “they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,

“For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” (11)

However, our authors note that not everyone shouted for joy: “many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house.” (12) These are the people who remembered what had been before their and their father’s apostasy has led to the temple’s destruction. The bittersweet weeping competed with the joyful shouting “so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.” (13)

This verse reminds us that worship can also be a cause of regret as we fully realize what the consequences of our sins have wrought. We may be forgiven by God and by other people, but we must also confront the damage we have done—seen here literally in the ruins of the temple. But too often we prefer denial to truly facing up to what our actions and words have wrought.

Acts 27:39–28:6: The ship’s passengers can see a beach off in the distance and they head the ship in that direction. But rather than making it to the beach, the ship hits a reef and it’s every man for himself. Knowing the fate that would await them if prisoners escape, the soldiers want to kill them. “But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan,” (27:43) and everyone makes it to shore safely.

They have landed on Malta where “the natives showed us unusual kindness” (28:2) and build a fire for the wet and shivering refugees. Ever helpful, Paul gathers a bundle of sticks “when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand.” (3) The natives’ first instinct is to believe Paul is a murderer and that he has just received his just punishment via snakebite. However, instead of swelling up and dropping dead, nothing happens. Consequently the natives begin to think he is a god.

Everything that has happened since Caesarea: on the ship, the storms, the getting lost, the shipwreck, the rescue, the thwarted execution of the prisoners, the fire, the viper are all evidence to our author that God fully intends for Paul to make it safely to Rome. Moreover, these events are not coincidence; they are a stark reminder that God is fully in charge no matter how awful the circumstances might be.

 

 

Psalm 31:22–25; Ezra 1,2; Acts 27:21–38

This is my 800th post.

Psalm 31:22–25: Our psalmist, still speaking as David, is deeply grateful for God’s favor:
Blessed is the Lord
for He has done me wondrous kindness
in a town under siege.” (22)

Is this an actual town—perhaps Jerusalem—or is it a metaphorical town? In any event, he realizes that even though God seemed not only absent but apparently had banished David from his presence, it turns out that God was actually there all the time:
And I had thought in my haste:
‘I am banished from before your eyes.’
Yet You heard the sound of my pleading
when I cried out to You.” (23)

This first couplet is so true! In difficult circumstances we think God is absent or even worse, that we are not worthy to be helped by God. Yet, if we look hard enough and listen hard enough, we discover that God not only shows up but that he was there all along!

And because we know that God is indeed with us—and that he loves us—we reciprocate that love. Even better, those who oppress us or plot against us will eventually receive their comeuppance:
Love the Lord, all His faithful,
steadfastness the Lord keeps
and pays back in good measure the haughty in acts.” (24)

With this knowledge in our minds and this love in our hearts, we can truly take the psalmist’s coda to heart:
Be strong, and let your heart be firm,
all who hope in the Lord.” (25)

May each day see increasing strength in my mind and increasing firmness in my heart that God is indeed present and active in my life.

Ezra 1,2: The editors who determined the order of the OT books were firm believers in linear history. tThe book of Ezra picks up where 2 Chronicles ended. I suspect it is the same authors because we again see their firm conviction that God acted through foreign leaders such as the Pharaoh Neco, King Nebuchadnezzar, and now, King Cyrus of Persia.

Here, the authors are quite explicit about how Cyrus came to decree the end of the Babylonian exile. Cyrus may have conquered Babylon on his own, but our authors assert that it was an act of God that caused him to allow the Jews to return to their land: “The Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah.” (1:2)

Cyrus’s instructions are explicit. The return is to allow the Jews to “go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem.” Whether or not Cyrus actually said these things is not the point. The key is that Jewish identity was completely bound up in the temple at Jerusalem. And there is no more critically important task ahead than to rebuild the temple.

Not only are the Jews to return, but the decree goes on to instruct all the Gentiles among whom the Jews have been scattered to provide them “with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.” (1:4)

To make sure everyone under Cyrus’s rule got his point, the king sets the example: “King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods.” (1:7)

Another proof that these are the same authors who wrote the Chronicles, they are excellent accountants: “And this was the inventory: gold basins, thirty; silver basins, one thousand; knives, twenty-nine; gold bowls, thirty; other silver bowls, four hundred ten; other vessels, one thousand; the total of the gold and silver vessels was five thousand four hundred.” (1:9-11)

Once the temple treasures have been inventoried, our authors then inventory the families  who returned, as well as the places they returned from. The list includes the priests, the Levites and the temple servants. However, there is one family, who “looked for their entries in the genealogical records, but they were not found there, and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean.” (2:62)

Not only have our authors provided the names and numbers of each family returning, they give us the totals: “The whole assembly together was forty-two thousand three hundred sixty, besides their male and female servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred thirty-seven; and they had two hundred male and female singers.” (2:64-65) When we have read before of Israel’s armies of hundreds of thousands we realize just how small the population of returning Jews actually was.

BTW, I love that the choir members are included as a separate group!

Following a specific accounting of the horses, mules, camels, and donkeys, the total of the freewill offerings from the Jews themselves to the temple rebuilding fund comes to “sixty-one thousand darics of gold, five thousand minas of silver, and one hundred priestly robes.” (69)

Finally, the authors note that while the priests and Levites lived in or near Jerusalem, “the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants lived in their towns, and all Israel in their towns.” (2:70) SO it’s not just Jerusalem that’s being repopulated.

How will Judah and Israel be reestablished from this relatively small number? Will they succeed in rebuilding the temple? We know the answers but it’s fun to revisit the process and trials they encounter along the way.

Acts 27:21–38: Obviously everyone aboard the seemingly doomed ship is terrified. Paul, having received an angelic vision that all would be well, encourages his companions and the sailors: “I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.” (22) and “So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.” (25)  Paul also says the only way for them to be saved is to run the ship aground.

After two weeks of drifting at sea, the ship finally comes near land in the middle of the night. Fearing the rocks they drop anchor, whereupon four sailors attempt to escape. Paul “said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” (31) So the soldiers cut the ropes holding the small boat casting the sailors adrift.

He advises everyone to eat their fill, since it’s been 14 days since anyone ate. There’s no question that without Paul taking the lead they all would have perished. What’s surprising to me is that the ship was much bigger than I thought. Luke tells us parenthetically: “(We were in all two hundred seventy-six persons in the ship.)” (37)

More adventures are to come. And of course we know that Paul and Luke survived to tell the story.

 

 

 

Psalm 31:11–21; 2 Chronicles 36; Acts 27:9–20

Psalm 31:11–21: Now we come to the confessional meat of this psalm. The psalmist, speaking as David admitsthat his exhaustion that has been caused by the consequences of his sin:
For my life is exhausted in sorrow
and my years in sighing.
Through my crime my strength stumbles
and my limbs are worn out.” (11)

He is ashamed in front of his enemies and his friends are repulsed. The degradation is even worse because he has been “Forgotten from the heart like the dead. / I become like a vessel lost.” (13) If we ever needed a poetic description of the depths of despair and depression it is right in these verses. This is a beautiful description of how it is to feel abandoned by everyone we know—and by God, too.

Nevertheless, he is still subject to the conspiracies of his enemies and
I heard the slander of many,
terror all round,
when they conspired against me,
when they plotted to take my life.” (14)

But even in this dreadful situation, hemmed in on all sides, in despair one hope remains: “As for me, I trust in You, O Lord.” (15) It is only God who can “save me/ from the hand of my enemies, my pursuers.” (16)

As he focuses on God, we see the glimmer of hope grow and as usual, the wish for his enemies to suffer as he has suffered:
Let the wicked know shame,
and be stilled in Sheol.
Let lying lips be silent,
that speak haughty against the just
in arrogance and contempt.” (18, 19)

I read this verse as a plea for justice. Alas, in our fallen world, these words are just as meaningful in our own fallen culture as they were in David’s. It is the wicked who always seem to be on the ascendant. And yet.And yet…

In the end, it is the just who receive God’s protection as he pleads, “Conceal them in the hiding-place of Your presence/ from the crookedness of man.” (21) These are the verses to cling to for those who are depressed and those who are oppressed. Only God provides the shelter from the storm. And we of the New Covenant  find hope in just one place: Jesus Christ.

2 Chronicles 36: With Josiah’s death, things quickly go downhill in Judah. Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz ascends the throne. HI reign is short-lived as the Pharaoh Neco deposes Jehoahaz, demand enormous reparations form Judah and places Jehoahaz’s brother Jehoikim on the throne of Judah.

Alas, the rule of evil sons coming from good men seems to apply, and during his 11 year rule, Jehoiakim “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord his God.” (5)  At this point in Judah’s long, mostly sad history of suffering under evil kings, our authors don’t even have to say it. God punishes Jehoiakim as “King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up, and bound him with fetters to take him to Babylon.” (6) He dies.

Jehoaikim’s 8-year old son replaces him and reigned for 3 months and 10 days. Like his father, he “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (9) Really? How does an 8-year old kid do evil in God’s sight? Would he even know better or even be responsible for worshipping the false gods of his father? I think our authors are being unduly harsh here.

In any event, his 21-year old brother, Zedekiah, becomes king. One wonders why he wasn’t chosen king in the first place over the 8-year old. Of course, there’s no surprise here, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord His God.” Moreover, “He did not humble himself before the prophet Jeremiah who spoke from the mouth of the Lord.” (12)

He even “rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God; he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (13) In other words, even the Nebuchadnezzar’s political threats are insufficient to get Zedekiah to mend his ways. As always, when corruption is at the top, it filters downward and “All the leading priests and the people also were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations; and they polluted the house of the Lord that he had consecrated in Jerusalem.” (14)

God sends prophets to warn the king and people against their apostasy “because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place.” (15) but they only mocked the prophets. In one of the most freighted verses in this book, our authors observe that even God gives up on his people and “the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy.” (16) Reflect on that for a moment. Imagine evil so immense that even God gives up.

Both God and Nebuchadnezzar have had enough of the rebellion and stupidity emanating from Jerusalem. In one of the saddest verses in the Bible, God “brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their youths with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or young woman, the aged or the feeble; he gave them all into his hand.” (17) The treasures of the temple are carted off by the Babylonians, and they “burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels.” (19) The few who survive this invasion are hauled off to Babylon. All this was “to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.” (21) Leave it to our authors to find symbolic meaning in the 70 year exile.

The authors completely skip over what happened during the 70 years of exile and report that King Cyrus of Persia, who conquered Babylon, “in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom and also declared in a written edict” (22) The edict announces that God had charged Cyrus to “build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.” (23) In other words, the Jews can return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the temple.

On the cusp of the return to Jerusalem, our authors put down their pens and roll up the scroll.

Acts 27:9–20: Things are not going well on Paul’s long journey from Caesarea to Rome. Paul predicts that the next leg of their trip will be dangerous: “Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” (10) But Paul lacks credibility for his weather forecasting skills and they put out to sea anyway, planning to winter over at “a harbor of Crete, facing southwest and northwest.” (12)

Not surprisingly, Paul’s forecast was exactly spot on, and “a violent wind, called the northeaster, rushed down from Crete.” (14) Luke reports that they “were scarcely able to get the ship’s boat under control.” (16) But things get worse and they toss the cargo as well as the ship’s tackle overboard. The reading ends on a grim note: “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” (20)

We could probably create some sort of metaphor here of life’s struggles that include violent emotional storms, but sometimes narrative is just narrative and a storm is just a storm.