Archives for September 2017

Psalm 108:6–14; Jeremiah 52; Hebrews 6:13–7:3

Psalm 108:6–14: Following his enthusiastic opening praising God, our psalmist gets down to the serious business of supplication:
Loom over the heavens, O God,
Over all earth with Your glory,
that Your beloved ones be saved,
rescue with Your right hand, answer me.” (6,7)

God does indeed answer equally enthusiastically, reminding the psalmist of the  fact that he has given Israel its promised land and his people are his as he provides a truncated list of Israel’s tribes:
God spoke in His holiness:
‘Let Me exult and share out Shechem,
and the valley of Sukkoth I shall measure.
Mine is Gilead, Mine Manasseh,
and Ephraim My foremost stronghold,
Judah My scepter.” (8, 9)

Well, at least he provides only a sampling of tribes rather than the whole list. One feels that the psalmist himself hails from “Ephraim My foremost stronghold.”

It’s not sufficient for the poet’s God to celebrate Israel; there must also be insults hurled at Israel’s traditional enemies:
“‘Moab is My washbasin,
upon Edom I fling My sandal,
over Philistia I shout exultant.’” (10)

But alas, this catalog lists only the glories of God’s intervention from the past. As far as the present is concerned, God seems to have disappeared, hence this strongly-worded supplication for God to once again come to Israel’s military aid:
Who will lead me to the fortified town,
who will guide me to Edom?
Have You not, O God, abandoned us?
You do not sally forth, God, with our armies.
Give us help against the 
foe when rescue by man is in vain.” (11-13)

But as always, this psalm of supplication is a thematic sandwich, with praise of God on both sides and the meat of supplication in the middle. As always, the psalm ends on a hopeful note that
Through God we shall gather strength,
and he will stamp out our foes.” (14)

Even though I’m not praying to God for military victory, the structure of this psalm is eminently worth following. For with supplication there needs to be praise and as the last verse suggests, the assurance that God will indeed answer us.

Jeremiah 52: At last we come to the final chapter of this interesting but ultimately frustrating book that too often repeats itself and confuses the historical timeline. The authors, obviously writing from exile in Babylon, recap the events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon.

First there is wicked king Zedekiah, who “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as [his father] Jehoiakim had done.” (2) Persistent corruption at the top had spread throughout the nation of Judah: “Indeed, Jerusalem and Judah so angered the Lord that he expelled them from his presence.” (3)

Rather than being an obedient vassal king, “Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.” (4) The armies of Babylon arrive at the gates of Jerusalem and try to starve out the inhabitants. The king is captured, forced to watch the execution of his children and then blinded and brought to Babylon. As Jeremiah had promised, he survived but in abject humiliation.

Babylon’s egregious crime and why we’ve spent the past several chapters reading about its imminent destruction is that its armies destroyed the temple: “Nebuzaradan the captain of the bodyguard who served the king of Babylon, entered Jerusalem. He burned the house of the Lord, the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down.” (12, 13)

The surviving inhabitants of Jerusalem are carried off into exile. But this same captain of the guard “left some of the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil.” (16)

Our authors provide a depressing catalog of the sacred objects in the now destroyed temple that the Chaldeans carry off.  It is basically an inventory in reverse that we read in I Kings describing the interior treasures and decoration of the temple. Clearly, our authors are writing in sorrow as they remember and detail what was no more.

The religious and administrative leaders of Judah and Jerusalem are carried off by the Babylonian army. Our authors provide a very specific list, which I will not replicate here. But once they arrive at Babylon “the king of Babylon struck them down, and put them to death at Riblah in the land of Hamath.” (27a) And then the saddest sentence of all: “So Judah went into exile out of its land.” (27b)

The fall of Jerusalem is wrapped up with a census of the 4600 people was carried off to Babylon across four separate actions spanning some several years. I confess surprise at this rather small number and that the exile occurred over a period of years. I had always thought there were tens of thousands of Jews in exile and that they were all sent to exile simultaneously.

The book ends on the hopeful story of King Jehoiachin of Judah. A new king of Babylon, the aptly-named Evil-merodach, ascends the throne of Babylon and shows mercy to Jehoiachin “and brought him out of prison; he spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the seats of the other kings who were with him in Babylon.” (31, 32) Not just release from prison, but honor as well: “Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes, and every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table.” (33) The last verse of this book suggests that exile in Babylon may not be so awful after all—at least for King Jehoiachin: “For his allowance, a regular daily allowance was given him by the king of Babylon, as long as he lived, up to the day of his death.” (34)

The cynical side of me wonders if this rather anodyne note at the end was a means of flattering the king of Babylon. I’m reminded of TS Eliot’s famous line, “This is the way the world ends;/ not with a bang but a whimper.” Jeremiah has been quite a ride!

Hebrews 6:13–7:3: In his brilliant but awfully dense essay to demonstrate how Christians are equal heirs with the Jews of Abraham and God’s promise, our author decides he needs to explain further.

First, oaths and promises are critically important: “Human beings, of course, swear by someone greater than themselves, and an oath given as confirmation puts an end to all dispute.” (16)[Although that certitude seems more casual in our own culture.]

Second, the same seriousness applies to God’s promises: “In the same way, when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath” (17) And God, who by definition obeys his oaths, would never lie to us: “it is impossible that God would prove false, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us.” (18)

This hope is the foundation on which we build our lives in faith: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain.” (20) Notice the radical shift here. It is no longer the Aaronic high priest that goes behind the drape of the Holy of Holies, but our hope lies in a new high priest.

And who is that hope? No surprise here: “Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (20)

There are several crucial points our author makes about Melchizedek. First, he is the one who blesses Abraham, and by implication, all of Abraham’s descendants.

Second, “His name, in the first place, means “king of righteousness”; next he is also king of Salem, that is, “king of peace.” (7:2) So any priest in the order of Melchizedek would be the apotheosis of righteousness and peace.

Third, our author takes advantage of the fact that we know nothing about Melchizedek other than that he is a king and priest: “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.” (7:3).  I think I see where this is going. Melchizedek outranks the Aaronic order and is the forerunner of our new great high priest: Jesus Christ. A new priestly order is being put into place. The minds of new Jewish Christians must have been exploding at this point.

 

Psalm 108:1–5; Jeremiah 51:24–64; Hebrews 6:1–12

Psalm 108:1–5: Alter informs us that this psalm is the concatenation (my word, not his) of Psalms 57 and 60. But we’ll leave it to the scholars to speculate on why this psalm ended up in the Psalms.

This David psalm opens musically with voice and instrument:
My heart is firm, O God.
Let me sing and hymn
with my inward being, too.
Awake, O lute and lyre.
I would waken the dawn.” (2, 3)

We often talk about interior singing, usually as “a song in my heart.” And there’s no question that if we’re singing on the inside we feel enveloped in a joyful feeling. One of the as-yet unanswered questions is the connection between music and emotion. Or how hearing a certain song brings back indelible memories. Are we hardwired for music? And if so, what kind of music? I think we’re all different in how we respond to different music. I know that I am in the minority that prefers classical music to contemporary popular music. Except sometimes…

Here, though, the music has but bone purpose: worshipping God. And we sense the psalmist’s enthusiasm in both his inward and outward being as he sings:
Let me acclaim You among the peoples, Lord.
Let my hymn You among the nations.
For Your kindness is great over the heavens,
and Your steadfast truth to the skies.” (4, 5)

What strikes me here is that music, especially great worship music, is not confined to inside the church, but it transcends national borders and speaks to the heart of different cultures “among the nations.” But I think it has to be great music—I’m thinking Bach—not the singsong ditties that so frequently waste time in worship.

Jeremiah 51:24–64: OK, OK, Jeremiah. We get it. Babylon is doomed as we encounter yet another 40 verses—this time in poetry—packed with metaphors about how God will take vengeance on the Chaldeans.

There is the usual fire and brimstone:
I am against you, O destroying mountain,
says the Lord,
    that destroys the whole earth;
I will stretch out my hand against you,
    and roll you down from the crags,
    and make you a burned-out mountain.
No stone shall be taken from you for a corner
    and no stone for a foundation,
but you shall be a perpetual waste,
    says the Lord.” (25, 26)

The inhabitants of Babylon are equally doomed as their city as the invading armies of Persia swoop down from the north:
One runner runs to meet another,
    and one messenger to meet another,
to tell the king of Babylon
    that his city is taken from end to end:
the fords have been seized,
    the marshes have been burned with fire,
    and the soldiers are in panic.” (31, 32)

And the reason for the destruction is clear. God is taking vengeance for its cruelties to his chosen people:
Therefore thus says the Lord:
I am going to defend your cause
    and take vengeance for you.
I will dry up her sea
    and make her fountain dry;
and Babylon shall become a heap of ruins,

    a den of jackals,
an object of horror and of hissing,
    without inhabitant.” (36, 37)

And just in case we missed the message of the earlier verses, Jeremiah provides us a couple of summaries:
Assuredly, the days are coming
    when I will punish the images of Babylon;
her whole land shall be put to shame,
    and all her slain shall fall in her midst.” (47)

and:
Thus says the Lord of hosts:
The broad wall of Babylon
    shall be leveled to the ground,
and her high gates
    shall be burned with fire.
The peoples exhaust themselves for nothing,
    and the nations weary themselves only for fire.” (58)

But what’s really weird is what happens next. Jeremiah commands a certain Seraiah, who is the exiled King Zedekiah’s quartermaster, to read the scroll (presumably to Zedekiah) and “when you finish reading this scroll, tie a stone to it, and throw it into the middle of the Euphrates, and say, ‘Thus shall Babylon sink, to rise no more, because of the disasters that I am bringing on her.’” (63, 64)

So, is what we are we reading here the contents of that scroll because Seraiah didn’t carry out Jeremiah’s command? Or is there yet another scroll full of the same message as we’ve been enduring for the last 3 chapters that indeed lies at the bottom of the Euphrates?

If nothing else, we know that Jeremiah (and perhaps some other writing as ‘Jeremiah’) was a pretty good, but terribly verbose prophet.

Hebrews 6:1–12: Our author—also verbose—is dealing with the issue of Christians who have left the faith—what my parents referred to as ‘backsliders.’

He views living the Christian faith not just as a singular conversion experience—what he calls “the foundation”—but rather as an ongoing catechism or confirmation class, whose curriculum includes “instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” (2) This process, sometimes called sanctification, is preferable to focusing solely on the initial conversion experience and “the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation.” (1) Which I take to mean that if we just “accept Jesus into our heart” and proceed to do nothing about it, the conversion experience (or baptism) is worthless.

This maturing process is essential because because if someone has repented and “tasted the heavenly gift, and [has] shared in the Holy Spirit, and [has] tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,… [but] then [has] fallen away,…on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.” (5, 6)  In other words, he is describing someone who initially confessed faith in Jesus, or perhaps was baptized as an infant, but has failed to mature, and then has consciously rejected that same faith.

Once that rejection has occurred, our author asserts, coming back into the faith is impossible. I believe some people have interpreted this passage as the possibility of losing one’s salvation. But I think the author is simply saying that if a person consciously and positively rejects the faith he is no longer part of the Christian community. This is basically tautological.

He uses a different metaphor to compare good Christian growth in faith and understanding to those who reject the faith: “Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over.” (7,8) 

So what does this passage say about people I know who have rejected the faith? I think it means that we must commit to living out our faith and constantly growing in knowledge and understanding. If one has a conversion experience but does nothing about planting and tending that faith then it becomes worthless.

In short, we have a duty to equip ourselves in faith. Faith is what we engineers call a dynamic process. A “static faith” is ultimately worthless.

Psalm 107:33–43; Jeremiah 50:41–51:23; Hebrews 5

Psalm 107:33–43: In a rather abrupt change of tone and theme our psalmist notes God’s destructive power in nature as punishment of wayward humans:
He turns rivers into wilderness
and springs of water into thirsty ground,
fruitful land into salt flats,
because of the evil of those who dwell there.” (33, 34)

I presume this screed is a reference to Israel’s wanton sinfulness and idol worship. My own observation is that humans themselves are perfectly capable of destroying nature without any kind of godly intervention.

But when there is righteousness, God reflects his approval by restoring nature—of which water is the central element:
He turns wilderness to pools of water,
and parched land to springs of water,
and settles there the hungry,
firmly founds a settled town.” (35, 36)

The righteous farmers go straight to work and the result is fecundity—both in agrarian results and human and animal reproduction:
And they sow fields and plant vineyards,
which produce a fruitful yield.
And He blesses them and they multiply greatly,
and their beasts He does not let dwindle.” (37, 38)

In contrast to the noble efforts of the hoi polloi, our psalmist displays only contempt for the corrupt leadership of the land, who are receiving their just desserts as their progeny—the earmark of God’s favor—diminishes:
He pours contempt upon the princes,
and makes them wander in trackless waste.
And they dwindle and are bowed down,
from harsh oppression and sorrow.” (39, 40)

As always, it is the poor and oppressed whom God favors—and we are left with the strong message that if God cares for the poor, so should we who consider ourselves to be righteous:
And he raises the needy from affliction,
and increases his clans like flocks.
Let the upright see and rejoice,
and all wickedness shut its mouth.” (41, 42)

The psalm concludes with advice that we should follow even today:
He who is wise will watch these
and take to heart the Lord’s kindnesses.” (43)

But I confess that in the noise of our culture I too often fail to pause and appreciate God’s manifold blessings in the many little things that do indeed go right. God’s hand is active even today.

Jeremiah 50:41–51:23: Our prophet is certainly making a big deal about the imminent destruction of Babylon by the Persians as the subject comes up once again:
They wield bow and spear,
    they are cruel and have no mercy.
The sound of them is like the roaring sea;
    they ride upon horses,
set in array as a warrior for battle,
    against you, O daughter Babylon!” (50:42)

If Jeremiah didn’t get his message across in poetry, there is always prose that again employs the sheep metaphor: “Therefore hear the plan that the Lord has made against Babylon, and the purposes that he has formed against the land of the Chaldeans: Surely the little ones of the flock shall be dragged away; surely their fold shall be appalled at their fate.” (50:45)

Chapter 51 seems very much a rerun of chapter 50 as it prophesies Babylon’s doom. One feels like there was a writing contest among the Jews in exile in Babylon and that all the many entries have each received their own chapter in this endless book:
“Thus says the Lord:
I am going to stir up a destructive wind
against Babylon
….and I will send winnowers to Babylon,
    and they shall winnow her.
They shall empty her land
    when they come against her from every side
    on the day of trouble.” (51:1, 2)

Unsurprisingly, the fall of Babylon is nothing but good news for the Jewish remnant:
The Lord has brought forth our vindication;
    come, let us declare in Zion
    the work of the Lord our God.” (51:10)

Once again, if we didn’t get the meaning in the poetry, there’s always explanatory prose: “The Lord has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of the Lord, vengeance for his temple.” (51:11)

I think it is here where we see the real reason for Babylon’s ultimate fate: it was their wanton destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Babylon was God’s instrument for punishing the Jews, but certainly the temple—God’s very dwelling place—that would be off limits. But the Babylonians exceeded their brief and now they will be punished.

What is different in this chapter is the prophet’s assertion that Israel will be God’s instrument of destruction—and I’m pretty sure other authors are writing as “Jeremiah” here:
You are my war club, my weapon of battle:
with you I smash nations;
    with you I destroy kingdoms;
with you I smash the horse and its rider;
    with you I smash the chariot and the charioteer;
with you I smash man and woman;
    with you I smash the old man and the boy;
with you I smash the young man and the girl;
with you I smash shepherds and their flocks;
with you I smash farmers and their teams;
    with you I smash governors and deputies.” (51:20-23)

This short poem is at once bizarre and as far as I am concerned, a non-sequitur. I thought it was the Persians from the north that would be the instruments of God’s struction of Babylon. So what is this grimly graphic poetic aside doing here? If this is truly the God of Israel using the Jews to wreak his vengeance on young men and girls, I sure do not want to have anything to do with him.

In the end, I’m left with the impression that it is a military poem that was chanted as soldiers marched in cadence into battle.

Hebrews 5: Our author uses this chapter to compare Jesus Christ against the very mortal high priests who served in the temple at Jerusalem—and then to see how God has established Jesus as our new High Priest.

First, we know that the high priest at the temple in Jerusalem “is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (1) In other words, the high priest is the intercessor between man and God—which was the whole point of the sacrificial system in place in Jerusalem at the time this epistle was written to new Jewish converts to Christianity.

Second, as a human “subject to weakness,” he is empathetic, “able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward.” (2) As a mortal, he is also subject to sin and therefore, “he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.” (3)

Third, he is called to his post by God: “And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” (4) One does not just decide to become a high priest.

WIth these boundary conditions defined, our author turns to a complex logic chain to show how Jesus is our new High Priest, supplanting the high priest at Jerusalem.

First, like his Jewish counterpart, Jesus is human. Second, Jesus did not appoint himself as high priest, but has been called by God, his father. Jesus “was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you;”(5) (which is a quote from Psalm 2).

Then things get mildly confusing. Jesus is not of the Aaronic order of Jewish priests, but “as [God] says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” (6) This reference to the non-Jewish king/priest who blessed Abram back in Genesis where “King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High” (Gen 14:8) is a revolutionary concept for Jews. It means that Jesus is high priest to everyone—both Jew and Gentile.

Finally, Jesus, being mortal, suffered as other humans. In fact he endured even greater suffering in our author’s oblique reference to his death on the cross: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus  offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (7)

Thus is Jesus our new High Priest before God. And with the explicit Melchizedekian line of succession, Jesus trumps the Aaronic priests in Jerusalem and has become High Priest for every person both in the present and yet to come.

Our author implicitly admits this is complicated stuff as he insults his readers: “About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding.” (11) and then accuses them of theological immaturity: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness.” (12, 13)

So I guess at this point were are all milk drinkers…

 

Psalm 107:23–32; Jeremiah 50:1–40; Hebrews 4:6–16

Psalm 107:23–32: The reading opens with one of my favorite lines in the psalms because Melville quotes them in Father Mapple’s sermon near the beginning of my favorite American novel, Moby Dick, as he preaches to a congregation of sailors about to depart for a two-year whaling voyage:
Those that go down to the sea in ships,
who do tasks in the mighty waters,
it is they who have see the deeds of the Lord,
and His wonders in the deep.” (23, 24)

And in this time of monster hurricanes, the next verse is especially apropos as perhaps the most beautiful description ever written describing an angry sea and the woeful plight of sailors caught in those storm-tossed waves:
He speaks and raises the stormwind
and it makes the waves loom high.
They go up to the heavens, come down to the depths,
their life-breath in hardship grows faint.
They reel and sway like a drunkard,
all their wisdom is swallowed up.” (26, 27)

But there is one who rescues:
And they cry to the Lord
from their straits from their distress He brings them out,
He turns the storm into silence,
and its waves are stilled,
and they rejoice that these have grown quiet.
and He leads them to their bourn.” (28, 29)

[‘Bourn’ is a small, still stream.] I guess we could call this an “inadvertent prophecy,” for it is a perfect description of that stormy night on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus slept peacefully in the rocking boat as the disciples panicked. Of course these verses are also a perfect metaphor for our own lives and the peace that only prayer and God can bring to our personal sturm und drang.

As always in the Psalms heartfelt worship is the immediate reaction of those who have been rescued by God:
Let them acclaim to the Lord His kindness
and His wonders to humankind.
Let them exalt Him in the people’s assembly
and in the session of elders praise Him.” (31, 32)

When I look back over my life I realize there are numerous times where God has indeed rescued me from the waves. Not least in 2009.

Jeremiah 50:1–40: Now it is Babylon’s turn to be in Jeremiah’s cross-hairs as the prophet pronounces God’s judgement on the conquerors of Judah and Jerusalem: “ For out of the north a nation has come up against her; it shall make her land a desolation, and no one shall live in it; both human beings and animals shall flee away.” (3) As we know from history, Cyrus, king of what is now Persia, conquered Babylon in BCE 539—not too many years after Babylon decimated Jerusalem.  We read: “For I am going to stir up and bring against Babylon a company of great nations from the land of the north; and they shall array themselves against her; from there she shall be taken.” (9)  [Sorry, but my personal suspicion is that our Jeremiah author is writing after that event, not before, so he had the historical facts at hand…]

This event occurs when “the people of Israel shall come, they and the people of Judah together; they shall come weeping as they seek the Lord their God.” (4)  We again encounter the metaphor of Israel as a flock of wandering sheep: “My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold.” (6) God will always fit the punishment t the crime and it’s clear here that God sees the repentance of the Jewish remnant that remains in exile.

The sheep metaphor arises again in a succinct summary of the fate the once-proud kingdom of David and Solomon has endured: “Israel is a hunted sheep driven away by lions. First the king of Assyria devoured it, and now at the end King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has gnawed its bones.” (17)

Continuing that metaphor is God’s wonderful promise: “I will restore Israel to its pasture, and it shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead its hunger shall be satisfied…for I will pardon the remnant that I have spared.” (19, 20) Where there is repentance there is also restoration.

Many verses regarding the destruction of Babylon follow…

The question arises: If God used Assyria and Babylon as his agents to dole out Israel’s and Judah’s deserved punishments, why is he now so enthusiastic about destroying its conquerors? I think the answer is here: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: The people of Israel are oppressed, and so too are the people of Judah; all their captors have held them fast and refuse to let them go.” (33) The conquerors think their hold on power is firm and they exceed the punishments God has allowed.

But Jeremiah believes that Israel has suffered enough and he holds onto a firm hope: “Their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of hosts is his name. He will surely plead their cause, that he may give rest to the earth, but unrest to the inhabitants of Babylon.” (34)

Jeremiah’s final prophecy is that Babylon will never be rebuilt: “Therefore wild animals shall live with hyenas in Babylon, and ostriches shall inhabit her; she shall never again be peopled, or inhabited for all generations.” (39) Which is exactly what happened. It’s ruins lie in the middle of the Iraqi desert.

What’s the lesson for us? God cannot endure evil and empires fall. What fate awaits us here in the declining empire of America that so thoroughly is abandoning its Judeo-Christian foundation? Will we see repentance?

Hebrews 4:6–16: Our author continues his disquisition on “rest.” I think what he is getting at is that “rest” for the Jews was both the God-ordained Sabbath as well as the Promised Land they occupied with Joshua so many centuries ago under the terms of the Old Covenant. But he argues that “rest” has a greater meaning: “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day.” (8) And, he continues, “a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his.” (9, 10)  So we should literally rest from our labors just as God rested. 

But it appears there’s a third interpretation of “rest,” and I think it is living out our salvation through Jesus Christ: “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” (11)

We arrive a verse I learned as a kid: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (12) I was taught that the small-w “word of God” is Scripture, the Bible. That’s the view of most Evangelicals, who love their sola scriptura. I’m less sure now. It seems to me the word of God can come in a variety of ways beyond just the Bible: through other people, through sermons, through actions, through reflection. The Holy Spirit is not limited in the ways it can operate on us.

But regardless of how we heard God’s word, in the end our actions and the consequences of those actions are our responsibility: “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (13) The truth will always be found out.

I think behind all of this rather confusing essay, our author is attempting to describe the impact of the transition from Old Covenant Judaism to New Covenant Christianity. Nowhere is that more apparent than his essay on Jesus Christ as our great high priest.

However, Jesus as priest is not some abstract metaphor. Rather, our author wants to make sure we see Jesus as a real and legitimate priest who by becoming human through the Incarnation fully understands our human plight: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested  as we are, yet without sin.” (15) That last phrase “yet without sin” says it all in how Jesus, while human, is also far greater than us.

Jesus as priest sits on the throne of grace and in one of the clearer promises in this epistle, our author makes sure we know that Jesus is the person to whom we come to confess and receive forgiveness: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (16) That, ladies and gentlemen, is a promise we can grasp. Like a priest, we can come to Jesus and confess and he intercedes on our behalf, making us right before God.

Psalm 107:17–22; Jeremiah 49:17–38; Hebrews 3:16–4:5

Back in Madison…

Psalm 107:17–22: Our psalmist continues to describe the plight of those taken captive in what I presume is some war in Israel’s history. Our psalmist does not appear to have much sympathy for them due to their disobedience, which as usual is the deuteronomic fomula:
Fools because of their sinful way,
because of their misdeeds they were afflicted.” (17)

These people are in dire straits, perhaps being starved to the point of death:
All food their throat rejected,
they came to the gates of death.” (18)

Recognizing their plight and their imminent doom, they turn to God in what seems to be a psalmic version of a foxhole conversion. As always, God listens and rescues:
And the cried to Lord in their straits,
form their distress He rescued them.
He sent forth His word and healed them,
and delivered them from their pit.” (19, 20)

What’s striking here is that it is God’s word that is the agent of rescue. This verse must certainly have been on John’s mind when he penned the prologue to his eponymous gospel. Jesus is indeed the Word from God who saves and heals.

When they (and we) are rescued there can be only one response: gratitude and worship:
Let the acclaim to the Lord His kindness,
and His wonders to humankind,
and offer thanksgiving sacrifices
and recount His deeds in glad song.” (21, 22)

These verses are personally convicting. How often I’ve been discouraged or in a dark place in my life. It is God who sees me through. But other than a quick prayer of acknowledgement as e.g., “Thank you, Lord,” I do not stop to sing or to worship. As always, God is infinitely patient with me, but he deserves far more of my gratitude than I give him.

Jeremiah 49:17–38: Although the book of Jeremiah spends most of its time (and my energy) on pronouncing doom on Israel, Judah, and especially Jerusalem, by no means are the Gentile nations surrounding Israel let off the hook.

Today, there’s Edom, which “shall become an object of horror; everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters.” (17) This nation receives the dubious honor of being compared to Sodom and Gomorrah. Our author also compares Edom’s inhabitants to sheep, who suffer the awful fate of seeing their children led away as prisoners. And once proud soldiers will collapse in fear—”and the heart of the warriors of Edom in that day shall be like the heart of a woman in labor.” (22) And as we know, Edom no longer exists.

While Edom’s doom was pronounced in prose, Damascus and the kingdoms of Kedar and Hazor (of which I have never heard until now) meet their doom in poetry:
Damascus has become feeble, she turned to flee,
    and panic seized her;
anguish and sorrows have taken hold of her,
    as of a woman in labor.

Therefore her young men shall fall in her squares,
    and all her soldiers shall be destroyed in that day,
says the Lord of hosts.” (24, 27)

As for Kedar and Hazor:
Flee, wander far away, hide in deep places,

    O inhabitants of Hazor!
says the Lord.
For King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon
    has made a plan against you
    and formed a purpose against you.
Rise up, advance against a nation at ease,

  that lives secure,
says the Lord,
” (30, 31)

The scary verse here is that Hazor was conquered effectively unawares: as a “nation at ease,” its defenses were non-existent, focusing rather on its comfortable lifestyle. This sounds awfully close to home here in the21st century.

Wherever Hazor once was, its land will become a wasteland:
“Hazor shall become a lair of jackals,
    an everlasting waste;
no one shall live there,
    nor shall anyone settle in it.” (33)

The image that comes to my mind is the rubble remaining after a firebomb attack such as Leipzig in World War II or Hiroshima following the atom bomb. As we read here, there is nothing new about complete annihilation.

Finally, it’s back to prose as Elam meets its fate of a scattered population: “I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven; and I will scatter them to all these winds, and there shall be no nation to which the exiles from Elam shall not come.” (36) Which is also certainly descriptive of what happened to the Jews following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in CE 70 by the Roman general Titus.

The reading concludes with a rather cryptic prophecy. Jeremiah, speaking in God’s voice, announces, “and I will set my throne in Elam, and destroy their king and officials, says the Lord.” (38) One awaits clarification. Perhaps we’ll find out tomorrow.

Hebrews 3:16–4:5: Our author reflects on the fact that even though they had direct evidence of God, the Jews wandering in the wilderness nevertheless rebelled. And in good Old Covenant fashion were duly punished for their rebellion: “Now who were they who heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? But with whom was he angry forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?” (3:16, 17) But the even worse sin was disbelief in God’s message (or promise) to them: “So we see that they were unable to enter [Canaan, aka the promised land] because of unbelief.” (3:19)

The author refers to the promised land as “rest” as he turns the rest promised to Israel into a metaphor for salvation that is available to every person—Jew and Gentile— of faith. He notes first that as with the Jews, we too have heard “good news came to us just as to them” (4:2a) in the person of Jesus Christ. But just as the rebellious Jews in Moses’ time rejected God’s message, so too have the Jews in Jesus’ time heard the message of salvation, but it “did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” (4:2)

Thus begins what we might call “the Great Shift” of the target audience of the Gospel message from Jew to Gentile because of the Jewish rejection of Jesus Christ. It is “we who have believed [who] enter that rest.” (4:3)

Our author then goes off in a fairly impenetrable (to me, anyway) tangent, whose logic I cannot quite follow, as he quotes Genesis, “For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” (4:4) He quotes a later passage as well: “And again in this place it says, “They shall not enter my rest.” (4:5).

My take on this is that Eden is “the Rest” and just as Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, and the Jews of Moses time prevented from entering the promised land, so, too, the Jews who have rejected Jesus will be prevented from obtaining salvation, which is what “rest” represents here.

Or maybe not…

 

Psalm 106:40–48; Jeremiah 45,46; Hebrews 1:10–2:8a

Psalm 106:40–48: God’s anger is understandable given the vile practices of child sacrifice before Canaan’s idols—even to the point of his regretting what having chosen these people. We arrive at the present doleful situation of Judah in Babylonian exile, which our psalmist sees clearly as God’s punishment for their manifold evil sins:
And the Lord’s wrath blazed against His people,
and He abhorred His estate,
and gave them into the hand of nations,
their haters ruled over them.
And their enemies oppressed them,
and they were subject to their power.” (40-42)

As far as our psalmist is concerned this is just one more turn of the never-ending cycle of Israel’s sinfulness followed by its repentance followed by God’s forgiving mercy:
Many times did He save them,
and they rebelled against His counsel
and were brought low through their misdeeds.”
And He saw when they were in straits,
when He heard their song of prayer.
And He recalled for them His pact,
relented through His many kindnesses.
And He granted them mercy
in the eyes of all their captors.” (43-46)

Our poet asks for God’s mercy once more—for God to gather in his people who have been scattered around the nations so that they may worship him:
Rescue us, Lord, our God
and gather us from the nations
to acclaim Your holy name
and to glory in Your praise.” (47)

I’m not sure of this is a specific reference to the Babylonian exile or a prophecy about to what happens later in history. This verse surely was sung in 1947 with the reestablishment of the state of Israel.

The psalm ends on an perfect phrase of liturgical worship:
Blessed is the Lord God of Israel forever and ever.
And all the people say: Amen, hallelujah!

If we ever needed to be reminded of the depths of our own depravity and the fact that God will forgive us when we repent, it is right here. This psalm has plumbed the depths of human depravity but it ends on the highest possible plane—in exactly the same downward thrust of sin in our lives to be supplanted by the upward thrust of mercy and forgiveness. Our God is a rescuing God!

Jeremiah 45,46: Baruch, who is Jeremiah’s amanuensis, receives a wonderful promise for his faithfulness. Jeremiah tells him that he will be spared when the destruction of Jerusalem comes. But rescue requires humility: “And you, do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them; for I am going to bring disaster upon all flesh, says the Lord; but I will give you your life as a prize of war in every place to which you may go.” (45:5)

Indeed, that is the promise for us: if we are willing to place God ahead of our own egos we will survive and prosper.

Chapter 46 at least opens with a clarification of what the chapter will be about: “The word of the Lord that came to the prophet Jeremiah concerning the nations.” (46:1) And then Jeremiah dives right in once again back in poetic form. The first nation up is Egypt as Jeremiah describes history rather than events yet to come: “Concerning Egypt, about the army of Pharaoh Neco, king of Egypt, which was by the river Euphrates at Carchemish and which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah.” (46:2) One thing I had not realized: Egypt’s army marched to Babylon in its futile effort to overthrow the Chaldeans.

The poem is almost homeric—a brilliant exposition of battle and blood, opening with Egypt’s doomed plan to ride to Babylon and conquer it:
Egypt rises like the Nile,
    like rivers whose waters surge.
It said, Let me rise, let me cover the earth,
    let me destroy cities and their inhabitants.
Advance, O horses,
    and dash madly, O chariots!
Let the warriors go forth:” (46:8, 9)

But defeat is inevitable:
The sword shall devour and be sated,
    and drink its fill of their blood.
For the Lord God of hosts holds a sacrifice
    in the land of the north by the river Euphrates.” (46:10)

The sacrifice here, of course, is the Egyptian army. Notice that as far as our prophet is concerned, God directs the fate of every nation, not just Israel’s.

Parenthetically, I’ve always wondered what the song, “There is a Balm in Gilead” was referring to. Turns out it’s about Egypt’s defeat at the Euphrates. Who knew?
Go up to Gilead, and take balm,
    O virgin daughter Egypt!
In vain you have used many medicines;
    there is no healing for you” (46:11)

Defeated on the battlefield, there is only humiliation for Egypt—and it is God who caused it:
Why has Apis fled?
    Why did your bull not stand?
    —because the Lord thrust him down.
   Your multitude stumbled and fell,

Daughter Egypt shall be put to shame;
    she shall be handed over to a people from the north.” (46: (15, 16a, 24)

As well as humiliation for its pharaoh:
Give Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the name
    “Braggart who missed his chance.” (46:17)

Egypt has fallen (and we are reminded of the Jews who fled to Egypt a few chapters back), but Israel (here referred to as Jacob) will eventually be restored:
But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob,
    and do not be dismayed, O Israel;
for I am going to save you from far away,
    and your offspring from the land of their captivity.
Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease,
    and no one shall make him afraid.” (46:27)

But this wonderful eventuality occurs only after punishment for its manifold sins but also always the promise that Israel will always survive:
I will make an end of all the nations
    among which I have banished you,
    but I will not make an end of you!
I will chastise you in just measure,
    and I will by no means leave you unpunished.

And this has indeed come true. Babylon is certainly no more and Egypt is diminished. But the state of Israel not only exists, it is strong. It is also a personal reminder that while we must bear the consequences of our sins, God will indeed rescue us when we repent—the same theme we saw in today’s psalm.

Hebrews 1:10–2:8a: Our Jewish author is a fan of the psalms as he quotes from Psalm 102 that describes how God’s eternal nature transcends creation itself:
In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like clothing;
 like a cloak you will roll them up,
    and like clothing they will be changed.
But you are the same,
    and your years will never end.” (1: 10-12)

(I have to believe these lines have been set to music somewhere.) But as we will discover, our author has a didactic purpose as he describes the relationship between God and Jesus Christ.

Apparently he is refuting a belief in the early church that angels were superior beings to Jesus himself because Jesus came to earth as flesh and blood. But he makes it clear that angels are simply spiritual messengers and they communicate a Message that is superior to them. In fact, they are also messengers for us: “Are not all angels  spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (1:14)

Inasmuch as angels are in communication with us, our author notes, “Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” (2:1) He then refers to the key importance of Scripture and what has been written there regarding our salvation: “It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, ” (2:3)

But in addition to what the psalmists and prophets wrote, God has been actively communicating this great message to us in other ways as well: “God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.” (2:4)

Our author returns to his assertion that while humans may be lower in spiritual status than angels, they are in fact God’s preferred creation. He does this by quoting Psalm 8:
What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    or mortals, that you care for them?
 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
    you have crowned them with glory and honor,
   subjecting all things under their feet.” (2:6-8)

Indeed, God has created us to be “crowned with glory and honor” But as we will see in this fairly complex book, that glory and honor brings serious responsibility as well.

 

Psalm 106:24–31; Jeremiah 42,43; Philemon 1:12–25;

Psalm 106:24–31: Our psalmist continues his negative assessment of his ancestors, highlighting the numerous incidents that tested Moses and certainly tested God while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness:
And they despised the land of their desires,
they did not trust His word.
And they muttered in their tents,
they did not heed the voice of the Lord.” (24, 25)

The line,”they despised the land of their desires” is clearly a reference to the spies who brought back all the bad news about Canaan. The image of muttering in their tents is certainly a precursor to the modern practice of muttering on social media!. We are just the same as they!

In good deuteronomic fashion, God does not countenance muttering, much less open rebellion and sends an epidemic:
And He raised His hand against them,
to make the fall in the wilderness,
to disperse their seed among the nations,
to scatter among the lands.” (26, 27)

Even as early as the wilderness journey, the Israelites intermarried and began to lose their unique identity. Worse, rather than bringing God to those whom they married, they fell prey to the small-g gods and awful practices of their spouses (mostly wives, I presume):
And they clung to Baal Peor
and ate sacrifices to the dead.”  (28)

These disgraceful practices are abhorrent to God and again there is punishment linked to God’s disapproval:
And they provoked Him through their acts,
and the scourge broke out among them.” (29)

This time it is Aaron’s grandson, Phineas, who assuages God’s anger:
“And Phineas stood and prayed,
and the scourge was held back
and it was counted for him as merit,
from generation to generation forever.” (30, 31)

Phineas gets even more lines than Moses and it conveniently skips over the fact that that he slew the people who followed Baal. I’m left with the impression that our psalmist is flattering a priestly descendant of Phineas—an early example of story-editing to get across an editorial viewpoint. So there’s nothing new about selective reporting in the mainstream media!

Jeremiah 42,43: There are only a few Jews left in Judah. The leaders, Johanan and Azariah, “and all the people from the least to the greatest, approached the prophet Jeremiah and said, “Be good enough to listen to our plea, and pray to the Lord your God for us—for all this remnant.” (42:1,2) 

Jeremiah agrees and tells them, “I am going to pray to the Lord your God as you request, and whatever the Lord answers you I will tell you; I will keep nothing back from you.” (4) This statement is a glimpse into how Jeremiah kept on getting the Word of the Lord: he prayed.

Ten days later, Jeremiah returns with God’s answer: “If you will only remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I am sorry for the disaster that I have brought upon you.” (42:10)

Well, that’s an interesting response. So God has regrets and is “sorry for the disasters he’s brought on them.” I’ve never thought about God regretting his actions.

But it looks like Jeremiah’s words will not be heeded. The remnant, fearing the Chaldeans and seeing what happened to the inhabitants of Jerusalem is planning to escape to Egypt—a stunning potential replay of what happened so many centuries before. Jeremiah is crystal clear: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Just as my anger and my wrath were poured out on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so my wrath will be poured out on you when you go to Egypt.” (42:18) And again Jeremiah warns them, “O remnant of Judah, Do not go to Egypt. Be well aware that I have warned you today  that you have made a fatal mistake.” (42:19, 20)

Jeremiah points out that they asked him to pray and obtain the advice God has for them: stay or go. And now they plan to ignore Jeremiah’s last stern warning: “Be well aware, then, that you shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence in the place where you desire to go and settle.” (42:22)

Once again we see the immutability of human nature. Even when they ask a prophet for advice and the prophet comes back and tells them something they don’t want to hear, they ignore him.  Which is also a good description of Jesus’ ministry in Israel. He spoke the truth and was ignored by the people, especially the leaders, and paid with his life. And goodness knows, we behave just the same today.

In a dramatic demonstration of people rejecting what they don’t want to hear, the leaders accuse Jeremiah of outright lying and even treachery: You are telling a lie. The Lord our God did not send you to say, ‘Do not go to Egypt to settle there’; but Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you against us, to hand us over to the Chaldeans, in order that they may kill us or take us into exile in Babylon.” (43:2, 3)

The remnant sets out for Egypt, taking the very unwilling Jeremiah with them. Now in Egypt, God speaks to Jeremiah and directs the prophet to “Take some large stones in your hands, and bury them in the clay pavement that is at the entrance to Pharaoh’s palace in Tahpanhes.” (43:9) Which he does in full view of the Judeans. God then directs Jeremiah to announce, “I am going to send and take my servant King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and he will set his throne above these stones that I have buried, and he will spread his royal canopy over them.” (43:10)

The chapter concludes with Jeremiah’s grimly specific prediction of how the Babylonian king will conquer Egypt: “He shall kindle a fire in the temples of the gods of Egypt; and he shall burn them and carry them away captive; and he shall pick clean the land of Egypt, as a shepherd picks his cloak clean of vermin.” (43:12) We end the chapter with God’s warning ringing in our ears: “[Nebuchadnezzar] shall break the obelisks of Heliopolis, which is in the land of Egypt; and the temples of the gods of Egypt he shall burn with fire.” (43:13)

Fair warning. I have a feeling bad things will be happening in the next chapter… The lesson is clear: if you ask a prophet to prophesy, you should take what he says seriously, even if it is the opposite of what you want to do. While we may not have Jeremiahs in our midst today, we certainly have Scripture and prayer. Answers to study and prayer are not always what we want. Will we flee to Egypt instead?

Philemon 1:12–25: Paul is writing Philemon that he is sending Onesimus back to his rightful owner without first seeking Philemon’s consent. It’s clear that Onesimus escaped from Philemon’s household and ended up in Rome, doubtless stumbling across Paul—perhaps in prison. If Onesimus is sent back to his owner, Philemon has every right to kill him. Hence the somewhat obsequious spin that Paul takes here: “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever,  no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (15, 16)

As a Christian brother, Paul is appealing to Philemon’s faith, which Paul believes has surely transformed him. We can hear Paul almost begging, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (17, 18) He even goes to the extent of proving his good intentions by writing, “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.” (19)

As if to slightly change the subject, Paul asks, “One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” (22) making it clear that he regards Philemon as a brother in Christ.

So why is this letter to Philemon in the canon? I think that it ended up there because it is a real world example of asking others to be kind and to have mercy—especially compared to the endless didactic and frankly rather cold advice of the Pastorals that precede it. Here we see Paul’s genuine caring and his genuine worry. But above all it is an example of how Jesus and the Holy Spirit change people’s hearts for the better, to become hearts of caring and compassion. Paul is placing his trust—and Onesimus’ very life—in the conviction that the Holy Spirit has transformed Philemon for the better.

We don’t know the ending of the story—about what happened when Onesimus showed up at Philemon’s doorstep. But if we truly believe in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, we can be assured that Philemon greeted his slave with open arms.

Psalm 106:13–23; Jeremiah 40,41; Philemon 1:1–11

Psalm 106:13–23: Our psalmist continues with his poetically condensed version of the Exodus, emphasizing the many incidents that show the Israelites’ sinful acts, beginning with the basic sin, forgetfulness about what God has done for them already:
Quickly they forgot His deeds,
they did not await His counsel.
And they felt a sharp craving in the wilderness,
they put God to the test in the waste land.” (13, 14)

I’m struck by the phrase, ‘they put God to the test.’ That is what our self-centered pride really does, isn’t it? First, we forget about God and in our impatience we fail to “await His counsel” and just go ahead with our own selfish plans. Until something goes wrong; then we begin complaining to God:
And He gave the what they had asked,
sent food down their throats.” (15)

As here, even in their (and our) complaining, God gives what they (and we) have asked for. But as the Israelites found out, sometimes what God gives us doesn’t make us happy either:

Our poet goes on to recount some of the darker incidents in the wilderness—most of them centered on rebelling against Moses and Aaron and then against God himself:
And they were jealous of Moses in the camp,
of Aaron, the Lord’s holy one.
The earth opened up and swallowed Dothan
ans covered Abiram’s band.
And fire burned throughout their band,
flame consumed the wicked.” (16-19)

Even though the poetry are fairly wooden as we trudge through the catalog of their wrongdoings, the compression of the incidents into just a few verses gives us a sense of how it must have looked to God:  continual rebellion.  Which culminates in the the infamous incident of the sacred cow:
They made a calf at Horeb
and bowed to a molten image.
And they exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bull.” (19, 20)

That last line reeks of deadly irony, but its truth is searing. How often have we exchanged our own God-given glory for some worthless pursuit or place another idol in higher status than God? Our author is pointing out rather subtly that the Jews in exile to whom he is writing, or to us reading centuries later that people are no different than the those wilderness Israelites: forgetful, impatient, and self-centered—happily abandoning God for things that are ultimately trivial and meaningless. Separating ourselves from God is really the essence of sin, isn’t it?

Jeremiah 40,41: Whoever wrote these chapters is not the same author as the previous 39 chapters of Jeremiah. These tedious chapters describe various incidents that occurred in Judah after the Babylonian captivity in a welter of names that suggest they were written pretty contemporaneous with the events they describe. Highlights include:

• Jeremiah is given the choice to go to Babylon or remain in Judah. He chooses to remain and is freed by the captain of the Chaldean guard, who says, “See, the whole land is before you; go wherever you think it good and right to go.” (40:4) He chooses to go and remain with Gedaliah, who is the appointed governor of Judea—and disappears from the events that follow

•  “When all the leaders of the forces in the open country and their troops heard that the king of Babylon had appointed Gedaliah son of Ahikam governor in the land…they went to Gedaliah at Mizpah” (40:7,8) Gedaliah invites the band, headed by a certain Ishmael, to stay and serve the Chaldeans. The governor tells them they are free to “gather wine and summer fruits and oil, and store them in your vessels, and live in the towns that you have taken over.” (40:10) Other Jews scattered in Moab and elsewhere also return to Mizpah.

• Some other leaders, headed by a certain Johanan, come and warn Gedaliah that Ishmael plans to assassinate  him. “But Gedaliah son of Ahikam would not believe them.” (40:14) Johanan seeks permission to kill Ishmael before he can carry out his plot, but Gedaliah denies the request,apparnetly duped by Ishmael, telling Johanan, “Do not do such a thing, for you are telling a lie about Ishmael.” (40:16)

• Gedaliah’s trust in Ishmael badly misplaced. Ishmael and his men kill the governor as well as everyone else at Mizpah.  Which reminds us that leaders in high places can be fooled by sycophants willing to stab them in the back.

• A band of 80 men of some odd sect “with their beards shaved and their clothes torn, and their bodies gashed, ” (41:5) shows up at the temple. Ishmael fools them by inviting them to see the already dead Gedaliah. He promptly kills 70 of then, sparing 10 as they say they have stores of food. He tosses the bodies of the 70 into a large cistern.

• Ishamel takes everyone else at Mizpah captive and heads to the Ammonites.”But when Johanan son of Kareah and all the leaders of the forces with him heard of all the crimes that Ishmael son of Nethaniah had done, they took all their men and went to fight against Ishmael” (41:11)

• Ishmael’s captives are mighty glad to see Johanan and his men and “turned around and came back, and went to Johanan.” (41:14) Johanan gathers all the captives and heads for Egypt.

This is all very entertaining, but Jeremiah has at least temporarily disappeared from the scene. This is strictly a record of events that happened after the downfall of Judah and we see that plotting and conniving were rampant. But as for theological application, I don’t see much…

Philemon 1:1–11: This short but very sweet letter is universally acknowledged to have been written by the actual Paul. When we compare it to the wooden and highly didactic advice of the author of the Pastorals, I’m even more convinced they weren’t written by Paul. Just saying…

Here, Paul remembers the love and faith of Philemon: “I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.” (5) We see Paul’s genuine affection for him: “I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.” (7) Now, that’s how the actual  Paul could beautifully communicate!

But Paul, being Paul, has an agenda as he writes that he could simply command Philemon to do his duty, but “I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” (9) What a great lesson for us: love always triumphs over commands.

Paul gets to the point: “ I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” (10) Onesimus is a slave and as Paul notes, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” (11)

I’m sure people wonder why this short and very personal letter is in the canon. I think it is there to demonstrate how real love operates. And I’m sure the editors who determined the order of the canon put it right after the Pastorals to illustrate starkly the difference between commands—which is certainly the primary content of the Pastorals—and requests made out of true brotherly love. This is philios love and tragically this kind of asexual love is pretty much lost in our culture.

Nevertheless, if we ever needed a template of how to appeal to someone for a huge favor, it is right here in these 11 verses. Paul’s sincerity and love leaps off the page.

Psalm 106:6–12; Jeremiah 38:14–39:18; Titus 3:3–15

Psalm 106:6–12: Unlike the happy poet of the preceding psalm, who said nothing negative about the Israelites, our current psalmist starts off with confession:
We offended like our fathers, we wronged
we did evil.” (6)

Notice how the three words stand out on the second line: “We did evil.” There can be no franker confession than that. There are no excuses; we have sinned just as our ancestors sinned. Having brought up ancestors, our psalmist begins his poem looking back at the darker side of Israel’s national story:
Our fathers in Egypt
did not grasp Your wonders.
They did not call to mind Your many kindnesses
and rebelled by the sea, at the Sea of Reeds.” (7)

The Israelites did not bother to appreciate the tremendous gift that God had just given them: freedom from tyranny. Rather, when they reached the first obstacle at the edge of the sea they whined. How like them we are today! We fail to notice the wonders of God that are around us and the wonderful things he has done for us. Instead, we focus on what’s wrong and on the personal injustices we experience. Whining and victimization is certainly the zeitgeist of our culture—another proof that human nature is immutable.

But as our poet observes, God overlooked the whining and rescued them anyway because God keeps his promises:
Yet He rescued them for His name’s sake,
to make known His might.
He blasted the Sea of Reeds, and it dried up,
and He led them through the deep as through wilderness,
And He rescued them from the land of the hostile
and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.
And the water covered their foes,
not one of them remained.” (8-11)

What’s crucial here is to recognize that God did not rescue Israel because they deserved it, but he rescues them “for His name’s sake.” So, too, for us. We do not merit salvation. The Israelites did not escape because of anything they accomplished on their own. All they did was stand at the shore and complain. God rescued them because he promised to. So, too, for us. We are rescued by grace alone, “not of works should any man boast.”

And the consequence of salvation is grateful worship:
And they trusted His words,
they sang His praise.” (12)

The question is, do I trust God’s word and sing his praise enough? The magnitude of what God has done for us can never be matched, even in our humility and praise. The gift is simply too wonderful for us to fully comprehend.

Jeremiah 38:14–39:18: We observed yesterday that King Zedekiah was something of a wimp. Today that’s proved in spades as he comes to Jeremiah in secret, obviously fearing the wrath of the court officials. When Jeremiah arrives at the third entrance of the temple he logically responds to Zedekiah’s plea, “If I tell you, you will put me to death, will you not? And if I give you advice, you will not listen to me.” (38:15) Zedekiah promises, “I will not put you to death or hand you over to these men who seek your life.” (38:16)

Jeremiah advises Zedekiah that if he simply surrenders to the Chaldeans, “your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live.” (38:17) But if he resists, the enemy will burn Jerusalem to the ground and the king will not escape. Zedekiah says he is afraid of the Jews who have gone over to the Chaldeans but Jeremiah assures him that if he “obeys the voice of the Lord in what I say to you, and it shall go well with you, and your life shall be spared.” (38:20)

Zedekiah extracts a promise from Jeremiah not to tell anyone about the conversation or “you will die.” Jeremiah agrees and when questioned by the officials about the meeting, he keeps his word.

Alas, Zedekiah does not heed Jeremiah’s advice. Like so many lawyers’ clients, they hear the advice and then proceed to ignore it. One wonders why Zedekiah even bothered to meet with Jeremiah. In the end Zedekiah’s pride was so immense that he would not consider surrendering. Sounds like a lot of historical figures, including some current politicians.

Chapter 39 is one of  the more depressing chapters of the OT as we see the consequences of Zedekiah’s pride. Jerusalem falls. Zedekiah and his court “fled, going out of the city at night by way of the king’s garden through the gate between the two walls.” (39:4) But they are captured by the Chaldeans. Zedekiah is brought before Nebuchadnezzar, who pronounces a woeful sentence. Zedekiah is forced to witness the execution of his children, as well as all the nobility of Judah. His eyes are then put out and blinded, he is taken in chains to Babylon. Then, “the Chaldeans burned the king’s house and the houses of the people, and broke down the walls of Jerusalem.” (39:8). The remaining population is exiled to Babylon. Interestingly, though, there is also mercy. “Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time.” (38:10) As we have seen again and again, God cares about the poor.

Jeremiah is spared by Nebuchadnezzar himself, commanding Nebuzaradan to “Take him, look after him well and do him no harm, but deal with him as he may ask you.”  (39:12) Jeremiah is entrusted to what I take to be his grand-nephew and Jeremiah “stayed with his own people.” (39:14)

The word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah one more time and he remembers Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, who rescued Jeremiah from the cistern. Jeremiah is instructed to tell the eunuch, that God “will save you on that day, says the Lord, and you shall not be handed over to those whom you dread.” (17)

In the midst of God’s punishment in the downfall of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem he remembers those who have done good deeds like Ebed-melech and who have followed God like Jeremiah. As things seem to be collapsing around us, this is the promise to which we can also cling.

Titus 3:3–15: “Paul” gives his testimony of how he was saved in one of the more overtly Trinitarian passages in the NT where God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit each play a role in our salvation. He begins by describing his former life, (which seems a bit more over the top than how I think the actual Paul would have expressed it): “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.” (3) Which sounds pretty much like all of us if we were honest with ourselves.

As with Ebed-melech, God shows mercy, but now it is through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in what is certainly catechetical: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (4-7)

But “Paul” cannot resist giving advice and after this brief theological interlude, he lapses into more of the same. The duties of Christians are clear: “I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.” (8)

And behaviors to avoid are even clearer: “But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (9) Everybody gets two chances and then they’re shown the door: “After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned.” (10, 11) Yes, this is good advice for establishing church discipline. But would Paul really have said, “such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned?” I’m not so sure. The Paul I think I see in his authentic letters is a Paul who always held out hope for everyone. 

For our author it’s very much about good works and being useful: “And let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive.” (14) I certainly see some of the source material for what eventually became the Protestant work ethic right here in these verses.

Psalm 106:1–5; Jeremiah 37:1–38:13; Titus 2:6–3:2

Psalm 106:1–5: This psalm opens on a familiar note of worship—pretty much the same verse the previous psalm ended on:
Hallelujah!
Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,
for His kindness is forever.
Who can utter the Lord’s mighty acts,
can make heard all His praise?” (1, 2)

With the clue, “the Lord’s mighty acts,” I have a feeling we’re about to hear them recounted in this historical psalm that looks back over Israel’s past. But before our poet gets to those acts, he injects a personal note:
Happy those who keep justice
who do righteousness at all times.
Recall me, O Lord, when You favor Your people,
mark me for Your rescue,
to see the good of Your chosen ones,
to rejoice in the joy of Your nation,
to revel with Your estate.” (3-5)

Even though he speaks in the second person plural, I suspect that our psalmist includes himself among “those who keep justice” and “who do righteousness at all times.” There’s a mantra-like quality to these lines—as if the psalmist reminds himself daily of this great truth. Which is not a bad idea for us either!

Verse 4 gives the impression that this psalm is being written from exile and the psalmist is praying that by virtue of his keeping justice and practicing righteousness he will be among the exiles “marked for rescue,” who will be able to return some day to Israel. Verse 5 anticipates how wonderful that glorious day will be. To be able to return to a just society with those other righteous persons God has chosen. Then, with that company, to be able to rejoice together as a reestablished nation. Indeed, to celebrate (“revel”)on the land (“estate”) that God has returned to them.

With this introduction, the psalm will now move through Israel’s history pretty much the same way as the preceding one, but with a quite different point of view.

Jeremiah 37:1–38:13: This chapter gives us background history of the time Jeremiah was living in.  King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has established Zedekiah as a vassal king and he sends Jehucal and Zephaniah (whom will be hearing from later this year in his eponymous book) to ask Jeremiah to “Please pray for us to the Lord our God.” (37:3) Our author notes that “Now Jeremiah was still going in and out among the people, for he had not yet been put in prison.” (37:4)

Meanwhile, Pharoah’s army is on the move northward and the Chaldeans fear that army. When they heard the news, “they withdrew from Jerusalem.” (37:5) EVeryone breathes a sigh of relief, thinking the Chaldeans have permanently retired to Babylon. But Jeremiah tells the two priests that Egypt coming to Judah’s aid in only a temporary measure and that the Chaldeans will return: “Do not deceive yourselves, saying, “The Chaldeans will surely go away from us,” for they will not go away.” (37:9)

The Egyptians come and scare away the Chaldeans. In this moment of relative peace Jeremiah prepares to go to the land of Benjamin to see the property he’s bought. But he’s arrested at the city gate and accused of treason: “You are deserting to the Chaldeans.” (37:13) Jeremiah strongly denies this, “That is a lie; I am not deserting to the Chaldeans.” (37:14) But the officials are not convinced and toss Jeremiah in prison, “in the cistern house, in the cells, and remained there many days.” (37:16)

In a scene reminiscent of Joseph being brought before Pharaoh, Jeremiah is brought before Zedekiah in secret, who asks, “Is there any word from the Lord?” (37:17) Jeremiah retorts, “There is!” Then he said, “You shall be handed over to the king of Babylon.” (37:17)

He then asks the king why he’s been wrongly imprisoned and asks Zedekiah, “my lord king: be good enough to listen to my plea, and do not send me back to the house of the secretary Jonathan to die there.” (37:20) The kings shows a modicum of mercy and he is now housed with the palace guard.

That move does not make other officials happy because Jeremiah continues to prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans. They go to the king and tell him, “This man ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.” (38:4). It’s a clever accusation that Jeremiah is negatively affecting the morale of the troops. Ever the cowardly wimp, Zedekiah turns Jeremiah over to these men who promptly toss Jeremiah into an empty cistern, “and Jeremiah sank in the mud” (38:6), leaving him there to starve to death.

There Jeremiah lay until “Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch in the king’s house” tells the king, “My lord king, these men have acted wickedly in all they did to the prophet Jeremiah by throwing him into the cistern to die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.” (38:9) The king agrees and Ebed-melech get some old rags and rope. They lower the rope down to Jeremiah and in one of those places where we get very precise detail that confirms for me, anyway, the true historicity of the Bible, we learn exactly how Jeremiah was rescued. Ebed-melech throws the rags down the cistern and tells Jeremiah, “Just put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.” (38:12) Ebed-melech’s men pull Jeremiah out of the pit. [We’ll encounter the story another more dangerous pit in the book of Daniel.]

It’s no wonder that when we hear the phase, “a prophet without honor in his own country,” it is Jeremiah who comes immediately to mind. The other great thing about this story is that it is  Gentile—not a Jew—and a eunuch to boot, who rescues Jeremiah. For me this is a reminder that while God may have chosen the Jews as his people, he is nevertheless the God of every person. Moreover, God, being a God of surprise, will act through the people one least expects.

Titus 2:6–3:2: Having given advice to old men and women, our author moves on to young men: “Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity,  and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us.” (2:6-8) Say what one will about this Paul that seems to have endless stores of advice for other, the advice is certainly excellent. Would that in this era of “social” media, more young men (and women) practiced “sound speech that cannot be censured.”

In a reminder that while human nature has remained constant down through the ages, the world in which Titus received this letter was significantly different in one big way: “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.” (9, 10)

Our author goes on once again to present the Gospel message. But unlike actual Paul, here there is a tight connection between the Gospel and good works, which strikes me as a bit off: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly,” (11, 12) Yes, this and the verses that follow are certainly true, and as we’ve noted already, they are sound advice. But what’s missing here is the exuberant grace that I find in Paul’s authentic epistles. The passage here has a much more somber, almost nagging tone. At this point, one is tempted to say, ‘Enough already. I get your point!!’

But with this author, there is never too much advice and he lards it on once again: “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” (3:1, 2) OK, I get his point!