Psalm 143:1–6; Micah 6,7; Revelation 13:11–14:5

Psalm 143:1–6: Although this David psalm of supplications abounds in the stereotypical language and images we’ve seen many times before, it nevertheless contains some original ideas:
Do not come into judgement of Your servant,
for no living thing is acquitted before you.” (2)

Not only God’s greatest creation, humans, are capable of sin but it appears that all living creatures, are imperfect. But it certainly is humankind that has the lock on truly creative sinfulness—even though many among us think of themselves as “good,” even sinless people.

As usual there is the theme of pursuit by one’s enemies, which since this psalm is dedicated to David was certainly the case in a reference that directly calls to mind David hiding from Saul in the cave:
For the enemy pursued me,
thrust my life to the ground,
made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.” (3)

Here we get a sense of the terror that close encounter engendered:
And my spirit fainted within me,
in my breast my heart was stunned.” (4)

Yet even in that dreadful situation, our psalmist, speaking as David, recounts how he thought about all the good things God had already done for him:
I recalled the days of old,
I recited all Your deeds,
of Your handiwork I did speak.” (5)

I’m not sure that if my life were threatened that I would be quite so reflective, but I have to admit this is good advice on how to quiet our fears by realizing that God is indeed close to us—especially in our moments of greatest peril.

David recounts how
I stretched out my hands to You—
my being like thirsty land to You.” (6)

I really like the image of us being dry ground awaiting the rain of blessings and protection from God. We can soak up his faithfulness and goodness like the parched land until we are overflowing.

Micah 6,7: As in the book of Job, Micah writes a courtroom scene. As in Job, God is the prosecution:
For the Lord has a case against his people;
    he is lodging a charge against Israel.” (6:2)

Israel in in the witness stand as God asks,
My people, what have I done to you?
    How have I burdened you? Answer me.” (6:3)

God then becomes the witness as well, recounting all the marvelous things he has done for Israel, his chosen people in a catalog that begins:
I brought you up out of Egypt
    and redeemed you from the land of slavery.
I sent Moses to lead you,
    also Aaron and Miriam.” (6:4)

It is in this testimony that we encounter what I think is the most important verse in this book:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8)

There it is: our mission statement. All God asks of us is to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with God. My, how desperately our society needs to hear and reflect on these profound words. We’re pretty good at demanding justice as witness the recent uproar over accusations of sexual harassment or the case now before the Supreme Court of the baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. But mercy is scarcely to be seen, much less many people walking humbly with God.

Israel, like us, has failed in every dimension of this simple command as God continues to pile up his relentless catalog of Israel’s manifold sins. Among them ill-gotten gains, doubtless collected by cheating the poor:
Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house,
    and the short ephah, which is accursed?” (6:10)

God then leaps out of the witness box onto the judge’s bench:
Therefore, I have begun to destroy you,
    to ruin you because of your sins.” (6:13)
And…
Therefore I will give you over to ruin
    and your people to derision;
    you will bear the scorn of the nations” (6:16)

Chapter 7 changes point of view and we now hear the despairing voice of the prophet himself:
What misery is mine!
…The faithful have been swept from the land;
    not one upright person remains.
Everyone lies in wait to shed blood;
    they hunt each other with nets.” (7:1, 2)

Without trust, society disintegrates:
Do not trust a neighbor;
    put no confidence in a friend.
Even with the woman who lies in your embrace
    guard the words of your lips.” (7:5)

Which I think is exactly where our own culture is headed. Trust and the idea of giving others the benefit of the doubt. But as with Israel, there is still hope as Micah writes,
But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord,
    I wait for God my Savior;
    my God will hear me.” (7:7)

Hope exists only in waiting on God. Later in the chapter we come to a terse description of where we are headed:
The earth will become desolate because of its inhabitants,
    as the result of their deeds.” (7:13)

Many people doubtless use this verse as God’s warning against humankind’s destruction of the environment, and that is certainly a fair way to read it. But I think it is more than that. Our many sins will bring individuals and society at large to a bitter, chaotic end. We have seen this before in history.

Like the psalmist, Micah knows God also forgives is there is repentance as the chapter ends with hope. Hope that God will forgive us—and in confession we know that we are forgiven because God wants to have a relationship with us. God indeed demands justice, but God’s judgement is surrounded by mercy:
Who is a God like you,
    who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
    of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
    but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us;
    you will tread our sins underfoot
    and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (7:18, 19)

God will indeed have compassion. The question asks itself: is my compassion to others as strong a my willingness to judge them?

Revelation 13:11–14:5: O goody. Another beast emerges from the bowels of the earth, apparently a successor to the 10-headed beast with the fatal wound that was healed. It is a apparently a world leader who has “deceived the inhabitants of the earth. [And] ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived.” (13:14) This certainly seems to be a reference to a couple of Roman emperors, who demanded to be worshipped as a god.

This second beast also famously requires that all people “great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.” (13:16) John tells us the number is 666—and that “it is the number of a man.”  Recalling that we have read about 7 seals, 7 trumpets, etc., seven appears to represent God’s work, which is why for many people, 7 is “a perfect number,” i.e., God’s number. Therefore the succession of 6’s represents for me, anyway, the human attempt and failure to be god-like. 6 may be close to seven but it will never be perfect the way God is perfect.  The triple 6’s may simply represent successive tries by Roman emperors to be  gods—and as far as John is concerned, failing. 

Those who read Revelation as a forecast of things to come have spilled a lot of ink trying to match the beasts with actual people. Hitler, Stalin, etc. And now that we have reached the era where identifying chips actually can be implanted in people the idea that we are all marked does not seem quite so far-fetched.

Chapter 14 opens with the scene of  “the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” (14:1) We have another worship scene as the 144,000, “sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders.” (14;3a) Only this time, who can worship is restricted: “No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.” (14:3b) These folks were apparently all males: “These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” (14:4)

Much has been made of this number, and it was the theological basis of the original Jehovah’s Witnesses who believed they were the chosen few. I think the number simply represents a large number based on the 12 disciples and the 12 tribes of Israel, which we could read as John’s expressed hope that Christians and Jews would one day be united.

Or, there may be no particular meaning at all; it is simply part of John’s fervid imagination and we should not read too much into it. As Groucho Marx famously remarked apropos Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just as cigar.”

 

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