Archives for December 2017

Psalm 144:9–15; Zephaniah 1,2; Revelation 16:12–21

Psalm 144:9–15: While the first half of this psalm celebrates asks for victory over enemies, this second half celebrates the fruits of peace. This celebration opens with a song of gratitude for rescue:
God, a new song O would sing to You,
a ten-stringed lute I would hymn to You.
Who grants rescue to kings,
redeems David His servant from the evil sword.” (9, 10)

A parenthetical final request to be free of the predations of enemies interrupts the celebration in what seems to be a scribal error that basically repeats verse seven and seems to have been inserted this verse in the wrong place:
Redeem me and save me from the foreigner’s hand,
whose mouth speaks falsely,
and whose right hand is the hand of lies.” (11)

The celebratory psalm then continues, rejoicing over children and includes a gorgeous simile about beautiful daughters:
While our sons are like saplings,
tended from their youth;
our daughters, like corner-pillars
hewn for the shape of a palace.” (12)

The “corner-pillars” are posts at the corners of a building, evidently carved into beautiful and sinuous shapes that his daughters resemble. The blessings of peace overflow in the land:
Our granaries are full,
dispensing food of every kind.
Our flocks are in the thousands,
ten thousands in our fields,
Our cattle, big with young.
There is no breach and none goes out,
and no screaming in our squares.” (13, 14)

That there is no screaming in the squares refers to the terrors of war, which are now finally gone. This psalm ends on an idyllic note with these images of a secure peace and a happy people:
Happy the people who has it thus,
happy the people whose God is the Lord.” (15)

This beautiful description of a land at peace is what we so desperately hope for but alas, is always beyond our grasp because of the evils and lies we humans persist in committing. Only in God can such peace be imagined, much less found.

Zephaniah 1,2: At least we get a description of who Zephaniah was and the time in which he prophesied, which was “in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah” (1)—one of Judah’s more righteous kings. That said, Zephaniah dishes out the pretty standard foretelling of bad things to come. As prophets do, Zephaniah speaks in the voice of God, who is pretty angry, appearing to regret that he’d promised Noah that he would not again destroy humankind:
I will utterly sweep away everything
    from the face of the earth, says the Lord.
I will sweep away humans and animals;

    I will sweep away the birds of the air
    and the fish of the sea.
I will make the wicked stumble
    I will cut off humanity
    from the face of the earth, says the Lord.” (1:2, 3)

And that includes Judah, which as usual, persists in its idol worship:
I will stretch out my hand against Judah,
    and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
and I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal
    and the name of the idolatrous priests.” (1:4)

Zeph goes on in the same vein, predicting that
The great day of the Lord is near,
    near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
    the warrior cries aloud there.” (1:14)

It’s a pretty standard description of doom, which John obviously build on in Revelation with more dramatic flourishes:
That day will be a day of wrath,
    a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
     a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
    and against the lofty battlements.” (1:15, 16)

Trumpets seem to be the instrument of choice when it comes to announcing the end of history. In any event, something we need to remember is that the people’s wealth will not protect them:
Neither their silver nor their gold
    will be able to save them
    on the day of the Lord’s wrath” (1:18a)

The second chapter opens as Zephaniah demands repentance as the only possible escape from this terrible fate:
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
    who do his commands;
seek righteousness, seek humility;
    perhaps you may be hidden
    on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” (2:3)

He goes on to tell us that Judah is not the only doomed nation predicting destruction for the Cherethites (2:4), the Philistines (2:5), and the Moabites (2:8), the Ethiopians (2:12), the Assyrians (2:13) As always, it is pride and smugness that leads to downfall:
Is this the exultant city
    that lived secure,
that said to itself,
    “I am, and there is no one else”?
What a desolation it has become,
    a lair for wild animals!” (2:15)

The prophetic foretelling of doom is, as always, interrupted parenthetically with the hope of rescue for the remnant that has remained faithful:
The seacoast shall become the possession
    of the remnant of the house of Judah,
    on which they shall pasture,
and in the houses of Ashkelon
    they shall lie down at evening.
For the Lord their God will be mindful of them
    and restore their fortunes.” (2:7)

As I read this depressing catalog I can envision no other end for our own empire that is so smug in its self-righteousness because general repentance certainly does not seem to be on the horizon.

Revelation 16:12–21: Bowl number six dries up the Euphrates river, which results in the bizarre image of “three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet.” (13) John explains that these are “demonic spirits performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty,” (14) which will be taking occurring “at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon.” (16)

The narrative is interrupted by a parenthetical insertion that Jesus is coming again “like a thief” and that we had not only better stay awake but keep our clothes on.

John is certainly building a sense of urgency here. And that’s probably because the seventh angel “poured his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” (17) Which certainly seems like an echo of Jesus’ last words on the cross. Only this time the thing that is done is history as the world ends in cataclysm: “And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth, so violent was that earthquake. “(18), which causes “the great city” (presumably Rome), to be split into three parts.

At last, and sounding exactly like Zephaniah, John writes that “God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath.” (19) which for me can be nothing else than the Roman empire itself. Just to make sure the destruction is complete, Joh adds a final touch, again echoing one of the original plagues visited on Egypt so many centuries ago: “huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.” (21)

I’m pretty sure John’s readers at the seven churches were lapping up his descriptions of Rome’s destruction with great enthusiasm—not too different than we who sit in theatres and just as enthusiastically watch movies that include dramatic shots of widespread destruction as our hero triumphantly emerges from the rubble. John didn’t have our movie or TV technology, but his imagery is pretty unforgettable. If he were alive today I’m pretty sure he’d be a screenwriter.

 

Psalm 144:5–8; Habakkuk 2,3; Revelation 16:1–11

Writing from Reston, Virginia today where I’m reviewing research grant proposals for the Prostate Cancer Research Program administered by the DOD.

Psalm 144:5–8: Well, you’ve got to give this psalmist credit for one of the more creative supplications against his enemies that we’ve yet encountered:
Lord, tilt Your heavens and come down,
but touch the mountains, that they smoke.
Crack lightning and scatter them,
send forth Your bolts and panic them.” (5, 6)

In short—and sounding like one of the last scenes in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’— only a full-fledged theophany, a demonstration of God’s overwhelming power to literally move heaven and earth, will suffice for these vile enemies. It’s also an interesting way to ask for their destruction without directly asking God to zap them. Rather, they will meet their deserved demise by virtue of God acting through nature. Pretty clever.

At the same time, our psalmist writes, he seeks rescue from the floods that God’s action has create. But above all he wants to be rescued from the snare of his lying enemies:
Send forth Your hand from on high,
redeem me and save me from the many waters,
from the foreigners’ hand,
whose mouth speaks falsely,
and whose right hand is a right hand of lies.” (7,8)

Notice how God’s powerful hand is contrasted to the deceiving right hand of the psalmist’s enemies. In that culture, the right hand was the hand of power and truth. And his enemies have corrupted that all-important symbol with their lies. Which is also why we need to be vigilant. It’s too easy to be swept into the lies of politicians whose soothing but deceptive words appear to have our interests at heart when in fact it only their power they care about. Nevertheless, since Jesus changed the rules we probably should not pray for a natural disaster to take them out.

Habakkuk 2,3: God answers Habakkuk’s complaint:
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
    make it plain on tablets,
    so that a runner may read it.” (2:2)

However, it “speaks of the end” (2:3a), which I take to be the end of history. Which means we should be patient:
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
    it will surely come, it will not delay.” (2:3b)

This is the same advice Peter gives us when he says that as far as God is concerned, a thousand years is but a day.

Habakkuk’s voice-of-God speech has some interesting and trenchant observations, inevitably first about pride:
Look at the proud!
    Their spirit is not right in them,
    but the righteous live by their faith.” (2:4)

And what is also surely true today:
Moreover, wealth  is treacherous;
    the arrogant do not endure.

    like Death they never have enough.” (2:5)

An entire poem about the woes about to rain down on the arrogant wicked ensues:
Because you have plundered many nations,
    all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you—”
You have devised shame for your house
    by cutting off many peoples;
    you have forfeited your life.” (2:8, 10)

And in a verse particularly apropos for our current time:
Is it not [trying to escape] from the Lord of hosts
    that peoples labor only to feed the flames,
    and nations weary themselves for nothing?” (2:13)

Wow. That verse pretty much sums up our current culture of outrage with cable TV news and social media only fanning the flames. The poem goes on to describe the costs of violence and futility of  idols and ends on the all-important reminder:
But the Lord is in his holy temple;
    let all the earth keep silence before him!” (2:20)

Chapter 3 is Habakkuk’s prayer, which is pretty much a psalm of praise in which God rescues Israel from its enemies, as e.g.:
You came forth to save your people,
    to save your anointed.
You crushed the head of the wicked house,
    laying it bare from foundation to roof.” (3:13)

This chapter is more proof that human nature is immutable and wickedness is endemic, but also that we need to remember that God still rules even when the culture seems to be collapsing around us. It is in this obscure little book where we find enormous encouragement. God still rules and because of that we can rejoice:
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    and makes me tread upon the heights.” (3:18, 19)

Revelation 16:1–11: Here come the seven bowls of God’s wrath about to be poured out on the earth. This section certainly echoes the plagues that God brought on Egypt in the efforts to release the Israelites. John seems to be really enjoying himself as he describes the woes about to come on to those who rejected God. It’s pretty much like what we just read in Habakkuk, but with more dramatic flourish. The bowls come in order as a kind of anti-creation story as God dismantles his creation:

  1. Foul and painful sores “on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped its image.” (2)
  2. Everything the sea dies.
  3. Rivers and springs turn to blood (just like Nile did).
  4. The sun comes close to the earth and is “allowed to scorch people with fire; they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God.” (8, 9)
  5. the bowl is poured “on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony.” (10)

Even so, “and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.” (11)

We should point out that John interrupts himself between bowls 3 and 4 for a the inevitable, albeit brief, moment of worship: “I heard the angel of the waters say,

“You are just, O Holy One, who are and were,
    for you have judged these things;
because they shed the blood of saints and prophets,
    you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!” (5, 6)

This judgement is validated by the voice behind (in?) the altar in the throne room of heaven:
Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty,
    your judgments are true and just!” (7)

While John has certainly left vengeance in God’s hands, he is at pains to point out that the wicked justly deserve whatever woes that come to him. And frankly, he seems kind of happy about it. Just like Habakkuk.

There are two more bowls to come, as John points out again and again that no matter their suffering the people who worshipped the beast/ Satan did not repent. We humans are stubborn fools, aren’t we?

Psalm 144:1–4; Nahum 3; Habakkuk 1; Revelation 14:17–15:8

seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever

Psalm 144:1–4: This David song praises God as shelter and deliverer in military metaphors:
Blessed is the Lord, my rock,
Who trains my hands for battle,
my fingers for the fray.
My strength and my bastion,
my fortress and my deliverer.
My shield in which I shelter
Who tramples down peoples beneath me.” (1, 2)

God not only trains for battle but as the last line indicates, our psalmist believes he participates in battle. While I am not anxious to have God “trample down” those who oppose me, I’m with the psalmist in feeling that God does indeed stand at my side when I face difficult times—metaphorical battles, if you will. I certainly felt God at my side as I lay in the lead-lined room receiving radiation for my cancer. He is indeed my strength and bastion.

In the next two verses the tone of the psalms shifts to philosophical reflection, with a line that is strongly reminiscent of Psalm 139 and almost directly quotes Psalm 8:4:
Lord, what is a human creature that You should know him,
the son of man that You pay him mind?” (3)

Our psalmist touches on humankind’s ephemerality in the next verse, again a theme we see often in the Psalms:
The human is like unto breath,
his days like a passing shadow.” (4)

Our psalmist recognizes the vast gulf between God the Creator and we the created. As verse 4 indicates, this gulf exists in time as well as space. Out 70 or 80 years is but a mere breath in a universe that is 13 billion years old. Logic says that we humans are so small and insignificant—especially when we gaze out at the vastness of the universe—that God would pay us no heed. Yet, not only does God pay attention to us, and as the earlier verses indicate, protect us, but there is the stunning reality that God loves us.

Nahum 3: This obscure prophet is certainly the most cinematic of the minor prophets as he describes the horror of destruction of the city of Nineveh, which he calls “City of bloodshed” (1):
The crack of whip and rumble of wheel,
    galloping horse and bounding chariot!
Horsemen charging,
    flashing sword and glittering spear,
piles of dead,
    heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
    they stumble over the bodies!
Yet she became an exile,
    she went into captivity;
even her infants were dashed in pieces
    at the head of every street;
lots were cast for her nobles,
    all her dignitaries were bound in fetters.” (2, 3, 10)

But perhaps the most striking image in this chapter of horrors is the metaphor of Nineveh as prostitute:
I am against you,
    says the Lord of hosts,
    and will lift up your skirts over your face;
and I will let nations look on your nakedness
    and kingdoms on your shame.” (5)

Who knew that the Bible contained such metaphorical imagery? Clearly, this book was written by an angry prophet. He is certainly capable of writing memorable lines of pure mockery as he speaks in God’s voice:
Look at your troops:
    they are women in your midst.
Your guards are like grasshoppers,
    your scribes like swarms of locusts
settling on the fences
    on a cold day—
Your shepherds are asleep,

    O king of Assyria;
    your nobles slumber.” (13, 17, 18)

This short but dramatic book ends with the announcement that every other nation is eager to witness Assyria’s downfall for one simple reason:
All who hear the news about you
    clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped
    your endless cruelty?” (19)

While the theology and potential life application of this book escapes me, it certainly would be a good source of colorful insults.

Habakkuk 1: This chapter seems like it belongs in Psalms since its opening verses certainly parallel a typical psalm of supplication:
Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
    and you will not save?” (2)

I like Habakkuk because he’s not afraid to ask God the tough questions. In what would serve nicely as a contemporary description of our world today—especially in the Mideast, our prophet asks God:
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
    and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
    therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” (3,4)

But unlike in the Psalms, here God replies to Habakkuk:
Look at the nations, and see!
    Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
    that you would not believe if you were told.” (3)

Habakkuk goes on to describe how God is “rousing the Chaldeans,/ that fierce and impetuous nation.” (6) And their arrival will not be a pretty sight:
Dread and fearsome are they;
    their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,

    more menacing than wolves at dusk; (7, 8a)

Habakkuk responds to God’s announcement with the same  puzzlement that we ask today: the eternal question of why God allows evil to apparently triumph over good:
Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
    and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous,
    and are silent when the wicked swallow
    those more righteous than they?” (13)

To which I guess there will never be an answer…

Revelation 14:17–15:8: More angels holding sharp sickles who are commanded by an angel lurking inside the altar: “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” (14:18) Lest we think this angel is merely harvesting grapes, the grapes are a metaphor for humans who will be cut down and thrown into in an awful wine press and “the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.” (14:20)

As far as I can figure out this is John’s vision of the destruction of the Roman empire. Although goodness knows, enough blood has been shed in wars across the centuries to supply the grim river of blood he describes here.

As we’ve observed, bad things seem to come in sevens—and here are seven plagues. But happily, they “are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended.” (15:1) John holds off on describing the nature of the plagues but instead turns his attention to the image of a “sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands.” (15:2)

As usual, victory results in worship and here this large multitude of conquerors breaks into song, specifically “the song of Moses, the servant  of God, and the song of the Lamb.” (15:3) Given the juxtaposition of Moses and the Lamb, who is obviously Jesus Christ, John evisions a great coming together of Judaism (Moses) and Christianity (the Lamb). But this has not happened yet.

Nevertheless, they all sing a hymn of praise together. When the song is ended more sevens appear: “the temple of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, and out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues, robed in pure bright linen. Each of the seven angels is handed “seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever.” (15:7) The temple is filled with smoke and “no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were ended.” (15:8)

I have a feeling we’re about to find out what’s in the bowls. But if God has already triumphed over evil as it seems he has, why are there plagues to come. Once again, John’s logic and timeline are a complete mystery to me. Personally, I think he’s just having a good time to see how wild his imagination can run—and to drive anyone who reads his letter crazy—which was certainly a very effective way of keeping his seditious writings from being interpreted by the Romans…

Psalm 143:7–12; Nahum 1,2; Revelation 14:6–16

Psalm 143:7–12: In the last half of this psalm our poet utters some pretty standard supplications, one of which is for God to answer his plea on his preferred timetable before he turns into a person like his enemies:
Quick, answer me. O Lord,
my spirit pines away.
Do not hide YOur face from me,
lest I be like those gone down to the Pit.
Let me hear Your kindness in the morning
for in You I trust.” (7, 8a)

That’s an interesting if theologically questionable request. Do we really turn into bad people if God does not answer our prayers on our schedule? I suppose the more anodyne interpretation here is that our poet reciprocates his faithfulness, drawing it out of  God’s own faithfulness.
Let me know the way I should go,
for to You I lift up my being.
Save me from my enemies, Lord;
with You is my vindication” (8b, 9)

In fact, he is asking God for guidance to make the right decision, which is certainly something we too can pray. I know I would benefit if I prayed for God’s guidance more often than I do.

In an echo of Psalm 119, our poet looks to God as his teacher—what I suppose today we would call a “life coach:”
Teach me to do what will please You,
for You are my God.
Let Your goodly spirit guide me on level ground.” (10)

The psalmist circles back around to his plea for God’s rescue from whatever situation—which he does not describe—he finds himself in and to rescue him from his unnamed enemies:
For the sake of Your name, Lord, give me life,
in Your bounty bring me from the straits.” (11)

And no psalm would really be complete without a final wish for God to annihilate his enemies (sarcasm intended):
And in Your kindness devastate my enemies
and destroy all my bitter foes,
for I am Your servant.” (12)

I have to admit that the idea of God’s kindness being expressed as devastating one’s enemies is rather disturbing. I’m glad Jesus pretty much put an end to the prayers that tout the supplicant’s goodness and faithfulness while wishing doom on one’s enemies.

Nahum 1,2: All we learn about who Nahum is is that he is from some place called Elkosh. This prophet wastes no time or words announcing God’s anger is about to be directed against someone or some place:
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,
    the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
    and rages against his enemies.” (1:2)

As usual the poetry swings between destruction and salvation. As our psalmist has observed above, if we are faithful to God, he is faithful to us:
The Lord is good,
    a stronghold in a day of trouble;
he protects those who take refuge in him,
even in a rushing flood.” (1:7)

Nahum seems to be directing his message at some kind of conspiracy:
From you one has gone out
    who plots evil against the Lord,
    one who counsels wickedness.” (1:11)

But even though Judah is the target of this conspiracy, God will still strike down the conspirator—”I will make your grave, for you are worthless.” (1:14)—and preserve the nation:
Celebrate your festivals, O Judah,
    fulfill your vows,
for never again shall the wicked invade you;
    they are utterly cut off.” (1:15)

It is in chapter 2 that we learn that while God will protect Judah, the enemy is Nineveh and Nahum uses some pretty dramatic images to describe its downfall due its temerity:
The chariots race madly through the streets,
    they rush to and fro through the squares;
their appearance is like torches,
    they dart like lightning.” (2:4)

Devastation, desolation, and destruction!
    Hearts faint and knees tremble,
all loins quake,
    all faces grow pale!” (2:10)

The chapter concludes with Nahum speaking in the voice of God: “See, I am against you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will burn your[h] chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young lions; I will cut off your prey from the earth, and the voice of your messengers shall be heard no more.” (2:13) As we know, Nineveh is indeed no more. But I have to ask: did Nahum’s prophecy come true after Jonah’s visit to them when the great city repented? In order to merit such definitive destruction this would mean that Nineveh fell back into its old evil ways and tried to conquer Judah.

Revelation 14:6–16: As we have observed before, Revelation oscillates between scenes of evil and destruction and scenes of God’s intervention and worship. This time it’s three angels making announcements. The first angel announces “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live  on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people.” (6) The day of judgement apparently has arrived and the angel shouts “in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (7)

A second angel arrives, announcing, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” (8)

A third angel, sounding very much like an Old Testament prophet, announces that all who have worshipped “the beast and its image, [will] receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger.” (9) And so on.

For me this is John telling the churches that one day in the future the persecuting Rome will fall and God’s kingdom will be triumphant. To a certain extent this is exactly what happened when the emperor Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of Rome around CE 330.

But in the meantime, John reminds his churches, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.” (12) He includes an additional encouragement for those who have been martyred for their Christian beliefs: “Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.” (13)

John looks up and sees “a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!” (14) This must be Jesus himself, who as we say in the Creed, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

This event appears to be at the end of history which still lies in our future as much as laid in in John’s.  The earth has reached its saturation point and the angel calls to the one sitting on the throne, “Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” (15) I’m guessing that all those who worshipped the beast rather than God are about to get their deserved comeuppance.

This section is definitely an echo of what we read in Nahum today when Nineveh was destroyed. As always, John uses his fertile imagination to make the scene orders of magnitude more dramatic than Nahum or any of the other OT prophets.

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.”

 

Psalm 142; Micah 3–5; Revelation 12:7–13:10

Psalm 142: This supplication psalm opens with a very specific superscription, “A David psalm, when he was in the cave” (1) hiding from Saul. The psalmist is writing in David’s words and there is a an almost panicked urgency here in David’s voice for God to hear and act, his distress amplified in the repeated lines and words:
With my voice I shout to the Lord,
with my voice I plead to the Lord.
I pour out my speech before Him,
my distress before before Him I tell,
when my spirit faints within me,
You, You know my path.” (2-4a)

David explains that he is trapped and there is no obvious way of escape with no one is at hand to rescue him. In fact it appears no one even knows he is missing, which are dire straits indeed:
On the path on which I walk
they have laid a trap for me.
Look, on the right and see—
there is no one who knows me.
Escape is gone for me,
no one inquires for me.”  (4b, 5)

David does not merely converse with God nor does he merely raise his voice. He shouts at the top of his lungs, reminding God that he has been faithful and implying that it is now God’s turn to be faithful:
I shouted to You, O Lord.
I said, You are my shelter
my lot in the land of the living.
Listen close to my song of prayer,
for I have sunk very low.” (6, 7a)

He reminds God that he is one against many and that his strength is fading. But if God rescues him, he will tell everyone that it is God who rescued him:
Save me from my pursuers,
for they are too strong for me.
Bring me out from the prison
to acclaim Your name.” (7b, 8a)

And when he is rescued, his friends and allies will gather around him and all will presumably worship God:
For the righteous will draw round me
when You requite me.” (8b)

This is a model prayer for a desperate situation. It also reminds us that it is perfectly OK to shout at God and implore him for rescue. God does not need polite reverent phrases. And as we know from David’s story, God rescued David and in fact even gave him a chance to kill the Saul who fell asleep in the same cave, But David followed God and did not kill his enemy. God’s rescue was sufficient for David. As it should be for us. And David proved his faithfulness to the point fo becoming Israel’s greatest king.

Micah 3–5: Micah’s screed against “the leaders of Jacob” and especially its erstwhile prophets in their exploitation of the people is relentless and downright grisly:
Should you not embrace justice,
you who hate good and love evil;
who tear the skin from my people
    and the flesh from their bones;
who eat my people’s flesh,
    strip off their skin
    and break their bones in pieces;
who chop them up like meat for the pan,
    like flesh for the pot?” (3:1-3)

Unlike his fellow prophets writing about the Northern Kingdom, Israel, the greatest sin does not appear to be idolatry, but the perversion of justice that will lead to the destruction of Judah:
Hear this, you leaders of Jacob,
    you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice
    and distort all that is right;
Therefore because of you,
    Zion will be plowed like a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble,
    the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.” (3:9, 12)

Nevertheless, like all godo prophets, Micah envisions a restored and righteous Israel “in the last days” where,
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
…we will walk in the name of the Lord
    our God for ever and ever. (4:2, 5
)

For us Christians, however, the highlight of this book is the promise of a Messiah who arises from Bethlehem:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.
He will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.” (5:2, 4)

It does not take a theologian to figure out who is referenced here, and as I recall the this prophecy is mentioned in several gospels. I’m especially struck by the line, “whose origins are from of old,/ from ancient times” which reads directly to John 1 as the Word that was with God at the beginning of time.

Revelation 12:7–13:10: With the appearance of the red dragon, war breaks out in heaven: “Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.” (12:7) The red dragon, now identified as Satan himself, “who leads the whole world astray. …was hurled to the earth,and his angels with him.” (12:9) Notice that Satan is far from dead and he now lives on earth.

In Revelation every disaster or battle is followed by an interlude of worship. This interlude takes the form of a voice from heaven that reads specifically, I think, to Rome’s persecution of Christians:
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
    who accuses them before our God day and night,
    has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
    by the blood of the Lamb
    and by the word of their testimony.” (12:10b, 11)

Meanwhile, back on earth, the dragon/Satan pursues “the woman who had given birth to the male child.” But in a scene right out of a fantasy novel (this book being the progenitor of the genre), the “woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness” (12:13) where she will rest for “a time, times and half a time” (I think that’s 3 1/2 years). At which Satan spews water and tries to drown her, but “the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.” (12:16)

Satan is pretty angry at this turn of events and goes off to “wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.” (12:17) This is one of those rare places where John makes it very clear that Christians will suffer persecution under the aegis of Rome, the Red Dragon, which as far as John is concerned, is Satan himself.

As if a red dragon pursuing a woman isn’t enough, John treats us to a great beast with “ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name” (13:1) arising out of the sea. The multi-headed beast is empowered by Satan and seems to me to be a clear reference to a succession Roman emperors—each one represented by a head—one of which has a “fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed.” (13:3)

This beast rules for 42 months—and therefore yet again this is one of those places where many Christians believe this is a forecast of the Great Tribulation yet to come at the end of history. In any event, the beast is quite successful in its war against Christians: “It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. ” (13:7) The beast rules the entire world and as we can imagine, it has been identified as various historical figures who sought to rule the world, the most recent being Hitler and during the Cold War, the Soviet Union.

This section ends with John citing a poem or song that reads like a tautology:
If anyone is to go into captivity,
    into captivity they will go.
If anyone is to be killed with the sword,
    with the sword they will be killed.” (13:10a)

In other words, dear Christians, accept your fate. What will happen will happen. And again in a rare moment of clarity John advises his readers, “This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.” (13:10b) Which is very similar to the patient endurance required to stumble through this book…

Psalm 141:5–10; Jonah 3,4; Micah 1,2; Revelation 11:15–12:6

Psalm 141:5–10: Parts of this reading are just plain weird as e.g.:
Let the righteous man strike me,
the faithful rebuke me.
Let no wicked man’s oil adorn my head,
for still my prayer is against their evils.” (5)

Huh? The best I can make of this is that our psalmist is fine with other righteous people doing him harm or saying bad things to him. But that’s OK because they’re righteous? On the other hand, he continues, even kind acts by evil people, such as anointing with oil, are completely unacceptable.

He goes on to heap curses upon evil people and yet he wants to be heard by them:
Let their leaders slip on a rock,
and let them hear my words which are sweet.
As when the earth is parted and split,
our bones are scattered in the mouth of Sheol.” (6, 7)

Sorry, but these verses just makes no sense to me. Alter informs us that the Hebrew for these verses is “badly mangled,” so I guess he came up with a best guess, which still doen’t make much sense.

The conclusion of the psalm is much more understandable if only for the conventional wishes for God to keep him safe from the wiles of his enemies:
For to You, O Lord, my eyes turn.
In You I take refuge. Expose not my life
Guard me from the trap they laid for me
and the snares of the wrongdoers.
May the wicked fall in their nets.
I alone shall goe on.” (7-10)

The last line is striking. I take it to mean that even if if all his erstwhile friends abandon him and therefore abandon God he will still remain faithful. Beyond that I can;t read much application into the final verses of this psalm.

Jonah 3,4: One has the feeling the Moravians were being quite leisurely about their assigned readings and then figured out they had a whole pile of minor prophets to cover in the waning days of this 2-year course of reading. So they are really rushing us through the final books.

Back on dry land, our chastised prophet does in fact go to Nineveh, which is an impressive place: “a very large city; it took three days to go through it.” (3:3) I’m sure Jonah, who was expecting great resistance from the inhabitants to his message about God, was more than a little shocked when “Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, [and] he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” (3:6) The king promptly decrees that “everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (3:8, 9) Indeed, God does spare Nineveh.

The lesson here is pretty obvious: God will often do the things we least expect. In practical terms it means we should boldly witness to others. Who knows? They may respond positively because the Holy Spirit has already prepared their hearts to hear about the Good News.

However, God’s compassion for Nineveh really angers Jonah. So much so that he’d rather die. God rather reasonably asks his prophet, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4:4) God then famously grows a bush to provide shade for Jonah, which he really likes. Then God allows a worm kill the bush, leaving Jonah in the blazing sun, causing him once again  to want to die.

God’s object lesson is simple: it wasn’t Jonah who grew and then killed the bush. And it wasn’t Jonah who softened the hearts of the king of Ninevah. We would do well to remember with Jonah that things such as repentance are God’s doing, not ours. There’s also a subtext here that God loves everyone, not just his chosen people. Our psalmist today certainly could have benefited from this object lesson…

Micah 1,2: Sounding very much like his colleagues Joel, Amos, and Obadiah, Micah issues a warning that God is angry at both Judah’s and Samaria’s idolatrous apostasy and punishment awaits:
Therefore I will make Samaria a heap of rubble,
    a place for planting vineyards.
All her idols will be broken to pieces;
    all her temple gifts will be burned with fire;
    I will destroy all her images.” (1:6, 7)

A long poem describing various details of God’s forthcoming punishment occupy the remainder of chapter 1. Things get more interesting in chapter 2 as man’s plans are contrasted with God’s plans. Micah starts out by announcing that most human plans are fundamentally evil:
Woe to those who plan iniquity,
    to those who plot evil on their beds!
At morning’s light they carry it out
    because it is in their power to do it.
They covet fields and seize them,
    and houses, and take them.
They defraud people of their homes,
    they rob them of their inheritance. (2:1, 2)

God, on the other hand, has a different plan for these conspirators:
I am planning disaster against this people,
    from which you cannot save yourselves.
You will no longer walk proudly,
    for it will be a time of calamity.” (2:3)

Nothing has changed, has it?. Powerful men still make plans to defraud and oppress. But God holds the trump cards. Which of course is the entire point of the book of Revelation. No matter how bad things get, God will one day rescue us. And that is what Micah tells us that God has plans for the remnant of Israel:
I will surely gather all of you, Jacob;
    I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel.” (2:12)

The chapter ends on a messianic note about God’s even greater plans, which we Christians can take as clear foretelling of the coming of Jesus Christ—highly appropriate during this Advent season:
The One who breaks open the way will go up before them;
    they will break through the gate and go out.
Their King will pass through before them,
    the Lord at their head.” (2:13)

Revelation 11:15–12:6: At last! The seventh trumpet sounds. And rather than dispensing further evidences of God’s wrath, it becomes the opening note of yet another worship scene: “there were loud voices in heaven, which said:

 “The kingdom of the world has become
    the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
    and he will reign for ever and ever.” (11:15, 16)

[That last line should sound familiar to Handel fans.] The 24 elders join in worship, also singing:
We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
 the One who is and who was,
because you have taken your great power

and have begun to reign.” (17)

The chapter concludes with an outright theophany that shakes the earth: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm.” (11:19)

But worship quickly ends and we encounter two of John’s more potent symbols:

  • A pregnant woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head,” (12:1) and who is about to give birth.
  • An “an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads.” (12:3)

The woman gives birth “to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” (12:5a) The dragon is poised to snatch the child as soon as it is born.  But before that can happen, “her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.” (12:5b)

Up to this point the symbolism seems straightforward. The woman is Mary, who is about to give birth to Jesus. But there’s some difficulty with that interpretation: in John’s telling, Jesus ascends to heaven as a baby rather than a 33-year old. Logic is certainly not John’s strong suit… The red dragon seems to be a clear reference to either the Jewish authorities who wanted Jesus dead, the Roman army, or both.

However, all this neat theorizing seems to come to naught with the last verse of today’s reading: “The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.” (12:6) So the woman and child seem suddenly to be something else. Perhaps the 12 stars represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the wilderness is a reference to the wilderness journey of Israel. In addition, we have another reference to what many have taken to be the 3 1/2 year long Great Tribulation.  No wonder everyone’s confused about this book—and anyone who claims not to be confused is just plain wrong.

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

Psalm 141:1–4: This David psalm deals with the righteous comportment of a man of God when he is tempted by evil. The stanza opens with a pretty standard request for God to listen to the psalmist, noting along the way that he is in an attitude of reverent prayer. One detects a scintilla of impatience as he repeats himself asking God to hear him::
O Lord, I call You. Hasten to me.
Hearken to my voice when I call You.
May my prayer stand as incense before You,
my uplifted hands as the evening offering.” (1, 2)

I like the image of prayer as an incense offering—and if I thought about that image when I’m praying I think my prayers would have a greater attitude of reverence.

Our psalmist turns to the matter of the ever-present temptation to speak cruelly—and I think this would include cutting sarcasm, which is alas one of my more creative skills. So, I need to pray what our psalmist prays here:
Place, O Lord, a watch on my mouth,
a guard at the door of my lips.
Incline not my heart to an evil word
to plot wicked acts with wrongdoing men,
and let me not feat on their delicacies.” (3, 4)

The clear point is that we should pray to God for something as simple as “guarding our words.” These verses remind us that words have tremendous power for good and more easily, for evil. There’s an implied slippery slope here: evil words lead easily to wicked acts “with wrongdoing men.” In other words, it’s tempting and easy to join the whining, noisy crowd—which is certainly what Facebook and Twitter political threads are all about. We need to pray for God not only to guard our lips but also our posts.

Obadiah 1: Poor Obadiah. His short little book doesn’t even rate a day’s reading to itself. Although upon reading it we probably can be grateful Obadiah didn’t write more.  Like Revelation John, Obadiah has a vision. It’s all about the nation of Edom whose pride tells them that they should go to war against Israel. Not a good idea, Obadiah tells them, speaking, as prophets always do, in God’s voice:
I will surely make you least among the nations;
    you shall be utterly despised.
Your proud heart has deceived you,
    you that live in the clefts of the rock,
    whose dwelling is in the heights.” (2, 3)

History demonstrates again and again that haughty pride brings down empires. One thinks about our own American empire when Obadiah declares:
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
    though your nest is set among the stars,
    from there I will bring you down,
says the Lord.” (4)

The image of the soaring eagle crashing to earth seems symbolically apropos.

Obadiah goes on to tell Edom that it will be utterly destroyed because of its aggression:
For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob [Israel],
    shame shall cover you,
    and you shall be cut off forever.” (10)

And as always, the problem is pride and its sister, gloating:
But you should not have gloated over your brother
    on the day of his misfortune;
you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah
    on the day of their ruin;” (12)

Obadiah reminds Edom that even though it will decimated Israel will still stand:
But on Mount Zion there shall be those that escape,
    and it shall be holy;
and the house of Jacob shall take possession of those who dispossessed them.” (17)

As for Edom’s fate, “there shall be no survivor of the house of Esau.” (18) And here we are more than 2500 years later. Israel exists. Edom is but a dusty echo in an obscure prophet’s writings.

Jonah 1,2: We do not need to recount the story here. God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, who immediately sets off in the opposite direction by boat. The storm comes and the sailors cast lots to find out that Jonah is the storm-causing culprit. Jonah offers to be thrown overboard and the sailors happily comply. The “large fish” swallows Jonah, where he spends three happless days.

What they didn’t emphasize to me in Sunday school is that “Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish.” (2:1) It’s a beautiful prayer and Jonah
called to the Lord out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.
…As my life was ebbing away,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.” (2:2, 7)

And with his repentance comes Jonah’s salvation: “Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.” (2:10)

Clearly (to me anyway), while there was doubtless a real Jonah, the story of the fish is highly symbolic. That the Jonah story speaks of being entombed in a living version of Sheol for three days is of course a precursor to Jesus’ three days in the tomb. And as the Jonah fish story ends with his salvation, we are reminded that it is Jesus’ resurrection that has brought us salvation.

The Jonah story is not over—his salvation is merely the beginning of his story. As our salvation is merely the beginning of ours. The big question is: what do we then do with our salvation?

Revelation 11:1–14: We encounter an echo of Ezekiel’s over-long description of measuring the dimensions of the temple here as John is handed a “measuring staff” and told, Come and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there,but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months.” (1, 2) I take this as a signal from John that the churches may have to worship in secret while Rome persecutes the church f0r 3 1/2 years. Those who think that the events in Revelation are yet to come, interpret this period as the first half of the Great Tribulation, which lasts 7 years.

Two prophets are appointed by God with “authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth.” (3)

These prophets, symbolized by two olive trees and two lampstands, have the power to create drought and famine and can “strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.” (6) After this period “the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them,” (7) Their bodies remain unburied in “great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” Which means it has to be Jerusalem. Their deaths cause great rejoicing “and the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth.” (10) Which when you think about it is pretty much what Christmas in the broader culture has become: self-centeredness and exchanging gifts.

But then the dead prophets are resuscitated after 3 1/2 days and told to “Come up here” and return to heaven At that point a great earthquake occurs and “a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.” (13)

OK, I give up. I cannot untangle this story, but one thing is clear: the earth is a battleground between the forces of good and evil. and for John: between Rome and the church.

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

Psalm 140:7–14: Our psalmist continues his supplication to God—”Hearken, O Lord, to the sounds of my pleas” (7)—whom he addresses as “Lord, Master, my rescuing strength.”(8). Then he gets down to business with the specifics of his plea regarding the conspirator:
Do not grant, O Lord, the desires of the wicked,
do not fulfill his devising.” (9)

OK, so far not too extreme. He just wants the conspiracy to fail, which is eminently understandable. But then he prays for basically for their plot to explode in their faces and for it to do to them what they have planned against him:
May the mischief of their own lips
cover the heads of those who come round me.” (10)

Then it gets personal:
May He [God] rain coals of fire upon them,
make them fall into ravines, never to rise.
May no slanderer stand firm in the land,
may the violent evil man be trapped in pitfalls.” (11, 12)

One has to admit that falling off a cliff is a pretty original way to want to see one’s enemies perish. The psalm concludes with the assurance that God will act—and we learn that the psalmist considers himself “lowly” and “needy,” which kind of puts paid my earlier theory that the psalmist was speaking for David:
I know that the Lord will take up
the cause of the lowly, the case of the needy.” (13)

Once again we are confronted with a psalm full of wishes for bad things to happen to one’s enemies—wishes that Jesus has cancelled when he tells us to love our enemies. Nevertheless, when confronted by a conspiring enemy, I think we will still entertain similar thoughts to what our psalmist has expressed—but we also know God will probably not fulfill our wishes for bad things to happen to our enemies.

Amos 8,9: At this point, God’s anger against Israel is palpable:
The end has come upon my people Israel;
    I will never again pass them by.
The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,”
says the Lord God;
“the dead bodies shall be many,
    cast out in every place. Be silent!” (8:2, 3)

The reasons for God’s anger are numerous, but here it focuses on how the poor and needy have been cheated by greedy merchants:
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
    and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals,
    and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” (8:5, 6)

Clearly, some things never change. Amos then describes a fruitless seeking for spiritual sustenance that sounds very much like today:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
    when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
    but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
    and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
    but they shall not find it.” (8:11, 12)

I wonder of the time has come here in America that like Israel we are enduring a famine “of hearing the words of the Lord?” With the current scandals around men using their power and prestige to intimidate and oppress women, we see that having set aside Judeo-Christian values to pursue hedonistic pleasure has resulted in a famine of morality. And we also see people around us seeking spiritual sustenance from places like the ersatz theology of the Oprah Winfrey’s of the land. But as Amos states, “they shall not find it.” There is only one place where the word of the Lord can be found and that is in the Word of Jesus Christ.

The first half of chapter 9 is a dramatic description of the destruction of Israel, which of course came to pass:
I saw the Lord standing besidethe altar, and he said:
Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake,
    and shatter them on the heads of all the people;
and those who are left I will kill with the sword;
    not one of them shall flee away,
    not one of them shall escape.” (9:1)

Amos goes on to describe how Israel will seek to hide from God’s wrath and all efforts will be of no avail. Even “though they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, /  there I will command the sea-serpent, and it shall bite them.” (9:3)

But as always, God promises that not all of Israel will be destroyed:
The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom,
    and I will destroy it from the face of the earth
    —except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,
says the Lord.” (9:8)

The chapter ends with God’s promise to restore David’s kingdom, presumably at the end of history:
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
    and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
…I will plant them upon their land,
    and they shall never again be plucked up
    out of the land that I have given them,
says the Lord your God.” (9:14, 15)

As we have observed elsewhere, God seems almost tormented, swinging between a plan to destroy utterly and a plan for rescue. This is a quality of God that we do not see once Jesus has come into the world. It seems that Jesus’ incarnation not only saves us, but in some inexplicable way it also brought equanimity to God himself.

Revelation 10: Things seem to calm down a bit as John sees “another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire.” (1) This angel is holding a “little scroll” and he shouts, causing seven peals of thunder. John was “was about to write, but [he] heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.” (4) So, we don’t know what the meaning of the thunders is, which I have to admit, doesn’t particularly bother me.

If we’ve been paying attention we know that so far only six trumpets have been sounded and we await the seventh. The seventh trumpet holds a tantalizing promise: “in the days when the seventh angel is to blow his trumpet, the mystery of God will be fulfilled, as he announced to his servants[a] the prophets.” (7)

But no trumpet yet. Instead, John tells us he is instructed by the voice from heaven to take the little scroll out of the angel’s hand and to eat it. Which he does: “So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.” (10)

Many fruitless efforts have been made to interpret what eating the scroll means. My own take is that it is a symbol of John receiving the authority to write additional prophecies, and he will spend the second half of the book describing to us. As the scroll tasted sweet but created a sour stomach, I’m pretty sure it means that there is both good news and bad news to come.

A random note on all the sevens: seven seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders, etc. I think the sevens here in Revelation mirror the seven days of creation described in Genesis. Only that  these sevens describe God’s “uncreation,” if you will. In any event, I like the symmetry.

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

Psalm 140:1–6: This David psalm of supplication has a certain formulaic quality about it and it’s at a level of abstraction that does not really reveal much about the psalmist nor the precise nature of the threats he faces. The same goes for his enemies who are violent, plot evil, are troublemakers, and speak lies. Nevertheless there’s some vivid imagery and similes:
Free me, Lord, from evil folk,
from a violent man preserve me.
Who plot evil in their heart,
each day stir up battles.
They sharpen their tongue like a serpent,
venom of spiders beneath their lip.” (2-4)

Frankly, this description could apply to any number of contemporary politicians and cable news hosts.

Having described his plight, our psalmist turns to God asking for protection, explaining that he is apparently the object of a conspiracy. While we can be pretty sure that David himself did not write this psalm, perhaps our psalmist is referring to a specific political plot by some court official or military leader that was directed against the king. The metaphor of a net covering a trap in the woods is particularly striking_and a hazard that would have been well known to the shepherd who became Israel’s greatest king:

Guard me, Lord, from the wicked man’s hands,
from a violent man preserve me,
who plots to trip up my steps.
The haughty laid down a trap for me,
and with cord spread out a net.
Alongside the path they set snares for me.

This psalm is certainly proof that conspiracies are as old as humankind and as contemporary as the political scheming we see around us daily.

Amos 6,7: In what could be a description of modern American culture, Amos chastises self indulgence and the consequent unawareness that doom awaits in the very near future. Nor is it impossible to see Amos’s words as being directed against the infamous “1%” of his time—and applicable to ours:
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
    and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
    and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
    and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
    and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
    but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
    and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.” (6:4-7)

The sin of these indolent folks is always the same: pride that has corrupted justice, and as always, to their personal advantage:
Do horses run on rocks?
    Does one plow the sea with oxen?
But you have turned justice into poison
    and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood—
you who rejoice in Lo-debar,
    who say, “Have we not by our own strength
    taken Karnaim  for ourselves? (6:12, 13)

Their reckoning comes in the next chapter—and where we can see some of John’s source material for Revelation. Being John of course, his version is far more embellished than Amos’s rather straightforward descriptions.

First, there are locusts: “This is what the Lord God showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings).” (7:1) Then there is fire: “This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord God was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land.” (7:4)

God’s third object lesson is one we don’t see in Revelation: “This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.” (7:7a) God goes on to tell Amos,
See, I am setting a plumb line
    in the midst of my people Israel;
    I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
    and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
    and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” (7:7b, 8)

So, why a plumb line metaphor? I think the answer is pretty obvious, God is measuring Israel against his Covenantal standard and Israel is severely out of plumb. Hence God’s threat to destroy the nation.

We suddenly encounter narrative rather than prophecy. It seems that a certain Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, complains about Amos to King Jeroboam of Israel, accusing him of conspiracy because of his prophecy that Jeroboam will die. Amaziah advises Amos to “flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there.” (7:12)

But Amos denies that he’s a prophet, but is  only “a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,” chosen by God seemingly at random to go prophesy to Israel. Then, Amos uncorks a devastating prophecy about Amaziah himself:
Therefore thus says the Lord:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
    and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
    and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
    and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’” (7:17)

Unfortunately, Amaziah’s reply is not recorded. But then again, perhaps he was left speechless. I know I would be… Give Amos credit where it’s due: he certainly spoke truth to power.

Revelation 9:12–21: As if it were not already obvious, John interrupts his narrative to tell of “The first woe has passed. There are still two woes to come.” (12) Oh, good. I can hardly wait…

The sixth trumpet blast releases four bound angels, who we assume are agents of Satan, “who had been held ready for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, to kill a third of humankind. ” (15) The means of all this destruction is an army of 200 million. John, who seems rather obsessed by horses, doubtless because he had seen the Roman cavalry, describes the horses and riders of this army in grotesque detail: “the riders wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur; the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths.” (17)

The creative contrast of sapphire to sulphur is one of those places where we can only shake our heads in wonder at the details of John’s apocalyptic vision. The OT prophets Joel and Amos look absolutely boring by comparison.

The army is impressive, but it’s the horses that capture John’s imagination as the true agents of destruction: “For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they inflict harm.” (19) Perhaps John had witnessed a battle, perhaps even Titus’s conquest of Jerusalem that had pitted the power of the Roman cavalry against the hapless, unarmed civilian population.

Then, in another echo of the OT prophets, John observes that the destruction of a third of humankind apparently did not phase those who remained: “The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk.” (20)

At first read this may seem incredible. But then all we need to do is think about the present: how we go on with our quotidian lives even as other people in far off nations are the victims horrors almost beyond imagining.  John is simply describing immutable human nature.