Archives for December 2017

Psalm 139:17–24; Amos 5; Revelation 9:1–11

Psalm 139:17–24: Our poet reflects on God’s own thoughts, and as he considers God’s omnipresence, realizes that they are far too numerous to count:
As for me, how weighty are Your thoughts, O God,
how numerous their sum.
Should I count them, they would be more than the sand.
I awake, and am still with You.” (17, 18)

I confess I have rarely reflect on what God may be thinking, but as we read in the OT prophets his thoughts are many and more interestingly, like our own thoughts, they are often conflicted. As we are reading in Joel and Amos, his thoughts recorded by the prophets are oscillating between Israel’s deserved punishment and its rescue  because they are his people.

The tone of the psalm shifts from this boundless reflection on God’s creative magnificence to an almost wistful supplication, as he reflects on how much better the world would be if it were purged of evil people:
Would You but slay the wicked, God—
O men if blood, turn away from me!— ” (19)

What is especially painful for him is that they are hypocrites who pretend to love God while their thoughts and actions are exactly the opposite:
Who say Your name to scheme,
Your enemies falsely swear.
Why, those who hate You, Lord, I hate,
and those against You I despise.
With utter hatred I do hate them,
they become my enemies.” (20-22)

What’s unique here is that unlike other psalms of supplication the poet’s enmity is directed against those who hate God, not those who necessarily hate the psalmist. It is their disrespect and plotting against God that cause the poet to cry out for God to destroy them. I know that when I encounter statements that are so blatantly hostile to God or even the idea of God that a certain hatred wells up in my own heart. Yes, I know Jesus has called us to love our enemies, but as our poet observes here, I think it’s even more difficult to love those who clearly hate God.

This wonderful psalm ends on the famous verse asking God to know both our heart and mind to detect and (I presume) root out any contrary feelings or thoughts about God’s presence and his power:
Search me, God, and know my heart,
probe me and know my mind.
And see if a vexing way be in me,
and lead me on the eternal way.” (23, 24)

The question I have to ask is, would I allow God to probe my deepest feelings and innermost thoughts? Or would I prefer to keep them hidden from him? Of course as this psalm makes eminently clear, God’s presence is inescapable. So we would do well to join the psalmist and welcome God into our heart and mind.

Amos 5: This chapter is devoted to a poetic lamentation for Israel’s manifold sins, and it is suffused with hopelessness:
Fallen, no more to rise,
    is maiden Israel;
forsaken on her land,
    with no one to raise her up.” (2)

Amos forces us to notice that Israel faces a stark choice:
Seek the Lord and live,
    or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
    and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.” (6)

God asks that Israel do but one thing:
Hate evil and love good,
    and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
    will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” (15)

It’s the same choice for us today isn’t it? Sure we can say we hate evil and love good. But God is asking us to put that love for good into action and to establish justice—and although it’s not overtly stated here, that’s to establish justice for the poor and oppressed. I’m good at saying nice things and professing love, but my actions too rarely back up my words.

Amos turns his attention to those around him who wish for the end of history, the Day of the Lord, telling them it is not going to be what they expect using some pretty dramatic imagery:
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
    Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
     as if someone fled from a lion,
    and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
    and was bitten by a snake.” (18, 19)

Lots of people today think we are at the end of history. But like Israel then, the world has pretty much rejected God. As Jesus makes clear in his Olivet discourse, there will be judgement at the end of history and for most people it will not be a pretty sight.

The chapter ends on a depressing note: “ therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.” (27) Which of course is exactly what happened. Gotta love these prophets!

Revelation 9:1–11: With the blast of the fifth trumpet we move from plausible explanations of what the first four trumpets represent to even more imaginative imagery which is difficult to square with natural phenomena. A star falls from heaven to earth, which readers of Milton’s Paradise Lost (and a lot of conservative moderns) know to be a fallen angel, although as we find out at the end of the reading, is not Satan. This fallen angel “opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace…Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth.” (2, 3)

These locusts with scorpion tails are instructed not to damage the earth (which is somewhat ironic since the first four trumpets have already done a pretty good job of that). Rather they are to torture “those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (4) for five months. (And I’m sure people are trying to figure out the symbolism of five months since ‘5’ is not a popular number in Biblical numerology.) The torture will result only in unendurable agony but not death for those afflicted.

Never content to leave well enough alone when it comes to vivid details, John describes  “locusts [who] were like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; they had scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle.” (7, 8)  It seems clear to me that the locusts are John’s idea of an even greater, darker force than Rome and the torturees are Roman military officials who are persecuting Christians. John is clearly enjoying describing the agonizing payback they will receive.

Notice, too, this locust/scorpion army arises from the depths of the earth, not from heaven, so it is clearly a greater force of evil than even the Roman evil. At the end of this fun description John tells us that the “king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek he is called Apollyon.” (11) In John’s cosmology then, there is Apollyon that is incharge of awfulness under the earth. I’m guessing that in the hierarchy of evil Apollyon reports to Satan.

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

Psalm 139:13–16: Our psalmist moves to perhaps the most remarkable section of this psalm in describing God’s creative act of bringing a child into being within its mother’s womb:
For You created my innermost parts,
wove me in my mother’s womb.” (13)

The verb, ‘wove,’ is exactly the right metaphor for how we develop from a few cells into a fully-formed human being ready to face the world. Moreover, our psalmist realizes that each of is a distinct and unique individual that emerges fro the womb an independent being:
I acclaim You, for awesomely I am set apart,
wondrous are Your acts
and my being deeply knows it.” (14)

Even though we have vastly more knowledge than the psalmist of exactly how a baby comes into existence, the act of gestation is truly wondrous. We are not evolutionary accidents but are the result of God’s great and wonderful design. He truly does know our every cell on down to the DNA that resides in every cell within us.

But for me the greatest part of this verse is that “my being deeply knows it.” I see this as our innate quest to seek and know God. Even the most die-hard God-denier or atheist cannot fully extinguish the sense that there is something greater—call it God—that is within the essence of our being that longs for a transcendence that only a relationship with God can provide.

Picking up on the theme of God’s omnipresence, the psalmist acknowledges that God was present even in the womb:
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in a secret place,
knitted un the utmost depths.”

This is all the more reason to realize that the creation of human life by two human beings and the carrying of a child by its mother is at its core a sacred act—a reality that is ended by “choice” at an enormous physical, psychological, and spiritual cost to the mother and that God’s greatest creative act—has been ruined by human intervention.

The next verse is a remarkable description of exactly how we come into being:
My unformed shape Your eyes did see,
and in Your book all was written down.
The days were fashioned,
not one of them did lack.” (16a)

For me, ‘Your book’ is the poetic anticipation of what we would discover centuries later to be DNA. Fetal development is a continuous process across the 9-month term. Each day of a mother’s pregnancy encompasses a specific area of growth of the child within her and the process proceeds according to a precise genetic plan (“The days were fashioned /no one of them did lack”). The unintentional foreknowledge expressed by our psalmist of how God has designed us and how God brings us to life is truly awe-inspiring.

Amos 3,4: Like the true prophet he is, Amos does not mince words as he communicates God’s anger: “Hear this word, people of Israel, the word the Lord has spoken against you—against the whole family I brought up out of Egypt.” (3:1)

A long poetic prophecy follows which is suffused with the tension of a God who will punish:
Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“An enemy will overrun your land,
    pull down your strongholds
    and plunder your fortresses.” (3:11)

This is immediately contrasted with the God will rescue, expressed in a metaphor of shepherd rescuing only a few remains of a sheep devoured by a lion, and then in the startling metaphor of  Israel  as furniture from which only a remnant will be saved:
This is what the Lord says:

“As a shepherd rescues from the lion’s mouth
    only two leg bones or a piece of an ear,
so will the Israelites living in Samaria be rescued,
    with only the head of a bed
    and a piece of fabric from a couch.” (3:12)

In the next chapter Amos is especially incensed at idle women and his words to them would probably be legally actionable in today’s fraught political environment. As usual their greater sin is that the needy and poor are oppressed by them:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria,
    you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy
    and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!” (4:1)

He forecasts an especially gruesome punishment for them:
The Sovereign Lord has sworn by his holiness:
    “The time will surely come
when you will be taken away with hooks,
    the last of you with fishhooks. (4:2)

And he continues expressing God’s anger at Israel’s hypocrisy and describes God’s futile efforts to get them to repent, as e.g:
I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps,
    yet you have not returned to me,”
declares the Lord.” (4:10)

Even when he rescues them, the people do not repent:
You were like a burning stick snatched from the fire,
    yet you have not returned to me,”
declares the Lord.” (4:11)

Perhaps more than any other prophet Amos clearly communicates a frustrated God:
Therefore this is what I will do to you, Israel,
    and because I will do this to you, Israel,
    prepare to meet your God.” (4:12)

I wonder how frequently my words and actions frustrate the God who despite it all still loves me.

Revelation 8: When I was in college I saw Igmar Bergman’s film, “The Seventh Seal” a number of times. I’ve always been fascinated by the image of the knight playing chess with death. But I digress…

The lamb opens the seventh seal and rather than all health breaking loose as with the first six seals, “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” (8:1) During this ominous silence seven trumpets are handed to seven angels. But before those trumpets sound there is yet another worship interlude as another angel, this one holding a golden censer, is “given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne.” (3) After prayers rise to God, the angel throws the censer to earth and all natural hell breaks loose: “ there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” (5)

In the midst of these natural cataclysms, the trumpets sound one by one.

The first trumpet represents destruction of nature by fire (not dissimilar to what’s happening in California this morning as I write): “a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.” (7)

The second trumpet appears to be a volcanic eruption, something that’s happening right now in Bali: “something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea.” (8) This appears to cause  some sort of red algae growth in the sea that chokes off aquatic life. It is so deadly that even ships are destroyed.

The third trumpet blows and a meteorite falls to earth, causing enormous destruction: “a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water.” (10) John gives it the name “Wormwood” since it poisons water supplied. That name certainly inspired CS Lewis when he wrote “The Screwtape Letters,” as that is the name he gave to the junior devil to whom the letters are directed.

The fourth trumpet brings on what appears to be a simultaneous solar and lunar eclipse: “a third of the day was kept from shining, and likewise the night.” (12) Inasmuch as hurricanes are unknown in the Mediterranean, I’m sure that’s the only reason John didn’t describe one. But all the other events described here are doubtless based on actual events that probably occurred at certain points during John’s lifetime.Of course as an apocalyptic writer, he exaggerates for effect as dramatic indicators of the end of history.

All of these awful events appear to destroy only a third of the earth. I presume John uses this fraction to indicate that the earth still survives the events so that some more awful things can happen in subsequent chapters of this book.

The trumpet blasts halt and a talking eagle appears, announcing “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!” (13)

I’m sure more drama is about to ensue…



Psalm 139:7–12; Amos 1,2; Revelation 7:9–17

Psalm 139:7–12: Our psalmist’s imagination soars as he reflects on God’s omnipresence. In verse 7 he asks rhetorically if there is any place where God is not already there—or if there is any possible place God would try to escape from:
Where can I go from Your spirit,
and where from before You flee?” (7)

The answer is obvious as he tries to imagine himself flying to the very ends of the earth, if not the universe—and even to the Jewish place of death:
If I soar to the heavens You are there,
if I bed down in Sheol—there You are.
If I take wing with the dawn,
if I dwell at the ends of the sea,
there, too, Your hand leads me,
and Your right hand seizes me.” (8-10)

The key though here is that not only is God present, he is actively part of our lives. He is the God who leads us through our lives, including even to the place of death. And he is the rescuing God no matter in what straits we might find ourselves.

Our psalmist attempts a kind of thought experiment, trying to envision a place of opposites where darkness is a kind of perverse light as he wonders if some kind of eternal night could exist in God’s all-encompassing presence:
Should I say, ‘Yes, darkness will swathe me,
and the night will be light for me,
Darkness itself will not darken for You,
and the night will light up like the day.” (11, 12)

In short, wherever God is, there is light. I’m sure jesus had these verses in mind when he said, “I am the light of the world.” Of course it’s difficult to hide from a God who is the very definition of light. which is what Peter discovered that fateful night when he denied Jesus in the darkness and dawn’s rooster revealed God’s light and what he had done. Despite our attempts to escape God, even to the point of denying him, these verses remind us that God is inescapable.

Amos 1,2: The editors assembling the Old Testament provide very precise details about who Amos was and when he prophesied: “The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash[a] was king of Israel.” (1:1) Well, it certainly proves that God chooses his prophet from unlikely places—and after David here is another shepherd.

As usual the prophet speaks in God’s voice—and God is not speaking quietly:
The Lord roars from Zion
    and thunders from Jerusalem;” (1:2)

Amos describes the punishments that will rain down on those neighboring tribes and nations that have attacked Israel, which include Damascus, the king of the Valley of Aven; Gaza, the king of Ashdod, and Moab:
Moab will go down in great tumult
    amid war cries and the blast of the trumpet.
I will destroy her ruler
    and kill all her officials with him,” (2:2, 3)

But wait a minute. Not just Israel’s neighbors will be punished. Judah and Israel are included in this ominous list. Their sins are the usual one:
For three sins of Judah,
    even for four, I will not relent.
Because they have rejected the law of the Lord
    and have not kept his decrees” (2:4)

And the northern kingdom of Israel as well:
For three sins of Israel,
    even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals.” (2:6)

Israel’s sins are especially egregious as we read a catalog of wrongdoing that begins (as it does so often) with injustice against the poor:
They trample on the heads of the poor
    as on the dust of the ground
    and deny justice to the oppressed.” (2:7)

Other sins include incest (7b) and misuse of property (8) as well as Israel’s rejection of both Nazarites and prophets:
But you made the Nazarites drink wine
    and commanded the prophets not to prophesy.” (2:12)

Amos tells us that all this has made God fairly angry and there will be consequences that sound pretty much like the final defeat of Israel’s army at the hands of the Assyrians.
 The swift will not escape,
    the strong will not muster their strength,
    and the warrior will not save his life.
The archer will not stand his ground,
    the fleet-footed soldier will not get away,
    and the horseman will not save his life.
Even the bravest warriors
    will flee naked on that day,”
declares the Lord.” (2:13-16)

The moral here: if you;re a Gentile, do not get on the wrong side of God by attacking his people. If you’re Judah and Israel, do not disobey his clear commands.

Revelation 7:9–17: John’s vision is an echo—and a fulfillment—of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on that fateful Palm Sunday.  We meet the people who have been saved: there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (9, 10)

John must have been a frustrated hymn writer because he keeps inserting worship scenes with lyrics:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!” (12)

One of the 24 elders asks John if he knows who these people are and then tells John, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (14) Which I interpret as the martyrs executed by the Romans when John was writing.

More conservative churches assert this great multitude is the sum total of Christians saved down through the ages and who have survived the Great Tribulation which occurs at the end of history. Whether martyrs past or martyrs down through history, they engage in great underlying theme of this book: worship.  And in this worship song lies the thrilling promise for all of us:
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (17)

In Jesus we have the greatest of all promises: we will rest beside the springs of living water, which is Jesus himself—and sorrow will finally be banished.

Psalm 139:1–6; Joel 2:15–3:21; Revelation 6:9–7:8

Psalm 139:1–6: This truly profound and introspective psalm reflects on how God knows our innermost thoughts and how our own knowledge—no matter how vast we may think it is—is ultimately limited. There are things we will never understand. (And I’m glad that the Moravians are not going to rush us through it.)

As Jesus points out some centuries after the psalmist about God knowing how many hairs are on our head, our psalmist realizes that God’s knowledge about our being is essentially infinite. After all, God is the Creator and we are the created:
Lord, You searched me and You know,
It is You Who know when I sit and I rise,
You fathom my thoughts from afar.” (1, 2)

In fact, God knows more about us than anyone else does—including ourselves. We may think we have self-knowledge, but it is a mere scintilla of what God knows about us:
My path and my lair You winnow,
and with all my ways are familiar.
For there is no word on my tongue
but that You, Lord, wholly know it.” (3,4)

Now there’s something to reflect on: God knows what we are going to say and he knows when we’ve said it—no matter how stupid, or worse, no matter how cruel. The psalms deal again and again with how words can be used as a weapon against others. And we certainly know that from personal experience. If I but thought about the fact that God knows what I’m going to say before I say it, I think my words to others—especially those whom I love—would be much kinder and gentler.

Our psalmist notes the reason God knows everything about about us. We are his creatures:
From behind and in front You shaped me,
and You set Your palm upon me.” (5)

We are truly created imago deo; God has pressed his palm into our human clay. The question is, will I reflect the image of God or my own self-centeredness?

Knowledge is too wondrous for me,
high above—I cannot attain it.” (6)

And as created beings, we are limited. We will never know what God knows—or really who God is. We can see and feel him only from our very limited perspective. And we will never know everything, despite our best efforts. God has given us the intelligence to understand much about our world—from DNA up to the cosmos. But we will never fully comprehend God despite our unceasing efforts. Which is probably why so many people would rather reject the idea of God altogether.

Joel 2:15–3:21: Joel encourages the priests to cry to God:
Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord.
    Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn,
    a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
    ‘Where is their God?’” (2:17)

And God answers with a promise of restoration:
I am sending you grain, new wine and olive oil,
    enough to satisfy you fully;
never again will I make you
    an object of scorn to the nations.” (2:19)

But we get the feeling that this will really not happen until the Day of the Lord, i.e., the end of history, as Joel, speaking in God’s voice, proclaims in the most famous lines from this book:
 I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (2:28, 29)

In short, the Holy Spirit will come to everyone in Israel.

Joel then gives us an apocalyptic vision, which as we shall see, John lifted and put in Revelation:
The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” (2:31)

Continuing this apocalyptic thread—and another theme that John picks up in Revelation— is how all nations will be judged. Only here it is how these nations treated Israel, while John expands his view to include those who oppressed Christians:
There I will put them on trial
    for what they did to my inheritance, my people Israel,
because they scattered my people among the nations
    and divided up my land.” (3:3)

War will come and Joel reverses Isaiah’s famous saying, [“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isa 2:4)] as he writes that God will command the people to take up arms:
Beat your plowshares into swords
    and your pruning hooks into spears.” (3:10)

In the end, Israel will win the battle and God will mete out his vengeance on those who oppressed Israel:
Then you will know that I, the Lord your God,
    dwell in Zion, my holy hill.
Jerusalem will be holy;
    never again will foreigners invade her.

Judah will be inhabited forever
    and Jerusalem through all generations.
Shall I leave their innocent blood unavenged?
    No, I will not.”  (3:17, 20, 21)

If we ever needed an example of prophetic proclamation designed to encourage the people, Joel is certainly our guy.

Revelation 6:9–7:8: The slain lamb opens the fifth seal and John sees “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” (6:9) As in Joel, they ask for vengeance, but are “told to wait a little longer” until more martyrs are “killed just as they had been.” (6:11) To me, this verse is a clear indication that John was at once trying encourage the persecuted churches, but as he made clear earlier, more persecution was on the horizon.

The sixth seal is opened and John vividly describes a natural disaster that certainly seems like an earthquake: “the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig treewhen shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (6:13, 14) This event creates widespread panic and “the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.” (6:15) as the chapter ends on this grim note. I think this is a clear reference to the Roman empire and that natural forces would prove even greater than its apparent might. Just like today: we think we have mastery over nature until a hurricane or an earthquake wreaks destruction.

In the next chapter John turns his attention to what I take to be the restoration of Israel similar to what Joel has promised—only with even more tantalizing and controversial details. An angel announces that further earthly destruction is on hold “until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” (7:3) John then gives us a list that enumerates that each of the 12 tribes of Israel will see 12,000 people “sealed,” totalling 144,000.

I think too many people have read way too much into these numbers—most notably the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that the first 144,000 JW believers are the ones who go to heaven. They then had to come up with a creative explanation of what happens to the people not in that original 144K cohort as they racked up more believers in their peculiar theology. This is an example of the trouble you get into when you take these numbers in revelation 9and elsewhere in the Bible) too literally. For me, the 12 x 12,000 is simply a symbol of a large and perfect (notice the square root) number that is God-inspired. In short, John is telling us, Israel will be restored at the end of history. Which is exactly what Joel and others have promised too.

Psalm 138:6–8; Joel 1:1–2:14; Revelation 5:11–6:8

Psalm 138:6–8: Our psalmist reminds us that even though God may be infinitely greater than we and even though he may seem far away, he knows our entire being—our thoughts, our actions, our words, our relationships. And this includes “the lofty”—which I take to be those who presume to see themselves greater than God, or those who think there is no God and that they mistakenly think they can get away with anything they desire:
For high is the Lord yet the lowly He sees,
and the lofty, from a distance, He knows.” (6)

In a verse that’s not quite as poetic, but highly reminiscent of Psalm 23, our psalmist speaks of God’s all-encompassing protection and more crucially, that he rescues from the wiles of enemies out to ruin him:
Though I walk in the midst of straits,
You give me life in spite of my enemies’ wrath.
You stretch out Your hand,
and Your right hand rescues me.” (7)

What is true for the psalmist is equally true for us. Since God knows our entire being, he is fully aware of those who would do us harm. God is truly our Great Protector.

The final verse again reminds us of God’s ineffable faithfulness. The last line is a reminder that we are indeed God’s creatures—his handiwork—and we will never be abandoned by the God who created us:
“The Lord will requite me.
O Lord, Your kindness is forever.
Do not let go of Your handiwork.” (8)

Joel 1:1–2:14: All we know about Joel is that he is the son of a certain Pethuel. This prophet wastes no time in describing a catastrophe that is greater than any before or since:
Has anything like this ever happened in your days
    or in the days of your ancestors?
Tell it to your children,
    and let your children tell it to their children,
    and their children to the next generation.” (1:2, 3)

Joel describes the invading enemy as a seemingly unending plague of locusts. And yet Israel seems to be oblivious to the danger as Joel shouts into the wind to a society consumed in excess:
Wake up, you drunkards, and weep!
    Wail, all you drinkers of wine;
wail because of the new wine,
    for it has been snatched from your lips.” (1:5)

Disaster stalks the land as Joel tells the priests in the temple to “put on sackcloth” and famine stalks the land—doubtless arising from the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon:
Has not the food been cut off
    before our very eyes—
joy and gladness
    from the house of our God?
The seeds are shriveled
    beneath the clods.
The storehouses are in ruins,
    the granaries have been broken down,
    for the grain has dried up.” (1:16, 17)

Famine is followed by invasion. This disaster can mean only one thing to the prophet: the end of history and the dawning of the Day of the Lord as he pronounces certain doom:
Let all who live in the land tremble,
    for the day of the Lord is coming.
It is close at hand—
a day of darkness and gloom,
    a day of clouds and blackness.” (2:1, 2)

Joel’s language is almost cinematic as he describes the invasion:
They plunge through defenses
    without breaking ranks.
They rush upon the city;
    they run along the wall.
They climb into the houses;
    like thieves they enter through the windows.” (2:8b, 9)

But even in this time of catastrophe, there is hope as Jeol implores all who would listen:
Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.” (2:12)

We arrive at the theological heart of Joel’s pleas:
Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.” (2:13)

Like our psalmist today, Joel knows of God’s faithfulness. All we have to do is repent. But we cannot fully return to God with just our words or even our actions. We must return with our whole heart, our entire being.

Even with this, there is a bit of doubt for Joel:
Who knows? He may turn and relent
    and leave behind a blessing—” (2:14)

This final verse tells me that even though God is always faithful we human creatures will still doubt. The reality for me is, absent a scintilla of doubt there can never be true faith.

Revelation 5:11–6:8: The slain lamb—Jesus Christ—has taken the sealed scroll and there is immediate worship as “many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand” join in and all sing a new hymn together—words that inspired Handel:
Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
    to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
    and honor and glory and praise!” (5:12)

John’s account of the great throne room worship scene concludes as all creation joins in singing: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
    be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!” (5:13)

With the worship scene concluded John turns his full attention to the opening of the seals. The first four seals bring forth what we know as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

  • “a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” (6:2)
  • Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. ” (6:4)
  • there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand.” (6:5)
  •  “I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him.” (6:8)

Needless to say there’ve been numerous interpretations. Mine are:

White horse: The Roman empire
Red horse: the invasion of Jerusalem by Titus in 70CE, which had occurred before John wrote this book.
Black horse: Slavery and economic oppression
Pale horse: exactly what it says: death.

But then again, it could be a lot of different things. One thing I hold to: it is not a forecast of future events.

Psalm 138:1–5; Hosea 13,14; Revelation 4:9–5:10

Psalm 138:1–5: This psalm of thanksgiving opens what we might call over-the-top enthusiasm, although when praising God I think over-the-topness is exactly right. Words fail us when we really look at God and what he has done for us:
I acclaim You with all my heart,
before gods I hymn to You.
I bow to Your holy temple,
I acclaim Your name
for Your kindness and steadfast truth,
for You have made Your word great across all Your heavens.” (1, 2)

One wonders who these small-g gods are. My theory is that the psalmist praying in Jerusalem in its final corrupt stages before being conquered by Babylon. Perhaps the streets were littered with idols that our psalmist knows are impotent pieces of wood.

While we have read many psalms of supplication where God remains frustratingly silent, here God has answered quickly and imbued our psalmist with joyous strength:
On the day I called You answered me,
You made strength well up within me.” (3)

Which certainly makes our psalmist joyous—and in that joy he envisions a time when the entire world will know and praise God:
all the kings of the earth will acclaim You, Lord,
for they have heard the words of Your mouth.
And they will sing of the ways of the Lord,
for great is the Lord’s glory.” (4, 5)

This is one of those places where the psalms do such a marvelous job of stretching our imaginations to see what one day will be true. Just as our psalmist did not inhabit a world where all praised God neither do we. But I don’t think that diminishes the joyous thrust of these verses that remind us we can look forward to God’s restored creation, where all people from leaders and kings on down worship and praise God.

Hosea 13,14: The final chapters of this book continue God’s monologue where he appears to vacillate between handing Israel the punishment it deserves over against the inherent love he has for his people and the hope that they will one day repent. Chapter 13 opens with an angry God:
Now they sin more and more;
    they make idols for themselves from their silver,
cleverly fashioned images,
    all of them the work of craftsmen.” (13:2a)

Even worse:
It is said of these people,
    “They offer human sacrifices!
    They kiss  calf-idols!”  (13:2b)

That there is child sacrifice is a reminder of the pure evil that this idol-worship has engendered among formerly God-fearing people.

Then, God seems almost nostalgic about the people he cared for and who followed him:
I cared for you in the wilderness,
    in the land of burning heat.
When I fed them, they were satisfied;” (13:5, 6a)

But now…. Now God’s anger emerges white hot:
So I will be like a lion to them,
    like a leopard I will lurk by the path.
Like a bear robbed of her cubs,
    I will attack them and rip them open;
like a lion I will devour them—
    a wild animal will tear them apart.” (13:7, 8)

As always, there is the promise of God’s rescuing salvation if these people would simply repent, expressed here in a well-known verse:
I will deliver this people from the power of the grave;
    I will redeem them from death.
Where, O death, are your plagues?
    Where, O grave, is your destruction?” (13:14)

But then an immediate swing back to an angry description of the gruesome fate awaiting an unrepentant Samaria:
They will fall by the sword;
    their little ones will be dashed to the ground,
    their pregnant women ripped open.”  (13:16)

Chapter 14 opens with yet another call to repentance:
Return, Israel, to the Lord your God.
    Your sins have been your downfall!
Take words with you
    and return to the Lord.” (14:1, 2)

All it will take to return to God is a simple vow—to “take words with us.” Which words Hosea then helpfully supplies for the remainder of the chapter. This passionate book ends with what I take to be the author’s message and the point of all that has preceded this final verse:
Who is wise? Let them realize these things.
    Who is discerning? Let them understand.
The ways of the Lord are right;
    the righteous walk in them,
    but the rebellious stumble in them.” (14:9)

Indeed! This is the bifurcation of humanity: those who follow God understand—and accept—what God is saying and look to God to lead their lives. But those who reject God, these words—and as we see in John, the Word himself—are stumbling blocks that they dismiss as errant nonsense.

What Hosea saw around him more than 2000 years ago we see around us today. Our human pride and its manifestation that we do not need God to guide our affairs—that we can do it all on our own—is the great constant of fallen humanity. The humanity that would not listen to its prophets and to which he sent his own Son to rescue.

Revelation 4:9–5:10: Worship before the throne of God concludes when “the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever.” (4:10)  John gives us the words of the hymn they sing:
You are worthy, our Lord and God,
    to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
    and by your will they were created
    and have their being.” (4:11)

I’m pretty sure these words have been set to music by someone somewhere.

Suddenly all is quiet in the room as John sees God on his throne holding a scroll sealed with seven seals. An angel asks who is worthy to open the scroll. John’s sadness at the fact that no one steps up causes him to cry, but one of the elders leans down and tells him, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” (5:5)

Suddenly John sees a slain lamb which has “seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” (5:6) The lamb takes the scroll, which causes a new round of worship to occur: “And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.” (5:8) John, who must have been a musician or lyricist in his former life, provides us another worship song—this one about lamb’s sacrifice:
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (5:9)

It’s really not that hard at this point to figure out that the slain lamb represents Jesus Christ. And that the recurring ‘sevens’ represent the seven churches to whom John is writing.Other scenes yet to come will prove more difficult to figure out…

My view of this scene and this entire book is that it is a coded or symbolic message to the seven churches John is writing to. These churches already are or shortly will be enduring persecution by the Roman authorities as they see the popularity of this new Jewish sect as a threat to Pax Romana. In short, Revelation is a subversive book and John is writing in deliberately symbolic language for the simple purpose of protecting its recipients should it fall into the hands of the Roman authorities. They would read it and because they would see it as the nonsensical scrawlings of an obscure political prisoner, dismiss it out of hand. In short, I think Revelation is a coded message to the seven churches about Roman persecution and the great promise of Jesus Christ. And we should read it in the context of the fraught times in which John is writing.

I do not believe Revelation has anything to say about events yet to come, nor that it is predicting anything beyond what was happening in Asia at the end of the first century CE. This view is doubtless anathema to many evangelicals, but so be it. It’s still fun to read.