Archives for December 2018

Psalm 144:9–15; 2 Kings 16:1–17:6; Acts 5:1–11

Originally published 12/17/2016. Revised and updated 12/18/2018.

Psalm 144:9–15: Even though is situation is desperate, our psalmist never forgets that worship is at the core of his being:
God, a new song I would sing to You,
on a ten-stringed lute I would hymn to You.
 (9)

In what we marketers call a “preemptive close,” our psalmist has the faith that God will rescue him as he did David:
Who grants rescue to kings,
redeems David from the evil sword.
 (10)

So, too, he seeks a similar rescue, reiterating the treachery of his enemies who swore false vows:
Redeem me and save me from the foreigners’ hand,
whose mouth speaks falsely,
and whose right hand is a hand of lies.
 (11)

Suddenly,in a radical change of tone the psalm shifts from supplication to thanksgiving, subject, and style—almost as if these last verses have been welded onto the original psalm. Here the mood is celebratory:
While our sons are like saplings
tended from their youth;
our daughters like corner-pillars 
hewn for the shape of a palace. (12)

Not only are his progeny winsome and beautiful, our psalmist (perhaps speaking for the entire nation) is wealthy and well fed, as well:
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. (13)

The land is at peace; the cries of war but a faint echo from the past:
There is no breach and none goes out,
and no screaming in our squares.
Happy the people who have it thus,
happy the people whose God is the Lord. (14, 15)

For me the question is are these last verses a remembrance of a peace and abundance long past as our poet reflects back on far happier days? Or is this an idyllic present because God has indeed rescued him and set the world aright? Or is it both? After all, God makes all things right in the end.

2 Kings 16:1–17:6: The endless succession of kings of Judah and Israel rambles on—and Israel meets its final destiny…

King Jothan’s son, Ahaz, ascends the throne of Judah at the age of twenty. Unlike his father and grandfather and great-grandfather, “He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done.” (16:2) Worse, “He even made his son pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” (16:3)

Once again, Aram and Israel attempt to overthrow Judea but they fail. Nevertheless, feeling threatened, Ahaz seeks an alliance with far stronger Assyria. As usual, payments of gold are the means to achieve that end. The king of Assyria obliges, and conquers Aram’s capital, Damascus. Ahaz visits Damascus and really likes the altar there, which he has duplicated down in Jerusalem. The king then orders the high priest Uriah to rearrange the temple furniture and Ahaz even alters the temple itself, which of course is desecration. As our authors point out, “He did this because of the king of Assyria.” (16:18) I don’t think the Assyrian king ordered this. Rather, I think Ahaz was entranced by the celebrity king of Assyria.

Meanwhile up in Israel, Hoshea reigns for nine years. Apparently, he was not quite as bad as the kings of Israel who preceded him: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, yet not like the kings of Israel who were before him.” (17:2) Nevertheless, Israel becomes a vassal state to Assyria and “the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea” (4) because Hoshea failed to send his annual tribute to Assyria.

As a result, “the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria; for three years he besieged it.” (17:5) Samaria eventually falls to Assyria; its inhabitants are exiled, and once-great Israel is no more. The authors do not need to tell us why. Its gradual downfall occurs because its successive kings never failed to do evil in the sight of the Lord. Thus do empires fall. Even modern ones that seem strong and impregnable.

Acts 5:1–11: The cautionary tale of Ananias and Sapphira is a lesson to the early church and of course to all of us. The story is well known: “a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” (1,2) Peter, well aware of Ananias’ deceit, challenges him. The key sin of Ananias is straightforward: “You did not lie to us but to God!” (4) Ananias drops dead before he can even utter a word in defense. 

This incident is not lost on the community and “great fear seized all who heard of it.” (5) Three hours later, Ananias’ unsuspecting wife arrives and Peter challenges her by quoting the understated price that her husband had told Peter earlier. She replies, “Yes, that was the price.” (8) Peter points out that the corpse being removed is her late husband and the same people will now be removing her. “Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.” (10)

Luke tells us again, “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.” (11) My surmise is that fear of being found lying to God trumped generosity. As a result, I think the communal aspect of church, i.e., the sharing of all goods and money, began falling apart after this incident. Yes, it’s wrong to lie to God, but I have to confess the punishment certainly seems unduly harsh. I suspect this incident teased out a lot of superficial evangelical ardor in that early church.

It’s also wrong to lie to leaders in the church—just as it’s wrong for them to lie to us in the pews. The question is, how many Ananaises and Sapphiras are in present in today’s church. Am I one?

 

Psalm 144:5–8; 2 Kings 15; Acts 4:23–37

Originally published 12/16/2016. Revised and updated 12/17/2018.

Psalm 144:5–8: When compared to ephemeral humanity, God is the apotheosis of eternal creative power and we see it here in mages of volcanoes, thunder and lightning as our psalmist asks for some serious intervention on his behalf:
Lord, tilt Your heavens and come down,
but touch the mountains, that they smoke.” (5)

The prayer is that God uses his infinite power expressed as lightning strikes to smite the poet’s enemies:
Crack lightning and scatter them,
send forth Your bolts and panic them.” (6)

In the meantime, our psalmist seeks intervention and rescue from his perilous situation:
Send forth Your hand from on high,
redeem me and save me from the many waters,
from the foreigners’ hand.” (7)

We assume that “many waters” would be a reference to drowning should God not act. “Foreigners’ hands” suggests that this is indeed David pleading for God’s help in a dangerous situation where not only he but the entire nation of Israel is in peril. In any event these foreigners have dealt with him with falsehood and treachery:
whose mouth speaks falsely,
and whose right hand is a right hand of lies.
 (8)

Betrayal, perhaps over a treaty, has created this dangerous situation. David believes he has dealt honestly and fairly by raising his own right hand—the hand we still raise today when making a formal vow. But the other parties have been underhanded, even as they proffered their right hand deceitfully with no intention of honoring their vows.

We see much of the same behavior today on the public stage and frankly, it would be satisfying to see some dishonest politician struck by lighting.

2 Kings 15: This history moves into brief listings of the successive kings of Israel while Azariah reigns over Judah. Azariah ascended the throne at 16 year old and reigns for 52 years. Like his father, “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (3) But like his father he fails to take action against the worship of false gods, “the high places were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places.” (4). Azariah is mainly notable for the fact that at some point in his reign, “the Lord struck the king, so that he was leprous to the day of his death, and lived in a separate house.” (5) His son Jotham ran the show during this time.

Meanwhile up north in Israel:

Zechariah, son of Jeroboam II, “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his ancestors had done.” (9) and is assassinated for his troubles by a certain Shallum, who “struck him down in public and killed him, and reigned in place of him.” (10)

Shallum the usurper reigns for just one month before he is assassinated by Menahem son of Gadi. Menahaem sacks the territory of Tizrah and in an especially barbaric act, “He ripped open all the pregnant women in it.” (16) This Menahem character reigns for ten years and in keeping with tradition, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did not depart all his days from any of the sins of Jeroboam.” (18)  The king of Assyria, in a foretaste of what was to eventually befall Israel, tries to invade, but Memnhem pays him off with “a thousand talents of silver, so that he might help him confirm his hold on the royal power.” (19) This money was confiscated from all the wealthy of Israel.

Menhem’s son, Pekahiah, takes over as king of Israel and reigns but two years. In what must have felt like a boring litany to our authors, like father like son: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord;” (24) Pekahiah is murdered by his captain, Pekah, who usurps the throne and reigns twenty years. Unsurprisingly, “He [also] did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (28)

During Pekah’s reign “King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried the people captive to Assyria.” (29)  A certain Hoshea assassinates Pekah and reigns over the few pieces of what was left of Israel. But as a nation Israel is now basically history.

Back down in Judah, Jotham comes to the throne at age twenty-five and reigns sixteen years. Even though “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (34), but as before, “the high places were not removed; the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places.” (35) During Jotham’s reign Judah has to fend off attacks by both Aram and Israel. But it seems as if our authors are losing interest in the whole sordid history and they do not even bother to tell us what the outcome of those invasions was. We assume Judah successfully defended itself.

Acts 4:23–37: Peter and John arrive back at Christian headquarters and report what the temple officials had done and said. The folks respond in prayer and by quoting Psalm 2, where they credit the Holy Spirit speaking through David:
“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
    and the peoples imagine vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
    and the rulers have gathered together
        against the Lord and against his Messiah.’” (25, 26)

The point here being that “both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus.” (27) Which of course is still the case today. Nevertheless, this reality does not deter the Jesus followers, who pray for boldness, which comes forthwith as “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.” (31) Luke’s point here of course is that this Jesus movement was not going to die down as so many other movements had done before. And here we are, two millennia later and the church is still going strong. The more personal question of course is, am I willing to be bold in the face of the growing opposition in an increasingly secular culture?

These folks were so fired up by the Holy Spirit that they “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” (32) There were no needy people in the group because “as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold,” (34) and “laid it at the apostles’ feet [and] it was distributed to each as any had need.” (35) Luke makes special mention of a Levite named Joseph, whom the apostles renamed Barnabas. We shall be hearing more of him later.

The eternal question of course is why have all subsequent attempts at Christians holding property in common failed—and generally failed miserably? The same question can be asked about the healing as well? Was the launch of the church a more Holy Spirit-infused event than it is today? How do we account for the difference? Or are we all just less fired up by the Holy Spirit than that first church in Jerusalem, which it’s worth noting, eventually passed from the scene.

Psalm 144:1–4: 2 Kings 14; Acts 4:13–22

Originally published 12/15/2016. Revised and updated 12/15/2018.

Psalm 144:1–4: This psalm, “For David,” opens with gratitude for how God has readied David for battle:
Blessed is the Lord, my rock,
Who trains my hands for battle,
my fingers for the fray. (1)

This gratitude is followed by an abundance of military metaphors describing God as protector:
My strength and my bastion,
my fortress and my deliverer.
My shield in which I shelter…(2a)

But this verse ends with a disturbing image of God, “Who tramples down people beneath me.” (2b) WHile this is an acknowledgement that it is God who has “been on our side” and brought military victory, his is certainly not the friendly father image of God that we seem to prefer these days. Nevertheless, God is, after all, God.

A complete change of subject follows these militaristic images: Human insignificance compared to God’s mighty power, causing the psalmist to wonder why God even pays attention to humans and their affairs:
Lord, what is a human creature that You should know him,
the son of man, that You pay him mind? (3)

There are distinct echoes of the themes of Psalm 139 here, but this verse also the implies question of why God even bothers with humankind. Of course we know the answer from Genesis, but when one reflects on the vastness of creation—especially looking up at the stars at night from a dark vantage point—this is a perfectly reasonable question. We humans are an insignificant blip on God’s radar screen. And yet, God still loves us—his highest creation very much.

Nevertheless, we humans are evanescent; mere brief flashes on the scene that quickly fade:
The human life is like unto breath,
his days like a passing shadow.
 (4)

At this point our psalmist has made it clear that from one perspective at least, whatever help we might receive from God is not because we deserve it, but because it is God who innately desires to act on our behalf. Of course his greatest act on our behalf is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

2 Kings 14: Upon Joash’s death, his son Amaziah ascends the throne of Judah at the age of 25, where he reigns for 29 years. He follows his father’s footsteps and like his father, he is no David: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, yet not like his ancestor David; in all things he did as his father Joash had done.” (3) This is because like his father, he did not remove the “high places” in Judah where idols continued to be worshipped.

As soon as the royal power was firmly in his hand” (5) Amaziah dispatches the servants that assassinated his father. However, following the rules laid down in Leviticus he does not kill the assassins’ children. One is given the impression that this mercy was the exception rather than the rule.

After a couple of quick military victories, Amaziah is feeling his oats and challenges king Jehoash of Israel to battle. Jehoash sends a scoffing reply using a metaphor that Judah is a mere thorn bush compared to Israel’s great strength represented as a cedar of Lebanon. The young king of Judah fails to heed this wise advice, and “Judah was defeated by Israel; everyone fled home.” (12) King Jehoash captures Amaziah and plunders Jerusalem, taking hostages with him back to Samaria. [One begins to understand the deep roots of enmity between Judah and Samaria in Jesus’ time.]

Jehoash dies and 15 years later, Amaziah dies. Jeohoash is succeeded by his son Jeroboam II. Amaziah is succeeded by his son Azariah, who ascends the throne at the tender age of 16.

Jeroboam II ruled Israel as his father, grandfather and all who came before him: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin.” (24) Despite the evil abounding everywhere in Israel, God continues to be merciful to the kingdom, which in the eyes of our authors deserved to be exterminated for its manifest sinfulness: “the Lord had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Joash.” (27) Beyond that, the authors have nothing more to say about Jeroboam II.

Acts 4:13–22: Peter has just given the boldest sermon of his life in front of the temple officials and “when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.” (13) The officials “had nothing to say in opposition” to the evidence of the healed man standing beside Peter. They dismiss Peter, John and the healed man and begin deliberating.

They are hard pressed to figure out what to do. The people of Jerusalem are well aware of the miracle that has just occurred in their midst and likely to riot iof severe punishment is meted out to Peter and John. So they come up with the hare-brained idea that in order “to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this [Jesus’] name.” (17) Right. Sure. That’ll work.

They call Peter and John back and “ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” (18) Peter rather logically replies that the officials have to decide for themselves, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God.” (19) But speaking for himself (and we presume all the disciples) Peter announces, “we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (20) The Holy Spirit trumps official religious practice.

The lesson is clear: if the Holy Spirit truly lives in us, then we also cannot “keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” The other thing to note here is that the crowd that demanded Jesus’ crucifixion and the release of Barabbas is doubtless the pretty much the same crowd that a couple of months later is praising God. Such is the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 143:7–12; 2 Kings 12,13; Acts 4:1–12

Originally published 12/14/2016. Revised and updated 12/14/2018.

Psalm 143:7–12: Our psalmist continues to implore God to answer him—and to please answer now because he is losing hope, perhaps even his life and will become like those who have descended to Sheol:
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.” (7)

Above all, God is his existential center and our rescuer:
Let me know the way I should go,
for to Your I lift up my being.

Save me from my enemies, Lord;
with You is my vindication,
 (9)

In fact, God is his guide through the vicissitudes of life:
Let Your goodly spirit guide me
on level ground
” (10)

Once again he pleads, repeating the same ideas as before, as if to make sure God heard him:
For the sake of Your name, Lord, give me life,
in Your bounty bring me out of the straits.
 (11)

Up to this point this has been a pretty conventional prayer of supplication from a man who is in deep trouble. But then, as we see so often in the Psalms, he prays for God to foment destruction on his foes:
And in Your kindness devastate my enemies
and destroy my bitter foes
for I am Your servant.
 (12)

Say again? The juxtaposition of God’s “kindness” and “devastate my enemies” is disturbing to me. We pray to God, who is the font of kindness, and our poet expects that God’s expression of kindness will be the destruction of others. Even though they are the psalmist’s enemies, I need to take this final supplication as an indication of emotional desperation, not as theological truth about God. And yet all through the OT we see God apparently doing just what our psalmist asks. Nevertheless, I still struggle with destruction of enemies being a manifestation of God’s “kindness.”  Happily, Jesus sets things straight when he tells us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek.

2 Kings 12,13: At last! A righteous king in Jerusalem: “Jehoash (aka Joash) did what was right in the sight of the Lord all his days, because the priest Jehoiada instructed him.” (12:2) even though many still worshipped idols in “the high places.”

For the first 23 years of Joash’s reign, the priests had not maintained the temple, apparently snatching all the temple tax funds and free-will offerings for their own use. Jehoash instructs them, “do not accept any more money from your donors but hand it over for the repair of the house.” (12:7) They set up a chest at the temple entrance and collect donations there. The money was used to pay the construction workers who were working to refurbish the temple. Moreover, “They did not ask an accounting from those into whose hand they delivered the money to pay out to the workers, for they dealt honestly.” (12:15) Nice to hear.

Meanwhile, the ever-aggressive King Hazael of Aram threatens Judah. Joash is able to maintain the peace by buying him off, giving him “all the gold that was found in the treasuries of the house of the Lord and of the king’s house.” (18) Alas, for his efforts Joash is assassinated by a cabal of his servants, who doubtless saw the king as a weakling.

Meanwhile up north in Israel…  Jehoahaz, son of Jehu, reigns in Samaria for 17 years. Unlike his contemporary Joash, Jehoahaz “followed the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin; he did not depart from them.” (13:2) God’s anger is expressed via continual harassment of Israel by the ambitious King Hazael. But Jehoahaz actually prays to God and “the Lord gave Israel a savior, so that they escaped from the hand of the Arameans.” (13:5) Even though there is peace, the military power kingdom of Israel has been decimated because “they did not depart from the sins of the house of Jeroboam.” (13:6)

Jehoahaz’s son Jehoash (What is it with all these similar names?) takes over after his father’s death and reigned over Israel for 16 years. Unsurprisingly, “He also did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin, but he walked in them.” (13:11) Other than that, this king appears to have done nothing remarkable and our authors move on without further comment about Jehoash’s reign in Israel.

Oh, one thing did happen during Jehoash’s reign in Israel. The king comes to dying Elisha’s house and weeps over him. Elisha instructs him to shoot an arrow out the eastern window. In his final prophetic announcement, Elisha tells the king that it is “The Lord’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Aram! For you shall fight the Arameans in Aphek until you have made an end of them.” (17) He then instructs the king to take another arrow and strike it repeatedly on the ground. Jehoash does this three times and then stops. Elisha remonstrates the king that he should have struck 5 or 6 times. As a result, Elishas says, Israel will “strike down Aram only three times.” (19)

Elisha dies, and during his burial the mourners are invaded by a group of Moabites. One of the robbers is killed and the mourners toss him into Elisha’s still uncovered grave. “As soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he came to life and stood on his feet.” (21) I’m surmising the man was simply unconscious although our authors certainly want us to know that even in death Elisha’s powers remained undiminished.

Joash goes on to defeat the king of Aram three times. But only three times, just as the prophet foretold.

Acts 4:1–12: Not surprisingly, Peter and John’s boldness in speaking and now this final straw of actually appearing to heal a crippled man has incensed the religious authorities. Their primary sin is that “they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead.” (2) Jewish theology held definitely that “once dead, forever dead.” They probably also felt threatened because by this time there were some 5000 Jesus followers. Things were quickly getting out of hand in Jerusalem and the healing was the final straw. So they arrest Peter and John.

An assembly of all the Jewish temple authorities and theologians is called and it hauls Peter and John in front of them. They ask, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (7) Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” twists the knife a bit as he insinuates that they’ve been arrested “because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed.” (9)

Peter’s answer does nothing to assuage the authorities as he boldly proclaims the Kerygma in front of them: “this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” (10). And quoting Psalm 118, a passage from Isaiah, and Jesus himself (Matthew 21), Peter tells them, “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’” (11) 

Peter concludes his proclamation with the famous statement (a verse I memorized in 5th grade Sunday School) that must have driven the religious hierarchy crazy: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (12)

As Luke quotes Peter, there can be no clearer statement about who Jesus is, what he did, and that Jesus is the only path to salvation. One question though: We certainly know what “saved” means, but did the Jewish authorities? I’m presuming that to their ears, Peter’s proclamation meant that the long-awaited Messiah had indeed come and they not only missed him, they killed him. It would seem that they certainly would have felt something at this point. Peter was certainly not interested in making friends with or even appeasing the temple authorities. What will their reaction be?

Psalm 143:1–6; 2 Kings 11; Acts 3:11–26

Originally published 12/13/2016. Revised and updated 12/13/2018.

Psalm 143:1–6: This “David psalm” opens with the standard phrases of a psalm of supplication by asking God to hear and then act:
Lord, hear my prayer,
hearken to my pleas.
In Your faithfulness answer me, in Your bounty.
 (1)

Our psalmist [speaking as David] wishes to be heard and asks God to withhold punishment, even as he acknowledges that no creature (not just humans) can escape God’s inexorable judgement:
Do not come into judgement with Your servant,
for no living thing is acquitted before You.
 (2)

As the psalm continues, it becomes clear that the circumstances of trying to avoid the hostile intentions of his enemies that brought him close to death have resulted in a lapse in David’s ability to come to God in prayer:
For the enemy pursued me,
thrust my life into the ground,
and made me dwell in darkness like those long dead
. (3)

His attempts to escape his enemies have taken an enormous physical and mental toll, resulting in a dreadful spiritual state where he feels far from God:
And my spirit fainted within me,
in my breast my heart was stunned
.” (4)

Nevertheless, even in his distress he has never completely abandoned God and has worked to maintain that relationship:
I recalled the days of old,
I recited all Your deeds,
of Your handiwork did I speak
. (5)

Of course this unquenchable faithfulness is what set David apart from all the other leaders and kings of Israel. No matter how awful his circumstances he never forgot God, and
I stretched out my hands to You—
my being like thirsty land to Your Lord
. (6)

This psalm is a wonderful reminder that when we are in a true relationship with God our circumstances, no matter how challenging, can never completely defeat us. Even when we are at our lowest, we need only remember that God is indeed with us and that he will hear our prayers. The question for me is, can praying and never forgetting that I am in relationship with God become the second nature to me that it was for David?

2 Kings 11: King Ahaziah of Judah has been assassinated and his mother, Athalia, seeks revenge: “she set about to destroy all the royal family.” (1) Ahaziah’s sister manages to hide her youngest brother, Joash, from the mother’s vengeance. Joash remains hidden for six years. When Joash is seven he is anointed by the priest Jehoiada and placed under a 24-hour guard. The priest gives instructions to “Be with the king in his comings and goings.” (8) He also instructs the guards to kill whoever might approach the young boy. Shortly after, the boy is crowned king and all there “proclaimed him king, and anointed him; they clapped their hands and shouted, “Long live the king!” (12)

Ahaziah’s mother arrives to find the newly crowned king standing “there with the captains and the trumpeters beside the king, and all the people of the land rejoicing and blowing trumpets.” (14) In a scene that would make a terrific opera, Ahaziah screams, “Treason! Treason!” (14b) The priest Jehoidia commands that the woman not be killed in the precincts of the temple so the guards take her back to the palace and kill her there.

Jehoiada renews the covenant with God “that they should be the Lord’s people; also between the king and the people.” (17) Inspired by this renewal to worship only God, the people proceed to tear down all the Baal altars “and his images they broke in pieces, and they killed Mattan, the priest of Baal, before the altars.” (18) Joash, now named Jehoash, takes the throne at the tender age of seven. But things finally start to look promising for Judah.

Acts 3:11–26: Everyone at the temple is astounded when they see the lame beggar who now leaps for joy. Peter takes this opportunity to admonish the Jews, but especially to make it clear that the man was not healed by magicians. Rather, as Peter must have shouted over the noise of the crowd, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” (12) He reminds them that it is the Jewish God, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors [that] has glorified his servant Jesus.” (13) In other words, Jesus is greater than any of the most famous men of Israel’s history. But, Peter continues, “you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” (14) This is beyond just being a serious accusation; Peter is telling them that in their calumny turned to murder that they killed the “Author of Life.”  It is misinterpretation of passages like these that, alas, led to persecution of the Jews by Christians up through the 20th century.

Peter does not linger on the wrongs the Jews of Jerusalem have committed as he moves to the core of this second sermon here at Solomon’s portico. The lame man has been healed “by faith in [Jesus’] name, his name itself has made this man strong.” (16) What’s fascinating here is Peter’s assertion that it is the “name itself that has made this man strong.” Peter is saying that Jesus’ name uttered in faith can do great and miraculous things. This is acting out what Jesus taught: sufficient faith can move mountains.

Peter continues, as he gently lets his Jewish audience off the hook when he tells them, “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.” (17) Peter knows he cannot win people to Jesus by beating them with a guilt stick. In fact, in a direct reference to Isaiah 53, “God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.” (18) They may have sent Jesus to the cross, but God accomplished a great work through that dreadful act.

Peter moves right to the altar call: “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.” (19) He goes on to remind them of Moses’ words: “‘The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you.” (22) Jesus is that prophet. And Jesus, as he so often said during his ministry, came first to the Jews: “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” (26) What will the response of the people be? What is our response to the call to believe what Jesus did for us and to repent?

Peter’s sermon is brilliant: he tells the Jews they are guilty of Jesus’ death, but then he expands the context to make it clear that the act led to Jesus’ death enabled the Resurrection. And it is the salvific power of the risen Christ that will wash away their guilt. Metaphorically, like the man just healed by faith, they will move from being crippled beggars to people leaping for joy. That is the true promise of salvation!

Psalm 142; 2 Kings 10; Acts 3:1–10

Originally published 12/12/2016. Revised and updated 12/12/2018.

Psalm 142: Our psalmist sets a specific time and place for this psalm: “A David maskil, when he was in the cave, a prayer.” (1) this would be the incident described in I Samuel 22 when David was fleeing Saul, hiding in the cave, and was presented with the opportunity to kill Saul but didn’t.

It is not just a prayer of supplication; it is a prayer of desperation. In his urgency David wasn’t just praying in his head, or even speaking softly, but shouting aloud:
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 Him I tell.” (2,3)

He is at the end of his rope and facing imminent death, but David knows that God understands the conspiratorial danger he’s in:
You, You know my path.
On the path on which I walk
they have laid a trap for me.
 (4)

There seems to be no way out of this awful predicament because he knows there is no one searching in order to rescue him:
Escape is gone for me,
no one inquires for me.
 (5)

In final desperation there is only God to whom David can turn; the God who promised to walk beside him; the God who now appears to be silent if not absent:
I shouted to You, O Lord.
my lot in the land of the living.
Listen close to my song of prayer,
for I have sunk very low. (6, 7a)

This is the quintessential foxhole prayer. There is no lengthy explanation to God about how he got into this situation or confession of whatever wrongdoings he may have committed in the past. This is direct, straightforward, a final desperate plea:
Save me from my pursuers,
for they are too strong for me.
 (7b)

And as always, if God will rescue him, then David will repay with grateful worship:
Bring me out from the prison
to acclaim your name.
 (8a)

And if God rescues him, he will become an example of God’s power and the ineffable power of prayer to others:
For the righteous will draw round me
when You requite me. (8b)

Of course we know that David’s prayer was indeed answered. Which should be sufficient to give us courage to pray as boldly and urgently should we find ourselves in similar straits. God may be silent; but like David we need to have faith that he is listening.

2 Kings 10: King Jehu of Israel cleans house. Elisha has prophesied that Ahab’s entire dynasty will be wiped out and Jehu is the instrument to carry that out.  Jehu sends letters to the guardians of Ahab’s 70(!) sons to “select the son of your master who is the best qualified, set him on his father’s throne, and fight for your master’s house.” (3) But the guardians are “utterly terrified” of Jehu and refuse to name a king. Jehu sends a second letter telling the guardians that “If you are on my side, and if you are ready to obey me, take the heads of your master’s sons and come to me at Jezreel tomorrow at this time.” (6) Which they promptly do. In a grisly demonstration, Jehu directs them to “Lay them in two heaps at the entrance of the gate until the morning.” (8) Which they do. Needless to say, this creates panic in the streets. Jehu announces to the gathered crowd that they are innocent but anyone connected in any way to Ahab will die. Which he does: “So Jehu killed all who were left of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, all his leaders, close friends, and priests, until he left him no survivor.” (11)

On the road Jehu encounters relatives of King Ahaziah of Judah and kills those 42 people as well. Arriving at Samaria he announces that he will offer an even greater sacrifice to Baal than Ahab ever did. Every priest and worshipper is commanded to show up at the Baal temple and “Sanctify a solemn assembly for Baal.” (20) Every Baal worshipper obeys and gathers to make sacrifices. Jehu ensures that there is “no worshiper of the Lord here among you, but only worshipers of Baal.” (24) The king then commands his soldiers to “Come in and kill them; let no one escape.” (25) Which they do. The Baal worshippers are dead; the temple is demolished and turned into a public toilet.

Our authors state, “Thus Jehu wiped out Baal from Israel.” (30) However, Jehu does not totally wipe out idol worship in Israel and the golden calves remain at Bethel and Dan. Even so, God promises Jehu that he and his progeny will rule for four generations. But alas, “But Jehu was not careful to follow the law of the Lord the God of Israel with all his heart; he did not turn from the sins of Jeroboam, which he caused Israel to commit.” (31)

For Jehu’s sins, “the Lord began to trim off parts of Israel.” and the territory of Israel is greatly diminished by a certain Hazael.

This is one of those passages where I cannot really accept that this slaughter was ordained by God. Rather, I see it as an editorial intrusion by the authors of the book. Yes, Baal worship was evil and had the Israelites obeyed God’s original command to fully wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan none of this may have come to pass. But did God ordain the slaughter or was God simply used as a justification for entrenched human wickedness and Jehu’s power grab? As it is, Israel cannot be proud of its bloody history.

Acts 3:1–10: While the original apostles were alive there seemed to be a greater power present than there is in the present day church. Peter and John encounter a crippled man who begged at the entrance to the temple. The man asks for alms from Peter and John.

Luke writes that Peter and John “looked intently” at the beggar and effectively commanded him in return to “Look at us.” The man does so, “expecting to receive something from them.” (5) Peter tells the man he doesn’t have money but rather a gift that is far greater: “but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” (6)  Peter takes the man by the right hand (always the hand of power!) “and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.” (7) The beggar’s recovery is so instantaneous that Luke tells us he jumped up, stood and began to walk, entering the temple with Peter and John, “walking and leaping and praising God.” (8)

This was an extremely public act and “All the people saw him walking and praising God.” (9) The people know who the beggar is and “they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.” (10)

WHile this is a dramatic example here not just to demonstrate the transformative power of the Holy Spirit I think our author has an even greater purpose here. By this time, thousands in Jerusalem are following “the Way” and this miraculous example is Luke’s way of illustrating how the new movement was starting to take over Jerusalem. The temple authorities were going to have a difficult time tamping down this new sect that in their eyes was rapidly getting out of control. And the power elite will soon feel seriously threatened.

 

Psalm 141:5–10; 2 Kings 9; Acts 2:29–47

Originally published 12/10/2016. Revised and updated 12/11/2018.

Psalm 141:5–10: Our psalmist continues to contrast his piety to the impious wicked person(s). He is willing to endure the pummeling of the wicked because his faith in God trumps personal hurt. But somewhat surprisingly, also those who claim to be righteous and faithful—as if to prove his morality superior to all others:
Let the righteous man strike me,
the faithful rebuke me
.(5a)

He will of course continue to reject the actions of those he deems wicked, even if their motives appear anodyne:
Let no wicked man’s oil adorn my head,
for still my prayer is against their evils.
” (5b)

Then we move into creative imprecations against these wicked folk with the added irony that they will actually hear this (self-)righteous man’s prayers:
Let their leaders slip on a rock,
and let them hear my words which are sweet
. (6)

An image of natural destruction follows, suggesting that he will always be faithful even to the end of creation:
As when the earth is parted and split,
our bones are scattered in the mouth of Sheol.
 (7)

Despite whatever calamity that may come to pass, however, our psalmist will remain faithful and as far as he is concerned, it would be good if God in return continued to protect him:
For to You, O Lord, my eyes turn
In You I take refuge. Expose not my life
. (8)

Then, one final plea for God to protect him from the conspiratorial wiles of his enemies:
Guard me from the trap they laid for me
and the snares of the wrongdoers
. (9)

Even as the wicked fall into their own traps, he alone will remain faithful:
May the wicked fall in their nets.
I alone shall go on.
 (10)

I have the feeling that this psalm was popular among the Pharisees of Jesus’ time because it so clearly juxtaposes personal (self-)righteousness over against everyone else who is either a conspirator, wicked, or more typically, both. But for me, this psalm is just a bit too self-absorbed and self-congratulatory.

2 Kings 9: Elisha is now in charge of a number of prophets. He commands one of his unnamed subalterns to take some oil to Jehu, who is another son of Jehoshaphat, and anoint him, telling him that he will become king. The young prophet finds Jehu sitting with other military commanders as they plot their next move. The prophet calls Jehu outside and “poured the oil on his head, saying to him, “Thus says the Lord the God of Israel: I anoint you king over the people of the Lord, over Israel.” (6) Moreover, the prophet tells Jehu that he will strike down the entire house of Ahab so that God “may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord.” (7) Among other things, “The dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and no one shall bury her.” (10) As soon as he is finished speaking the prophet flees the scene.

Jehu goes back to his commanders who ask, “Why did that madman come to you?” (11) [Prophets were seen as crazies even then…] At first Jehu tries to deflect the conversation, but his fellow officers persist and he tells them that the prophet anointed him as king of Israel. What follows is  one of the speedier coup d’etats on record, Jehu’s fellow officers “hurriedly…took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, “Jehu is king.” (13)

Jeu takes immediate action and arrives at Joram’s residence where the now deposed king is recovering from battle-inflicted wounds. King Ahaziah of Judah is also there. Joram’s arrival is seen by the guard outside the city walls. The king sends out a couple of horsemen to find out who it is, but Jehu doesn’t let them return. Finally, Joram himself looks out and see who’s coming. In one of the funniest lines in the OT, Joram says, “It looks like the driving of Jehu son of Nimshi; for he drives like a maniac.” (20)

Joram and Ahaziah go out to meet Jehu, asking if he comes in peace. Jehu replies, “What peace can there be, so long as the many whoredoms and sorceries of your mother Jezebel continue?” (22) Joram’s last words are, “Treason, Ahaziah!” (23) as Jehu draws his bow and “shot Joram between the shoulders, so that the arrow pierced his heart.” (24) Jehu’s men also wound Ahaziah. He escapes to Megiddo, where the king of Judah dies.

Jehu arrives at the city of Samaria and orders “two or three eunuchs” to toss Jezebel out the window and she dies. As prophesied, the dogs eat Jezebel’s corpse before she can be buried.

So what to make of all this? First, vengeance is indeed God’s as Elisha, the young prophet, and Jehu all follow God’s instructions. Second, as my father used to say, “The chickens always come home to roost.” The evil committed by Ahab, Jezebel, Joram and Ahaziah leads to dire consequences, including the memorable image, “the corpse of Jezebel shall be like dung on the field.” (37)

Acts 2:29–47: Peter concludes his sermon by clearly linking Jesus to Israel’s national hero, David. Peter asserts that while David remains dead and buried, he predicted Jesus’ resurrection and quotes a psalm, “He was not abandoned to Hades,/ nor did his flesh experience corruption.’” (31) Peter has pointed out that David is now a secondary figure proclaiming that it is Jesus who is the true Messiah. Just to make sure no one misses the point, Peter says quite clearly and directly, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (36)

This sermon has an enormous impact on Peter’s listeners and “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” (37) Again, a clear and direct answer from Peter: ““Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (38) This is a new baptism, far greater than John’s ever was.

And there we have it. What theologians call the kerygma: Jesus comes to us, and when we confess our sins and respond in baptism we are a Christian. It’s really that simple. Three thousand people did exactly that and began to follow Jesus. Following this ground-breaking sermon, the apostles continue to make a major impression in Jerusalem: “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” (43) Luke gives us a picture of the activities of the early church, which included “All who believed were together and had all things in common.” (44) The converts spent time in the temple and “broke bread at home  and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” (46, 47)

Those were the halcyon days of the early church. But alas, it would not last.

 

Psalms 141:1–4; 2 Kings 8; Acts 2:14–28

Originally published 12/09/2016. Revised and updated 12/10/2018.

Psalms 141:1–4: Similar in tone and theme to the preceding psalm, our psalmist dedicates this one to David and then proceeds to set himself up as as the dedicated God-follower confronting enemies who have rejected God. Nevertheless, this first section  is an excellent example of the attitude we would do well to take when entering into prayer. It opens with a supplication asking God to listen when he speaks, (which has always seemed a bit presumptuous to me…):
O Lord, I call You. Hasten to me.
Hearken to my voice when I call You.
 (1)

But at least he is in a respectful attitude as he calls upon God, seeing his prayer as a form of worship—something I would do well to remember:
May my prayer stand as incense before You,
my uplifted hands as the evening offering.
” (2)

Then, our supplicant asks for self control, especially in his speech:
Place, O Lord, a watch on my mouth,
a guard at the door of my lips
. (3)

Even today in our multi-media world with so many ways to communicate, speech still remains closest to the thoughts and motivations of heart. Too often, we speak without engaging our brain or considering the potential consequences of that speech, including especially these days, emails and posts in social media. The rise of Twitter and Facebook bullying are all manifestations of failure to consider the consequences of unbridled, unthinking speech. This is an especially lethal practice when Christians do it to each other in the church.

Speech arises as the result of the attitude of the heart as well as the people with whom we associate. Aware of the company he keeps, our psalmist asks God to help him control his speech by remaining close to his heart:
Incline not my heart to an evil word
to plot wicked acts
with wrongdoing men,
and let me not feast on their delicacies. (4)

What a great metaphor: evil as a tempting sumptuous banquet that it is all too easy to partake in. Certainly as my Facebook newsfeed drifts by, it can be all too easy to sup on material that is harmful and too often, just evil. These first four verses are an excellent way to begin my prayers today.

2 Kings 8: Our authors are covering a lot of territory and we need to be careful not to read 2 Kings or especially this chapter as a linear history as the events described jump back and forth in time.

We return to the story of the Shunamite woman, whose son Elisha had restored to life. It turns out that the prophet had also warned her of the impending famine and to move somewhere where she would not starve. As it is, she moved to the territory occupied by the Philistines. Seven years later she has returned to Israel.

Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, who he surprisingly hasn’t fired, is relating this story to the king of Israel in answer to his request that the servant “Tell me all the great things that Elisha has done.” (4) As he relates the story of the woman and her healed son, they two show up in court! The king questions the woman and concludes that Gehazi’s account is true. As a result, he commands, “Restore all that was hers, together with all the revenue of the fields from the day that she left the land until now.” (5) The takeaway here is that obeying a prophet even when it is a difficult task such as moving away is the right thing to do. God takes care of those who faithfully follow God.

Elisha heads to Damascus and the Aramean king, Ben-hadad. The king makes one final appearance when he asks commands his servant, Hazael, to ask Elisha if he will recover from his illness. Hazeal appears at Elisha’s door with 40 camel loads(!) of goods and asks the question. Elisha replies with the puzzling statement,“Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover’; but the Lord has shown me that he shall certainly die.” (10) While all the pronouns can be highly confusing here, the upshot is that while Ben-hadad will recover he will then die shortly thereafter. At this, the prophet begins weeping. Hazeal asks why he’s crying, and Elisha replies rather directly that Hazeal will succeed Ben-Hadad as king and that he sees “the evil that you [Hazael] will do to the people of Israel; you will set their fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their pregnant women.” (12) This is a pretty grim scenario indeed.

Hazeal returns to Ben-Hadad and tells the king that he will recover. However, as his first evil act, Hazeal suffocates the king in his bed and takes over as king or Aramea.

Meanwhile, down south in the kingdom of Judah, Jehoshaphat’s son Jehoram commences his 8-year reign. Alas, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (18) However, God “would not destroy Judah, for the sake of his servant David, since he had promised to give a lamp to him and to his descendants forever.” (19) Other than that, our authors have nothing positive to say  about his 8-year reign.

Our authors move on to Jeroham’s successor, Ahaziah, who ascends the throne of Judah at age 22. Alas, evil-doing was definitely a family habit:  “He also walked in the way of the house of Ahab, doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as the house of Ahab had done, for he was son-in-law to the house of Ahab.” (27) He allies himself with Ahab’s son, Joram, king of Israel, to fight King Hazael of Aram. Joram is injured in battle and Ahaziah goes to visit him. At this point the northern kingdom of Israel and Judah are effectively a single empire ruled by the Ahab family dynasty. But this is hardly a  good situation as far as the few God-followers still left in either place were concerned.

Acts 2:14–28: Peter gives his famous sermon defending accusations that the disciples are drunk. He quotes the prophet Joel’s famous apocalyptic lines:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.” (17)

And he ends quoting that passage with the pronouncement, “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (21) Peter then brilliantly ties these words he’s just spoken to “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know.” (22) He is none too kind to his audience, accusing them of being responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. However, he makes it clear that they were acting “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” i.e., Jesus’ death was part of God’s plan all along. Because without Jesus’ death there could be no resurrection: “But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power,” (24) i.e., death cannot contain Jesus, who is God’s son. Peter then ties the fact of the resurrection to David’s own words from the Psalms:
I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;

    moreover my flesh will live in hope(25, 26)

And for his Jewish listeners there is no arguing with what David said.

The brilliance of this sermon cannot be overstated. It is perhaps the clearest message we have of the exact purpose of the Incarnation. What is even more amazing is that it is a rough, uneducated, impetuous fisherman from the outback of Israel is the one appointed to lead the church and give this sermon. If we ever needed an example of the transformative power of the Holy Spirit it is surely right here.

 

Psalm 140:7–14; 2 Kings 6:24–7:20; Acts 2:1–13

Originally published 12/08/2016. Revised and updated 12/08/2018.

Psalm 140:6–13: Having described his woeful situation as the object of a deadly conspiracy, our psalmist (speaking as David) turns to God as his rescuer and recalls his prayer:
I said to the Lord, ‘My God are You.”
Hearken, O Lord, to the sound of my pleas
. (7)

He then prays for God as “Master, my rescuing strength” (8a) to block the evil wishes of his enemy(ies):
Do not grant, O Lord, the desires of the wicked,
do not fill his devising.
 (9)

In a series of colorful imprecations, he asks God to turn their own speech and their own plots back against them so they suffer the consequences that they have wished on the psalmist:
May the mischief of their own lips
cover the heads of those who come round me
. (10)

He pleads with God to make them suffer physically, even to the point of their own destruction:
May He 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 man be trapped in pitfalls. (11, 12)

As a man of faith, he expresses confidence that God will act because God always intervenes on behalf of the poor and weak, which apparently he considers himself to be:
I know that the Lord will take up
the cause of the lowly, the case of the needy
. (13)

This last verse causes me to conclude that the psalmist is asking God on his own behalf, not King David’s. The psalm concludes with an implied quid pro quo. If God will do these things, then,
Yes, the righteous will acclaim Your name,
the upright will dwell in Your presence.
 (14)

The obvious question is, can we really pray to God for bad things to happen to our enemies? Or should we take this entire psalm more as an utterance of deep fear and frustration? Certainly since Jesus, the answer is clearly ‘No.’ Rather than praying for their doom, we are to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. But I think if I were in the psalmist’s situation, I wouldn’t hesitate to pray this prayer anyway, even knowing it could not come to pass. If nothing else it is valuable emotional release.

2 Kings 6:24–7:20: The ever-persistent Arameans under King Ben-hadad are holding the city of Samaria under siege, resulting in famine and hardship for the city’s inhabitants. As the king of Israel walks on the city walls, a woman cries out, “Help, my lord king!” (6:26) He asks the woman what has happened and her answer is horrifying: This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son; we will eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ So we cooked my son and ate him.” (28) But the next day when it was the other woman’s turn to offer her son for dinner, she had hidden him. 

Of course, making sure to duck personal responsibility, the king holds Elisha to blame for Samaria’s dreadful situation and plans to send men to decapitate him. The king and his captain arrive at Elisha’s door and before anyone could strike him, Elisha prophesies: “Hear the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord, Tomorrow about this time a measure of choice meal shall be sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria.” (7:1) The captain remains skeptical of this prophecy and says, “Even if the Lord were to make windows in the sky, could such a thing happen?” (7:2) Elisha replies that “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat from it.” (7:2b)

Meanwhile, four lepers sitting outside the city gate (because that’s where lepers were forced to live) know there is no food in the city, so they decide to sneak into the Aramean camp at night. They are resigned to their fate if discovered, but hunger trumps caution: “Therefore, let us desert to the Aramean camp; if they spare our lives, we shall live; and if they kill us, we shall but die.” (4)

The four lepers head to the camp and while doing so, “the Lord had caused the Aramean army to hear the sound of chariots, and of horses, the sound of a great army.” (6) Everyone in the Aramean army decides that they are outnumbered because “The king of Israel has hired the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to fight against us.” (6b) In panic, they “abandoned their tents, their horses, and their donkeys leaving the camp just as it was, and fled for their lives.” (7)

The lepers discover the deserted camp still stocked with gold, weapons and food. After helping themselves, they wisely decide to come back to the king with the good news. But the king thinks it’s a trap to get them to come out of the city and be slaughtered. As usual, the king’s servants are smarter than he and they recommend that five riders set out on the last remaining horse in the city to see what happened. The riders discover that what the lepers said was true and “the whole way was littered with garments and equipment that the Arameans had thrown away in their haste.” (15)

So everyone runs out of the city, and as Elisha had predicted, “a measure of choice meal was sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, according to the word of the Lord.” (16) But as for the skeptical captain, he sees the food but cannot eat because he’s crushed to death by the mob running out of the city gate, thus fulfilling Elisha’s prophecy, “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat from it.” (19)

This story certainly tells us that being skeptical about what prophets say can have bad consequences. But it also tells us that simply hiding out in what appears to be a safe place can be far worse than setting out to see what the actual situation is. That lepers were willing to step out in resigned courage rather than the cowardly king who huddled behind the city walls sends a clear message that inaction by cowardly leaders causes substantial damage to the people they lead.

Acts 2:1–13: Pentecost! Luke’s memorable description of the arrival of the Holy Spirit is the best depiction we have anywhere in the bible: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house.” (2) What I hadn’t realized before now is that the HS arrives first at the house where the 12? 120? disciples were “together in one place..where they were sitting.” (1, 2) A tongue of fire—what some now call the “baptism of the HS”—was seen over the head of each person there.

And, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (4) I think it’s crucial to point out that the arrival of the HS—a kind of reverse Babel, if you will—gave each person the “ability” to speak in another human language. This is not the babbling glossolalia that too many charismatics believe is a gift of the HS, but intelligible language.

After this anointing, the disciples head out into the crowded streets, where Jews from all over the Roman empire have gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Passover. Much to the astonishment of the multicultural crowd, the disciples are speaking their own language. After all, as many point out, these men are mere Galileans, hicks from the northern country, not the sophisticates of Jerusalem. Everyone’s “amazed and perplexed,” (12). But as always, there are skeptics who simply assert they’re drunk, “filled with new wine.” (13)

I think the clear message here is that the Holy Spirit is has come for every person who is willing to believe. This is the very beginning of the church that is about to change the world. And at its root is worship of God, which is the gift of the Jews; the belief in Jesus being who he said he is; and the undeniable presence of the Holy Spirit. Absent all these three things, the church is nothing more than a social club.

Psalm 140:1–5; 2 Kings 5:15–6:23; Acts 1:15–26

Originally published 12/07/2016. Revised and updated 12/07/2018.

Psalm 140:1–6: This David psalm of supplication focuses on the straits of a man—doubtless a leader or king—surrounded by conspiracy and violence, something we can well imagine occurring in David’s court—and in the court of every leader since then. The first order of business in this prayer is for God to remove one figure in particular who is creating dangerous chaos in the court:
Free me, Lord, from evil folk,
from a violent man preserve me.
Who plot evil in their heart,
each day stir up battles.” (2,3)

I’m sure these are verses that could be prayed by many today who find themselves in potentially dangerous circumstances at their work.

Speech, both public and private, is a major weapon here—just as it is today— and the similes of venomous poison make its danger quite clear:
They sharpen their tongue like a serpent,
venom of spiders beneath their lip.
 (4)

David repeats his plea to God to intervene in this dangerous situation which portends serious violence, perhaps even assassination:
Guard me, Lord, from the wicked man’s hands,
from a violent man preserve me,
who plots to trip up my steps.
 (5)

We learn that the conspiracy includes not just one man but a cabal that views itself as superior to its leader and David believes he can too easily fall into their clever trap:
The haughty laid down a trap for me,
and with cords they spread out a net.
Alongside the path they set snares for me. (6).

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so threatened since I’ve had the good fortune in my career to be surrounded by honest, if occasionally blunt, people. This psalm does a beautiful job of describing the severe emotional and mental stress induced by people conspiring against one person. It is surely one of the ugliest things one can experience. And I am well aware that it occurs all too frequently in churches.

2 Kings 5:15–6:23: Naaman is grateful beyond words to Elisha for healing. More importantly he realizes it is God who has healed him: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” (5:15) Naaman tries to offer a gift to Elisha but the prophet will not accept. Naaman offers gifts to Elisha’s servant Gehazi, but Elisha refuses to let him accept it.

Gehazi is none too happy about Elisha’s refusal to accept Naaman’s gift: “My master [Elisha] has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. As the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something out of him.” (5:20) Gehazi catches up with Naaman and lies to him that two prophets have just arrived and have needs. Gehazi asks for two talents of silver and two changes of clothing on their behalf. Naaman happily complies.

Elisha, being the prophet he is, detects that Gehazi is up to something nefarious. He asks Gehazi where he’s been but the servant lies and says he’s been right at home. For his greedy malfeasance, Elisha tells him, “Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you, and to your descendants forever.” So he left his presence leprous, as white as snow.” (5:28) The moral is clear: the works of healing are not a financial transaction and lying only makes things worse.

I always think of prophets as being loners. But Elisha has quite a retinue of assistant prophets. The group comes to Elisha and proposes building houses along the Jordan. Elisha agrees. During construction, an ax head flies into the water and being made of iron, sinks right to the bottom of the river. Needless to say, the carpenter is distraught as this is his most valuable tool. Elisha helps out by making the ax head float so it can be retrieved. Why is this story here? I am never happy when the laws of physics are disobeyed so blatantly—even in the service of God’s prophets.

In another incident, Elisha is advising the king of Israel about plans of the Arameans to attack Israel and that the king should avoid certain specific places. Seeing that the king has escaped his grasp, the Aramean king suspects there’s a spy in his retinue. However, an officer asserts that Elisha is the one giving this information to the king of Israel. The Aramean king gives orders to capture Elisha and they head to Dothan. Upon seeing the city of Dothan surrounded by the Aramean army, the prophet’s servant panics: “Alas, master! What shall we do?” (6:15) Elisha tells him not to worry and prays to God for the servant’s eyes to be opened. The servant looks out and “he saw the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (17) The servant understands via this vision that God will protect Elisha.

The prophet prays to God for rather direct action, “Strike this people, please, with blindness.” (18) God complies and Elisha leads the blind army right inside the city of Samaria. He then prays for their blindness to be removed and as they open their eyes they realize they’re right in the city of their mortal enemy. The king of Israel, well aware of Elisha’s power, asks him, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” Elisha replies that the king should show mercy by feeding the Arameans and letting them go home. As a consequence, Israel is no longer threatened by Aramea.

I guess the moral here is that having seen God’s power as exemplified by Elisha, and then being shown mercy is a far better way to deal with enemies than attacking and killing them. Which, when one considers the wars of the Reformation and the religious wars since then, this is a lesson continually missed down through history.

This story also tells us that Jesus’ words to love one’s enemies and turn the other cheek is based on scriptural roots and is less radical than it first sounds. Anyone familiar with this story would understand what Jesus was saying.

Acts 1:15–26: Luke tells us that the band of Jesus’ disciples now numbers 120 (I wonder of the number—10 x 12— has any particular significance?). Peter announces to the assembly that “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas.” (16) and that a new disciple is needed to fill the gap left by the traitor.

Luke informs us parenthetically that Judas bought a piece of land, which must have had a steep cliff on it since Judas fell “headlong, [and] he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” (18) Which, by the way, is not how Matthew describes Judas’ fate: “Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5)

Nevertheless, a replacement disciple is needed and there are two candidates, “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.” (23) The assembly (all 120 or just the 11?) prays and asks God to “Show us which one of these two you have chosen.” (24) They apparently believed that God would provide his answer via the casting of lots and “the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” (26)

The question on my mind is why there had to be exactly twelve disciples. Was it because Jesus had specified that? And what about this business of praying and then casting lots? I suppose the idea was that God’s will would be revealed in how the lots fell.