Psalm 95; Jeremiah 4:23–5:25; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:3

Originally published 8/10/2017. Revised and updated 8/9/2019.

Psalm 95: As with other celebratory psalms, this one also opens with the joyful command to sing to the Lord, reminding us that singing has always been a central element of worship:
Come let us sing gladly to the Lord,
let us shout out to the Rock of our rescue.
Let us greet Him in acclaim,
in songs let us shout out to him. (1,2)

Also as usual, the main topic of these worship songs is God as being the sole and mighty Lord over all creation, including over other small-g gods:
For a great god is the Lord
and great king over all the gods. (3)

So, who are these other small-g gods? They are not human-fashioned idols but rather what I take to be the host of heaven. (Alter speculates this verse may be a linguistic leftover from ancient Canaanite mythology.) In any event, it is the Lord as creator of the natural world, including humans that this psalm celebrates:
In Whose hand are the depths of the earth,
and the peaks of the mountains are His.
His is the sea and He made it,
and the dry land His hands did fashion.
Come, let us bow before the Lord our Maker. (4-6)

Our psalmist emphasizes Israel’s special relationship with God using the (ever-popular) shepherd-sheep metaphor. But like stupid sheep, too often we fail to heed God’s voice:
For He is our God
and we the people He tends
and the flock of his hand.
If you would only heed His voice! (7)

At this point the tone of the psalm shifts from celebration to a rather tense sermon written in God’s voice. The psalmist reminds the congregation of Israel’s historical acts of disobedience during the wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land:
Do not harden your heart as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when in the wilderness,
when your forefathers tested Me,
tried me, though they had seen My acts. (8,9)

In fact, the entire psalm becomes rather downbeat as the poet continues in the voice of God, emphasizing God’s memories of Israel’s stubbornness and cowardice that resulted in wandering in the wilderness for forty years:
Forty years I loathed a generation,
and I said, ‘They are a people of wayward heart.
And they did not know my ways.’
Against them I swore in My wrath,
‘They shall not come to my resting place. (10,11)

The psalmist’s implicit warning is that if the Jews of his generation do not come to worship God and follow him they will be denied the metaphorical ‘resting place’ (aka the Promised Land) as well.

The same goes for us. When we rebel against God, or as is more common these days, deny his existence, we will also never find true peace for ourselves because the true ‘resting place’ does not exist within us. It exists only in God. Which also explains the size of the therapy industry as lost souls attempt to find that God-free resting place. Like the end of the rainbow it will never be found unless one turns to God.

Jeremiah 4:23–5:25: Jeremiah continues his prophetic speech in the voice of God using a depressing description of a ruined creation consisting only of darkness, earthquakes, and emptiness:
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
    and all its cities were laid in ruins
    before the Lord, before his fierce anger. (4:26)

However, while Israel’s land will be made desolate, God keeps his promise to Noah and is not ending creation itself. But Jeremiah promises that destruction will indeed be visited on a sinful nation whose futile attempts to make peace with surrounding nations—the metaphorical ‘lovers.’ He lampoons these pointless efforts as an ugly woman trying to make herself beautiful:
And you, O desolate one,
what do you mean that you dress in crimson,
    that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
    that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself.
    Your lovers despise you;
    they seek your life. (4:30)

Jeremiah shifts to yet another feminine metaphor to describe a dying Israel. And it is even less pleasant:
For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,
    anguish as of one bringing forth her first child,
the cry of daughter Zion gasping for breath,
    stretching out her hands,
“Woe is me! I am fainting before killers! (4:31)

Jeremiah finally relents with the descriptive metaphors of a destroyed nation to explain—again speaking in God’s voice—reminding his listeners as to why this national destruction will occur. As at Sodom, God will forego destruction if he can find but one truly faithful soul:
Search its squares and see
    if you can find one person
who acts justly
    and seeks truth—
so that I may pardon Jerusalem. (5:1)

But everyone there is a hypocrite—”they say, “As the Lord lives,”/ yet they swear falsely.” (5:2)—and worse,
...they refused to take correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
    they have refused to turn back. (5:3)

Having found no righteous people among the poor, God examines the rich, thinking,
surely they know the way of the Lord,
    the law of their God.”
But they all alike had broken the yoke,
    they had burst the bonds. (5:5)

But as we know from experience today the rich are no smarter than the poor. They are just stupid about different things. Because of their collective sinful intransigence, God writes them all off:
For the house of Israel and the house of Judah
    have been utterly faithless to me,
says the Lord. (5:11)

As with our culture today, everyone remains in denial that God will finally act should the prophet’s warnings go unheeded:
[They] have said, “He will do nothing.
No evil will come upon us,
    and we shall not see sword or famine. (5:12)

Jeremiah makes a very specific prophecy to Israel that they will be conquered by “a nation from far away,” (5:15) that brings only death and destruction:
They shall eat up your harvest and your food;
    they shall eat up your sons and your daughters;
they shall destroy with the sword
    your fortified cities in which you trust. (5:17)

But as always, there is a glimmer of hope. Some will survive: “But even in those days, says the Lord, I will not make a full end of you.” (5:18) Nevertheless, Jeremiah concludes ·still speaking as the voice of God),
this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart;
    they have turned aside and gone away.
They do not say in their hearts,
    “Let us fear the Lord our God,
who gives the rain in its season,”
…Your iniquities have turned these away,
    and your sins have deprived you of good. (5:24, 25)

These words are a stern tocsin for us as well. Just like Israel and Judah we as a people—especially our leaders—are equally in denial about our collective sinfulness. Without acknowledgement followed by repentance things will not end well for American society just as they didn’t for Israel and Judah so many centuries ago.

1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:3: We arrive at the most controversial part of this epistle and one of the most controversial in the entire New testament: Paul’s description of what will happen at the end of history at Jesus’ second coming. Somebody certainly must have asked him what happens when Jesus comes again, which in those days was seen as imminent:

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (15, 16)

OK, I can accept that as a reasonably rational description of what might happen when Jesus returns. But the next verse has become the ‘go-to’ verse for those who believe in the pre-tribulation Rapture: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” (17)

Many interpreters have stretched this verse to conclude that Jesus will come take believers out of the world and up into heaven before various prophecies in Revelation come to pass, specifically the 7-year tribulation. This is the plot of the novel, Taken, from some years back. This belief is particularly widespread among Evangelical and Pentecostal believers.

But I see nothing of the sort here. Paul is simply using his relentlessly logical thought process to deal with the problem of how already dead Christians and living Christians will get to heaven at the Second Coming. It’s a reasonable explanation unadorned by concatenating it with parts of Revelation. But who knows? There are more important things for us Christians living in the here and now—which was certainly the thrust of Jesus’ own teachings. And Paul’s, as this is the only place in his epistles where he attempts to grapple with this issue.

There’s one thing we can be sure of, though. When the end comes it will be a surprise: “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (5:2)

As for me I’m content to leave it all at the level of abstraction we find in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds: “He will come to judge the living and the dead.”

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