Psalm 97:1–6; Jeremiah 8:1–9:9; 2 Thessalonians 1

Originally published 8/14/2017. Revised and updated 8/12/2019.

Psalm 97:1–6: Like the two preceding psalms, this one celebrates God’s kingship over his creation using a series of striking images. The opening verse leaves no doubt as to who is in charge of the earth and what our response should be:
The Lord reigns—let earth exult,
let the many islands rejoice. (1)

Alter informs us that “islands” is the Hebrew usage for “remote lands,” i.e., everyone on earth should rejoice in the reality of God’s kingship regardless of their geographical location. While God himself, represented here by clouds and fog, is somewhat shrouded in a magisterial mystery that we cannot fully comprehend there is no ambiguity as to what God’s throne stands for:
Cloud and dense fog around Him,
justice and judgement the base of His throne. (2)

For me, the most important part of these few verses is that God remains active in the world he created, dispensing judgement and justice described in metaphors that connote immense power over all creation:
Fire goes before Him
and all round burns His foes
His lightnings lit up the world:
the earth saw and quaked.
Mountains melted like wax before the Lord,
before the Master of all the earth. (3-5)

Fire, lightning, earthquakes, and volcanoes: these remind us that while God loves us as individuals, he is still almighty God. And we’d better not try to domesticate him, (as so many praise choruses seem to do).

Notice how the theme of justice is intertwined with the demonstration of God’s power:
The heavens told His justice,
and all peoples saw His glory. (6)

As far as this psalmist is concerned, justice is God’s ultimate purpose over humankind. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as societies reject God they see a woeful increase of injustice, especially to the poor and downtrodden. What can we say about our own? I think it’s the growing perception that the 1% elite are exempt from justice is one major factor that is eating away at our own society.

Jeremiah 8:1–9:9: Although today’s reading begins in prose, its themes are pretty much the same we’ve encountered in the poetry of previous chapters. Jeremiah, continuing to speak in God’s voice, describes the grim fate of those who have disobeyed and abandoned God.  A haunting image of disinterred officials, priests, and yes, prophets who have abandoned God is capped off by a dark prediction for those still living: “Death shall be preferred to life by all the remnant that remains of this evil family in all the places where I have driven them, says the Lord of hosts.” (8:3)

Reverting to poetic form, Jeremiah’s God reminds us that he has been patient, yet the entire nation persists in its wickedness:
Why then has this people turned away
    in perpetual backsliding?
They have held fast to deceit,
    they have refused to return. (8:5)

What is even worse is that despite God’s patience there has been a refusal to repent. Jeremiah warns that these recalcitrant people, who profess innocence, have finally worn out God’s patience:
I have given heed and listened,
    but they do not speak honestly;
no one repents of wickedness,
    saying, “What have I done!”
All of them turn to their own course,
    like a horse plunging headlong into battle. (8:6)

Jeremiah is holding officialdom to greater account than the people as a whole. The great sin of leadership is that in their pride and refusing to repent and ignoring God, they have become absolute hypocrites and are misleading those who they lead. Even worse, they seem to believe their own press releases:
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
    saying, “Peace, peace,”
    when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;

    yet they were not at all ashamed,
    they did not know how to blush. (8:11, 12a)

Those words certainly seem to describe those leaders who inhabit and have power in the Washington “swamp.” As always, the prophetic promise of dire retribution follows:
[Enemies] come and devour the land and all that fills it,
    the city and those who live in it.
See, I am letting snakes loose among you,
    adders that cannot be charmed,
    and they shall bite you,
says the Lord. (8: 16b, 17)

There is pride-filled willfulness creates an intense and doleful effect on Jeremiah of these collective sins and refusal to repent is causes the prophet mourn for the hoi polloi, who have been so badly misled by the priests, prophets, and officials that purportedly lead them:
My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
    my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
    from far and wide in the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
    Is her King not in her?” (8:18, 19a)

And in one of those famous lines that was once well known in American culture but that today only provoke unknowing stares, Jeremiah asks,
Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
    not been restored? (8:22)

Those to whom Jeremiah prophesies are so relentlessly evil that the prophet wishes he could hide in the desert, free from his prophetic duties:
O that I had in the desert
    a traveler’s lodging place,
that I might leave my people
    and go away from them!
For they are all adulterers,
    a band of traitors. (9:2)

Tragically, in their flight from God and self-centered perversity, the trust that was once prevalent among neighbors has evaporated:
Beware of your neighbors,
    and put no trust in any of your kin; 
…They all deceive their neighbors,
    and no one speaks the truth;
they have taught their tongues to speak lies;
    they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent.
Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit!
    They refuse to know me, says the Lord. (9:4-6)

As always, evil begins to manifest itself in words and speech that seeks to deceive:
Their tongue is a deadly arrow;
    it speaks deceit through the mouth.
They all speak friendly words to their neighbors,
    but inwardly are planning to lay an ambush. (9:8)

I think these verses are playing themselves out right here in 21st century America as we see increasingly less trust among different groups as our various tribes grow increasingly polarized—a tendency all too eagerly exploited by those who claim virtuous victimhood. We hear cries for peace, but as Jeremiah makes so abundantly clear there is no peace where God has been cast out.

2 Thessalonians 1: As with the case of the Corinthians, there must have been some now lost response from the people at Thessaloniki that has generated Paul’s second epistle to them. And, as with II Corinthians, we can only guess at the what the contents of that letter (or perhaps verbal report by someone such as Timothy, who has returned to Rome from Thessaloniki).

This time Paul’s words of praise and gratitude for the Thessalonians is more brief than the invocation of his first letter. However, he remains as encouraging as before, especially since that church appears to be under severe persecution, perhaps by Jews in the city who see Christianity as a dire threat to their religious hegemony: “Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.” (4)

Sounding somewhat like Jeremiah, Paul promises them that at the end of history, God’s judgement will be meted out to those who oppress them now: “For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels .” (7) And in a distinctly Old Testament tone, Paul goes on to note that this judgement will occur “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (8, 9)

These verses form the basis for the Christian concept of judgement and hell—a theme which in today’s feel-good churches is distinctly ignored, but which historically has been much more at the forefront of theology and sermonizing—perhaps most famously in Jonathan Edward’s famous sermon titled, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.”

Our ancestors took hell much more seriously than we who live in a therapeutic culture. There is Michelangelo’s fresco, “The Last Judgement” on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. And we should never forget Hieronymus Bosch’s famous vision of hell in his paintings, The Last Judgement and The Garden of Earthly Delights. Perhaps these illustrations are over the top but I think we ignore the consequences of evil at our peril. Neither Jeremiah nor Paul are irrelevant in our modern world that denies death and the consequences of evil.

Hieronymus Bosch : “The Last Judgement”

I confess to great ambivalence on the topic of eternal punishment being meted out at the end of history, but as we also read in Matthew 25 in Jesus’ Olivet discourse,’ judgement for wrongdoing awaits all of us. Judgement Day will be binary as we are divided into metaphorical sheep and goats.  It would do me good to reflect more frequently on which category I belong to.

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