Psalm 97:7–12; Jeremiah 9:10–10:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12

Originally published 8/15/2017. Revised and updated 8/14/2019.

Psalm 97:7–12: Our psalmist points out not just the futility of idol worship, but also its negative impact on their worshippers:
All idol-worshippers are shamed
who boast of the ungods.
All gods bow down to Him. (7)

At first read the last line of this verse about small-g gods seems to contradict the the first two lines. After all, aren’t idols mere inanimate human constructions? Here, I go with my personal theory here that the small-g gods refers to the host of heaven as our poet once again reinforces God’s preeminence over nature but also over the population of heaven itself.

In any event, the realization of God’s power and majesty as the one true king, who is bringing judgement over creation, generates true joy in all of Judea’s precincts, be it Jerusalem or its suburbs:
Zion heard and rejoiced,
and Judea’s villages exulted
because of Your judgements, Lord. (8)

And to make sure we get the point about God reigning over all creation, our poet reiterates his ascendancy over both heaven and earth:
For You, Lord, are most high over all the earth;
You are greatly exalted over all the gods. (9)

At this point our psalmist turns his attention to those who love and follow God, reminding them that they, too, must follow God’s example. In return they receive God’s protection:
You who love the Lord,, hate evil!
He guards the the lives of His faithful.
From the hand of the wicked He saves them. (10)

Of course as we learn in Jeremiah, not that many in Judea were actually faithful to God, and the wicked were certainly the ones in power.

In a beautiful agricultural metaphor, our poet reminds us that if we indeed follow God we will receive the light. This line has a prophetic impact on me because this is exactly the point Jesus made when he told his followers that “I am the light of the world.” It is at that point in history where God has indeed “sown light” in the Incarnation in order to save all humankind.
Light is sown for the just,
and for the upright of heart there is joy.”(11)

The psalm ends where it began—on a note of rejoicing and worship, which also suggests elements of the structure of worship: We enter rejoicing and we depart rejoicing:
Rejoice, O you just, in the Lord,
and acclaim His holy name. (12)

Jeremiah 9:10–10:16: OK, Jeremiah, we get it. He reminds us once again that the people of Judah have abandoned God, turning to wicked ways. Once again, speaking in God’s voice, he warns that they will pay a heavy price for their apostasy:
I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins,
    a lair of jackals;
and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation,
    without inhabitant.” (9:11)

When that awful time of judgement and desolation comes, Jeremiah promises that there will be the proverbial weeping and gnashing of teeth. The prophet evokes the image of the professional mourning women of that day:
Hear, O women, the word of the Lord,
    and let your ears receive the word of his mouth;
teach to your daughters a dirge,
    and each to her neighbor a lament.
“Death has come up into our windows,
    it has entered our palaces,
to cut off the children from the streets
    and the young men from the squares.” (9:20, 21)

In the end God is asking but one thing: that we abandon our illusions of wisdom, might, and wealth and that we come to “understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” (9:24)

And that’s just as true today. If we put God at the center of our lives we will come to understand that he is not just the God of vengeance for wickedness, but the God who wants nothing more than to have us love him as he loves us. But like the people of Judea, our society just as willfully worships our own idols of greed, sex, wealth, and power.

Jeremiah concludes this chapter by observing “all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” (9:25) Stephen references Jeremiah’s theme in his sermon just before he is stoned to death  that his accusers are “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” (Acts 7:51) In short, not much had changed in the centuries between Jeremiah and Stephen—nor between Stephen and today.

In chapter 10, Jeremiah turns his gaze away from Judah and on to Israel, the northern kingdom. First, there are various warnings to avoid emulating their apostate neighbors:
Do not learn the way of the nations,
    or be dismayed at the signs of the heavens;
    for the nations are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the peoples are false. (10:2,3a)

The foreign custom to be avoided specifically is—no surprise here—the creation of idols:
For the customs of the peoples are false:
a tree from the forest is cut down,
    and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan;
people deck it with silver and gold;
    they fasten it with hammer and nails
    so that it cannot move. (10:3b, 4)

Jeremiah spends the remainder of today’s reading on a tear about the stupidity of those who worship powerless idols, reminding us that they are inanimate, powerless objects as he denigrates them with a rather nice simile:
Their idols  are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
    and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
    for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them,
    for they cannot do evil,
    nor is it in them to do good. (10:5)

Sounding almost like the psalmist above, Jeremiah contrasts their powerlessness with God’s power:
There is none like you, O Lord;
    you are great, and your name is great in might.” (10:6)

Jeremiah goes on to contrast the pathetic artisanship of humans with the magnificent creative work of God, forcing us to draw the obvious conclusion that there is but one true God:
[Idols] are the work of the artisan and of the hands of the goldsmith;
    their clothing is blue and purple;
    they are all the product of skilled workers.
But the Lord is the true God;
    he is the living God and the everlasting King.
At his wrath the earth quakes,
    and the nations cannot endure his indignation. (10:9, 10)

To make sure we understand God’s true power as over against the impotence of idols, Jeremiah makes his point about impotent idols vs. God one more time:
They are worthless, a work of delusion;
    at the time of their punishment they shall perish.
Not like these is the Lord,  the portion of Jacob,
    for he is the one who formed all things,
and Israel is the tribe of his inheritance;
    the Lord of hosts is his name.” (10:15, 16)

But alas, like Israel’s failure to recognize these truth, so we too in our own delusions pursue our idols and reject God—at increasingly great cost. Exactly as both today’s psalmist and Jeremiah warned us.

2 Thessalonians 2:1–12: Paul continues his apocalyptic theme, warning the Thessalonians that contrary to what they have concluded (probably from the persecution they are enduring), that the Day of the Lord—the end of history—has not yet come. That will not happen before the arrival of the person Paul designates as “the lawless one.” The end of history will not happen “unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.” (3) The thing to watch out for, Paul warns, is that this person “opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.” (4)

This would be the same person identified in Revelation as the Antichrist, whose true identity will be revealed at the Day of the Lord. [My own view is that Paul is referring to the Roman emperor.] As Paul points out this is not to say wickedness isn’t already afoot, but its most dire consequences are being held back from their full fury by someone: “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed.” (7) Paul is making it clear that Satan is the person behind it all and he is presently giving everyone on earth a foretaste of the horrors to come at the end of history: “The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders,” (9)

Like Jeremiah, Paul points out that those who refuse God and the saving power of Jesus Christ will perish: “every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (10)

But then Paul says something that is truly puzzling. Referring to those who rejected salvation, he says “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.” (11, 12) Really? God purposely deludes those who reject salvation? I think Paul is referring back to the Antichrist, who uses false religion to delude the gullible. If we reject the truth about Jesus Christ, Paul implies, we will by default turn to the delusions created by the Antichrist.

Identifying the Antichrist has been a popular sport in various churches down through the centuries with theories ranging from various popes to Hitler, Stalin, and today, terrorists. But as I read Paul here, we have not yet seen truly powerful evil. Which is a difficult idea to get my head around when yet another mass shooting occurs. Powerful evil certainly seems to be stalking the world these days.

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