Archives for September 2019

Psalm 107:23–32; Jeremiah 50:1–40; Hebrews 4:6–16

Originally published 9/19/2017. Revised and updated 9/18/2019.

Psalm 107:23–32: The reading opens with one of my favorite stanzas in the psalms because Herman Melville quotes them in Father Mapple’s sermon near the beginning of my favorite American novel, Moby Dick, as he preaches to a congregation of sailors about to depart for a two-year (and ultimately doomed) whaling voyage:
Those that go down to the sea in ships,
who do tasks in the mighty waters,
it is they who have see the deeds of the Lord,
and His wonders in the deep. (23, 24)

And in this era of monster hurricanes, the next verse is especially apropos. It is perhaps the most beautiful description ever written describing an angry sea and the woeful plight of sailors caught in those storm-tossed waves:
He speaks and raises the stormwind
and it makes the waves loom high.
They go up to the heavens, come down to the depths,
their life-breath in hardship grows faint.
They reel and sway like a drunkard,
all their wisdom is swallowed up. (26, 27)

But there is one who rescues them:
And they cry to the Lord
from their straits from their distress He brings them out,
He turns the storm into silence,
and its waves are stilled,
and they rejoice that these have grown quiet.
and He leads them to their bourn. (28, 29)

[‘Bourn’ is a small, still stream.] I guess we could call this an “inadvertent prophecy,” for it is a perfect description of that stormy night on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus slept peacefully in the rocking boat as the disciples panicked. Of course these verses are also a perfect metaphor for the storms and trials in our own lives and the peace that only prayer and Jesus Christ can bring to our personal sturm und drang.

As always in the Psalms, heartfelt worship is the immediate reaction of those who have been rescued by God:
Let them acclaim to the Lord His kindness
and His wonders to humankind.
Let them exalt Him in the people’s assembly
and in the session of elders praise Him. (31, 32)

When I look back over my life I realize there are numerous times where God has indeed rescued me from the waves. Not least in 2009.

Jeremiah 50:1–40: Now it is Babylon’s turn to be in Jeremiah’s cross-hairs as the prophet pronounces God’s judgement on the conquerors of Judah and Jerusalem: “For out of the north a nation has come up against her; it shall make her land a desolation, and no one shall live in it; both human beings and animals shall flee away.” (3) As we know from history, Cyrus, king of what is now Persia, conquered Babylon in BCE 539—not too many years after Babylon decimated Jerusalem.  Jeremiah repeats his prophecy, this time with greater military specificity: “For I am going to stir up and bring against Babylon a company of great nations from the land of the north; and they shall array themselves against her; from there she shall be taken.” (9)  [Sorry, but my personal suspicion is that our Jeremiah author is writing after that event, not before, so he had the historical facts at hand…]

This event occurs when “the people of Israel shall come, they and the people of Judah together; they shall come weeping as they seek the Lord their God.” (4)  Notice how Israel and  Judah are at long last reunited, albeit in their suffering. It’s clear here that Jeremiah anticipates the repentance of the Jewish remnant that still remains in exile.

We once again encounter the metaphor of Israel as a flock of wandering sheep: “My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold.” (6)

The sheep metaphor arises again in a succinct summary of the fate the once-proud kingdom of David and Solomon has endured: “Israel is a hunted sheep driven away by lions. First the king of Assyria devoured it, and now at the end King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has gnawed its bones.” (17)

But as that metaphor of lost sheep continues we encounter God’s wonderful promise: “I will restore Israel to its pasture, and it shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead its hunger shall be satisfied…for I will pardon the remnant that I have spared.” (19, 20) Where there is repentance there is also restoration.

Many verses regarding the destruction of Babylon follow…

The question arises: If God used Assyria and Babylon as his agents to dole out Israel’s and Judah’s deserved punishments, why is he now so enthusiastic about destroying its conquerors? I think the answer is here: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: The people of Israel are oppressed, and so too are the people of Judah; all their captors have held them fast and refuse to let them go.” (33) The conquerors think their hold on power is firm and they have exceeded the punishments God has allowed.

At this point, Jeremiah believes that Israel has suffered enough and he holds onto a firm hope: “Their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of hosts is his name. He will surely plead their cause, that he may give rest to the earth, but unrest to the inhabitants of Babylon.” (34)

Jeremiah’s final prophecy is that Babylon will never be rebuilt: “Therefore wild animals shall live with hyenas in Babylon, and ostriches shall inhabit her; she shall never again be peopled, or inhabited for all generations.” (39) Which is exactly what happened. Its ruins lie in the middle of the Iraqi desert.

What’s the lesson for us? God cannot endure evil and empires fall. What fate awaits us here in the declining empire of America that so thoroughly is abandoning its Judeo-Christian foundation? Will we see repentance and restoration? That is what we must pray for.

Hebrews 4:6–16: Our author continues his disquisition on “rest.” I think what he is getting at is that “rest” for the Jews was both the God-ordained Sabbath as well as the Promised Land they occupied with Joshua so many centuries ago under the terms of the Old Covenant. But he argues that “rest” has an even greater meaning: “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day.” (8) And, he continues, “a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his.” (9, 10)  So we should literally rest from our labors just as God rested. 

But there’s a still another interpretation of “rest,” and I think it is living out our salvation through Jesus Christ: “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” (11)

We arrive a verse I learned as a kid: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (12) I was taught that the small-w “word of God” is Scripture, the Bible. That’s the view of most Evangelicals, who love their sola scriptura. I’m less sure now. It seems to me the word of God can come in a variety of ways beyond just the Bible: through other people, through sermons, through actions, through reflection. The Holy Spirit is not limited in the ways it can operate on us nor in the ways God’s word comes to us.

Regardless of how we hear God’s word, in the end our actions and the consequences of those actions are our responsibility: “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (13) The truth will always be found out.

I think behind all of this rather confusing essay, our author is attempting to describe the impact of the transition from Old Covenant Judaism to New Covenant Christianity. Nowhere does that become more apparent than his essay on Jesus Christ as our great high priest.

However, Jesus as priest is not some abstract metaphor. Rather, our author wants to make sure we see Jesus as a real and legitimate priest who by becoming human through the Incarnation fully understands our human plight for he has experienced it himself: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested  as we are, yet without sin.” (15) That last phrase “yet without sin” says it all in how Jesus, while human, is also far greater than we.

Jesus as priest sits on the throne of grace and in one of the clearer promises in this epistle, our author makes sure we know that Jesus is the person to whom we come to confess and receive forgiveness: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (16) That, ladies and gentlemen, is a promise we can hang on to. We can indeed come to Jesus and confess and he intercedes on our behalf, making us right before God.

Psalm 107:17–22; Jeremiah 49:17–38; Hebrews 3:16–4:5

Originally published 9/18/2017. Revised and updated 9/17/2019.

Psalm 107:17–22: Our psalmist continues to describe the plight of those taken captive in what I presume is some war in Israel’s history. He does not appear to have much sympathy for them due to their disobedience, which as usual is the deuteronomic fomula:
Fools because of their sinful way,
because of their misdeeds they were afflicted. (17)

These people are in dire straits, perhaps due to some stomach ailment to the point of death:
All food their throat rejected,
they came to the gates of death. (18)

Recognizing their plight and their imminent doom, they finally turn to their last hope in what seems to be a psalmic version of a foxhole conversion. As always, God listens and rescues:
And they cried to Lord in their straits,
form their distress He rescued them.
He sent forth His word and healed them,
and delivered them from their pit. (19, 20)

What’s striking here is that it is God’s word that is the agent of rescue. This verse must certainly have been on John’s mind when he penned the prologue to his eponymous gospel. Jesus is indeed the Word from God who saves and heals us.

As always, when they (and we) are rescued there can be only one response: gratitude and worship:
Let the acclaim to the Lord His kindness,
and His wonders to humankind,
and offer thanksgiving sacrifices
and recount His deeds in glad song. (21, 22)

These verses are personally convicting. How often I’ve been discouraged or found myself in a dark place in my life. It is God who sees me through. But other than a quick prayer of acknowledgement as e.g., “Thank you, Lord,” I do not stop to sing or to worship. As always, God is infinitely patient with me, but he deserves far more of my gratitude than I give him.

Jeremiah 49:17–38: Although the book of Jeremiah spends most of its time (and my energy) on pronouncing doom on Israel, Judah, and especially Jerusalem, by no means are the Gentile nations surrounding Israel let off the hook.

Today, there’s Edom, which “shall become an object of horror; everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters.” (17) This nation receives the dubious honor of being compared to Sodom and Gomorrah. Our author also compares Edom’s inhabitants to sheep, who suffer the awful fate of seeing their children led away as prisoners. And once proud soldiers will collapse in fear—”and the heart of the warriors of Edom in that day shall be like the heart of a woman in labor.” (22) And as we know, Edom no longer exists.

While Edom’s doom was pronounced in prose, Damascus and the kingdoms of Kedar and Hazor (of which I have never heard until now) meet their doom in poetry:
Damascus has become feeble, she turned to flee,
    and panic seized her;
anguish and sorrows have taken hold of her,
    as of a woman in labor.

Therefore her young men shall fall in her squares,
    and all her soldiers shall be destroyed in that day,
says the Lord of hosts. (24, 27)

As for Kedar and Hazor:
Flee, wander far away, hide in deep places,

    O inhabitants of Hazor!
says the Lord.
For King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon
    has made a plan against you
    and formed a purpose against you.
Rise up, advance against a nation at ease,

  that lives secure,
says the Lord,
 (30, 31)

The scary verse here is that Hazor was conquered blissfully unaware—as a “nation at ease.” Its defenses were non-existent, as its inhabitants focused instead on its comfortable lifestyle. This sounds awfully close to home here in the21st century.

Wherever Hazor once was, its land will become a wasteland:
Hazor shall become a lair of jackals,
    an everlasting waste;
no one shall live there,
    nor shall anyone settle in it. (33)

The image that comes to my mind is the rubble remaining after a firebomb attack such as Leipzig in World War II or Hiroshima following the atom bomb. As we read here, there is nothing new about total annihilation.

Finally, it’s back to prose as Elam meets its fate of a scattered population: “I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven; and I will scatter them to all these winds, and there shall be no nation to which the exiles from Elam shall not come.” (36) Which is also certainly descriptive of what happened to the Jews following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in CE 70 by the Roman general, Titus.

The reading concludes with a rather cryptic prophecy. Jeremiah, speaking in God’s voice, announces, “and I will set my throne in Elam, and destroy their king and officials, says the Lord.” (38) One awaits clarification. Perhaps we’ll find out tomorrow.

Hebrews 3:16–4:5: Our author reflects on the fact that even though they had direct evidence of God’s daily provision through the manna and his leadership via the cloud/fire, the Jews wandering in the wilderness nevertheless rebelled. And in good Old Covenant fashion they were duly punished for their rebellion: “Now who were they who heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? But with whom was he angry forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?” (3:16, 17) But the even worse sin was disbelief in God’s message (or promise) to them: “So we see that they were unable to enter [Canaan, aka the promised land] because of unbelief.” (3:19)

The author refers to the promised land as “rest” as he turns the rest promised to Israel into a metaphor for salvation that is available to every person—Jew and Gentile— of faith. He notes first that as with the Jews, we too have heard “good news came to us just as to them” (4:2a) in the person of Jesus Christ. But just as the rebellious Jews in Moses’ time rejected God’s message, so too have most Jews in Jesus’ time heard the message of salvation and rejected it because it “did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” (4:2)

Thus begins what we might call “the Great Shift” of the target audience of the Gospel message from Jew to Gentile because of the Jewish rejection of Jesus Christ. It is “we who have believed [who] enter that rest.” (4:3)

Our author then goes off in a fairly impenetrable (to me, anyway) tangent, whose logic I cannot quite follow, as he quotes Genesis, “For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” (4:4) He quotes a later passage as well: “And again in this place it says, “They shall not enter my rest.” (4:5).

My take on this is that in the same way Eden is “the Rest,” Jesus Christ is our own Eden. And just as Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, and the Jews of Moses time prevented from entering the promised land, so, too, the Jews who have rejected Jesus will be prevented from obtaining salvation, which I think is what “rest” represents here.

Or maybe not… Where is grace here?

Psalm 107:10–16; Jeremiah 48:26–49:16; Hebrews 3:1–15

Originally published 9/16/2015. Revised and updated 9/16/2019.

Psalm 107:10–16: Unlike the previous psalm, this one omits the historic details of Israel’s history, concentrating instead on the cyclic relationship between God and the wandering nation. It always starts with rebellion:
For they rebelled against God’s sayings,
the MostHigh’s counsel they despised. (11)

And then the consequences of that rebellion:
And He brought their heart low in troubles.
They stumbled with none to help. (12)

That last line is perhaps the most frightening of all for it describes life without God. We, too, are stumbling around in the dark with no one there to help. I think stumbling pretty much characterizes most of our culture today. Wandering, stumbling, trying to do it all on our own in the vain hope we somehow will stumble into the light. The psalmist offers a simple solution to this aimless and hopeless stumbling:
And they cried to the Lord from their straits,
from their distress He rescued them.
He brought them out from the dark and of death’s shadow
and their bonds He sundered. (13, 14)

Notice how the rescue is effected: the people cry out. In that verbal society, speech is everything, Not writing for God for rescue, not thinking about God for rescue, not even praying for God’s rescue, but crying aloud. In that painful cry e acknowledge our aloneness and desperation by calling out to God. For when we speak aloud we are admitting our desperation to ourselves, to those around us, and finally to God.

And having called out, having acknowledged that we cannot find our way on our own, God comes to us and does something remarkable: “We are brought “out from the dark and death’s shadow.” The psalmist describes two types of darkness here. The first is the dark of our own futile attempts to find direction and purpose in life and ending up just going in circles. But that darkness is different than death’s shadow, which always hangs over us whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

God brought us out from death’s shadow by sending Jesus to conquer death. But we can be brought our from that shadow only by crying out to God and acknowledging we are helplessly lost on our own. And then in gratitude for our rescue from the prison we have created for ourselves, we can sing aloud with the psalmist:
Let them [us!] acclaim to the Lord His kindness
and His wonders to humankind.
For He shattered the doors of bronze
and the iron bars He hacked off. (15, 16)

Jeremiah 48:26–49:16: God judges three civilizations: the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites. The section opens on an arresting image: “let Moab wallow in his vomit; he too shall become a laughingstock.” (48:26) The poem that follows describes once great Moab becoming a drunken victim of its own pride:
    We have heard of the pride of Moab—
        he is very proud—
    of his loftiness, his pride, and his arrogance,
        and the haughtiness of his heart.” (48:29)

But like a drunkard, Moab’s pride becomes its downfall as “Gladness and joy have been taken away/ from the fruitful land of Moab;” (48:33) and finally, Woe to you, O Moab!
for your sons have been taken captive,
and your daughters into captivity. (48:46).

So, too, the ultimate fate of every nation, every people who bask proudly in their own accomplishments. Inevitably, pride leads to downfall—the drunkard’s stumbling collapse.

But God, being God holds out a flickering flame of hope:
Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab
in the latter days, says the Lord. (48:47). 

People complain about how the OT is always about God’s wrath, and they are right. But the part we have to pay attention to is that no matter how hopeless the situation, no matter what judgement has come, there is always hope in God’s rescue.

So, too with the Ammonites—another prideful people:
   I am going to bring terror upon you,
        says the Lord God of hosts,
        from all your neighbors,
    and you will be scattered, each headlong,
        with no one to gather the fugitives. (49:5)

But once again, there is a glimmer of hope: “But afterward I will restore the fortunes of the Ammonites, says the Lord.” (49:6)

And so once again with the Edomites: “You shall not go unpunished; you must drink it. For by myself I have sworn, says the Lord, that Bozrah shall become an object of horror and ridicule, a waste, and an object of cursing; and all her towns shall be perpetual wastes.” (49:13) But unlike Moab and Ammon, here there seems to be no hope of rescue. Is God’s judgement immutably final? Is God being inconsistent here, or has Edom committed what is essentially an unforgivable sin? Or perhaps there is no underlying logic at all. Is God dispensing hope randomly? I certainly hope not.

Hebrews 3:1–15: These early chapters of Hebrews are all about establishing a clear structure of hierarchy and clarifying and essentially redefining the roles of Israel’s great leaders in light of Jesus Christ as Messiah. First up is Moses. I expect that for the Jews, Moses had evolved over the centuries into a mythical figure, almost god-like. Our author deflates that image. Moses is simply God’s faithful servant” “just as Moses also “was faithful in all God’s house.”” (2) But now in the New Covenant, “Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (3) More than a servant, “Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son.” (6) For the Jews this was radical stuff. The itinerant rabbi they crucified was greater than Moses, who is now demoted to a mere servant?!?

As always, I’d love to know the back story that motivated our author to write this book. Like Paul, we presume he was facing a church of dissension as he quotes Psalm 95, comparing the rebels in the church to Israel rebelling against God in the wilderness:
    “Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
      as on the day of testing in the wilderness,
    where your ancestors put me to the test,” (8, 9a)

To make sure everyone understood the intent of the passage, the writer issues a stern warning: “Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (12) This is a reminder to us that we cannot take our faith casually. We are embarked on the most important journey of our lives: our journey of faith. It is not a hobby. More importantly, faith is not to be set aside when it’s inconvenient for us—or someone challenges us for our hopeless, “unscientific belief in a person we cannot see or hear.

And finally, there comes a reminder that our faith is acted out in community as we encourage each other: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (13) We who believe have remarkable status and responsibility, for “we have become partners of Christ” (14) Ponder that. We are not subordinates; we are members of the family. we are partners. And all that implies in terms of the great responsibilities that come with partnership.

Psalm 107:1–9; Jeremiah 47:1–48:25; Hebrews 2:8b–18

Originally published 9/15/2015. Revised and updated 9/14/2019.

Psalm 107:1–9: The opening of this psalm marks it as a psalm of thanksgiving:
Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,
for His kindness is forever. (1)

It is also probably post-exhilic because the next verse describes how God has gathered together those who have been scattered:
Let the Lord’s redeemed ones say,
whom He redeemed from the hand of the foe,
and gathered them from the lands,
from east and west, from north and south. (2, 3)

God gathered them as they “wandered in wilderness, waste land,/ found no road to a settled town.” (4) These wanderers were “hungry, thirsty, too,/ their life-breath failed within them.” (5) As always, we need only turn to God and cry out for rescue—and God will rescue them and us:
And they cried to the Lord from their straits,
from their distress He saved them. (6)

This psalm operates on two levels. First, the physical. God has gathered together those who were scattered, provided shelter in the settled town, quenched their thirst, and satisfied their hunger:
For He sated the thirsting throat
and the hungry throat He filled with Good. (9)

And these people are indeed thankful.

But the second level speaks directly to us today. Is there a better description of our current human condition? Now that our culture believes we have outgrown the need for God, we are increasingly scattered as we continue lose societal cohesion and wonder own roads that are ultimately dead ends. There is no better metaphor for our present situation than that we have found no road to a settled town where our spiritual hunger and thirst can be quenched.

Will we, like the people in this psalm, “cry to the Lord from their straits?” (6a) For Israel, “from their distress He saved them./ And He led the on a straight road/ to go to a settled town.” (6b, 7) This phrase seems particularly apt as thousand and thousands attempt to flee the chaos of the Middle East and find a straight road to a settled town in Europe or from failed states in Central America seeking asylum in the US.

As Christians, we know where that straight road leads: directly to Jesus Christ. But I fear the world will continue to wander, thinking it knows what to do. Will it, too, ever cry out to God for rescue?

Jeremiah 47:1–48:25: One thing about Jeremiah that we never found with Isaiah. God speaks through this prophet to the lands beyond Israel and Judah. Here, Jeremiah prophesies doom for the Philistines, that ever-present threat to the Jews:
     “For the Lord is destroying the Philistines,
         the remnant of the coastland of Caphtor.
     Baldness has come upon Gaza,
         Ashkelon is silenced.” (47:4b, 5a) 

Because Gaza and Ashkelon are still with us almost 3000 years later, there is an eerie quality to this prophecy, as if it has been fulfilled once again in our time.  Judgement also comes to Moab:
the fortress is put to shame and broken down;
the renown of Moab is no more. (48:2)

There is a gruesome command as well, “Accursed is the one who is slack in doing the work of the Lord; and accursed is the one who keeps back the sword from bloodshed.” (48:10). This is one of those places in the OT where we shake our head, realizing that it was a very different place than the civilization we know, and that some aspects of these prophecies remain inexplicable.

So, why Philistia and Moab here in the midst of a long story about the fate of Israel and Judah? It’s one more place where we encounter the fact that God is concerned with all humankind. Israel may have been his chosen people, but his concerns–and ultimately, his love, extends to all people.

Hebrews 2:8b–18: The reason for our author’s discussion on the place of humans in God’s creative hierarchy starts to become clear: “we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (9)  My take on this is that Jesus came to earth effectively to give God the personal experience, if you will, of “the suffering of death” and of “tasting death.” But in so doing, Jesus Christ has thereby accomplished the means to our salvation, or as our author puts it, “make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” (10) [I love the phrase, “pioneer of salvation”…]

Going on to cite three Scripture passages, our author makes it clear that only through becoming flesh and blood, could Jesus have “likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (14, 15) Jesus came to conquer death. Or as the old cliche has it, Jesus won the final war against death even though we continue to fight the battles against the devil. 

In short, Jesus “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” (17)  Aha, now we see where he’s going with this. Jesus is our great high priest, making the once-and-for-all sacrifice on our behalf. But the primary qualification for Jesus to become that effective priest was that “he himself was tested by what he suffered, [so that] he is able to help those who are being tested.” (18)

God is sympathetic to our fallen plight as humans. That’s on display all the way through the OT. But it is only through the incarnation of Jesus Christ that God becomes empathetic with us: tasting what we taste, walking where we walk, suffering what we suffer—and of course endures the one great Suffering which spares us and becomes the means to our salvation.

Psalm 106:40–48; Jeremiah 45,46; Hebrews 1:10–2:8a

Originally published 9/14/2017. Revised and updated 9/13/2019.

Psalm 106:40–48: God’s anger is understandable given the vile practice of child sacrifice before Canaan’s idols—even to the point of his regretting what having chosen these stubborn, complaining people. Our psalmist’s history lesson arrives at the present doleful situation of Judah in Babylonian exile, which he sees clearly as God’s punishment for their manifold evil sins:
And the Lord’s wrath blazed against His people,
and He abhorred His estate,
and gave them into the hand of nations,
their haters ruled over them.
And their enemies oppressed them,
and they were subject to their power. (40-42)

As far as the psalmist is concerned this is just one more turn of the never-ending cycle of Israel’s sinfulness followed by its repentance followed by God’s forgiving mercy:
Many times did He save them,
and they rebelled against His counsel
and were brought low through their misdeeds.”
And He saw when they were in straits,
when He heard their song of prayer.
And He recalled for them His pact,
relented through His many kindnesses.
And He granted them mercy
in the eyes of all their captors. (43-46)

Our poet asks for God’s mercy once more—for God to gather in his people who have been scattered around the nations so that they may worship him:
Rescue us, Lord, our God
and gather us from the nations
to acclaim Your holy name
and to glory in Your praise. (47)

I’m not sure if this is a specific reference to the return from Babylonian exile or a deeper prophecy about to what happens much later in history. This verse surely was sung in 1947 with the reestablishment of the state of Israel.

The psalm ends on an perfect phrase of liturgical worship:
Blessed is the Lord God of Israel forever and ever.
And all the people say: Amen, hallelujah!

If we ever needed to be reminded of the depths of our own depravity and the fact that God will forgive us when we repent, it is right here. This psalm has plumbed the depths of human depravity but it ends on the highest possible plane—in exactly the same rhythm of a downward thrust of sin in our lives to be supplanted by an upward thrust of mercy and forgiveness. Our God is a rescuing God!

Jeremiah 45,46: Baruch, who is Jeremiah’s amanuensis, receives a wonderful promise for his faithfulness. Jeremiah tells him that he will be spared when the destruction of Jerusalem comes. But rescue requires humility: “And you, do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them; for I am going to bring disaster upon all flesh, says the Lord; but I will give you your life as a prize of war in every place to which you may go.” (45:5)

Indeed, that is the promise for us: when we are willing to place God ahead of our own egos, we will survive and prosper.

Chapter 46 at least opens with a clarification of what the chapter will be about: “The word of the Lord that came to the prophet Jeremiah concerning the nations.” (46:1) And then Jeremiah dives right in once again back in poetic form. The first nation up is Egypt as Jeremiah describes its history rather than events yet to come: “Concerning Egypt, about the army of Pharaoh Neco, king of Egypt, which was by the river Euphrates at Carchemish and which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah.” (46:2) One thing I had not realized: Egypt’s army marched to Babylon in its futile effort to overthrow the Chaldeans.

The poem is almost homeric—a brilliant exposition of battle and blood, opening with Egypt’s doomed plan to ride to Babylon and conquer it:
Egypt rises like the Nile,
    like rivers whose waters surge.
It said, Let me rise, let me cover the earth,
    let me destroy cities and their inhabitants.
Advance, O horses,
    and dash madly, O chariots!
Let the warriors go forth: (46:8, 9)

But defeat by the Chaldeans is inevitable:
The sword shall devour and be sated,
    and drink its fill of their blood.
For the Lord God of hosts holds a sacrifice
    in the land of the north by the river Euphrates. (46:10)

The sacrifice here, of course, is the Egyptian army. Notice that as far as our prophet is concerned, God directs the fate of every nation, not just Israel’s.

Parenthetically, I’ve always wondered what the song, “There is a Balm in Gilead” was referring to. Turns out it’s about Egypt’s defeat at the Euphrates. Who knew?
Go up to Gilead, and take balm,
    O virgin daughter Egypt!
In vain you have used many medicines;
    there is no healing for you (46:11)

Defeated on the battlefield, there is only humiliation for Egypt—and, as far as Jeremiah is concerned, it is God who caused it:
Why has Apis fled?
    Why did your bull not stand?
    —because the Lord thrust him down.
   Your multitude stumbled and fell,

Daughter Egypt shall be put to shame;
    she shall be handed over to a people from the north. (46: (15, 16a, 24)

As well as humiliation for its pharaoh:
Give Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the name
    “Braggart who missed his chance. (46:17)

Egypt has fallen (and we are reminded that the fate of the Jews who fled to Egypt a few chapters back is doubtless the same as Egypt itself). But Israel (here referred to as Jacob) will eventually be restored:
But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob,
    and do not be dismayed, O Israel;
for I am going to save you from far away,
    and your offspring from the land of their captivity.
Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease,
    and no one shall make him afraid. (46:27)

But this wonderful eventuality occurs only after punishment for its manifold sins. Nevertheless, there is also always the promise that Israel will survive:
I will make an end of all the nations
    among which I have banished you,
    but I will not make an end of you!
I will chastise you in just measure,
    and I will by no means leave you unpunished. (48:28)

All this has indeed come true. Babylon is certainly no more and Egypt is much diminished. But the state of Israel not only exists, it is strong. It is also a personal reminder that while we must bear the consequences of our sins, God will indeed rescue us when we repent—exactly the same theme we saw in today’s psalm.

Hebrews 1:10–2:8a: Our Jewish author is a fan of the psalms as he quotes from Psalm 102 describing how God’s eternal nature transcends creation itself:
In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like clothing;
 like a cloak you will roll them up,
    and like clothing they will be changed.
But you are the same,
    and your years will never end. (1: 10-12)

(I have to believe these lines have been set to music somewhere.) But as we will discover, our author has a didactic purpose as he describes the relationship between God and Jesus Christ.

Apparently, he is refuting a belief in the early church that angels were superior beings to Jesus himself because Jesus came to earth as flesh and blood. But he makes it clear that angels are simply spiritual messengers and they communicate a Message that is superior to them. In fact, they are also messengers for us: “Are not all angels  spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (1:14)

Inasmuch as angels are in communication with us, our author notes, “Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” (2:1) He then refers to the crucial importance of Scripture and what has been written there regarding our salvation: “It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, ” (2:3)

But in addition to what the psalmists and prophets wrote, God has been actively communicating this great message to us in other ways as well: “God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.” (2:4) Perhaps this verse is a reference to the Day of Pentecost and our author was in that crowd who received the Holy Spirit.

The author returns to his assertion that while humans may be lower in spiritual status than angels, they are in fact God’s preferred creation. He does this by quoting Psalm 8:
What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    or mortals, that you care for them?
 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
    you have crowned them with glory and honor,
   subjecting all things under their feet. (2:6-8)

Indeed, God has created us to be “crowned with glory and honor” But as we will see in this fairly complex book, this glory and honor brings serious responsibility as well.

Psalm 106:32–39; Jeremiah 44; Hebrews 1:1–9

Originally published 9/12/2015. Revised and updated 9/12/2019.

Psalm 106:32–39: If someone were looking for the screenplay version of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness, this psalm would serve well. It hits all the highlights and “lowlights” of their wandering years. The psalmist sums up both the people’s complaints and Moses’ anger at Meribah in two powerful verses:
And they caused fury over the waters of Meribah,
and it went badly for Moses because of them,
for they rebelled against him,
and he pronounced rash things with his lips. (33, 34)

In just these few words we see how Moses lost his right to enter Canaan because the goading of the crowd made him so angry that it caused him to say things he would regret the rest of his life. But words once spoken cannot really be undone. This is a powerful warning to all of us, when in times of stress we become angry—and anger too often leads to regretful acts. Social media is another place where, as many are finding out, angry words can lead to bad consequences.

Our psalmist skips right over Israel’s entry into and conquest of Canaan—Joshua is nowhere to be found in this psalm—and leaps forward in time to their Great Mistake in not obeying God’s orders in conquering the land:
They did not destroy the peoples
as the Lord had said to them. (34)

Instead, “they mingled with the nations and learned their deeds.” (35)

The worst consequence of this assimilation was of course adopting the pagan religions of Canaan:
And they worshipped their idols,
which became a snare to them. (36).

From our modern perspective we cannot really comprehend why God would order the destruction of the tribes living in Canaan. But alas, assimilation ultimately becomes downfall for the Jews.

We can be more sympathetic with God’s order to destroy the pagans at the next verses, which describe bluntly and gruesomely the reasons behind God’s rationale:
And they sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to the demons.
And they shed innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and their daughters
when they sacrificed to Canaan’s idols,

and the land was polluted with blood-guilt.
And they were defiled through their deeds
and went whoring through their actions.  (37-39)

While our society is nowhere near this kind of child sacrifice—although abortion could certainly be seen as not too distant— these verses are a deep challenge to churches that aim to attract members by being “hip” or tuned in to the prevailing culture as like Israel, it assimilates its mores.  At best these churches lose their distinctiveness; at worst they become irrelevant and ultimately a blot on the Gospel. Say what you will about the Catholic Church, it has maintained its distinctive and yes, separateness, from the culture, far better than mainline Protestantism (yes, I’m including Lutherans). The result of following societal mores too closely is, frankly, to fade into the cultural woodwork.

Jeremiah 44:  Speaking of cultural assimilation, the remnant that fled to Egypt is busy disobeying the rule to maintain their distinctiveness as God’s people in a foreign culture as Jeremiah, speaking in God’s voice, warns the Egyptian immigrants, “Why do you provoke me to anger with the works of your hands, making offerings to other gods in the land of Egypt where you have come to settle?” (8) The prophet laments the cultural loss of memory, “Have you forgotten the [consequences of the] crimes of your ancestors, of the kings of Judah, of their wives, your own crimes and those of your wives, which they committed in the land of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem?” (9) Worse, he continues, “They have shown no contrition or fear to this day, nor have they walked in my law and my statutes that I set before you and before your ancestors.” (10) Jeremiah goes on to tell the crowd that God will “punish those who live in the land of Egypt, as I have punished Jerusalem, with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence.” (13)

But when the people hear this warning, they respond negatively to Jeremiah’s prophetic words, As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we are not going to listen to you. Instead, we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her,” (16, 17)  They justify their position by asserting that they are being fed only by sacrificing to the Egyptian queen of heaven. They have decided it was not God who provided for them, but their own libations made of in front of this false God that have brought them success. Jeremiah pronounces God’s judgement on their arrogance: “I am going to watch over them for harm and not for good; all the people of Judah who are in the land of Egypt shall perish by the sword and by famine, until not one is left.” (27)

We are as stubborn and misguided as these people. We are convinced that our success arises from our own actions by making offerings and pouring out libations at the altar of the American culture of wealth and celebrity. When in reality our blessings have come from God, who, like these hapless immigrants, we ignore at our peril.

 Hebrews 1:1–9:  In the New Testament canon, Paul gets most of the credit for forming the theology of Jesus Christ. The epistles of Peter, James and John play minor but important roles. In my view it is the anonymous Jewish author of Hebrews that establishes perhaps the most rigorous foundation of Christ’s preeminence as the Son of God, linking Jesus again and again to God by constant use of the Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament).

It is here in the very first verses that our author establishes that God is speaking to mankind in a very new way: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” (1,2). God has abandoned his old way of speaking through prophets like Jeremiah and now speaks through the person of Jesus Christ. What Jesus said, God has said. What Jesus taught, God has taught. And like the opening verses of John’s gospel and the hymn that Paul quotes in Philippians 2, Jesus was present at creation.

The next verse must be one of the key passages for the Council of Nicea when it states in the Creed, “of one being with the Father.” Our author asserts, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” (3a). More than the human personification of God, Jesus also “made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (3b) So, Jesus replaces the now-obsolete sacrificial system. The author will expand on all these themes in the chapters that follow. 

By citing Scripture our author establishes the fact of Jesus’ superiority to the angels. This is important in building the connection between Jesus and God because up to this point angels were viewed as superior to mere humans. But now, angels are merely “his servants flames of fire.” (7) while “of the Son, [God] says,
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
      therefore God, your God, has anointed you
       with the oil of gladness beyond your companions [the angels].” (9)

And this is just the opening of this often mysterious but powerful book that comes at the theology of Jesus Christ quite differently than Paul and thus broadens the theological foundation on which all Christianity rests.

Psalm 106:24–31; Jeremiah 42,43; Philemon 1:12–25;

Originally published 9/12/2017. Revised and updated 9/11/2019.

Psalm 106:24–31: Our psalmist continues his negative assessment of his ancestors, highlighting the numerous incidents that tested Moses and certainly tested God while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness:
And they despised the land of their desires,
they did not trust His word.
And they muttered in their tents,
they did not heed the voice of the Lord. (24, 25)

The line,”they despised the land of their desires” is certainly a reference to the spies who brought back all the bad news about Canaan. The image of muttering in their tents is a precursor to the modern practice of muttering on social media!. We are just the same as they: upset, fearful, muttering, ignoring God.

In good deuteronomic fashion, God does not countenance muttering, much less open rebellion and he sends an epidemic:
And He raised His hand against them,
to make the fall in the wilderness,
to disperse their seed among the nations,
to scatter among the lands. (26, 27)

Even as early as the wilderness journey, the Israelites intermarried and began to lose their unique identity. Worse, rather than bringing God to those whom they married, they fell prey to the small-g gods and awful practices of their spouses:
And they clung to Baal Peor
and ate sacrifices to the dead.  (28)

These disgraceful practices are abhorrent to God. Once again there is punishment linked to God’s disapproval:
And they provoked Him through their acts,
and the scourge broke out among them. (29)

This time it is Aaron’s grandson, Phineas, who assuages God’s anger:
And Phineas stood and prayed,
and the scourge was held back
and it was counted for him as merit,
from generation to generation forever. (30, 31)

Phineas gets even more lines than Moses here as our poet conveniently skips over the fact that it was Phineas who slew the people who followed Baal. I’m left with the impression that the psalmist is flattering a priestly descendant of Phineas—an early example of story-editing to get across an editorial viewpoint. So, there’s nothing new when we accuse the mainstream media of selective and biased reporting!

Jeremiah 42,43: There are only a few Jews left in Judah. The leaders, Johanan and Azariah, “and all the people from the least to the greatest, approached the prophet Jeremiah and said, “Be good enough to listen to our plea, and pray to the Lord your God for us—for all this remnant.” (42:1,2) 

Jeremiah agrees (probably reluctantly, given what has happened to him already when he delivers bad news). He tells them, “I am going to pray to the Lord your God as you request, and whatever the Lord answers you I will tell you; I will keep nothing back from you.” (4) This statement is a glimpse into how Jeremiah kept on receiving the Word of the Lord: he prayed.

Ten days later, Jeremiah returns with God’s answer: “If you will only remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I am sorry for the disaster that I have brought upon you.” (42:10)

Well, that’s an interesting response. So God has regrets and is “sorry for the disasters” he’s brought on them. I’ve never thought about God regretting his actions, but that seems to be the case here.

Unsurprisingly, it looks like Jeremiah’s words will not be heeded. The remnant, fearing the Chaldeans and seeing what happened to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, is planning to escape to Egypt—a stunning potential replay of what happened so many centuries before. Jeremiah is crystal clear: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Just as my anger and my wrath were poured out on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so my wrath will be poured out on you when you go to Egypt.” (42:18) And again Jeremiah warns them, “O remnant of Judah, Do not go to Egypt. Be well aware that I have warned you today  that you have made a fatal mistake.” (42:19, 20)

Jeremiah points out that they asked him to pray and obtain the advice God has for them: stay or go. And now they plan to ignore Jeremiah’s last stern warning: “Be well aware, then, that you shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence in the place where you desire to go and settle.” (42:22)

Once again we see the immutability of human nature. Even when they ask a prophet for advice and the prophet comes back and tells them something they don’t want to hear, they ignore him.  Which is also a good description of Jesus’ ministry in Israel. He spoke the truth and was ignored by most of the people, especially the leaders, and paid with his life. And goodness knows, we behave just the same today when we hear news we don’t want to hear.

In a dramatic demonstration of people rejecting Jeremiah’s clear prophecy, the leaders accuse Jeremiah of outright lying and even treachery: You are telling a lie. The Lord our God did not send you to say, ‘Do not go to Egypt to settle there’; but Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you against us, to hand us over to the Chaldeans, in order that they may kill us or take us into exile in Babylon.” (43:2, 3)

The remnant sets out for Egypt, taking the very unwilling Jeremiah with them. Now in Egypt, God speaks to Jeremiah and directs the prophet to “Take some large stones in your hands, and bury them in the clay pavement that is at the entrance to Pharaoh’s palace in Tahpanhes.” (43:9) Which he does in full view of the Judeans. God then directs Jeremiah to announce, “I am going to send and take my servant King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and he will set his throne above these stones that I have buried, and he will spread his royal canopy over them.” (43:10)

The chapter concludes with Jeremiah’s grimly specific prediction of how the Babylonian king will conquer Egypt: “He shall kindle a fire in the temples of the gods of Egypt; and he shall burn them and carry them away captive; and he shall pick clean the land of Egypt, as a shepherd picks his cloak clean of vermin.” (43:12) We end the chapter with God’s warning ringing in our ears: “[Nebuchadnezzar] shall break the obelisks of Heliopolis, which is in the land of Egypt; and the temples of the gods of Egypt he shall burn with fire.” (43:13)

Fair warning. I have a feeling bad things will be happening in the next chapter… The lesson is clear: if you ask a prophet to prophesy, you should take what he says seriously, even if it is the opposite of what you want to do. While we may not have Jeremiahs in our midst today, we certainly have Scripture and prayer. Answers to study and prayer are not always what we want. Will we flee to figurative Egypt instead?

Philemon 1:12–25: Paul is writing Philemon that he is sending Onesimus back to his rightful owner without first seeking Philemon’s consent. It’s clear that Onesimus escaped from Philemon’s household and ended up in Rome, doubtless stumbling across Paul—perhaps in prison. If Onesimus is sent back to his owner, Philemon has every right to kill him. Hence the somewhat obsequious spin that Paul takes here: “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever,  no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (15, 16)

As a Christian brother, Paul is appealing to Philemon’s faith, which Paul believes has surely transformed him. We can hear Paul almost begging, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (17, 18) He even goes to the extent of proving his good intentions by writing, “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.” (19)

As if to slightly change the subject, Paul asks, “One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” (22) making it clear that he regards Philemon as a brother in Christ.

So why is this letter to Philemon in the canon? I think that it ended up there because it is a real world example of asking others to be kind and to have mercy—especially compared to the endless didactic and frankly rather cold advice of the Pastorals that precede it. Here we see Paul’s genuine caring and his genuine worry. But above all it is an example of how Jesus and the Holy Spirit can change people’s hearts for the better, to become hearts of caring and compassion. Paul is placing his trust—and Onesimus’ very life—in the conviction that the Holy Spirit has transformed Philemon for the better.

We don’t know the ending of the story. What happened when Onesimus showed up at Philemon’s doorstep? But if we truly believe in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, we can be assured that Philemon greeted his slave with open arms.

Psalm 106:13–23; Jeremiah 40,41; Philemon 1:1–11

Originally published 9/11/2017. Revised and updated 9/10/2019.

Psalm 106:13–23: Our psalmist continues with his poetically condensed version of the Exodus story, emphasizing the many incidents that show the Israelites’ sinful acts, beginning with the basic sin, their persistent forgetfulness about what God has done for them already:
Quickly they forgot His deeds,
they did not await His counsel.
And they felt a sharp craving in the wilderness,
they put God to the test in the waste land. (13, 14)

I’m struck by the phrase, ‘they put God to the test.’ That is what our self-centered pride really does, isn’t it? First, we forget about God and in our impatience we fail to “await His counsel” and just go ahead with our own selfish plans. Until something goes wrong; then, as in the famous story of the quail, we begin complaining to God:
And He gave the what they had asked,
sent food down their throats.” (15)

As here, even in their (and our) complaining, God gives what they (and we) have asked for. But as the Israelites found out, sometimes what God allows to be given to us or to happen to us doesn’t make us happy either:

Our poet goes on to recount some of the darker incidents in the wilderness—most of them centered on rebelling against Moses and Aaron and then against God himself:
And they were jealous of Moses in the camp,
of Aaron, the Lord’s holy one.
The earth opened up and swallowed Dothan
ans covered Abiram’s band.
And fire burned throughout their band,
flame consumed the wicked. (16-19)

Even though the poetry here is fairly wooden as we trudge through the catalog of their wrongdoings, the compression of the incidents into just a few verses gives us a sense of how it must have looked to God:  ceaseless complaining and rebellion.  Which culminates in the the infamous incident of the sacred cow:
They made a calf at Horeb
and bowed to a molten image.
And they exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bull. (19, 20)

That last line reeks of deadly irony, but its truth is searing. How often have we exchanged our own God-given glory for some worthless pursuit or we place another idol in higher status than God? Our author is pointing out rather subtly that the Jews in exile to whom he is writing, or to us reading centuries later that people are no different than the those wilderness Israelites: forgetful, impatient, and self-centered—happily abandoning God for things that are ultimately trivial and meaningless. Separating ourselves from God is really the essence of sin, isn’t it?

Jeremiah 40,41: Whoever wrote these chapters is not the same author as the previous 39 chapters of Jeremiah. These tedious chapters describe various incidents that occurred in Judah after the Babylonian captivity in a welter of names that suggest they were written pretty contemporaneous with the events they describe. Highlights include:

• Jeremiah is given the choice to go to Babylon or remain in Judah. He chooses to remain and is freed by the captain of the Chaldean guard, who says, “See, the whole land is before you; go wherever you think it good and right to go.” (40:4) He chooses to go and remain with Gedaliah, who is the appointed governor of Judea—and disappears from the events that follow

•  “When all the leaders of the forces in the open country and their troops heard that the king of Babylon had appointed Gedaliah son of Ahikam governor in the land…they went to Gedaliah at Mizpah” (40:7,8) Gedaliah invites the band, headed by a certain Ishmael, to stay and serve the Chaldeans. The governor tells them they are free to “gather wine and summer fruits and oil, and store them in your vessels, and live in the towns that you have taken over.” (40:10) Other Jews who had scattered to Moab and elsewhere also return to Mizpah.

• Some other leaders, headed by a certain Johanan, come and warn Gedaliah that Ishmael plans to assassinate  him. “But Gedaliah son of Ahikam would not believe them.” (40:14) Johanan seeks permission to kill Ishmael before he can carry out his plot, but Gedaliah denies the request,apparnetly duped by Ishmael, telling Johanan, “Do not do such a thing, for you are telling a lie about Ishmael.” (40:16)

• Gedaliah’s trust in Ishmael is badly misplaced. Ishmael and his men kill the governor as well as everyone else at Mizpah.  Which reminds us that leaders in high places can be fooled by sycophants willing to stab them in the back.

• A band of 80 men of some odd sect “with their beards shaved and their clothes torn, and their bodies gashed, ” (41:5) shows up at the temple. Ishmael fools them by inviting them to see the already dead Gedaliah. He promptly kills 70 of then, sparing 10 as they say they have stores of food. He tosses the bodies of the 70 into a large cistern.

• Ishamel takes everyone else at Mizpah captive and heads to the Ammonites.”But when Johanan son of Kareah and all the leaders of the forces with him heard of all the crimes that Ishmael son of Nethaniah had done, they took all their men and went to fight against Ishmael” (41:11)

• Ishmael’s captives are mighty glad to see Johanan and his men and “turned around and came back, and went to Johanan.” (41:14) Johanan gathers all the captives and heads for Egypt.

This is all very entertaining, but Jeremiah has at least temporarily disappeared from the scene. This is strictly a fairly grisly record of events that occurred after the downfall of Judah and we see that plotting and conniving were rampant. But as for theological application, I don’t see much here…

Philemon 1:1–11: This short but very sweet letter is universally acknowledged to have been written by the actual Paul. When we compare its passion and the love Paul expresses for Philemon to the wooden and didactic advice of the author of the Pastorals, I’m more convinced than ever that they weren’t written by Paul.

Here, Paul remembers the love and faith of Philemon: “I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.” (5) We see Paul’s genuine affection for him: “I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.” (7) Now, that’s how the actual Paul could beautifully communicate!

But Paul, being Paul, has an agenda as he writes that he could simply command Philemon to do his duty, but “I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” (9) What a great lesson for us: love always triumphs over commands.

Paul gets to the point: “ I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” (10) Onesimus is a slave and as Paul notes, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” (11)

I’m sure people wonder why this short and very personal letter is in the canon. I think it is there to demonstrate how real love operates. And I’m sure the editors who determined the order of the canon put it right after the Pastorals to illustrate starkly the difference between commands—which is certainly the primary content of the Pastorals—and requests made out of true brotherly love. This is philios love and tragically this kind of asexual love between men has been pretty much lost in our culture.

Nevertheless, if we ever needed a template of how to appeal to someone for a huge favor, it is right here in these 11 verses. Paul’s sincerity and love fairly leap off the page.

Psalm 106:6–12; Jeremiah 38:14–39:18; Titus 3:3–15

Originally published 9/09/2017. Revised and updated 9/09/2019.

Psalm 106:6–12: Unlike the happy poet of the preceding psalm, who said nothing negative about the Israelites, our current psalmist includes confession:
We offended like our fathers, we wronged
we did evil. (6)

Notice how the three words stand out on the second line: “We did evil.” There can be no franker confession than that. There are no excuses; we have sinned just as our ancestors sinned. Having brought up the topic of ancestors, our psalmist looks back at the darker side of Israel’s national story:
Our fathers in Egypt
did not grasp Your wonders.
They did not call to mind Your many kindnesses
and rebelled by the sea, at the Sea of Reeds. (7)

Like every nation that has followed down through history, the Israelites did not bother to appreciate the tremendous gift that God had just given them: freedom from tyranny. Rather, when they reached the first obstacle at the edge of the sea they whined. How like them we are today! We fail to notice the wonders of God that are around us and the wonderful things he has done for us. Instead, we focus on what’s wrong and on the personal injustices we experience. Whining and victimization is certainly the zeitgeist of our culture—and another proof that human nature is immutable.

But as our poet observes, God overlooked the whining and rescued them and defeated their pursuing enemies anyway because God keeps his promises:
Yet He rescued them for His name’s sake,
to make known His might.
He blasted the Sea of Reeds, and it dried up,
and He led them through the deep as through wilderness,
And He rescued them from the land of the hostile
and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.
And the water covered their foes,
not one of them remained. (8-11)

What’s crucial here is to recognize that God did not rescue Israel because they deserved it, but he rescued them “for His name’s sake.” So, too, for us. We do not merit salvation. The Israelites did not escape because of anything they accomplished on their own. All they did was stand at the shore and complain. God rescued them because he promised to. So, too, for us. We are rescued by grace alone, “not of works should any man boast.”

And the logical consequence of salvation is grateful worship:
And they trusted His words,
they sang His praise. (12)

The question is, do I trust God’s word and sing his praise enough? The magnitude of what God has done for us can never be matched, even in our humility and praise. The gift is simply too wonderful for us to fully comprehend.

Jeremiah 38:14–39:18: We observed yesterday that King Zedekiah was something of a wimp. Today that’s proved in spades as he comes to Jeremiah in secret, obviously fearing the wrath of the court officials. When Jeremiah arrives at the third entrance of the temple he logically responds to Zedekiah’s plea, “If I tell you, you will put me to death, will you not? And if I give you advice, you will not listen to me.” (38:15) Zedekiah promises, “I will not put you to death or hand you over to these men who seek your life.” (38:16)

Jeremiah advises Zedekiah that if he simply surrenders to the Chaldeans, “your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live.” (38:17) But if he resists, the enemy will burn Jerusalem to the ground and the king will not escape. Zedekiah says he is afraid of the Jews who have gone over to the Chaldeans but Jeremiah assures him that if he “obeys the voice of the Lord in what I say to you, and it shall go well with you, and your life shall be spared.” (38:20)

Zedekiah extracts a promise from Jeremiah not to tell anyone about the conversation or “you will die.” Jeremiah agrees and when questioned by the officials about the meeting, he keeps his word.

Alas, Zedekiah does not heed Jeremiah’s advice. Like so many lawyers’ clients, they hear the advice and then proceed to ignore it. One wonders why Zedekiah even bothered to meet with Jeremiah. In the end Zedekiah’s pride was so immense that he would not consider surrendering. Sounds like a lot of historical figures, including some current politicians.

Chapter 39 is one of  the more depressing chapters of the OT as we see the consequences of Zedekiah’s pride. Jerusalem falls. Zedekiah and his court “fled, going out of the city at night by way of the king’s garden through the gate between the two walls.” (39:4) But they are captured by the Chaldeans. Zedekiah is brought before Nebuchadnezzar, who pronounces a woeful sentence. Zedekiah is forced to witness the execution of his children, as well as all the nobility of Judah. His eyes are then put out and blinded, he is taken in chains to Babylon. Then, “the Chaldeans burned the king’s house and the houses of the people, and broke down the walls of Jerusalem.” (39:8). The remaining population is exiled to Babylon. Interestingly, though, there is also mercy. “Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time.” (38:10) As we have seen again and again, God cares about the poor.

Jeremiah is spared by Nebuchadnezzar himself, commanding Nebuzaradan to “Take him, look after him well and do him no harm, but deal with him as he may ask you.”  (39:12) Jeremiah is entrusted to what I take to be his grand-nephew and Jeremiah “stayed with his own people.” (39:14)

The word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah one more time and he remembers Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, who rescued Jeremiah from the cistern. Jeremiah is instructed to tell the eunuch, that God “will save you on that day, says the Lord, and you shall not be handed over to those whom you dread.” (17)

In the midst of God’s punishment in the downfall of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem he remembers those, such as Ebed-melech, who have done good deeds  and who have followed God like Jeremiah. As things seem to be collapsing around us, this is the promise to which we can also cling if unlike Zedekiah we are willing to let go of our pride and need to control..

Titus 3:3–15: “Paul” gives his testimony of how he was saved in one of the more overtly Trinitarian passages in the NT where God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit each play a role in our salvation. He begins by describing his former life, (which seems more over the top than how I think the actual Paul would have expressed it): “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.” (3) Which sounds pretty much like all of us if we were honest with ourselves.

As with Ebed-melech, God shows mercy, but now it is through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in what appears to me to be a catechetical statement of the early church: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (4-7)

But Paul cannot resist giving advice and after this brief theological interlude, he lapses into more of the same almost tedious commands. The duties of Christians are clear: “I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.” (8)

And behaviors to avoid are even clearer: “But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (9) Wow. Stupid controversies both in the church and certainly in the wider culture are pretty much what define us today.

IN this church, anyway, everybody gets two chances and then they’re shown the door: “After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned.” (10, 11) Yes, this is good advice for establishing church discipline. But would Paul really have said, “such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned?” I’m not so sure. The Paul I think I see in his authentic letters is a Paul who always held out hope for everyone—even the sinners of the Corinthian church. 

For our author it’s very much about good works and being useful: “And let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive.” (14) I certainly see some of the source material for what eventually became the Protestant work ethic right here in these verses.

Psalm 106:1–5; Jeremiah 37:1–38:13; Titus 2:6–3:2

Originally published 9/08/2017. Revised and updated 9/07/2019.

Psalm 106:1–5: This psalm opens on a familiar note of worship—pretty much the same verse the previous psalm ended on:
Hallelujah!
Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,
for His kindness is forever.
Who can utter the Lord’s mighty acts,
can make heard all His praise? (1, 2)

With the clue, “the Lord’s mighty acts,” I have a feeling we’re about to hear them recounted once again in this historical psalm that looks back over Israel’s past. But before our poet gets to the details, he injects a personal note:
Happy those who keep justice
who do righteousness at all times.
Recall me, O Lord, when You favor Your people,
mark me for Your rescue,
to see the good of Your chosen ones,
to rejoice in the joy of Your nation,
to revel with Your estate. (3-5)

Even though he speaks in the second person plural, I suspect that our psalmist includes himself among “those who keep justice” and “who do righteousness at all times.” There’s a mantra-like quality to these lines—as if the psalmist reminds himself daily of this great truth. Which is not a bad idea for us either!

Verse 4 gives the impression that this psalm is being written from exile and the psalmist is praying that by virtue of his keeping justice and practicing righteousness he will be among the exiles “marked for rescue,” who will be able to return some day to Israel. Verse 5 anticipates how wonderful that glorious day will be. To be able to return to a just society with those other righteous persons God has chosen. Then, with that company, to be able to rejoice together as a reestablished nation. Indeed, to celebrate (“revel”)on the land (“estate”) that God has returned to them.

With this introduction, the psalm is now prepared to move through Israel’s history pretty much the same way as the preceding one, but from a quite different point of view.

Jeremiah 37:1–38:13: This chapter provides background history of the times Jeremiah was living in.  King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has established Zedekiah as a vassal king and he sends Jehucal and Zephaniah (whom will be hearing from later this year in his eponymous book) to ask Jeremiah to “Please pray for us to the Lord our God.” (37:3) Our author notes that “Now Jeremiah was still going in and out among the people, for he had not yet been put in prison.” (37:4)

Meanwhile, Pharoah’s army is on the move northward and the Chaldeans from Babylon rightly fear that army. When they heard the news, “they withdrew from Jerusalem.” (37:5) EVeryone breathes a sigh of relief, thinking the Chaldeans have permanently retired to Babylon. But Jeremiah tells the two priests that Egypt coming to Judah’s aid is only a temporary measure and that the Chaldeans will inevitably return: “Do not deceive yourselves, saying, “The Chaldeans will surely go away from us,” for they will not go away.” (37:9)

The Egyptians come and scare away the Chaldeans. In this moment of relative peace, Jeremiah prepares to go to the land of Benjamin to see the property he’s bought. But he’s arrested at the city gate and accused of treason: “You are deserting to the Chaldeans.” (37:13) Jeremiah strongly denies this, “That is a lie; I am not deserting to the Chaldeans.” (37:14) But the officials, looking for any excuse to remove this prophetic thorn in their side, use this incident as justification to toss Jeremiah in prison, “in the cistern house, in the cells, and remained there many days.” (37:16)

In a scene reminiscent of Joseph being brought before Pharaoh, Jeremiah is brought before Zedekiah in secret, who asks, “Is there any word from the Lord?” (37:17) Jeremiah retorts, “There is!” Then he said, “You shall be handed over to the king of Babylon.” (37:17)

He then asks the king why he’s been wrongly imprisoned and asks Zedekiah, “my lord king: be good enough to listen to my plea, and do not send me back to the house of the secretary Jonathan to die there.” (37:20) The kings shows a modicum of mercy and the prophet is now housed with the palace guard.

That move does not make other officials happy because Jeremiah continues to prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans. They go to the king and tell him, “This man ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.” (38:4). It’s a clever accusation to assert that Jeremiah is negatively affecting the morale of the troops. Ever the cowardly wimp, Zedekiah turns Jeremiah over to these men who promptly toss Jeremiah into an empty cistern, “and Jeremiah sank in the mud” (38:6), leaving him there to starve to death.

There Jeremiah lay until “Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch in the king’s house” tells the king, “My lord king, these men have acted wickedly in all they did to the prophet Jeremiah by throwing him into the cistern to die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.” (38:9) The king agrees and Ebed-melech get some old rags and rope. They lower the rope down to Jeremiah and in one of those places where we get very precise detail that confirms for me, anyway, the true historicity of the Bible, we learn exactly how Jeremiah was rescued. Ebed-melech throws the rags down the cistern and tells Jeremiah, “Just put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.” (38:12) Ebed-melech’s men pull Jeremiah out of the pit. [We’ll encounter the story another more dangerous pit in the book of Daniel.]

It’s no wonder that when we hear the phase, “a prophet without honor in his own country,” it is Jeremiah who comes immediately to mind. The other great thing about this story is that it is  Gentile—not a Jew—and a eunuch to boot, who rescues Jeremiah. For me this is a reminder that while God may have chosen the Jews as his people, he is nevertheless the God of every person. Moreover, God, being a God of surprise, he will act through the people one least expects.

Titus 2:6–3:2: Having given advice to old men and women, our author moves on to young men: “Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity,  and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us.” (2:6-8) Say what one will about this Paul that seems to have endless stores of advice for other, the advice is certainly excellent. Would that in this era of “social” media, more young men (and women) practiced “sound speech that cannot be censured.” Alas, as a society the babbling politicians and so-called leaders set an awful example for youth.

We come to a reminder that while human nature has remained unchanged down through the ages, the world in which Titus received this letter was significantly different in one significant way: “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.” (9, 10)

Our author goes on once again to present the Gospel message. But unlike actual Paul, here there is a tight connection between the Gospel and good works, which strikes me as a bit off: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly,” (11, 12) Yes, this and the verses that follow are certainly true. As we’ve noted already, this are sound advice. But what’s missing here is the exuberant grace that I find in Paul’s authentic epistles. The passage here has a much more somber, almost nagging tone. At this point, one is tempted to say, ‘Enough already. I get your point!!’

But with this author, there is never too much advice and he lards it on once again: “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” (3:1, 2) OK, OK, I get his point! And there’s little question that our culture would be a calmer, better place if we all took the advice offered here.