Psalm 125; Daniel 2:34–3:18; 1 John 4:1–16a

Originally published 11/15/2017. Revised and updated 11/14/2019.

Psalm 125: Given that this song of ascents refers to Mount Zion and not to the temple itself, it’s likely this psalm was written after the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 589 BCE:
Those who trust in the Lord
are like Mount Zion never shaken,
settled forever. (1)

Even though the temple has been destroyed, the mountains still stand. Likewise, the psalmist is saying, if we trust God through our trials we too shall stand. In the same way that the mountains surrounding Jerusalem form a defensive perimeter, God will protect us through dire times:
Jerusalem, mountains around it,
and the Lord is around His people
now and forevermore. (2)

Now, the psalm takes on a patriotic tone. Even though Israel is under the oppression of Babylon, it will endure. As indeed it has down through the centuries, while Babylon—the “rod of wickedness”—fell millennia ago:
For the rod of wickedness will not rest
on the portion of the righteous,
so that the righteous not set their hands
to wrongdoing. (3)

Those who trust God may suffer under oppression, but those who follow God will stand firm and not be tempted to be consumed by the oppressor’s culture. This is a message of great relevance to Christians today as we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture. As we pray in the Lord’s prayer, if we remain faithful, God will preserve us from temptation:
Do good, O Lord, to the good
and to the upright in their hearts. (4)

As usual, there is a clear bifurcation between those who do good and those who do evil as the psalm prays that evildoers will receive their just desserts:
And those who bend to crookedness,
may the Lord take them off with the wrongdoers. (5a)

This patriotic psalm ends with the exclamation: “Peace upon Israel!” I suspect that this song brought patriotic succor to those Jews being held captive in Babylon. And I assume it brings pride to Jews around the world today.

Daniel 2:34–3:18: Daniel describes Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: The statue with a head of godl and feet of clay that the king saw in his dream is destroyed by “a stone was cut out, not by human hands” (2:34) The stone then transforms itself into a mountain.

Daniel then famously interprets the dream. The king himself is the head of gold. Successively inferior kingdoms will follow him in time on down to a divided kingdom represented by two legs of iron. But as Daniel points out, “As the toes of the feet were part iron and part clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle.” (2:42)

Since iron does not mix with clay, Daniel continues, “in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people.” (2:44) He concludes his interpretation that the stone, which represents God, has “crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. The great God has informed the king what shall be hereafter.” (2:45)

This dream, which Daniel makes clear represents the arc of history, has been the subject of numerous reinterpretations down through the centuries. Those fascinated by end times have attempted to identify the earthly powers are represented by the legs of iron and feet of clay. When I was growing up there was speculation that the the legs represented the opposing powers of east and west and that the feet of clay represented the Soviet Union. Today, I’m sure there are more updated prophecies having to do with the Middle East and perhaps China. But as Freud’s famous dictum notes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a dream is just a dream.

Needless to say, Nebuchadnezzar was impressed by his interpretation and appointed Daniel “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.” (2:48)

I’m not sure why the Moravians have extended the reading to include both the statue dream and the even more famous fiery furnace story in the same day…

Nebuchadnezzar, full of pride doubtless amplified by Daniel telling him that he is the golden head of the statue, erects a 60 cubit high statute. He then invites the kingdom to come to its dedication. When they hear “the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble” (3:5) they are to bow down and worship. Failure to worship results in being cast into the furnace.

Jealous Babylonians, eager to see Daniel and his friends suffer, point out that the Jews, notably, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are not participating in this mandatory mass worship. Ever the narcissist, Nebuchadnezzar is enraged and announce that the three men must worship his statue on pain of being tossed into the furnace. Needless to say, they refuse, stating, “be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (3:18) Upon reading this story again I’m puzzled as to Daniel’s absence. Did he receive a special dispensation from the king?

Reading these two stories together shows us the arbitrary fickleness of Nebuchadnezzar. I think he is the prototype for every monomaniacal leader that has followed him down through history from Roman emperors like Caligula and Nero to 20th century despots like Hitler to 21st century Islamist fanatics. Evil seems to always find its way to dictatorship, which then inevitably falls—but not before exacting tremendous suffering by innocent people. And that, I think, is the lesson of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Every man who aspires to despotic leadership also has feet of clay.

1 John 4:1–16a: John continues his teaching on discernment, which in his time was testing “the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (4)  He then asserts that “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.” (3) Like the psalm above, there’s a clear bifurcation. It’s one or the other. We can’t have it both ways. As I’ve noted in a previous essay I think that John is railing against those in the church who were preaching a gnostic gospel viewed Jesus as the exemplar of the gnostic goal and that excluded Christians who had not attained the apotheosis of “inner knowledge” or self-awareness. Pretty similar to today’s gurus who preach self-actualization and to recognize our “inner godlike qualities.”

The lesson for us is that we need to discern as well as those early Christians. There are numerous false prophets out there, many of them on TV collecting money from naive widows. I also think that John’s warning is equally against the so-called prosperity gospel that promises wealth to followers—when the only ones who get wealthy are the ones preaching this false message.

The reading includes with John’s famous essay on love: Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (11, 12)  What’s important here is that true love is not self-generated; it does not live within us but comes directly from God.

John concludes with the Good News being the key to Christian love: “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.”  (15, 16) In short, we cannot have a relationship with God that is not based on love because “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (18)

But when I look around inside the church I’m afraid that that love is not always on display. Which of course is why John wrote these words. Self-centered human nature will always try to manufacture love, when true love comes only from God because God is love.

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