Psalm 126; Daniel 3:19–4:18; 1 John 4:16b–5:5

Originally published 11/16/2017. Revised and updated 11/15/2019.

Psalm 126: This is another psalm that appears to have been written during the Babylonian captivity. Its opening verse envisions restoration of the land of Israel and the consequent joy of its people. This act of God will border on the unimaginable, as if it were a dream fulfilled:
When the Lord restores Zion’s fortunes,
we should be like dreamers.
Then will our mouth fill with laughter
and our tongue with glad song. (1, 2a)

Israel’s restoration will be sufficiently unexpected that surrounding nations will not only be amazed, but like the people of Israel itself, will realize this can only be God’s doing:
Then they will say in the nations:
‘Great things has the Lord done with these.’
Great things  has the Lord done with is.
We shall rejoice. (2b, 3)

How often has God done the unexpected for me that causes me to rejoice? Surely the fact that I am still here after dealing with advanced cancer more than ten years ago is cause for rejoicing. I, too, have been restored.

In eager anticipation of that wonderful day of restoration our psalmist turns to supplication with a simile that restoration will come unexpectedly like a dry wash in the desert suddenly overflowing with water:
Restore, O Lord, our fortunes
like freshets in the Negeb. (4)

The water image transforms to tears in a metaphor of a man—obviously representing Israel itself—sowing seed in despair but reaping a crop of joy:
They who sow in tears
in glad song will reap.
He walks along and weeps,
the bearer of the seed-bag.
He will surely come in with glad song
bearing his sheaves. (5,6)

I remember well the sense that my life was over when I was diagnosed with cancer. But through excellent care and above all, the prayers of those around me, I live now in gladness. Truly, I have been able to gather in sheaves of healing and joy out of the misery of disease.

Daniel 3:19–4:18: Although biblical knowledge is fading rapidly in our culture I think it’s still a fairly safe bet that most people (most adults, anyway) have heard the story of the fiery furnace. Narcissistic king Nebuchadnezzar demands that the recalcitrant Jews, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, be bound and tossed into the furnace. [And again, I wonder, where is Daniel in all this? Surely he knew what was going on.] The furnace is so overheated that “the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.” (3:20)

Neb looks into the furnace and sees “four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” (3:25) The king commands the three men to come out of the furnace. Mercurial as always, Nebuchadnezzar again appears to be impressed by Israel’s God. He decrees, “Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.” (3:29) And he promotes S, M, & A to high positions of authority.

This story is all about trusting God, for which S, M, & A are the poster children. But who is the fourth man with them in the furnace? One’s first guess is that it was an angel, but angels are merely messengers. I doubt that a conventional angel could perform this miracle. Which brings us to the second guess—and one I heard in Sunday School—that the fourth man was Jesus Christ himself, appearing in a hint of another miracle to come. Personally, I think it was one of the “watchers” that Nebuchadnezzar refers to in describing his second dream.

In chapter 4, the scene in this most cinematic of OT books shifts back to Nebuchadnezzar’s palace where he continues to worship the Jewish God, even to the point of singing a song of praise:
How great are his signs,
    how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
    and his sovereignty is from generation to generation. (4:3)

[You have to love the author of this book: it has everything! Drama, bizarre dreams, miracles, theology, poetry, predictions of things to come. It is truly the work of an inspired writer.]

But then Nebuchadnezzar has a second dream; this one more ominous than his first: “I saw a dream that frightened me; my fantasies in bed and the visions of my head terrified me.” (4:5). Neb goes directly to Daniel [whom he has named “Belteshazzar after the name of my god, and who is endowed with a spirit of the holy gods.” (4:8)] and relates the dream.

This time it’s a tall tree, which
grew great and strong,
    its top reached to heaven,
    and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.” (4:11)

But then a “holy watcher, coming down from heaven” (4:13) commanded that the tree be cut down with only the stump remaining. The core of the dream for me is Nebuchadnezzar’s statement,
Let his mind be changed from that of a human,
and let the mind of an animal be given to him.
And let seven times pass over him. (4:16)

Nebuchadnezzar goes on to tell Daniel that this transformation has been the
…rendered by decree of the watchers,
the decision is given by order of the holy ones,
in order that all who live may know
    that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals.

I have a feeling that the king is not going to be happy with Daniel’s interpretation of this dream. I know I have many dreams at night, but I can recall none so fraught with symbolism as these two dreams of Nebuchadnezzar.

1 John 4:16b–5:5: Even more than Paul in his famous I Corinthians 13 passage on love, John develops an entire theology around God’s love. Love is the very atmosphere in which our relationship with God has been established: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (4:16b) There may have been love in the world before now, but through Jesus Christ, “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.” (4:17)

And then the famous verse that concatenates love and fear: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (4:18) That is, the love that we express to others is a direct gift from God. And by Johannine logic, God-given love cannot coexist with hypocrisy: “We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars” (4:19) It all boils down to being commanded to love others: “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (4:21)

Which is really, really difficult when it comes to people we don’t particularly like. Yet, here it is: we are commanded to love others, even the unlikable ones. I know that I have failed again and again in this regard. For me, I think it’s virtually impossible to truly love someone we dislike. It certainly is impossible under our own steam. It takes God’s love filtering through us in order to love others. In fact, in God’s eyes we’re all pretty unlikable; yet God expressed his love for us by sending Jesus into the world.

Love is far more than an emotion or romantic feeling. It is a state of being. We are commanded to love and likewise, God’s love for us motivates us to keep his commandments: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (5:3) And out of that love comes victory over the wiles of the world: “for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” (5:4)

Which causes me to reflect on the nature of that victory. It’s pretty clear that God’s “victory” is not some coup d’etat over the culture that many well-meaning evangelicals would like to see. In fact, here in America very little appears to be going God’s way—or at least what we’d like to imagine is God’s way. No, I think the victory John is describing is God’s victory over our own hearts‚ which happens when (as Oswald Chambers would put it) we abandon our egos and our overweening desire to stay in control by truly handing our lives over to Jesus Christ. I think that is what “victorious love” means.

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