Psalm 137; Hosea 10,11,12; Revelation 3:19–4:8

Originally published 11/30/2017. Revised and updated 11/29/2019.

Psalm 137: This beautiful psalm, so full of sadness yet remarkable beauty, was doubtless composed shortly after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. The opening verse teems with fond remembrance of a former joyous life for the psalmist and his friends—and all that has been lost:
By Babylon’s streams
there we sat, oh we wept,
when we recalled Zion
On the poplars there
we hung our lyres. (1, 2)

This psalm has doubtless been sung down through the centuries by Jews who have been exiled from their homeland. It has an emotional force that for me, anyway, is unequaled in all the book of Psalms.

And now in a cruel irony the Babylonians ask them to sing a song that only intensifies the pain of remembrance of what once was:
For there our captors had asked of us
words of song
and our plunderers—rejoicing:
‘Sing us from Zion’s songs. (3)

But in the intense pain of memory is almost too much for our poet:
How can we sing a song of the Lord
on foreign soil?
Should I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand wither.
May my tongue cleave to my palate
if I do not recall you,
If I do not set Jerusalem”above my chief joy. (4-6)

It is this vow that rings down through the ages in the traditional Jewish toast, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

The pain of loss metastasizes from bitter memory into hateful anger as our psalmist recalls how the Edomites encouraged the Babylonians to completely destroy Jerusalem:
Recall, O Lord, the Edomites,
on the day of Jerusalem, saying:
‘Raze it, raze it,
to its foundation! (7)

Hatred intensifies into a desire for revenge in one of the most notorious verses in all the Psalms:
Daughter of Babylon the despoiler,
happy who pays you back in kind,
for what you did to us.
Happy who seizes and smashes
your infants against the rock. (8, 9)

If we ever needed an example of how a psalm can describe the deepest possible emotions of despair it is right here. It’s worth noting that emotion, including the most intense possible anger and hatred is channeled through poetry and song and not in violent action.

Hosea 10,11,12: Hosea describes an Israel that has wandered far from its promise to follow God as he catalogs their various idols, weaving in the promise of their eventual destruction:
Their heart is deceitful,
    and now they must bear their guilt.
The Lord will demolish their altars
    and destroy their sacred stones.  (10:2)

The northern kingdom of Israel and its idols will (and did) meet a bitter end:
The people who live in Samaria fear
    for the calf-idol of Beth Aven.
Its people will mourn over it,
    and so will its idolatrous priests,
those who had rejoiced over its splendor,
    because it is taken from them into exile.
It will be carried to Assyria
    as tribute for the great king. (10:5, 6)

As always, it all boils down to human pride:
But you have planted wickedness,
    you have reaped evil,
    you have eaten the fruit of deception.
Because you have depended on your own strength
    and on your many warriors, (10:13)

Despite the manifold sins of Israel, God still loves them:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, Israel?

My heart is changed within me;
    all my compassion is aroused.  (11:8)

Hosea composes a fascinating interior dialog as God debates to himself:
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
    nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
    the Holy One among you.
    I will not come against their cities. (11:9)

But, God continues, there are still the manifold sins of these stubborn, wayward people that must be dealt with:
Ephraim has surrounded me with lies,
    Israel with deceit.
And Judah is unruly against God,
    even against the faithful Holy One. (11:12)

Then again, God continues to reflect, these people have always been rebellious, starting out with their patriarch, Jacob. It’s in their very nature:
The Lord has a charge to bring against Judah;
    he will punish Jacob  according to his ways
    and repay him according to his deeds.
In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel;

    as a man he struggled with God.
He struggled with the angel and overcame him;
    he wept and begged for his favor. (12: 2-4)

Nevertheless, Hosea writes,  God demands repentance and obedience.
But you must return to your God;
    maintain love and justice,
    and wait for your God always.  (12:6)

The chapter ends on a grim note of an angry God who will mete out the punishment these stubborn people deserve:
But Ephraim has aroused his bitter anger;
    his Lord will leave on him the guilt of his bloodshed
    and will repay him for his contempt. (12:14)

What’s fascinating to me in these chapters is how God seems to oscillate between anger and love, which is a pretty human quality. The Old Testament God is a God of many emotions—displaying far more human qualities, even vacillation, than the God of pure justice and love we encounter in the New Testament. There, God’s emotions are expressed through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Revelation 3:19–4:8: Like Hosea, John knows that God demands repentance. And in a verse that is a favorite among evangelicals John gives us the famous image of a patient Jesus who comes to us and awaits or decision to “open the door of our hearts” and ask Jesus in and to begin a relationship with him: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (3:20)

Continuing with the door metaphor, John, having completed his message to the specific churches, enters through a door into the very throne room of heaven: “After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” (4:1) And thus begins the most fantastic and creative narrative in the Bible, exceeding even Daniel’s visions.

The very first thing John sees is a throne but its splendor is such that he cannot really identify who is sitting on it, only that “A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne.” (4:3) The throne is surrounded by 24 other thrones “and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.” (4:4)  Many people interpret these as the 12 disciples and 12 Jewish patriarchs.

It’s certainly a noisy place: “From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing.” (4:5) We meet the four living creatures, not very dissimilar to Daniel’s vision: “The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle” (4:7)  We can be sure that John was quite familiar with that book.  The 6-winged, eye-covered creatures are leading a never ending worship, singing,
Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.
” (4:8)

Much ink has been spilled in trying to interpret the 24 elders, the seven spirits of God, and the four creatures, whose faces by the way, now represent the four gospels. As for me, I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy the fantastic images.

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