Psalm 139:1–6; Joel 2:15–3:21; Revelation 6:9–7:8

Originally published 12/04/2017. Revised and updated 12/03/2019.

Psalm 139:1–6: This truly profound and introspective psalm reflects on how God knows our innermost thoughts and how our own knowledge—no matter how vast we may think it is—is ultimately limited. There are things we will never understand. (And I’m glad that the Moravians are not going to rush us through these marvelous verses.)

As Jesus points out some centuries after the psalmist about how God knows how many hairs are on our head, our psalmist realizes that God’s knowledge about our being is effectively infinite. After all, God is the Creator and we are the created:
Lord, You searched me and You know,
It is You Who know when I sit and I rise,
You fathom my thoughts from afar. (1, 2)

In fact, God knows more about us than anyone else does—including ourselves. We may think we have self-knowledge, but it is a scintilla of what God knows about us:
My path and my lair You winnow,
and with all my ways are familiar.
For there is no word on my tongue
but that You, Lord, wholly know it. (3,4)

Now there’s something to reflect on: God knows what we are going to say and he knows when we’ve said it—no matter how stupid, or worse, no matter how cruel. The psalms deal again and again with how words can be used as a weapon against others. And I certainly know that from personal experience. If I but thought about the fact that God knows what I’m going to say before I say it, I think my words to others—especially those whom I love—would be much kinder and gentler.

Our psalmist offers the reason God knows everything about about us. We are his wholly-formed creatures:
From behind and in front You shaped me,
and You set Your palm upon me. (5)

We are truly created imago deo; God has pressed his palm into our human clay. The question is, will I in turn reflect the image of God or my own self-centeredness?

Knowledge is too wondrous for me,
high above—I cannot attain it. (6)

And as created beings, we are limited. We will never know what God knows—or really who God is. We can see and feel him only from our very blinkered perspective. And we will never know everything, despite our best efforts. God has given us the intelligence to understand much about our world—from quantum particles to DNA up to the breadth of the cosmos. But we will never fully comprehend God despite our unceasing efforts. Which may be why so many people would rather reject the idea of God altogether.

Joel 2:15–3:21: Joel encourages the priests to cry out to God:
Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord.
    Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn,
    a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
    ‘Where is their God?” (2:17)

And God answers with a promise of restoration:
I am sending you grain, new wine and olive oil,
    enough to satisfy you fully;
never again will I make you
    an object of scorn to the nations.” (2:19)

But we get the feeling that this will really not happen until the Day of the Lord, i.e., at the end of history. Joel, speaking in God’s voice, proclaims in the most famous lines from this book:
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (2:28, 29)

In short, the Holy Spirit will come to everyone in Israel.

Joel then reveals an apocalyptic vision, which as we shall see, John lifted and put in Revelation:
The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” (2:31)

Continuing this apocalyptic thread—and another theme that John picks up in Revelation— is how all nations will be judged. Only here it is how these nations treated Israel, while John expands his view to include those which have oppressed Christians:
There I will put them on trial
    for what they did to my inheritance, my people Israel,
because they scattered my people among the nations
    and divided up my land. (3:3)

War will come and Joel exactly reverses Isaiah’s famous saying, [“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isa 2:4)] as he writes that God will command the people to take up arms:
Beat your plowshares into swords
    and your pruning hooks into spears. (3:10)

Which is exactly what humankind has done down through the centuries to today. In the end, Joel predicts, Israel will win the battle and God will mete out his vengeance on those who have oppressed the nation:
Then you will know that I, the Lord your God,
    dwell in Zion, my holy hill.
Jerusalem will be holy;
    never again will foreigners invade her.

Judah will be inhabited forever
    and Jerusalem through all generations.
Shall I leave their innocent blood unavenged?
    No, I will not.  (3:17, 20, 21)

If we ever needed an example of prophetic proclamation designed to encourage the people who are discouraged and downtrodden, Joel is certainly our man.

Revelation 6:9–7:8: The slain lamb opens the fifth seal and John sees “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” (6:9) As in Joel, they ask for vengeance, but are “told to wait a little longer” until more martyrs are “killed just as they had been.” (6:11) To me, this verse is a clear indication that John was at once trying encourage the persecuted churches, but as he made clear earlier, more persecution was on the horizon.

The sixth seal is opened and John vividly describes a natural disaster that certainly seems like an earthquake: “the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig treewhen shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (6:13, 14) This event creates widespread panic and “the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.” (6:15) as the chapter ends on this grim note. I think this is a clear reference to the Roman empire and that natural forces would prove even greater than its apparent might. The explosion of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of the cities below it come to mind. Just like today: we foolishly think we have mastery over nature until a hurricane or an earthquake wreaks destruction.

In the next chapter John turns his attention to what I take to be the restoration of Israel similar to what Joel has promised—only with even more tantalizing (and controversial) details. An angel announces that further earthly destruction is on hold “until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” (7:3) John then gives us a list that enumerates that each of the 12 tribes of Israel will see 12,000 people “sealed,” totalling 144,000.

I think too many people have read far too much into these numbers—most notably the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that the first 144,000 JW believers are the ones who will go to heaven. They then had to come up with a creative explanation of what happens to the people not in that original 144K cohort as they racked up more believers of their peculiar theology. This is an example of the trouble you get into when you take these numbers in revelation (and elsewhere in the Bible) too literally. For me, the 12 x 12,000 is simply a symbol of a large and perfect (notice the square root) number that is God-inspired. In short, John is telling us, Israel will be restored at the end of history—exactly what Joel and others have promised too.

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