Psalm 139:17–24; Amos 5; Revelation 9:1–11

Originally published 12/07/2017. Revised and updated 12/06/2019.

Psalm 139:17–24: Our poet reflects on God’s own thoughts, and as he considers God’s omnipresence, realizes that they are far too numerous to count:
As for me, how weighty are Your thoughts, O God,
how numerous their sum.
Should I count them, they would be more than the sand.
I awake, and am still with You. (17, 18)

I confess I have rarely reflect on what God may be thinking, but as we read in the OT prophets God’s thoughts are many and more interestingly, like our own thoughts, they are often conflicted. As we have read in Joel and now in Amos, his thoughts recorded by the prophets are oscillating between Israel’s deserved punishment and its rescue because they are his people to whom he has made a great promise.

The tone of the psalm shifts from this boundless reflection on God’s creative magnificence to an almost wistful supplication, as he reflects on how much better the world would be if it were purged of evil people:
Would You but slay the wicked, God—
O men if blood, turn away from me!—  (19)

What is especially painful for him is that they are hypocrites who pretend to love God while their thoughts and actions are exactly the opposite:
Who say Your name to scheme,
Your enemies falsely swear.
Why, those who hate You, Lord, I hate,
and those against You I despise.
With utter hatred I do hate them,
they become my enemies. (20-22)

What’s unique here is that unlike other psalms of supplication, the poet’s enmity is directed against those who hate God, not those who necessarily hate the psalmist. It is their disrespect and plotting against God that cause the poet to cry out for God to destroy them. I know that when I encounter statements that are so blatantly hostile to God or even the idea of God that a certain hatred wells up in my own heart. Yes, I know Jesus has called us to love our enemies, but as our poet observes here, I think it’s even more difficult to love those who clearly hate God—or in today’s world, reject the idea of God altogether.

This marvelous psalm ends with the famous verse asking God to know both our heart and mind to detect and (I presume) root out any contrary feelings or thoughts about God’s presence and his power:
Search me, God, and know my heart,
probe me and know my mind.
And see if a vexing way be in me,
and lead me on the eternal way. (23, 24)

The question I have to ask is, do I allow God to probe my deepest feelings and innermost thoughts? Or do I prefer to keep them hidden from him? Of course as this psalm makes eminently clear, God’s presence is inescapable. So we would do well to join the psalmist and welcome God into our hearts and minds.

Amos 5: This chapter is a poetic lamentation for Israel’s manifold sins, and it is suffused with hopelessness:
Fallen, no more to rise,
    is maiden Israel;
forsaken on her land,
    with no one to raise her up. (2)

Amos forces us to notice that Israel faces a simple but stark choice:
Seek the Lord and live,
    or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
    and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it. (6)

God pleads with Israel do but one thing:
Hate evil and love good,
    and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
    will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (15)

It’s the same choice for us today isn’t it? Sure, we can say we hate evil and love good. But God is asking us to put that love for good into action and to establish justice—and although it’s not overtly stated here, that’s to establish justice for the poor and oppressed. I’m good at saying nice things and professing love, but my actions too rarely back up my words.

Amos turns his attention to those around him who wish for the end of history, the Day of the Lord, telling them it is not going to be what they expect using some pretty dramatic imagery:
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
    Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
     as if someone fled from a lion,
    and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
    and was bitten by a snake.” (18, 19)

This is not a pleasant end. Lots of people today think we are at the end of history. But like Israel then, the world has pretty much rejected God. As Jesus makes clear in his Olivet discourse, there will be judgement at the end of history and for most people it will not be a pretty sight.

The chapter ends on a depressing note:  therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.” (27) Which of course is exactly what happened.

Revelation 9:1–11: With the blast of the fifth trumpet we move from plausible explanations of what the first four trumpets represent to even more imaginative imagery which is difficult to square with natural phenomena. A star falls from heaven to earth, which readers of Milton’s Paradise Lost (and a lot of conservative moderns) consider to be a fallen angel, although as we find out at the end of the reading, is not Satan. This fallen angel “opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace…Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth.” (2, 3)

These locusts with scorpion tails are instructed not to damage the earth (which is somewhat ironic since the first four trumpets have already done a pretty good job of that). Rather they are to torture “those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (4) for five months. (And I’m sure people are trying to figure out the symbolism of five months since ‘5’ is not a popular number in Biblical numerology.) The torture will result only in unendurable agony but not death for those afflicted.

Never content to leave well enough alone when it comes to vivid details, John describes  “locusts [who] were like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; they had scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle.” (7, 8)  It seems clear to me that the locusts are John’s idea of an even greater, darker force than Rome and the those being tortured here are Roman military officials who are persecuting Christians. John is clearly enjoying describing the agonizing payback they will receive.

Notice, too, this locust/scorpion army arises from the depths of the earth, not from heaven, so it is clearly a greater force of evil than even the Roman evil. At the end of this grim description John tells us that the “king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek he is called Apollyon.” (11) In John’s cosmology then, there is Apollyon that is in charge of awfulness under the earth. I’m guessing that in the hierarchy of evil, Apollyon is subservient to Satan.

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