Psalm 144:9–15; Habakkuk 2,3; Revelation 16:1–11

Psalm 144:9–15: Our psalmist turns to worship– “God, a new song I would sing to You,/ on a ten-stringed lute I would hymn to You.” (9)–as the thanksgiving for God’s rescue of David continues: “Who grants rescue to kings,/ redeems David His servant from the evil sword.” (10)

However, an odd interlude of supplication amidst the joy follows: “Redeem me and save me from the foreigners’ hand,/ whose mouth speaks falsely,/ and whose right hand is a right hand of lies.” (11) Assuming this is a psalm of thanksgiving about David as king, this verse suggests the reality that enemies are still out there although they are presently being held at bay. But at the moment the defenses of the land remain secure and at peace. There is bounty: Our granaries are full,/ dispensing food of every kind./ Our flocks are in the thousands,/ ten thousands in the fields.” (13) There is security: “There is no breach and none goes out,/ and no screaming in the squares.” (14) A prosperous and secure land ruled by a gracious king who worships God is the best of all possible worlds as the conclusion of the psalm tells us: “Happy the people who has it thus,/ happy the people whose God is the Lord.” (15)

Above all, though, peace and security yield the greatest treasures: sons and daughters. The psalmist’s similes are at once sweet and striking. Sons “are like saplings, / tended in their youth.” Sons who are well-tended by their parents do indeed grow to be strong trees.  Daughters are “like corner-pillars hewn for the shape of a pa;ace.” I presume these corner pillars were carved into shapely attractive elements, and in the patriarchal land, one could ask for nothing better than comely daughters, who would become married wives.  As a father, watching my son and daughter become caring, giving adults is the greatest reward of all.

Habakkuk 2,3: God answers Habakkuk’s plea, telling him, “Write the vision;/ make it plain on tablets.” (2:2) God reminds Habakkuk to “Look at the proud!/ Their spirit is not right in them,/ but the righteous live by their faith.” (2:4) Living by faith is always better because “Pride will never endure” and “Moreover, wealth is treacherous;/ the arrogant do not endure.” (2:5) As always, pride and arrogance will come to a bad end and the prophet spends the remainder of this chapter cataloging the woes that come to the wicked, “Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed,/and found a city on iniquity!” (2:12) and that the wicked will be “sated with contempt instead of glory.” (2:16) Idolatry is ultimately empty and lifeless:
Alas for you who say to the wood, “Wake up!”
       to silent stone, “Rouse yourself!”
    Can it teach?
        See, it is gold and silver plated,
       and there is no breath in it at all. (2:19)

The lessons of Habakkuk are lessons for our present age that is prideful, arrogant and obsessed with the idols it has created: celebrity, technology, and above all wealth. It is existentially empty, leading only to despair.

But there is always hope and this book ends on a far more optimistic note than Nahum’s. Chapter 3 is Habakkuk’s prayer for revival among the people:
O Lord, I have heard of your renown,
    and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work.
In our own time revive it;
    in our own time make it known;
    in wrath may you remember mercy. (3:2)

The prophet knows that disaster is not far away: “I wait quietly for the day of calamity/ to come upon the people who attack us.” (3:16). But in this psalm of thanksgiving spoken in the midst of impending doom, Habakkuk holds on to the One Sure Thing:
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
       I will exult in the God of my salvation.
   God, the Lord, is my strength;
       he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
       and makes me tread upon the heights. (3:18, 19)

And in the midst of culture disintegrating before our eyes, so must we cling to the rock that is Jesus Christ.

Revelation 16:1–11: It would seem by this point that the earth has seen enough battles, disasters, and death. But John persists in his catalog of woes as the bowls of wrath are poured out one by one.

Bowl 1: “foul and painful sores” (2) come to those who worshipped the 666 beast.
Bowl 2: the sea “became like the blood of a corpse” (3) killing everything in it. I will take this as some sort of dreadful pollution. And in John’s time perhaps he had witnessed a deadly algae bloom.
Bowl 3:  Fresh water also becomes hopelessly polluted. The angel makes it clear that the water punishments of bowls 2 and 3 are just desserts for the 666 people “because they shed the blood of saints and prophets.” (6)
Bowl 4: The sun scorches people with fire in what must be a prolonged heat wave.
Bowl 5: Darkness (an eclipse perhaps) overcomes the earth and “people gnawed their tongues in agony, and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores. (10,11)

One has the feeling that John witnessed various disasters during his lifetime and has decided to list them in dramatically amplified form as sure signs of the end of history. Which I’m sure he expected to see come shortly. Which it eventually did as the seemingly unconquerable Roman Empire decays from within and is ultimately vanquished several hundred years after John wrote. But to borrow from TS Eliot, it didn’t end with the bang John forecasts, but with the whimper of internal decay.

The punishment is just because as John observes, “they did not repent of their deeds.” (11). These bowls of wrath are plainly recompense for the sins of the people who refused to acknowledge their misdeeds and repent. One wonders if John has attempted to preach to people who refused to listen and taunted him. In any event, there is certainly no shortage of acts of God’s vengeance here and one wonders why grace has disappeared. Are John’s vision the result of a deep-seated anger?

In any event he is certainly demonstrating to his readers that while they may be suffering now, their oppressors will come to a dreadful end. Like Habakkuk, detailing his list of woes, John uses dramatic imagery to make his point that failing to repent and follow God will come only to an unhappy and painful end.

Psalm 144:5–8; Nahum 3; Habakkuk 1; Revelation 14:17–15:8

Psalm 144:5–8: The psalmist moves from his reflection on humanity’s ephemerality [“his days like a passing shadow”] to a vision of God as creator and therefore master of the universe. He prays that God will demonstrate his inherent power in a dramatic fashion through natural phenomena with the remarkable image: “Lord, tilt Your heavens and come down,/ but touch the mountains and they smoke.” (This is certainly one of those verses which reenforce the image of being “up there” above us.) The psalmist asks specifically for God to use this power to defeat his enemies so they are no longer a threat: “Crack lightning and scatter them,/ send forth Your bolts and panic them.” (6)

At the same time, the psalmist prays, asking God to use this same power over nature to rescue him, apparently from a real or metaphorical flood: “Send forth Your hand from on high,/ redeem me and save me from the many waters.” (7) The hand of God which shoots lightning bolts at his enemies is the same hand that rescues him. Clearly the psalmist understands that God is at once the all-powerful master of nature and vanquisher of enemies while also the loving rescuer, who stretches out his hand to the person he loves. This rescue will also save him “from the foreigners’ hand,/ whose mouth speaks falsely,/ and whose right hand is a right hand of lies.” (8)

Given that this is a David psalm we can imagine it was written to describe the king as soldier protected by God (verses 1-2), philosopher (verses 3,4), and political figure who is facing foreign enemies and who calls upon God to act against his enemies and to rescue him (verses 5-8). For me, it demonstrates the impossibility of ever getting a complete handle on who God is and what he is capable of, but that above all we can trust in him and call on him to rescue us just as David did.

Nahum 3; Habakkuk 1: Nahum’s vivid description of the destruction of Nineveh continues apace in gruesome detail:
Horsemen charging,
    flashing sword and glittering spear,
piles of dead,
    heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
    they stumble over the bodies! (3:3)

Dreadful sins committed by the inhabitants of Nineveh lies at the root of God’s anger:
Because of the countless debaucheries of the prostitute,
       gracefully alluring, mistress of sorcery,
    who enslaves nations through her debaucheries,
       and peoples through her sorcery. (3:4)

Is this the same Nineveh converted to worshipping God through Jonah? Has it fallen so far? Nahum reminds Nineveh that she is in a long line of once-great empires such as Thebes which have fallen to ruin. Despite the assistance of Ethiopia, Egypt, Put, and Libya, Thebes
became an exile,
    she went into captivity;
       even her infants were dashed in pieces
    at the head of every street;
       lots were cast for her nobles,
    all her dignitaries were bound in fetters. (3:10)

Nahum’s prophecy ends without hope for rescue because of the brutality of its sins:
There is no assuaging your hurt,
       your wound is mortal.
   All who hear the news about you
       clap their hands over you.
   For who has ever escaped
       your endless cruelty?  (3:19)

Is the fate of Nineveh a warning to us? As we have observed again and again, empires rise and they fall. And they fall because they fall into depravity and cruelty. Why should America, given its cultural trajectory, not meet a similar fate?

Habakkuk’s writings begin as a psalm of supplication. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,/ and you will not listen?” (1) The prophet is greatly distresses at the violence and injustice of Israel that he sees everywhere around him:
Destruction and violence are before me;
       strife and contention arise.
   So the law becomes slack
       and justice never prevails.
   The wicked surround the righteous—
       therefore judgment comes forth perverted. (3b, 4)

And then a prophetic warning:
For a work is being done in your days
       that you would not believe if you were told.
    For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
       that fierce and impetuous nation, (5b, 6a)

What’s striking here is that the people Habakkuk is warning remain in complete denial that anything could possibly go wrong or that they could be overrun by an enemy. But the prophet knows that:
O Lord, you have marked them for judgment;
       and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment.
   Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
       and you cannot look on wrongdoing; (12b, 13a)

The question Habakkuk, like Nahum poses for me is our own state of denial in our wickedness as a culture. Given current circumstances the moral threads that hold our civilization together are fraying rapidly. To me, it seems that our collective sins and depredations, many in the name of “tolerance” will be our ultimate undoing. These prophets have much to say to us, but they pretty much remain ignored.

Revelation 14:17–15:8: The winnowing of the wicked from the earth continues at the end of history as “another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” (14:18) The image of the winepress crushing out its rivers of blood of the wicked–“blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.” is worthy of any OT prophet.

This image reminds us that John speaks of the vineyard (“I am an the vine, you are the branches”) in the Upper Room Discourse in his Gospel. Here in a strikingly similar image, the fruit of the world’s evil comes to its well deserved but ghastly end. There is a vine of the righteous, but then there is the much larger vineyard of the wicked that bears fruit which must ultimately be destroyed. Thus it ever is: the righteous are always vastly outnumbered by the wicked, hence the river of blood 6 feet high and 200 miles long.

But wait, there’s more. We now come to the final images of destruction: the bowls of wrath. What’s fascinating here is that this final judgement opens with yet another dramatic scene of worship of the Lamb: “and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.” (15:2,3). John even records the song, a compendium of quotes from Jeremiah and Isaiah.

Following worship, we meet the “seven angels with the seven plagues, robed in pure bright linen, with golden sashes across their chests.” (6) One of the four living creatures, whom we met back in the throne room scene of chapter 4, hands each angel a “golden bowl full of the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever.” (7,8). The temple is filled “with smoke from the glory of God and from his power” as we await the outpouring of the seven bowls.

At this point, given all the destruction that John has described thus far, is there anyone left to even experience these bowls of wrath? But as we know from apocalyptic writing, logic is not at the top of the author’s list. Rather, image after image is slammed against us because I think it’s the only possible way to use words as pictures to even partially and inadequately describe the affairs of heaven which lie so far beyond our limited human comprehension.

Psalm 144:1–4; Nahum 1,2; Revelation 14:6–16

Psalm 144:1–4: That God is the foundation of our very being opens this David psalm that celebrates victory in battle. But as always, the victory comes from God, here first in the form of training and preparation: “Blessed is the Lord, my rock,/ Who trains my hands for battle,/ my fingers for the fray.” [At first, “fingers” seems an odd reference until we remember that that the skill of the bowman lay not only in his arms for strength, but in his fingers for accuracy.]

The military imagery continues with the metaphor of God as “My strength and my bastion,/ my fortress and my deliverer.” (2a) The idea of God as bastion or fortress of protection is clear, but until now, my eyes have slid right over “my deliverer.” To be sure, God protects us safely behind his metaphorical walls, but in the heat of battle out in the midst of the enemy, it is God who protects us there as well. In other words, don;t just hide in the safety of church, but get out into the battleground of the world. God will indeed protect us when we are willing to take risks. But only after we’ve been in training.

Nevertheless, the idea that it is God “Who tramples down peoples beneath me” (2b) is uncomfortable reminding me, anyway, of “God is on our side” thinking. But the psalmist uses this phrase, I think, to make it clear that it is God who gives the victory. We are merely the means to that victory.

At verse 3 the psalm turns meditative and strongly reminiscent of the ideas of Psalm 139: “Lord, what is a human creature that You should know him,/ the son of man, that You should pay him mind?” But rather than going on to describe the glory of God’s creative activity in forming humankind that we find in 139, the psalmist reflects instead on our evanescence: “The human is like unto breath,/ his days like a passing shadow.” (4) At first this seems like an abrupt change of direction from the earlier military imagery, but what serious warrior would not contemplate the reality of his potential death before commencing battle? I know that I had those same thoughts that conflated God’s protective power and my own mortality while being treated for cancer.

Nahum 1,2: All we are told of the mysterious Nahum is that he wrote “An oracle concerning Nineveh” and that he was from Elkosh. (1:1) The prophet does not bother to write a gentle introduction but opens in a brutal description of God’s wrath:
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,
    the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
    and rages against his enemies. (1:2)

God is neither to be trifled with nor discounted as ineffectual simply because he does not act right away: “The Lord is slow to anger but great in power,/ and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.” (3)

After describing God as master over creation [His wrath is poured out like fire,/ and by him the rocks are broken in pieces.” (6)] Nahum reveals God’s other qualities of patiences and protection:
   The Lord is good,
    a stronghold in a day of trouble;
he protects those who take refuge in him,
    even in a rushing flood. (1:8)

It is these qualities of wrath and gentleness held in opposition that make understanding the OT God so frustratingly difficult. If we aren’t careful, it’s easy to make God come off as an angry teenager bouncing around from anger to kindness. But the reality of God is much more profound: it is disobedience, idolatry and injustice that anger God. He will be patient for a very long time, but  since God ultimately demands justice his very nature as God requires him to act. Otherwise he wouldn’t be God.

How do we as Christians saved by grace think about this wrathful OT God? I guess the best way is that God has revealed his ultimate kindness in sending Jesus to earth to save us all. This is kindness and mercy trumping wrath. We know that God can be wrathful, but Jesus is our shield against that wrath.

The second chapter of Nahum is a vividly dramatic description of the destruction of Ninevah by God’s army (Judah?). First, its threatening presence as it stands outside the city walls ready to invade. Nahum brilliantly uses language to describe its majestic potential power:
The shields of his warriors are red;
    his soldiers are clothed in crimson.
The metal on the chariots flashes
    on the day when he musters them;
    the chargers prance. (2:3).

Then, as the army moves into action, Nahum’s words are cinematic:
The chariots race madly through the streets,
    they rush to and fro through the squares;
their appearance is like torches,
    they dart like lightning. (2:4)

Finally, the horrible consequences for the invaded city:
Devastation, desolation, and destruction!
    Hearts faint and knees tremble,
all loins quake,
    all faces grow pale! (2:10)

Sometimes we read the Bible simply to bask in its powerful and beautiful language and not concern ourselves with its theological implications. Nahum 2 would seem to be one of those times.

Revelation 14:6–16: After chapter after chapter of the horrors to come at the end of history, John looks up toward heaven and describes the end that his readers in the seven churches must have longed for with all their hearts: God wins.

First, an angel arrives “with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live  on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people.” (6) Then a second angel announces the fall of Babylon (Rome):  ““Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” (8). Finally a third angel announces that “Those who worship the beast and its image…will will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” (9, 10) Even better, these oppressors will be punished “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.” (11)

But this promise of the three angels lies in the future at the end of history. It is indeed encouraging but in the meantime, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.” (12) Regardless of the evil that happens in the present, John is saying, the future is bright.

For me, this is John’s central theme of his apocalyptic writing. No matter how weird things may get, he is encouraging endurance in the present trials and suffering in order to reap the future rewards. And John is careful to note that his readers may very well die in the interim either as martyrs or even form natural causes. So he is careful to add: “Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”” (13)

John continues with the dramatic imagery of how God wins in the end. And for Jesus’ enemies it will not be a happy outcome: “ Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!” (14) A crown and a sickle representing power and vindication. and the Son of Man–Jesus Christ–“swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.” (16) What evil has sewn will ultimately be cut down by Jesus Christ.

What Nahum described in the destruction of Nineveh will become the foretaste of John’s description of the ultimate destruction of evil in the world by the Son of Man.

Psalm 143:7–12; Micah 6,7; Revelation 13:11–14:5

Psalm 143:7–12: There’s a certain air of desperation as the psalmist, speaking as David, continues to plead with God to appear: “Do not hide Your face from me,/ lest I be like those gone down to the pit.” (7) He reiterates how much he trusts in God and how important God is in the conduct of his life, in fact the entirety of his life: “Let me know the way I should go,/ for to You I lift up my being.” (8b) The core of the psalm lies in his fervent desire for rescue, knowing it is only through God that there is any hope: “Save me from my enemies, Lord/ with You is my vindication.” (9a).

There’s no question that David faces the greatest dilemma of his life up to then as he turns to God to provide guidance for an enormous decision: “Teach me to do what will please You,/ for You are my God.” (10a) We can see him in the cave standing over the Saul’s sleeping body, knife in his hand, begging God to tell him whether to kill his enemy or let him continue to sleep.  What’s crucial for us here is that he is asking what “will please God,” not what will please himself, or what will feel good for the moment but morph quickly into regret.

This is the question I must ask when faced with a decision (hopefully one never as dire as David’s!): What do I need to do that will please God? The next verse is the prayer I must pray: “Let Your goodly spirit guide me. on level ground.” (10b) We know what David did: he relented from killing Saul. Clearly, he remained on God’s level ground. But it’s worth noting that doing what he knew would please God did not make him hate his enemies any less. But he has turned the problem over to God and looks to God to take action: “And in Your kindness devastate my enemies…for I am Your servant.” (12). Would that we do the same.

Micah 6,7: Writing in the voice of God, Micah challenges Israel “for the Lord has a controversy with his people,/ and he will contend with Israel.” (6:2) Israel is confused. It thinks that sacrifices and burnt offerings are what will please God. Bt that has become mere empty ritual while Israel has become innately corrupt. There is only one thing which God requires:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
       and what does the Lord require of you
    but to do justice, and to love kindness,
       and to walk humbly with your God? (6:8)

This is the ur-theme of the OT: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. It’s really very simple in concept but as Micah goes on to point out, Israel has done none of these things. It ignores justice in its cheating: “Can I tolerate wicked scales/ and a bag of dishonest weights?” (6:11)  It ignores justice as “the official and the judge ask for a bribe,/and the powerful dictate what they desire;/ thus they pervert justice.” (7:3)

It is cruel, untruthful, and unfair: “Your wealthy are full of violence;/ your inhabitants speak lies,/ with tongues of deceit in their mouths.” (6:12). And above all, it doesn’t even walk with God, much less humbly, having fallen so deeply into idolatry: “For you have kept the statutes of Omri/ and all the works of the house of Ahab,/ and you have followed their counsels.” (6:16)

These verses are of course a perfect description of the corruption of every civilization that followed–right down to 21st century America. The question is, have we ourselves become like Israel: “The faithful have disappeared from the land,/ and there is no one left who is upright.” (7:2)

But… As always, there the eternal promise of restoration, “A day for the building of your walls!/ In that day the boundary shall be far extended.” (7:11) God will one day “again have compassion upon us;/ he will tread our iniquities under foot./ You will cast all our sins / into the depths of the sea.” (7:19). As Christians, we know exactly how God accomplishes this restoration through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But that doe snot absolve us from our responsibility to do what Micah demands: “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” In fact, if we truly love jesus and love God we will run toward those qualities not  run from them as ancient Israel did even in the midst of the corruption and idolatry that surrounds us.

Revelation 13:11–14:5: As if a dragon and one beast are not enough, a second beast emerges “from the earth,” which I take to be Satan’s domain. Featuring “two horns like a lamb and speaking “like a dragon,” this one seems to be sort of an administrative assistant to the first beast “and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed.” (13:12). One suspects John may have been referring to some sort of charismatic leader of a religion that practices dark arts since it “performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all;  and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth.” (13:13, 14) Zoroasterism, perhaps?

This beast, aka the antichrist, also wields great economic power, and “causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.” (13:16, 17). This is the verse that causes some fundamentalists to avoid credit cards. Now that technologies exist where chips can be implanted that would identify us and allow us to conduct transactions, John’s prophecy could very well come true!

We encounter the famous “number of the beast,” which is 666. Six is the number of man, who was created in 6 days. The triple 6 is seen by some as a human mockery of the Trinity. Whatever its meaning to John, there’s no question it connoted evil.

The scene shifts as John’s camera points away form the earth and up to Mount Zion and back to the throne room. Here he sees the Lamb (Christ) and “with him were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” (14:1) The Jehovah;s Witnesses long ago claimed they were the 144,000. But if we think of 12 as the number of “governmental perfection” (12 tribes, 12 disciples, etc.) then this number simply means perfection upon perfection (12 x 12 = 144) and of enormous magnitude (144 x 1,000). John is simply describing a big, perfected crowd, who are engaged in worshipping the Lamb as “they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders.” (14:3).

To me, they represent the Church–all of us who “have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, and in [our] mouth no lie was found; [we] are blameless.” Which is our state upon baptism–or as Luther has it, our daily baptism wherein the blood of the Lamb forgives us again and again when we confess our sins.

Psalm 143:1–6; Micah 3:8–5:15; Revelation 12:1–13:10

Psalm 143:1–6: The familiar language of supplication in this David song reminds us once again that much of our lives seem to be spent while God is silent. In times of trouble, we turn to God and ask, “Lord, hear my prayer,/ hearken to my pleas.” But the psalmist also reminds himself that God is faithful and that he is listening, as he asks again, “In Your faithfulness answer me, in Your bounty.” (1)

Then confession, as the supplicant remembers that he comes in sin, asking “Do not come into judgement with Your servant,/ for no living thing is acquitted before you.” Not only is every member of humankind sinful, but Alter’s translation suggests that every creature is fallen. Such are the consequences of our own fall that we live in an imperfect world that will be fully restored only at the end of history.

The psalmist then lays out his personal situation: “For the enemy pursued me,/ thrust my life into the ground,/ made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.”  (3). Inasmuch as this is a “David psalm” (1) this is doubtless a direct reference to David’s pursuit by Saul and his having to hide out in the cave. In these dire straits David laments, “And my spirit fainted within me,/ in my breast my heart was stunned.” (4). This is a beautiful description of how we feel when we have been attacked, not by a pursuing king, but at bad news such as a cancer diagnosis or the loss of a loved one–or even at harsh words directed our way. We feel a gray fog surrounding us; rational thought is impossible. We are trapped in a dark cave.

David recovers his equilibrium with memory of better times: “I recalled the days of old,” and above all, his memory of the his relationship with God: “I recited all Your deed,/ of Your handiwork I did speak.” (5) And in this memory of this unbreakable relationship, we come before God as a drought receives rain: in supplication, looking upward: “I stretched out my hands to You–/ my being like thirsty land to You.” (6) Our situation remains desperate, but in remembering that God is there we can fall to our knees, stretch our our hands, and looking upward be assured that God is listening.

Micah 3:8–5:15: Like David, who turns, arms outstretched to God, Micah realizes that he is equipped by God to speak harsh truths to Israel:

I am filled with power,
        with the spirit of the Lord,
       and with justice and might,
   to declare to Jacob his transgression
       and to Israel his sin. (3:8)

Prophets were able to speak with boldness, saying things people did not want to hear because they knew they were filled with the Holy Spirit’s power. And so with us: If we are confident in the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, we are also equipped to speak truth to power.

Like other prophets, Micah is bold and direct as he addresses the power structure, accusing them (as always!) of injustice:
Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
    and chiefs of the house of Israel,
   who abhor justice
    and pervert all equity, (3:9)

After predicting the demise of Israel [“Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins”  (3:12)] Micah turns to describing the restored Israel where “ the mountain of the Lord’s house/ shall be established as the highest of the mountains.” (4:1) The porpohecy is not only of a restored Israel but of all nations and God “shall judge between many peoples,/ and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away.” (4:3a)

But above all, in this restored earth to come only at the end of history,
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
       and their spears into pruning hooks;
    nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
        neither shall they learn war any more; (4:3b)

We see these lines inscribed on the wall of the United Nations, but it’s clear that humankind will never be able to do this on its own. Only God will bring about the restoration of a fallen world that will make these words reality. In our fallen state we can think these beautiful thoughts, but our own efforts–especially now that we have banished God from the scene–will always be futile. As Jesus says, there will always be wars and rumors of war. It is the reality of our fallen state.

Micah goes on to describe the pure wonderfulness of that restoration. And then we come to one of the most famous prophecies of all, especially appropriate at this time of Advent:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
    from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to rule in Israel,
    whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days. (5:2)

For Israel this simply means the long-promised Messiah will be born on Bethlehem. But for us Christians this reference is absolutely clear. Jesus has come from Bethlehem, and as John tells us in his own nativity narrative, Jesus’ “origin is of old/ from ancient days” since the Word has always been with God from the beginning of time.

Revelation 12:1–13:10:John gives us a dramatic narrative as he describes a kind of proto-Mary, a “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (1) giving birth “to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” (5). But unlike angels announcing the birth of Jesus, a dragon appears in the sky standing ready to “devour her child as soon as it was born.” (4). But as soon as the child is born, it is “snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness” (5,6) where she is to remain hidden for 1260 days.

The angel Michael fights and defeats the dragon in the skies, but does not kill it. The dragon returns to earth, where “he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child.” (13) But the woman miraculously sprouts two wings, flies to the desert, where the dragon finds her, sprouts a river from his mouth threatening to drown her.  But the “earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river.” (12:16). The frustrated dragon then “went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” (12:17).

As if the pursuing dragon isn’t enough, John now describes a ten-horned, seven-headed beast “like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.” (13:2) which is given power to rule over humankind by the dragon. Now that the beast has appeared, people “worshipped the dragon.” (13:4)

The beast is blasphemous, is worshipped by all, “makes war on the saints.” and “it was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation.” That phrase suggests a direct reference to the Caesar in power in Rome. Whoever it is, John makes it clear that this is a time of great trial for the saints and tells them this “is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” (13:10)

So, what do we make of this imaginative fantasy? I go with the theory that it’s some kind of code to the churches in Asia of persecution to come and the woman, the dragon, and the events current at the time John writes. One thing I’m sure of: It’s the sure way to madness to try to link these images to future events from here in our perch in the 21st century. Instead of wasting time trying to attach John’s images to future events, we need to focus on John’s simple message to the end: regardless if how much the people of the world worship the beast and the dragon, it is our duty as saints to remain faithful to Jesus.

 

Psalm 141:1–4; Obadiah 1; Jonah 1,2; Revelation 11:1–14

Psalm 141:1–4: This prayer of supplication begins with the usual formula asking God to come and listen: “O Lord, I call You. Hasten to me./ Hearken to my voice when I call You.” (1) To make sure God gets his point, he emphasizes his posture of holiness, which unlike praying on one’s knees in a gesture of humility is standing, arms raised, looking up toward heaven: “May my prayer stand as incense before You,/ my uplifted hands as the evening offering.” (2)  Here, prayer is compared to a sweet-smelling sacrifice, an act of formal worship.

More important than his posture is the content of his prayer–and what he asks for right off the bat: “Place, O Lord, a watch on my mouth,/ a guard at the door of my lips.” (3) As usual, it is what we say that can do the most damage and our psalmist opens his prayer by asking God to help him speak with thoughtfulness and even caution. No matter how benign our thoughts may be when we open our mouths to speak, it is the words that come out of our mouth and are heard by others that define our relationships and how we are seen by others. To try to excuse ourselves and say, “that really isn’t what I meant to say” may help, but too often the damage has been done.

The psalmist seems to realize this as he asks God to “incline not my heart to an evil word/ to plot wicked acts.” (4a). In fact, he is asking to avoid the temptation of falling in with those who are “wrongdoing men/ and let me not feast on their delicacies.” (4) I don’t think “delicacies” here refers to what they eat, but their plotting and conniving against others.

What we learn here is that we can go to God and pray for wisdom in what we say aloud and for God to “lead us not into temptation” and fall in with the wrong crowd.

Obadiah 1; Jonah 1,2: At first glance we may wonder why Obadiah is even in the OT canon. The entirety of his single chapter is about how Edom will be conquered and how the Edomites will get their just desserts for their longstanding cruelty against Israel.
On that day, says the Lord,
I will destroy the wise out of Edom,
and understanding out of Mount Esau. (8)

The inhabitants of Edom are the descendants of Esau, the twin of Jacob. And as Esau and Jacob’s relationship did not come to a good end, so too Israel and Edom. Obadiah reminds us of the fruits of that broken relationship as Edom stands aside as the Israel (the Northern Kingdom) is invaded by the Assyrians and then Judah by the Babylonians. He reminds them that “you should not have gloated over your brother
on the day of his misfortune;/ you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah/on the day of their ruin;” (12) Because now they are meeting the same fate.

The clear lesson to us is to never gloat or be happy at another’s misfortune because the same things is all too likely to happen to us.

If gloating over another’s misfortune comes to a bad end, so does trying to run away from God. We all know Jonah’s story as he heads by boat to Tarshish, in the opposite direction from Ninevah. What we don’t learn in Sunday school is that when the storm comes, the frightened sailors cast lots to see whose fault the storm is and cast lots “and the lot fell on Jonah.” Unlucky or God-inspired, part of his larger plan?

Jonah admits he’s a Hebrew and “Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.” (1:10) After they toss Jonah into the sea and the storm abates, “the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” (16). While the men’s action may have looked like murder for self-preservation, the author’s point here is that God has a plan for Jonah and God has also deeply impacted these men, who come to see who the True God is compared to the small-g gods to whom they prayer earlier for rescue.

Jonah’s residence in the big fish leads him to prayer and he promises to sacrifice to God, saying, “what I have vowed I will pay./ Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” What’s interesting here is that it is not a prayer of desperation but a beautiful psalm of thanksgiving. It’s one of the aspects of Jonah’s story to lead me to believe we are not reading history, but a marvelous story of our relationship with God, who indeed loves us and whom we should not fear even when we’re asked to do tough things.

As Christians, we see the “three days and three nights” Jonah is in the belly of the fish and then his deliverance as predictive of Jesus death and resurrection. But I’ve always wondered if this is over-interpretation.

Revelation 11:1–14: A measuring rod again. Is it the same one we saw in Ezekiel? Like Ezekiel, John is invited by the angel to “Come and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there,” (11:1)  Then the two witnesses appear, who have the “authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth.” (3). Once again we have the precision of numbers juxtaposed against remarkable imagery. These witnesses are apparently prophets sent directly from God, and they have been given great power to consume by fire anyone who opposes them. They also have the power to “to shut the sky, so that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying” (6) as well as replicate the plagues that befell Egypt so long ago.

But like the prophets of old, and despite their power, most people do not even listen to them. Once that 3 1/2 year period of witness ends, the “the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically  called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. (7,8). As if this isn’t bizarre enough,there is a grisly image where “For three and a half days members of the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb” (9) Is this a perverse and distorted reenactment of Jesus death?

Like the Edomites in Obadiah, “the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them.” And then in what seems like a perverted Christmas, they will also “celebrate and exchange presents.” (10) But John reminds us that “these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth.” (10b). We just don’t like prophets who tell us things we don’t want to hear. But like the Edomites, the people get what’s coming to them. After these 3 1/2 days, the prophets are resurrected (resuscitated?) and “those who saw them were terrified.” (11) An earthquake then kills 7,000 people.

So, what is this about? It seems to be some sort of distorted mirror image of Jesus’ ministry on earth. But perhaps the lesson is much simpler: even prophets who come directly from God are ignored by gloating, self-centered humans who think God is unnecessary and probably doesn’t even exist. That attitude certainly sounds awfully modern.

Psalm 140:1–6; Amos 6,7; Revelation 9:12–21

Psalm 140:1–5: This is a “pure” psalm of supplication from beginning to end and seems to follow a pretty formulaic structure. The psalmist’s first desire is to be free of the evil people that surround him but then seems to focus on a single individual: “Free me, Lord, from evil folk,/from a violent man preserve me.” (2) From his perspective they are conspirators and instigators, “Who plot evil in their heart,/ each day stir up battles.” (3). As usual, it is speech that reveals their evil intentions as our psalmist invokes images of the most vile creatures he can imagine: “They sharpen their tongue like a serpent,/ venom of spiders beneath their lip.”

In addition to speech, there is physical threat as he prays, “Guard me, Lord from the wicked man’s hands,/ from a violent man preserve me,/ who plots to trip up my steps.” (5) He clearly feels he is the victim of a conspiracy by those who claim to be better than he: “The haughty laid down a trap for me,/ and with cords they spread out a net.” (6)

So here’s my dilemma. Jesus said we are to pray for our enemies and yes, even love them. But as in all psalms of supplication, the psalmist is praying to be freed from their influence and plotting. Can we do both? I think it’s worth noting that the psalmist is not praying for the destruction of his enemies; he seems to accept their continued existence. He is praying only that God removes him from their powerful grip. That does not seem to violate Jesus’ command since he, the oppressed, could still be in a position to pray for his oppressor—although he obviously does not do so in this psalm, anyway. So, with the psalmist, if someone is saying evil things about me—an experience I’ve had—I can still pray to God to remove me from their presence or influence. I don’t have to become their friend. But I guess I can still love them from a safe distance.
Amos 6,7: Amos castigates the self-satisfied leadership of Israel, that care only about their personal comfort while ignoring their duties to the people:
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria! …(6:1)
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,…
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,…
who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! (6:4-6)

The prophet tells them they will meet a bad end for having ignored their duties:
Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. (6:7)

That is certainly a challenge to us right here right now who lead extremely comfortable lives. It’s the toughest question of all: Do we let our personal desires and creature comforts trump the needs of the less fortunate. Unfortunately, I know the answer for myself.

The next chapter describes God’s acts of mercy when Amos appeals to him to spare Israel from locusts (7:1) and fire (7:4): ““O Lord God, cease, I beg you!/How can Jacob [Israel] stand?/ He is so small!” (7:2 and 7:5) In both cases, “The Lord relented concerning this;/ “This also shall not be,” said the Lord God.” (7:3 and 7:6)

God is indeed merciful, but he also has standards and expectations and nowhere do we find a better illustration than here in the vision of the plumb line that God shows to Amos. Rather than destroying Israel by natural causes, he will bring judgment down on its idle leadership that worships idols “in the high places:”
See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;…
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” (7:8, 9)

Again and again in the Bible, we see that those in power have a profound responsibility to those over whom they have power—and especially to the poor. Unfortunately, history also demonstrates again and again that this requirement is observed mostly in its breach.

Clearly, Amos’s words are disturbing to the complacent leadership of Israel. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, complains about him to King Jeroboam, accusing the hapless prophet of conspiracy. Amos replies that “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,” who was commanded by God to prophesy.

Amos then explains that if he refused God’s command, God would turn his wife into a prostitute, kill his children, destroy his land and Amos himself would be sent into exile. This is a stark reminder that one does not enter casually into the role of prophet. Prophets are called by God. As Amos points out, to refuse God’s call is certainly problematic. But likewise, to become a false prophet is an act against God as well. That’s why I think there are fewer real prophets around today. In my opinion, those who claim to hear “prophetic words” or “words form the Lord” are not truly prophets. While I would not accuse them of being false prophets, I’m also not inclined to take them solely at their word. Prophesy is a serious business reserved for very few.

Revelation 9:12–21: The sixth angel blows his trumpet, four angels, who have been held captive in hell are released “to kill a third of humankind.” John then does something that other apocalyptic writers have not. He assigns numbers to his vision that creates a perception of precision that I think has ended up sending people off in directions John never intended. He says of this army coming from hell, “The number of the troops of cavalry was two hundred million; I heard their number.” (16) He does the number prophecy once again: “By these three plagues a third of humankind was killed,” (18) Couple that with the imaginative detail of the instruments of destruction—“the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they inflict harm.” (19) and we definitely have a formula for over-interpretation as people try to ascribe every detail to a specific action.

In fact, I think John’s real prophetic message is in verse 20: “The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk.” That is a classic OT prophecy that could just as easily been spoken by Hosea or Amos.

In short, while I think we can enjoy the imaginative imagery and the precision of the numbers that John gives us, his real point is the one that prophets have been making all along: the failure to repent has dire consequences. Including at the end of history.

 

Psalm 74:1–9; Proverbs 31; 2 Corinthians 11:1–11

Psalm 74:1–9: The agony behind this psalm of supplication is palpable. Clearly, it has been written  following the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians. Some years must have passed where God seems absent, which to the writer seem like an eternity: “Why, O God, have You abandoned us forever?” Abandonment is a sure sign of God’s anger: “Your wrath smolders against the flock (i.e. Israel) You should tend.” (1)

As we often do when we feel alone and abandoned, we hearken back to the better times when we were together: “Remember Your cohort You took up of old/…Mount Zion where You dwelled.” (2)

But that interlude is short-lived as the psalmist barely conceals his anger at this abandoning God he chastises, “Lift up Your feet to the eternal ruins,/ all that the enemy has laid waste in the sanctuary.” (3) The poet then goes on to describe in detail what God’s enemies–and the enemies of Israel–have done: “Your foes roared out in Your meeting-place,/ they set up their signs as signs.” (4) (These signs must be symbols or actual idols in place of the Holy of Holies.) The enemies used weapons of war in their destructive onslaught: axes, pikes, hatchets and “They set fire to Your sanctuary.”  Worse,”they profaned on the ground Your name’s dwelling place,” (7) which must be a reference to the Ark of the Covenant.

Only in the final verse of today’s reading do we see a hint of what may have led to this destruction and apparent abandonment by God, an answer to the question of the opening line: “Our own signs we did not see./ There is no longer a prophet,/ nor any among us who knows until when.” (9) This awful destruction is a consequence of failing to heed God’s warning. Of course we wonder the same thing about our own American culture as it heedlessly ignores the warning signs.

Proverbs 31: This final chapter is “The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.” (1) Only here do we hear of King Lemuel; he is certainly not in the line of kings recorded in the Histories. Nevertheless, he possesses wisdom taught to him by his mother: implicit advice we would all do well to heed.

The verses are written in the mother’s pleading voice: “Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb!/ Listen, my son, the answer to my prayers!” (2). She advises him not to “spend your strength on women” (3), to drink wine (4) or beer(!) (4). She notes the problem of alcoholic stupor when leadership responsibilities are required: “lest they drink and forget what has been decreed,/ and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.” (5) Beer and wine are “for those who are perishing” (6) and “Let them drink and forget their poverty/ and remember their misery no more.” (7).  

I have to believe these verses were widely quoted by the 19th century temperance movement–and we cannot forget the truth they contain. The duties of a sober leader are outlined in succinct brilliance:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.

As always, the “rights of the poor and needy.” Alas, how we–and our leaders–have so ignored the wisdom of the two verses.

The epilogue–and final verses of this remarkable book–limn in great detail the virtues of a wife, opening with the famous line, “A wife of noble character who can find?/ She is worth far more than rubies.” (10) as Lemuel’s mother describes her qualities in detail–qualities we have to believe the speaker herself possessed. And tucked in among the long inventory of duties and qualities is this all-important verse all children would do well to remember: “She speaks with wisdom,/ and faithful instruction is on her tongue.” (26)

And our responsibility as her children is clear: “Honor her for all that her hands have done,/ and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.” (31) Amen.

2 Corinthians 11:1–11: Despite Paul’s best efforts and his letters that have apparently offended many Corinthians, something bad is afoot at the church in Corinth: “I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” (3).

Paul clearly states the problem: “if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.” (4) In short, the Gospel is being warped, even perverted, by these “super-apostles” (5) who speak so eloquently.

I cannot help but be reminded of today’s “super-apostles,” pastors of mega-churches and TV stars (I’m talking about you, Joel Osteen and his many competitors and predecessors) who ever-so-slightly warp the truth of the Gospel into a saccharine “it’s-all-about-how-good-I-am” message that appeals to our individual pride. Or worse, a prosperity gospel (Creflo Dollar).

Paul reminds his listeners that unlike these others he ministered to Corinth free of charge and even suggests that,”I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you.” (8) We can hear the barely-suppressed hurt and anger in his voice as he reminds them that “I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so.” (9) as he comes back around to the original accusation that he is boasting. For this Paul provides the best answer of all: “Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!” (11). The question is, did the Corinthians listen and accept his words?

Of course, we are all Corinthians when we accuse our own pastors of a wide variety of shortcomings, and as we are too often attracted to a new, seemingly more attractive voice.  But we must never confuse the Good News preached with sincerity with what looks like “good news” sold by a marketing-savvy preacher. Which is why Jesus, not we, must remain ever at the center of our lives.

 

 

Psalm 38:1-8; Exodus 28:15-43; Matthew 25:31-46

Psalm 38:1-8  This is one of those places where the editors who ordered the Psalms are being ironic.  Psalm 37 ends with the uplifting verse: “He will free them from the wicked and rescue them, for they have sheltered in Him.”  But the darkness of an angry God opens Psalm 38: “LORD, do not rebuke me in Your fury nor chastise me in Your wrath.” (1)

If we think of God as our father, then there is great logic here. Every parent, whose love is unfailing, will become angry with his or her child.  Since God’s parental love is immutable, it’s not illogical that God would become angry as well. David is forthright in admitting his wrongdoing: “For my crimes have welled over my head, like a heavy burden, too heavy for me.” (5)  The simile is exactly correct: our sins are indeed a heavy burden.  Sin exacts its toll physically, mentally, and emotionally: “I am twisted, I am all bent. All day long I go about gloomy. For my innards are filled with burning and there is no whole place in my flesh.” (7,8)  Medical science has established these consequences as fact.

Of course, in today’s “enlightened” society, which essentially rejects the idea of sin, these symptoms are often ascribed to something else that can be ameliorated by drugs or perhaps ferreted out by therapy.  But in the end, our conscience knows the toll of wrongdoing, even if we cannot admit it to ourselves, or we see ourselves as victim rather than perpetrator.

Exodus 28:15-43  The centerpiece of the elaborate priestly breastplate are the Urim and the Thummim, whose physical nature and purpose remain a mystery.  Alter speculates that they may have been engraved stones meaning whose meaning may have been binary answers (“yes” – “no” or “innocent”- “guilty”) to a question posed for resolution.  This theory seems to square with the function of breastplate is expressly named the “breastplate of judgement.”

The image that comes to mind is the “breastplate of righteousness” in Ephesians 6. If the Old Covenant is about judgement, then the New Covenant is about the righteousness imputed to us through the saving power of Jesus Christ.

Matthew 25:31-46  These justly famous and challenging verses occur at the climax of the Olivet Discourse: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (25:34-35).

For in the end our value to God–and our fate–does not stand on theology.  It stands on our response to our faith that ultimately must express itself as action.  Right here. Right now. This is the theme that comprises the entire letter of James.

Our faith is crucial for without it we could not work in the Kingdom.  But it is too easy to sit around and discuss the finer points of theology or wonder just what the Urim and Thummin actually were.  And in so doing, fail to act on the desperate need that surrounds us. This is the passage that says so clearly that working in the Kingdom requires not just my intellectual assent–the mind–but a total commitment of my heart.  The proof of that is that we have done this work without considering  any potential reward: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…'”  We do not perform for our own reward; we perform it because we know it is the right thing to do.

For compassion and then action arises from the heart, not the mind.  For me, this is the greatest challenge and yes, the greatest blessing, of my own Christian walk.

Psalm 37:34-40; Exodus 27:1-28:14; Matthew 25:14-30

Psalm 37:34-40  The conclusion of this wisdom psalm emphasizes that in the end, the righteous will “inherit the earth.”   This contrasts the ephemerality of evil against God’s eternal goodness.  The evil take “root like a flourishing plant.” (35) but like all vegetation, their season ends and they disappear with the wind: “He passes on, and, look, he is gone, I seek him, and he is not found.” (36)

Instead it is “the man of peace [who] has a future./ And the transgressors one and all are destroyed.” (38) I’m intrigued that the psalmist speaks of a “man of peace” rather than the more typical “righteous man” that we encounter in the Psalms.  That says much about the behavior of the righteous.  Righteousness occurs in the framework of peace.

This psalm talks about the future.  The man of peace has a future, while “the future of the wicked [is] cut off.”  As with Jesus’ Olivet Discourse and the apocalyptic books, Daniel, Ezekiel (to a certain extent), and Revelation there’s much about the future in the Bible.  History moves forward in a straight line and one day it will all end. But like the foolish bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable, we tend to live strictly in the present. As the psalmist implies here, the future is all about hope and many good things are yet to come to pass. The promise always remains: “And the Lord will help them and free them.” (39)

Exodus 27:1-28:14  The details of the exterior construction of the Tabernacle continue, as well as a detailed description of the dimensions and materials (mostly bronze) used in the altar, whose most distinctive feature is its four horns–one at each corner.  I’m struck about how the sacred spaces (Tabernacle, Temple) and objects (altar, Ark, etc.) are described in incredible detail, but the text is, shall we say, stingy about the details of ordinary life, of how the people lived on a day-to-day basis.  But then again, these are sacred writings, doubtless written by a priest, who understandably would focus on details like these.

Details abound, as well, in the next chapter about Aaron’s priestly garments.  But at least we get one human note, as the instructions are  “to speak to every wise-hearted person whom I have  filled with a spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him, to be priest to Me.” (28:3-4).  God uses the “wise-hearted” to create sacred objects.

While “wise-hearted” may be an intrinsic quality of the man, he is completed only when God has filled him “with a spirit of wisdom.”  If we are “wise-hearted” we are receptacles for wisdom that comes from God.  The clear implication for me is that we cannot generate wisdom on our own, but must our hearts must be prepared to be filled with God’s spirit of wisdom.  Which is not a bad description of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

Matthew 25:14-30  When I was in Sunday School and we studied this very famous parable of the talents, the emphasis was on investing our “talents” wisely for God’s work–and there’s no question that is exactly what we should be doing as we work in the Kingdom.  Only by putting our gifts to work will the Kingdom advance and will we receive the reward of Christian maturity gained through years of experience.  [Notice the very long timeframe in this story: “After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.” (25:19)]

Now that I’m older, I see that this parable is also all about taking risks.  And the greater our talents (gifts) the greater the risk we are to take.  Timidity–burying our talents–simply does not fly in the Kingdom.  Our recent study of “Right Here Right Now” boils down to our willingness to take risks, doing things and inviting people in ways we previously viewed as unpleasant, perhaps outright dangerous.  Remaining unwilling to take these risks not only results in no return on the investment, the most charitable spin we can put on the last verse [“As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'” (25:30)] is that we are creating “negative progress” in Kingdom work–we are a stumbling block that just gets in the way.  Better that we had not been there at all.