Psalm 129; Daniel 6:19–7:22; 3 John

Psalm 129: This song of ascents celebrates how despite their torturous methods Israel’s long-time enemies have not triumphed. Israel still stands tall:
Much as they beset me from my youth
–Let Israel now say—
uch as they beset me from my youth,
yet they did not prevail over me.
My back the harrowers harrowed,
they drew a long furrow.” (2, 3)

For me, this vivid agricultural image of a plow cutting open a lengthy laceration communicates searing pain more dramatically than almost any other metaphor in the psalms. And despite the pain, our psalmist can still celebrate God’s mercy in how the captives have been set free:
The Lord is just.
He has slashed the bonds of the wicked.
May they be shamed and fall back,
all the haters of Zion.” (4, 5)

The haters of Zion have persisted down through history, most tragically in the Holocaust. So we can be sympathetic to the psalmist’s wish that they will suffer mightily as the poet continues with the agricultural metaphors—only this time turned against the enemy:
May they be like the grass on rooftops
that the east wind withers,
which no reaper fills his hand,
no binder of sheaves his bosom.” (6, 7)

Worse than that, these enemies lie outside the realm of God’s favor and they will miss God’s blessing:
and no passers-by say, “The Lord’s blessing upon you!
We bless you in the name of the Lord.” (8)

For me, this separation from God is what sin is all about.

Daniel 6:19–7:22: Daniel keeps setting an example of the godly life and he keeps outwitting the wiles of his enemies in court, this time the satraps of King Darius. Once again an appeal to a king’s outsize ego and his narcissistic stupidity in singing an ordinance that everyone has to pray to him that cannot be rescinded lands Daniel in harm’s way. Since he prays only to God his jealous enemies see that he is tossed into the lion’s den. Darius wants to save Daniel, but there’s no escaping the legality of the law he’s signed. Daniel is famously tossed into the lion’s den, and anxiety-ridden Darius neither eats nor sleeps that night.

Next morning, the king rushes to the den, finds Daniel quite alive “because he had trusted in his God.” (6:23)  The king makes sure that Daniel’s accusers suffer the fate they had arranged for Daniel. Darius issues a decree that is actually a wonderful psalm, doubtless written by the authors of this book than by Darius:
For he is the living God,
    enduring forever.
His kingdom shall never be destroyed,
    and his dominion has no end.” (6:26)

For me, this famous story is all about trusting God in dire circumstances.

The lion’s den story would have been a great place to end this book. But alas, somebody—perhaps another author—has tacked on what is basically a postscript: Daniel’s own dream of things to come. It’s certainly an imaginative dream featuring four fearsome hybrid animals:

  • a lion with eagle’s wings which morphs into a human with a human mind.
  • a bear with three tusks that eats people
  • something like a leopard with four wings and four heads
  • a frightening ten-horned beast with iron teeth devouring everything in sight.

The ten-horned beast suddenly sprouts a “little horn…with eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.” (7:8)

Then there’s a throne room judgement scene—and we can see some of the source material used by the author of Revelation in the throne room scene:
A thousand thousands served him,
    and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
    and the books were opened.” (7:10)

The three beasts are usually interpreted as the empires of Babylon, Persia and Greece. The fourth beast with iron teeth is the Roman empire. The talking horn is typically interpreted as the Antichrist. Needless to say, a lot of ink has been consumed by people attempting to link these images to world history—together multiple and IMHO, inevitably futile attempts at interpreting just who the little horn represents. One interpretation may be Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek ruler who sacrificed pigs in the temple at Jerusalem.  Or perhaps someone yet to come. During the Reformation the pope served as a handy interpretation of the little horn.

But perhaps the strongest image in this passage is the one we could interpret as Jesus Christ come to earth as Daniel exclaims,
I saw one like a human being
    coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One[f]
    and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
    and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him.” (7:13, 14a)

I think we can leave it at that. God wins at the end of history by virtue of having sent Jesus into the world to save us.

3 John: I’m not sure why this short little letter is its own epistle in the NT. It’s essentially a thank you note to a certain Gaius whom John commends for how well he hews to the Gospel: “I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth, namely how you walk in the truth.” (3)

On the other hand, there’s “Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority.” (9a) Even more scurrilous than spreading “false charges against us” (9) is that he lacks hospitality and has arrogantly put himself in charge as “he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church.” (10) However, John has the ultimate revenge as Diotrephes goes down in history as a miscreant. I strongly doubt if any Christian mother ever named her child Diotrephes.

The example of Diotrephes once again causes John to remind us, “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” (11) Which I think is the theological heart of this little letter. In the end, if we imitate Christ himself we are on the right path.

Finally, John endorses a certain Demetrius, as “Everyone has testified favorably about [him], and so has the truth itself.” (12)

John concludes by telling his correspondents that he has much more to write, but “instead I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face.” (14) One of the great unanswered questions is whether or not that meeting actually took place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Psalm 127; Daniel 4:19–5:16; 1 John 5:6–21

Psalm 127: This psalm is dedicated to Solomon probably because of the clear reference to the temple in the first verse:
If the Lord does not build a house,
in vain do its builders labor on it.
If the Lord does not watch over a town,
in vain does the watchman look out.” (1)

I think the first two lines are directly applicable to the church of Jesus Christ. ot just in the physical building sense, but when a congregation drifts away from the central mission of the church, which is to bring the good news of the Gospel to others, then the whole project of “church” is pretty much in vain.

The next verse communicates how our own lives and especially our own efforts at salvation are ultimately futile. We are mere mortals. Rather, the gifts we receive, such as rest and renewed energy from being able to sleep at night, come from God, not our own work:
In vain you who rise early, sit late,
eaters of misery’s bread.
So much He gives to His loved ones in sleep.” (3)

The subject suddenly changes to a celebration of the joys of male progeny, which for Jews was one of the central purposes of life. As a reflection of the time in which the psalm was written, notice that the reward is sons, not daughters, since it is sons who carry on the ancestral line and therefore the memory of fathers and grandfathers in subsequent generations:
Look, the estate of the Lord is sons,
reward is the fruit of the womb.” (3)

The emphasis on the crucial importance of having sons is carried further with the militaristic image of a warrior holding arrows:
Like arrows in the warrior’s hand,
thus are the sons born in youth.
Happy the man
who fills his quiver with them.” (4, 5a)

Of course in those days it was the sons who went to battle to preserve the nation and therefore, its families. From the context of our own culture many may denigrate that society’s emphasis on male progeny as being unfair to daughters. But it’s worth remembering that without sons to go to battle the tribes and nations would be annihilated and ultimately forgotten. WHich I think is exactly the point of the last two lines:
They shall not be shamed
when they speak with their enemies at the gate.” (5b)

We may scoff at such a stark emphasis on male children, but in many respects I certainly miss the clear delineation between sexes and more recently, the concept that gender is a choice not a biological fact. Ultimately, our culture will meet the enemy at the gate and alas, we will welcome them in.

Daniel 4:19–5:16: Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream. Ever wanting to appear strong and invincible, the king projects his own anxiety on Daniel, “Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or the interpretation terrify you.” (4:19) Daniel tells Neb that the fruitful tree is the king himself. Well, this seems like good news until Daniel gets to the part about the tree being cut down. The cutting down means that the king has been judged by God and that Neb “shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the wild animals. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen, you shall be bathed with the dew of heaven, and seven times [years, I presume] shall pass over you, until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and gives it to whom he will.” (4:25) In other words, the king will go mad, for his prideful arrogance has been judged by God.

Nothing happens until one day Nebuchadnezzar exclaims pridefully, “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” (4:30) At that moment God strikes him down and he becomes insane, driven away from human society and ends up eating grass. Our authors, who clearly despise Neb’s arrogance, add the detail that “his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws.” In other words, Neb has lost his humanity.

We arrive an odd intermezzo of Nebuchadnezzar regaining his reason and having a “conversion experience,” as he comes to understand that God has ultimate power over human affairs: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven,

for all his works are truth,
    and his ways are justice;
and he is able to bring low
    those who walk in pride.” (4:37)

Which for me is the central moral of the Nebuchadnezzar story: pride does indeed go before a fall. Only by realizing that God is in charge, not our own efforts, can equilibrium be restored.

Nebuchadnezzar exits the stage and is replaced by his son Belshazzar, who obviously did not learn anything about pride from his father’s experience. He throws a party with the unforgivable (to our Jewish authors) desecration of drinking and feasting using the stolen vessels from the temple followed by blasphemy: “They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.” (5:4)

The famous handwriting on the wall appears and our Jewish authors gleefully mock the king’s reaction: “the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.” (5:8)

Belshazzar calls in his wise men to interpret the writing. Unsurprisingly, they cannot figure it out and our authors twist their disdainful knife further: “King Belshazzar became greatly terrified and his face turned pale, and his lords were perplexed.” (5:9)

The queen remembers about Daniel being “an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems.” (5:12) So they fetch Daniel and Belshazzar tells him, “if you are able to read the writing and tell me its interpretation, you shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around your neck, and rank third in the kingdom.” (5:16)

The Moravians end the reading here. But the suspense is missing since we already know what happens next…

1 John 5:6–21: John’s theology gets pretty dense here: “ This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.”  (6) I think we can unpack it as the two defining moments of Jesus ministry on earth: his baptism by water and the shedding of his blood on the cross. John asserts that the testimony to this truth is not via a mere human eyewitness accounts, but by the Holy Spirit itself, which by definition cannot lie.

He returns to his binary theme, which I think is a response to an accusation that since the people in the Johannine community were not eyewitnesses to the events surrounding Jesus, they cannot be telling the truth. John asserts that on the contrary, “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.” (10)

He concludes with the famous concluding statement, beloved by evangelicals who eschew all ambiguity: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (12)

Like Paul, John cannot leave it there but concludes his letter with a statement that I’m sure is the basis of the Roman Catholic definition of two classes of sin: “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.” (17) In other words, some sins (mortal ones) are more sinful than others (venial ones).

Once again, John makes his point about Jesus being the son of God, ending with the bold assertion that “we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” (16) There’s no mistaking that Jesus is indeed true God, a reality testified by the Holy Spirit, whence the doctrine of the Trinity.

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

Psalm 126: This is another psalm that appears to have been written during the Babylonian captivity as its opening verse envisions restoration—both 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)

This 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 8 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 becomes 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 out of the misery of disease.

Daniel 3:19–4:18: Although biblical knowledge is quickly fading in our culture I think it’s a fairly safe bet that most people 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, the king  goes with his latest impression as 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 ws one of the “watchers” that Neb refers to in describing his second dream.

In chapter 4 the scene in this most cinematic of OT books shifts back to Neb’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 Neb 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 tells him 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 Neb’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)

Neb goes on to tell Daniel that this transformation has been the “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.” (4:17)

I have a feeling that the king is not going to be happy with Daniel’s interpretation of the 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: Far more than Paul in his famous I Corinthians 13 passage on love, John develops an entire theology around God’s love. 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, our 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. 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 and 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 desire to control by truly handing our lives over to Jesus Christ. That is what “victorious love” means, I think.

Psalm 125; Daniel 2:34–3:18; 1 John 4:1–16a

Psalm 125: Given that this song of ascents refers to Mount Zion and not to the temple, it’s likely this psalm was written after the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 589 BCE:
Those who trust in the Lord
are like Mount Zion never shaken,
settled forever.” (1)

Even if the temple has been destroyed, the mountains still stand. Likewise, the psalmist is saying, if we trust God through our trials we too shall stand tall. In the same way that the mountains surrounding Jerusalem form a defensive perimeter, God will protect us through dire times:
Jerusalem, mountains around it,
and the Lord is around His people
now and forevermore.” (2)

Now the psalm takes on a patriotic tone. Even though Israel is under the oppression of Babylon, it will endure. As indeed it has while Babylon—the “rod of wickedness”—fell millennia ago:
For the rod of wickedness will not rest
on the portion of the righteous,
so that the righteous not set their hands
to wrongdoing.” (3)

Those who trust God may suffer under oppression, but those who follow God will stand firm and not be tempted to be consumed by the oppressor’s culture. This is a message of relevance to Christians today as we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture. As we pray in the Lord’s prayer, if we remain faithful, God will preserve us from temptation:
Do good, O Lord, to the good
and to the upright in their hearts.” (4)

As usual, there is a bifurcation between those who do good and those who do evil as the psalm prays that the evildoers will receive their just desserts:
And those who bend to crookedness,
may the Lord take them off with the wrongdoers.” (5a)

This patriotic psalm ends with the exclamation: “Peace upon Israel!” I suspect that this song brought patriotic succor to those Jews being held captive in Babylon. And I assume it brings pride to Jews around the world today.

Daniel 2:34–3:18: Daniel describes Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: The statue with a head of godl and feet of clay that the king saw in his dream is destroyed by “a stone was cut out, not by human hands” (2:34) The stone then transforms itself into a mountain.

Daniel then famously interprets the dream. The king himself is the head of gold. Inferior kingdoms will follow his on down to a divided kingdom represented by two legs of iron. But as Daniel points out, “As the toes of the feet were part iron and part clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle.” (2:42)

Since iron does not mix with clay, Daniel continues, “in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people.” (2:44) He concludes his interpretation that the stone, which represents God, has “crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. The great God has informed the king what shall be hereafter.” (2:45)

This dream, which Daniel makes clear represents the arc of history, has been the subject of numerous reinterpretations down through the centuries. Those fascinated by end times have attempted to identify the earthly powers are represented by the legs of iron and feet of clay. When I was growing up there was speculation that the the legs represented the opposing powers of east and west and that the feet of clay represented the Soviet Union. Today, I’m sure there are more updated prophecies having to do with the Middle East and perhaps China. But as Freud’s famous dictum notes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a dream is just a dream.

Needless to say, Nebuchadnezzar was impressed by his interpretation and appointed Daniel “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.” (2:48)

I’m not sure why the Moravians have extended the reading to include both the statue dream and the even more famous fiery furnace story…

Nebuchadnezzar, full of pride doubtless amplified by Daniel telling him that he is the golden head of the statue, erects a 60 cubit high statute. He then invites the kingdom to come to its dedication. When they hear “the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble” (3:5) they are to bow down and worship. Failure to worship results in being cast into the furnace.

Jealous Babylonians, eager to see Daniel and his friends suffer, point out that the Jews, notably, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are not participating in this mandatory mass worship. Ever the narcissist, Nebuchadnezzar is enraged and announce that the three men must worship his statue on pain of being tossed into the furnace. Needless to say, they refuse, stating, “be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”” (3:18) Upon reading this story again I’m puzzled as to Daniel’s absence. Did he receive a special dispensation from the king?

Reading these two stories together shows us the arbitrary fickleness of Nebuchadnezzar. I think he is the prototype for every monomaniacal leader that has followed him down through history from Roman emperors like Caligula and Nero to 20th century despots like Hitler to 21st century Islamist fanatics. Evil seems to always find its way to dictatorship, which then inevitably falls but not before exacting tremendous suffering. And that, I think, is the lesson of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Every man who aspires to despotic leadership also has feet of clay.

1 John 4:1–16a: John continues his teaching on discernment, which in his time was testing “the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (4)  He then asserts that “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.” (3) It’s one or the other. We can’t have it both ways. As I’ve noted in a previous essay I think that John is railing against those in the church who were preaching a gnostic gospel viewed Jesus as the exemplar of the gnostic goal and that excluded Christians who had not attained the apotheosis of “inner knowledge” or self-awareness. Pretty similar to today’s gurus who preach self-actualization and to recognize our “inner godlike qualities.”

The lesson for us is that we need to discern as well as those early Christians. There are numerous false prophets out there, many of them on TV collecting money from naive widows. I also think that John’s warning is equally against the so-called Prosperity Gospel that promises wealth to followers—when the only ones who get wealthy are the ones preaching this false message.

The reading includes with John’s famous essay on love: Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (11, 12)  What’s important here is that true love is not self-generated; it does not live within us but comes directly from God.

John concludes with the Good News being the key to Christian  love: “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.”  (15, 16) In short, we cannot have a relationship with God that is not based on love because “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (18)

But when I look around the church I’m afraid that that love is not always on display.

Psalm 124; Daniel 2:1–33; 1 John 3:11–24

Psalm 124: The opening verse of this psalm of thanksgiving for what appears to be a military victory has the leader addressing the congregation:
Were it not for the Lord Who was with us
—let Israel now say—”

And the congregation replies:
were it not for the Lord Who was for us
when people rose against us,
then they would have swallowed us alive
when their wrath flared hot against us.” (2, 3)

The metaphor of death by fire is followed by a metaphor of drowning by flood:
Then the waters would have swept us up,
the torrent come up past our necks.
Then it would have come up past our necks—
the raging waters.” (4,5)

It is God who has rescued them—expressed in a third metaphor—this one of being eaten alive by a wild beast:
Blessed is the Lord,
Who did not make us prey for their teeth.
Our life is like a bird escaped
from the snare of the fowlers.
The snare was broken
and we escaped.” (6,7)

The song ends on the famous expression of the great truth:
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
maker of heaven and earth.” (8)

This psalm and its unsurpassed poetic images is a beautiful encouragement for all who find themselves in a perilous situation and then are rescued. The three different metaphors remind us that God will rescue us from all kinds of different situations. In our increasingly hostile culture this psalm applies not just to physical peril, but to emotional danger as well. We are reminded that even when all seems lost, God is still there.

Daniel 2:1–33: King Nebuchadnezzar is driven to insomnia by disturbing dreams. HIs court officials offer to interpret the dream but only if he tells them what the dream was. Neb replies that if they’re as insightful as they say they are they should be able to tell him both the dream and its interpretation. If they fail, “you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins.” (5) But great rewards await if they succeed. They are understandably hesitant to take the king up on his offer.

Neb tells them they are stalling for time but the only way he’ll trust their interpretation is if they can also tell him what he dreamt. The officials understandably respond that “The thing that the king is asking is too difficult, and no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals.” (11) The king is outraged and demands their execution. Just about the time that’s about to happen, “Daniel responded with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the king’s chief executioner” (14) asking why the executioner was in such a rush. Daniel asks for time and that he will both reveal and interpret the king’s dream.

Daniel and his three companions pray fervently in what is essentially a psalm of supplication and then thanksgiving because God has revealed both the dream and interpretation to him:
[God] reveals deep and hidden things;
    he knows what is in the darkness,
    and light dwells with him.
To you, O God of my ancestors,
    I give thanks and praise,
for you have given me wisdom and power” (22, 23a)

Daniel asks the executioner to bring him to the king so he can tell the dream and its interpretation. The key to this entire story is what Daniel first tells the king: No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking,  but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days.” (27, 28)

Daniel makes sure that the king understands that “this mystery has not been revealed to me because of any wisdom that I have more than any other living being” (30)  but that the insights come from his God.

Daniel then tells the king that he dreamt of looking at a huge statue: “The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.” (32, 33)

I take this story as a reminder that it is God who has given us humans the talent and capability not necessarily to interpret dreams but to use the scientific method to explore the world around us and the skills to create ever more impressive technology based on that science. Our gifts of knowledge and insights are truly God-given. It is God “reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness.” Unfortunately, most of us think these insights arise from our own internal smarts, which leads inevitably to pride.

1 John 3:11–24: At its heart John’s message is really quite simple: “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” (11) This love is the mark of the true Christian and “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” (14 a) In fact, he continues, “Whoever does not love abides in death.” (14b) There is no ambiguous gray for John. It’s all black and white.

Christ is the great example of true Christian love: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (16) And if we truly love others as Christ has loved us, we will love “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (18) In fact, he asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (17)

Wow. I stand rightly accused as a Christian who has been pretty poor at this love in action thing. If we Christians were truly what we say we are churches would be island of love in an unloving world. Yet, churches are too often bastions of unloving. And I know that I am guilty of failing to love my fellow believers all too often. John is talking right to me when he says, “whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (20)

The reading ends with yet another verse that I memorized as a fifth grader back in 1957. I think it is the core definition of what it really means to be a Christian: “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” (23) In the end we don’t really need fancy theology. Belief in what Jesus did for us and the resulting love that emerges from that belief is wholly sufficient.

Psalm 123; 
Ezekiel 48:23–Daniel 1:21; 1 John 3:1–10

Psalm 123: This short “song of ascents” does exactly that: it moves our vision from earthly things straight upward to heaven with two remarkable similes of the relationship of slave and master:
To You I lift up my eyes,
O dweller in the heavens.
Look, like the eyes of slaves to their masters,
like the eyes of a slavegirl to her mistress,
so are our eyes to the Lord our God
until He grants us grace.” (1, 2)

There’s no mistaking the hierarchy here: we are the lowly slaves looking up in supplication to our master. I’m intrigued by the inclusion of both sexes in the simile: male slaves to their master and female slaves to their mistress. That is to say both men and women are equal in their relationship with God.

What begins as a song ends as a psalm of supplication. The psalmist has apparently been treated with severe contempt as he turns to God as his only potential source of succor:
Grant us grace, Lord, rant us grace,
for we are sorely sated with scorn.
Sorely has our being been sated
with the contempt of the smug,
the scorn of the haughty.” (3, 4)

The choice of “sated” as in the feeling of over-fullness dramatically communicates the sense of feeling overwhelmed by the scorn and contempt of oppressors. We certainly see that same scorn and contempt in contemporary attitudes of many elites toward people of faith that believes that they are weak and need the “psychological crutch” of religion.

These scorners will one day find out that they are not as independently strong as they think they are. How much better it is to turn our eyes upward to God in times of distress than to pretend we are capable of handling every trial without God’s aid.

Ezekiel 48:23–Daniel 1:21: This over-long book of Ezekiel and its incredibly detailed allocation of territory winds to an almost anticlimactic end by renaming Jerusalem: “the name of the city from that time on shall be, The Lord is There.” (48:35) Which is a fine name, but unless it’s referring to the New Jerusalem that we learn about in Revelation, it’s a name that didn’t stick. Jerusalem is still Jerusalem some 2500 years after this book was written. Happily for us, the Lord is not just “there” but is everywhere.

The book of Daniel opens at the beginning of the Babylonian captivity. King Nebuchadnezzar orders that his palace master Ashpenaz  to identify and bring “young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans.” (4) Subsuming potential leaders into the conqueror’s culture is actually a pretty enlightened way to deal with a conquered land.

We meet four men: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, all from the tribe of Judah. (7) The latter three are famously renamed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Life at the palace is pretty sybaritic to the point of unhealthiness so “Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.” (1:8) The palace master is afraid that this will lead to a “poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, [and] you would endanger my head with the king.” (1:10) Daniel  says let us try this other diet for ten days and then “You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe. ” (13)

Unsurprisingly, Daniel’s diet is a success, and “At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations.” (14).

Not only are the four healthier than all the others but they are smarter and more skilled. Our author observes that “To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom.” (17a). And in a hint of things to come, “Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams.” (17b)

The four men become the go-to guys as far as the king is concerned: “In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.” (20) But as we will see, their wisdom foments resentment among the others in the king’s court.

The takeaway for me in this story is that a healthy diet is an important element of becoming a leader. But more importantly, whatever gifts of intellect and wisdom we may possess ultimately comes from God.

1 John 3:1–10: John really digs into the theme of us Christians being God’s children because of his love for us. This love is beyond the world’s ken: “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” (1) There is an eschatological note here as well in the suggestion that at some point in the future we will be transformed with bodies like Jesus’ resurrected body:”Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (2)

John then launches into a disquisition on the stark binary contrast between a state of sinfulness and the state righteousness: “Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” (7, 8) He makes this point even more dramatically a few verses down: “The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.” (10)

What’s clear here is that as long as we are in a “state of sin” we are effectively separated from Christ. 

I’m pretty sure that this passage is one of the roots of the practice of weekly confession in the Roman Catholic church, as well as the sacrament of extreme unction performed by the priest for people on their deathbed. John seems to be saying that unless we are in a state of righteousness before God we run the risk of being separated because as he puts it, “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil.”  Personally, I think there’s too strong a sense that we can lose our salvation and I’m not sure if Paul would necessarily agree with John on this matter.

Psalm 122; Ezekiel 47:13–48:22; 1 John 2:18–29

Psalm 122: This “song of ascents” is a probably hymn sung by pilgrims from the surrounding countryside making their annual trek to Jerusalem to give sacrifice and worship at the temple. We have an example of this in Luke when Jesus and his family travel from Nazareth to Jerusalem and Jesus remains dialoguing with the rabbis after the rest of his family leaves town.

The goal of the journey is obvious and it is suffused with joy:
I rejoiced in those who said to me:
“Let us go to the house of the Lord.’
Our feet were standing 
in Your gates, Jerusalem.” (2)

This worshipful pilgrimage is part of the law and is expected of every faithful Jew:
An ordinance it is for Israel
to acclaim the name of the Lord.” (4b)

Growing up, my siblings and I were expected to go to church every Sunday because that was my father’s rule. I unwillingly obeyed until I graduated from high school. This ordinance became part of my resentment against the church for the ten years while I was at college and throughout my 20’s. But looking back I see that it was a good discipline to go to worship every Sunday—even though the 45-minute long sermons were dull and boring.

Jerusalem is not just the seat of worship, it is the center of judicial and political power:
For there the thrones of judgement stand
the thrones of the house of David.” (5)

The psalm concludes with a prayer for Jerusalem and its inhabitants and pilgrims that we would probably do well to update to our own center of judicial and political power in Washington DC:
Pray for Jerusalem’s weal.
My your lovers rest tranquil!
May there be well-being within your ramparts,
tranquility in your palaces.” (6, 7)

Finally, the psalm turns inward to our own desired attitude toward God:
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
let me seek your good.” (9)

Would that we all turn even briefly away from our individual desires to pray and seek the good the church and of our own Jerusalem.

Ezekiel 47:13–48:22: This section is as enjoyable as reading the county records that delineate property borders. Which is to say not at all.

The motivation for this lengthy screed appears to be reestablishement of tribal boundaries when Israel returns from its babylonian exile.  Undergirding the entire project is God’s demand that fairness and equality prevail in the allocation process: “You shall divide it equally; I swore to give it to your ancestors, and this land shall fall to you as your inheritance.” (47:14)

Although the land was Israel’s, God’s command includes the requirement to non-Jews, who received full citizenship rights: “You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.” (47:22) Perhaps we should look back 2500 years to see how an enlightened immigration policy actually works…

As unbelievable as it may seem, chapter 48 is even more boring than 47 as God describes the exact plots of locations of the temple and Jerusalem’s city limits and surrounding suburbs devoted to agriculture. The focus is what land is “holy” and allocated to the temple, what belongs to the king, and what belongs to the agrarian inhabitants of Israel.

Although I’m tempted to scoff at this level of detail occupying Scripture, these description are a stark reminder that God is a God of order and fairness. There is nothing random happening here. And since it is written as prophecy it doubtless served to quell any territorial disputes that may have arisen as the process of reinhabitation took place. Lawyers would have little ground to stand on to argue for their clients who may have wanted a bigger piece of land.

1 John 2:18–29: John becomes downright apocalyptic as he warns his audience against being duped by various antichrists appearing on the scene. Doubtless they were preaching an anti-gospel that John condemns in the strongest possible terms: “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.” (22)

John must have been a philosopher because he uses a philosophical argument to make his point that the Christians to whom he is writing are anointed in the truth because they have been baptized: “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth.” (20, 21) 

My guess is that these antichrists  were preaching a gnostic message that implied everyone could ascend in self-knowledge to achieve what Jesus had achieved and themselves become divine.  John wants to make sure this whole business is squashed in its crib. As we know, battles to fight off gnostic influences raged on for a couple hundred years until the New testament canon was finally agreed to at Nicea. And they rage on today…

 John’s solution is really quite simple. Rather than listening to these antichrists, he advises his followers to look inside themselves where the Holy Spirit already dwells: “As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.” (27)  

If we really accept that as Christians that the Holy Spirit dwells in us and we follow what the HS is telling us in our hearts, all will be OK. Unfortunately, what the Holy Spirit says to us is usually not means we have to give up control and our own efforts to achieve the quasi-spiritual self-fulfillment that so permeates our culture today. As always, when it’s all about what we can do ourselves to achieve “spiritual enlightenment” rather than letting the Holy Spirit work within us we will inevitably go astray.

 

Psalm 119:169–176; Ezekiel 43:22–44:27; 2 Peter 3:14–1 John 1:4

Writing from Bryce Canyon, Utah.

Psalm 119:169–176: At long last this interminable psalm reaches its conclusion as our psalmist demonstrates he can come up with an 8-verse stanza for each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Following an invocation [“Let my song of prayer come before You, Lord.“] each verse is  a two-line summary of what of what has already been stated many times.

First, there is supplication to God to rescue him:
Let my supplication come before You
as befits Your utterance, save me.” (170)

Next, gratitude for the teachings he has received from God by studying the law:
Let my lips utter praise,
for You taught me Your statutes.” (171)

Then, that he will communicate his insights to others:
Let my tongue speak out Your utterance,
for all Your commands are just.” (172)

The remaining verses are pretty much a reprise of supplication, gratitude and not a little humble-brag that he is following God’s precepts/statutes/commands/law:
I desired Your rescue, O Lord,
and Your teaching is my delight.” (174)

The psalm concludes on a note of worship as he reflects on how God suffuses his entire being:
Let my being live on and praise You,
and may Your laws help me.
I have wandered like a lost sheep.
Seek Your servant, for Your commands I did not forget.” (175, 176)

None of my comments are to denigrate our psalmist, (other than to complain about his verbosity and repetitiveness…) I admire him greatly because he is able to be faithful through the law without requiring grace. I know that I could never be as diligent as he at hewing to every jot and tittle of the Torah on my own.

I am deeply grateful for the grace that Jesus Christ has given me. I can certainly follow God’s law but I also know that I will stumble and fall all the time. But though confession (I John 1:9) I am restored and unlike our psalmist, I need never be in doubt as to my salvation.

Ezekiel 43:22–44:27: Ezekiel’s vision continues as God gives highly detailed instructions about making sacrifices at the temple.

In the next chapter God announces that the eastern gate of the sanctuary will be permanently closed because “the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut.” (44:2) Only a prince may eat at it vestibule and then “shall go out by the same way.” (44:3) This is clearly a messianic prophecy. As I recall, the eastern gate of Jerusalem, the one facing the mount of Olives, remains shut to this day.

Instructions about who can enter the temple follow. God is quite clear that there needs to “be an end to all your abominations in admitting foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, to be in my sanctuary, profaning my temple when you offer to me my food, the fat and the blood.” (44:6, 7) Further, the majority of Levites—the ones commissioned to conduct temple rites—will be punished because “they ministered to them before their idols and made the house of Israel stumble into iniquity.” (44:12) They are forbidden to offer sacrifices but basically become the administrators of the temple, “to do all its chores, all that is to be done in it.” (44:14)

Only the priestly clan of Zadok will be allowed to offer sacrifices. (44:15). A detailed inventory of what is to be worn while performing their duties follows. I’m especially intrigued by the command that the priests “shall have linen turbans on their heads, and linen undergarments on their loins; they shall not bind themselves with anything that causes sweat.” (44:18) Which given that a lot of fire and heat is involved in offering burn sacrifices seems like a tall order.

Other priestly duties include religious education: “They shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean.” (44:23) as well as judges in cases of controversy and administrators of the religious calendar.

As far as I can figure out, this section of Ezekiel is basically a “mini-Leviticus” for establishing religious order in the temple restored by Nehemiah. It’s also a reminder that the Bible is not just history and theology, but also a religious user’s manual. If we needed proof that not every word of the Bible is theologically relevant to us today it is right here.

2 Peter 3:14–1 John 1:4: Once again the Moravians cross the epistle boundary as we leave Peter and arrive at John.

Peter again advises his flock to be patient about the Second Coming: “while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” (3:14, 15)

But what’s really interesting here is the cross reference to Paul and a letter he has written. Peter acknowledges that Paul’s letter is full of wisdom but that “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (3:16) Which leads me to conclude that Peter must have been writing to the church at Roman because as far as I’m concerned, Paul’s epistle to the Romans is his most difficult and theologically dense letter. It’s also clear from Peter’s comment that some leaders in the church were misinterpreting it.

Peter’s letter concludes with a justly famous verse, which I think is the mission statement for every Christian: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (3:18) It really is that simple, folks. Being a Christian is all about growing and maturing.

John’s first epistle opens with a testimony that it is about “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” (1:1) John is adamant about his eyewitness bona fides as he repeats himself, “we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.” (1:2)

And then to make sure we get his point, he says it a third time: “we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us.” (1;3)

Methinks he doth make his point about being an eyewitness a little too strongly—even to the point of defensiveness. Given that this letter was written sometime toward the end of the first century, I personally think it’s a stretch to assert that our author  here is the same John who was eyewitness to Jesus himself.

Be that as it may, John sets the overall tone of the letter to follow with one of the most beautifully straightforward sentences in the New Testament: “We are writing these things so that our  joy may be complete.” (1:4)

Would that I can write with such joy as well.

Psalm 119:129–136; Ezekiel 38:7–39:13; 2 Peter 1:1–11

Psalm 119:129–136: One begins to admire just how many ways our psalmist can repeat his basic themes with and still come up with some fresh peotry. I have to give him credit for basic creativity. Here, we encounter the intriguing metaphor of God’s word being light coming through an open doorway:
The portal of Your words sends forth light,
makes the simple understand.” (130)

Not sure about the simple understanding the intricacies of God’s law, but happily, we have a much simpler Gospel message that although radical is beautiful in its simplicity.

This metaphor is followed immediately with one about hunger for God’s ord:
I opened my mouth wide and panted,
for Your commands I craved.” (131)

Panted?

The remainder of the stanza covers the usual ground, first pleading for something that I understand to be a gift from God:
Turn to me, grant me grace,
as is fit for those who love Your name.” (132)

Next is the usual prayer to walk in God’s path, avoid sin, and to be freed from the attacks of others so he can give his full attention to obeying God’s law:
Make firm my footsteps through Your utterance,
let no wrongdoing rule over me.
Ransom me from human oppression,
that I may observe Your statutes.” (133, 134)

But I have to admit the final verse of the stanza is somewhat arresting as we encounter our psalmist’s first real emotion focused on other people besides the ones who oppress him:
Streams of water my eyes have shed
because men did not observe Your teaching.”

This is the sort of emotional caring that I think we should feel when those around us reject God’s gift of grace through Jesus Christ.

Ezekiel 38:7–39:13: This section wherein Ezekiel prophesies against Gog and “all the hordes gathered about you” strikes me as a pretty dramatic description of a final battle of the nations arrayed against Israel. I have the feeling that the author of Revelation writing about the battle of Armageddon was familiar with this passage since there are some parallels to the pretty brutal descriptions of this battle.

Ezekiel, speaking always as the voice of God, describes how Gog will assemble a mighty army: “You and all your troops and the many nations with you will go up, advancing like a storm; you will be like a cloud covering the land.” (38:9) Gog will then plan to “attack a peaceful and unsuspecting people—all of them living without walls and without gates and bars.” (38:11) And that Gog “will advance against my people Israel like a cloud that covers the land.” (38:19)

But when Gog and his armies attack Israel, God will have the upper hand: “my hot anger will be aroused, declares the Sovereign LordIn my zeal and fiery wrath I declare that at that time there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel.” (38:19) At this, “the earth will tremble at my presence. The mountains will be overturned, the cliffs will crumble and every wall will fall to the ground.” (38:20)

At this point God will strike down Gog’s army, described in language we see again in Revelation: “I will execute judgment on him with plague and bloodshed; I will pour down torrents of rain, hailstones and burning sulfur on him and on his troops and on the many nations with him.” (38:22)

Gog and his army will be utterly defeated: “Then I will strike your bow from your left hand and make your arrows drop from your right hand. On the mountains of Israel you will fall, you and all your troops and the nations with you. I will give you as food to all kinds of carrion birds and to the wild animals.” (39:4) 

Notice, BTW, that it is God who is general of this battle, not Israel. God’s conquest of this mighty army will be so final that “For seven years they will use them for fuel. They will not need to gather wood from the fields or cut it from the forests, because they will use the weapons for fuel.” (39:9, 10) A great image!

I’m aware of various attempts by various Evangelicals to tie this prophecy about Gog to actual world events ever since Israel’s reestablishment as a nation in 1949. During the Cold War Gog was theoretically the Russian army and/or the European nations that would invade. More recently, Gog has been interpreted as Arab and Muslim nations. The earthquake has been taken to represent nuclear weapons.

We can see how these attempts to link Biblical prophecy to actual historical events can occupy a lot of time and effort. But I think we should just sit back and read these chapters as wonderful storytelling to encourage the Jews in exile.

2 Peter 1:1–11: As with the case of Paul’s letters, I’d love to know the backstory for this second letter from Peter (or someone writing as Peter). In 1 Peter it’s pretty clear he was writning to a community that was being oppressed from the outside and was experiencing dissention within the church. Here things seem to have calmed down a bit and these opening verses are good more didactic and theological as, e.g., “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” (4)

There’s even a very Pauline logic chain: “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.” (5-7)

This is a magnificent passage that I think surpasses just about all of Paul’s lists. It begins with faith and ends with love, giving us a recipe of the ingredients of the well-lived Christian life: goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. Peter goes on to make the obvious point that “if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (8)

Churches really don’t need write their own mission statements when there are these verses right here looking at us. 

The list is also a terrific checklist for me as an individual. But this kind of self-inventory only points up my inadequacies as a Christian. But as Peter reminds us, “if you do these things, you will never stumble, ” (10) All I can do is start over each day and keep on persevering.

Psalm 119:121–128; 
Ezekiel 37:1–38:6; 1 Peter 5

I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Psalm 119:121–128: Methinks our psalmist doth protest too much as new each stanza piles on the last emphasizing his righteousness before God compared to those who are apparently attempting to do him harm. And this righteousness should earn him action on God’s part.
I have done justice and righteousness;
do not yield me to my oppressors.
Vouch for Your servant for good.
Let not the arrogant oppress me.” (121, 122)

There is the usual obsequiousness lurking just below the surface of his supplications:
My eyes pined for Your rescue
and for Your righteous utterance.” (123)

Eyes pining for rescue? Really? But as always for this psalmist, it always comes back to his focus on learning and obeying God’s law because he truly believes that strict obedience will cause God to come to his aid:
Do for Your servant as befits Your kindness
and teach me Your statutes.
Your servant I am, grant me insight,
that I may know Your precepts” (124, 125)

Having pointed out that he has kept his side of the bargain by asking God to give him greater understanding, he then asks God again to act on his behalf against his enemies. His tone seems almost stentorian:
It is time to act for the Lord—
they have violated Your teaching.” (126)

This stanza concludes with yet another statement of how much he loves God’s law and that he religiously(!) follows the rules:
“Therefore I love Your commands
more than gold, more than fine gold.
Therefore by all Your ordinances I walked a straight line.
All paths of lies I have hated.” (127, 128)

One thing is becoming clear at this point: this long psalm has but one major theme: that the man who loves and follows every jot and tittle of God’s law is entitled to some action on God’s part against his enemies. I rejoice once more that grace enters the picture through Jesus Christ. Otherwise it would be dry and dusty prayers like this endless one.

Ezekiel 37:1–38:6: We arrive at what is probably the best known part of this book: the valley of dry bones. This is perhaps God’s best object lesson as he commands Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” to which Ezekiel wisely replies, “I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” (37:3)

God then commands Ezekiel to preach to the bones as God tells the prophet that the bones will come to life. Which is exactly what happens. In the first stage of this revivification as the bones become corpses: “So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.” (37:7)

God then commands Ezekiel to prophesy some more and as he does so, “breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.” (37:10)

Ezekiel is doubtless completely puzzled and not a little afraid at this point. So God explains: “these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’” (37:11) The resuscitation of the bones into people is dramatic evidence of God’s promise that Israel will one day be restored: “My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.” (12)

One has to think that Ezekiel’s prophecy must have been music to the ears of those faithful Jews stuck in exile. But the more cynical among them would doubtless have scoffed. This is pretty much the reaction to the Gospel message: some will accept and others scoffingly reject the Good News.

God moves onto another object lesson: two sticks, one with‘Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.’ written on it and the other with “Belonging to Joseph (that is to Ephraim)” written on it. (37:15, 16) God commands Ezekiel to join them together. When people ask what this all means, Ezekiel is to tell them that God “will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land.” (37:21) Even better, “They will be my people, and I will be their God.” (37:23) With God there is always hope.

As we read in a previous chapter “My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd.” (37:24) and “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever.” (37:26) As we know, Israel did eventually return from exile to its land. But I think for us Christians, this prophecy also looks forward to the king of the line of David who came to earth as Jesus Christ. Through his saving grace we too can say we are God’s people.

Today’s reading ends with what seems to be a completely random prophecy that a certain Gog of the land of Magog (love those names!) and many allied nations will be defeated in a battle which God wins. Not sure what to do with this one. Perhaps tomorrow’s reading will yield more clues.

1 Peter 5: In the final chapter of this epistle, Peter advises the elders in the church: “I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings…Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing.” (1, 2a) This statement, “not because you must, but because you are willing” seems to me to be the key to pastoral leadership. Peter continues, asserting that the office of leader is not about “pursuing dishonest gain but [one who is] eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (2b, 3) Unfortunately, it’s too easy to cite examples of leaders who have pursued dishonest gain.

Once a pastor or leader sees his or her duties as pointless or becomes indifferent to the people being led, it is time to leave. Too many pastors burn out because they do not heed Peter’s advice here.

Peter advises that those of you “who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders.” (5) Humility among both the leader and those led is key: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (6) Alas, too often none of us wants to be humble, or we strike notes of false humility. This goes for both leaders and the led.

We then come to one of the truly comforting verses in the entire NT: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (7) This promise is so straightforward. So why don’t I do it? I think it’s because in order to cast all my cares on God requires (as Oswald Chambers would put it) abandoning my deep desire to always be in full control of my thoughts and actions.

Finally, a verse I memorized as a 5th grader: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (8) We know that there is evil in the world and that unless we are alert and looking always to Jesus it is far too easy to be sucked into the maw of the many temptations of our corrupt culture.

This epistle ends on a personal note chock full of ambiguity: “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark.” (13)  Peter may have an actual son or perhaps this is the Mark who Peter views affectionately as a son. ‘Babylon’ is a clear reference to Rome. Unfortunately, we also don’t know who “she” is. It might be Peter’s wife, or another female leader in the church such as Lydia. Or it may refer to the church itself, which after all is the bride of Christ.