Psalm 33:12–22; Ezra 6:13–7:28; Romans 1:1–12

Originally published 3/7/2017. Revised and updated 3/6/2019.

Psalm 33:12–22: In these verses about God’s creative power, our psalmist interjects that the welfare of an entire nation rests in God’s hands. That nation is the one God has chosen: Israel.
Happy the nation whose God is the Lord,
the people He chose as His estate for Him.
 (12)

He quickly returns to writing from God’s point of view as he examines his creation from high above:
From the heavens the Lord looked down,
saw all the human creatures.
From His firm throne He surveyed
all who dwell on the earth. (13, 14)

It is from this perspective that God knows every human and every human thought and motivation. Our poet makes it clear that it is God’s omnipotence and omniscience that accounts for whatever victories humankind (at least in Israel) has enjoyed because God can see into the depths of each person’s heart, not least because he created us:
He fashions their heart one and all.
He understands all their doings.
” (15)

As far as the psalmist is concerned whatever is accomplished by humans is God’s work, not by our own strength or wisdom:
The king is not rescued through surfeit of might,
the warrior not saved through surfeit of power.
 (16)

In fact, God’s power operates the same way in the animal kingdom. Animals such are horses are merely agents of God’s omnipotence:
The horse is a lie for rescue,
and in his [the horse’s] surfeit of might he helps none escape.
” (17)

God’s intervention is good news—but this rescue is available only to those who follow God:
Look, the Lord’s eye is on those who fear Him,
on those who yearn for His kindness
to save their lives from death
and in famine to keep them alive. (18, 19)

Because we have been the beneficiaries of God’s protection, we worship God, who brings us hope and joy:
For in Him our heart rejoices,
for in His holy name do we trust.
May Your kindness, O Lord, be upon us,
as we have yearned for You. (21, 22)

The thematic thrust of this psalm is about our relationship with God who knows our innermost thoughts, who guides and helps our actions, and who is at the center of our very being. This is what Oswald Chambers keeps getting at: it is far, far better to abandon our self-centeredness and rely on God to carry us through life’s trials and joys.

Ezra 6:13–7:28: Happily, “Tattenai, the governor of the province Beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai, and their associates did with all diligence what King Darius had ordered.” (6:13) The Jews remain diligent followers of God, and they pay attention to the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. The temple reconstruction project is completed. As their ancestors did under King Josiah when the temple was repaired back then, the Jews celebrate Passover. As our psalmist above observed, it was God who brought them hope and joy—and it was God who spoke to King Darius’ heart to allow them to complete this all-important project: “for the Lord had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.” (6:22)

Now that we are seven chapters in, and we finally meet the man of the eponymous book: “[Ezra] was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him.” (7:6) It’s clear that not every Jew went back to Jerusalem, but that many remained in Babylon. But now Ezra leaves Babylon and returns to Jerusalem, where the becomes the teacher of restored Israel: “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel.” (7:10)

This book is certainly one of the most well-documented books in the Bible, as its authors provide us the entire text of King Artaxerxes’ (who succeeded Darius) decree allowing Israel to return to Jerusalem. The king has given Ezra serious power: “And you, Ezra, according to the God-given wisdom you possess, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River who know the laws of your God; and you shall teach those who do not know them. (7:25)

Ezra is given the right to enforce these laws: All who will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on them, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of their goods or for imprisonment.” (7:26).  Notice that they are to “obey the law of your God and the law of the king,” which works well when the king is aligned with God. But when secular power is at odds with God’s power, trouble begins. Just as it does today.

Romans 1:1–12: We now enter the second half of the New Testament, leaving narrative behind and engaging in the serious theology that undergirds the church—mostly as Paul laid it out, but the reflections and instructions of other apostles as well.

While there is disagreement among scholars about the Pauline authorship of some later epistles—notably Ephesians and the Pastoral epistles—all scholars agree that Paul is the author of this greatest of theological treatises, the letter to the Romans.

The letter opens on an autobiographical note: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” (1) Then Paul writes a precis´of the Good News, the essential elements of the Gospel, which I quote in its entirety here since it contains every theme on which Paul will expand in this profound letter:

God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,” (2-6)

This lengthy paragraph turns out to be the preamble of Paul’s greeting to the Christians at Rome: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (7) Today, we would call this opening paragraph the abstract of the treatise to follow.

Paul’s opening prayer reveals his inner nature. While he is certainly tough and a formidable opponent—as we just saw in the final chapters of Acts—he is also a warm human being. But it is a warmth that comes from his close relationship with “my God through Jesus Christ.” (8)

Paul is what some call a ‘prayer warrior,’ and he tells his audience at Rome that it is “without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you.” (9) This sentence also informs us that Paul wrote to Rome, probably from Ephesus, some years before he got there.

What must have been immensely gratifying to Paul is that as we saw at the end of Acts he indeed did arrive in Rome to met these people in person. Which is probably why the men who assembled the NT canon in the 4th century placed Paul’s letter to the Romans immediately after the conclusion of Acts.

Finally, something we should all remember in Christian community: “that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” (12) How much better to do that than to complain about others, especially our leaders.

Psalm 33:6–11; Ezra 5:1–6:12; Acts 28:17–31

Originally published 3/6/2017. Revised and updated 3/5/2019.

Psalm 33:6–11: In a brief summary of the Genesis story, our psalmist turns to God’s action as Creator and overseer of the affairs of humankind. In an echo of the opening verses of Genesis, we are reminded that
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of His mouth all their array.
He gathers like a mound the sea’s waters,
puts in treasure houses the deeps. (6,7)

As with so many of the psalms, speech—here God’s voice—takes center stage as the engine of creation. Of course this makes sense in a book that is all about speech as singing and poetry.

Still writing about prehistory, our poet reminds us of God’s immeasurable power that demands fear in both senses of the word:
All the earth fears the Lord,
all the world’s dwellers dread him.
 (8)

Of course even by the psalmist’s time, “all the world” had created its own small-g gods—just as our own world has. But once again, the psalmist reminds us that it was God’s utterance—not us and our little gods— that brought the world into being:
For He speaks and it came to be,
He commanded and it stood
. (9)

Notice that here we encounter God as Word; not only in other psalms but for us even more importantly in the opening verses of John’s gospel.

In a clear reference to the audacity of Babel, the poet observes that the words of men do not outrank the Word of God:
The Lord thwarted the counsel of nations,
overturned the devisings of peoples.
 (10)

Unlike the ephemerality of humankind’s pronouncements, God’s  actions and words are eternal:
The Lord’s counsel will stand forever,
His hearts’s devisings for all generation.
” (11)

In our world of information overload with data—most of it useless—coming at us from all sides; in a world of talking heads and endless pronouncements, it’s encouraging to be reminded once again that only God’s Word—and for us Christians, that’s Jesus Christ—”stands forever.” The babbling hubbub that surrounds us will eventually pass away.

Ezra 5:1–6:12: After a long while, with temple reconstruction still halted, “the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them.”  (5:1) Thus encouraged, Zerubbabel, the high priest, resumes construction.

Needless to say, this action upsets the neighboring provinces, which believe that the Jews are violating the terms of Artaxerses’ decree. “Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and his associates” (6) send a letter to King Darius reporting that the Jews are defying the long-standing order to cease rebuilding the temple. Their letter reports that the Jews are rebuilding because they have asserted after their return from Babylon, King Cyrus “made a decree that this house of God should be rebuilt.” (13)

The letter goes on, quite reasonably IMHO, to ask King Darius to search the archives to see if Cyrus’ decree can be found: “if it seems good to the king, have a search made in the royal archives there in Babylon, to see whether a decree was issued by King Cyrus for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem.” (5:17)

Darius agrees and a search is made of the archives in Babylon, “but it was in Ecbatana, the capital in the province of Media, that a scroll was found.” (6:2) This scroll contains the decree of King Cyrus, which provides specific details about the temple to be rebuilt, including its size: “its height shall be sixty cubits and its width sixty cubits, with three courses of hewn stones and one course of timber.” (6:3, 4a)

As far as Darius is concerned, the decree of Cyrus remains in force and he writes back to Tattenai et al, “let the work on this house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site.” (6:7)  For having troubled the Jews, Darius continues, “the cost is to be paid to these people, in full and without delay, from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province Beyond the River.” (8)  That seems a clear rebuke to everyone in Darius’ kingdom that they had better not object to the Jewish project or they would wind up like Tattenai having to pay for it.

To ensure his decree is enforced, Darius adds, “if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of the house of the perpetrator, who then shall be impaled on it. The house shall be made a dunghill.” (11) This is truly one of the more imaginative curses to be found in the Bible!

So work on the temple resumes under royal protection and a nifty source of outside funding. But it’s worth noting that had Haggai and Zechariah not prophesied and had Zerubbabel not courageously resumed work on the temple and withstood the pressure from the surrounding provinces, the temple may never have been rebuilt.

These men trusted God and stood up for their rights in the face of fierce opposition. The question is, would I have the same faith and courage in the face of opposition? This event reminds us that trust in God is not a philosophical concept but that it must undergird our every action.

Acts 28:17–31: Now in Rome, Paul summons the “local leaders of the Jews.” (17) He outlines what has happened to him: the accusations in Jerusalem, the trial, and “the Romans wanted to release me, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case.” (18) But, Paul continues, “when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor—even though I had no charge to bring against my nation.” (19)

The Jews respond that no one in Jerusalem had written to them and “none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken anything evil about you.” (21), making it clear this was a local conspiracy.  In fact, they go in, “we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.” (22) Needless to say, Paul is more than happy to comply with their request: “From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.” (23)

As usual, “Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.” (24) As the disagreeing parties get up to leave, Paul quotes Isaiah:
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes.” (26, 27)

Paul’s utters the last words in this book, “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” (28) In short, the Jews have become a lost cause—truly one of the tragedies of the church. But in the end, Isaiah’s prophecy was absolutely on target.

So, we come to the end of this fascinating book. Its last words leave us with Paul who is “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (31) And ending his long gospel and history thus, Luke makes it clear that this is also our duty.

When I was once in Rome, I was able to visit the purported site of where Paul lived under guard and taught about Jesus Christ “with all boldness.” I came away convinced that had Paul not brought the message of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, the world would have turned out to be far worse place than it is. In the end, it is Christianity that brought us western civilization. And the great tragedy is that we—our culture— are in the process of squandering this magnificent inheritance. But we Christians also know that in the end, the Holy Spirit lives in each of us and the church will never die.

 

Psalm 33:1–5; Ezra 4; Acts 28:7–16

Originally published 3/4/2017. Revised and updated 3/4/2019.

Psalm 33:1–5: This first stanza is clearly a hymn—and to be sung at worship by those who are ‘righteous’ and ‘upright’ before God, i.e., those who have cleansed themselves via sacrifices at the temple:
Sing gladly, O righteous, of the Lord,
for the upright, praise is befitting.
Acclaim the Lord with the lyre,
with the ten-stringed lute hymn to him.“(1, 2)

Our poet advises us famously to “Sing Him a new song,/ play deftly with joyous shout.” (3) To me, this verse has always meant that we are to be open to new songs and happily sing something besides the old hymn ‘standards.’ I need to remember this when I’m grumpy about some of the praise choruses we sing. Although at this point, very few of them are new anymore.

As a marketing guy, this verse is also a clever advertisement on the part of the composer as he tells his congregation in effect, ‘Hey, guys, listen up; I’ve written a new hymn you’ll really like!’ BUt the underlying theme is the right one: we should constantly be applying our creative powers—be they musical composition, writing, art, dance, or whatever—in worship. God gave us the brains to be creative and creativity in worship is to be celebrated. As long as we remain focused on the Creator and not ourselves.

The remainder of this stanza celebrates the qualities of God that we should happily emulate:
For the word of the Lord is upright,
and all His doings in good faith.
He loves the right and the just.
The Lord’s kindness fills the earth. (4,5)

There’s a bit of self-congratulation here —”He loves the right and the just.—i.e., I the psalmist. Nevertheless, our mission is clear: As followers of God do we do or part to fill the earth with kindness? Because if we aren’t we really shouldn’t be singing this song. Something to think about the next time I’m tempted to write a sarcastic response on Facebook.

Ezra 4: Some things never change. Every building project has its opponents. Here, the long-time adversaries of Judah and Benjamin approach Zerubbabel and the heads of the leading clans, asking if they can participate in the rebuilding of the temple, claiming, “for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here.” (2) Wisely, Zerubbabel and the others decline the offer. I’m pretty sure they smelled something conspiratorially rotten.

Their fears are proven right when these same folks do everything in their power to frustrate the rebuilding that “discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build.” (4) Moreover, Judah’s enemies resort to bribery and eventually, “In the reign of Ahasuerus, in his accession year, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.” (6)

Later, there’s a further, more powerful attempt to halt the rebuilding. A certain “royal deputy Rehum and Shimshai scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to King Artaxerxes.” (8) The authors of Ezra have preserved the letter’s contents. Unsurprisingly, the claim appeals to Artaxerses’ greed as the the deputy and scribe claim the people rebuilding Jerusalem are rebellious. They argue, “if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be reduced.” (13) To not pay taxes to the king, they point out, not only reduces revenue but is a sure sign of rebellion.

The deputy and scribe—who are surely lawyers— buttress their case by citing precedent: “a search may be made in the annals of your ancestors. You will discover in the annals that this is a rebellious city, hurtful to kings and provinces, and that sedition was stirred up in it from long ago” (15)

Artexerxes responds and declares, “someone searched and discovered that this city has risen against kings from long ago, and that rebellion and sedition have been made in it.” (19) Worse, they failed not only to pay taxes but once were so powerful that they once ruled “over the whole province Beyond the River, to whom tribute, custom, and toll were paid.” (20)

Thus, Artexerxes is convinced that the inhabitants of Jerusalem are up to no good and represent a political threat. So, he issues a decree halting further work on rebuilding Jerusalem or the temple. Decree in hand, Rehum and the scribe Shimshai rush to Jerusalem and happily announce Artexerxes’ cease and desist order. So, “work on the house of God in Jerusalem stopped and was discontinued until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia.” (24)

What’s so striking here is just how contemporary this all feels. NIMBYism has deep roots and parties are always seeking to prevent others from building in order to preserve their own political power. This descendants of Artaxerses are certainly inhabiting Washington DC even now.

Acts 28:7–16: Now on Malta, Paul and his companions are hosted by a “leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days.” (7) Publius’ father is sick with fever and dysentery. “Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him.” (8) [Notice that prayer is the engine of healing here.] This act naturally makes Paul very popular and “the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.” (9) The population of Malta “bestowed many honors on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed.” (10)

Paul’s unintended visit to Malta has salutary effects, but he was not there long enough, nor really in any position to establish a church there. Christianity as the island’s primary religion came to Malta by another route. Nevertheless, the Maltese are a great example to us of true hospitality regardless of religious persuasion.

After three months on Malta, they set sail for Rome. Luke rather inexplicably tells us about the ship’s figurehead, the “Twin Brothers,” which I take to be Castor and Pollux or the Gemini as they were known in Rome. Still in travelogue mode, Luke tells us they arrive at Puteoli, now part of Naples, and finding believers there, they spent a week there.

They arrive at Rome at last and are greeted by believers there, who “came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us.” (15) Paul is greatly encouraged not only by the greetings of believers but by the fact that Christianity was rapidly infiltrating places where he had not yet been. Luke is making it clear in his description of this final Pauline journey that the Church is nearing critical mass, and that believers will soon be found everywhere in the Roman Empire.

 

 

Psalm 32; Ezra 3; Acts 27:39–28:6

Originally published 3/3/2017. Revised and updated 3/2/2019.

Psalm 32: Although he writes in the third person, I suspect our psalmist is being autobiographical here. He admits he has sinned, but now having been forgiven, he has again found joy:
Happy of sin forgiven,
absolved of offense.
Happy, the man to whom
the Lord reckons no crime,
in whose spirit is no defeat.“(1,2)

One of the marks of humankind is that except for sociopaths, we are are conscious of our wrongdoing—especially against someone we love—and if we care about that person we relentlessly seek forgiveness. So too, our relationship with God. This is why I believe that worship should always begin with confession.  As the psalmist notes here, having confessed to God clears our hearts in order to experience the joy of true worship. Worship without confession is a shadowed affair.

Our psalmist also observes that keeping our sins hidden rather than confessing, is an exhausting process as if we are running from the reality of our sin: “When I was silent, my limbs were worn out.” (3) Conscience, especially before God, always weighs heavily when we are in a state of unconfessed sin. Joy is blocked by guilty emptiness. As he puts it so beautifully here, life itself becomes as dust:
For day and night
Your hand was heavy upon me.
My sap turned to summer dust. (4)

This psalm also reminds us that confession must be a conscious decision. We must take the initiative to confess:
My offense I made known to You
and my crime I did not cover.
 (5)

True confession avoids dissembling or excuses we here so often such as, “I’m sorry if you were offended.” We must echo the psalmist with a direct admission before God, who grants us immediate forgiveness:
I said, ‘I shall confess my sins to the Lord,’
and You forgave my offending crime. 
(6)

But absent that admission there can be no forgiveness.

There is a sudden shift in the psalm at this point and our psalmist becomes an instructor in wisdom, wishing to convey to students—or perhaps his sons— the insights and joy he has discovered for himself by virtue of confessing his sins:
Let me teach you, instruct you the way you should go.
Let me counsel you with my own sight.
Be not like a horse, like a mule, without sense...(8, 9a)

I think teaching our children about sin and confession is a key element of effective parenting. Too many people in our culture are completely unaware that they commit wrongdoings and even fewer are aware of the necessity of confession and forgiveness being the key to a joyful life.

Ezra 3: Seven months after the Jews return, they all gather in Jerusalem to make sacrificial offerings in the vicinity of the still-ruined temple. Even though they are back in their homeland it is not necessarily safe and, “they were in dread of the neighboring peoples, and they offered burnt offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening.” (3)

But an altar out in the open air in view of potentially hostile neighbors is insufficient. As a result, the people now give freewill offerings to rebuild the temple. All Levites twenty years and older are given oversight on the temple rebuilding project. [We will get to the details of this project in the next book, Nehemiah.]

The temple foundation is laid and there is worship and great rejoicing: “the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals…” (10) This worship brings us one of the most joyous statements in the OT that echoes down through the centuries as “they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,

“For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” (11)

However, our authors note that not everyone shouted for joy. “Many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house.” (12) These are the people who remembered what had been before their and their father’s apostasy has led to the temple’s destruction. The bittersweet weeping competed with the joyful shouting “so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.” (13)

This verse reminds us that worship can also be a cause of regret as we become fully aware of what the consequences of our sins have wrought. We may be forgiven by God and by other people, but we must also confront the damage we have done—seen here literally in the ruins of the temple. But too often we prefer denial to truly facing up to what our actions and words have wrought.

Acts 27:39–28:6: The ship’s passengers can see a beach off in the distance and they head the ship in that direction. But rather than making it to the beach, the ship hits a reef and it’s every man for himself. Knowing the fate that would await them if prisoners escape, the soldiers want to kill them. “But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan,” (27:43) and everyone makes it to shore safely.

They have landed on Malta where “the natives showed us unusual kindness” (28:2) and build a fire for the wet and shivering refugees. Ever helpful, Paul gathers a bundle of sticks “when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand.” (3) The natives’ first instinct is to believe Paul is a murderer and that he has just received his just punishment via snakebite. However, instead of swelling up and dropping dead, nothing happens. Consequently, the Maltese natives begin to think he is a god.

Everything that has happened since Caesarea: on the ship, the storms, the getting lost, the shipwreck, the rescue, the thwarted execution of the prisoners, the fire, the viper are all evidence to our author that God fully intends for Paul to make it safely to Rome. Moreover, these events are not coincidence; they are a stark reminder that God is fully in charge no matter how awful the circumstances might be.

 

 

Psalm 31:22–25; Ezra 1,2; Acts 27:21–38

Originally published 3/2/2017. Revised and updated 3/1/2019.

Psalm 31:22–25: Our psalmist, still speaking as David, is deeply grateful for God’s favor:
Blessed is the Lord
for He has done me wondrous kindness
in a town under siege. (22)

Is this an actual town—perhaps Jerusalem—or is it a metaphorical town? In any event, he realizes that even though it felt as if God was not only absent but apparently had dismissed David from his presence, it turns out that God was actually there all the time:
And I had thought in my haste:
‘I am banished from before your eyes.’
Yet You heard the sound of my pleading
when I cried out to You. (23)

This first couplet is so true! In traumatic loss or even difficult circumstances we think God is absent or even worse, that we are not worthy to be helped by God. Yet, if we look hard enough and listen hard enough, we discover that God not only shows up but that he was there all along!

And because we know that God is indeed with us—and that he loves us—we reciprocate that love. Even better, those who oppress us or plot against us will eventually receive their comeuppance:
Love the Lord, all His faithful,
steadfastness the Lord keeps
and pays back in good measure the haughty in acts. (24)

With this knowledge in our minds and this love in our hearts, we can truly take the psalmist’s coda to heart:
Be strong, and let your heart be firm,
all who hope in the Lord. (25)

May each day see increasing strength in my mind and increasing firmness in my heart that God is indeed present and active in my life.

Ezra 1,2: The editors who determined the order of the OT books were firm believers in linear history. The book of Ezra picks up right where 2 Chronicles ended. I suspect it is the same authors because we again see their firm conviction that God acted through foreign leaders such as the Pharaoh Neco, King Nebuchadnezzar, and now, King Cyrus of Persia, who as we saw at the end of 2 Chronicles has vanquished Babylon.

Here, the authors are quite explicit about how Cyrus came to decree the end of the Babylonian exile. Cyrus may have conquered Babylon on his own, but our authors assert that it was an act of God that caused him to allow the Jews to return to their land: “The Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah.” (1:2)

Cyrus’s instructions are explicit. The return is to allow the Jews to “go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem.” Whether or not Cyrus actually said these things is not the point. The key is that Jewish identity was completely bound up in the temple at Jerusalem. And there is no more critically important task ahead than to rebuild the temple.

Not only are the Jews to return, but the decree goes on to instruct all the Gentiles among whom the Jews have been scattered to provide them “with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.” (1:4)

To make sure everyone under Cyrus’s rule got his point, the king sets the example: “King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods.” (1:7)

Another proof that these are the same authors who wrote the Chronicles, they are excellent accountants: “And this was the inventory: gold basins, thirty; silver basins, one thousand; knives, twenty-nine; gold bowls, thirty; other silver bowls, four hundred ten; other vessels, one thousand; the total of the gold and silver vessels was five thousand four hundred.” (1:9-11)

Once the temple treasures have been inventoried, our authors then inventory the families  who returned, as well as the places they returned from. The list includes the priests, the Levites and the temple servants. However, there is one family, who “looked for their entries in the genealogical records, but they were not found there, and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean.” (2:62)

Not only have our authors provided the names and numbers of each family returning, they give us the totals: “The whole assembly together was forty-two thousand three hundred sixty, besides their male and female servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred thirty-seven; and they had two hundred male and female singers.” (2:64-65) When we have read before of Israel’s armies of hundreds of thousands we realize just how diminished the population of returning Jews actually was.

BTW, I love that the choir members are included as a separate group!

Following a specific accounting of the horses, mules, camels, and donkeys, the total of the freewill offerings from the Jews themselves to the temple rebuilding fund comes to “sixty-one thousand darics of gold, five thousand minas of silver, and one hundred priestly robes.” (2:69)

Finally, the authors note that while the priests and Levites lived in or near Jerusalem, “the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants lived in their towns, and all Israel in their towns.” (2:70) So it’s not just Jerusalem that’s being repopulated, but all of Judah.

How will Judah be reestablished from this relatively small number? Will they succeed in rebuilding the temple? We know the answers but it’s satisfying to revisit the process as well as the trials they encounter along the way.

Acts 27:21–38: Obviously everyone aboard the seemingly doomed ship is terrified—and hungry, “Since they had been without food for a long time.” (21a) Paul reminds them that they should not have ignored his maritime advice: ““Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss.” (21b) Having received an angelic vision that all would be well, Paul encourages his companions and the sailors: “I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.” (22)  With this good news he reassures everyone, “So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.” (25)  Paul also tells them that the only way for them to be saved is to run the ship aground.

After two weeks of drifting at sea, the ship finally comes near land in the middle of the night. Fearing the rocks they drop anchor, whereupon four sailors attempt to escape. Paul “said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” (31) So the soldiers cut the ropes holding the small boat casting the sailors adrift.

At dawn, Paul advises everyone to eat their fill since it’s been 14 days since anyone ate. There’s no question that without Paul taking the lead they all would have perished. What’s surprising to me is that the ship was much bigger than I thought. Luke tells us parenthetically: “(We were in all two hundred seventy-six persons in the ship.)” (37)

More adventures are to come. And of course we know that Paul and Luke survived to tell the story.

 

 

 

Psalm 31:11–21; 2 Chronicles 36; Acts 27:9–20

Originally published 3/1/2017. Revised and updated 2/28/2019.

Psalm 31:11–21: Now we come to the confessional meat of this psalm. The psalmist, speaking as David, admits that his present state of guilty exhaustion has been caused by the consequences of his sin:
For my life is exhausted in sorrow
and my years in sighing.
Through my crime my strength stumbles
and my limbs are worn out. (11)

He is ashamed in front of his enemies, and his friends are repulsed. The degradation is even worse because he has been separated from God:
Forgotten from the heart like the dead.
I become like a vessel lost. 
(13)

If we ever needed a poetic description of the depths of despair and depression it is right in these verses. For me, this is a perfect description of how it is to feel abandoned by everyone we know—and by God, too.

And in this dreadful state, he remains subject to the conspiracies of his enemies:
I heard the slander of many,
terror all round,
when they conspired against me,
when they plotted to take my life. (14)

But even hemmed in on all sides in the pit of despair one scintilla of hope remains as he realizes that escape on his own is impossible. Only God can save him:
As for me, I trust in You, O Lord.
I say, ‘You are my God.’

My times are in Your hand—O save me
from the hand of my enemies, my pursuers. (15, 16)

As he focuses on God, we see a glimmer of hope grow and as usual when there is trust in God there is also the wish for his enemies to suffer as he has suffered:
Let the wicked know shame,
and be stilled in Sheol.
Let lying lips be silent,
that speak haughty against the just
in arrogance and contempt. (18, 19)

I read this verse as a plea for justice rather than revenge. In our fallen world, these words remain just as meaningful in our own fallen culture as they were in David’s. It is the wicked who always seem to be on the ascendant. And yet.And yet…

In the end, it is the just who receive God’s protection as he pleads
Conceal them [the just] in the hiding-place of Your presence
from the crookedness of man.
 (21)

These are the verses to cling to for those who are depressed and for those who are oppressed. Only God provides the shelter from the storm. And we of the New Covenant  find hope in just one place: Jesus Christ.

2 Chronicles 36: With Josiah’s death, things quickly go downhill in Judah. Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz ascends the throne. Hs reign is short-lived as the Pharaoh Neco deposes him, demands enormous reparations from Judah and places Jehoahaz’s brother Jehoikim on the throne of Judah. Neco brings Jehoahaz  back to Egypt as a captive and we never hear form him again..

Alas, the rule of evil sons coming from good men seems to apply once again. During his 11 year rule, Jehoiakim “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord his God.” (5)  At this point in Judah’s long, mostly sad history of suffering under evil kings, our authors don’t even have to say it. God punishes Jehoiakim as “King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up, and bound him with fetters to take him to Babylon.” (6) There he dies.

Jehoaikim’s 8-year old son replaces him and reigned for 3 months and 10 days. Like his father, he “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (9) Really? How does an 8-year old kid do evil in God’s sight? Would he even know better or even be responsible for worshipping the false gods of his father? I think our authors are being unduly harsh here.

In any event, his 21-year old brother, Zedekiah, becomes king. One wonders why he wasn’t chosen king in the first place over the 8-year old. Of course, there’s no surprise here, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord His God.” Moreover, “He did not humble himself before the prophet Jeremiah who spoke from the mouth of the Lord.” (12)

He even “rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God; he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (13) In other words, even the Nebuchadnezzar’s political threats are insufficient to motivate Zedekiah to mend his ways. As always, when corruption is at the top, it filters downward and “All the leading priests and the people also were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations; and they polluted the house of the Lord that he had consecrated in Jerusalem.” (14)

God sends prophets to warn the king and people against their apostasy “because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place.” (15) but they only mocked the prophets. In one of the most freighted verses in this book, our authors observe that even God gives up on his people and “the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy.” (16) Reflect on that for a moment. Imagine evil so immense that even God gives up.

Both God and Nebuchadnezzar have had enough of the rebellion and stupidity emanating from Jerusalem. In one of the saddest verses in the Bible, God “brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their youths with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or young woman, the aged or the feeble; he gave them all into his hand.” (17) The treasures of the temple are carted off by the Babylonians, and they “burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels.” (19) The few who survive this invasion are hauled off to Babylon. All this was “to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.” (21) Leave it to our authors to find symbolic meaning in the 70 year exile.

The authors completely skip over what happened during the 70 years of exile and report that King Cyrus of Persia, who conquered Babylon, “in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom and also declared in a written edict” (22) The edict announces that God had charged Cyrus to “build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.” (23) In other words, the Jews can return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the temple.

On the cusp of the return to Jerusalem, our authors lay down their pens and roll up the scroll. The long story of the Davidic dynasty comes to a sad end. Or does it?

Acts 27:9–20: Things are not going well on Paul’s long journey from Caesarea to Rome. Paul predicts that the next leg of their trip will be dangerous: “Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” (10) But Paul lacks credibility for his maritime weather forecasting skills. The sailors put out to sea anyway, planning to winter over at “a harbor of Crete, facing southwest and northwest.” (12)

Not surprisingly, Paul’s forecast was exactly spot on, and “a violent wind, called the northeaster, rushed down from Crete.” (14) Luke reports that they “were scarcely able to get the ship’s boat under control.” (16) But things get worse and they toss the cargo as well as the ship’s tackle overboard. The reading ends on a grim note: “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” (20)

We could probably create some sort of metaphor here of life’s struggles that include violent emotional storms, but sometimes narrative is just narrative and a storm is just a storm.

 

 

 

Psalm 31:7–10; 2 Chronicles 35; Acts 26:28–27:8

Originally published 2/28/2017. Revised and updated 2/27/2019.

Psalm 31:7–10: Our psalmist continues his reflection. His thoughts almost seem to come in random order as he asserts his loyalty and thanksgiving to God. First, he rejects those people “who look to vaporous lies,” which I have to admit is a nice turn of phrase. Instead of being shrouded in lies, he asserts, “As for me, I trust in the Lord.” (7)

Then, there is gratitude for the healing he has experienced because God knows his every aspect of his being and circumstances, including the kind of trouble he was in:
Let me exult and rejoice in Your kindness,
that You saw my affliction,
You knew the straits of my life. (8)

Moreover, God has preserved him from his enemies:
And You did not yield me to my enemy’s hand,
You set my feet in a wide-open place. (9)

I like the idea of freedom that the phrase “wide-open space” evokes, especially when I’m feeling closed in—not necessarily by enemies, but just by the continuous onslaught of the media and new of stupidity, if not malfeasance at every level of government.

Nevertheless, despite the healing and rescue that God has granted him thus far, our psalmist remains stressed. Even though God has done all the wonderful things he’s just described, our poet remains under a cloud of frustration as he seeks still more from God:
Grant me grace, Lord, for I am distressed.
My eye is worn out in vexation,
my throat and my belly” (10)

We doubtless will find out the root cause of this vexation as we read on. But the point that comes to my mind is that like the psalmist, we can keep on asking God for more even though we are thankful for all that he has already given us. God is indeed limitless and along with the psalmist, we do not need to ration our supplications to him.

2 Chronicles 35: With the temple restored, Josiah and all Jerusalem celebrates Passover. Josiah is generous and “contributed to the people, as passover offerings for all that were present, lambs and kids from the flock to the number of thirty thousand, and three thousand bulls; these were from the king’s possessions.” (7) His court officials follow suit. Every protocol of Passover is followed scrupulously. The priests do their duty; the Levites theirs. There are singers, who are descendants fof Asaph and there are gatekeepers, as well.  Not only is all of Judah present for Passover, but a remnant from Israel, as well.

Our authors are impressed and note that “No passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel; none of the kings of Israel had kept such a passover as was kept by Josiah, by the priests and the Levites, by all Judah and Israel who were present, and by the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” (18)

Some time after this remarkable Passover, the Pharaoh Neco of Egypt “went up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates.” (20). Apparently bored by his success, Josiah eagerly announces he wants to join Neco. However, Neco sends envoys to tell Josiah that this is not his battle. In fact, Neco’s envoys tell Josiah, “Cease opposing God, who is with me, so that he will not destroy you.” (21) Apparently Josiah’s reign has been so successful, even to the point of boredom. The authors give us no hint of Josiah’s motivation to join Neco. My guess is he was seeking adventure.

So “Josiah would not turn away from him, but disguised himself in order to fight with him. He did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God, but joined battle in the plain of Megiddo.” (22) [which by the way, is what we today call Armageddon.] Even though he disguises himself, God has the last word and Josiah is mortally wounded by an arrow. We can disguise ourselves all we want but God’s arrow will eventually find us.

All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day.” (24, 25) I’m guessing that Jeremiah’s laments are recorded in the book of Lamentations, which we’ll be encountering later this year.

The lesson here is clear. In terms of leading a godly life, Josiah was unsurpassed. But leading a godly life requires that we constantly listen and discern the voice of God, even when it comes from an unexpected source as it did here. God communicates to us in many ways and we ignore those communications at our peril. Josiah was a wonderful and wise man, but he allowed his pride and yes, his over-enthusiasm, to blot out his discernment. It only took one lapse to lead to a bad outcome. Which is a sobering lesson for us indeed.  We don’t build up protective credits for our past acts of holiness that will take care of us when we make stupid decisions.

Acts 26:28–27:8: Following Paul’s rather brilliant sermon, Agrippa asks, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” (26:29). Paul replies in one of the great altar calls of all time,“Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.” (30).

So close, yet so far. Agrippa, Festus, and Bernice get up and leave. On the way out the door, Agrippa remarks to Festus, “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.” (31) Paul’s argument has carried the day as far as establishing his innocence. But he does not carry the day (as far as we know) in persuading this group of senior officials to follow The Way. There’s an old hymn about those who are like Agrippa. Close but not quite close enough: Almost Persuaded, whose lines include, ” Some more convenient day/ on Thee I’ll call.” And then later, “Sad, sad that bitter wail— “Almost—but lost!” Almost is not good enough for Jesus.

In the end, it is Agrippa’s decision. There is nothing more Paul can do. Just as we cannot force others to “accept Jesus.”

Festus speaks the bittersweet words, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor.” (32) But had Paul not eventually gone to Rome think of how much we would have missed. Without Paul’s epistles written from Rome, the church would have turned out far differently—or it may have faded from the scene altogether just as the church at Jerusalem did.

Luke launches into descriptive travel mode as he describes the rather roundabout way they are getting to Rome by ship. He must have been a sailor since he knows nautical terminology, “Putting out to sea from there, we sailed under the lee of Cyprus, because the winds were against us.” (27:4)

Paul is under the watchful eye of a centurion named Julius, who has the responsibility of getting Paul and his party to Rome. The centurion finds “an Alexandrian ship bound for Italy and put us on board.” (6) But the passage is slow “as the wind was against us, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmone.” (7)

Finally, they arrive at “a place called Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea.” (8) They’re still a fair distance from Rome. I’m struck by the name, “Fair Havens.” I wonder if Tolkien has Fair Havens in mind when he named a town “Grey Havens,” which sat in the far west, whence Bilbo Baggins departs Middle-Earth at the end of the LOTR trilogy.

Psalm 31:1–6; 2 Chronicles 34:8–33; Acts 26:15–27

Originally published 2/27/2017. Revised and updated 2/26/2019.

Psalm 31:1–6: To be blunt, this psalm of supplication appears to have borrowed many of its tropes from other psalms—almost to the point of predictability. After a brief introduction stating, “In You, O Lord, I shelter,/ let me never be shamed,” our psalmist asks God to listen, and then with a certain urgency to rescue him:
In Your bounty, O free me.
Incline Your ear to me.
Quick, save me.
Be my stronghold of rock,
a fort-house to rescue me. (2, 3)

The next verse is a distinct echo of Psalm 23:
For You are my crag and bastion,
and for Your name’s sake guide me and lead me. (4)

Perhaps it’s my mood this morning, but I don’t sense the anxious desperation that we encounter in other psalms of supplication. Rather, there is a certain sense of anodyne, almost ritua, predictability. Perhaps it’s because we’ve read these same phrases too many times already.

We get a hint from the psalmist, speaking in David’s voice, that enemies are conspiring against him, but it almost seems a passing reference before he changes the subject:
Get me out of the net that they laid for me,
for You are my stronghold.” (5)

Suddenly, just six verses in there seems to be an out-of-place benediction:
In Your hand I commend my spirit.
You redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth. (6)

While there is no question of his faith in God and ultimate rescue, I just can’t get over the feeling that our psalmist has just pretty much phoned this one in. The emotional impact of Psalm 23 and others we’ve read since is somehow absent. There is the same kind of distracted ritual when we rush through the Lord’s Prayer rather than dwelling on the true intensity and meaning of each sentence. We’ll see how things progress tomorrow.

2 Chronicles 34:8–33: Having been desecrated so many times and, I presume, subject to lots of deferred maintenance, the temple at Jerusalem is pretty much in a shambles. In the 18th year of his reign, Josiah has collected funds “from Manasseh and Ephraim and from all the remnant of Israel and from all Judah and Benjamin and from the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (9) to restore the temple.  As the workmen set about repairing the house of God, “the priest Hilkiah found the book of the law of the Lord given through Moses.” (14) He gives it to his secretary, Shaphan, who brings it to Josiah.

Upon hearing the word of the Lord read to him, Josiah tears his clothes and asks the high priest and a couple of servants to “Go, inquire of the Lord for me and for those who are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that has been found.” (21a) Josiah rather correctly fears that the punishment for the sins of their ancestors will be meted upon them, “for the wrath of the Lord that is poured out on us is great, because our ancestors did not keep the word of the Lord.” (21b)

Their inquiry leads them to the prophet Huldah, a female prophetess, the wife of the king’s wardrobe master. She confirms Josiah’s fear that because of the apostasy of their ancestors, punishment is imminent. “Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the Lord: I will indeed bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the curses that are written in the book that was read before the king of Judah.” (24)

However, because Josiah’s “heart was penitent and you humbled yourself before God when you heard his words against this place and its inhabitants, and you have humbled yourself before me, and have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord.” (27) God grants a delay for the punishment to come to Josiah and Judah: “your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place and its inhabitants.” (28)

Obviously the disaster to come was the final conquest of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon, which is the place our authors are doubtless writing from.

Upon hearing this, as well as more words from the book, “the king stood in his place and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant that were written in this book.” (31) Josiah makes all of Jerusalem and Benjamin take the same oath and for the reminder of the Josiah’s time of the throne, “All his days they did not turn away from following the Lord the God of their ancestors.” (33)

The clear message here is that the sins of the father are indeed visited upon the children. Judah has been saved for the time being, but the consequences of all the evil in Judah’s history will indeed bear bitter fruit. I believe this principle is still very much in operation today. There will be consequences upon our progeny for how our own generation has abandoned God as the central touchstone of our increasingly depraved culture.

Acts 26:15–27: Paul tells Agrippa that his Damascus Road experience was a holy commission directly from God, “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (18)

Paul goes on to relate how he has carried out that commission by speaking first to Jews and then to Gentiles. However, regardless of the audience, the message was always the same: “that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance.” (20) Paul seems to be telling Agrippa (and us) that it was because he carried this message to the Gentiles that “the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.” (21) But he continues to insist that he has done nothing more than to declare that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of “what the prophets and Moses said would take place: that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (22, 23)

Festus, who is listening to Paul’s disquisition, finds this theology all a bit confusing and accuses Paul, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!” (24) —certainly one of the more dramatic moments in Acts. It is also clear message to the readers of Acts that many others in the culture would agree with Festus’s outburst that Paul is insane.

Nevertheless, Paul stands his ground: “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth.” (25) he points out that Agrippa is well aware of what Moses and the prophets had said.

Paul then famously asks Agrippa for the order: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” (27) How will Agrippa respond? How would we respond?

Psalm 30:7–13; 2 Chronicles 33:1–34:7; Acts 26:2–14

Originally published 2/25/2017. Revised and updated 2/24/2019.

Psalm 30:7–13: Our psalmist continues his argument that he’s more useful to God alive than dead. First, though, he argues that he thought he could lead a sinless life by hewing to God and the Law. But then, God seems to have disappeared and he became ill:
As for me, I thought in my quiet days,
‘Never will I stumble.’
Lord, in Your pleasure You made me stand mountain-strong.
—When You hid Your face I was stricken.” (7,8)

Nevertheless, our psalmist prays to his apparently absent God, posing the question at the center of the psalm, to wit, that God will lose a faithful follower who will be of no use in worshipping if God allows him to die:
To You, Lord, I call,
and to the Master I plead.
What profit in my blood,
in my going down deathward?
Will dust acclaim You,
will it tell the truth?” (9, 10)

I have to admit that’s pretty compelling logic. And when I think about it, it’s a question that every God-believer should ask. What is the point of being dead? We are of no use to anyone, never mind God. That’s why I think Christians who focus on the”sweet bye and bye” of heaven are missing the whole point of being alive here where we can make a difference and where we can worship the God who saved us through Jesus Christ.

God does indeed answer his prayer as he is returned to health—definitely an occasion of rejoicing and faithful worship:
You have turned my dirge to a dance for me,
undone my sackcloth and bound me with joy.
O, let my heart hymn You and be not still,
Lord, my God, for all time I acclaim You.” (12, 13)

If we take these verses metaphorically, these last two verses point to the sheer transformative power of a relationship with God. One day we are depressed and worried but when we turn toward God and ask his help, he inevitably shows up to do just that: to turn our dirges into dancing.

2 Chronicles 33:1–34:7: It strikes me as odd that good kings like Solomon and Hezekiah sire evil offspring. Is it because they have known only good times, wealth, and have been too close to power to see its benefits but not its burdens? Manasseh is a mere twelve year old lad when he begins his 55 year reign. Alas, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” (33:2) Of course he manages to commit the ultimate abomination by placing the carved image of an idol in the house of God (the temple). Indeed, Manasseh sets some kind of record for wrong doing, and the people of Judah follow their leader as “Manasseh misled Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that they did more evil than the nations whom the Lord had destroyed before the people of Israel.” (33:9)

So, as a result of all this evil, God allows the Assyrian army to again show up at Jerusalem’s doorstep, whereupon, it “took Manasseh captive in manacles, bound him with fetters, and brought him to Babylon.” (33:11) In chains in Babylon, Manasseh has a change of heart and repents, and “God received his entreaty, heard his plea, and restored him again to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord indeed was God.” (33:13)

To Manasseh’s credit “He also restored the altar of the Lord and offered on it sacrifices of well-being and of thanksgiving; and he commanded Judah to serve the Lord the God of Israel.” (16)

I like the story of Manasseh because it is a testament to the power of repentance, of turning back to God. Even when we have led a dissolute life and had other small-g gods as our priorities, there is always hope. This of course is exactly the promise that Jesus Christ makes to all of us.

Manasseh is succeeded by his son Amon, who must have missed the message about the power of repentance because (no surprise here) he follows the evil son rule and “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his father Manasseh had done.” (33:22) But unlike his father, “He did not humble himself before the Lord, as his father Manasseh had humbled himself, but this Amon incurred more and more guilt.” (33:23), which of course is the price that’s paid when there is no realization of one’s sinfulness and consequent repentance. Amon was such an awful king that he is assassinated by his servants. However, for this act, the people in turn kill the servants and set up Amon’s son, Josiah, as king.

Josiah is a mere 8 years old when he ascends to the throne at Jerusalem. The happy news is that he finally breaks the evil son rule and “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the ways of his ancestor David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.” (34:2) You know that when our authors mention that someone “walked in the ways of his ancestor David” that they consider him to be a truly excellent king. They underscore Josiah’s righteousness by noting that he turned “neither to the right nor the left,” i.e., he hewed the straight and narrow of God’s law.

At the age of 16, Josiah “seeks the God of his ancestor David” and by the time he’s 20, “he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the sacred poles, and the carved and the cast images.” (34:3) He does not fool around, nor does he show mercy to the idol worshippers and priests as he “burned the bones of the priests on their altars, and purged Judah and Jerusalem.” (34:5) The cleansing is effective beyond Judah itself, reaching to the Israel towns of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, and as far as Naphtali. Idol worship is effectively wiped from the face of all Judah and Israel: “he broke down the altars, beat the sacred poles and the images into powder, and demolished all the incense altars throughout all the land of Israel.” (7) In short, Josiah carries out the same instructions that God gave to Israel when they crossed the Jordan so many centuries ago.

The lesson here is that unless idols are completely wiped out they will always find a way to find their way back in. We humans are led too easily into temptation. We shall see whether or not if Josiah was successful in the long run.

Acts 26:2–14: Now that he is speaking to a fellow Jew rather than a Gentile Roman, Paul unleashes his considerable theological powers as he tells King Agrippa, “because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews; therefore I beg of you to listen to me patiently.” (3) He reminds the king that Jews who are accusing him “know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem.” (4) Moreover, were they to testify honestly, his accusers would be forced to admit, “that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee.” (5)

He states that he is on trial, not because of fair accusations, but “on account of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship day and night.” (6,7) Paul summarizes his logic chain: why would he be on trial for having exactly the same hope in a Messiah that every pious Jew has?

He goes on to further affirm his Jewish bona fides by reminding the king that “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem.” (8) Moreover, he executed the high priest’s mission with full “authority received from the chief priests. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death.” (9,10) In short, he was more Jewish than the Jews now accusing him.

With this as background, Paul relates his Damascus Road experience. At last! This is the autobiography we have been waiting for all through the book of Acts. It is here at Paul’s own statement where we find out exactly what happened that day. Paul sees a bright light, “brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions.” (13) And then there is the voice that only he could hear.

What will Agrippa make of this rather dramatic testimony? Is Paul telling the truth? Or is he simply a pious Jew who’s lost his marbles?

Psalm 30:1–6; 2 Chronicles 32; Acts 25:16–26:1

Originally published 2/24/2017. Revised and updated 2/23/2019.

Psalm 30:1–6: This psalm of thanksgiving exudes a quiet joy as the psalmist thanks God for his recent healing from a  disease. Adding a dramatic backstory, it appears his enemies would have preferred that he die of the illness:
I shall exalt You, Lord, for You drew me up,
and You gave no joy to my enemies.
Lord, my God,
I cried to You and You healed me. (2,3)

Clearly, this healing was from a near-death experience:
Lord, You brought me up from Sheol,
gave me life from those gone down to the pit. (4)

In light of this seemingly miraculous healing, our psalmist can have only one possible response, that of worship followed by reflection.
Hymn to the Lord, O his faithful,
acclaim His holy name.
But a moment in His wrath,
life in His pleasure.” (5, 6a)

He observes that we will from time to time experience the wrath of God—here in the form of disease.It’s important to remember the deuteronomic view in this culture that disease was seen as God’s punishment for sins knowingly or unknowingly committed. But in comparison to the far longer periods of life’s joys that come from God, suffering lasts but a moment.  This idea is captured memorably in the latter half of this verse:
At evening one beds down weeping,
and in the morning, glad song. (6b)

Not only is sleep physically healing, it is also emotionally healing as our psalmist tells us that God will always waken us in peace and even joy.

We might ask about those who suffer over a long period of time. How do these verses apply to them? I think the answer is that even in ongoing suffering, God will bring peace. I know this has been true of two men with whom I’ve walked along side as they suffered from disease that indeed carried them to death. Yet, along the way they both found the quiet joy in God that our poet describes here.

2 Chronicles 32: Even though Hezekiah and Judah have followed God assiduously, that is no guarantee that there will not be hard times. We read that “After these things and these acts of faithfulness, King Sennacherib of Assyria came and invaded Judah and encamped against the fortified cities, thinking to win them for himself.” (1)

But Hezekiah does not panic, but rather responds calmly and rationally to the threat. First, they cut off all the water flowing outside the fortified Jerusalem, depriving Sennacherib and his army of water. Hezekiah then sees that the city walls are repaired and fortified as he goes on to organize the army.

Perhaps most impressive of all is that Hezekiah demonstrates the true leadership that comes from a man who confidently follows God: “Hezekiah spoke encouragingly to them, saying, “Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him; for there is one greater with us than with him.” (7)

Sennacherib sends his servants to Jerusalem in an attempt to discourage Hezekiah and all Jerusalem from the overwhelming force that surrounds them. He mocks their belief in God, sarcastically intoning, “‘The Lord our God will save us from the hand of the king of Assyria’?” (11) The Assyrian king then attempts to turn the court officials against foolish Hezekiah, warning them that he remains undefeated: “do not let Hezekiah deceive you or mislead you in this fashion, and do not believe him, for no god of any nation or kingdom has been able to save his people from my hand or from the hand of my ancestors.” (15)

Still unable to persuade neither Hezekiah nor Judah to surrender, the Assyrians shout at the people in their native tongue that “the God of Jerusalem [was] like the gods of the peoples of the earth, which are the work of human hands.” (19)

Hezekiah and Isaiah “cried to heaven.” God responds and “the Lord sent an angel who cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria.” (21) Sennacherib returns in disgrace to Assyria. and in anger promptly kills some of his own sons—a vile act inspired by his belief in the false gods who apparently have betrayed him.

Then comes a reminder that it was God and not Hezekiah who accomplished this great victory, “Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death.” (24) However, as our authors point out, Hezekiah had become prideful and “did not respond according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud.” (25) But Hezekiah has the good sense to realize this and “humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the Lord did not come upon them in the days of Hezekiah.” (26)

Our authors conclude the story of Hezekiah noting that “Hezekiah had very great riches and honor; and he made for himself treasuries for silver, for gold, for precious stones, for spices, for shields, and for all kinds of costly objects.” (27) He also executes an engineering project: “Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the city of David. Hezekiah prospered in all his works.” (30) This very tunnel was rediscovered in Jerusalem in the 1980s.

All in all, Hezekiah’s is the most successful reign since Solomon—and all because Hezekiah and the people remained faithful and followed God. No one reading this history in Babylon and tempted to abandon God can miss the moral of this story and not realize how Hezekiah’s successor kings and the people of Jerusalem did indeed forget the lessons here.

Acts 25:16–26:1: Festus observes that Paul’s case sounds more like an internecine argument over obscure Jewish theology. The governor  states that “When the accusers stood up, they did not charge him with any of the crimes that I was expecting. Instead they had certain points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.” (18, 19) Festus is certainly an honest judge and unlike so many others in our day, he was willing to admit that “I was at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether [Paul] wished to go to Jerusalem and be tried there on these charges.” (20)

In conversation with King Agrippa, it’s clear he’s trying to figure out these strange Jewish customs that seem to fly in the face of the Roman legal system. He tells Agrippa, “you see this man about whom the whole Jewish community petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had done nothing deserving death.” (24, 25a) This sounds exactly like the conundrum that Pilate faced with Jesus—a coincidence that surely was not lost on our author, Luke.

Now that Paul has appealed to the Emperor, Festus has to write up the case and charges against Paul—and he is at a loss of what to write, remarking, “it seems to me unreasonable to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him.” (27)  Festus asks Agrippa to hear Paul out to see what charges may be brought out of this strange very Jewish situation of people demanding a man’s death for the relatively trivial (in Roman eyes, anyway) of blasphemy.

Festus is certainly a wiser man than Pilate who gave into the crowd’s anger. Of course, he was not facing a riot on his doorstep the way Pilate was.

Paul rises to speak to Agrippa…