Psalm 5; 1 Chronicles 5:23–6:30; Acts 10:9–23a

Psalm 5: This David psalm draws a stark contrast between those who follow God and those who reject God.  The man of God (David?) knows, “LORD, in the morning You hear my voice, in the morning I lay it before You and wait.”  God is no small-g god: “For not a god desiring wickedness are You, / no evil will sojourn by You.” (5)  Since God cannot abide evil, there must be severe consequences for evildoers: “You destroy the pronouncers of lies, / a man of blood and deceit the LORD loathes.” (7)

This is the quality of God–his hatred of evil and those who do evil–that we’d prefer not to think about. In our culture where the highest moral stance is “tolerance,” God is anachronistically intolerant.

In this psalm, the greatest sin is deceit and falsehood: “An open grave their throat,/ their tongue, smooth-talking. Condemn them, O God.” (10) And the prayer is for justice to be meted out by God himself: “Let them fall by their counsels for their many sins. / Cast them off for they have rebelled against You.” (11) In a culture that tosses off “white lies” with casual abandon and engages in falsehood at every level, we stand condemned by these verses.

1 Chronicles 5:23–6:30: The genealogical inventory continues relentlessly. The half-tribe of Manasseh (one of Joseph’s two sons) gets fairly short shrift. Even though they included “mighty warriors, famous men, heads of their clans,” (5:24b) their sins brought only destruction in the end: “But they transgressed against the God of their ancestors, and prostituted themselves to the gods of the peoples of the land” (25) The Chronicler lumps them with the Reubenites and the Gadites and together, this piece of Israel met their deserved fate: “the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of King Pul of Assyria, the spirit of King Tilgath-pilneser of Assyria, and he carried them away,.” (26) End of story.

The generations of Levites, on the other hand, are treated far more kindly. The author lists the genealogies of all three of Levi’s sons, and we encounter notable names such as Samuel and Joel along the way.  I’m guessing our Chronicler was himself a Levite when we compare the language he uses. Unlike the angry God who caused Israel to be conquered by Assyria, he treats the Judean exile much more gently: “the Lord sent Judah and Jerusalem into exile by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar.” (6:13) Notice how God merely “sends” Judah away to Babylon. The details of this “sending” are almost conveniently omitted.

 Acts 10:9–23a: Peter goes p on to the roof to pray, becomes hungry and asks someone to prepare lunch. Suddenly, rather than an angelic visitation, Peter falls into a trance and witnesses the amazing gentile picnic blanket of unclean animals descending from heaven. He distinctly hears God tell him to kill and eat those unclean foods, noting “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (15b). Significantly, this repeats three times before Peter is convinced.

Not coincidentally, the messengers from Cornelius show up and ask for Peter. They explain they are from Cornelius, “a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” (22)

This incident is Luke’s all-important bridge point of “The Way” becoming something far greater than a growing Jewish sect. What God is declaring “clean” is far more than some animals that lie outside Jewish dietary laws. With Cornelius as the model of the gentile who respects Judaism–and who in turn is respected by the Jews–we are about to see the message of Jesus Christ explode onto the world stage. Although there have been numerous references to “aliens” among the Jews deserving God’s blessings all through the OT, and even Jesus’ hint of a message that carries far beyond the Jews when he praises the faith of the gentile woman who was willing to eat the crumbs from the Jewish table, it is only now where the  we anticipate gentiles becoming full equals with the Jews.

As Peter’s–and the church’s– subsequent history proves, this is neither an easy nor trivial transition. But Luke makes it abundantly clear here that it is God-driven.

 

Psalm 4; 1 Chronicles 5:1–22; Acts 9:36–10:8

Psalm 4: This psalm of supplication–“When I call out, answer me, my righteous God.” (2)–possess a quietude and inner peace that we don’t encounter in other supplication psalms. There is a peaceful assurance that suffuses it: “In the straits, You set me free” (2b) and “But know that the Lord set apart His faithful./ The Lord will hear when I call to Him.” (4)

This assurance reflects a person (David?) with an existing strong relationship with God. There is no air of desperation of the sense that God has abandoned the psalmist. Instead he reflects with great confidence, You put joy in my heart.” (8).  And having prayed, the poet can sleep in peace: “In peace, all whole, let me lie down and sleep. / For You, LORD, alone, do set me down safely.” (9)

My prayer is that I can possess the inner peace that arises form the inner confidence that God is always nearby. And to know that this confidence arises from an active and close relationship with God my Father.

1 Chronicles 5:1–22: Here we meet the descendants of Reuben and Gad. Obviously many more generations have passed than even our very detail-oriented historian cares to list, so we have a list of the various “greats” of each family. Reuben, although the eldest son of Jacob, lost his right to primogeniture and “because he defiled his father’s bed his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright,” (1) thus explaining why he is so far down the list.

It’s interesting that for both these sons, as well as the others, the historian notes the geographic territory in which they resided, e.g., “He also lived to the east as far as the beginning of the desert this side of the Euphrates, because their cattle had multiplied in the land of Gilead.” (9) And, “sons of Gad lived beside them in the land of Bashan as far as Salecah.” (11). In this primarily agrarian society, the geographic space these families occupies is almost important as their names. In our highly mobile society, where most of us have long departed the places where our families grew up or even where we grew up, this rootedness seems almost foreign. Yet, we must never forget that God has given us the earth and it is our responsibility to care for it.

Above all, our author is impressed with these families because they were warriors and with characteristic attention to detail even tells us how many there were: “The Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh had valiant warriors, who carried shield and sword, and drew the bow, expert in war, forty-four thousand seven hundred sixty, ready for service.” (18) Once again, God was on their side because “they cried to God in the battle, and he granted their entreaty because they trusted in him.” (20) even though “Many fell slain, because the war was of God.” (22) It is easy to see why even today warriors are pretty convinced God is on their side: there is ample historical precedent.

Acts 9:36–10:8: In an almost eerie parallel to Jesus’ resuscitation of the officer’s daughter, Luke describes how Peter resuscitates Tabitha. It’s extremely important to note that Peter performs this miracle in private and he prays before commanding Tabitha to “get up.” When we ask why these events don’t happen today (and this is controversial) it’s worth noting that Luke is always careful to add that the response to these miracles is increased faith and growth of the early church: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” (42).

My own belief is that these early miracles were acts of the Holy Spirit to build the early church and give it strong roots.  Once established, and as the original disciples died, “church establishing miracles” became less necessary. There was sufficient mass and energy within the church for it to grow by the means it grows and flourishes today: the faith of men and women activated by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The second echo to Jesus’ healing of the officer’s daughter is the very next event surrounding another officer, “Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort,” (10:1). What we notice immediately is that up to this point, the witness has been to Jews and Samaritans. Now, Luke’s focus shifts to Caesarea and the most gentile of gentiles: An officer in the Roman army.  We also know that something profound is afoot because this man of God is visited by an angel, who tells him to send for Peter, who is living in Joppa, some 36 miles down the coast.

Notice also, that Cornelius assigns this mission to an underling, who is “devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him,” (10:7) and that “after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.” So, why does the senior officer tell his junior “everything?” I think this is a good example of why faith and the intervention of angels or the Holy Spirit is not just a private matter, but is to be shared within the community.

Psalm 3; 1 Chronicles 4:24–43; Acts 9:23–35

Psalm 3: The editors of the Psalms asserts “when David fled from Absalom his son.” Alter notes that “such ascriptions have no historical authority.” Nevertheless, the desperation of being pursued by one’s enemies certainly makes a logical case for this being a David psalm appropriate to the king’s flight as Absalom pursued him.

What is striking about this psalm is its blunt directness: “LORD, how many are my foes, many, who rise up against me.” (2) There are no soaring metaphors, no introductions that approach the central issue delicately. This is a prayer that could be uttered literally on the run.

Nor is God frustratingly silent. Indeed, his response is immediate: “With my voice I cry out to the LORD, / and He answers me from His holy mountain.” (5) This assurance of God’s answer allows refreshing sleep and the absence of fear, even in the face of overwhelming odds: “I fear not from myriads of troops / that round about set against me.” (7) Because in the end there is only one source of rescue: “Rescue is the LORD’s! / On Your people Your blessing.” (9) The lesson here is clear: If we pray with confidence, God will indeed respond confidently. And sometimes the bluntest, most direct prayers are best.

1 Chronicles 4:24–43: Our scrupulous accountant, who authored Chronicles, continues his ledger of genealogies of the original sons of Jacob, this one of Simeon. Many of them have settled in the east side of the valley as shepherds when they are attacked by “the former inhabitants there [who] belonged to Ham…in the days of King Hezekiah.” (39, 40) These are repulsed along with the “Meunim who were found there, who were exterminated” (41). Some 500 Simeonites then hike to Mount Sier where “destroyed the remnant of the Amalekites that had escaped, and they have lived there to this day.” (43). Which of course is what God had in mind when he gave Canaan to Israel and Judah.

This passage reminds me that the story of Israel is not just about its great (and less great) leaders, but about the many yeomen who did the hard work of settling the land. They are fortunate to be remembered by the author of Chronicles.

Acts 9:23–35: Saul’s former Jewish colleagues are understandably upset by his conversion to “the other side.” As usual, they forego any attempt at dialog but send assassins to kill Saul. Happily for history, Saul discovers the plot and escapes Damascus in the famous basket.

Again we have evidence for the authenticity of Luke’s story because it hews so closely to human nature. Despite Saul’s miraculous conversion, his arrival at Jerusalem is greeted with more than mere suspicion by the disciples. Barnabas argues Saul’s case before the disciples and he is (reluctantly, I think) accepted and goes “in and out among them in Jerusalem.” (28) However, it’s clear that Saul’s rather aggressive preaching style is not what the other leaders have in mind as “He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; who were attempting to kill him.”  Once again, he has to be rescued and believers send Saul back to his home in Tarsus.

With Saul no longer riling the populace, “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up.” (31)

The lesson here seems to be that despite Saul’s conversion and his doubtless eloquence at attempting to convert the Hellenists, he had not yet learned the essential lesson that it is “Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (31b) that builds up the church, not just one man’s enthusiastic preaching. Nor are people necessarily persuaded by the power of argument and logic along. Persuasion occurs through the power of the Holy Spirit. I also think that Luke is making it clear that Saul’s eventual role will not be in Jerusalem, but as we find out soon eneough, it will be elsewhere.

Psalm 2; 1 Chronicles 4:1–23; Acts 9:10–22

Psalm 2: Israel, here identified as Zion, is surrounded by “Kings of the earth take [who] their stand, / and princes conspire together against the LORD and against His anointed.” (2) certainly has a contemporary feel to it, since that is precisely the position Israel finds itself in today. Alter tells us that scholars have never been able to identify the exact circumstances that are addressed by this psalm, but Israel’s (or maybe Judah’s) king knows that God is definitely on his side since it is God himself speaking, “And I—I appointed My king on Zion, My holy mountain.”(6)

Then the king speaks, “He said to me: “You are My son. I Myself today did beget you. / Ask of me, and I shall give nations as your estate, / and your holdings, the ends of the earth.” (7) There is certainly a  Christological suggestion here with Jesus being the Son of God. On the other hand, it may simply be the bold assurance of the king who knows God is on his side and victory will be theirs: “You will smash them with a rod of iron, like a potter’s jar you will dash them.” (9)

Whatever its deeper meaning, this psalm is a reminder that we can be confident in God who watches over us.

1 Chronicles 4:1–23: Reading this seemingly endless list of names of the descendants of Judah is reminiscent of the pages at the back of my various alumni magazines that list the names of donors, which can consume a number of pages. The reason is the same: the naming of names means that at some level we are remembered for our deeds.

One thing I had not noticed before is that even before the Israelites left Egypt there was intermarriage: “These are the sons of Bithiah, daughter of Pharaoh, whom Mered married; and she conceived and bore Miriam, Shammai, and Ishbah father of Eshtemoa. (17). One wonders then about the strict prohibitions of intermarriage with the Canaanites, which rule was of course observed in the breach.

Acts 9:10–22: Ananias is one of the unsung heroes of the NT. Obviously, he had heard nothing about Paul’s conversion experience on the Damascus road and he had every right to resist the call of God. His logic is impeccable: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” (13,14) God reveals that he has big plans for Saul. Ananias’ instincts notwithstanding he obeys and lays hands on Saul, and Saul sees again–both literally and of course spiritually. Ananias then disappears from the stage, but he has performed one great act by obeying the command of God. A reminder that most of us are Ananias, not Paul. But also a reminder that the Church cannot thrive without the Ananiases of the world. Each of us has an important God-directed role to play. Our duty is to listen and discern.

For Saul it was not all conversion sweetness and light, for God says also, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (16) And as we will read, Paul suffers physically and psychologically for his witness of Jesus Christ. That with great joy comes great suffering is why I am suspicious of preachers who claim that God delivers only prosperity. The great truth of living the Christian life is that while we experience great joy we will also suffer. To pretend otherwise is a sham religion.

Psalm 148; 1 Chronicles 1:1-37; Acts 8:1-8

Psalm 148: This marvelous psalm of praise begins in heaven itself, as all heavenly beings extol God’s greatness: “Praise Him, all His messengers, /praise Him, all His armies.” (2) and then to the heavenly bodies: “Praise Him, sun and moon, / praise Him, all you stars of light.” (3) The verses then descend from heaven to earth to the creatures of the earth–“wild beasts and all the cattle, 10 crawling things and wingèd birds,” (10)–and then finally, to mankind itself–essentially a reprise of Genesis 1.

But where Genesis 1 spoke only of Adam, here the psalmist includes everyone from the king on down: “princes and all leaders of earth, / young men and also maidens, / elders together with lads. (11,12) This is also a reminder to us that God is the God of everyone–and we are equal in his eyes. And our responsibility whether prince or lad is to praise and worship God for his goodness and greatness: “Let them praise the LORD’s name, / for His name alone is exalted.” (13) for the God whose “grandeur is over earth and the heavens.”

1 Chronicles 1:1-37: While 1 and 2 Kings reflects history written during the time of the exile, we are told that 1 and 2 Chronicles was written long after Israel had returned to Jerusalem following the exile. Jewish tradition says that Jeremiah wrote Kings, while Ezra who came much later, wrote Chronicles. Because of the different time of writing by different authors, they have different theological emphases  and cover many of the same events with a very different perspective–not unlike the different viewpoints about the same events expressed by today’s media.

One thing is clear: the Chronicles author intends to write a comprehensive history, opening his work with a genealogy that traces back to Adam. Perhaps most fascinating is that we learn which tribes descended form which of Noah’s sons, Ham, Shem and Japeth. However, it is a selective genealogy, tracing the important lineage that led eventually to Abraham. (37) out of the root of Shem.

Once we have Abraham, we have Jacob, who is named Israel here. I’m not sure if the author intended, but what stands out here for me is that all humankind has common roots. But internecine warfare and hatreds trace all the way back to Cain and Abel. And alas, thus it has ever been.

Acts 8:1-8: Immediately Stephen’s martyrdom, Luke tells us that “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” (1) After Stephen pointed out what in their hearts they knew to be true, the church authorities were now fiercely committed to stamping out this growing sect.  Saul emerges as the fiercest antagonist of the new church and “was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” (3) I assume he was doing this on the authority of the church leaders.

But in their efforts to stamp out “The Way” in Jerusalem, and scattering its leaders the authorities became the agents of causing the church to sprout up all over as “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” (4) This is why I have no fear for Christianity going forward. The comfortable institutional church of the US may be shrinking, and in our increasingly secular society we may feel like Saul is pounding on its door. But the Holy Spirit is at work all over the world with thousands of Philips proclaiming the word everywhere.

This first attempt to stamp out the early church is also a reminder that it is under oppression and persecution that the church truly grows and flourishes: A stark reminder to those of us who tend to prefer cultural acceptance and comfortable pews.

Psalm 147:15-20; 2 Kings 25; Acts 7:44-60

Psalm 147:15-20: The final verses of this psalm extol God’s mastery of nature, as he speaks not just to us, but to all creation: “He sends down His utterance to earth, / quickly His word races.” And God’s word has real and immediate power, as the next few verses reveal:

He pours forth snow like fleece,
scatters frost like ash.
He flings His ice like bread crumbs.
In the face of His cold who can endure? (16,17)

Inasmuch as I am writing this from Madison, Wisconsin in December, these verses have special resonance. But God brings springtime and warmth as well: “He sends out His word and melts them, /He lets His breath blow—the waters flow.” (18). As usual, the psalmist reminds us that God does not do these things by mental telpathy or even by waving his arms, but by speaking, even though he would be perfectly capable of interacting with nature in that way. In contrast to the mute small-g gods of others, our God speaks and things happen. And of course at this time of year we remember God’s greatest speech, when he sent his Word into our space and our time in the form of a tiny human baby.

2 Kings 25: The story of the capture of Judah by Babylon is recent history to our historian and he writes with increasing detail–both in dates [“in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem,” (1)] and names [“chief priest Seraiah, the second priest Zephaniah”(18)]. Following a two-year siege of Jerusalem, King Zedekiah is captured, forced to watch his sons slain, blinded and carried off in fetters.

We can feel the historian’s despair as he describes the destruction of Solomon’s temple and all the enormous amount of gold, silver and bronze that was carried back to Babylon. A governor, Gedaliah, is appointed to rule over the few people remaining in Judah, and even that goes awry as a certain Ismael rebels, killing him and the other Chaldeans there. Ismael and his band escape to Egypt, and the desolation of Judah is complete. The scattering of the descendants of the twelve tribes that came up out of Egypt with Moses is complete–their punishment for failing to heed what Moses had told their ancestors so many years ago.

The book ends on a somber but hopeful note as the historian tells us that King Jehoiachin of Judah is brought out of prison by Nebuchanezzar’s successor and given a place of honor and a pension. Perhaps all is not lost.

Acts 7:44-60: Stephen does not mince words and makes it clear that God no longer dwells in the Temple, but quotes the prophet, “Heaven is my throne,/ and the earth is my footstool.” (51). Probably knowing hehas nothing to lose, Stephen gets personal, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” (51) And then the greatest accusation of all: “You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (53) Stephen has become Isaiah, the prophet forthtelling what those in power definitely do not want to hear.

The officials drag Stephen out and stone him. Why is their anger so immense? Why do they grind their teeth?After all, it’s just some unwashed convert from some crazy new sect. I think that deep in their hearts they knew Stephen had identified exactly what they knew to be true. But anger trumps rational thought—and Stephen certainly did himself no favors by his accusation. There could be no other outcome.

Luke, in his brilliance as an author brings this first phase of the early church to a close with Stephen’s martyrdom. He adds the seemingly insignificant detail, “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” The spotlight is about to shift, but not before we hear Stephen’s final words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (60)

Unfortunately, the Christian church did indeed hold these things against the Jews, and its witness has been deeply marred for what happened over the next two millennia.

Psalm 147:7-14; 2 Kings 23:21-24:20; Acts 7:30-43

Psalm 147:1-14: This psalm of praise reminds us not only of God’s power, but of his attention to creative detail: “He counts the number of the stars,/ to all of them gives names.” (4) and “Who covers the heavens with clouds, /readies rain for the earth, /makes mountains flourish with grass.” (8) But above all, he cares for–and brings justice to– the lowliest members of his greatest creation: “The LORD sustains the lowly, / casts the wicked to the ground.” (6)

God is not interested in power or even our idea of beauty, “Not the might of the horse He desires, / not by a man’s thighs is He pleased.” (10). Rather, “The LORD is pleased by those who fear Him, / those who long for His kindness.” God desires the worship he deserves, which is why the psalmist calls all Israel–and us–to “Extol, O Jerusalem, the LORD, / praise your God, O Zion.” (12) Of course this requires us to make God rather than ourselves the center of our lives. Which is always more difficult than we think…

2 Kings 23:21-24:20: King Josiah has cleansed both Judah and Samaria of the idolatrous “high places” that had so offended God. The priests of those places met a grisly end, slaughtered and their bones burned on their deposed altars. Josiah returns to Jerusalem and celebrates Passover, which remarkably had not been “kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, even during all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah.” (23) Josiah receives the highest possible praise from our historian: “ Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.” (25) Alas, Josiah’s efforts to not satisfy God’s anger, who announces, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel; and I will reject this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.” (27)

Josiah is killed in battle; his son Jehoahaz takes the throne, but reverts to evil ways. He is rpelaced by his brother Jehoiakim by the Pharaoh who conquered Josiah. Things go from bad to worse for Judah. Jehokiam becomes the vassal of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon for three years, rebels and is promptly attacked by all the neighboring tribes.  The historian speculates, “Surely this came upon Judah at the command of the Lord, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, for all that he had committed.” Which would be the unforgivable sin of “the innocent blood that he had shed; for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to pardon.”(24:4)

Judah begins to meet its ignominious end with Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion, who carries off the “men of valor” and the artisans, leaving only a vassal king, “Jehoiachin’s uncle, king in his place, and changed his name to Zedekiah.” The reading ends on an ominous note, “Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.” (24:20)

Acts 7:30-43: Stephen’s great speech to the Council is a great recounts the history of Israel and how God intervened with Israel again and again–in front of men who surely knew the story. Here, he tells how Moses rescued Israel from Egypt, but the Israelites reject their leader. Stephen also reminds the leaders that “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up a prophet for you from your own people as he raised me up.’” (37).

We can see where this is going as Stephen is transformed from a mere apostle to a prophet not unlike Isaiah or Jeremiah, telling people what they assuredly do not want to hear.

Psalm 145:1-7; 2 Kings 18; Acts 5:17-40

Psalm 145:1-7: Something I had not noticed before is that this psalm extols God, [“Let me exalt You, my God the king” (1)], but it also extol’s the name of God: “…let me bless Your name forevermore” (1) and “let me praise Your name forever more.” (2). For the Jews, of course, the very name of God is sacred and cannot be uttered. Even today, Jews indicate the scared nature of God’s name by writing “G-d.”

We Christians tend to be completely casual about God’s name, both in conversation and exclamation. “Oh, my God” is used so frequently that it has become an acronym, OMG. In our casual and profane use of God’s name we demean not only God, but ourselves as well. Would I casually toss off “OMG” after reading “Great is the LORD and highly praised, / and His greatness cannot be fathomed,” or reflecting on the true meaning of ” the grandeur of Your glorious majesty,” or singing “And the power of Your awesome deeds let them say, / and Your greatness let me recount?”

I think the answer is obvious and this psalm reminds me that God is not a mere concept or something to be trivialized in conversation.

2 Kings 18: At last! Righteous king Hezekiah, who “did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done.” As we know form the previous chapter, there is no higher praise from the historian than that. In fact, there can be no higher praise than this: “He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him.: And as we would expect, Hezekiah and all of Judah enjoys the fruits of the kings failth–and his example, “The Lord was with him; wherever he went, he prospered.” (7). Faith also brings great courage: “He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him.” (7b).

Compare Hezekiah to Israel: “The king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to Assyria… because they did not obey the voice of the Lord their God but transgressed his covenant” (11)

Nevertheless, the might of Assyria attacks Judah and there are significant losses; Hezekiah strips the Temple to pay ransom, but the army led y the Rabshakeh, arrives at the walls of Jerusalem, who says something that has modern resonance, “Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war?” (20). He then speaks in Hebrew so all in the city could understand, saying, “Do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The Lord will deliver us.” (32) The Assyrian brags that everyone he has met in battle he has conquered. But Hezekiah had ordered the people not to speak a word in response. And they do not.

Remaining silent is sometimes the very best strategy. What will happen at Jerusalem with the Assyrian army arrayed against it?

Acts 5:17-40: The authorities have had enough of the Apostles and their impact on the lives of the hoi polloi and imprison them. But an angel opens the prison doors and says, “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” And the apostles respond as we might expect, “When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching.” (20, 21)

The leaders are now apoplectic, and drag the Apostles before them and Peter–with enormous courage– tells them,“We must obey God rather than any human authority” and speaks the Kerygma of Jesus Christ. “When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.”

But Gamaliel points out these sorts of people have come and gone and their movements died out of their own accord. He wisely advises the leaders to let the Apostles go because “if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (38, 39).

The ensuing 2000 years suggests that Gamaliel was a wise man indeed. Luke makes his point to his readers and us as well: this movement begun by Jesus Christ is something that has never been seen before on earth.

 

Psalm 144:9-15; 2 Kings 17:7-41; Acts 5:12-16

Psalm 144:9-15: Verse nine is one of the more familiar one in all the psalms: “God, a new song I would sing to You, / on a ten-stringed lute I would hymn to You.” But I have never really stopped to think exactly what a “new song” means. Yes, we can certainly enjoy new compositions of old verses with new music. But when I think about the years that I have professed to walk with God, I think it means something deeper: that God gives me fresh insights and new understanding each time I return to his word.

Unlike every other book, I can can come back to the same Bible passage I read months or years earlier and see something fresh–a “new song”–that the Holy Spirit delivers to my heart. Even as I re-read the book of Psalms through each year, each time I encounter even very familiar verses, there is a new facet glinting in the sun, a fresh understanding, a word or turn of phrase that I had not seen or read in exactly the same way before. For me, that’s what “inspired Scripture” is all about. We know the words are inspired because we can gain fresh inspiration each time we come to them. Which is also why I prefer Bible study to “book studies.”  With renewed enthusiasm I can say with the psalmist at verse 15, “Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall;/ happy are the people whose God is the Lord.”

2 Kings 17:7-41: The historian tells us why Israel has been captured by the Assyrians and there distinct identity has melted away: “This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God” (7) and “The people of Israel secretly did things that were not right against the Lord their God.” (9) and “They did wicked things, provoking the Lord to anger;” (11).

It wasn’t like they weren’t warned, “Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the law that I commanded your ancestors and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.” (13). The root cause of this behavior is clear: “They would not listen but were stubborn.” (14) Stubbornness became rejection: “They rejected all the commandments of the Lord their God …and served Baal.” (16) And that was that: “Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight; none was left but the tribe of Judah alone.” (18). A clear lesson here: stubbornness leads ultimately to rejection. If we persist in sin, it will eventually consume us, but we won;t even notice because we have rejected the promise of God.

Like Israel, Judah was sinful and “did not keep the commandments of the Lord,” but thy live on because Judah “walked in the customs that Israel had introduced. ” (19) 

The king of Assyria, having removed all of Israel from Samaria replaces them with people from all over the empire. But it seems that the land of Israel itself is sacred and these newcomers, who “did not worship the Lord” suffered fates such as being eaten by lions.” The Assyrian king commands, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there; let him[d] go and live there, and teach them the law of the god of the land.” (27). Things improve, but not surprisingly, “every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made.” (29) And the people “would not listen, however, but they continued to practice their former custom.” (41)

Acts 5:12-16: Just months after Pentecost, the Holy Spirit works miracles in Jerusalem. Even Peter’s shadow seems to have curative effect on “both the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits–and they were all cured.”

There’s no question that these spectacular acts had a profound impact on the growth of the early church, but it’s also worth noting “ None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem.” (13) Is the source of their hesitancy due to the power the Apostles were displaying that made them kind of scary, albeit respected? Or was it because people knew that further displays of this sort of power would doubtless get the Apostles in further trouble with both the secular and priestly authorities. I suspect the latter.

Psalm 144:5-8; 2 Kings 16:1-17:6; Acts 5:1-11

Psalm 144:5-8: This David song of praise covers familiar territory, reminding us of God’s spectacular greatness –a “greatness that cannot be fathomed.” (4) It is the honor and duty of the elder generation to tell the younger one about God’s greatness: “Let one generation to the next extol Your deeds and tell of Your mighty acts.” (4). And to tell the younger generation so that “The fame of Your great goodness they utter, and of Your bounty they joyously sing.” (7).

Which raises the question: how faithfully do we as the older generation tell of God’s greatness and raise our children such that they become God-fearers? My dad made our entire family go to church every Sunday. As a teenager I resented it but never resisted until I went away to college. In one sense I had to abandon my father’s faith in order to find my own. But there’s no question that the habit of church and Bible study had been inculcated in me. And that habit, that desire to come closer to God has served me well over the years.

So Susan and I made our kids come to church, too. Elisabeth is an active Christian and worships faithfully. And even though Geoff has rejected many of the tenets of the Christian faith, his family goes to church most Sundays. I think this is a good thing to pass sown the generations.

 2 Kings 16:1-17:6:  It’s always so depressing to read about the ascent of a new king, in this case Ahaz of Judah, and then immediately read at the second verse, “He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done,” including making his son walk through fire “according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” (3).

Ahaz aligns himself wit Tiglath-pileser, the Assyrian king, right down to building a copy of the altar at Damascus, including the blasphemy of putting this altar in a higher place of honor that the altar to the Lord. He dismantles other Temple furnishings such as the bronze sea “because of the king of Assyria.” (16:18) The king’s fear of the power to the north is palpable. Judah has essentially become a vassal state of Assyria. The fate of states where leaders that become subject to leaders of other states is never pretty.

Things are even worse in Israel, where Hoshea becomes king. He seems to be only an intermediately bad king as “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, yet not like the kings of Israel who were before him.” (17:2). But the damage has been done over the years. Israel is even more subject to the whims of the Assyrians than Judah, “Hoshea became his vassal, and paid him tribute.” but “the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea” (17: 3,4)

Israel’s end as a nation comes when “the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria.” and in Hoshea’s ninth and final year of reign, Israel falls and the king “carried the Israelites away to Assyria.” Israel, land of such promise, is simply no more; its people, who have intermarried and worshipped false gods are scattered and lost forever.

This historian’s message is clear: As Israel–and Judah to a lesser extent–have fallen away from God and assimilate their more powerful neighbor’s culture that is an abomination to God, those more powerful neighbors simply swallow them up.  God is merciful but He is not infinitely patient in the face of hundreds of years of rebellion.

Acts 5:1-11: At one level the cautionary tale of Ananias and Sapphira seems arbitrarily cruel. So what if they didn’t give the entire proceeds of the land sale to the communal church? But of course the lesson is that lying to the Holy Spirit is the real offense. And what happened to the couple electrified everyone: “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.” (11)

I suspect that the real impact of the story was to shake out the would-be followers who were attracted to the church because it was a growing popular movement that looked like it would be fun to jump on the bandwagon.  After all, it was exciting and energetic–and may even have had cool music. But the couple’s death made it abundantly clear that being part of this new church was deadly serious business. You were either all in or all out. You cannot be only halfway in. Halfway in means that you have placed yourself above God.  Jesus is asking, nay demanding, 100% participation.

Had the early church become filled with halfway in people like A & S, it would have died out in just a few years. The real question is, how full is the church today of halfway in people? And the bigger question: am I one of them?