Psalm 105:37–45; Jeremiah 36; Titus 1:10–2:5

Psalm 105:37–45: The concluding section of this psalm follows the Exodus story as it describes the escape from Egypt and the years in the wilderness—all orchestrated by God himself (the “He” in the verses since our psalmist only uses pronouns to refer to God):
And He brought them out with silver and gold,
and none in His tribes did falter.
Egypt rejoiced when they went out,
for their fear had fallen upon them.” (37, 38)

What’s interesting here is what’s included and what’s excluded from the Exodus story. The detail of silver and gold and the fact that the tribes hung together for the escape from Egypt is included, while the crossing of the sea and the Egyptian pursuit and defeat are omitted. So why did our poet excise the narrative drama of the story and focus only on relatively anodyne aspects such as the Egyptian’s feelings of joy at the departure of the Israelites? Our psalmist is writing for worship, not fo a history lesson. And in worship it is our relationship to God and recognizing what God has done that matters most.

The scene shifts to the wilderness and God’s provision of the cloud/fire to guide them and the food he supplied, including the unfortunate incident of the quail, but again in a very upbeat light:
He spread the cloud as a curtain
and fire to light up the night.
They asked, and He brought the quail,
with bread from the heavens He sated them.” (39,40)

I think our psalmist is far more interested in God’s care and bounty than the backstory of complaining people that resulted in these God-given gifts. The same applies to water. Moses’ (who is not even named) sin in striking the rock is unimportant; it is God who supplies the water:
He opened the rock, and water flowed,
it went forth in parched land as stream.
For He recalled His holy word
with Abraham His servant.” (41, 42)

As far as our poet is concerned, God did all these things because he was being faithful to the Abrahamic covenant. I wonder what the cultural atmosphere was when the psalmist wrote. Was it a time when Israel followed God or was it later when they had abandoned their side of the Covenant?

The psalm leaps ahead to the entry conquest of Canaan, again omitting the less savory details of how Israel defeated its inhabitants and how it confiscated their wealth. The psalm recounts only the joyful aspects of Israel’s national story as it concludes in worship, neatly summarizing what God has done and all the gifts God has given them— and what God is asking them to do in return:
And He brought His people out in joy,
in glad song His chosen ones.
And He gave them the lands of nations,
they took hold of the wealth of peoples,
so that they should keep His statutes,
and His teachings they should observe.
Hallelujah!” (43-45)

While I hesitate to call it the “sanitized” version of ISrael’s story, there’s no question that the psalm was meant for joyful celebration not for narrative history. That can easily be found elsewhere in the OT.

Jeremiah 36: The word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah commanding him to write down what is essentially the first 35 chapters of his eponymous book: “Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today.” (2) God’s theory is that perhaps “when the house of Judah hears of all the disasters that I intend to do to them, all of them may turn from their evil ways, so that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.” (3) Well, why not? Goodness knows the many object lessons that God has commanded Jeremiah o carry out have not had their intended effect.

So Jeremiah dictates all the prophecies to Baruch, his secretary. Since Jeremiah has been prevented from entering the temple he asks Baruch to go read the scroll, which he does. [In one of those interesting but seemingly irrelevant details, our author is careful to give us the exact location where the reading occurred: “Baruch read the words of Jeremiah from the scroll, in the house of the Lord, in the chamber of Gemariah son of Shaphan the secretary, which was in the upper court, at the entry of the New Gate of the Lord’s house.” (10)]

A certain Micaiah is impacted by the reading and thinks it would be a good idea to have the scroll read before the various officials over at the palace and “told them all the words that he had heard, when Baruch read the scroll in the hearing of the people.” (13) So the officials invite Baruch to read it before the leadership. They are sufficiently alarmed at the scroll’s contents that they ask who the author is. Baruch admits the author was Jeremiah, whereupon, “the officials said to Baruch, “Go and hide, you and Jeremiah, and let no one know where you are.” (19) AN ominous sign indeed. They probably intuited what the king’s reaction would be

So the king’s aide, a certain Jehudi, gets the scroll and begins reading it to the king. It’s winter and a fire is burning in the king’s apartment. “As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier.” (23) Our author emphasizes the king’s indifference to Jeremiah’s words of warning: “Yet neither the king, nor any of his servants who heard all these words, was alarmed, nor did they tear their garments.” (24)

God is pretty upset at Jehoiakim’s arrogance and commands Jeremiah to write another scroll. This one has specific words for the king: “He shall have no one to sit upon the throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out to the heat by day and the frost by night.” (30)

This chapter is a perfect example of the underlying theme of the entire book: the spiritual state of the people in leadership—especially the head guy, here the king—matters. Jehoiakim’s sin will result in the destruction of the entire nation. The people under him certainly understood the the stakes and the gravity of Jeremiah’s warning. But without agreement from the very top their warnings were in vain.  Something of that same anxiety now pervades American culture. There are warnings all around us, but they are being ignored.

Titus 1:10–2:5: As with the Timothy letters, our author knows there is trouble afoot in Crete: “There are also many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision.” (10) It’s essential to get them to shut up because they are having a deleterious impact on entire families. Paul even cites “one of them, their very own prophet, who said, “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.” (12)

Titus is directed to “rebuke them sharply, so that they may become sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths or to commandments of those who reject the truth.” (13, 14) Some things have been true in the church since its very beginning: every church seems to include people who stir up trouble and lead people astray with emphasis on the wrong doctrines. On the other hand, there is very little rebuking that goes on in churches today.

Above all, there is the problem of rampant hypocrisy in the church: “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions.” (15, 16a) Those are pretty harsh words, but our author has even harsher things to say about these people: “They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” (16b) This is certainly true but once again I have to say that I doubt the actual Paul would have put it quite that harshly. There is certainly not much grace evident in these pastoral epistles.

Chapter 2 opens with advice for us older men: “Tell the older men to be temperate, serious, prudent, and sound in faith, in love, and in endurance.” (2:1) Which at this point in my 70 years is pretty good advice that I really do try to follow.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a much longer list of advice for older women who must “be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good,  so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited.” (2:3) Once again, this list is reflective of the culture of the time, but I have to say that these words to men and women are sound advice and constitute the social basis on which a culture can flourish.

Alas, so many of these behaviors seem to have disintegrated in the declining mores of our culture. Note that none of this advice is about the individual rights or self-actualization that is so ascendant today. It is all directed to relationships within a community. Without the wisdom, patience, and love for others practiced by elders the whole thing falls apart. And that’s what I think we baby boomers have mostly forgotten.

 

 

Psalm 105:23–36; Jeremiah 34:8–35:19; Titus 1:1–9

Psalm 105:23–36: This section describes how “Israel came to Egypt,/ Jacob [i.e. Israel] sojourned in the land of Ham.” (23) The Israelites are fecund, which as we know was economically beneficial to the Egyptians but then they were perceived as a threatening to overrun the native Egyptians. Fears of immigrants is certainly nothing new!
“And He made His people very fruitful,
And made them more numerous than their foes.
He changed their heart to hate His people,
to lay plots against His servants.” (24, 25)

What’s interesting here is that the psalmist tells us that God is the one who changed the heart of the Egyptians. But after 400 years, God has decided it is time to restore Israel to its rightful land in Canaan and the only way to do that is to cause the Egyptian to eject the Israelites.

Our psalmist hews closely to the Exodus story and Moses and Aaron appear on the scene, who warns the Egyptians of the plagues to come, which indeed they do. The order of the plagues here in the psalm is not the order in Exodus, each plague being just one verse long:
1. Darkness (v. 28, #9 in Exodus)
2. River of blood (v. 29, #1)
3. Frogs (v. 30, #2)
4. Lice (v. 31 #4)
5. Destructive hail (v. 32, #3)
6. Plant blight (v. 33, #7)
7. Locusts (v. 34, 35 #8)

Having pretty much made his point, our poet omits the plagues of cattle blight and the sores and rashes. Surprisingly, he gives equally short shrift to the Passover:
“And He struck down each firstborn in their land,
the  first yield of all their manhood.” (36)

I’m presuming that some of this psalmic terseness is based on the assumption that while every Jew would know the details of the Passover cold—after all, it was celebrated every year—they may have forgotten the plagues that led up to it.

Jeremiah 34:8–35:19: The book of Jeremiah is a valuable resource for God’s desire for social justice. We’ve seen how the leadership and king were held to a higher standard than the hoi polloi. Now the issue of slavery arises. “King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty to them—that all should set free their Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should hold another Judean in slavery.” (34:8, 9) While this order is carried out at first, it is betrayed as “afterward they turned around and took back the male and female slaves they had set free, and brought them again into subjection as slaves.” (34:11)

Jeremiah, as usual speaking the Word of the Lord, reminds them of the Levitical rule that “Every seventh year each of you must set free any Hebrews who have been sold to you and have served you six years; you must set them free from your service.” (34:14) But their good act has been canceled out by their backsliding, so God decrees an appropriate punishment: “Therefore, thus says the Lord: You have not obeyed me by granting a release to your neighbors and friends; I am going to grant a release to you, says the Lord—a release to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.” (34:17)

Once again, Jeremiah calls out the leadership, which is held to a higher standard, for more specific punishment: “the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land…shall be handed over to their enemies and to those who seek their lives. Their corpses shall become food for the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth.” (34:19, 20)

In chapter 35, the timeline again reverses course and we are back to “the  days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah” (35:1) There is a certain group of teetotalers called the Rechabites living in Jerusalem. God tells Jeremiah to bring them to a place in the temple and he “set before the Rechabites pitchers full of wine, and cups; and I said to them, “Have some wine.”” (35:5)

But the Rechabites refuse the temptation, asserting, “We will drink no wine, for our ancestor Jonadab son of Rechab commanded us, ‘You shall never drink wine, neither you nor your children;” (35:6) They continue, “We have obeyed the charge of our ancestor Jonadab son of Rechab in all that he commanded us, to drink no wine all our days, ourselves, our wives, our sons, or our daughters.” (35:8).

God directs Jeremiah to use the Rechabites as an object lesson. They have obeyed the dictates of their long-dead ancestors, yets the Judeans in Jerusalem will not obey the living God. And once again, the old familiar refrain: “Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring on Judah and on all the inhabitants of Jerusalem every disaster that I have pronounced against them; because I have spoken to them and they have not listened, I have called to them and they have not answered.” (35:17)

By contrast God promises the Rechabites they will always have descendants “because you have obeyed the command of your ancestor Jonadab, and kept all his precepts, and done all that he commanded you.” (35:18)

Well, I have to say this object lesson of the Rechabites is a lot more obvious than the loincloth, or the yoke that Jeremiah wore. And yet, obvious as the lesson is, the Judeans refuse to follow God. I have a feeling there are similar object lessons in our own culture, which the masses ignore at their peril.

Titus 1:1–9: This third pastoral epistle is also ostensibly written by Paul. For the same reasons I’ve pointed out in the two Timothy epistles, I have my doubts. Nevertheless, I’ll go with the narrative flow here and refer to the author as Paul.

The with book opens  a Pauline invocation, which is a nice condensation of the core Gospel message, but whose language seems less elegant than the Paul we know from the authentic letters: “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that is in accordance with godliness, in the hope of eternal life that God, who never lies, promised before the ages began—in due time he revealed his word through the proclamation with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior.” (1-3)

Titus is in Crete, sent there by Paul to “put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” (5) Once again, there’s a brief list of leadership qualifications: “someone who is blameless, married only once,  whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious. For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain.” (6,7)

Rather, a bishop “must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled.” (8) Moreover, he needs to have a clear understanding of Scripture—”a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.” (9)

Regardless of who wrote the letter, this job description is certainly applicable today. In light of this command to expound Scripture, the leadership of the ELCA seems less interested in that and more interested in making social justice statements that often, IMHO, are less than an orthodox reading of Scripture. I’ll leave it at that and only speculate that the letters to Timothy and Titus don’t come up for frequent discussion in certain denominational headquarters.

 

Psalm 105:16–22; Jeremiah 33:6–34:7; 2 Timothy 4:9–22

Psalm 105:16–22: The scene advances to the story of Joseph. Our poet has compressed the story to the point that only those who knew the entire story would understand the references. The psalmist reverses the timeline by referring to the famine about to strike Egypt before even introducing Joseph, who had been imprisoned by the treachery of Potiphar’s wife:
And called forth famine over the land,
every staff of bread He broke.
He sent a man before them—
as a slave Joseph was sold.
They tortured his legs with shackles,
his neck put in iron,” (16-18a)

The psalmist makes it quite clear that it is God who is behind it all. And it is God who determines that Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams is the gift to him that sets him free and is responsible for Joseph’s ascent:
…until the time of his word had come,
the Lord’s utterance that purged him.
The king sent and loosed his shackles
the ruler of peoples set him free,” (18-20)

Our poet emphasizes the power that Joseph came to enjoy over every other Egyptian save the pharaoh:
made him master of his house
and ruler of all his possessions,
to admonish his princes as he desired
and to teach wisdom to his elders.” (18b-22)

Notice the last line: it is Joseph’s wisdom that’s emphasized here. Assuming the psalm was written during the Babylonian exile, our poet is creating a parallel between the Joseph story and the fact that Israel itself is now in captivity. But like Joseph in prison, there is hope and that hope comes from God that rescue will come.

Look back at our history, the psalmist is telling his compatriots. God brought Joseph out of prison to the second-highest position in the land. Surely, he implies, God will rescue us too.

Jeremiah 33:6–34:7: Speaking of hope, there is God’s same promise here in Jeremiah: “I am going to bring it recovery and healing; I will heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first.” (33:6, 7) And later, the promise to restore the land itself to its original promised land state, not the desolate and corrupt place it had become: “For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the Lord.” (33:11)

Then we arrive at a full-bore messianic prophecy: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (33:14, 15)

So why call the messiah a “righteous Branch?” It all comes back to the promise that God made to David so many centuries ago: “David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel.” (33:17) Moreover, God also promises, “the levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time.” (33:18) We know that this did not come to pass but ended with the Roman conqueror Titus destroying the temple in CE 70. But by that time, God had already made the ultimate sacrifice through Jesus, rendering the levitical sacrifices moot and superfluous.

God’s promise is bound up in creation itself: “Only if I had not established my covenant with day and night and the ordinances of heaven and earth,would I reject the offspring of Jacob and of my servant David and not choose any of his descendants as rulers over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (33:25)

We know that God kept his promise but not in the way that anyone, including Jeremiah, expected. Rather than an earthly king, Jesus, the descendant of David, became King of the Jews, who rejected him in mockery at the cross. But then just as God had established day and night, this rejected cornerstone became King of all creation. And not just for the Jews, but indeed for all of us.

In the next chapter the scene shifts back to the grim reality of the siege of Jerusalem. Jeremiah is commanded by God to go to King Zedekiah with not very good news: “Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. And you yourself shall not escape from his hand, but shall surely be captured and handed over to him; you shall see the king of Babylon eye to eye and speak with him face to face; and you shall go to Babylon.” (33:2, 3)

But Zedekiah will not be allowed to return from exile: “O King Zedekiah of Judah! Thus says the Lord concerning you: You shall not die by the sword; you shall die in peace.” (34:4, 5) One wonders how Zedekiah received this news. Was he relieved that he would not die in battle? Or would he despair that as Jerusalem’s leader he would not dies alongside his men, but in prison in Babylon. My suspicion is the latter.

2 Timothy 4:9–22: This reading includes very personal instructions from Paul that certainly gives us names of both the faithful and unfaithful men around Paul. Nevertheless, my suspicions are that our author has inserted this level of detail—never before seen in such length in any other epistle—as a way of making it appear that Paul wrote this epistle.

That said, however, I certainly believe the descriptions are true and the names are real. In any event, there is certainly interesting detail about the early church here. Some men have remained loyal to Paul, notably Luke who authored the Gospel and Acts. Paul has sent others off to various churches: “Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia, and Tychicus to Ephesus.” (10b, 12)

Two men are called out for their disloyalty: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (10) and “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds.” (14) Paul warns Timothy especially about the latter: “You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.” (15)

But the detail that stands out most for me is the fact that Paul asks Timothy, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.” (13) It’s a wonderful detail and it makes sense. Afterall, most of his possessions would have been lost in the shipwreck that marked his journey to Rome. This is also the verse that my Dad inscribed on the flyleaf of every book he ever purchased, so it has special resonance for me.

There is the slightest hint of bitterness on Paul’s part for those who were disloyal to him at (what I presume to be) his trial in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he is quick to forgive: “At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!” (16)

The epistle ends on a note that, while very true in meaning, sounds a bit wooden to me. Paul’s outlook and faith are there for sure, but I’m pretty sure the actual Paul would have said it more elegantly: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.” (18)

Psalm 105:8–15; Jeremiah 32:16–33:5; 2 Timothy 3:10–4:8

Psalm 105:8–15: His act of worship concluded, our psalmist moves off into recounting Israel’s history beginning with God’s original Abrahamic covenant:
He recalls His pact forever—
the word He ordained for a thousand generations—
which He sealed with Abraham,
and His vow to Isaac,
and He set it for Jacob as a statute,
for Israel an eternal pact.
“To you will I give the land of Canaan
as the plot of your estate.” (8-11)

God’s promise to the original three Patriarchs follows a logical succession through those first three generations:  from sealed promise to Abraham, vow to Isaac, and statute to Jacob. Our poet is making it quite clear that the Covenant was no casual promise on God’s part.

What’s also fascinating to me here is that the original Covenant included not only a people more numerous than the stars in heaven, but also a land, specifically Canaan. I do not recall reading this in Genesis. Perhaps by the time the psalmist is writing, the promise of Canaan had been firmly ensconced by tradition into the original promise to Abraham.

In any event, our psalmist notes that Abraham and his son and grandson were nomads without a land of their own:
…when they were a handful of men,
but a few, and sojourners there.
And they went about from nation to nation,
from one kingdom to another people.” (12, 13)

Our poet is making it clear that prior to God’s promise, Abraham was a man without a country. Even so, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were firmly under God’s protection:
He allowed no man to oppress them
and warned kings on their account:
‘Touch not My anointed ones,
And to My prophets do no harm.‘” (14-15)

I wonder if this psalm was written during the exile in Babylon as a hopeful anticipation that just as God protected Abraham and his progeny, God will protect them as they are sojourners in a foreign land. And as God promised Canaan to Abraham, so too, the exiles will eventually return from their journey to their own land.

Jeremiah 32:16–33:5:  AFter Jeremiah turns the deed of the land near Jerusalem he just purchased over to Baruch, he prays fervently, first acknowledging that God, “It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.” (32:17)

Then, he recounts—much like the psalmist above—Israel’s history from Egypt to the Promised Land, reminding God, “you swore to their ancestors to give them, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (32:22) But of course the people “did not obey your voice or follow your law; of all you commanded them to do, they did nothing.” (32:23a) And logically, “Therefore you have made all these disasters come upon them.” (32:23b)

Jeremiah then observes that Jerusalem is under siege by the Chaldeans and he asks rather puzzledly, “Yet you, O Lord God, have said to me, ‘Buy the field for money and get witnesses’—though the city has been given into the hands of the Chaldeans.” (32:25) In other words, Jeremiah wonders, why would God ask me to buy land in a place that’s about to be overrun by the enemy?

As is inevitable in this book, God speaks. Yes, he replies, “the Chaldeans who are fighting against this city shall come, set it on fire, and burn it, with the houses on whose roofs offerings have been made to Baal and libations have been poured out to other gods, to provoke me to anger.” (32:29) And yes, God continues, “This city has aroused my anger and wrath, from the day it was built until this day, so that I will remove it from my sight…They have turned their backs to me, not their faces; though I have taught them persistently, they would not listen and accept correction.” (32:31, 33) So, Judah is experiencing the justifiable consequences of its sins.

But with God there is always hope, God continues, “Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good fortune that I now promise them.” (32:42) And one of the good fortunes is that real estate transactions will one resume: “Fields shall be bought for money, and deeds shall be signed and sealed and witnessed, in the land of Benjamin, in the places around Jerusalem, …for I will restore their fortunes, says the Lord.” (32:44) As far as God is concerned, Jeremiah has obeyed him even though the entire transaction seemed pointless. But God often asks us to do seemingly stupid things that turn out to have good consequences.

But before there can be restoration and healing, punishment must occur: “For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the houses of this city and the houses of the kings of Judah that were torn down to make a defense against the siege ramps and before the sword: The Chaldeans are coming in to fight and to fill them with the dead bodies of those whom I shall strike down in my anger and my wrath, for I have hidden my face from this city because of all their wickedness.”(33:4,5)

In Jeremiah’s time it was God who determined punishment. Today, punishment is executed by an often flawed justice system. But two things are constant down through the ages: disobedience has consequences. And punishment precedes healing.

2 Timothy 3:10–4:8: Sounding a bit like Jeremiah, our author writes, “Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (3:12) But, he continues, “wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived.” (3:13)

It’s clear from the context that Timothy’s church is badly confused at best and subject to deception by unscrupulous theologians at worst. They need a reference point, a guide that stands apart from their arguments. Unsurprisingly, he continues, that reference point is familiar and close at hand: “from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (3:15)

Then comes the verse that while indisputably true has created division within the church: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (3:16) [BTW, it’s worth remembering that by “Scripture,” our author means what we now call the Old Testament. The canonical New Testament did not emerge until a few centuries later.]

But the question hangs in the air: just what does “inspired” mean anyway? Some believe that the men who wrote scripture were basically stenographers, writing down the words that the Holy Spirit dictated to them. Whence cometh the inerrantists, i.e, the belief Scripture cannot contain errors. It’s all literally true. This has led to all sorts of mischief, IMHO, as e.g., the literal 6-day creation.

I prefer “inspired” to mean that the Holy Spirit was indeed present and that the men wrote what they wrote based on that presence. For me, there are parts that are more germane to the cultural context in which they were written, e.g., Leviticus.

That does not necessarily mean we can pick and choose and just ignore the parts we don’t like or are uncomfortable with. I think God is asking us to grapple with all Scripture and that in that grappling we will come to a deeper understanding of who God is and how we relate to him. But also there will be parts that lie forever beyond our ken. Nevertheless, I think we must always read and interpret Scripture from the perspective that God loves us and that he wants us to follow him through the saving grace of Jesus Christ and the ongoing impact of the Holy Spirit in and on our lives.

As in Timothy’s time, today there are too many people making pronouncements based on an inadequate knowledge and understanding of what Scripture is actually saying.It is a pastoral responsibility to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” (4:2)

And we are experiencing exactly the same problem as back then: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” (4:3,4)  We are surrounded by both people with itchy ears,as well as even more with no ears at all.

Psalm 105:1–7; Jeremiah 31:23–32:15; 2 Timothy 3:1–9

Psalm 105:1–7: This psalm, which will provide a historical summary of Israel, opens on with a stanza of pure joyful worship:
Acclaim the Lord, call out His name,
make His deeds known among the peoples.
Sing to Him, hymn to Him,
speak of all His wonders.
Revel in His holy name.
Let the heart of the Lord’s seekers rejoice.
Inquire of the Lord His strength,
seek His presence always.” (1-4)

This psalmist is certainly not advocating reflective silence. It is about being verbal. We are to acclaim, make his deeds known, sing, hymn, and speak. Which are certainly all the elements of serious worship. There is also a missionary quality here that I think Jesus picks up on when he tells his disciples to “Go to all the world and preach the Good News.” The other key to true worship is that it is a joy-filled event. We are to revel in God’s name and rejoice in our hearts. For this psalmist, dour worship cannot be true worship.

Our psalmist asks us to remember the past as he turns to the main theme of the poem, which is to recount Israel’s history in poetic form. Now things become a bit more somber as both the happy and then not-so-happy events of Israel’s past and its relationship to God are recalled:
Recall the wonders that He did,
His portent and the judgements He issued,
O seed of Abraham his servant,
sons of Jacob, His chosen ones.” (5-6)

Above all else, though, we cannot recite history without acknowledging God’s preeminence over all things and all events:
He is the Lord our God—
through all the earth, His judgements.” (7)

Even though the psalmist has written for his people, this last verse holds true across all time down to today. God is indeed over all the earth and we would do well to remember that always.

Jeremiah 31:23–32:15: The great promise of return concludes on a joyful note as Jeremiah predicts that all Israel will return to God and worship him alone: “Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its towns when I restore their fortunes:

“The Lord bless you, O abode of righteousness,
    O holy hill!” (31:23)

Not only will Israel’s and Judah’s fortunes be restored, but there is an even greater promise to those who are discouraged—and I pretty sure that everyone in exile in Babylon would be discouraged at this point:
I will satisfy the weary,
    and all who are faint I will replenish.” (25)

Which is promise that holds true for us today in our own times of discouragement and distress.

Rather abruptly we find out that the preceding chapter was Jeremiah’s dream: “Thereupon I awoke and looked, and my sleep was pleasant to me.” (31:26) So, we have to ask, are these promises real or are they simply wishful thinking by Jeremiah as he awakens to the grim reality that is around him?

Perhaps what is most remarkable is a sudden shift in how God will judge sinners. Up to this point he has judged—and punished— the entire nation for the sins (mainly) of its corrupt leadership. But in this restored Israel, “they shall no longer say:

“The parents have eaten sour grapes,
    and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (31:29)

Rather, as Paul clearly lays it out in his epistles, it is the individual sinner who will be held to account by God: “But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.” (31:30) Paul’s famous verses in Romans, among them, “the wages of sin is death,” have deep roots here in Jeremiah. He was not just making things up.

We come to what I think is one of the more remarkable prophecies in this book as Jeremiah, as always speaking as God’s voice predicts the advent of a New Covenant: It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors …—a covenant that they broke—…But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord:  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (31:33)

The image of God’s promise being written on our hearts is striking and it is permanent. For me, this promise can mean nothing less than the coming of the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us. As we are promised, our sins will be forgiven and God promises, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (31:35) The wonderful thing of course is that the New Covenant is God’s promise through Jesus Christ is that the Holy Spirit can be written on the heart of all who believe, not just the Jews.

Chapter 32 is straight up narrative—and as usual, the timeline is confusing. King Zedekiah asks Jeremiah why he’s so sure that Jerusalem will fall to the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah replies that Jeremiah’s cousin, “Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” (32:6) Jeremiah takes this as confirmation of his prophecy: “Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.” (32:8) Hanamel obviously feels something bad is about to happen and he wants to be unencumbered by real estate.

Jeremiah buys the field for 17 shekels of silver and “signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales.” (32:9) He hands the deed over to a certain Baruch, asking him to “put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time.” (32:14) Jeremiah asserts that “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” (32:15)

The implication here is that while Judah will fall to the Babylonians, and while his cousin thinks that will be  a permanent state and he should take the money and run, Jeremiah knows that, Israel’s land will one day be restored and real estate transactions will once again take place.

2 Timothy 3:1–9: This reading perfectly captures the zeitgeist of our own times. Our author felt the end times were imminent because of the evidences of societal corruption all around him. He advises Timothy in what I have to admit certainly sounds like a particularly lengthy Pauline list of bad things, “in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them!”  (2-5)

I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t take long to come up with contemporary examples of every one of these negative qualities.

We have another evidence of the author’s low view of women as he basically accuses them of being unteachable, always seeking after the newest cool theology from the latest guru: “For among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” (6,7)

Wow. That sounds pretty much like today’s various spiritual quests when I hear people (not just women) say that they “are spiritual but not religious,” which is ultimately exactly as our author asserts here: an empty, neverending quest.

He goes on to assert that just as “Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people, of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, also oppose the truth.” (8) Goodness knows there are plenty of these people out there, many of them on TV asking for their viewer’s money. Our author promises, “they will not make much progress, because, as in the case of [Jannes and Jambres] their folly will become plain to everyone.” (9)

I wish I could be as optimistic as our author about this. Unquenchable folly seems to characterize our age.

Psalm 104:31–35; Jeremiah 30:12–31:22; 2 Timothy 2:14–26

Psalm 104:31–35: Having reflected on God’s power over nature, his generosity to both animals and humans, and on the fact that we are mortal, the concluding verses of this celebratory psalm are pure worship:
May the Lord’s glory be forever,
may the Lord rejoice in His works,
Who but looks down to earth, and it trembles
but touches the mountains—they smoke.” (31, 32)

While God’s glory may be eternal our psalmist recognizes that he—like all of us—has but limited time here on earth. And he is going to spend that limited time praising God:
Let me sing to the Lord while I live,
let me hymn to my God while I breathe.
Let my speech be sweet unto Him.
As for me, I rejoice in the Lord.” (33, 34)

Good advice indeed. God has given us the gift of life with all its magnificence and all its woes. As I grow older and see people my own age (and those younger than I) die, I realize that every day is indeed a gift and that I must unwrap that gift in gratitude to God. My prayer is that my speech is sweet—certainly to God first, but then always to others. For it is in God’s manifold gifts, especially as this psalm has made so clear, the gift of life itself that I find true joy.

The psalm appears, as so many do, to inject a rather sour note as our psalmist wishes:
Let offenders vanish from the earth
and the wicked be no more.
Bless, O my being, the Lord
Hallelujah!” (35)

On the other hand, I think this is a pretty anodyne desire. He is not asking God to strike down the wicked, but expresses what I think we all think when we hear of some evil being perpetrated against the unsuspecting or the innocent.  Like the psalmist, we simply wish they would vanish.

Jeremiah 30:12–31:22: So far in this book, God’s words as spoken by Jeremiah have focused on Israel’s and Judah’s apostasy and other sins as God promises to destroy them—and there’s plenty of that here:
All your lovers have forgotten you;
    they care nothing for you;
for I have dealt you the blow of an enemy,
    the punishment of a merciless foe,
because your guilt is great,
    because your sins are so numerous.” (30:14)

But we often cannot comprehend that an angry God is also at the same time a loving God—exactly what a loving parent often must be. But like wayward children we must bear the consequences of our actions. However, I think is important to point out —and we’ve seen this again and again in this book—that sin has its own woeful consequences that we have brought on ourselves. But like the father he is, God also loves his wayward people. It is this loving side of God that we see here as he speaks to Judah in exile:
I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob,
    and have compassion on his dwellings;
the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound,
    and the citadel set on its rightful site.
Out of them shall come thanksgiving,

    and the sound of merrymakers.” (30: 18, 19a)

It seems that every time God speaks of rescue, a messianic prophecy accompanies that promise:
Their prince shall be one of their own,
    their ruler shall come from their midst;
I will bring him near, and he shall approach me,
    for who would otherwise dare to approach me?
says the Lord.” (30:21)

And then comes the great covenantal promise:
And you shall be my people,
    and I will be your God.” (30:22)

But there is darkness before the dawn, punishment before joy, as Jeremiah reminds the people:
The fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back
    until he has executed and accomplished
    the intents of his mind.” (30:24)

As for the exiles in Babylon, there is a great promise as well:
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
    and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
    those with child and those in labor, together;
    a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
    and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
    in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
    and Ephraim is my firstborn.” (31:8,9)

As we’ve noted elsewhere, these promises have been interpreted by conservative Jews and Christians alike that the nation of Israel would be restored in the future, specifically with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1947. As for me, this seems to be  a stretch since the Jews did indeed return to Jerusalem after the promised 70-year exile.

Without question one of the most beautiful passages in the book occurs during this lengthy poem that promises return as sorrow becomes joy:
Rachel is weeping for her children;
    she refuses to be comforted for her children,
    because they are no more.
Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
    and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
    they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
    your children shall come back to their own country.” (31: 15b-17)

Despite how awful things may look for us now, whether it be personal disease or cultural malaise, there is indeed hope for the future. I suspect that many churches in Southeastern Texas will be turning this Sunday to this most wonderful promise of hope.

2 Timothy 2:14–26: It’s pretty obvious that one of the problems besetting Timothy’s church was theological disputation. Our Paul repeats himself: “Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.” (14)  And again: “Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene.” (16, 17) Of course this is true not only in churches but more recently on angry Facebook threads about politics. Verses for me to remember when I’m tempted to write a snarky comment.

Foundational pastoral advice occurs in the next verse: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” (15) The word of truth of course found in Scripture. Pastors who fail to study and preach on Scripture will shortly find themselves adrift. As for me personally, I feel this is also my responsibility as a Christian to always return to and study Scripture. Which is also why I am not a fan of small group book studies in lieu of Bible studies.

Our author calls out two men by name: “Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place. They are upsetting the faith of some.” (18) Again, I think this is more ungracious than the actual Paul would have been—if he ever had cause to call people out by name, it would have been in his letters to the church at Corinth, and he never called anyone out by name there.

Our Paul then turns his attention to what I think was discontent within the church that some were leaders and appeared to be favorites of the pastor, while others apparently of lower station, slaves perhaps, are being treated dismissively or even with disdain. He employs a metaphor of utensils: “In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary.” (20)  If some of the these wayward folks, including I presume, Hymenaeus and Philetus, will “cleanse themselves,” they will be restored to usefulness in the church.

Now the pastoral advice comes fast and furious: “Shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (22, 23) Why is it that churches seem especially prone to “senseless controversies.” I guess it’s because the people doing the arguing don’t think the issues are senseless. Or as my son Geoff has pointed out about university faculty, “the lower the stakes, the more intense the argument.”

In one final piece of advice to pastors and leaders there lies great wisdom: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” (24) Clearly any kind of patient correction needs to be done in a face-to-face meeting, not via email…

 

Psalm 104:24–30; Jeremiah 29:15–30:11; 2 Timothy 2:1–13

Psalm 104:24–30: Our psalmist pauses in his catalog of creation to reflect on the nature of our creative God:
How many Your deeds, O Lord,
all of them You do in wisdom.
all the earth is filled with Your riches.” (24)

That’s the difference between God and us, isn’t it? He creates in wisdom while we humans so often forge ahead creating technologies that can be used wisely or for ill. A recent example is genetic editing, aka CRISPR. Are humans wise enough to use this capability to good ends or will it also be exploited in morally evil ways? Based on history, doubtless both as manking tries once again to prove that he is god.

The poet turns his attention to God’s creative works in the sea—all of which are dependent on God’s largess:
The sea is great and wide,
where creatures beyond number stir,
little beasts and the large.
There the ships go,
this Leviathan You fashioned to play with.
All of them look to You
to give them food in its season.” (25-26)

The poet speaks of ‘beyond number,’—a truth in that we still these many years later are discovering new and remarkable creatures who live in the oceans. As the sea teems with creatures beyond number, it is also a place where human civilization has gone in ships. “Leviathan” is no longer the primordial sea monster described in earlier psalms but it has become God’s domesticated play thing, reminding us that God presides over all creation, including mythic creatures.

Above all, all creatures are dependent on God’s munificence—just as we are—for life itself:
All of them look to You
to give them food in its season.
When You give them, they gather it in,
when You open Your hand, they are sated with good.” (27-28)

But there are times when God does not provide. As the poet reminds us,  All creatures including us humans are mortal:
When You hide Your face, they panic,
You withdraw their breath and they perish,
to dust they return.” (29)

But mortality is necessary because without death there can be no renewal of life:
When You send forth Your breath, they are created,
and You renew the face of the earth.” (30)

Ongoing creation is preceded by destruction. Or as Isaiah puts it, “Behold, I make all things new.” God made this truth abundantly clear in the sacrifice of his own son, Jesus.

Jeremiah 29:15–30:11: The people who avoided capture by Babylon and continue to live in Jerusalem are hardly safe from God’s wrath. Thus, they will meet their deserved fate in yet another memorable simile: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, I am going to let loose on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like rotten figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten.” (29:17)

Likewise the false prophets who are in Babylon and doubtless telling the same untruths as Hananiah, whom we met earlier. Like Hananiah, “Ahab son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying a lie to you in my name” (29:21a) Unsurprisingly, they will come to bad end: “[God will] deliver them into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he shall kill them before your eyes.” (29:21b) More curses and imprecations follow, but we shall not list them here.

A certain Shemaiah of Nehelam, an exile in Babylon, has written a letter to the people still in Jerusalem accusing them of failing to punish Jeremiah, adding incredulously that Jeremiah “has actually sent to us in Babylon, saying, “It will be a long time; build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat what they produce.” (29:28) Zephaniah, whose eponymous book we will read later, reads Shemaiah’s letter to Jeremiah. Upon hearing this, and as always, “the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah:…Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, though I did not send him, and has led you to trust in a lie, therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to punish Shemaiah of Nehelam and his descendants; he shall not have anyone living among this people to see  the good that I am going to do to my people.“(29:31, 32)  So much for Shemaiah.

But behind all this punishment of false prophets lies a wonderful promise of God’s eventual restoration of Israel: “For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it.” (30:3)

Yes, God continues, in poetic form this time, there will be suffering, which is expressed here in a striking image of men in pain giving birth (which as I can imagine would certainly strike terror into every male heart):
Ask now, and see,
    can a man bear a child?
Why then do I see every man
    with his hands on his loins like a woman in labor?
    Why has every face turned pale?”  (30:6)

But even in pain there will be rescue as God promises, “I will break the yoke from off his neck, and I will burst his bonds, and strangers shall no more make a servant of him.” (30:8) Even better, the Messiah will finally appear: “But they shall serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.” (30:9)

The reading ends on the great promise of restoration of Israel and Judah, but that their misdeeds wrong belief must nonetheless still be punished:
For I am with you, says the Lord, to save you;
I will make an end of all the nations
    among which I scattered you,
    but of you I will not make an end.
I will chastise you in just measure,

     and I will by no means leave you unpunished.” (30:11)

So too for us. We sin and if we confess God will never fail to forgive us. But we must still bear the consequences of our deeds. The problem today is that in ts self-absorption, most people do not even acknowledge that they have sinned, much less have asked God for forgiveness. Nevertheless, whether acknowledged or not, sin has consequences. And they will never fail to occur. Unfortunately the consequences of most sins also impact the innocent.

2 Timothy 2:1–13:  Like Jeremiah, our Pauline author acknowledges that the Christian life and witness involves suffering. But we must bear it “like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (3) The author then adds rather mysteriously, “No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer.” (4) which I take to be a reference to something that has gone wrong at Timothy’s church. However, I don’t think the real Paul would be this obscure.

Metaphors pile up against each other: “And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules. It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops.” (5, 6) Reading between the lines, it sounds like someone in the church has usurped Timothy’s pastoral leadership and set himself over others. Our Paul is telling Timothy that good order must be restored ASAP. Perhaps like many of us, Timothy has hesitated to confront that person and clear the air, as he is advised to “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things.” (7)

Using Paul as the example, our author writes that leaders will undergo trials and suffering—but always for the greatest of causes:  “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.” (8,9) Indeed! The word of God seeps out everywhere regardless of efforts to suppress it.

Now we encounter a verse that is near to the heart of Calvinists: “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” (10) The implication is that there is a group of people—the “elect”—who will eventually be saved. This is the basis of the doctrine of predestination—that God knows beforehand who will be saved and who will not. That’s doubtless true since God knows everything unconstrained by time. But in the end, I have to say, “So, what?” God’s foreknowledge certainly does not alter our responsibility to go out into the world with the Gospel message to every person. Frankly, I find the entire concept obscure and confusing.

The reading ends with a quotation of what I take to be an early hymn of the church that includes a hint of the unforgivable sin: denying the Holy Spirit:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
    if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
    if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.” (11-13)

In other words, it takes an act on our part of conscious rejection to fail to enjoy salvation. Other than that once saved, always saved.

 

Psalm 104:19–23; Jeremiah 28:1–29:14; 2 Timothy 1:8–18

Psalm 104:19–23: Our poet shifts his focus to God’s creation of the seasonal and diurnal cycles:
He made the moon for the fixed seasons;
the sun—He appointed its setting.
You bring down darkness and it turns to night
in which all beasts of the forest stir.” (19, 20)

Underneath these verses is the sense that God not only created time itself, but that like everything else God has created there is strict and beautiful order—be it the seasons or night and day. As we know from physiology we humans would not be able to function or we would simply have mental breakdowns were it not for the diurnal cycle of sleep and wakefulness. This is a God-ordained reality. Here, our psalmist makes it clear that it is the nocturnal “beasts of the forest” who own the night:
The lions roar for prey,
seeking from God their food.
When the sun comes up they head home,
and in their dens they lie down.” (21, 22)

The idea that the lions are “seeking from God their food” indicates that as far as this psalmist is concerned, animals are an equally important part of God’s good creation. The question arises: do animals have some sort of instinctual sense of God as creator? I’m guessing that those who have dogs (cats are more questionable) truly believe there is some kind of God-infused loyalty and love between man and dog.

As a final proof of God’s diurnal order, when the lions return to their dens, the day belongs to humans:
Man goes out to his work
and to his labor until evening.” (23)

Notice that a key element of God’s order is that humans engage in productive labor—not sit in basements playing video games. As we know, it is work that gives men—especially men—a sense of purpose in life. Our psalmist certainly know this truth.

Jeremiah 28:1–29:14: Well, finally. Rather than the endless prophecies of Judah’s certain doom, we get a fairly entertaining narrative. Writing autobiographically, Jeremiah describes his encounter with a fellow prophet, a certain Hananiah son of Azzur, from Gibeon. Hanniah, using the usual speaking in the voice of God technique, publicly prophesies that God has “broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon.” (28:3) Moreover, he continues, God “will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” (28:4)

In this same public setting, Jeremiah encourages Hananiah, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles.” (28:6) Jeremiah then makes the remarkable statement, “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” (28:9) Which is certainly not what doom & gloom Jeremiah has been doing for the last 27 chapters!

At this point Hananiah removes the yoke that Jeremiah has had on his back all this time (months? years?) and as an object lesson, breaks it in two as he proclaims that this is how God “will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.”  (28:11) Notice that Hananiah, with his 2-year forecast, is a lot more time-specific than Jeremiah has ever been. This was an unwise move on Hananiah’s part.

Jeremiah then gets a message for God to tell his fellow prophet that he broke Jeremiah’s yoke “only to forge iron bars in place of them!” (28:13) God explains to Jeremiah that he has “put an iron yoke on the neck of all these nations so that they may serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon” and adds one of those odd Godly asides, “I have even given [Nebuchadnezzar] the wild animals.” (28:14) Did wild animals comprise part of Babylon’s army?

Jeremiah tells Hananiah that “the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie.” (28:15) and pronounces the other prophets doom. Sure enough, “that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died.” (28:17)

As we have observed before, prophecy is a serious and fraught business. Nevertheless we should not forget that we are only getting Jeremiah’s point of view here in his eponymous book.

As proof of just how far off the mark Hananiah was, Jeremiah writes a letter to those in exile in Babylon, telling them that God has instructs them “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” (29:5) In other words, they are to take a long term view of the length of their exile and establish roots in Babylon. Moreover, Jeremiah instructs, “Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.” (29: 6)

Clearly, there were lots of prophets predicting a quick return from exile just as Hananiah had done. Jeremiah warns the people in exile, “Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream.” (29:8) Our prophet then delivers the very bad news that the exile will last 70 years.

But it’s not all bad news, for at the end there will be return—the story told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. It is here that we encounter what I think is one of the most profound and important verses in this book: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (29:11)

That is God’s promise not just to the exiles in Babylon, but for all of us today. God not only returned the Jews to Jerusalem, but fulfilled this promise beyond imagining in sending Jesus to save humankind.  And this promise still stands today and as things seem to turn ever darker, we can rest in that marvelous gift of hope.

Another wonderful promise for all of us follows immediately in the next verse: “ When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.” (29:13) What a joy to find these verses in the midst of the general pessimism that characterizes this book.

2 Timothy 1:8–18:  Compared to 1 Timothy, there is some serious theology here as our author reiterates the core of the Gospel message: “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (9, 10)

This section actually sounds authentically Pauline: “But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.” (12)

Naturally, this wouldn’t be an epistle to Timothy without some instruction to pastors that is equally applicable today: “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” (13, 14)

We then get another biographical note that things in the church have not always gone according to plan: “You are aware that all who are in Asia have turned away from me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes.” (15)

On the other hand, there is Onesiphorus, who “often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me.” (17)

This all sounds very much like Paul, but then our author adds, “may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day!” (18) which does not sound like Paul at all. This statement seems to indicate that  Onesiphorus’ salvation was in question and it may or may not occur depending on how his good works are judged by God. The Paul  I know seems pretty clear that once we are saved we are always saved. Nevertheless, I believe that on this single phrase and the epistle of James, the Roman Catholic idea (doctrine?) of “works salvation”  has been built.

Psalm 104:10–18; Jeremiah 26:10–27:22; 1 Timothy 6:17–2 Timothy 1:7

Psalm 104:10–18: Having created the boundaries of the seas in the preceding verses, God now creates freshwater sources in the mountains which provide for the animals of the earth and the birds in the sky and trees. This psalm includes some of the most evocative language describing nature that we read anywhere in the Bible:
You let loose the springs in freshets,
among the mountains they go.
They water all beasts of the field,
the wild asses slake their thirst.
Above them the fowl of the heavens dwell,
from among the foliage they send forth their voice.” (10-12)

God also creates the rain “in His lofts” which benefit not just animals, but humans as well:
He waters mountains from His lofts,
from the fruit of Your works the earth is sated.
He makes the hay sprout for cattle,
grass for the labor of humankind
to bring forth bread from the earth,
and wine that gladdens the heart of man
to make faces shine brighter than oil,
and bread that sustains the heart of man.” (13-15)

I write this while Houston is receiving multiple feet of rain and people are dying for too much water, so there’s some irony as I read these beautiful verses that describe the benefits—among them bread and wine—of God-sent rain. Nevertheless, without the rain life of all kinds on the earth would be impossible. It truly is a gift from God.

Our psalmist returns to describing the flora and fauna that God has placed on the earth, focusing on trees and and how he sustains life around the trees with the water he provides:
The trees of the Lord drink their fill,
the Lebanon cedars He planted,
where the birds make their nest,
the stork whose home is the cypresses,
the high mountains for the gazelles,
the crags a shelter for badgers.” (16-18)

One marvels at both the abundance and variety of wildlife that populated Israel when the psalmist wrote. Unfortunately, we humans have not been faithful stewards of creation and I suspect there are very few storks, gazelles, and badgers to be found in modern Israel. This psalm reminds me of my own God-ordained duty to creation as well: to tread lightly on nature.

Jeremiah 26:10–27:22: The priests and other prophets carry their demand to put Jeremiah to death to the king: “This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.” (26:11)

But Jeremiah will not be silenced and he once again tells his accusers that if they would only “amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will change his mind about the disaster that he has pronounced against you.” (26:3) At that, he turns himself over to them, telling them, “Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the Lord sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.” (26:15)

He is persuasive and some in the crowd reply that Jeremiah “does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the Lord our God.” (26:16) [Quite a contrast to the frenzied crowd that demanded Jesus’ death some centuries later…]

At this point someone rises and reminds the assembly that prophets earlier than Jeremiah have made the same kinds of pronouncements and were not put to death. The speaker cites Micah (whose eponymous book we’ll read late in this year) and a certain Uriah son of Shemaiah from Kiriath-jearim as examples. The argument is persuasive and we learn the name of the man who saved Jeremiah: “the hand of Ahikam son of Shaphan was with Jeremiah so that he was not given over into the hands of the people to be put to death.” (26:24)

So, it’s time for another Jeremiah object lesson as God commands him, “Make yourself a yoke of straps and bars, and put them on your neck.” (27:2) Jeremiah’s instructions are to send word to the kings of Edom, Moab, ammonites, Tyre and Sidon that they, along with Judah, will shortly be under the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. If the kings of these nations fail to obey and fail to “put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, then I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, says the Lord, until I have completed its destruction by his hand.” (27:8)

This doesn’t seem like a great choice but then Jeremiah goes on to tell them that  “any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, says the Lord, to till it and live there.” (27:11)

Jeremiah carries the same message to “King Zedekiah of Judah in the same way: Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people, and live.” (27:12) The priests and officials are recommending an armed fight against Babylon, but Jeremiah pleads, “Do not listen to them; serve the king of Babylon and live. Why should this city become a desolation?” (27:17) God has given them a way out if they would only listen. One of the great constants of human nature is that we’re really poor listeners.

Jeremiah then dares the false prophets, telling them that if they’re true prophets, the furnishings of the temple at Jerusalem will remain intact in Jerusalem. But they obviously fail the test and the “the pillars, the sea, the stands, and the rest of the vessels that are left in this city” (27:19) are carried off to Babylon. However, God will at some point see that they will be returned (along with the people, I presume) and “Then I will bring them up and restore them to this place.” (27:22)

While I’m impressed with the historical detail I confess to being suspicious that this book was written after the fact and that our author is reporting on events that are in the past rather than the future. I guess it’s just my suspicious nature…

1 Timothy 6:17–2 Timothy 1:7: At the end of yesterday’s reading I thought we had arrived at the end of the epistle, but I was mistaken. Our author cannot resist tacking on still more words of advice after that “Amen” in 6:16.

Money and wealth continue to concern our author and he has wise words for all of us who think we can play the stock market: “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (6:17)  The rich are especially commanded to “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” (6:18) Those are profound words for all of us, even we who do not count ourselves rich.

As we’ve read elsewhere, our deeds are the currency that matters and we store up “the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” (6:19) This is something I need to be reminded of frequently. My deeds have consequences for good or for bad.

After a final sign off, we come the second letter to Timothy from Paul. (As with the first letter, I have the same concerns about authorship.) But I cannot deny the sweetness and sincerity of the letter’s introduction: “To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” (2Tim 1:2) and “Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.” (1:4)

We get one of those rare biographical notes, revealing that Timothy is a grandchild in the faith: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” (1:5)

But then a darker theme. Our author suggests that perhaps Timothy has written Paul, telling him that he’s discouraged. This second letter, then, is Paul’s reply (or how our author presumed Paul might reply): “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (1:6, 7)

Hmmmm. Is Timothy discouraged, or has he gone and done something that suggests cowardice? Did he flinch somewhere when accused of being a Christian? Did he abandon love and self-discipline? Stay tuned.

Psalm 104:1–9; Jeremiah 25:15–26:9; 1 Timothy 6:3–16

Psalm 104:1–9: Although this psalm begins with the same exclamation of God’s glory as the preceding one, it focuses not on humankind, but celebrates the glories of God’s creation—almost a poetic setting of the Genesis creation story. God first act is to create light with striking similes of putting on a coat and the heavens compared to a tent:
Wrapped in light like a cloak,
stretching out heavens like a tent-cloth.” (2)

Creation is reminiscent of a construction project as the skies are put in place first:
Setting beams for His lofts in the waters,
making His chariot the clouds
He goes on the wings of the wind.
He makes His messengers the winds
His ministers, glowing fire.” (3,4)

Notice the active participles—stretching, setting, making—that underscore an active God on the move. For this psalmist, God is not some remote somnolent being. Our poet turns his gaze downward from heaven to earth, reflecting “solid ground:”
He founded earth on its solid base,
not to be shaken forevermore.” (5)

Then, in the description of water, we can feel its movement. God is not going about his tasks quietly. Creation is quite a noisy affair. But above all is the sense that God created the ultimate order of nature that gives us life:
With the deep You covered it like a garment—
over mountains the waters stood.
From Your blast they fled,
from the sound of Your thunder they scattered.
They went up the mountains, went down the valleys,
to the place You founded for them.” (6-8)

There’s the clear sense that water once covered the  earth until God moved it into its proper place, exposing the mountains and valleys. One is reminded of  the Noah flood story—a feeling intensified by the next verse:
A border You fixed so they could not cross,
so they could not come back to cover the earth.” (9)

The key idea here—and that will continue through the entirety of this psalm—is that God is  not only its creator, but is ultimately in control of nature. Which of course has clear meaning for we humans who live within nature. Especially in the path of hurricanes and tornadoes. We humans seem to be the only creatures that God has created with the gift of free will and therefore not under God’s direct control.

Jeremiah 25:15–26:9:  God is not only angry at Judah, he’s angry at every surrounding nation—sounding pretty much like the Noahic God as he instructs Jeremiah, “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it.” (25:15) Their fate will not be any better than Judah’s: “They shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them.” (25:16)

We are then presented with a long list of the nations to whom Jeremiah is to take this (I presume metaphorical) cup. God instructs Jeremiah again in even starker terms, “Then you shall say to them, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Drink, get drunk and vomit, fall and rise no more, because of the sword that I am sending among you.” (25:27)

If the nations refuse to drink this cup, which I presume they would, then they receive a curse in fairly apocalyptic poetry:

The clamor will resound to the ends of the earth,
    for the Lord has an indictment against the nations;
he is entering into judgment with all flesh,
    and the guilty he will put to the sword,
says the Lord.
Thus says the Lord of hosts:

See, disaster is spreading
     from nation to nation,
and a great tempest is stirring

    from the farthest parts of the earth!” (25:31,32)

These verses seem to be a clear prophecy of the end of history, aka the Day of the Lord, rather than to Judah’s contemporary neighbors.

As usual, the Jeremiah timeline is confusing as we jump from the end of history to the court of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah. And it’s not like God instructs Jeremiah to say anything new. It’s pretty much a rehash of what we’ve read over and over: “Thus says the Lord: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently—though you have not heeded— then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.” (26:4,5)

Unsurprisingly, this does not go over well and “when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the Lord had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die!” (26:8)

As we lay readers say, ‘Here ends the reading.’  WIll Jeremiah escape the clutches of the priests and other prophets? He was certainly becoming a more than just an irritating thorn in their side.

1 Timothy 6:3–16: Speaking of irritating thorns in the side, our “Paul” cannot cease giving instructions cloaked in what I think is rather graceless language: “Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words.” (3,4) Of course the phrase “disputes about words,” hits pretty close to me personally…

There seems to be little question that church to which Timothy was going was riven by dissention—much of it around words, i.e., philosophy. As I’ve noted before my guess is that there was a Gnostic faction in the church that was creating most of the problems. Our author notes that “morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words” creates “envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” (5) [I love that the translators came up with ‘wrangling!’]

Being content with one’s lot in life is the underlying theme of this reading as we hear words that it would do well to reflect on as we get older: “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that  we can take nothing out of it.” (6,7)

This contentment is far preferable to “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (9) Well, that pretty much sums up our over-striving American culture—although this empty striving clearly traces all the way back through history.

This leads our author inexorably to the most famous line in this epistle—and one that is widely misquoted: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (10a) Money is the root of evil; it is not intrinsically evil. Money is merely a neutral object. It’s the human motivation behind it that leads to bad outcomes.

This rather didactic letter finally finds a bit of humanity as our author writes to Timothy a wonderful prescription that every Christian should not only remember but truly take to heart: “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (12)

Too many Christians—myself included—see our faith as neutral and rather static, even kind of wimpy. We think we’re being persecuted when things in the public square don’t go our way via court rulings or the general contempt for Christianity in the culture when we read things such as the Southern Poverty Law Center designating Christian groups who disagree with the progressive agenda as “hate groups.”

But as our author notes, we are to fight on, not sit back. Because we are working for “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion.” (15, 16)

Which is a pretty good note on which to end this letter of instruction.