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

Originally published 9/05/2017. Revised and updated 9/04/2019.

Psalm 105:16–22: The scene advances to the story of Joseph. The poet has compressed the story to the point that only those who knew the entire story would understand the references. He 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 God 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.

The psalmist is telling his compatriots to look back into their own national history. 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, we fans God’s same promise as in the psalm above 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 fully 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. As the book of Hebrews tells us, Jesus is our new high priest, albeit from the line of Melchizedek, not the levitical line.

God’s promise of return 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 die 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 the evangelist. 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 personal resonance as well.

Our author inserts a slight 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

Originally published 9/04/2017. Revised and updated 9/03/2019.

Psalm 105:8–15: Opening worship concluded, our psalmist begins to recount 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. This three-time commitment makes 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)

The psalmist makes it clear that prior to God’s promise, Abraham was a man without a country. Even so, in apparent anticipation of the Covenant to come, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were still 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 once again 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 Jeremiah 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 what was not mentioned by the psalmist above is that 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 resume one day: “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 inevitably 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 here 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, our author 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) This is one of those places that convinces me the real Paul was not the author. I don’t think the evangelist would have referred to “sacred writings,” but rather he would have referred directly to Christ’s power to save us.

Then comes the verse that while indisputably true has created endless 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 three 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 doctrine of a 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 and this book.

That does not necessarily mean we get to pick and choose the parts we like or that fit our won world view, while just ignoring 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 of Scripture that despite our best interpretive efforts will 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, there are too many people today, who are 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 continue to experience 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—unwilling to listen.

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

Originally published 9/02/2017. Revised and updated 9/02/2019.

Psalm 105:1–7: This psalm, which will provide a poetic summary of Israel’s history, 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 reverent silence. It is all about being verbal before God. 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, perfunctory 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 often fraught 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 human 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.

We find out rather abruptly 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? I prefer to think that God spoke to Jeremiah through his dream.

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 up a brand new theology.

We come to what I think is one of the more remarkable prophecies in this book as Jeremiah, as always speaking in 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. In what I think is a clear prophecy of God’s plan for a New Covenant through Jesus Christ, God announces, “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord” (31:34a)

For me, this promise can mean nothing less than the coming of Jesus and then the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us. Moreover, our sins will be forgiven as God states clearly, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (31:35)

The wonderful thing of course is 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 may 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 for every one of these negative qualities.

Alas, we come to more 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, never-ending quest. We cannot find God through crystals or within ourselves.

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 present age.

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

Originally published 9/01/2017. Revised and updated 8/31/2019.

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—the worship of both nature and humankind:
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 evildoers would vanish from the earth.

Jeremiah 30:12–31:22: Thus far in this book, God’s words as spoken by Jeremiah have focused on Israel’s and Judah’s apostasy and their other sins as God promises to destroy them—and there’s plenty of that here, too:
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 of hope, 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)

Nevertheless, 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.

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. These are verses for me to remember when I’m tempted to write a snarky comment there.

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 instead of Bible studies. Books that present fresh points of view or that unearth new insights are excellent aids, but in the end, the richest rewards are found by going straight to the source.

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 faculties, “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, 25a) Clearly any kind of patient correction needs to be done in a face-to-face meeting, not via email. Yes, this takes personal courage but our best example here is Jesus himself. Speak truth to power.

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

Originally published 8/31/2017. Revised and updated 8/30/2019.

Psalm 104:24–30: Our psalmist pauses in his catalog of creation to reflect more deeply on the nature of our creative God himself:
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 usually forge ahead creating technologies that can be used wisely or equally 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 then 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—perhaps now the whales and dolphins— reminding us that God presides over all creation, including mythic creatures.

Above all, all God’s 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 almost always preceded by destruction. Or as Isaiah puts it, “Behold, I make all things new.” God made this truth abundantly clear in the sacrifice and resurrection 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 agricultural 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 too 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 bother to 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, then, 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 is till the promise of 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 their self-centered, 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 imprisoned Paul as the example, our author writes that leaders will undergo trials and suffering—but never in vain, rather 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 the manifold efforts down through history 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 of predestination 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. Which is very much in line with Lutheran theology.

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

Originally published 8/30/2017. Revised and updated 8/29/2019.

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)

Beneath these verses is the sense that God not only created time itself, but that like everything else God has created there is strict yet 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 as humans. 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 and women a sense of purpose in life. Our psalmist certainly knew this truth. Do we?

Jeremiah 28:1–29:14: Well, finally. Rather than the endless prophecies of Judah’s certain doom, we encounter 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 prophetic 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 receives 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 getting only Jeremiah’s point of view here in this 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 of 70 years 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 from God 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 Paul’s 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

Originally published 8/29/2017. Revised and updated 8/28/2019.

Psalm 104:10–18: Having created the boundaries of the seas in the preceding verses, God now creates freshwater sources in the mountains that 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)

Yet water can be a source of destruction as the many floods in the Midwest this spring prove, 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 rain life of all kinds on the earth would be impossible. Water is life—truly 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 today 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 as 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, now that he has been rescued from the mob, 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, especially when someone is telling us something that goes contrary to our own plans.

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 outsmart 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. Yet compare to most of the world, we are indeed wealthy beyond measure.

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 depending on the choices I make.

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 emerges. 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 have replied): “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 for Christ and his remarkable self-discipline? Stay tuned.

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

Originally published 8/28/2017. Revised and updated 8/27/2019.

Psalm 104:1–9: Although this psalm begins with the same exclamation of God’s glory as the preceding one, it focuses less on humanity and more on celebrating the glories of God’s natural creation. It is basically a poetic setting of the Genesis creation story. God’s 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)

In the poet’s 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 reality 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 implication that water once covered the earth until God moved it into its proper place in the oceans and lakes, 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 natures creator, but also completely controls natural events. Which of course has clear meaning for we humans who live within nature. Especially those in the path of floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. In fact, we humans seem to be the only creatures that God has created who have 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 nation that surrounds Judah—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) The fate of these nations 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 metaphorical cup. God repeats his instructions to Jeremiah 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 God’s curse, described here 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)

To me, 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 back 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 in this book: “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)

Will Jeremiah escape the clutches of the priests and other prophets? He has certainly become more than just an irritating thorn in their collective 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) 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 the perfect word: ‘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 kind of empty striving clearly traces all the way back through history to the early church.

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) It is human love of money is the root of evil; currency itself is not intrinsically evil. It is merely a neutral object. It’s the human motivation behind it that leads to bad outcomes involving money.

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)

This is a refreshing note on which to end this all too didactic letter of instruction.

Psalm 103:19–22; Jeremiah 23:33–25:14; 1 Timothy 5:17–6:2

Originally published 8/26/2017. Revised and updated 8/26/2019.

Psalm 103:19–22: In what can only be described as a “grand finale,” our psalmist’s  focus shifts to heaven itself as this marvelous psalm concludes with awestruck worship. At heaven’s center, God sits on his throne of justice overseeing all creation—including us—as he directs the activities of the “heavenly host:”
The Lord set His throne firm in the heavens
and His kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O His messengers,
valiant in power, performing His word
to heed the sound of His word.
Bless the Lord, all His armies,
His servants performing His pleasure.” (19-21)

Notice how our poet takes pains to note that the ‘messengers’ or angels are not independent operators but follow God’s directions and “heed the sound of His word.” It appears to me that angels lack free will, being much more like soldiers in an angelic army who are required to carry out God’s commands to the letter. (And of course, as Milton tells us, we know of one angel who decided to disobey God’s command and consequently fell to earth…) The gift of free will is what God has given to us humans and apparently to no other creature. (Although I’m guessing cat owners may disagree!)

The psalm ends with a celebration of all of God’s creation that ended with his creative apotheosis: humans. Our psalmist—and we—are truly grateful for our existence; our being that encompasses the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual:
Bless the Lord, O all His works,
in all places of His dominion.
Bless, O my being, the Lord!” (22)

How often have I thanked God for my very existence, for the person I am and who he created me to be? Do I behave as God’s creation or do I go my clueless, self-centered way? Looking around at our culture I’m afraid  that not only I but the vast majority are in the latter category.

Jeremiah 23:33–25:14: Apparently a way to distinguish false prophets and priests from God’s true prophets and priests was when a prophet asked, “What is the burden of the Lord?”  If one heard these words, righteous people were directed to reply, “You are the burden, and I will cast you off, says the Lord.” (23:33) and reject them. So what is this “burden?” Jeremiah answers the question: “is everyone’s own word, and so you pervert the words of the living God” (23:36). In other words, the “burden” is whatever the priest or prophet felt like making up.—which was certainly not God’s word.

Jeremiah, speaking as usual in God’s voice, makes it abundantly clear that a prophet who speaks thus will experience God’s opprobrium: “I will bring upon you everlasting disgrace and perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten.” (23:40) I think there are a lot of “prophets” making things up today just as there were in Jeremiah’s time.

It’s object lesson time once again. God shows Jermiah two baskets of figs. “ One basket had very good figs, like first-ripe figs, but the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten.” (24:2) We arrive rapidly at the interpretation. The good figs are unsurprisingly those who have remained faithful to god even though they’ve been exiled to Babylon. God’s promise to them is, “I will bring them back to this land. …I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” (24:6b, 7) So once again, there’s this promise of a saved remnant. The Jewish race will not be lost—and of course it continues down to the present day. God never fails to keep his promises.

Jeremiah comes right out and identifies the bad figs: “King Zedekiah of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who live in the land of Egypt.” (24:8) Needless to say, this group will meet a bad end: “I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they are utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their ancestors.” (24:10)

Interesting. Those few souls who remained in conquered Jerusalem are in the bad fig category. Obviously, God intends a thorough cleansing of corruption in the capital city before the “good remnant” returns some 70 years later.

As usual, the timeline of this book is somewhat confusing. The exile to Babylon has not happened yet and in chapter 25 we find Jeremiah still in Jerusalem warning the people to listen to him. We hear the frustration that has been a constant throughout Jeremiah’s prophet9c career: “For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.” (25:3)

Jeremiah reminds them that they’ve been warned multiple times—and not just from him but from other true prophets as well: “the Lord persistently sent you all his servants the prophets, you have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear when they said, “Turn now, every one of you, from your evil way and wicked doings, and you will remain upon the land that the Lord has given to you and your ancestors from of old and forever.” (25:4, 5)

But as always, the leaders and the people ignore the warnings. Therefore, Jeremiah assures them, whatever happens next will be their own fault: “Yet you did not listen to me, says the Lord, and so you have provoked me to anger with the work of your hands to your own harm” (25:7)

Jeremiah then announces their fate with great specificity: “Because you have not obeyed my words, I am going to send for all the tribes of the north, says the Lord, even for King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants…I will utterly destroy them, and make them an object of horror and of hissing, and an everlasting disgrace.” (24:8, 9)

But then once again, Jeremiah articulates the promise that God will destroy Babylon after 70 years: “I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, says the Lord, making the land an everlasting waste.” (25:12)

In short, God punishes all evil, whether Jewish or not. The overarching lesson here is the same one we’ve read in almost every chapter of this book: doing evil before God has dreadful consequences: “ I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands.” (25:14)

As Christians we know that we are saved by grace, but I do wonder about entire nations that persist in doing evil. All empires fall. And given the state of American culture and its growing polarization, I think we can safely predict which nation will fall next because it is behaving pretty much like corrupt Judah and corrupt Babylon. This book is much more than just a recitation of events that took place several millennia ago. Its prophetic truths are still terribly relevant.

1 Timothy 5:17–6:2: More advice on church management. First and foremost, pastors deserve to be paid for their labors: ” the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves to be paid.” (5:18)

When it comes to accusations against a church elder or leader, “Never accept any accusation against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (5:19) That is certainly sound advice in every setting, not just churches.

Rather more disturbing is the advice to publicly rebuke persistent sinners in the church, pointing at them as bad examples for everyone else. There are a few very conservative churches in the US that still do this and I know of at least one case where public shaming in a church led to a civil lawsuit. Once again, though, we need to keep the cultural context of the early church always in mind.

Same goes for the advice to slaves: “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.” (6:1) I’m sure this command was carried out with great ferocity in the antebellum South. Equally disturbing to me, is that “Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.” (6:2) In other words, be a good slave because we’re all Christians here.

I skipped over the one verse in this book that I’m sure most Lutherans love: “No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (23) But as I read this verse, wine is more medicine than pleasure. Talk about random advice in the midst of everything else! Of course the prohibition movement of the late 19th and early 20th century right skipped over this verse as do teetotaling churches today. On the other side, though, too many take this verse as license rather than sound advice.

Psalm 103:6–18; Jeremiah 23:1–32; 1 Timothy 5:9–16

Originally published 8/25/2017. Revised and updated 8/24/2019.

Psalm 103:6–18: The central section of this psalm is all about God’s justice expressed as forgiveness of our sins—and by implication, our response in forgiving others. Moreover, as far as the psalmist is concerned, this is one quality of God that is on full display to all who look:
The Lord performs righteous acts
and justice for the oppressed.
He makes known His ways to Moses,
to the Israelites, his feats. (6,7)

And then, the deservedly famous centerpiece of this psalm—and the centerpiece of God’s merciful goodness to us:
Compassionate and gracious, the Lord
slow to anger and abounding in kindness. (8)

I prefer the NRSV here that translates the Hebrew as the stronger “steadfast love” rather than Alter’s more anodyne “kindness” because I think ‘steadfast love” better communicates the resoluteness of God’s unfathomable love for us—we who screw up daily.

God, who rightly should cast us into outer darkness, will forgive us no matter how heinous our sins. His forgiveness trumps it all:
He will not dispute forever
nor nurse His anger for all time.
Not according to our offenses has He done to us
nor according to our crimes has requited us. (9, 10)

In fact, he creates an immeasurable gulf between us and our sins—both vertically and horizontally in every direction:
For as high as the heavens loom over earth, 
His kindness is great over those who fear Him.
as the east is from the west,
He has distanced us from our transgressions.
As a father has compassion for his children
the Lord has compassion for those who fear Him. (11-13)

So why is God so generous? The psalmist believes that it has to do with our mortality, our brief time on earth:
For He knows our devisings,
recalls that we are dust.
Man’s days are like grass,
like the bloom of the field, thus he blooms—
when the wind passes by him, he is gone,
and his place will no longer know him. (14-16)

We would do well to pause and reflect on these verses that are such a magnificent and apt description of our mortality. Given our brief personal existence in the framework of God’s eternity, our psalmist is arguing that there is no reason whatsoever for us to withhold forgiveness.

And as God does, so should we. But so often, in our hurt and resentment we cannot forgive. Our psalmist reminds us that  not only are we forgiven by God in the metaphor of spacial dimensions, but in in the dimension of time as well:
But the Lord’s kindness is forever and ever
over those who fear Him
and His bounty to the sons of sons… (17)

Notice: God forgives those who acknowledge who God is and acknowledge that we are sinners as the psalmist reminds us:
...for the keepers of His pact
and those who recall His precepts to do them. (18)

For our psalmist it was all about keeping within the boundaries of the law; for us it is acknowledging and believing in what Jesus Christ has done for us… But those who have rejected God cannot ever really know the peace of true forgiveness.

Jeremiah 23:1–32: After 22 chapters of the desert of seemingly endless catalogs of sin and destructive punishment to come, we arrive at a small oasis that informs us that all is not lost. After God punishes those—the Assyrians, Babylonians and others— who have destroyed Israel and Judah, he promises restoration of his people: “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” (3)

In a clearly messianic prophecy, God promises that “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (5) In addition, there is the promise of return from exile: “Then they shall live in their own land.” (8) Of course, Israel pretty much blew it on the Messiah front when the people rejected Jesus.

Jeremiah places these restorative promises on hold while he then engages in a long poetic disquisition, once again speaking in God’s voice, about the fate of false prophets who have prophesied in the name of Baal rather than in the name of God, i.e. every prophet but him:
Both prophet and priest are ungodly;
    even in my house I have found their wickedness,
says the Lord.
 Therefore their way shall be to them
    like slippery paths in the darkness,
    into which they shall be driven and fall;
for I will bring disaster upon them
    in the year of their punishment,
says the Lord. (11, 12)

Their fate is sealed:
Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets:
“I am going to make them eat wormwood,
    and give them poisoned water to drink;
for from the prophets of Jerusalem
    ungodliness has spread throughout the land. (15) 

Once again we see the theme of leaders, here priests and prophets, being held to a high standard and deservedly punished for leading astray those for whom they had responsibility to lead toward—not away from—God.

Jeremiah is not yet finished with the false prophets. Had they followed God (as Jeremiah has) things could have turned out quite differently:
But if they had stood in my council,
    then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way,
    and from the evil of their doings. (22)

After all, Jeremiah (still speaking in God’s voice) argues, God knows and sees everything: “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?  Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord.” (23, 24) Which of course is something we—prophet or not— should all bear in mind at all times, especially when we’re tempted to do something foolish…

The chapter concludes, “See, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, says the Lord, and who tell them, and who lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or appoint them;” (32)

This chapter is a good warning to those in the church today who claim to have the gift of prophecy. They need to be careful as they are playing with fire. I’m pretty sure God has no greater tolerance for “prophets”—especially the hucksters on TV—than he did back in Jeremiah’s time. Moreover, it’s not just prophets in the church but also those outside it; those gurus who claim to have special gifts and spiritual insights to create a “fuller life” for their followers—all the while mainly taking their followers’ money.

1 Timothy 5:9–16: Our “Paul” seems strangely obsessed with the problem of false widows claiming rights they do not have. There must have been a rampant problem at the church Timothy is going to. Our author draws some very stern and clear boundaries about which widows will receive benefits from the church and which will not. And the widow requirements are pretty stiff: “Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once; she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.” (9, 10)

Our “Paul” seems to believe that younger widows drift away from belief because of untrammeled sexual desire: “for when their sensual desires alienate them from Christ, they want to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge.” (11, 12) There is certainly not much compassion here. I think our author needs to reread today’s psalm.

“Paul’s” excoriations continue as he generalizes about young widows who are drifting from belief but may be receiving assistance from the church. With so much time on their hands “they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say.” (13) Nice… Who knows what psychic harm has been done to young widows ever since? To assume that every young widow behaves this way is simply misguided, IMHO.

But he is not yet finished with dispensing advice: “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, and manage their households.” (14) In other words, keep them occupied. There’s certainly truth that raising children is a full-time occupation and will leave very little time for idleness. But I find the generalizations here disturbing.

Oh, and by the way, our author concludes, don’t take advantage of the church’s generosity: “If any believing woman has relatives who are really widows, let her assist them; let the church not be burdened, so that it can assist those who are real widows.” (16) I confess I have to agree with this assertion. I’m sure that every pastor has encountered people—and not just widows—who tell sob stories with the objective of getting the church to give them money or even support them.

Nevertheless, this passage is certainly one of the less grace-filled ones in the New Testament.