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

Originally published 01/04/2017. Revised and updated 01/04/2019. 

Psalm 3: Our psalmist ascribes this psalm to David “when he fled from Absalom his son.” (1) Alter points out that the Hebrew is ambiguous and while it implies David is the author it also implies that it might refer to different author, who is writing “in the manner of David.” My own view is that most of these “David psalms” were probably written by others, but it seems pointless to argue. David it is.

This is the first psalm of supplication in the book and David’s situation is desperate. He is beset on all sides:
Lord, how many are my foes,
many, who rise up against me
. (2)

While others may think that there is “No rescue for him through God,” (3) David’s faith remains strong:
And You, Lord, a shield are for me,
my glory, Who lifts up my head
. (4)

The question for us of course is, would we still have faith in God when so many things have gone wrong, even to the point of others saying, ‘God won’t rescue him?’ In any event, David’s faith is strong:
With my voice I cry out to the Lord,
and He answers me from His holy mountain
. (5)

Assured via this prayer, Davis knows that God’s rescue is imminent. And he now enjoys inner peace:
I lie down and I sleep.
I awake, for the Lord has sustained me.
 (6)

Fear has been banished even though he is surrounded and outnumbered:
I fear not from myriads of troops
that round about set against me.
” (7)

There is one final cry of confidence that God will intervene—and intervene violently:
Rise, Lord! Rescue me, my God,
for You strike all my foes on the cheek,
the teeth of the wicked You smash. (8)

I think it’s crucial here to note that David leaves the dirty work to God; he does not pray for strength to do the striking and smashing himself. As with vengeance, violence belongs to God.

The psalm concludes with a restatement that “Rescue is the Lord’s!” (9a) And those who follow God faithfully are indeed blessed:
On Your people Your blessing. (9b)

This psalm is a marvelous statement of strongly grounded faith that is put to the test. Here, David’s faith remains invincible. Would mine?

1 Chronicles 4:24–43: Apparently we are going to slog through the genealogies of all twelve of Jacob’s sons. Next up: Simeon, who apparently had seven sons. Simeon’s grandson, “Shimei had sixteen sons and six daughters; but his brothers did not have many children, nor did all their family multiply like the Judeans.” (27) Their towns seem to fade from the map after David becomes king.

Ultimately, though, the descendants of Simeon take up agriculture and work peacefully in Gedor, “where they found rich, good pasture, and the land was very broad, quiet, and peaceful; for the former inhabitants there belonged to Ham.” (40) The Simeonites repulse the ‘sons of Ham’—Amalekites— during the reign of King Hezekiah and take up residence in Mount Seir. I  think our authors are making key point here is that these people obeyed God’s original command to eliminate all traces of their enemies—and will be rewarded with the land: they destroyed the remnant of the Amalekites that had escaped, and they have lived there to this day. (43)

Acts 9:23–35: The converted Saul is now preaching Christ as aggressively and with the same passion he once devoted to capturing Christians. His enthusiasm and doubtless strong and logical argumentation leads to a plot by the Jewish leaders in Damascus to kill him should he appear at the city gates. Saul’s followers cleverly “took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.” (25)

Saul heads back to Jerusalem where he attempts to join the other disciples, who understandably are not convinced Saul has been converted, thinking rather it was a clever plot by him to capture them. But Barnabas stands up for Saul and “described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.” (27) They finally accept that Saul is now truly one of them.

There’s nothing like a newly-converted Christian to preach enthusiastically, and Saul is apparently the exemplar. In Jerusalem he manages to offend the Hellenists with whom “he spoke and argued” to the point that they want to kill him. Recognizing that Saul is doing the Jerusalem church no particular good, the other apostles hustle him off to Caesarea and put him on a boat back to his hometown of Tarsus. Perhaps they have recognized that Saul will be far more effective—and less threatening—if he goes and preaches to Gentiles. “Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up.” (31a) because they were “living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (31b)

The clear message here is that it is the Holy Spirit, not aggressive or enthusiastic preaching, that builds up the church. Paul’s aggressive arguments—and as we will read in his letters, they were both creative and theologically sound—manages only to offend rather than convert. The other clear message is that Saul—soon to become Paul—has lawyeresque skills that are going to be used by God that are far beyond noisy debates in Damascus or Jerusalem.

The scene now shifts to Peter, who heals a certain Aeneas with the happy result that “all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.” (35) At this point in the life of the early church, acts of healing by the apostles appears to be primary driver of growth. But I suspect the time remaining for this form of conversion-by-healing is limited to the actual apostles who were part of the original twelve who walked with Jesus. We certainly know that Paul never engages in healing.

 

 

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

Originally published 01/03/2017. Revised and updated 01/02/2019. 

Psalm 2: If we ever wanted an opening line that perfectly describes today’s world, it would be hard to top this one:
Why are the nations aroused,
and the peoples murmur vain things?
 (1)

There may not have been Twitter and Facebook back then, but people still complained and focused on the wrong things. Our psalmist then goes on to perfectly describe today’s political and social hostility to God:
Kings of earth take their stand,
and princes conspire together
against the Lord and against His anointed. (2)

This psalm is doubtless describing a certain political uprising and mockingly writes of the conspirator’s plans to free themselves from God’s provenance and establish a new more enlightened leadership:
Let us tear off their fetters,
let us fling away their bonds!
 (3)

This is exactly what is happening today as America continues to abandon the “fetters” and “bonds” of a moral society—all in the name of individual freedom and a culture of victimhood. Our psalmist reminds his audience—and us—that God will laugh at this temerity and will eventually repay them for their sins:
He who dwells in the heavens will laugh,
the Master derides them.
Then will He speak to them in His wrath,
in His burning anger dismay them. (4,5)

Today, we may not see a direct intervention by God, but I believe we are beginning to experience the doleful consequences of a spiritually unmoored (unhinged?) society.

In the second half of the psalm, God’s speaks directly to his anointed king:
And I—I appointed My king
on Zion, My holy mountain.
 (6)

Then, in a passage that addresses these political circumstances, the psalmist describes the king as God’s son. But from our Christian perspective, this statement is also a pre-echo of Jesus Christ:
He [God] said to me: ‘You are my son.
I Myself today did beget You.
 (7)

We can read the verses that follow both as a description of the then-current political situation and the psalmist’s assurance that God will intervene in the affair of men and set things right once again. These verses are also as a striking eschatological description of the end of history as we read it in John’s Revelation:
You will smash them with a rod of iron,
like a potter’s jar you will dash them.

And now, O you kings, pay mind,
be chastened, you rulers of the earth.
 (9, 10)

One hopes for the same thing in today’s squalid politics and ceaseless rumors of conspiracy. As God’s creatures we are not only called to acknowledge him, but to worship with deep reverence:
Worship the Lord in fear,
and exult in trembling.

With purity be armed. (11, 12a)

Ultimately, only those who acknowledge God will find true joy: “Happy, all who shelter in Him.” (12)

1 Chronicles 4:1–23: That our authors are Judeans becomes perfectly clear in this exhaustingly detailed description of the descendants of Jacob’s son, Judah.

Who knew that Ephrathah was the father of Bethlehem? (4) Or that “Jabez was honored more than his brothers; and his mother named him Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” (9)

It is in this chapter that we encounter the so-called prayer of Jabez, made famous by author Bruce Wilkinson in his 2001 book, The Prayer of Jabez: Devotional: “Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” And God granted what he asked.” (10)

This prayer has been claimed by many as one of the foundational justifications of the so-called “prosperity gospel.” There’s no question that the prayer worked for Jabez but it’s a good example of being careful to understand context. The authors do not make any editorial comment about the general applicability or efficacy of this prayer; they are citing it more as an interesting historical footnote.

Acts 9:10–22: A Jesus disciple in Damascus receives a vision from God. God simply says his name, “Ananias,” and “He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” (10). This answer is of course an example for all of us. If we claim to be Jesus followers, our response when asked should always be, “Here I am, Lord.”

God instructs Ananias to lay hands on Saul so that he will regain his sight. Understandably, Ananias is not very enthusiastic about carrying out that mission: Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” (13, 14)

It might have ended right there. But God goes on to explain, Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (15, 16) In this respect Ananias was fortunate. When we feel we are being led in a certain direction by God, God is usually remains frustratingly silent. [This is a frustration we encounter frequently in the Psalms, as well.]

Ananias obeys and lays his hands on Saul and intones, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (17) By being filled with the Holy Spirit it is here that Saul becomes an official apostle and his eyesight is not only restored, but it’s clear he sees the Christians around him in a completely new and different way. The Holy Spirit has a way of doing that… Our author is also making it clear that when Jesus comes to us we too see the world and people around us in a new way.

Following his baptism and a quick bite to eat, the converted Saul loses no time in heading to the synagogue and preaching that Jesus is the “son of God.” (20) Needless to say, the Jewish officials who had invited Saul to come and cleanse Damascus of this new heretical sect are less than pleased: “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” (21) But Saul is undeterred and “became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.” (22)

With Saul’s conversion the focus of Acts will be shifting from the Jewish Christian church more and more on Paul and the Gentile Christian church, which is the express commission Saul—soon to be Paul— has received from Jesus himself.

Psalm 1; 1 Chronicles 3; Acts 9:1–9

Originally published 01/02/2017. Revised and updated 01/01/2019.  Happy New Year!

Psalm 1: This is the beginning of my eighth cycle through the Psalms.

The very first verse of the very first psalm states one of the key overarching themes that inhabit this book: the benefits granted to those who follow God as opposed to the bad outcomes of consorting with the wicked. We will see the ideas of the first verse expressed over and over through many of the 149 psalms to follow:
Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,
nor in the way of offenders has stood,
nor in the session of scoffers has sat.” (1)

The first key to a righteous life is to avoid succumbing to the temptations—and especially the words—of the wicked. Instead—and this is the second running theme—righteous comes from living a life that continually quests after learning God’s ways and God’s law. We have a hint of what is to come in Psalm 119 right here at the second verse:
But the Lord’s teaching is his desire,
and His teaching he murmurs day and night.
” (2)

This quest to learn and practice God’s law brings us to the first—and one of the most famous—metaphor in this book:
And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, (3a)

The quest of following God bears efficacious results:
that bears fruit in its season, (3b)

I have to think that Paul had this verse in mind when he writes of the fruit of the Spirit.

Following God brings life’s reward:
and its leaf does not wither—
and in all that he does he prospers
. (3c)

This is the deuteronomic quid pro quo that we encounter over and over in the Psalms: live a life that follows God and we will prosper. But I think it’s important to note that “prosper” is not the same as “prosperity” or wealth, which too many people today have perverted into a promise that God will bless them with tangible goods and wealth. “Prosper” here is the inner peace and insights of righteousness that arise from following God.

Our psalmist contrasts this fruitful life with the first simile in Psalms:
Not so the wicked,
but like chaff that the wind blows away.
 (4)

The psalm concludes with a clear statement concatenating the consequences of a righteous life following God or a dissolute life ignoring God.
For the Lord embraces the way of the righteous,
and the way of the wicked is lost.
 (6)

In the end, it’s really just that simple. We have a binary choice to live a righteous or dissolute life. When it comes to our life choices, the Bible—and later the Gospels—leave no gray areas. We can choose to follow God and Jesus. Or not.

1 Chronicles 3: It’s becoming increasingly clear that the authors of Chronicles are more accountants than writers as the tote up the progeny of David and Solomon. as well as keeping careful track of durations of kingly reigns.

This chapter lists the numerous sons of David, which are by both his wives and concubines. Six sons were born while he reigned in Hebron, “where he reigned for seven years and six months.” (4) While David reigns for 33 years in Jerusalem, four sons—including Solomon—are borne by Bath-shua, followed by an additional nine sons.  We at last find out about a sister amidst all these sons: Tamar (9) Fecundity, thy name is Bath-shua.

Then, the descendants of Solomon: sons (Abijah et al), grandsons (Johanan et al), great grandsons, and so on. The tragic reality of course is that all the sons, grandsons, great grandsons and on and on “did evil in the sight of the Lord” as we read over and over in 2 Kings. And probably in this book as well.

Acts 9:1–9: We arrive at the incident that instigated the conversion of Saul on his road trip to Damascus to arrest Christians there.

To show the dramatic contrast of the most famous conversion in history, Luke leaves little doubt that Saul was on a quest to stamp out this heretical variant of Judaism: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (1, 2)

Saul’s vision of a glorified Jesus, who asks the most famous question in this book—“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (4) leads eventually to the transformation of the church from a Jerusalem-based, primarily Jewish sect to a worldwide church of Gentiles.

Our author is careful to point out that Saul’s vision was for him alone, i.e., that Jesus reached out and specifically chose Saul, and Saul alone: “The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.” (7)

Saul is blinded by the glory of the risen Christ and in an echo of Jesus’ time in the tomb, “three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (9) we know that Saul has indeed experienced a life-changing event. Many have experienced conversion experiences across the centuries, but I think none was as transformative and impactful on history as Saul on the road to Damascus. Only Jesus has had greater effect on turning the world upside down.

 

Psalm 150; 1 Chronicles 2:18–55; Acts 8:26–40

Psalm originally published 12/31/2015. Revised and updated 12/31/2018.

Today is the end of the first year of the two-year cycle for the Moravian Daily texts. Halfway through! And back to Psalm 1 tomorrow…

Psalm 150: This final song of praise is the not only the finale of the six psalms of praise but it is the climax of this entire book as it summarizes our greatest joy: worshipping and praising God. It opens with “Hallelujah!” and closes with “Hallelujah!,” which of course simple means “Praise God!”

These final verses cause us to remember that God is God, reminding us that above all of God’s incomprehensible power from on high:
Praise God in His holy place,
praise Him in the vault of His power.
 (1)

This is not just potential power, it is power actively used by God as he continues to participate in all creation:
Praise Him for His mighty acts
praise Him as befits his abounding greatness. (2)

Then, as if we are watching the ending credits of a movie, our psalmist gives credit to the musicians and their instruments that have accompanied us through this remarkable book:
Praise Him with the ram-horn’s blast,
praise Him with the lute and the lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dance,
praise Him with strings and flute. (3, 4)

This instrumental praise culminates in one final burst of joyous music, the final chord that, as loud as it is and that is repeated on the loudest of all instruments, is simply our pale human imitation of God’s incredible greatness and power:
Praise Him with sounding cymbals,
praise him with crashing cymbals. (5)

And then finally, the greatest instrument of all: our voices as we sing,
Let all that has breath praise the Lord. (6a)

Notice the inclusiveness here with “all that has breath.” It is not just Israel that praises God, it is everyone on earth because God is God of all.  And we could even suggest in the phrase “all that has breath,” that the psalmist has included all living creatures in God’s creation. All of us sing in unison—a sign of the perfect creation that, as John of Patmos has told us in Revelation, awaits us as we sing in unison with the very hosts of heaven:

Hallelujah!

1 Chronicles 2:18–55: The seemingly endless genealogy continues.

As an indication of how valuable sons were, there’s Sheshan, who “had no sons, only daughters; but Sheshan had an Egyptian slave, whose name was Jarha. So Sheshan gave his daughter in marriage to his slave Jarha; and she bore him Attai.” (34)

All these names remind us that history is full of ordinary people. I don’t know why these names rated being listed in the Bible but thousands of other names are lost to history. But it also reminds us that God knows every one of us by our name. As he has done so down through history.

Acts 8:26–40: Philip is directed by an angel to head south from Jerusalem to Gaza, which Luke reminds us parenthetically is a wilderness road. Also on the road is an Ethiopian court official, who is the CFO for Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. Having worshipped in Jerusalem, he is returning home via chariot. It is a very long trip, so he is passing the time reading the book of Isaiah.

The Holy Spirit tells Philip to “Go over to this chariot and join it.” (29) Philip asks the man, (whose name we do not learn) if he understands what he is reading. The Ethiopian replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (31). Luke provides us the scripture that the man is reading and it accurately describes what happened to Jesus:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
        so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.” (32, 33)

The Ethiopian asks the fundamental question that arises in this passage: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (34) Philip relates the “good news about Jesus,” and the eunuch asks to be baptized, which Philip does.

Upon completion of the rite, Philip is “snatched away” by the Holy Spirit and finds himself at Azotus. But his disappearance does not disturb the Ethiopian, who “went on his way rejoicing.” (39)

This classic story shows us that the salvific power of Jesus is available to all who seek, whether they be Jew of Gentile. And of course, it is also the first story about the very early church that we hear in detail about how the Holy Spirit operates through men and women—although being “snatched away” happily does not occur these days.

 

Psalm 149; 1 Chronicles 1:38–2:17; Acts 8:18–25

Originally published 12/30/2016. Revised and updated 12/29/2018.

Psalm 149: One suspects the psalmist is doing a bit of self-advertising as he writes, “Sing to the Lord a new song,” (1) making sure his listeners know that they are hearing something they’ve never heard before.

This penultimate psalm appears to be celebrating some kind of unexpected military victory:
Let Israel rejoice in its maker,
Zion’s sons exult in their king
.
…For the Lord looks with favor on His people,
He adorns the lowly with victory
. (2, 4)

Whatever the cause of this celebration might be, it is certainly a joyously noisy one full of laughter, music, and dancing:
Let them praise His name in dance,
on the timbrel and lyre let them hymn to Him
. (3)

But then the military imagery becomes downright aggressive:
Exultations of God in their throat
and a double-edged sword in their hand,
to wreak vengeance upon the nations,
punishment on the peoples
to bind their kings in fetters,
and their nobles in iron chains.” (6,7,8)

In fact, God seems to fade into the background amidst the celebration as it appears that it is the Israeli army rather than God is exacting justice:
…to exact from them justice as written—
it is grandeur for all His faithful.
 (9)

But we shouldn’t quibble on theology. When there’s a great victory I think it’s completely understandable that enthusiasm will trump reverence.

1 Chronicles 1:38–2:17: The introductory chapters of I Chronicles is somewhat akin to reading a phone book (at least for those of us who remember phone books). Among other gems this reading includes a list of the kings of Edom—”before any king reigned over the Israelites.” (1:43)—as well as a handy list of the clans of Edom (1:51-54).

Chapter two opens with the genealogy of Jacob’s twelve sons: “These are the sons of Israel: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Joseph, Benjamin, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher.” (2:1,2) Unsurprisingly, since our authors, who are probably writing from Babylon, are from the (former) kingdom of Judah, they list Judah’s progeny takes precedence over Jacob’s other sons. He had three sons by the “Canaanite woman Bath-shua,” one of whom, Er, “Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death.” (3) It would be nice to know the backstory on that one.

An important genealogy lurks among the endless list, “Boaz of Obed, Obed of Jesse. Jesse became the father of Eliab his firstborn, Abinadab the second, Shimea the third, Nethanel the fourth, Raddai the fifth, Ozem the sixth, David the seventh.” (2:12-15) I had not realized that David was the seventh son and last of Jesse. The other thing to note is that Ruth—the heroine of the eponymous book—who married Boaz is not even mentioned. Only the men get credit when it comes to genealogy.

Acts 8:18–25: Well, I thought Simon the magician had been truly converted, but “when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money,” (18) and rather boldly asking Peter to sell him the “power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” (20)

Simon should be thankful that the Holy Spirit did not strike him dead as was the case with Ananias and Sapphira. Instead, Peter demands, “Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” (22) Simon gets the message and begs Peter to “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” (24)

This passage is a clear warning to all who might be tempted to believe that wealth and/or our own efforts to “buy one’s way into heaven” is antithetical to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Yet, we persist in thinking that good works alone will do the trick or that giving vast sums of money to the church will somehow impress Jesus. As always, when we try to be the ones in control or to buy grace, our “faith” is counterfeit.

 

Psalm 148:7–14; 1 Chronicles 1:1–37; Acts 8:9–17

Originally published 12/29/2016. Revised and updated 12/28/2018.

Psalm 148:7–14: Our psalmist leaves no doubt that every aspect of nature, every creature of God’s creation, including those beneath the surface of the ocean, is here for a single purpose: to worship and praise God:
Praise the Lord from the earth,
sea monsters and all you deeps.
 (7)

The poet then provides an astounding single sentence catalog of natural phenomena, vegetation, animals, ascending straight up the hierarchy of creation described in Genesis:
Fire and hail, snow and smoke,
stormwind that performs His command,
the mountains and all the hills,
fruit trees and all the cedars,
wild beasts and all the cattle,
crawling things and winged birds, (8,9,10)

He arrives at the pinnacle of God’s creation: humankind itself. Not surprisingly, I suppose, he begins with kings, princes and leaders before mentioning more ordinary folk:
kings of earth and all the nations,
princes and all leaders of earth,
young men and also maidens,
elders together with lads. (11, 12)

All of it—all of us—exist for this one overarching purpose:
Let them praise the Lord’s name,
for His name alone is exalted.
 (13a)

This verset emphasizes monotheism. Only God—and God alone—is to be worshipped. There are no small-g gods who deserve worship. The reason for this singularity is obvious (at least to our poet): the evidence of God’s creation is all around us—”His grandeur is over earth and heavens.” (13b)

Ever since the rise of the enlightenment there has been the assumption that science will make everything clear and render God superfluous. Yet, as physicists probe deeper into matter things only become more mysterious. As biologists examine the inner workings of life, it only becomes more wondrous. Today, more than ever, God’s grandeur is increasingly evident.

That’s why we can—and must— wholeheartedly praise God in this psalm’s beautiful benediction:
And may He raise up a horn for His people,
praise of all His faithful,
of the Israelites, the people near him.
Hallelujah. (14)

What is especially wonderful here is that God is not just for the Israelites but through Jesus Christ, God is for all of us.

1 Chronicles 1:1–37: The first several chapters of 1 Chronicles is one reason why reading straight through the Bible proves unsuccessful for so many people. It is an eye-glazing genealogy that seems to name every person who ever inhabited Israel, as well as a many more who didn’t. If nothing else it is an excellent demonstration of the importance and power of names.

The first four verses are not even sentences; they are simply a list of names that take us from Adam to Noah and his sons. The descendents of Japeth (5-7); Ham (8-16), Shem (17-27) come next and in more detail.  One verse was fascinating to me: “Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first to be a mighty one on the earth.” (10) I would have appreciated more backstory here. Wikipedia informs us that NImrod may be an amalgamation of several Mesopotamian kings, but I guess I’ll stick with the genealogy here and assume he was a single person.

Our scrupulous authors provide a handy summary of the direct line from Shem to Abram/ Abraham in 24-27. Now we can see where they’re headed as they list Abraham’s progeny, of which the sons of Isaac become the nation of Israel. But no detail is omitted as we also learn who the descendants of Jacob’s other son, Esau, are.

While this may be boring reading, these genealogies provide the essential foundation of the historicity of Israel. This is not myth; these are not Greek or Roman gods; there were real people who once inhabited the earth with the same motivations, creativity, and flaws that each of us possesses these many millennia later.

Acts 8:9–17: The story of Simon the magician, who “practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great,” (9) is the crucial proof that the signs and wonders of the early church were not magic, but the working the power of the Holy Spirit. Simon is the top celebrity in Samaria. The people “listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.”…because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.” (10, 11)

But then Philip shows up “proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” (12) The gospel message is superior to even the most impressive magic. What’s terrific is that Simon himself is wise enough to realize this: “Even Simon himself believed.” (13)

Word of the many conversions and baptisms in Samaria reaches Jerusalem and Peter and John rush up to Samaria and “prayed for [the Samaritans] that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (15) Our author points out that even though many had been baptized, they had not received the Holy Spirit. Peter and John then lay their hands on the people who had been baptized and the people receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of Peter’s and John’s hands.

This passage is certainly at the foundation of those churches such as Assemblies of God that believe there are two separate baptisms: water and then the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” The problem with this bifurcation is that it too easily creates two classes of Christians, with the implication that those who have been baptized by the Holy Spirit are somehow “more Christian” than those who have not.

My own belief is that like the many signs and wonders that accompanied the very early church, this separate baptism is a phenomenon that was no longer necessary as the church grew and gained strength.

 

 

 

Psalm 148:1–6; 2 Kings 25; Acts 8:1–8

Originally published 12/28/2016. revised and updated 12/27/2018

Psalm 148:1–6: The structure of this majestic psalm of praise reminds us that we humans are not the only creatures who worship him. Following an initial shout of “Hallelujah“, our psalmist initiates his command to praise God at heaven itself:
Praise the Lord from the heavens,
praise Him on the heights.” (1)

An excellent description of the ‘heavenly host’ follows as the army of angels worship God:
Praise Him, all His messengers,
praise Him, all His armies.” (2)

Natural creation itself worships God, beginning with the visible universe and moving inexorably downward to earth’s atmosphere:
Praise  Him, sun and moon,
praise Him, all you stars of light.
Praise Him, utmost heavens,
and the waters above the heavens.” (3,4)

The vastness of creation is under God’s command and everything that is exists is there to do one thing: praise God:
Let them praise the Lord’s name,
for He commanded, and they were created.
 (5)

I believe this reality is why we experience feelings of transcendence when we are alone in nature away from civilization’s puny imitations of God’s created order, especially when we see the stars on a dark night and realize that creation could not be a random accident.

Creation and eternity are congruent:
And He made them stand forever, for all time.
He set them a border that cannot be crossed.
(6)

Which is what we have come to understand in the mystery of an ever-expanding universe. It does indeed seem to stand for all time. But there are constraints on what we can discover. No matter how hard humans try to become God—whether it’s the Tower of Babel or the latest attempt to understand the origin of the universe—we will never fully grasp the truth of who God is and what he has done for us.  And as his creatures it is God’s everlasting creative power that must be the object of our worship.

2 Kings 25: Our authors, who were writing from Babylon, describe the conquest of Jerusalem in precise, heart-rending detail—doubtless because they themselves had experienced these events. They describe the exact day —the ninth year of [king Zedekiah’s] reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month (1)—that Nebuchadnezzar’s army arrives at Jerusalem and begins a siege that lasts two years resulting in severe famine. The Chaldeans (Babylonians) finally breach Jerusalem’s walls, destroy the remnants of the army of Judah, and take king Zedekiah captive. The victors kill Zedekiah’s sons and blind him. He is led away in chains to Babylon. With the exception of “the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil” (12) the remaining population of Jerusalem—its middle and upper classes—is carried away to exile.

In the eyes of the authors, an even greater tragedy is the destruction and pillaging of the Solomon’s temple itself, which they describe in excruciating (both senses of the word) detail. They describe the immensity of the place and the richness of its materials in a kind of reverse inventory of what we read in 2 Samuel during its construction, as e.g., “The height of the one pillar was eighteen cubits, and on it was a bronze capital; the height of the capital was three cubits; latticework and pomegranates, all of bronze, were on the capital all around.” (17)

Finally, the administrative apparatus of Judah’s government and the the priests themselves are executed by the captain of the Babylonian guard. The sad fall of Judah is complete.

Nevertheless, a few inhabitants of Judah remain. Shapahn’s grandson, Gedaliah, is appointed governor by the king of Babylon. He wisely instructs his subjects, “Do not be afraid because of the Chaldean officials; live in the land, serve the king of Babylon, and it shall be well with you.” (24). But a group of malcontents could not leave well enough alone and they assassinate Gedaliah and his retainers. Many of those still alive flee to Egypt.

But the Chaldeans are astute and show mercy to the defeated Jews. Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, Evil-merodach, releases King Jehoiachin of Judah from prison and “spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the other seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon.” (28)  I’m pretty sure this was mostly a wise political calculation that ensured that the Jews living in Babylonian exile would be content with their lot and not foment a rebellion.

Acts 8:1–8: Stephen’s lengthy sermon of excoriation of the Jews was clearly a bridge too far. The temple authorities decide they need to get things under control by exiling everyone who belonged to this fast-growing, potentially dangerous Jesus-cult: “That day [of Stephen’s stoning] a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” (1)

Chief among those carrying out the persecution was a certain Saul, who “was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” (8) Of course this is the grand irony of the New Testament. But at this point things are looking grim for this new church.

On the other hand, it is the very act of sending its members into exile that begins the spread of the early church far and wide: “Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” (4) As an example of this early missionary work, we meet Philip. In what has to be an intentional irony, knowing that Jerusalem will not listen, he headed to the capital of the very people the Jews hate the most, the city of Samaria, and preached there. Unlike at Jerusalem, “the crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did.” (6) Luke completes the irony by telling us that unlike in Jerusalem, “there was great joy in that city.” (8).

We recall what Jesus said about missionary work when he sent his disciples out two by two: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” (Matthew 10:4) Obviously, those words were not lost on Philip and his colleagues. And it’s good advice for the modern church as well. We need to accept that not everyone who hears will respond. Ad as we know, hostility toward the Church and persecution of Christians continues unabated in many places to this very day.

 

Psalm 147:15–20; 2 Kings 23:21–24:20; Acts 7:44–60

Originally published 12/27/2016. Revised and updated 12/26/2018.

Psalm 147:15–20: Amidst the blessings that God has bestowed on Israel, God’s word is a central element of society:
He sends down His utterance to earth,
quickly His word races.
 (19)

No one in Israel has an excuse not to know God’s word, which we’ll take here as God’s law.  Unexpectedly, we encounter a beautiful description of winter in Israel, which operates both as description and metaphor and is packed with action verbs:
“He pours forth snow like fleece,
scatters frost like ash.
He flings His ice like bread crumbs.
In the face of His cold who can endure?” (16, 17)

As description, we can feel the fierceness of winter through “pours,” “scatters,” and “flings” since that’s what it feels like as I write this from a Madison winter.

But the metaphor also holds: our hearts can be like ice, rejecting God. But our poet reminds us:
He sends out His word and melts them,
He lets His breath blow—waters flow.
 (18)

God’s word transforms our hearts from frozen to the warmth that Jesus—God’s word for us—brings via the Holy Spirit.

Our psalmist goes on to observe that God has spoken many times to Israel:
He tells His word to Jacob,
His statutes and laws to Israel.
 (19)

Moreover, God spoke to Israel exclusively, which is why they were blessed:
He did not thus to all the nations,
and they knew not the laws
.” (20)

Those are the terms of the Old Covenant. But then God sent his living Word to earth and as a result, the message of salvation through Jesus Christ is available to every nation and to every person.

2 Kings 23:21–24:20: In the eighteenth year of his reign King Josiah reestablishes Passover as a rite, heretofore a forgotten celebration since “No such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, even during all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah.” (23:22) Josiah has basically resurrected the Jewish religion: “so that he established the words of the law that were written in the book that the priest Hilkiah had found in the house of the Lord.” (23:24) We can hear the regret as our authors write that “Before [Josiah] there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.” (25)

Nevertheless, because of the manifold sinfulness that has preceded Josiah, God still intends to “remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel.” (27) This removal process begins with the slaying of Josiah by the Pharaoh Neco. Josiah’s son Jehoahaz ascends the throne of Judah and reigns just three months before being imprisoned by the Pharaoh.  Unsurprisingly, he fails to follow in his father’s footsteps, but “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestors had done.” (32) Josiah’s other son, Jehoiakim, is installed on the throne by the pharaoh, but he too is corrupt.

Judah is invaded by hordes from every direction and the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, turns Judah into a vassal state. Our authors point out these horrors: “Surely … they came upon Judah at the command of the Lord, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, for all that he had committed, and also for the innocent blood that he had shed; for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to pardon.” (24:3,4)

Ultimately, the Babylonian army arrived at Jerusalem’s gates and Nebuchadnezzar not only took the temple treasures, but “carried away all Jerusalem, all the officials, all the warriors, ten thousand captives, all the artisans and the smiths; no one remained, except the poorest people of the land.” (14) Only a rump government remains, reigned over by Jehoiachin’s uncle, a certain Zedekiah, who reigns for 11 years.

How low Judah has fallen. Can things get worse? Probably…

Acts 7:44–60: Stephen winds up his lengthy sermon by telling how the temple came into being, built not by David but by Solomon. OK, that’s fine, but then he makes such a radical statement that the temple authorities can take it only as outright blasphemy: Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne,/ and the earth is my footstool.'” (48, 49)

Stephen compounds the outrage off by insulting his audience with the truth: ““You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” (51) The final words of his sermon are a clear accusation: “You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (53) Quite different than the marketing-oriented, feel-good sermons we hear today.

Needless to say, Stephen has enraged the crowd. Stephen’s public announcement of his vision only adds fuel to the fire, “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (56)  The crowd attacks the preacher and carry him out of the city and stone him. This is where we first meet Saul, who will become Paul: “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (58)

In an eerie echo of Jesus’ last words on the cross, Stephen’s dying words are words of forgiveness: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.” (60)

The question of course for each of us reading this passage is, would we be willing to die for our faith. Here in comfortable America, even in this time of rising hostility against Christianity, we are unlikely to be put to the test. For which I am grateful.

Psalm 147:7–14; 2 Kings 22:11–23:20; Acts 7:30–43

Originally published 12/26/2016. Revised and updated 12/26/2018.

Psalm 147:7–14: Our psalmist moves from God as creator to God as provider though the gifts of nature. We are to
Call out to the Lord in thanksgiving
…who covers the heavens with clouds,
readies ran for the earth,
makes mountains flourish with grass.” (7,8)

It is the clouds that bring the rain which causes the grass to grow which “gives the beast its food,/ to the raven’s young who call.” (9) Nature flourishes because of God’s action.

This psalm was doubtless written after Israel was restored to Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity. The psalmist observes how return did not occur through military prowess or physical strength:
Not by the might of the horse He desires,
not by a man’s thighs is He pleased.
 (10)

Rather, the return occurred because the people made God the center of their lives:
The Lord is pleased by those who fear Him,
those who long for His kindness
. (11)

Worship is the recompense for God’s mighty acts:
Extol, O Jerusalem, the Lord,
praise your God, O Zion.
 (12)

Whatever protection and blessing they—and we—experience comes directly from God:
For He strengthens the bars of your gates,
blesses you children in your midst
. (13)

As God brought the rain for the raven (verse 9), so too he brings peace and sustenance to the people who love him—including us:
He bestows peace in your land,
He sates you with choice wheat
. (14)

The message is clear: it is God who brings us protection, sustenance, and blessing. Yet we humans persist in thinking whatever we good we have is the result of our own efforts. Worse, we believe that God, even the idea of God, is superfluous. But as the psalmist makes clear, whatever we have, whatever we are comes from God, who seeks only our love and worship in return.

2 Kings 22:11–23:20: While temple renovations continue, the high priest Hilkiah has found the book of the law in a dusty corner. He brings it to Josiah’s secretary, Shaphan, who reads it to the king. Upon hearing it, he tears his clothes, realizing that “great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” (22:13)

A delegation arrives at the house of the prophetess Hudah, who informs them that God will indeed “bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants…Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.” (16, 17) In short, there is no escaping ultimate doom for the acts that have been committed by Judah and its kings before Josiah’s reign. However, she continues, because Josiah’s “heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord” (19) there will be peace as long as he is on the throne.

Upon hearing this, Josiah gathers all the officials and “made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul.” (23:3) The temple is cleansed as the Baal objects are removed and the Baal priests are “deposed.” The male prostitutes are fired, and all the Baal objects and “high places” are burned to the ground. In the end, Josiah “slaughtered on the altars all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned human bones on them. Then he returned to Jerusalem.” (23:20)

So, we could call Josiah an even greater reformer than Martin Luther. Although the business about killing and burning the Baal priests on their own altars is definitely a pretty violent act of reformation. Nevertheless, I think Josiah knew in his heart that this radical cleansing is exactly what God wanted.

Acts 7:30–43: Stephen’s seemingly endless sermon covering the history of Israel continues as he describes just about everything Moses did and said, culminating in the story of the golden calf. But he says one thing that’s crucial: “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up a prophet for you from your own people as he raised me up.’” (37) And we can guess exactly who Stephen is talking about.

He makes the point against that the ancestors rejected Moses: “Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him; instead, they pushed him aside, and in their hearts they turned back to Egypt.” (39) Only the thick-headed wouldn’t be able to see the parallels between the ancestors and the crowd he’s speaking to.

Psalm 147:1–6; 2 Kings 21:1–22:10; Acts 7:17–29

Originally published 12/24/2016. Revised and updated 12/24/2018.

Psalm 147:1–6: The editors of Psalms knew exactly what they were doing as they conclude the collection with praise hymns. What better way to end our long journey through every human emotion and every aspect of God’s character than to sing God’s praises in joyful worship. This is the point of the opening verse of this hymn:
Hallelujah.
For it is good to hymn to our God,
for it is sweet to adorn with praise
. (1)

On this Christmas Eve, these lines remind me of God’s greatest historical intervention of all: the birth of Jesus, who comes to earth fully human, fully God. It is the church established by Jesus Christ of which each Christian is a member that has fulfilled through the centuries—and continues to fulfill—God’s wonderful actions that our psalmist describes here:
Builder of Jerusalem, the Lord,
Israel’s scattered ones He gathers in.
Healer of the broken-hearted,
He binds their painful wounds. (2,3)

It’s worth remembering how Christians have taken this verse and acted on it—that before Christianity there were no orphanages, no hospitals, no universities.

And God has acted on our behalf through Jesus Christ because he is our Creator and
He counts the number of the stars,
to all of them gives names
. (4) I

f God can count and name the infinity of stars, it is through the person of Jesus that we can perceive but a tiny aspect of God’s powerful reality and more importantly, his love for us:
Great is our master, abounding in power,
His wisdom is beyond number.
” (5)

I think this  why Jesus came to earth: so that we could experience the ineffable saving power of God up close and personal:
The Lord [who] sustains the lowly,
[and who] casts the wicked to the ground
. (6) .

The reality of Jesus has given us an even clearer picture of God’s power and grace in human form than our psalmist could even have imagined. 

2 Kings 21:1–22:10: Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, takes over at the age of 12 and reigns 55 years in Jerusalem. Alas, unlike his father he reverts to long-standing pattern: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, following the abominable practices of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” (21:2) Our authors point out that not only did he rebuild “high places,” including an image of the idol, Asherah in the temple court itself, “He made his son pass through fire; he practiced soothsaying and augury, and dealt with mediums and with wizards.” (21:6) Needless to say, Manasseh kindles God’s anger. Our authors make it clear that it is the failure of leadership that causes the hoi polloi to be led astray. “Manasseh misled [the people] to do more evil than the nations had done that the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel.” (9) Which is saying something indeed…

Needless to say, the prophets of God predict dire consequences: “therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such evil that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle.” (12) In one of the more creative metaphors in this book, the prophets announce that God “will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.” (13) Nevertheless, Manasseh continues to do evil, and his enduring legacy is that “shed very much innocent blood, until he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another [and] he caused Judah to sin so that they did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (16)

Manasseh’s son, Amon, succeeds him at age 22 and like father, like son, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his father Manasseh had done.” (20) However, after reigning a mere two years his servants assassinate him. The assassins are in turn killed by “the people of the land,” (24) which I take to be from among the hoi polloi, who are responding to 57 years of evil leadership. They place eight-year old Josiah on the throne, who reigns for 31 years. At long last, a good king. Josiah “did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.” (22:2)

Eighteen years into his reign, Josiah directs the high priest, Hilkiah to distribute funds that have been squirreled away in the temple “to the carpenters, to the builders, to the masons; and let them use it to buy timber and quarried stone to repair the house.” (22:6) The repair project results in discovery of a book, which Hilkiah gives to Josiah’s servant, Shaphan, to bring to the king.

What, we wonder, is in the book? Stay tuned…

Acts 7:17–29: Luke employs Stephen’s lengthy sermon to place Jesus in the historical context of Israel, even though Stephen has not yet uttered Jesus’ name. In these verses Stephen focuses on the Egyptian captivity and Moses, who “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his relatives, the Israelites.” (23) Stephen asserts that Moses’ murder of the Egyptian overseer was justified because “he saw one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian.” (24) However, the Israelites around Moses did not “understand that God through him was rescuing them,” (25) and one of the Israelite slaves accuses Moses, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’” (27, 28)

We can begin to see the parallels here and where Stephen is going. By focusing on this aspect of the Moses story, we can sense Stephen leading to the observation that in the same way, the Israel in which he is preaching has also rejected Jesus—just as their ancestors rejected Moses.