Psalm 108:6–14; Jeremiah 52; Hebrews 6:13–7:3

Originally published 9/22/2017. Revised and updated 9/21/2019.

Psalm 108:6–14: Following his enthusiastic opening of praise to God, our psalmist gets down to the serious business of supplication:
Loom over the heavens, O God,
Over all earth with Your glory,
that Your beloved ones be saved,
rescue with Your right hand, answer me. (6,7)

God does indeed answer just as enthusiastically as the psalmist, reminding the poet of the  fact that he has granted Israel its promised land and his people belong to him. As proof, the poet, speaking in God’s voice, provides a truncated list of Israel’s tribes:
God spoke in His holiness:
‘Let Me exult and share out Shechem,
and the valley of Sukkoth I shall measure.
Mine is Gilead, Mine Manasseh,
and Ephraim My foremost stronghold,
Judah My scepter. (8, 9)

Well, at least he provides only a sampling of tribes rather than the whole list. One feels that the psalmist himself hails from “Ephraim My foremost stronghold.”

The poet’s God to celebrates Israel and as if to preserve some form of symmetry, he hurls insults at Israel’s traditional enemies:
Moab is My washbasin,
upon Edom I fling My sandal,
over Philistia I shout exultant.’ (10)

Alas, this catalog lists only the glories of God’s intervention in history. As far as the present is concerned, God seems to have disappeared. Thus, a strongly-worded but plaintive supplication for God to again come to Israel’s military aid:
Who will lead me to the fortified town,
who will guide me to Edom?
Have You not, O God, abandoned us?
You do not sally forth, God, with our armies.
Give us help against the 
foe when rescue by man is in vain.” (11-13)

As always, this psalm of supplication is a thematic sandwich, with praise of God on both sides and the meat of supplication in the middle. And as always, the psalm ends on a hopeful note that
Through God we shall gather strength,
and he will stamp out our foes. (14)

Even though I’m not praying to God for military victory, the structure of this psalm is eminently worth following. Along with supplication there should be praise and, as the last verse suggests, the confidence that God will indeed answer us.

Jeremiah 52: At last we come to the final chapter of this interesting but ultimately frustrating book that so often repeats itself and seriously confuses the historical timeline. The authors, obviously writing from exile in Babylon, recap the events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon.

First there is wicked king Zedekiah, who “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as [his father] Jehoiakim had done.” (2) Persistent corruption at the top had spread throughout the nation of Judah: “Indeed, Jerusalem and Judah so angered the Lord that he expelled them from his presence.” (3)

Rather than being an obedient vassal king, “Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.” (4) The armies of Babylon arrive at the gates of Jerusalem and try to starve out the inhabitants. The king is captured, forced to watch the execution of his children and then blinded and brought to Babylon. As Jeremiah had promised, he survived but in abject humiliation.

This chapter reviews Babylon’s egregious crime (and why we’ve spent the past several chapters reading about its imminent destruction) is that its armies destroyed the temple: “Nebuzaradan the captain of the bodyguard who served the king of Babylon, entered Jerusalem. He burned the house of the Lord, the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down.” (12, 13)

The surviving inhabitants of Jerusalem are carried off into exile. But this same captain of the guard “left some of the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil.” (16)

Our authors then provide a depressing catalog of the sacred objects in the now destroyed temple that the Chaldeans carry off.  It is basically an inventory in reverse that we read in I Kings describing the interior treasures and decoration of the temple. Clearly, our authors are writing in sorrow as they remember and detail what was no more.

The religious and administrative leaders of Judah and Jerusalem are carried off by the Chaldean army to babylon. Our authors provide a very specific list, which I will not replicate here. But once they arrive at Babylon “the king of Babylon struck them down, and put them to death at Riblah in the land of Hamath.” (27a) And then the saddest sentence of all: “So Judah went into exile out of its land.” (27b)

The fall of Jerusalem is wrapped up with a census of the 4600 people who were carried off to Babylon across four separate actions spanning some several years. I confess surprise at this rather small number and that the exile occurred over a period of years. I had always thought there were tens of thousands of Jews in exile and that they were all sent to exile simultaneously.

The book ends on the hopeful story of King Jehoiachin of Judah. A new king of Babylon, the aptly-named Evil-merodach, ascends the throne of Babylon and shows mercy to Jehoiachin “and brought him out of prison; he spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the seats of the other kings who were with him in Babylon.” (31, 32) Not just release from prison, but honor as well: “Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes, and every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table.” (33) The last verse of this book suggests that exile in Babylon may not be so awful after all—at least for King Jehoiachin: “For his allowance, a regular daily allowance was given him by the king of Babylon, as long as he lived, up to the day of his death.” (34)

The cynical side of me wonders if this rather anodyne note at the end was a means of flattering the king of Babylon. I’m reminded of TS Eliot’s famous line, “This is the way the world ends;/ not with a bang but a whimper.” Jeremiah has been quite a ride but it certainly seems to end in a whimper.

Hebrews 6:13–7:3: In his brilliant but terribly dense essay to demonstrate how Christians are equal heirs with the Jews of Abraham and God’s promise, our author apparently reviewing his notes, decides he needs to explain further.

First, oaths and promises are critically important: “Human beings, of course, swear by someone greater than themselves, and an oath given as confirmation puts an end to all dispute.” (16) [Although that certitude seems more casual in our own culture.]

Second, the same seriousness applies to God’s promises: “In the same way, when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath” (17) And God, who by definition obeys his oaths, would never lie to us: “it is impossible that God would prove false, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us.” (18)

This hope becomes the foundation on which we build our lives in faith: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain.” (20) Notice the radical shift here. It is no longer the Aaronic high priest that goes behind the drape of the Holy of Holies, but our hope lies in a new high priest.

And who is that hope? No surprise here: “Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (20)

There are several crucial points our author makes about Melchizedek. First, he is the one who blesses Abraham, and by implication therefore, all of Abraham’s descendants.

Second, “His name, in the first place, means “king of righteousness”; next he is also king of Salem, that is, “king of peace.” (7:2) So any priest in the order of Melchizedek would be the apotheosis of righteousness and peace.

Third, our author takes advantage of the fact that we know nothing about Melchizedek other than that he is a king and priest: “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.” (7:3).  I think I see where this is going. Melchizedek outranks the Aaronic order and is the forerunner of our new great high priest: Jesus Christ. A new priestly order is being put into place. The minds of new Jewish Christians must have been exploding at this point.

Psalm 108:1–5; Jeremiah 51:24–64; Hebrews 6:1–12

Originally published 9/21/2017. Revised and updated 9/20/2019.

Psalm 108:1–5: Alter informs us that this psalm is the concatenation (my word, not his) of Psalms 57 and 60. But we’ll leave it to the scholars to speculate on why this apparent mash-up psalm ended up in the Psalms.

This David psalm opens musically with voice and instrumental accompaniment:
My heart is firm, O God.
Let me sing and hymn
with my inward being, too.
Awake, O lute and lyre.
I would waken the dawn. (2, 3)

We often talk about interior singing, usually as “a song in my heart.” And there’s no question that if we’re singing on the inside we will usually feel enveloped in a joyful emotion. One of the as-yet unanswered questions is the connection between music and emotion. Or, how hearing a certain song brings back indelible memories. Are we hardwired for music? And if so, what kind of music? I think we’re all different in how we respond to different music. I know that I am in the minority that prefers classical music to contemporary popular music. Except sometimes…

Here, though, the music has but one purpose: worshipping God. And we sense the psalmist’s enthusiasm in both his inward and outward being as he sings:
Let me acclaim You among the peoples, Lord.
Let my hymn You among the nations.
For Your kindness is great over the heavens,
and Your steadfast truth to the skies. (4, 5)

What strikes me here is that music, especially great worship music, is not confined to inside the church, but it transcends national borders and speaks to the heart of different cultures “among the nations.” But I think it has to be great music—I’m thinking Bach—not the contemporary singsong ditties that so frequently waste time in worship.

Jeremiah 51:24–64: OK, OK, Jeremiah. We get it. Babylon is doomed as we encounter yet another 40 verses—this time in poetry—packed with metaphors about how God will take vengeance on the Chaldeans.

There is the usual fire and brimstone:
I am against you, O destroying mountain,
says the Lord,
    that destroys the whole earth;
I will stretch out my hand against you,
    and roll you down from the crags,
    and make you a burned-out mountain.
No stone shall be taken from you for a corner
    and no stone for a foundation,
but you shall be a perpetual waste,
    says the Lord. (25, 26)

The inhabitants of Babylon are equally doomed as their city as the invading armies of Persia swoop down from the north:
One runner runs to meet another,
    and one messenger to meet another,
to tell the king of Babylon
    that his city is taken from end to end:
the fords have been seized,
    the marshes have been burned with fire,
    and the soldiers are in panic. (31, 32)

And the reason for the destruction is clear. God will take vengeance for Babylon’s wanton cruelties to his chosen people as he speaks here to the Jews:
Therefore thus says the Lord:
I am going to defend your cause
    and take vengeance for you.
I will dry up her sea
    and make her fountain dry;
and Babylon shall become a heap of ruins,

    a den of jackals,
an object of horror and of hissing,
    without inhabitant. (36, 37)

And just in case we missed the message of the earlier verses, Jeremiah provides us a couple of summaries:
Assuredly, the days are coming
    when I will punish the images of Babylon;
her whole land shall be put to shame,
    and all her slain shall fall in her midst. (47)

Thus says the Lord of hosts:
The broad wall of Babylon
    shall be leveled to the ground,
and her high gates
    shall be burned with fire.
The peoples exhaust themselves for nothing,
    and the nations weary themselves only for fire. (58)

But what’s really weird is what happens next. Jeremiah commands a certain Seraiah, who is the exiled King Zedekiah’s quartermaster, to read the scroll (presumably to Zedekiah) and “when you finish reading this scroll, tie a stone to it, and throw it into the middle of the Euphrates, and say, ‘Thus shall Babylon sink, to rise no more, because of the disasters that I am bringing on her.’ (63, 64)

So, is what we are we reading here the contents of that scroll because Seraiah didn’t carry out Jeremiah’s command? Or is there yet another scroll full of the same message as we’ve been enduring for the last 3 chapters that indeed lies at the bottom of the Euphrates?

If nothing else, we know that Jeremiah (and perhaps some others writing as ‘Jeremiah’) was a great prophet, but terribly verbose.

Hebrews 6:1–12: Our author—also verbose—is dealing with the issue of Christians who have left the faith—what my parents referred to as ‘backsliders.’

He views living the Christian faith not just as a singular conversion experience—what he calls “the foundation”—but rather as an ongoing catechism or confirmation class, whose curriculum includes “instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” (2) This process, sometimes called sanctification, is preferable to focusing solely on the initial conversion experience and “the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation.” (1) Which I take to mean that if we just “accept Jesus into our heart” and proceed to do nothing about it, the conversion experience (or baptism) is pointless.

This maturing process is essential because because if someone has repented and “tasted the heavenly gift, and [has] shared in the Holy Spirit, and [has] tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,… [but] then [has] fallen away,…on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.” (5, 6)  In other words, he is describing someone who initially confessed faith in Jesus, or perhaps was baptized as an infant, but has failed to mature, and then has consciously rejected that same faith.

Once that rejection has occurred, our author asserts, coming back into the faith is impossible. I believe some people have interpreted this passage as the possibility of losing one’s salvation. But I think the author is simply saying that if a person consciously and positively rejects the faith he is no longer part of the Christian community.  And to do that is to hold the Son of God up to contempt. This is certainly something we are witnessing in our present age as it seems more and more people are rejecting the faith into which they were baptized or brought up.

Our author uses a different metaphor to compare robust Christian growth in faith and understanding to those who reject the faith: “Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over.” (7,8) 

So what does this passage say about people I know who have rejected the faith? I think it means that we must commit to living out our faith and constantly growing in knowledge and understanding. If one has a conversion experience but does nothing about planting and tending that faith then it becomes worthless. And if we reject that faith we are holding Jesus in contempt.

In short, we have a duty to equip ourselves in faith. Faith is what we engineers call a dynamic process. A “static faith” that never grows or grows into thorns and weeds because the person has rejected Christ is ultimately worthless.

Psalm 107:33–43; Jeremiah 50:41–51:23; Hebrews 5

Originally published 9/20/2017. Revised and updated 9/19/2019.

Psalm 107:33–43: In a rather abrupt change of tone and theme our psalmist observes God’s destructive power in nature—here, drought—as being punishment of wayward humans:
He turns rivers into wilderness
and springs of water into thirsty ground,
fruitful land into salt flats,
because of the evil of those who dwell there. (33, 34)

I presume this screed is a reference to Israel’s wanton sinfulness and idol worship. My own observation is that humans themselves are perfectly capable of destroying nature without any kind of godly intervention.

But where there is righteousness, God reflects his approval by restoring nature—of which water is the central element:
He turns wilderness to pools of water,
and parched land to springs of water,
and settles there the hungry,
firmly founds a settled town. (35, 36)

The righteous farmers go straight to work and the result is fecundity—both in agrarian results and human and animal reproduction:
And they sow fields and plant vineyards,
which produce a fruitful yield.
And He blesses them and they multiply greatly,
and their beasts He does not let dwindle. (37, 38)

In contrast to the noble efforts of the hoi polloi, our psalmist displays only contempt for the corrupt leadership of the land, who are receiving their just desserts as their progeny—ever the earmark of God’s favor—diminishes:
He pours contempt upon the princes,
and makes them wander in trackless waste.
And they dwindle and are bowed down,
from harsh oppression and sorrow. (39, 40)

As always, it is the poor and oppressed whom God favors—and we are left with the strong message that if God cares for the poor, so should those of us who consider ourselves to be righteous:
And he raises the needy from affliction,
and increases his clans like flocks.
Let the upright see and rejoice,
and all wickedness shut its mouth. (41, 42)

The psalm concludes with advice that we should follow today and every day:
He who is wise will watch these
and take to heart the Lord’s kindnesses. (43)

But I confess that in the noise of our culture I too often fail to pause and appreciate God’s manifold blessings in the many little things that do indeed go right. God’s hand is active everywhere.

Jeremiah 50:41–51:23: Our prophet is certainly making a big deal about the imminent destruction of Babylon by the Persians as the subject comes up once again:
Look! An army is coming from the north;
    a great nation and many kings
    are being stirred up from the ends of the earth.
They wield bow and spear,
    they are cruel and have no mercy.
The sound of them is like the roaring sea;
    they ride upon horses,
set in array as a warrior for battle,
    against you, O daughter Babylon!” (50:41, 42)

If Jeremiah didn’t get his message across in poetry, there is always prose where the author again employs the sheep metaphor: “Therefore hear the plan that the Lord has made against Babylon, and the purposes that he has formed against the land of the Chaldeans: Surely the little ones of the flock shall be dragged away; surely their fold shall be appalled at their fate.” (50:45)

Chapter 51 seems very much a rerun of chapter 50 as it prophesies Babylon’s doom. One feels like there was a writing contest among the Jews in exile in Babylon and that all the many entries have each received their own chapter in this seemingly endless book:
Thus says the Lord:
I am going to stir up a destructive wind
against Babylon
….and I will send winnowers to Babylon,
    and they shall winnow her.
They shall empty her land
    when they come against her from every side
    on the day of trouble. (51:1, 2)

Unsurprisingly, the fall of Babylon is nothing but good news for the Jewish remnant:
The Lord has brought forth our vindication;
    come, let us declare in Zion
    the work of the Lord our God.” (51:10)

Once again, if we didn’t get the meaning in the poetry, there’s always explanatory prose: “The Lord has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of the Lord, vengeance for his temple.” (51:11)

I think it is here where we see the real reason for Babylon’s ultimate fate: it was their wanton destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Babylon was God’s instrument for punishing the Jews, but certainly the temple—God’s very dwelling place—that would be off limits. But the Babylonians exceeded their brief and now they will be punished.

What is different in this chapter is the prophet’s assertion that Israel will be God’s instrument of destruction—and I’m pretty sure other authors are writing as “Jeremiah” here in what can only be described as the cruel enthusiasm of revenge on their captors:
You are my war club, my weapon of battle:
with you I smash nations;
    with you I destroy kingdoms;
with you I smash the horse and its rider;
    with you I smash the chariot and the charioteer;
with you I smash man and woman;
    with you I smash the old man and the boy;
with you I smash the young man and the girl;
with you I smash shepherds and their flocks;
with you I smash farmers and their teams;
    with you I smash governors and deputies.” (51:20-23)

This short poem is at once bizarre and as far as I am concerned, a non-sequitur. I thought it was the Persians from the north that would be the instruments of God’s struction of Babylon. So what is this grimly graphic poetic aside doing here? If this is truly the God of Israel using the Jews to wreak his vengeance on young men and girls, I sure do not want to have anything to do with him.

In the end, I’m left with the impression that it is a military poem that was chanted as soldiers marched in cadence into battle.

Hebrews 5: Our author uses this chapter to compare Jesus Christ against the mortal and corrupt high priests who served in the temple at Jerusalem—and then to make us see how God has replaced them with Jesus as our new High Priest.

First, we know that the high priest at the temple in Jerusalem “is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (1) In other words, the high priest is the intercessor between man and God—which was the whole point of the sacrificial system in place in Jerusalem at the time this epistle was written to new Jewish converts to Christianity.

Second, as a human “subject to weakness,” Jesus is empathetic, “able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward.” (2) As a mortal, he is also subject to sin and therefore, “he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.” (3)

Third, he is ordained to this post by God: “And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” (4) One does not just decide to become a high priest.

WIth these boundary conditions defined, our author turns to a complex logic chain to show how Jesus is our new High Priest, supplanting the high priest at Jerusalem.

First, like his Jewish counterpart, Jesus is human. Second, Jesus did not appoint himself as high priest, but has been called by God, his father. Jesus “was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you;”(5) (which is a quote from Psalm 2).

Then things get mildly confusing. Jesus is not of the Aaronic order of Jewish priests, but “as [God] says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” (6) This reference to the non-Jewish king/priest who blessed Abram back in Genesis where “King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High” (Gen 14:8) is a revolutionary concept for Jews. Most importantly, means that Jesus is high priest to everyone—both Jew and Gentile.

Finally, Jesus, being human, suffered as other humans. In fact he endured even greater suffering in our author’s oblique reference to his death on the cross: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus  offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (7)

Thus, Jesus has become our new High Priest before God—ordained by God. And with the explicit Melchizedekian line of succession, Jesus trumps the Aaronic priests in Jerusalem and has become High Priest for every person on earth both in the present and yet to come.

Our author implicitly admits this is complicated stuff as he insults his readers: “About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding.” (11) and then accuses them of theological immaturity: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness.” (12, 13)

So I guess at this point were are all milk drinkers…

Psalm 107:23–32; Jeremiah 50:1–40; Hebrews 4:6–16

Originally published 9/19/2017. Revised and updated 9/18/2019.

Psalm 107:23–32: The reading opens with one of my favorite stanzas in the psalms because Herman Melville quotes them in Father Mapple’s sermon near the beginning of my favorite American novel, Moby Dick, as he preaches to a congregation of sailors about to depart for a two-year (and ultimately doomed) whaling voyage:
Those that go down to the sea in ships,
who do tasks in the mighty waters,
it is they who have see the deeds of the Lord,
and His wonders in the deep. (23, 24)

And in this era of monster hurricanes, the next verse is especially apropos. It is perhaps the most beautiful description ever written describing an angry sea and the woeful plight of sailors caught in those storm-tossed waves:
He speaks and raises the stormwind
and it makes the waves loom high.
They go up to the heavens, come down to the depths,
their life-breath in hardship grows faint.
They reel and sway like a drunkard,
all their wisdom is swallowed up. (26, 27)

But there is one who rescues them:
And they cry to the Lord
from their straits from their distress He brings them out,
He turns the storm into silence,
and its waves are stilled,
and they rejoice that these have grown quiet.
and He leads them to their bourn. (28, 29)

[‘Bourn’ is a small, still stream.] I guess we could call this an “inadvertent prophecy,” for it is a perfect description of that stormy night on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus slept peacefully in the rocking boat as the disciples panicked. Of course these verses are also a perfect metaphor for the storms and trials in our own lives and the peace that only prayer and Jesus Christ can bring to our personal sturm und drang.

As always in the Psalms, heartfelt worship is the immediate reaction of those who have been rescued by God:
Let them acclaim to the Lord His kindness
and His wonders to humankind.
Let them exalt Him in the people’s assembly
and in the session of elders praise Him. (31, 32)

When I look back over my life I realize there are numerous times where God has indeed rescued me from the waves. Not least in 2009.

Jeremiah 50:1–40: Now it is Babylon’s turn to be in Jeremiah’s cross-hairs as the prophet pronounces God’s judgement on the conquerors of Judah and Jerusalem: “For out of the north a nation has come up against her; it shall make her land a desolation, and no one shall live in it; both human beings and animals shall flee away.” (3) As we know from history, Cyrus, king of what is now Persia, conquered Babylon in BCE 539—not too many years after Babylon decimated Jerusalem.  Jeremiah repeats his prophecy, this time with greater military specificity: “For I am going to stir up and bring against Babylon a company of great nations from the land of the north; and they shall array themselves against her; from there she shall be taken.” (9)  [Sorry, but my personal suspicion is that our Jeremiah author is writing after that event, not before, so he had the historical facts at hand…]

This event occurs when “the people of Israel shall come, they and the people of Judah together; they shall come weeping as they seek the Lord their God.” (4)  Notice how Israel and  Judah are at long last reunited, albeit in their suffering. It’s clear here that Jeremiah anticipates the repentance of the Jewish remnant that still remains in exile.

We once again encounter the metaphor of Israel as a flock of wandering sheep: “My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold.” (6)

The sheep metaphor arises again in a succinct summary of the fate the once-proud kingdom of David and Solomon has endured: “Israel is a hunted sheep driven away by lions. First the king of Assyria devoured it, and now at the end King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has gnawed its bones.” (17)

But as that metaphor of lost sheep continues we encounter God’s wonderful promise: “I will restore Israel to its pasture, and it shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead its hunger shall be satisfied…for I will pardon the remnant that I have spared.” (19, 20) Where there is repentance there is also restoration.

Many verses regarding the destruction of Babylon follow…

The question arises: If God used Assyria and Babylon as his agents to dole out Israel’s and Judah’s deserved punishments, why is he now so enthusiastic about destroying its conquerors? I think the answer is here: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: The people of Israel are oppressed, and so too are the people of Judah; all their captors have held them fast and refuse to let them go.” (33) The conquerors think their hold on power is firm and they have exceeded the punishments God has allowed.

At this point, Jeremiah believes that Israel has suffered enough and he holds onto a firm hope: “Their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of hosts is his name. He will surely plead their cause, that he may give rest to the earth, but unrest to the inhabitants of Babylon.” (34)

Jeremiah’s final prophecy is that Babylon will never be rebuilt: “Therefore wild animals shall live with hyenas in Babylon, and ostriches shall inhabit her; she shall never again be peopled, or inhabited for all generations.” (39) Which is exactly what happened. Its ruins lie in the middle of the Iraqi desert.

What’s the lesson for us? God cannot endure evil and empires fall. What fate awaits us here in the declining empire of America that so thoroughly is abandoning its Judeo-Christian foundation? Will we see repentance and restoration? That is what we must pray for.

Hebrews 4:6–16: Our author continues his disquisition on “rest.” I think what he is getting at is that “rest” for the Jews was both the God-ordained Sabbath as well as the Promised Land they occupied with Joshua so many centuries ago under the terms of the Old Covenant. But he argues that “rest” has an even greater meaning: “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day.” (8) And, he continues, “a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his.” (9, 10)  So we should literally rest from our labors just as God rested. 

But there’s a still another interpretation of “rest,” and I think it is living out our salvation through Jesus Christ: “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” (11)

We arrive a verse I learned as a kid: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (12) I was taught that the small-w “word of God” is Scripture, the Bible. That’s the view of most Evangelicals, who love their sola scriptura. I’m less sure now. It seems to me the word of God can come in a variety of ways beyond just the Bible: through other people, through sermons, through actions, through reflection. The Holy Spirit is not limited in the ways it can operate on us nor in the ways God’s word comes to us.

Regardless of how we hear God’s word, in the end our actions and the consequences of those actions are our responsibility: “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (13) The truth will always be found out.

I think behind all of this rather confusing essay, our author is attempting to describe the impact of the transition from Old Covenant Judaism to New Covenant Christianity. Nowhere does that become more apparent than his essay on Jesus Christ as our great high priest.

However, Jesus as priest is not some abstract metaphor. Rather, our author wants to make sure we see Jesus as a real and legitimate priest who by becoming human through the Incarnation fully understands our human plight for he has experienced it himself: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested  as we are, yet without sin.” (15) That last phrase “yet without sin” says it all in how Jesus, while human, is also far greater than we.

Jesus as priest sits on the throne of grace and in one of the clearer promises in this epistle, our author makes sure we know that Jesus is the person to whom we come to confess and receive forgiveness: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (16) That, ladies and gentlemen, is a promise we can hang on to. We can indeed come to Jesus and confess and he intercedes on our behalf, making us right before God.

Psalm 107:17–22; Jeremiah 49:17–38; Hebrews 3:16–4:5

Originally published 9/18/2017. Revised and updated 9/17/2019.

Psalm 107:17–22: Our psalmist continues to describe the plight of those taken captive in what I presume is some war in Israel’s history. He does not appear to have much sympathy for them due to their disobedience, which as usual is the deuteronomic fomula:
Fools because of their sinful way,
because of their misdeeds they were afflicted. (17)

These people are in dire straits, perhaps due to some stomach ailment to the point of death:
All food their throat rejected,
they came to the gates of death. (18)

Recognizing their plight and their imminent doom, they finally turn to their last hope in what seems to be a psalmic version of a foxhole conversion. As always, God listens and rescues:
And they cried to Lord in their straits,
form their distress He rescued them.
He sent forth His word and healed them,
and delivered them from their pit. (19, 20)

What’s striking here is that it is God’s word that is the agent of rescue. This verse must certainly have been on John’s mind when he penned the prologue to his eponymous gospel. Jesus is indeed the Word from God who saves and heals us.

As always, when they (and we) are rescued there can be only one response: gratitude and worship:
Let the acclaim to the Lord His kindness,
and His wonders to humankind,
and offer thanksgiving sacrifices
and recount His deeds in glad song. (21, 22)

These verses are personally convicting. How often I’ve been discouraged or found myself in a dark place in my life. It is God who sees me through. But other than a quick prayer of acknowledgement as e.g., “Thank you, Lord,” I do not stop to sing or to worship. As always, God is infinitely patient with me, but he deserves far more of my gratitude than I give him.

Jeremiah 49:17–38: Although the book of Jeremiah spends most of its time (and my energy) on pronouncing doom on Israel, Judah, and especially Jerusalem, by no means are the Gentile nations surrounding Israel let off the hook.

Today, there’s Edom, which “shall become an object of horror; everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters.” (17) This nation receives the dubious honor of being compared to Sodom and Gomorrah. Our author also compares Edom’s inhabitants to sheep, who suffer the awful fate of seeing their children led away as prisoners. And once proud soldiers will collapse in fear—”and the heart of the warriors of Edom in that day shall be like the heart of a woman in labor.” (22) And as we know, Edom no longer exists.

While Edom’s doom was pronounced in prose, Damascus and the kingdoms of Kedar and Hazor (of which I have never heard until now) meet their doom in poetry:
Damascus has become feeble, she turned to flee,
    and panic seized her;
anguish and sorrows have taken hold of her,
    as of a woman in labor.

Therefore her young men shall fall in her squares,
    and all her soldiers shall be destroyed in that day,
says the Lord of hosts. (24, 27)

As for Kedar and Hazor:
Flee, wander far away, hide in deep places,

    O inhabitants of Hazor!
says the Lord.
For King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon
    has made a plan against you
    and formed a purpose against you.
Rise up, advance against a nation at ease,

  that lives secure,
says the Lord,
 (30, 31)

The scary verse here is that Hazor was conquered blissfully unaware—as a “nation at ease.” Its defenses were non-existent, as its inhabitants focused instead on its comfortable lifestyle. This sounds awfully close to home here in the21st century.

Wherever Hazor once was, its land will become a wasteland:
Hazor shall become a lair of jackals,
    an everlasting waste;
no one shall live there,
    nor shall anyone settle in it. (33)

The image that comes to my mind is the rubble remaining after a firebomb attack such as Leipzig in World War II or Hiroshima following the atom bomb. As we read here, there is nothing new about total annihilation.

Finally, it’s back to prose as Elam meets its fate of a scattered population: “I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven; and I will scatter them to all these winds, and there shall be no nation to which the exiles from Elam shall not come.” (36) Which is also certainly descriptive of what happened to the Jews following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in CE 70 by the Roman general, Titus.

The reading concludes with a rather cryptic prophecy. Jeremiah, speaking in God’s voice, announces, “and I will set my throne in Elam, and destroy their king and officials, says the Lord.” (38) One awaits clarification. Perhaps we’ll find out tomorrow.

Hebrews 3:16–4:5: Our author reflects on the fact that even though they had direct evidence of God’s daily provision through the manna and his leadership via the cloud/fire, the Jews wandering in the wilderness nevertheless rebelled. And in good Old Covenant fashion they were duly punished for their rebellion: “Now who were they who heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? But with whom was he angry forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?” (3:16, 17) But the even worse sin was disbelief in God’s message (or promise) to them: “So we see that they were unable to enter [Canaan, aka the promised land] because of unbelief.” (3:19)

The author refers to the promised land as “rest” as he turns the rest promised to Israel into a metaphor for salvation that is available to every person—Jew and Gentile— of faith. He notes first that as with the Jews, we too have heard “good news came to us just as to them” (4:2a) in the person of Jesus Christ. But just as the rebellious Jews in Moses’ time rejected God’s message, so too have most Jews in Jesus’ time heard the message of salvation and rejected it because it “did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” (4:2)

Thus begins what we might call “the Great Shift” of the target audience of the Gospel message from Jew to Gentile because of the Jewish rejection of Jesus Christ. It is “we who have believed [who] enter that rest.” (4:3)

Our author then goes off in a fairly impenetrable (to me, anyway) tangent, whose logic I cannot quite follow, as he quotes Genesis, “For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” (4:4) He quotes a later passage as well: “And again in this place it says, “They shall not enter my rest.” (4:5).

My take on this is that in the same way Eden is “the Rest,” Jesus Christ is our own Eden. And just as Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, and the Jews of Moses time prevented from entering the promised land, so, too, the Jews who have rejected Jesus will be prevented from obtaining salvation, which I think is what “rest” represents here.

Or maybe not… Where is grace here?

Psalm 107:10–16; Jeremiah 48:26–49:16; Hebrews 3:1–15

Originally published 9/16/2015. Revised and updated 9/16/2019.

Psalm 107:10–16: Unlike the previous psalm, this one omits the historic details of Israel’s history, concentrating instead on the cyclic relationship between God and the wandering nation. It always starts with rebellion:
For they rebelled against God’s sayings,
the MostHigh’s counsel they despised. (11)

And then the consequences of that rebellion:
And He brought their heart low in troubles.
They stumbled with none to help. (12)

That last line is perhaps the most frightening of all for it describes life without God. We, too, are stumbling around in the dark with no one there to help. I think stumbling pretty much characterizes most of our culture today. Wandering, stumbling, trying to do it all on our own in the vain hope we somehow will stumble into the light. The psalmist offers a simple solution to this aimless and hopeless stumbling:
And they cried to the Lord from their straits,
from their distress He rescued them.
He brought them out from the dark and of death’s shadow
and their bonds He sundered. (13, 14)

Notice how the rescue is effected: the people cry out. In that verbal society, speech is everything, Not writing for God for rescue, not thinking about God for rescue, not even praying for God’s rescue, but crying aloud. In that painful cry e acknowledge our aloneness and desperation by calling out to God. For when we speak aloud we are admitting our desperation to ourselves, to those around us, and finally to God.

And having called out, having acknowledged that we cannot find our way on our own, God comes to us and does something remarkable: “We are brought “out from the dark and death’s shadow.” The psalmist describes two types of darkness here. The first is the dark of our own futile attempts to find direction and purpose in life and ending up just going in circles. But that darkness is different than death’s shadow, which always hangs over us whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

God brought us out from death’s shadow by sending Jesus to conquer death. But we can be brought our from that shadow only by crying out to God and acknowledging we are helplessly lost on our own. And then in gratitude for our rescue from the prison we have created for ourselves, we can sing aloud with the psalmist:
Let them [us!] acclaim to the Lord His kindness
and His wonders to humankind.
For He shattered the doors of bronze
and the iron bars He hacked off. (15, 16)

Jeremiah 48:26–49:16: God judges three civilizations: the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites. The section opens on an arresting image: “let Moab wallow in his vomit; he too shall become a laughingstock.” (48:26) The poem that follows describes once great Moab becoming a drunken victim of its own pride:
    We have heard of the pride of Moab—
        he is very proud—
    of his loftiness, his pride, and his arrogance,
        and the haughtiness of his heart.” (48:29)

But like a drunkard, Moab’s pride becomes its downfall as “Gladness and joy have been taken away/ from the fruitful land of Moab;” (48:33) and finally, Woe to you, O Moab!
for your sons have been taken captive,
and your daughters into captivity. (48:46).

So, too, the ultimate fate of every nation, every people who bask proudly in their own accomplishments. Inevitably, pride leads to downfall—the drunkard’s stumbling collapse.

But God, being God holds out a flickering flame of hope:
Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab
in the latter days, says the Lord. (48:47). 

People complain about how the OT is always about God’s wrath, and they are right. But the part we have to pay attention to is that no matter how hopeless the situation, no matter what judgement has come, there is always hope in God’s rescue.

So, too with the Ammonites—another prideful people:
   I am going to bring terror upon you,
        says the Lord God of hosts,
        from all your neighbors,
    and you will be scattered, each headlong,
        with no one to gather the fugitives. (49:5)

But once again, there is a glimmer of hope: “But afterward I will restore the fortunes of the Ammonites, says the Lord.” (49:6)

And so once again with the Edomites: “You shall not go unpunished; you must drink it. For by myself I have sworn, says the Lord, that Bozrah shall become an object of horror and ridicule, a waste, and an object of cursing; and all her towns shall be perpetual wastes.” (49:13) But unlike Moab and Ammon, here there seems to be no hope of rescue. Is God’s judgement immutably final? Is God being inconsistent here, or has Edom committed what is essentially an unforgivable sin? Or perhaps there is no underlying logic at all. Is God dispensing hope randomly? I certainly hope not.

Hebrews 3:1–15: These early chapters of Hebrews are all about establishing a clear structure of hierarchy and clarifying and essentially redefining the roles of Israel’s great leaders in light of Jesus Christ as Messiah. First up is Moses. I expect that for the Jews, Moses had evolved over the centuries into a mythical figure, almost god-like. Our author deflates that image. Moses is simply God’s faithful servant” “just as Moses also “was faithful in all God’s house.”” (2) But now in the New Covenant, “Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (3) More than a servant, “Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son.” (6) For the Jews this was radical stuff. The itinerant rabbi they crucified was greater than Moses, who is now demoted to a mere servant?!?

As always, I’d love to know the back story that motivated our author to write this book. Like Paul, we presume he was facing a church of dissension as he quotes Psalm 95, comparing the rebels in the church to Israel rebelling against God in the wilderness:
    “Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
      as on the day of testing in the wilderness,
    where your ancestors put me to the test,” (8, 9a)

To make sure everyone understood the intent of the passage, the writer issues a stern warning: “Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (12) This is a reminder to us that we cannot take our faith casually. We are embarked on the most important journey of our lives: our journey of faith. It is not a hobby. More importantly, faith is not to be set aside when it’s inconvenient for us—or someone challenges us for our hopeless, “unscientific belief in a person we cannot see or hear.

And finally, there comes a reminder that our faith is acted out in community as we encourage each other: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (13) We who believe have remarkable status and responsibility, for “we have become partners of Christ” (14) Ponder that. We are not subordinates; we are members of the family. we are partners. And all that implies in terms of the great responsibilities that come with partnership.

Psalm 107:1–9; Jeremiah 47:1–48:25; Hebrews 2:8b–18

Originally published 9/15/2015. Revised and updated 9/14/2019.

Psalm 107:1–9: The opening of this psalm marks it as a psalm of thanksgiving:
Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,
for His kindness is forever. (1)

It is also probably post-exhilic because the next verse describes how God has gathered together those who have been scattered:
Let the Lord’s redeemed ones say,
whom He redeemed from the hand of the foe,
and gathered them from the lands,
from east and west, from north and south. (2, 3)

God gathered them as they “wandered in wilderness, waste land,/ found no road to a settled town.” (4) These wanderers were “hungry, thirsty, too,/ their life-breath failed within them.” (5) As always, we need only turn to God and cry out for rescue—and God will rescue them and us:
And they cried to the Lord from their straits,
from their distress He saved them. (6)

This psalm operates on two levels. First, the physical. God has gathered together those who were scattered, provided shelter in the settled town, quenched their thirst, and satisfied their hunger:
For He sated the thirsting throat
and the hungry throat He filled with Good. (9)

And these people are indeed thankful.

But the second level speaks directly to us today. Is there a better description of our current human condition? Now that our culture believes we have outgrown the need for God, we are increasingly scattered as we continue lose societal cohesion and wonder own roads that are ultimately dead ends. There is no better metaphor for our present situation than that we have found no road to a settled town where our spiritual hunger and thirst can be quenched.

Will we, like the people in this psalm, “cry to the Lord from their straits?” (6a) For Israel, “from their distress He saved them./ And He led the on a straight road/ to go to a settled town.” (6b, 7) This phrase seems particularly apt as thousand and thousands attempt to flee the chaos of the Middle East and find a straight road to a settled town in Europe or from failed states in Central America seeking asylum in the US.

As Christians, we know where that straight road leads: directly to Jesus Christ. But I fear the world will continue to wander, thinking it knows what to do. Will it, too, ever cry out to God for rescue?

Jeremiah 47:1–48:25: One thing about Jeremiah that we never found with Isaiah. God speaks through this prophet to the lands beyond Israel and Judah. Here, Jeremiah prophesies doom for the Philistines, that ever-present threat to the Jews:
     “For the Lord is destroying the Philistines,
         the remnant of the coastland of Caphtor.
     Baldness has come upon Gaza,
         Ashkelon is silenced.” (47:4b, 5a) 

Because Gaza and Ashkelon are still with us almost 3000 years later, there is an eerie quality to this prophecy, as if it has been fulfilled once again in our time.  Judgement also comes to Moab:
the fortress is put to shame and broken down;
the renown of Moab is no more. (48:2)

There is a gruesome command as well, “Accursed is the one who is slack in doing the work of the Lord; and accursed is the one who keeps back the sword from bloodshed.” (48:10). This is one of those places in the OT where we shake our head, realizing that it was a very different place than the civilization we know, and that some aspects of these prophecies remain inexplicable.

So, why Philistia and Moab here in the midst of a long story about the fate of Israel and Judah? It’s one more place where we encounter the fact that God is concerned with all humankind. Israel may have been his chosen people, but his concerns–and ultimately, his love, extends to all people.

Hebrews 2:8b–18: The reason for our author’s discussion on the place of humans in God’s creative hierarchy starts to become clear: “we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (9)  My take on this is that Jesus came to earth effectively to give God the personal experience, if you will, of “the suffering of death” and of “tasting death.” But in so doing, Jesus Christ has thereby accomplished the means to our salvation, or as our author puts it, “make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” (10) [I love the phrase, “pioneer of salvation”…]

Going on to cite three Scripture passages, our author makes it clear that only through becoming flesh and blood, could Jesus have “likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (14, 15) Jesus came to conquer death. Or as the old cliche has it, Jesus won the final war against death even though we continue to fight the battles against the devil. 

In short, Jesus “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” (17)  Aha, now we see where he’s going with this. Jesus is our great high priest, making the once-and-for-all sacrifice on our behalf. But the primary qualification for Jesus to become that effective priest was that “he himself was tested by what he suffered, [so that] he is able to help those who are being tested.” (18)

God is sympathetic to our fallen plight as humans. That’s on display all the way through the OT. But it is only through the incarnation of Jesus Christ that God becomes empathetic with us: tasting what we taste, walking where we walk, suffering what we suffer—and of course endures the one great Suffering which spares us and becomes the means to our salvation.

Psalm 106:40–48; Jeremiah 45,46; Hebrews 1:10–2:8a

Originally published 9/14/2017. Revised and updated 9/13/2019.

Psalm 106:40–48: God’s anger is understandable given the vile practice of child sacrifice before Canaan’s idols—even to the point of his regretting what having chosen these stubborn, complaining people. Our psalmist’s history lesson arrives at the present doleful situation of Judah in Babylonian exile, which he sees clearly as God’s punishment for their manifold evil sins:
And the Lord’s wrath blazed against His people,
and He abhorred His estate,
and gave them into the hand of nations,
their haters ruled over them.
And their enemies oppressed them,
and they were subject to their power. (40-42)

As far as the psalmist is concerned this is just one more turn of the never-ending cycle of Israel’s sinfulness followed by its repentance followed by God’s forgiving mercy:
Many times did He save them,
and they rebelled against His counsel
and were brought low through their misdeeds.”
And He saw when they were in straits,
when He heard their song of prayer.
And He recalled for them His pact,
relented through His many kindnesses.
And He granted them mercy
in the eyes of all their captors. (43-46)

Our poet asks for God’s mercy once more—for God to gather in his people who have been scattered around the nations so that they may worship him:
Rescue us, Lord, our God
and gather us from the nations
to acclaim Your holy name
and to glory in Your praise. (47)

I’m not sure if this is a specific reference to the return from Babylonian exile or a deeper prophecy about to what happens much later in history. This verse surely was sung in 1947 with the reestablishment of the state of Israel.

The psalm ends on an perfect phrase of liturgical worship:
Blessed is the Lord God of Israel forever and ever.
And all the people say: Amen, hallelujah!

If we ever needed to be reminded of the depths of our own depravity and the fact that God will forgive us when we repent, it is right here. This psalm has plumbed the depths of human depravity but it ends on the highest possible plane—in exactly the same rhythm of a downward thrust of sin in our lives to be supplanted by an upward thrust of mercy and forgiveness. Our God is a rescuing God!

Jeremiah 45,46: Baruch, who is Jeremiah’s amanuensis, receives a wonderful promise for his faithfulness. Jeremiah tells him that he will be spared when the destruction of Jerusalem comes. But rescue requires humility: “And you, do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them; for I am going to bring disaster upon all flesh, says the Lord; but I will give you your life as a prize of war in every place to which you may go.” (45:5)

Indeed, that is the promise for us: when we are willing to place God ahead of our own egos, we will survive and prosper.

Chapter 46 at least opens with a clarification of what the chapter will be about: “The word of the Lord that came to the prophet Jeremiah concerning the nations.” (46:1) And then Jeremiah dives right in once again back in poetic form. The first nation up is Egypt as Jeremiah describes its history rather than events yet to come: “Concerning Egypt, about the army of Pharaoh Neco, king of Egypt, which was by the river Euphrates at Carchemish and which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah.” (46:2) One thing I had not realized: Egypt’s army marched to Babylon in its futile effort to overthrow the Chaldeans.

The poem is almost homeric—a brilliant exposition of battle and blood, opening with Egypt’s doomed plan to ride to Babylon and conquer it:
Egypt rises like the Nile,
    like rivers whose waters surge.
It said, Let me rise, let me cover the earth,
    let me destroy cities and their inhabitants.
Advance, O horses,
    and dash madly, O chariots!
Let the warriors go forth: (46:8, 9)

But defeat by the Chaldeans is inevitable:
The sword shall devour and be sated,
    and drink its fill of their blood.
For the Lord God of hosts holds a sacrifice
    in the land of the north by the river Euphrates. (46:10)

The sacrifice here, of course, is the Egyptian army. Notice that as far as our prophet is concerned, God directs the fate of every nation, not just Israel’s.

Parenthetically, I’ve always wondered what the song, “There is a Balm in Gilead” was referring to. Turns out it’s about Egypt’s defeat at the Euphrates. Who knew?
Go up to Gilead, and take balm,
    O virgin daughter Egypt!
In vain you have used many medicines;
    there is no healing for you (46:11)

Defeated on the battlefield, there is only humiliation for Egypt—and, as far as Jeremiah is concerned, it is God who caused it:
Why has Apis fled?
    Why did your bull not stand?
    —because the Lord thrust him down.
   Your multitude stumbled and fell,

Daughter Egypt shall be put to shame;
    she shall be handed over to a people from the north. (46: (15, 16a, 24)

As well as humiliation for its pharaoh:
Give Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the name
    “Braggart who missed his chance. (46:17)

Egypt has fallen (and we are reminded that the fate of the Jews who fled to Egypt a few chapters back is doubtless the same as Egypt itself). But Israel (here referred to as Jacob) will eventually be restored:
But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob,
    and do not be dismayed, O Israel;
for I am going to save you from far away,
    and your offspring from the land of their captivity.
Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease,
    and no one shall make him afraid. (46:27)

But this wonderful eventuality occurs only after punishment for its manifold sins. Nevertheless, there is also always the promise that Israel will survive:
I will make an end of all the nations
    among which I have banished you,
    but I will not make an end of you!
I will chastise you in just measure,
    and I will by no means leave you unpunished. (48:28)

All this has indeed come true. Babylon is certainly no more and Egypt is much diminished. But the state of Israel not only exists, it is strong. It is also a personal reminder that while we must bear the consequences of our sins, God will indeed rescue us when we repent—exactly the same theme we saw in today’s psalm.

Hebrews 1:10–2:8a: Our Jewish author is a fan of the psalms as he quotes from Psalm 102 describing how God’s eternal nature transcends creation itself:
In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like clothing;
 like a cloak you will roll them up,
    and like clothing they will be changed.
But you are the same,
    and your years will never end. (1: 10-12)

(I have to believe these lines have been set to music somewhere.) But as we will discover, our author has a didactic purpose as he describes the relationship between God and Jesus Christ.

Apparently, he is refuting a belief in the early church that angels were superior beings to Jesus himself because Jesus came to earth as flesh and blood. But he makes it clear that angels are simply spiritual messengers and they communicate a Message that is superior to them. In fact, they are also messengers for us: “Are not all angels  spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (1:14)

Inasmuch as angels are in communication with us, our author notes, “Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” (2:1) He then refers to the crucial importance of Scripture and what has been written there regarding our salvation: “It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, ” (2:3)

But in addition to what the psalmists and prophets wrote, God has been actively communicating this great message to us in other ways as well: “God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.” (2:4) Perhaps this verse is a reference to the Day of Pentecost and our author was in that crowd who received the Holy Spirit.

The author returns to his assertion that while humans may be lower in spiritual status than angels, they are in fact God’s preferred creation. He does this by quoting Psalm 8:
What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    or mortals, that you care for them?
 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
    you have crowned them with glory and honor,
   subjecting all things under their feet. (2:6-8)

Indeed, God has created us to be “crowned with glory and honor” But as we will see in this fairly complex book, this glory and honor brings serious responsibility as well.

Psalm 106:32–39; Jeremiah 44; Hebrews 1:1–9

Originally published 9/12/2015. Revised and updated 9/12/2019.

Psalm 106:32–39: If someone were looking for the screenplay version of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness, this psalm would serve well. It hits all the highlights and “lowlights” of their wandering years. The psalmist sums up both the people’s complaints and Moses’ anger at Meribah in two powerful verses:
And they caused fury over the waters of Meribah,
and it went badly for Moses because of them,
for they rebelled against him,
and he pronounced rash things with his lips. (33, 34)

In just these few words we see how Moses lost his right to enter Canaan because the goading of the crowd made him so angry that it caused him to say things he would regret the rest of his life. But words once spoken cannot really be undone. This is a powerful warning to all of us, when in times of stress we become angry—and anger too often leads to regretful acts. Social media is another place where, as many are finding out, angry words can lead to bad consequences.

Our psalmist skips right over Israel’s entry into and conquest of Canaan—Joshua is nowhere to be found in this psalm—and leaps forward in time to their Great Mistake in not obeying God’s orders in conquering the land:
They did not destroy the peoples
as the Lord had said to them. (34)

Instead, “they mingled with the nations and learned their deeds.” (35)

The worst consequence of this assimilation was of course adopting the pagan religions of Canaan:
And they worshipped their idols,
which became a snare to them. (36).

From our modern perspective we cannot really comprehend why God would order the destruction of the tribes living in Canaan. But alas, assimilation ultimately becomes downfall for the Jews.

We can be more sympathetic with God’s order to destroy the pagans at the next verses, which describe bluntly and gruesomely the reasons behind God’s rationale:
And they sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to the demons.
And they shed innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and their daughters
when they sacrificed to Canaan’s idols,

and the land was polluted with blood-guilt.
And they were defiled through their deeds
and went whoring through their actions.  (37-39)

While our society is nowhere near this kind of child sacrifice—although abortion could certainly be seen as not too distant— these verses are a deep challenge to churches that aim to attract members by being “hip” or tuned in to the prevailing culture as like Israel, it assimilates its mores.  At best these churches lose their distinctiveness; at worst they become irrelevant and ultimately a blot on the Gospel. Say what you will about the Catholic Church, it has maintained its distinctive and yes, separateness, from the culture, far better than mainline Protestantism (yes, I’m including Lutherans). The result of following societal mores too closely is, frankly, to fade into the cultural woodwork.

Jeremiah 44:  Speaking of cultural assimilation, the remnant that fled to Egypt is busy disobeying the rule to maintain their distinctiveness as God’s people in a foreign culture as Jeremiah, speaking in God’s voice, warns the Egyptian immigrants, “Why do you provoke me to anger with the works of your hands, making offerings to other gods in the land of Egypt where you have come to settle?” (8) The prophet laments the cultural loss of memory, “Have you forgotten the [consequences of the] crimes of your ancestors, of the kings of Judah, of their wives, your own crimes and those of your wives, which they committed in the land of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem?” (9) Worse, he continues, “They have shown no contrition or fear to this day, nor have they walked in my law and my statutes that I set before you and before your ancestors.” (10) Jeremiah goes on to tell the crowd that God will “punish those who live in the land of Egypt, as I have punished Jerusalem, with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence.” (13)

But when the people hear this warning, they respond negatively to Jeremiah’s prophetic words, As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we are not going to listen to you. Instead, we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her,” (16, 17)  They justify their position by asserting that they are being fed only by sacrificing to the Egyptian queen of heaven. They have decided it was not God who provided for them, but their own libations made of in front of this false God that have brought them success. Jeremiah pronounces God’s judgement on their arrogance: “I am going to watch over them for harm and not for good; all the people of Judah who are in the land of Egypt shall perish by the sword and by famine, until not one is left.” (27)

We are as stubborn and misguided as these people. We are convinced that our success arises from our own actions by making offerings and pouring out libations at the altar of the American culture of wealth and celebrity. When in reality our blessings have come from God, who, like these hapless immigrants, we ignore at our peril.

 Hebrews 1:1–9:  In the New Testament canon, Paul gets most of the credit for forming the theology of Jesus Christ. The epistles of Peter, James and John play minor but important roles. In my view it is the anonymous Jewish author of Hebrews that establishes perhaps the most rigorous foundation of Christ’s preeminence as the Son of God, linking Jesus again and again to God by constant use of the Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament).

It is here in the very first verses that our author establishes that God is speaking to mankind in a very new way: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” (1,2). God has abandoned his old way of speaking through prophets like Jeremiah and now speaks through the person of Jesus Christ. What Jesus said, God has said. What Jesus taught, God has taught. And like the opening verses of John’s gospel and the hymn that Paul quotes in Philippians 2, Jesus was present at creation.

The next verse must be one of the key passages for the Council of Nicea when it states in the Creed, “of one being with the Father.” Our author asserts, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” (3a). More than the human personification of God, Jesus also “made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (3b) So, Jesus replaces the now-obsolete sacrificial system. The author will expand on all these themes in the chapters that follow. 

By citing Scripture our author establishes the fact of Jesus’ superiority to the angels. This is important in building the connection between Jesus and God because up to this point angels were viewed as superior to mere humans. But now, angels are merely “his servants flames of fire.” (7) while “of the Son, [God] says,
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
      therefore God, your God, has anointed you
       with the oil of gladness beyond your companions [the angels].” (9)

And this is just the opening of this often mysterious but powerful book that comes at the theology of Jesus Christ quite differently than Paul and thus broadens the theological foundation on which all Christianity rests.

Psalm 106:24–31; Jeremiah 42,43; Philemon 1:12–25;

Originally published 9/12/2017. Revised and updated 9/11/2019.

Psalm 106:24–31: Our psalmist continues his negative assessment of his ancestors, highlighting the numerous incidents that tested Moses and certainly tested God while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness:
And they despised the land of their desires,
they did not trust His word.
And they muttered in their tents,
they did not heed the voice of the Lord. (24, 25)

The line,”they despised the land of their desires” is certainly a reference to the spies who brought back all the bad news about Canaan. The image of muttering in their tents is a precursor to the modern practice of muttering on social media!. We are just the same as they: upset, fearful, muttering, ignoring God.

In good deuteronomic fashion, God does not countenance muttering, much less open rebellion and he sends an epidemic:
And He raised His hand against them,
to make the fall in the wilderness,
to disperse their seed among the nations,
to scatter among the lands. (26, 27)

Even as early as the wilderness journey, the Israelites intermarried and began to lose their unique identity. Worse, rather than bringing God to those whom they married, they fell prey to the small-g gods and awful practices of their spouses:
And they clung to Baal Peor
and ate sacrifices to the dead.  (28)

These disgraceful practices are abhorrent to God. Once again there is punishment linked to God’s disapproval:
And they provoked Him through their acts,
and the scourge broke out among them. (29)

This time it is Aaron’s grandson, Phineas, who assuages God’s anger:
And Phineas stood and prayed,
and the scourge was held back
and it was counted for him as merit,
from generation to generation forever. (30, 31)

Phineas gets even more lines than Moses here as our poet conveniently skips over the fact that it was Phineas who slew the people who followed Baal. I’m left with the impression that the psalmist is flattering a priestly descendant of Phineas—an early example of story-editing to get across an editorial viewpoint. So, there’s nothing new when we accuse the mainstream media of selective and biased reporting!

Jeremiah 42,43: There are only a few Jews left in Judah. The leaders, Johanan and Azariah, “and all the people from the least to the greatest, approached the prophet Jeremiah and said, “Be good enough to listen to our plea, and pray to the Lord your God for us—for all this remnant.” (42:1,2) 

Jeremiah agrees (probably reluctantly, given what has happened to him already when he delivers bad news). He tells them, “I am going to pray to the Lord your God as you request, and whatever the Lord answers you I will tell you; I will keep nothing back from you.” (4) This statement is a glimpse into how Jeremiah kept on receiving the Word of the Lord: he prayed.

Ten days later, Jeremiah returns with God’s answer: “If you will only remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I am sorry for the disaster that I have brought upon you.” (42:10)

Well, that’s an interesting response. So God has regrets and is “sorry for the disasters” he’s brought on them. I’ve never thought about God regretting his actions, but that seems to be the case here.

Unsurprisingly, it looks like Jeremiah’s words will not be heeded. The remnant, fearing the Chaldeans and seeing what happened to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, is planning to escape to Egypt—a stunning potential replay of what happened so many centuries before. Jeremiah is crystal clear: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Just as my anger and my wrath were poured out on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so my wrath will be poured out on you when you go to Egypt.” (42:18) And again Jeremiah warns them, “O remnant of Judah, Do not go to Egypt. Be well aware that I have warned you today  that you have made a fatal mistake.” (42:19, 20)

Jeremiah points out that they asked him to pray and obtain the advice God has for them: stay or go. And now they plan to ignore Jeremiah’s last stern warning: “Be well aware, then, that you shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence in the place where you desire to go and settle.” (42:22)

Once again we see the immutability of human nature. Even when they ask a prophet for advice and the prophet comes back and tells them something they don’t want to hear, they ignore him.  Which is also a good description of Jesus’ ministry in Israel. He spoke the truth and was ignored by most of the people, especially the leaders, and paid with his life. And goodness knows, we behave just the same today when we hear news we don’t want to hear.

In a dramatic demonstration of people rejecting Jeremiah’s clear prophecy, the leaders accuse Jeremiah of outright lying and even treachery: You are telling a lie. The Lord our God did not send you to say, ‘Do not go to Egypt to settle there’; but Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you against us, to hand us over to the Chaldeans, in order that they may kill us or take us into exile in Babylon.” (43:2, 3)

The remnant sets out for Egypt, taking the very unwilling Jeremiah with them. Now in Egypt, God speaks to Jeremiah and directs the prophet to “Take some large stones in your hands, and bury them in the clay pavement that is at the entrance to Pharaoh’s palace in Tahpanhes.” (43:9) Which he does in full view of the Judeans. God then directs Jeremiah to announce, “I am going to send and take my servant King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and he will set his throne above these stones that I have buried, and he will spread his royal canopy over them.” (43:10)

The chapter concludes with Jeremiah’s grimly specific prediction of how the Babylonian king will conquer Egypt: “He shall kindle a fire in the temples of the gods of Egypt; and he shall burn them and carry them away captive; and he shall pick clean the land of Egypt, as a shepherd picks his cloak clean of vermin.” (43:12) We end the chapter with God’s warning ringing in our ears: “[Nebuchadnezzar] shall break the obelisks of Heliopolis, which is in the land of Egypt; and the temples of the gods of Egypt he shall burn with fire.” (43:13)

Fair warning. I have a feeling bad things will be happening in the next chapter… The lesson is clear: if you ask a prophet to prophesy, you should take what he says seriously, even if it is the opposite of what you want to do. While we may not have Jeremiahs in our midst today, we certainly have Scripture and prayer. Answers to study and prayer are not always what we want. Will we flee to figurative Egypt instead?

Philemon 1:12–25: Paul is writing Philemon that he is sending Onesimus back to his rightful owner without first seeking Philemon’s consent. It’s clear that Onesimus escaped from Philemon’s household and ended up in Rome, doubtless stumbling across Paul—perhaps in prison. If Onesimus is sent back to his owner, Philemon has every right to kill him. Hence the somewhat obsequious spin that Paul takes here: “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever,  no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (15, 16)

As a Christian brother, Paul is appealing to Philemon’s faith, which Paul believes has surely transformed him. We can hear Paul almost begging, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (17, 18) He even goes to the extent of proving his good intentions by writing, “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.” (19)

As if to slightly change the subject, Paul asks, “One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” (22) making it clear that he regards Philemon as a brother in Christ.

So why is this letter to Philemon in the canon? I think that it ended up there because it is a real world example of asking others to be kind and to have mercy—especially compared to the endless didactic and frankly rather cold advice of the Pastorals that precede it. Here we see Paul’s genuine caring and his genuine worry. But above all it is an example of how Jesus and the Holy Spirit can change people’s hearts for the better, to become hearts of caring and compassion. Paul is placing his trust—and Onesimus’ very life—in the conviction that the Holy Spirit has transformed Philemon for the better.

We don’t know the ending of the story. What happened when Onesimus showed up at Philemon’s doorstep? But if we truly believe in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, we can be assured that Philemon greeted his slave with open arms.