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

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

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

The psalm ends with a grand finale celebrating all of God’s creation, ending with his creative apotheosis: humans. Our psalmist and we are truly grateful for our existence, our being both physical and spiritual:
Bless the Lord, O all His works,
in all places of His dominion.
Bless, O my being, the Lord!” (22)

How often have I thanksed God for my very existence, the person I am and who he created me to be? Do I behave as God’s creation or do I go my clueless, self-centered way? Looking around at our culture I’m afraid the vast majority are in the latter category.

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

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

It’s object lesson time once again. God shows Jermiah two baskets of figs. “ One basket had very good figs, like first-ripe figs, but the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten.” (24:2) We rapidly get to the interpretation. The good figs are unsurprisingly those who have remained faithful to god even though they’ve been exiled to Babylon. God’s promise to them is, “I will bring them back to this land. …I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” (24:6b, 7) So once again, there’s this promise of a saved remnant. The Jewish race will not be lost—and of course it continues down to the present day. God keeps his promises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Christians we know that we are saved by grace, but I do wonder about entire nations that persist in doing evil. All empires fall. ANd given the state of American culture I think we can safely predict which nation will fall next because it is behaving pretty much like corrupt Judah and corrupt Babylon. This book is not just a recitation of events that took place several millennia ago.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And as God does, so should we. After all, not only are we forgiven in the metaphor of spacial dimensions, but in in the dimension of time as well:
But the Lord’s kindness is forever and ever
over those who fear Him
and His bounty to the sons of sons…” (17)

But notice: God forgives those who acknowledge God and acknowledge they are sinners as the psalmist reminds us:
“...for the keepers of His pact
and those who recall His precepts to do them.” (18)

For our psalmist it was all about keeping within the boundaries of the law; for us it is acknowledging and believing in what Jesus Christ has done for us…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Psalm 103:1–5; Jeremiah 21:11–22:30; 1 Timothy 4:11–5:8

Psalm 103:1–5: Dedicated to David, this psalm is an inward reflection by the poet as he contemplates God’s overwhelming beneficence.
For David.
Bless, O my being, the Lord, and everything in me, His holy name.
Bless, O my being, the Lord, and do not forget all His generous acts.” (1,2)

Today, I think we would call this a centering prayer, where the goal is to gather all our thoughts without distraction and focus solely on God (or in our case, Jesus)—hence the repeated line, almost mantra-like, “Bless, O my being, the Lord…”

Having focused himself, the poet goes on to enumerate God’s blessings in his life:
Who forgives all your wrongs,
heals all your illnesses,
redeems your life from the Pit,
crowns you with kindness, compassion,
sates you with good while you live—
you renew your youth like the eagle.” (3-5)

Notice that the first blessing is forgiveness, which of course means that our psalmist has recognized his sins and confessed them—an act in decreasing popularity in our self-centered age. …And one more reminder why it is wise to place confession at thefront end of worship.

Unlike so many other psalms that focus on God having created disease as punishment, here our psalmist celebrates God’s healing power, even over deadly diseases—a power that in our technological age we seldom acknowledge.

In this age that believes our behavior—both good and bad—is completely self-willed, it worth remembering that it is God—not us—who is the source of kindness and compassion. God will happily overcome our darker instincts with heaven-sent kindness and compassion if we but center our lives on him and acknowledge what the psalmist has said here. It is true for him and it is true for us.

As the final stanza states, God is the source of our blessings. And even if we do not become younger physically, centering our lives on Jesus Christ and God certainly restores a fresh, youthful outlook on our life. (Although I don’t really get the eagle simile…)

Jeremiah 21:11–22:30: In this reading, Jeremiah turns his attention to the kings of the Davidic dynasty. The prophet opens with an offer and a threat regarding the core leadership responsibility of the king, which is to dispense justice fairly:
Execute justice in the morning,
    and deliver from the hand of the oppressor
    anyone who has been robbed,
or else my wrath will go forth like fire,
    and burn, with no one to quench it,
    because of your evil doings.” (21:12)

As always, there’s God’s quid-pro-quo:. Treat others unjustly and God will punish the king accordingly:
I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings,
says the Lord;” (21:14a)

With this introduction, God sends Jeremiah right to the king this time to outline the deuteronomic deal. Jeremiah instructs the king to “Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.” (22:3)

Notice that the underlying theme of the OT surfaces once again: the command to provide  justice to the orphans and widows. Jeremiah then outlines the unsurprising consequences of disobedience (as he has done so many times before): “But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.” (22:5)

At this point Jeremiah gets down to forecasting the fate of specific kings. The first is Shallum, son of King Josiah. He’s already been taken hostage by invading powers and “in the place where they have carried him captive he shall die, and he shall never see this land again.” (22:12)

A poetic intermezzo follows regarding the fate of kingly oppressors:
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
    and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
    and does not give them their wages;” (22:13)

But it appears God has already given up on this Shallum character as Jeremiah concludes in a verse that applies to all corrupt leaders,
But your eyes and heart
    are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
    and for practicing oppression and violence.” (22:17)

Alas, how many kings and rulers down through history and to the present time fit this exact description? Jeremiah then turns his prophetic attention to King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah. This miscreant meets a shameful end:
With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried—
    dragged off and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem.” (22:19)

A similar fate awaits Josiah’s grandson, Coniah in one of God’s more memorable threats: “As I live, says the Lord, even if King Coniah son of Jehoiakim of Judah were the signet ring on my right hand, even from there I would tear you off and give you into the hands of those who seek your life, into the hands of those of whom you are afraid, even into the hands of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and into the hands of the Chaldeans.” (22:24, 25)

This corrupt king is so hopeless that Jeremiah returns to the image of the broken jug:
Is this man Coniah a despised broken pot,
    a vessel no one wants?” (22:28a)

But I think the greatest tragedy here is how the Davidic dynasty ends. What had begun in greatness with David and Solomon has degenerated to an ash heap of corruption. Coniah is the end of the line as Jeremiah pronounces God’s ultimate curse on a man—the lack of progeny:
Record this man as childless,
    a man who shall not succeed in his days;
for none of his offspring shall succeed
    in sitting on the throne of David,
    and ruling again in Judah.” (22:30)

But we also know neither the story nor the Davidic line end here. Several centuries after the lines are penned, one person from the house of David will arise: the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ.

The lesson here is stark and occurs often in the OT: Leadership matters and therefore it is held by God to the highest standards. A corrupt leader infects the nation. We have seen it over and over down through history and now we must question even our own leadership. I am not particularly optimistic as America turns increasingly away from God.

1 Timothy 4:11–5:8: Our author continues to write in Paul’s voice, advising Timothy, “These are the things you must insist on and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (4:11, 12) [I have to say at this point even though my skepticism regarding Paul’s authorship remains strong, our author has certainly captured Paul’s penchant for advice-giving in long lists.]

We also for the first time encounter the rite of ordination that continues today—the laying on of hands in apostolic succession: “Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.” (4:14)

Just to make sure Timothy gets the point, our “Paul” repeats himself, but without the elegance that I think the actual Paul would have used. Rather, although it is pertinent, the exhortation is workmanlike and more abstract than I think Paul would have been: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (4:16)

I have to confess there’s some pretty decent advice here about pastoral relationships with the members of the church. If a pastor is younger than many congregants, as Timothy was, then “Do not speak harshly to an older man,  but speak to him as to a father, to younger men as brothers, to older women as mothers, to younger women as sisters—with absolute purity.” (5:1,2) Notice especially the care that a pastor should take when interacting with women: with “absolute purity.” How many church splits and general shame would have been avoided had leaders heeded these words more carefully!

Speaking as an older adult, I particularly like the next verse: “If a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some repayment to their parents; for this is pleasing in God’s sight.” (5:4) In other words, charity begins at home with the family. This command is reiterated more broadly just a few verses down: “And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (5:8)

I think our culture in general has pretty much ignored these commands as too many family members ignore their responsibility to each other and think that the government will take care of them. Obviously, there are many families that cannot support each other, but I suspect many do not really try hard enough, preferring to keep their wealth to themselves. If we claim to be Christian, then the command seems especially clear here.

Psalm 102:23–28; Jeremiah 19:10–21:10; 1 Timothy 4:1–10

Psalm 102:23–28: The psalmist swings back around from concern for the nation to his own situation, asserting that God is the one who has decreed his early death. He prays that God would change his mind:
He humbled my strength on the highway,
he cut short my days.
I say, ‘O my God.
Do not take me away in the midst of my days!’” (24, 25a)

Our poet has a very creative rationale with which he supports is plea for a longer life. He contrasts God’s eternality with a man’s brief life span. The unspoken implication is that God, who has created everything, being eternal, really can fathom neither the poet’s yearning to live nor the human’s psychological plight of mortality—of being given just a few short years to be on earth:
Your years are for all generations.
Of old You founded the earth,
and the heavens—Your handiwork.” (25b, 26)

I sense the deep frustration of the psalmist as he compares human lives to metaphorical clothes that God puts on and then discards when they are worn out:
They will perish and and You will stand.
They will all wear away like a garment.
Like clothing You change them, and they pass away.” (27)

One last acknowledgement of God’s eternity and our poet seems to accept his mortal fate as he understands that even in our short lives it is God who protects us and gives the gift of life to the next generation:
But You—Your years never end.
The sons of Your servants dwell safe,
their seed in Your presence, unshaken.” (28, 29)

The takeaway for me is that we must accept the fact that even though God is eternal we are not. But in our mortality we will find God’s healing and protection.

Jeremiah 19:10–21:10: The Moravians inexplicably ended yesterday’s reading at Jeremiah holding the earthenware jug but doing nothing with it. Today, we read God’s instructions of what the prophet is to do with it: “Then you shall break the jug in the sight of those who go with you, and shall say to them: Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended.” (19:10) This statement is in stark contrast to Jeremiah’s earlier visit to the potter where he saw that when the craftsman makes a mistake he can redeem the clay by starting over. But with a broken jug there is metaphorically no redemption for Judah.

Jeremiah carries out God’s instructions in his usual blunt style: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am now bringing upon this city and upon all its towns all the disaster that I have pronounced against it, because they have stiffened their necks, refusing to hear my words.” (19:15)

Unsurprisingly, this does not go over well with his audience. As a consequence, the high priest, Pashur, “struck the prophet Jeremiah, and put him in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the house of the Lord.” (20:2) The priest releases Jeremiah the next morning but instead of saying thanks, Jeremiah curses him: “Jeremiah said to him, The Lord has named you not Pashhur but “Terror-all-around.” (20:4) He goes on to tell the priest that he will witness his friends die by the sword and everyone else will be carried off to Babylon and “there you shall die, and there you shall be buried, you and all your friends, to whom you have prophesied falsely.” (20:6)

A long disquisition in poetry naturally follows as Jeremiah decries the fate of prophets without honor in their own countries:
For I hear many whispering:
    “Terror is all around!
Denounce him! Let us denounce him!”
    All my close friends
    are watching for me to stumble.” (20:10)

Despite the personal danger in which he finds himself, Jeremiah remains true to God and would really like to see the events he’s prophesied actually carried out sooner rather than later:
Lord of hosts, you test the righteous,
    you see the heart and the mind;
let me see your retribution upon them,
    for to you I have committed my cause.” (20:12)

Once again we read that Jeremiah, faithful to God and relentless deliverer of bad news to an evil people, would rather not have been born at all. The poem ends on a dark but psychologically authentic note—regret for having lived at all:
Why did I come forth from the womb
    to see toil and sorrow,
    and spend my days in shame?” (20:18)

Eventually the people of Judah begin to understand that Jeremiah has not been making all this up. Perhaps, some may have thought, he is an authentic prophet telling us stuff we’d rather not hear.  The events he’s predicted appear to be coming to pass and Babylon is nearing Jerusalem. Pashur sends for Jeremiah and asks, “Please inquire of the Lord on our behalf, for King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is making war against us;” (21:2a) The high priest is optimistic that “perhaps the Lord will perform a wonderful deed for us, as he has often done, and will make him withdraw from us.” (21:2b)

Unsurprisingly, Jeremiah tells the priest his optimism is badly misplaced and that God “will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both human beings and animals; they shall die of a great pestilence.” (21:6) And those who survive need not think themselves fortunate because God will ensure that “those who survive the pestilence, sword, and famine—into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, into the hands of their enemies, into the hands of those who seek their lives.” (21:7)

The last line in today’s reading is Jeremiah, speaking in God’s voice, summing up the dreadful events to come: “For I have set my face against this city for evil and not for good, says the Lord: it shall be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.” (10:10)

But as always the reading ends, leaving us wondering, will God give them one last chance to redeem themselves before the awful events come to pass? Jeremiah’s been forecasting doom through these twenty-one chapters but nothing has happened yet. Is there still hope?

1 Timothy 4:1–10: Our author undertakes a direct condemnation of gnosticism, whose influence seems to be growing in the church (again another suggestion that the letter has been written some years after Paul). He writes, “in later  times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron.” (1,2)

He goes on to note that “They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created…” (3) A foundational belief of the Gnostics was that physical objects, even physical life itself was inferior to a serene and superior state of spirituality—exactly the same thing we see today in the crystals and makras of various spiritualists who hang out in places like Sedona,AZ.

True Christians, on the other hand, rejoice at the physicality of creation because “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving.” (4) This is a good warning to those who may tend to over-spirtualize their religious experience.

For example, sometimes, people misinterpret the role of the Holy Spirit and make an overt spiritual experience such as speaking in tongues, aka a ‘second baptism’ become not only the ne plus ultra of the Christian life but a defining boundary of who is “really Christian” and who is not. This was especially rampant in the various charismatic movements of the 1970s.

Following this condemnation our author relapses back into serious advice-giving mode, ostensibly to Timothy, although given Paul’s affection for—and obvious trust in— his friend, these cookbook instructions feel inauthentic to me: “Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (7,8) Nevertheless they stand as good advice for pastors and leaders. 

 

Psalm 102:12–22; Jeremiah 18:1–19:9; 1 Timothy 3:8–16

Psalm 102:12–22: Even though our psalmist is in dire physical and psychological straits—and has let God know just how bad off he is—he seems to accept his fate as he approaches death:
My days inclined like a shadow,
and I—like grass I withered.” (12)

But before he dies, and in a sudden shift of focus away from his own impending death, he asks for God’s mercy on the Jerusalem (Zion), which appears to be in similar dire straits:
And You Lord, forever enthroned,
and Your name for all generations.
You, may You rise, have mercy on Zion,
for it is the hour to pity her, for the fixed time has come.” (13, 14)

In the same way that he has asked God to take pity on him, the few righteous men remaining (himself included) feel the same pity for destroyed Jerusalem:
For Your servants cherish her stones
and on her dust the they take pity.” (15)

If God does indeed restore Jerusalem  it will again command the respect from other nations that a city where the one true God dwells should by rights enjoy:
And the nations will fear the name of the Lord,
and all kings on earth, Your glory.
For the Lord has rebuilt Zion,
He is seen in His glory.” 16, 17)

This glorious outcome that will span generations can occur because God has looked down from heaven and deigned to answer their prayers:
He has turned to the prayer of the desolate
and has not despised their prayer.
Let this be inscribed for a generation to come,
that a people yet unborn may praise Yah.
for the Lord gazed down from His holy heights,
” (18-20a)

Our psalmist describes what God has seen and heard as his own physical woes are juxtaposed to the nation:
“...from heaven to earth He has looked
to hear the groans of the captive,
to set loose those doomed to die…” (20b-21)

As always, the response to being set free by God is worship:
that the name of the Lord be recounted in Zion
and His praise in Jerusalem
when peoples gather together
and kingdoms, to serve the Lord.” (22, 23)

For me the most striking thing here is how the psalmist is able to shift his focus from his own woes and ask God for healing for the nation. I think that if I were so near death, I would not be able to think much about others, much less my entire community. This psalm is a good reminder that even in times of mortal distress we need to think of—and pray for—others. I think this shift of focus away from our understandable self-centeredness is a form of healing.

Jeremiah 18:1–19:9: God seems to enjoy giving Jeremiah object lessons that the prophet can use to demonstrate in more dramatic terms than mere words the nature of Jerusalem’s eventual grim fate. There was the buried loincloth, now it’s what happens when the potter makes a mistake: “The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.” (18:4)

The meaning should be obvious: God is the potter, the clay is Judah. God is perfectly willing to remold or restore them if they simply repent: “…if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.” (18:8)

But Judah remains stubborn in its idolatry as Jeremiah reports back to God the gist of their leaders’ response (with some sarcastic editorializing thrown in): “But they say, “It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.” (18:12)

Not surprisingly, God is less than thrilled at the news and promises the usual bad end for the wayward nation:
Like the wind from the east,
    I will scatter them before the enemy.
I will show them my back, not my face,
    in the day of their calamity.” (18:17)

To say that Jeremiah’s words have become a nagging annoyance is an understatement. The peopel would rather do away with him. Jeremiah tells God, “Then they said, “Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah…Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.” (18:18)

As always, Jeremiah comes to God in prayer, but unlike the psalmist does not ask for God to take pity on them. Quite the opposite in fact:
Do not forgive their iniquity,
  do not blot out their sin from your sight.
Let them be tripped up before you;
   deal with them while you are angry.” (18:23)

So it’s object lesson time again. God instructs Jeremiah to assemble “some of the elders of the people and some of the senior priests” (19:1) in front of the city gate and warn them once again that God says, “I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle.” (19:3)

The image of tingling ears is appropriate because for the first time in this book we learn the details of Baal worship—and it is downright evil. My ears would tingle as well as Jeremiah outlines the exact nature of their sins: “because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I [God] did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind.” (19:4b, 5) Notice how God is careful to distance himself from these vile practices

God will turn the tables on those who’ve killed innocent children as they will become cannibals as they starve while Jerusalem is under siege: “ I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at;…And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and all shall eat the flesh of their neighbors in the siege, and in the distress with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.” (19:8,9) 

With these grim images of children sacrificed on a bloody altar and people becoming cannibals we can understand why Jeremiah doesn’t get preached about very often, if at all. Isaiah is certainly a more comforting prophet…

1 Timothy 3:8–16: Our author turns his attention to the role of deacons, who report to the bishop. Again, this level of organizational minutiae suggests a church that’s been in operation for  a long time, suggesting it was written some years after Paul was writing.

As with the bishop, “Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” (8,9)  There is apparently a formal test, which I take to be some form of temptation, wherein the candidate deacon must “prove themselves blameless,” (10) [And again a well-established practice that comes into practice in a long-established organization, not a young church.] Inexplicably, our author inserts his warning about women’s behavior in the middle of the deacon’s job description: “Women  likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.” (11) Or does this mean women could also be deacons? Given what we read yesterday, I rather doubt it.

For our author, writing as Paul, it’s all about being Christians in the church being on their best behavior, which also seems rather unpauline:  if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” (15)

Having dispensed all this behavioral advice, our author sums up the gospel message in what I take to be the words of an early hymn about Christ, or perhaps a creed that served as a precursor to what eventually was developed fully in the 4th century at Nicea:
He was revealed in flesh,
    vindicated in spirit,
        seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
    believed in throughout the world,
        taken up in glory.” (16)

It’s a nice little stanza and it’s theologically orthodox.  But it’s far less magnificent or theologically rich than the hymn that the authentic Paul quotes in Philippians 2.

Again, so little theology, so much behavioral instruction. Is this really Paul?

 

Psalm 102:1–11 Jeremiah 16:14–17:27; 1 Timothy 2:8–3:7

Psalm 102:1–11: This beautiful but depressing psalm of supplication reveals its theme in its first lines and wastes no time in coming to God and asking quite directly for God’s answer:
A prayer for the lowly when he grows faint
and pours out his plea before the Lord.
Lord, O hear my prayer,
and let my outcry come before You.
Hide not Your face from me
on the day when I am in straits.
Incline Your ear to me.
On the day I call, quickly answer me.” (1-3)

There is no hesitation and only a modicum of reverence in his plea. The reason becomes quickly apparent in the next verses. Unlike so many others we encountered at this point in the Psalms, this psalmist is not asking for God’s intervention in some specific situation such as being assaulted by enemies. It is far more existential as he reflects on life’s ephemerality and his imminent death:
For my days are consumed in smoke,
and my bones are scorched like a hearth.
My heart is stricken and withers like grass,
so I forget to eat my bread.” (4, 5)

What a great simile for a life lived in psychological torment: his days like fire that leaves only smoke of loss and physical debilitation in its wake. I’m sure a therapist would diagnose clinical depression in addition to whatever physical ailments our poet is suffering. He is certainly sounding very Job-like.

He is physically emaciated and his spirit is as small as the birds around him surveying the wreckage of a ruined life:
From my loud sighing,
my bones cleave to my flesh.
I resemble the wilderness jackdaw,
I become like the owl of the ruins.” (6, 7)

Insomnia only adds to his woes while his waking hours are filled with tormenting by his enemies:
I lie awake and become
like a lonely bird on a roof.
All day long my enemies revile me,
my taunters invoke me in curse.” (8,9)

Another striking image of unrelenting sorrow and depression follows:
For ashes I have eaten as bread,
and my drink I have mingled with tears.” (10)

At the end of his rope he lashes out and ascribes all his woes to God:
because of Your wrath and Your fury,
for You raised me up and flung me down.” (11)

Like the psalmist we are quick to blame our circumstances on God. But did God really plan and execute the awful things that have happened to him? I don’t think so. But alas, we live in a fallen world and in our extreme straits we can find no one to blame but God. In those hopefully rare circumstances when we are feeling that our family, our friends and the world has abandoned us, these verses give profound voice to our innermost and almost inexpressible feelings of woe.

Jeremiah 16:14–17:27: While our psalmist may feel things have come to a hopeless pass, we suddenly arrive at a brief but far more optimistic passage in Jeremiah. Despite the content of the preceding chapters, all is not yet lost. God promises a return: “Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, …“As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.” For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors. (16:14, 15)

In the midst of all these threats and warnings and yes, promises, there stands one great immutable truth: the acknowledgement that in the end it is God who provides our protection in these famous lines:
Lord, my strength and my stronghold,
    my refuge in the day of trouble,” (19a)

But this is only a brief respite as Jeremiah dives right back into the morass that is the sin of Judah in a striking metaphor of their intransigence: “The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts.” (17:1)

Can it be that their sin is so deeply embedded in their hearts that they are irredeemable? It would seem so as Jeremiah makes God’s promise crystal clear: “By your own act you shall lose the heritage that I gave you, and I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.” (17:4) Burn forever? Really? Or are these just the words of an extremely angry God given to making threat that in his love he cannot or will not carry out?

There are two groups in Judah—and today. Those who reject God and:
“...who trust in mere mortals
    and make mere flesh their strength,
    whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” (17:5)

contrasted with “those who trust in the Lord,
    whose trust is the Lord.” (17:7)

There is no comfortable gray area here. We are eith with God or against him. And in the great psychological insight of this book Jeremiah, speaking in God’s voice lays out the source of humankind’s problems:
The heart is devious above all else;
    it is perverse—
    who can understand it?
I the Lord test the mind
    and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
    according to the fruit of their doings.” (17:9, 10)

Our beliefs and our actions have consequences. And simply because people may not believe in God and have placed their trust in mere mortals, vague spiritual concepts, or physical objects, it is God who will have the last word. There are no exemptions. As Jeremiah makes clear over and over, these are the consequences of our own choices. We cannot blame God.

Jeremiah’s own voice comes to the fore as he points out that unlike so many others, e has remained faithful to God and he prays for mercy:
But I have not run away from being a shepherd in your service,
    nor have I desired the fatal day.
You know what came from my lips;
    it was before your face.
Do not become a terror to me;
    you are my refuge in the day of disaster;
Let my persecutors be shamed,
    but do not let me be shamed;” (17:16-18a)

God allows one final test for Judah as he directs Jeremiah to go stand at Jerusalem’s People’s Gate and give them one final test as he announces, “Thus says the Lord: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem.” (17:21) Will the people keep the Sabbath holy?

But the threat stands: “But if you do not listen to me, to keep the sabbath day holy, and to carry in no burden through the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates; it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched.” (17:27)

What will the people do? I have a feeling we know.

1 Timothy 2:8–3:7: We arrive at one of those difficult passages that reflect the social mores of the time but which have been put into rigid practice down through the ages in too many churches to the great detriment, I think, of carrying out our evangelical calling of all Christians, regardless of their sex: Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man;  she is to keep silent.” (2:11, 12) As far as I am concerned, this is one more proof that Paul is not the author of this letter. He writes elsewhere of people such as Lydia who financed the church at Philippi and in his various lists there are other women named. I cannot believe that he regarded them as the silent ciphers our author is requiring here.

I realize I am writing from within my own social context and not that of this author’s time. Nevertheless, women have far greater worth than simply to “be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” (2:15) To be blunt, these verses have done incalculable damage to the cause of Christ down through the centuries to today when only men can be priests in the Roman Catholic church and women cannot be pastors or even sit on church councils in evangelical churches.

Another proof for me that this letter was written some years after actual Paul lived is the reference to a rather fully organized church that now has an established hierarchy as our author lays out the qualifications for bishops: “Now a bishop  must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher,  not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way.” (3:2-4)

What’s especially fascinating here is the reference to married bishops—a fact the Catholic church conveniently ignores in its patriarchal rules.

Nevertheless, there is excellent advice about what’s required in leadership: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” (3:6) Given what has happened in the Catholic (and other) churches, this advice has been sadly ignored. Of course the best example of how this advice was ignored at the highest level of the church is the Borgia popes or Renaissance Italy.

 

 

Psalm 101; Jeremiah 15:1–16:13; 1 Timothy 1:12–2:7

Psalm 101: This wisdom psalm, dedicated to David, sounds like a chapter from Proverbs set in poetry. The poet first celebrates the example of upright men of kindness and justice as an exemplar of those he should emulate in his own life:
Kindness and justice I would sing.
To You, O lord, I would hymn.
I would study the way of the blameless:
when will it come to me?
I shall go about in my heart’s innocence 
within my house.” (1,2)

Notice the juxtaposition of kindness and justice. Those are not qualities we normally associate with each other as we too often wish “harsh justice” on alleged wrongdoers. The place where our poet begins to practice kindness and justice is within his own house, which I take to be among his own family.

Avoiding what the Catholics call “occasions of  sin” is paramount for the psalmist.
“I shall not set before my eyes
any base thing.
I hate committing transgressions.
It will not cling to me.” (3)

In this Internet era where base things such as pronograohy are instantly available, all of us would do well to “not set base things before our eyes” when we’re tempted.

The next step in emulating the blameless occurs outside one’s home, avoiding those who say and do things to destroy others, especially conspiracies against their ostensible friends such as those Jeremiah encounters. Here is where pride lives.
May a twisted heart turn far from me.
May I not know evil.
Who defames in secret  his fellow,
him shall I destroy.
The haughty of eyes and the proud of heart,
him shall I not suffer.” (4,5)

Notice that the poet does not accept evil passively but rather acts against it. Unfortunately, “the haughty of eyes and proud of heart” seem to be the style of leadership we continue to endure as a nation.

Rather than focusing on evil, we should focus on the good and faithful people who are around us—and good advice for all of us in these fraught times—as the poet now speaks in David’s voice:
My eyes are on the land’s faithful,
that they dwell with me.
Who walks in the way of the blameless,
it is he who will serve me.” (6)

And David ensures that those who surround him are pure of heart and intention:
Within my house there shall not dwell
one who practices deceit.
A speaker of lies shall not stand firm
before my eyes.” (7)

This is excellent advice for those who run businesses and lead governments. Speaking as king with judicial power, David can act on the last verse. I recommend that the rest of us rely on our system of laws and justice as the psalm ends on a rather harsh note of death and exile:
Each morning I shall destroy
all the wicked of the Land
to cut off from the town of the Lord
all the wrongdoers.” (8)

Jeremiah 15:1–16:13: God’s seemingly endless diatribe in Jeremiah’s voice against Judah continues apace. The kind of the destruction to be visited upon Jerusalem becomes fairly specific:
Those destined for pestilence, to pestilence,
    and those destined for the sword, to the sword;
those destined for famine, to famine,
    and those destined for captivity, to captivity.” (15:2)

And finally we learn exactly who is the root source of God’s ire: “I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth because of what King Manasseh son of Hezekiah of Judah did in Jerusalem.” (15:4) Again, it is the acts of leadership which determine the fate of a nation, for it is the leader who sets the moral tone of the led—a warning that rings especially loud and clear these days.

After delivering a reiteration of the destruction about to be visited in Jerusalem, we see the psychological and physical impact these voice-of-God speeches are having on Jeremiah the man, as he tells God that he is innocent “yet all of them curse me” (15:10) God’s reply is not particularly reassuring: “The Lord said: Surely I have intervened in your life for good, surely I have imposed enemies on you in a time of trouble and in a time of distress.” (15:11) In other words, Jeremiah, get over it: I, God, give to you like everyone else have good times and bad times. Deal with it.

But Jeremiah refuses to be encouraged as he asks God,
Why is my pain unceasing,
    my wound incurable,
    refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
    like waters that fail.” (15:18)

Finally, I think God utters the words Jeremiah wants to hear. That those to whom he prophesies will try, but not succeed, in harming the prophet:
I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked,
    and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.” (21)

God goes on to tell Jeremiah that “You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place.” (16:2) God’s logic is that because “the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning the mothers who bear them and the fathers who beget them in this land: They shall die of deadly diseases.” (16:3) In short, there’s no point for Jeremiah to establish human relationships with people he is prophesying to. 

A grim prose scenario of death and destruction follows, which of course Jeremiah is being commanded by God to carry to the people. Although my eyes now glaze over at the repeated predictions of unburied, unmourned corpses lying in the field, there is one image that strikes at my heart because it means that joy of any kind has been eradicated: “I am going to banish from this place, in your days and before your eyes, the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.” (16:9)

God instructs Jeremiah that people are going to ask, “why us?” And God couldn’t be clearer: “It is because your ancestors have forsaken me, says the Lord, and have gone after other gods and have served and worshiped them, and have forsaken me and have not kept my law; and because you have behaved worse than your ancestors, for here you are, every one of you, following your stubborn evil will, refusing to listen to me.” (16:11, 12) 

There we have it: your ancestors were bad, but you are worse. Will our descendants meet the same fate as we see so many lives around us that have rejected God? We baby boomers are bad enough. But have we raised our children without sufficient values or we have failed to demonstrate ethical behavior with our own selfish focus on self-aggrandizement? Or is there hope for the generations that are following us?

To be blunt, Jeremiah’s words are not just history, they are a warning.

1 Timothy 1:12–2:7: Editor’s note: a widely held belief by many theologians is that although the letters to Timothy and Titus are ostensibly written by Paul, significant stylistic and theological differences strongly suggest they were written some years after Paul by another author. I happen to agree with that view which is anathema in Evangelical churches.

Nevertheless, our author certainly sounds like Paul, but for me something just doesn’t quite ring true in this autobiographical testimony: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” (1:15, 16) Personally, I don’t think Paul would set himself so bluntly as an example to follow.

Nor do I think the actual Paul would have permanently excommunicated—and named—”persons [that] have suffered shipwreck in the faith; among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (1:19 20) I think that the actual Paul never really gave up on people. There was always hope for him.

Also, at the end of today’s reading there is the statement, “For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” (7) While he was often defensive,I just don’t believe that the actual Paul would have inserted that defensive parenthetical phrase.

While this epistle’s authorship may be questionable, there’s still plenty of good advice here. One such is that we should pray for everyone inside and outside the church, especially our leaders: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (2:1,2) 

Notice the description of the well-lived Christian life: “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” We are not to be off seeking wealth or power. And in this culture where so many of us are defined by what we do or accomplish, the higher calling here is simple to be—to live a quiet life of godliness and dignity. 

 

Psalm 99; Jeremiah 12:1–13:19; 2 Thessalonians 3:6–18

Psalm 99: This is another psalm that celebrates God’s kingship over all the earth. However, I’m glad the psalmist didn’t lead off with the “Sing to the Lord a new song” line since this psalm is much less musical and a little more scary than the preceding one. And nature as part of God’s dominion is pretty much missing, although we do get to meet a heavenly beings who hold up God’s throne:
The Lord reigns—peoples tremble,
enthroned upon cherubim—the earth shakes.
The Lord is great in Zion
and exalted over all the peoples.
They acclaim Your name:
‘Great and fearful,
He is holy” (1-3)

It’s worth remembering that cherubim are not the cute little angelic beings found in baroque paintings. Instead, they are pretty fearsome creatures with the body of a lion, a human face and multiple wings. Not anything you’d want to encounter on a dark night…

Unlike the previous psalm there’s little joy here. God is “great and fearful,” and seems pretty unapproachable. Nevertheless, throughout this entire series of God-as-king psalms, God is all about justice. In fact, God is the creator of justice as well as the righteousness and judgement that accompany justice:
And with a king’s strength He loves justice.
You firmly founded righteousness,
judgement and justice in Jacob You made.” (4)

I’m pretty sure ‘Jacob’ in this usage is a reference to the nation of Israel, not to the human who stole his brother’s birthright. The psalmist is asserting that God’s judgement, righteousness, and justice were first expressed in the laws brought down from Sinai by Moses to all Israel.

The psalmist reminds us that all people are to “bow down to His footstool/ He is holy.” (5) Then we get a small catalog of the great men in Israel’s early history who bowed down before God, prayed and listened for God’s answer:
“Moses and Aaron among His priests
and Samuel among those who call on His name
called to the Lord and He answered them.” (6)

For this psalmist, God does indeed answer and speak:
In a pillar of cloud did He speak to them.
They kept His precepts and the statute He gave them.
Lord our God, it was You Who answered them,
a forbearing God You were to them
yet an avenger of misdeeds.” (7, 8. )

God answered the prayers of these great men, and even though they sinned, God was patient with them. But if they did not repent then God would punish them. The psalmist’s message is clear: if these great men obeyed God, prayed, listened for God’s response, and repented, then that’s the duty of we of the hoi polloi as well.

But above all is our duty to worship God:
Exalt the Lord our God
and bow to His holy mountain,
for the Lord our God is holy.” (9)

Jeremiah 12:1–13:19: So far, Jeremiah has done and said everything God has asked him to. But his latest speech to Israel has resulted in a conspiracy to kill him. Sounding very much like the author of a psalm of supplication, Jeremiah asks the question every sentient human has asked at one time or another:
You will be in the right, O Lord,
    when I lay charges against you;
    but let me put my case to you.
Why does the way of the guilty prosper?
    Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (12:1)

Like a good politician, God does not actually answer Jeremiah’s question, but once again he reminds the prophet that everyone—even his own family—has conspired against him and have abandoned God. So God announces his quid pro quo for that abandonment:
I have forsaken my house,
    I have abandoned my heritage;
I have given the beloved of my heart
    into the hands of her enemies.” (12:7)

God goes on to point out that it is they, not he, who are ultimately responsible for the destruction to come:
They have sown wheat and have reaped thorns,
    they have tired themselves out but profit nothing.
They shall be ashamed of their  harvests
    because of the fierce anger of the Lord.” (12:13)

WHich is a good lesson for us that when we sin the consequences are our problem, not God’s. Even though we may be forgiven we must bear the “harvest” of what we have said or done.

But there is always hope. As always and despite their misdeeds, God still loves them and like a father who punishes his wayward child, he will then embrace them once again: “And after I have plucked them up, I will again have compassion on them, and I will bring them again to their heritage and to their land, every one of them.” (12:15) But if repentance is lacking, “then I will completely uproot it and destroy it.” (12:17)

In one of the more almost amusing commands of God, he tells Jeremiah to buy a new loincloth and wear it. (Did he wear anything else or did Jeremiah go around in his underwear?) In any event, God commands Jeremiah to take off the loincloth and bury it by the Euphrates—which is a long way from Jerusalem. “After many days” Jeremiah is commanded to dig it up and he sees that it is ruined.

The loincloth is an obvious metaphor for Judah. Once they followed God and like the new loincloth were pure and unsullied. And as a man’s underwear is the closest thing to his body, God’s relationship with his people was equally close: “For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord.” (13:11a)

But then the people buried themselves in sin and idolatry, which ruined them. All because “they would not listen” to God. Jeremiah is commanded to speak to the people that they are like wine-jars and that God will fill them with drunkenness “And I will dash them one against another, parents and children together, says the Lord. I will not pity or spare or have compassion when I destroy them.” (13:14)

The consequences of not listening to God is pretty much the theme of this chapter:
But if you will not listen,
    my soul will weep in secret for your pride;
my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears,
    because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive.” (13:17)

Like Judah, America is in the process of failing to listen to God and going on its merry, dissolute way. Will we meet the same fate as the queen mother in Jeremiah?
Say to the king and the queen mother:
    “Take a lowly seat,
for your beautiful crown
    has come down from your head.” (13:18)

2 Thessalonians 3:6–18: Apparently some people at the Thessalonian church have decided they are above others and do not need to work in the church. Even worse, they may enjoying benefits and living off what others are working to produce. Paul is clear that freeloading is unacceptable, citing his own actions as an example to follow: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.” (7,8)

Paul boils it down to one simple statement: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” (10b) And as we know from simple observation today those who do not work tend to become “mere busybodies.” (11) Paul makes his stance on the people very clear: “Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” (12)  And if these folks still refuse to work they need to be shunned: “Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed.” (14). But Paul also warns us that we shouldn’t see these people as enemies, although they certainly need to be warned.

I wonder how Paul would view our present day welfare state where many too people find it preferable to live off the work of others? Obviously, there are situations where people cannot work but Paul would have no patience with the entitlement state that we have become.

Of course, he’s speaking not of society at large, but the church in particular. Yet, in many ways the church has also become a consumer product where too many people go to be receive the benefits of the work of others but do nothing themselves to advance the cause of the kingdom.

Psalm 98; Jeremiah 10:17–11:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:13–3:5

Psalm 98: One begins to think there was a psalmists contest at some point when competing poets announced their new compositions with “Sing to the Lord a new song” as their opening line to distinguish their hymn from the competition’s.

Like the previous few, this psalm again celebrates God’s victorious kingship over all his creation, including the nations beyond just Israel:
“The Lord made known His victory,
before the nations’ eyes He revealed His bounty.” (2)

Not surprisingly, Israel comes in for special mention as God’s chosen nation but God’s triumph is visible throughout all natural creation, not just the nations::
He recalled His kindness and His faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.” (3)

The remainder of the psalm is simultaneously hymn and instructions to the choir and the orchestra that accompanies them:
Shout out to the Lord, all the earth
Burst forth in glad song and hymn.
Hymn to the Lord on the lyre,
on the lyre with the sound of hymning.
With trumpets and the sound of ram’s horn,
sound loud before the king, the Lord.” (4-6)

I’ve always wondered what kind of musical scale they used. Probably not the chromatic scale. Perhaps the pentatonic? It would be cool to hear this music. Would it be closer to the organ or to a praise band? Probably the latter…

All creation then joins in the music-making with their own sounds in some of the most beautiful verses (for me, anyway) in all the psalms:
Let the sea and its fullness thunder,
the world and those dwelling in it.
Let the rivers clap hands,
let the mountains together sing gladly
before the Lord, for He comes
to judge the earth.” (7-9)

Well, it wouldn’t be a true psalm if it didn’t invoke at least one of God’s qualities or actions. Here, it’s judgement, but as always justice accompanies judgement:
He judges the world in justice
and peoples righteously.” (10)

What’s remarkable to me here is that God’s judgement occurs in joy, not in anxious trepidation. But to those who are righteous—and for us Christians, those who are righteous (justified) in Christ—God’s judgement is truly an occasion of celebration. For it is then we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Jeremiah 10:17–11:23: Jeremiah’s mood has not improved as he predicts the scattering and exile of Israel and Judah. God speaks:
I am going to sling out the inhabitants of the land
    at this time,
and I will bring distress on them,
    so that they shall feel it.” (10:18)

And this dispersal from the land certainly has a note of finality in the metaphor of Israel and Judah being a metaphorical tent that has been ruined:
My tent is destroyed,
    and all my cords are broken;
my children have gone from me,
    and they are no more;
there is no one to spread my tent again,
    and to set up my curtains.” (10:20)

As before, the leadership—the officials, priests, prophets, and I presume, the kings themselves—that are metaphorically shepherds, bear ultimate responsibility for all that has gone awry in the land:
For the shepherds are stupid,
    and do not inquire of the Lord;
therefore they have not prospered,
    and all their flock is scattered.” (10:21)

Given what is currently going on in Washington DC, an erratic over-verbal president, his opponents, and the in the media itself, I think these verses have real—and rather portentous— relevance.

But Jeremiah loves the people despite their sins. He now speaks and begs for mercy on behalf of these wayward people, asking God to punish the conquerors rather than the conquered:
Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not know you,
    and on the peoples that do not call on your name;
for they have devoured Jacob;
    they have devoured him and consumed him,
    and have laid waste his habitation.” (10:25)

At the chapter break we appear to begin all over again as the word of the Lord comes once again to Jeremiah, this time focusing on the Covenant between Israel/Judah and himself: “And the Lord said to me: Proclaim all these words in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: Hear the words of this covenant and do them.” (11:6)

But in the end, Jeremiah treads pretty much the same prophetic ground. Israel and Judah have sinned and thereby broken their side of the Covenant: “And the Lord said to me: Conspiracy exists among the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.They have turned back to the iniquities of their ancestors of old, who refused to heed my words; they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken the covenant that I made with their ancestors.” (11:9,10)

Equally unsurprising, God therefore “is going to bring disaster upon them that they cannot escape; though they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.” (11:11) This is one of those places where God, as described in the Old Testament, seems somewhat petulant—not a desirable quality in anyone, much less God himself. The loving God we’d rather think about seems to have gone on hiatus.

In fact, God instructs Jeremiah quite specifically about his misguided attempts at asking for mercy: “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble.” (11:14)

Jeremiah, faithful prophet that he is, speaks this word of God to the people and they are not terribly pleased to hear his dire words. He realizes the “people of Anathoth” are conspiring against him and want to kill him. He prays to God,
But I was like a gentle lamb
    led to the slaughter.
And I did not know it was against me
    that they devised schemes, saying,
“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,
    let us cut him off from the land of the living,
    so that his name will no longer be remembered!” (11:19)

God is always on Jeremiah’s side and promises, “I am going to punish them; the young men shall die by the sword; their sons and their daughters shall die by famine; and not even a remnant shall be left of them. For I will bring disaster upon the people of Anathoth, the year of their punishment.” (11:22, 23)

Which we presume is exactly what happened. The lesson here is that God-inspired prophecy is protected speech, even when it delivers the most dire news possible to convict listeners of their sins.  I wonder: are there any God-inspired prophets among us in the midst of the unceasing babble?

2 Thessalonians 2:13–3:5: This is one of those places where we have to be careful in interpretation as Paul asserts, “God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” (2:13b) For Calvin and others his is one of those passages that are used to support the idea of predestination, i.e., that God specifically chose those whom he would save ahead of time. This gets us into lots of theological conundra such as, ‘If God has chosen us ahead of time, what’s the point? I have no say in the matter.’

Personally, I think it’s simpler than that. Jesus is reaching out to everyone on earth. Some choose to follow; others don’t. But the sheep and goats have not been sorted out ahead of time. We are all free to accept or reject. And when we accept, we look back and feel chosen, just as Israel was chosen so many years ago. As Lutherans put it, it is Jesus who comes to us, not the other way round.

In any event, those who are Jesus-followers are to follow Paul’s correct instruction, to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” (2:15)

This short letter ends with Paul’s prayer request: “Finally, brothers and sisters,  pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just  as it is among you, and that we may be rescued from wicked and evil people; for not all have faith.” (3:1,2) Which is a request that’s as relevant to the church today as two millennia ago, for it is a prayer for each of us carry out Jesus’ Great Commission and be effective evangelists through not only our words, but more importantly, I think, our actions.

But it is Paul’s concluding sentence that resonates for me: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.” (3:5) In the end, it’s the condition and focus of our hearts that matters most.

 

 

Psalm 97:7–12; Jeremiah 9:10–10:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12

Psalm 97:7–12: Our psalmist points out not just the futility of idol worship, but its negative impact on their worshippers:
All idol-worshippers are shamed
who boast of the ungods.
All gods bow down to Him.” (7)

At first read the last line of this verse about small-g gods seems to contradict the the first two lines. After all, aren’t idols mere inanimate human constructions? I go with my perosnal theory here that the small-g gods refers to the host of heaven as our poet once again reinforces God’s preeminence over nature but also over the population of heaven itself.

In any event, the realization of God’s power and majesty as king bringing judgement over creation generates true joy in all of Judea’s precincts, be it Jerusalem or its suburbs:
Zion heard and rejoiced,
and Judea’s villages exulted
because of Your judgements, Lord.” (8)

And to make sure we get the point about God reigning over all creation, our poet reiterates his ascendancy over both heaven and earth:
For You, Lord, are most high over all the earth;
You are greatly exalted over all the gods.” (9)

At this point the psalmist turns his attention to those who love and follow God, reminding them that they, too, must follow God’s example. In return they receive God’s protection:
You who love the Lord,, hate evil!
He guards the the lives of His faithful.
From the hand of the wicked He saves them.” (10)

Of course as we learn in Jeremiah, not that many were faithful to God and the wicked were certainly the ones in power.

In a beautiful agricultural metaphor our poet reminds us that if we indeed follow God we will receive the light. This line has a prophetic impact on me because this is exactly the point Jesus made when he told his followers that “I am the light of the world.” At that point in history God had indeed “sown light” in the Incarnation in order to save all humankind.
Light is sown for the just,
and for the upright of heart there is joy.” (11)

The psalm ends where it began—on a note of rejoicing and worship, which also suggests elements of the structure of worship: We enter rejoicing and we depart rejoicing:
Rejoice, O you just, in the Lord,
and acclaim His holy name.” (12)

Jeremiah 9:10–10:16: OKay, Jeremiah, we get it. The people of Judah have abandoned God, turning to wicked ways and they will pay a heavy price for their apostasy:
I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins,
    a lair of jackals;
and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation,
    without inhabitant.” (9:11)

When that awful time of judgement and desolation comes, Jeremiah promises that there will be the proverbial weeping and gnashing of teeth. The prophet evokes the image of the professional mourning women of that day:
Hear, O women, the word of the Lord,
    and let your ears receive the word of his mouth;
teach to your daughters a dirge,
    and each to her neighbor a lament.
“Death has come up into our windows,
    it has entered our palaces,
to cut off the children from the streets
    and the young men from the squares.” (9:20, 21)

In the end God is asking but one thing: that we abandon the illusions of wisdom, might, and wealth and that we come to “understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” (9:24)

And that’s just as true today. If we put God at the center of our lives we will come to understand that he is not just the God of vengeance for wickedness, but the God who wants nothing more than to have us love him as he loves us.

Jeremiah concludes this chapter by observing “all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” (9:25) Stephen references Jeremiah’s theme in his sermon just before he is stoned to death  that his accusers are “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” (Acts 7:51) In short, not much had changed in the centuries between Jeremiah and Stephen—nor between Stephen and today.

In chapter 10 Jeremiah turns his gaze away from Judah and on to Israel, the northern kingdom. First, there are various warnings to avoid emulating their neighbors:
Do not learn the way of the nations,
    or be dismayed at the signs of the heavens;
    for the nations are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the peoples are false.” (10:2,3a)

The custom to be avoided specifically is the creation of idols:
For the customs of the peoples are false:
a tree from the forest is cut down,
    and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan;
people deck it with silver and gold;
    they fasten it with hammer and nails
    so that it cannot move.” (10:3b, 4)

Jeremiah spends the remainder of the reading on a tear about the stupidity of those who worship powerless idols, first reminding us that they are inanimate, powerless objects as he denigrates them with a rather nice simile:
Their idols  are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
    and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
    for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them,
    for they cannot do evil,
    nor is it in them to do good.” (10:5)

Sounding almost like a psalmist, Jeremiah contrasts their powerlessness with God’s power:
There is none like you, O Lord;
    you are great, and your name is great in might.” (10:6)

Jeremiah goes on to contrast the pathetic artisanship of humans with the magnificent work of God, forcing us to draw the obvious conclusion that there is but one true God:
[Idols] are the work of the artisan and of the hands of the goldsmith;
    their clothing is blue and purple;
    they are all the product of skilled workers.
But the Lord is the true God;
    he is the living God and the everlasting King.
At his wrath the earth quakes,
    and the nations cannot endure his indignation.” (10:9, 10)

To make sure we understand God’s true power as over against the impotence of idols, Jeremiah makes his point about idols vs. God once again:
They are worthless, a work of delusion;
    at the time of their punishment they shall perish.
Not like these is the Lord,  the portion of Jacob,
    for he is the one who formed all things,
and Israel is the tribe of his inheritance;
    the Lord of hosts is his name.” (10:15, 16)

But alas, like Israel’s failure to recognize these truth, so we too pursue our idols and reject God—at increasingly great cost. Exactly as both today’s psalmist and Jeremiah warned us.

2 Thessalonians 2:1–12: Paul continues his apocalyptic theme, warning the Thessalonians that contrary to what they have concluded (probably from the persecution they are enduring), the Day of the Lord—the end of history—has not yet come. That will not happen before the arrival of the person Paul designates as “the lawless one.” This will not happen “unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.” (3) The thing to watch out for, Paul warns, is that this person “opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.” (4)

This would be the same person identified in Revelation as the Antichrist, whose true identity will be revealed at the Day of the Lord. As Paul points out this is not to say wickedness isn’t already afoot, but its most dire consequences are being held back from their full fury by someone: “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed.” (7) Satan is the person behind it all and is presently giving everyone on earth a foretaste of the horrors to come at the end of history: “The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders,” (9)

Like Jeremiah, Paul points out that those who refuse God and the saving power of Jesus Christ will perish: “every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (10)

But then Paul says something that is truly puzzling. Referring to those who rejected salvation, he says “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.” (11, 12) Really? God purposely deludes those who reject salvation? I think Paul is referring back to the Antichrist, who uses false religion to delude the gullible. If we reject the truth about Jesus Christ, Paul implies, we will by default turn to the delusions created by the Antichrist.

Identifying the Antichrist has been a popular sport in various churches down through the centuries with theories ranging from various popes to Hitler, Stalin, and today, ISIS. But as I read Paul here, we ain’t seen nothing in terms of evil yet. WHich is difficult to get my head around.