Psalm 135:1–12; Hosea 2:16–4:19; Revelation 2:12–23

Originally published 11/27/2017. Revised and updated 11/26/2019.

Psalm 135:1–12: This lyrical psalm of thanksgiving rejoices that God has chosen Israel (aka “Jacob” in this stanza) as his special people:
Praise Yah for the Lord is good,
hymn His name, for it is sweet.
For Yah has chosen for Himself Jacob,
Israel is His treasure. (3, 4)

It’s worth remembering that God has chosen us through Jesus Christ. I grew up in a church that talked about the necessity of people making “decisions for Christ.” The clear implication was that it was we who choose to accept or reject Jesus Christ. Not until I was in the Lutheran church did I come to fully understand that it’s exactly the other way round. Jesus has chosen us first. We may accept or reject, but we can never be so arrogant as to assume we’re in control of our destiny.

This sense of God being in control over all creation is intensified in the verses that follow:
All that the Lord desired He did
in the heavens and on the earth,
in the seas and all the depths. (6)

Not only does God reign over nature, but as the psalmist recalls, it is God who created the circumstances that resulted in Israel’s release from Egypt through the plagues and the Passover:
[It was God] Who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
from humankind to beast,
Sent forth signs and portent in the midst of Egypt
against Pharaoh and all his servants. (8,9)

Likewise, it was God who conquered the inhabitants of Canaan that enabled Israel to settle there:
[It was God] Who struck down many nations
and killed mighty kings—

And gave their land as an estate,
an estate to Israel, His people.” (10, 12)

We would do well to look around and see exactly how God is enabling us in our quotidian lives. There’s no question he’s at work in ways we cannot appreciate or even comprehend.

Hosea 2:16–4:19: God continues to speak to Hosea using the striking metaphor of Israel being God’s wife. A day will come, God promises, where the Baals are gone forever and “ I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy.  I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.” (2: 19, 20) This metaphor suggests where the NT writers developed the metaphor of the Christian church being the “Bride of Christ.”

For Israel, God’s greatest promise is fulfilled when after they reject the small-g gods, God will say to them, “You are my people”; / and he shall say, “You are my God.” (2:23)

God then commands Hosea to go hire a prostitute and after he pays her 15 shekels, tell her, “You must remain as mine for many days; you shall not play the whore, you shall not have intercourse with a man, nor I with you.” (3:3) Likewise, Israel, which the prostitute represents here, “shall remain many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or teraphim.” (3:4) After this time of erasing the small-g Gods from its collective memory, Israel will finally return to the one true God: “Afterward the Israelites shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king; they shall come in awe to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days.” (3:5)

Chapter 4 is a long poem that recalls Israel’s descent into idolatry with an intense focus on the evils of Baal worship, including,
the men themselves go aside with whores,
    and sacrifice with temple prostitutes;
thus a people without understanding comes to ruin.” (4:14)

But perhaps the greatest sin is that the people worship false idols becaise they have not stopped to think about the deeper implications of what they are doing. They worship Baal because they have not remembered what God has commanded:
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
    because you have rejected knowledge,
    I reject you from being a priest to me.
And since you have forgotten the law of your God,
    I also will forget your children.” (4:6)

These verses are an ominous parallel to today as the cultural knowledge of the Christian roots of western civilization and the creation of the scientific method are being forgotten and being replaced by the false idols of technology and celebrity. Alas, ignorance of the kind Hosea describes is growing and festering all around us.

Revelation 2:12–23: John continues his messages to the individual churches in Asia. He commends the church at Pergamum—a city “where Satan’s throne is“—for “holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me,” (14) even when one of their members, a certain Antipas, was martyred. Nevertheless, he continues, “I have a few things against you,” (14a) His complaint is that there are some “who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.” (14b) This is proof that some idols just never go away—including today in our age of individual spiritualism and the Oprah gospel that we can find all the resources we need if we just look deeper inside ourselves.

Moreover, there “are some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”  (15) Which I take to be an aberrant, even heretical form of Christianity. In short, the heresies that infected the church then still infect parts of the church today.

John takes the same “here’s-what-I-like-about-you-but-you-have-some-problems” approach to the church at Thyatira. They have sterling qualities—“your love, faith, service, and patient endurance” (19)—but apparently are also in the thrall of a certain female prophetess: “you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants  to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” (20) I’m guessing that Jezebel wasn’t her real name and that John is making his point in pretty harsh terms.

Like Thyatira, too many churches today are held in thrall by false prophets. The entire edifice of the prosperity gospel and those popular televangelists who claim to heal people or preach a sunny self-actualization message come to mind.

Psalm 134; Daniel 12:8–Hosea 2:15; Revelation 2:1–11

Originally published 11/25/2017. Revised and updated 11/25/2019.

Psalm 134: This very succinct psalm appears to be directed to those worshippers who remain at the temple overnight:
Look, bless the Lord,
all you servants of the Lord,
who stand in the Lord’s house through the nights.
Lift up your hands toward the holy place
and bless the Lord. (1, 2)

Perhaps these are the people who tend the fires that are never extinguished, or even perhaps the those who cleaned the public areas at night. It’s a helpful reminder that churches require tending to: maintenance, security, cleaning—all the things that go on behind the scenes to ensure a place to worship that reflects our desire to present our very best to God.

Moreover, these folks also worship God through their quotidian but highly necessary tasks and are worthy of our complete respect. With the psalmist we should say to them when we encounter them,
May the Lord bless you from Zion,
He who makes heaven and earth. (3)

Daniel 12:8–Hosea 2:15: Perhaps the Moravians just want to torture us one last time with one last snippet from the frustrating book of Daniel before allowing us to move on to the minor prophets…

This weird chapter of this very odd book ends with one last pronouncement and one final, highly specific prophecy by the angel as Daniel stands down at the bank of the Tigris. The angel’s pronouncement is eternally true: “Many shall be purified, cleansed, and refined, but the wicked shall continue to act wickedly. None of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand.” (12:10) Which certainly seems like an apt description of our present governmental leadership. Except I’m not sure there are any wise men—or even mature adults— remaining in Washington DC.

The final prophecy is strikingly precise, which I suppose is what the authors did in order to give it one final air of authenticity. Or perhaps they wrote this after the fact: “From the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that desolates is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred ninety days. Happy are those who persevere and attain the thousand three hundred thirty-five days.” (12:11, 12) Once again, my take is that this os a prophecy (or perhaps a recounting) of the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes (2290 days hence) and his eventual overthrow by the Maccabean revolt (3335 days). Or maybe it means something completely different…

But what the angel says to Daniel in the book’s last line seems also appropriate for all of us who have struggled to understand this puzzling and often frustrating book: “But you, go your way, and rest; you shall rise for your reward at the end of the days.” (12:13)

And so we meet Hosea which opens just as weirdly as the book of Daniel concluded. God commands the prophet, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” (2) Hosea, being a obedient prophet, marries a certain Gomer who bears him a son, whom God commands Hosea to Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel.” (1:4)

Then Hosea fathers a daughter to be named “Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them.” (1:6) A third child arrives and God commands, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.” (1:8) I’m pretty sure that unlike Hosea I would strongly resist having to give my children whose names that are essentially an early form of tweeting a message to all Israel…

But even though God is truly angry at Israel, he always holds out hope of the nation’s eventual redemption: “in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (1:10)

Chapter 2 is a long poem which appears to be written in God’s voice. A disobedient wife is a metaphor for the nation of Israel and will be duly punished by an angry husband. [We need to remember not to inject our modern values and behaviors on this ancient poem, but it is nonetheless disturbing]:
I will strip her naked
    and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
    and turn her into a parched land,
    and kill her with thirst.
Upon her children also I will have no pity,
    because they are children of whoredom. (2:3, 4)

And then the (in)famous line:
For their mother has played the whore;
    she who conceived them has acted shamefully. (2:5)

As usual, the problem is Israel’s predilection to worship small-g gods and their associated evil rites such as child sacrifice. But even worse, they have forgotten the true God:
I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals,
    when she offered incense to them

    and forgot me, says the Lord. (2:13)

Nevertheless, as always, there is a glimmer of hope amidst the curses:
Therefore, I will now allure her,
    and bring her into the wilderness,
    and speak tenderly to her.
From there I will give her her vineyards,
    and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. (2:14, 15)

The lesson here is that even in their hideous apostasy, God never ever gave up on Israel—and he never ever gives up on us.

Revelation 2:1–11: Chapters 2 and 3 are seven brief  sermons, one each to each of the seven churches of Asia. What’s strikes me on reading this is that every one of the seven churches could read what John wrote not only to themselves but to the other six churches as well. I wonder how each church felt having its dirty laundry aired to a bunch of other churches?

The first letter to the church at Ephesus commends them for “your works, your toil and your patient endurance.” (2) and that they do not tolerate “evildoers.” But everything is not hunky dory: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (4) There is a clear lesson here for us: there’s no point in even having a church if it is not a loving church. What Paul wrote in I Corinthians 13 applies to every church. [I wonder if the church at Ephesus was aware of Paul’s letter before the NT was compiled into a single volume a few centuries after these letters were written.] Alas, I suspect that a majority of congregations today could easily have these same charges leveled against them.

Next comes the church at Smyrna and John does not mince words: “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.” (9) We assume the affliction and poverty is not about economic issues but about an absence of love. John warns them of tougher times yet to come—doubtless persecution by the Romans: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (10, 11)

My take is that of we in the church are focused on trivialities and not on Jesus and on love for each other, we will be unable to stand up against political pressure of both the prevailing culture and the state. I suspect that the American church will bear more than a passing resemblance to the church at Smyrna in the years to come.

Psalm 133; Daniel 11:20–12:7; Revelation 1:9–20

Originally published 11/24/2017. Revised and updated 11/23/2019.

Psalm 133: This compact psalm celebrates the pleasures of a group of men, perhaps priests, in fellowship together:
Look, how good and how pleasant
is the dwelling of brothers together. (1)

Of course in today’s culture we would be looking suspiciously at a group of men gathered around enjoying each other’s company, especially when we we read the simile that follows:
Like goodly oil on the head
coming down over the beard,
Aaron’s beard that comes down
over the opening of his robe. (2)

Apparently anointing one’s head with olive oil was a luxury of the time. Today we call that aroma therapy. This verse also reveals that Aaron (and I suspect all high priests that succeeded him) had a very long beard…

Our psalmist emphasizes the pleasure of the anointing by using another simile that reminds us that God is behind this pleasure, just as God is behind all the pleasures the psalmist enjoys—and that we enjoy:
Like Hermon’s dew that comes down
on the parched mountains
For there the Lord ordained the blessing—
life forevermore. (3, 4)

This psalm is truly an oasis and reminds us that sometimes we should just sit back and enjoy the blessings God has given us—a highly appropriate theme for this Thanksgiving season.

Daniel 11:20–12:7: This endless speech by the angel explaining what Daniel’s vision meant certainly provides ample fodder for those who like to speculate what may happen at the end of history. There are ongoing battles between the king of the north and the king of the south. —and further amplification about the desolating abomination and its charismatic leader: “Forces sent by him shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress. They shall abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate.” (11:31) Happily, though, not everyone will be fooled by the pretence of this leader: “He shall seduce with intrigue those who violate the covenant; but the people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action.” (11:32)

There seems to be a pretty clear description of the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes: “The king shall act as he pleases. He shall exalt himself and consider himself greater than any god, and shall speak horrendous things against the God of gods. He shall prosper until the period of wrath is completed, for what is determined shall be done. (11:36)

Finally, this tyrant’s rule comes to its end: “At the time of the end the king of the south shall attack him. But the king of the north shall rush upon him like a whirlwind, with chariots and horsemen, and with many ships.” (11:40) And the sycophants who followed him will abandon him to his fate: “He shall pitch his palatial tents between the sea and the beautiful holy mountain. Yet he shall come to his end, with no one to help him.” (11:45)

This all makes me wonder if this passage—especially about the “people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action” is a reference to the Maccabean revolt, 167 to 160 BCE.

There is a sudden shift in chapter 12 to what many evangelicals believe is a description of the 7 year Tribulation that will occur at the end of history, including a resurrection of the dead—everyone, both good and bad: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (12:2) I have to admit it’s difficult to square this section with the end described in Jesus’ Olivet discourse (Matthew 24-26) since it’s clear that no resurrection of the dead has yet occurred. IN the end (so to speak), I think it’s pretty foolhardy to rely on this cryptic passage as a clear forecast of what will occur at the end of history.

Daniel is sternly instructed to “keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.” (12:4) I have to confess that it certainly feels like there is an abnormal amount of “running back and forth” in our present American culture as it abandons its Christian roots. Of course that phrase has been levied against all kinds of horrors down through history.

Revelation 1:9–20: John of Patmos describes exactly how he was inspired to write this book—and like what is to come in subsequent chapters, it was quite a dramatic encounter. What we should take as an angelic proclamation came to him a what I take to be a trance-like state: “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” (10)

OK, there have been lots of angelic visitations, including the really long one we’re reading about in Daniel. But what John describes next is unprecedently dramatic—it kind of makes Daniel’s vision down by the Tigris River look pretty wimpy: “Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands,  and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.” (13) John goes on to describe the Son of man’s appearance: white hair, eyes like a flame, feet like burnished bronze and holding seven stars. But then what I think is the most dramatic if ather bizarre image of all: from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.” (16)

John’s vision is clearly that of Jesus Christ, who as heavenly visitors always do, first reassures John “Do not be afraid.” Christ continues, “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” (18) If we ever needed a description of the unfathomable power of the resurrected Jesus it’s right here.

The Son of Man helpfully interprets part of the vision: “As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” (20) Unfortunately, as this book continues, Jesus will not show up to interpret things. We’ll be left pretty much on our own to decipher John’s writing.

Psalm 132; Daniel 10:8–11:19; Revelation 1:1–8

Originally published 11/23/2017. Revised and updated 11/22/2019.

Psalm 132: This psalm celebrates David and his unflagging efforts to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, which Alter informs us is recounted in narrative in 2 Samuel 6 and 7. The psalm’s opening verses describe David’s single-minded dedication:
Recall, O Lord, for David
all his torment
when he swore to the Lord,
vowed to Jacob’s Champion: (1, 2)

And then in David’s voice, his fierce commitment:
I will not come into the tent of my home,
I will not mount my couch,
I will not give sleep to my eyes

nor slumber to my lids
until I find a place for the Lord,
a dwelling for Jacob’s Champion. (3-5)

“Jacob’s champion” is a name for God I’ve not heard before and it must refer to the incident in Genesis where Jacob wrestled with God—and God won. It’s worth remembering that as far as the Jews were concerned, God was not omni-present but quite literally dwelled in one place: the Ark, hence the requirement for a permanent holy place for the Ark to rest.

David succeeds in the task and there is great rejoicing:
Rise, O Lord, to Your resting place,
You and the Ark of Your strength.
Let Your priests don victory,
and let Your faithful sing gladly. (8, 9)

At this point, the psalm recalls how the Davidic dynasty was God-ordained in recompense for David’s fierce trust in God:
The Lord swore to David
a true oath from which He will not turn back:
‘From the fruit of your loins
I will set up a throne for you. (10, 11)

Crucially, the psalmist reminds us that the dynasty remains in power only,
If your sons keep My pact
and My precept that I shall teach them,
their sons, too, forevermore
shall sit on the throne that is yours. (12)

Of course by reading the Histories, we know how well that turned out…

The psalm then returns to the topic at hand, which is that as long as the Ark remains at Jerusalem, all will be well. Writing in God’s voice, the psalmist asserts that all will be well:
This is my resting place evermore,
Here I dwell, for I desired it.
I will surely bless its provisions,
its needy I will sate with bread. (14, 15)

Alas, it’s tragic that the great promise of this psalm was undermined by the failure of Israel to continue to worship God. But we need to remember that God didn’t abandon his side of the promise. And that David remained the greatest of all Israel’s king as the psalmist reminds us in the final verses written in God’s voice:
There I will make a horn grow for David,
I have readied a lamp for my anointed,
His enemies I will clothe with shame,
but on him—his crown will gleam. (17, 18)

Daniel 10:8–11:19: For me this passage is much more valuable as a description of Daniel’s emotions—mainly fear— than the content of the vision. An angel appears to Daniel and encourages him. Like most angelic visitations, there’s the invocation not to be afraid: “Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.” (10:12)

But Daniel replies, My lord, because of the vision such pains have come upon me that I retain no strength. How can my lord’s servant talk with my lord? For I am shaking, no strength remains in me, and no breath is left in me.” (10:16, 17) Once again, the angel encourages Daniel, “Do not fear, greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous!”  (10:19)

With Daniel apparently recovered, there’s a really long discourse about kingdoms rising and being broken apart. There is a king from the south who makes an alliance with a king from the north via an arranged marriage. The princess will have a son, and “He shall come against the army and enter the fortress of the king of the north, and he shall take action against them and prevail.” (11:7)  I wouldn’t be surprised if someone out there has tried to make this a prophecy about Jesus, but that seems pretty farfetched to me.

Anyway, our eyes glaze over as we read of still more there are lots of battles, another marriage and ultimately defeat: “Then he shall turn back toward the fortresses of his own land, but he shall stumble and fall, and shall not be found.” (11:19)

This is one of those places in the Bible where one can only wonder why it’s there. It must have had significance to the author’s contemporaries, but it seems a futile effort to try and sort all this out and align it to actual events, most of which I’m pretty sure have been lost to history.

Revelation 1:1–8: As if the puzzlement of the book of Daniel weren’t enough, we now embark on the wild ride that is Revelation. A political prisoner named John (certainly not the same John of the eponymous gospel or epistles) writes to seven churches in Asia.

The opening verse tells us immediately that this is a prophetic work and that the words come form heaven via an angel: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.” (1)

The instruction of how to communicate this book to others is also clear. It is to be read aloud: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.” (3)

Things start out calmly enough as John reprises the Gospel message in an opening invocation: “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made  us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” (5b, 6) 

But then our author shifts his view up toward heaven and the second coming, giving us a brief introduction to the apocalyptic feast to come:
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
    every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
    and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.” (7)

This sense that we about to encounter something greater than mere theology is intensified when he writes about God’s eternality over all things: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (8) We are left with the feeling that just as God knows no boundaries in spacetime, so too, what John is about to write will also transcend the boundaries of the quotidian world in which we live.

Psalm 131; Daniel 9:1–10:7; Jude 1:11–25

Originally published 11/22/2017. Revised and updated 11/21/2019.

Psalm 131: This psalm evokes a humility before God that all of us would do well to emulate:
Lord, my heart has not been haughty,
nor have my eyes looked too high,
nor have I striven for great things,
nor for things too wondrous for me. (1)

This is pretty much the opposite state that our ambitious culture espouses. “Reach for greatness;” “Be whoever you want to be,” we tell our youth. We judge financial success and celebrity as the ne plus ultra of achievement. But this kind of achievement leads inevitably to self-centeredness and pride. And as we watch celebrities and politicians implode due to accusations of sexual harassment, we all should learn the lesson that pride and a sense that one has power over others inevitably leads to a fall.

Instead, we need to follow the psalmist:
But I have calmed and contented myself
like a weaned babe on its mother–
like a weaned babe I am with myself. (2)

Think about that image: a contented humility that brings the peace of a baby asleep on its mothers shoulder. Am I calmed and contented with myself? Am I humble? Too often I have considered myself to be pretty good, pretty smart, pretty accomplished. This psalm is a wake-up call for me. And would that it be a wake-up call for our culture.

Daniel 9:1–10:7: We arrive at a welcome interlude from bizarre visions and interpretations as Daniel  prays for Israel’s forgiveness—a prayer that seems completely appropriate to American society today: “To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him, and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.” (9:9, 10) He continues, observing that ” this calamity has come upon us. We did not entreat the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and reflecting on his  fidelity.” (9:13)

We can see Daniel down on his knees, begging God to forgive Israel, clothed in the humility of the psalmist above: “We do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies.” (9:19) Something we need to remember: grace comes from God, not by anything we ourselves have said or done.

Alas, the interlude of prayer ends all too quickly and we are back to vision-land. Gabriel comes to Daniel in a vision and tells him his prayer will be answered because “you are greatly beloved.” (9:23)

Gabriel tells Daniel that for Jerusalem there will be an interval of seven weeks “from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince” (9:25a) Then “for sixty-two weeks [Jerusalem] shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time.” (9:25b) But at the end of this 62 weeks, “[Jerusalem’s] end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed.” (9:26)

As if this isn’t enough, this anointed prince will “make a strong covenant with many for one week,” For half a week things will be normal activity at the temple, but then the anointed prince will place “abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator.” (9:27)

Much has been made of the 7, 62, and 1/2 weeks, usually employing the conventional interpretation is that a “week” equals 7 years. This vision again seems to refer to Antiochus Epiphanes who by virtue of sacrificing a pig in the temple did indeed create an “abominable desolation.” But many conservative evangelicals interpret this vision is a prediction about the Antichrist and events such as the Tribulation that will occur at the end of history, i.e., events still to come. But I go with the Antiochus Epiphanes interpretation.

Today’s reading ends with yet another Daniel vision: “I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.” (10:5, 6) Even though Daniel is amidst a crowd he (unsurprisingly) is the only he who sees and hears this vision. 

I guess we’ll just have to wait until tomorrow to see what happens next….

Jude 1:11–25: Jude is on a tear as he excoriates those who are corrupting the Christian community to which he is writing. He cites three OT examples of the fruits of corruption: “Woe to them! For they go the way of Cain, and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain, and perish in Korah’s rebellion.” (11)

Then, he launches into some of the more colorful metaphors we encounter in the New Testament as he struggles to communicate just how awful these apostates are: “They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved forever.” (12, 13)

At this point he gets downright apocalyptic, citing Enoch’s curse against these corrupters who will meet a very bad end. Out of breath and metaphors at this point, he calls them “grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.” (16) Let’s hope we never get in Jude’s cross-hairs…

He concludes this passionate letter by addressing those who have remained faithful and giving advice that is pretty much the author’s message: “But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” (20, 21)

Equally important, we are to be merciful to others: “have mercy on some who are wavering; save others by snatching them out of the fire; and have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.” (22, 23) In other words we are enjoined to have mercy on people we intensely dislike and/or we see as hopeless sinners. 

These words of advice are a pretty good encapsulation of the faithful Christian life.

However, the implication that we have to do good in order to “keep yourselves in the love of God” suggests that God will cease loving us when we sin or stray from him. On the contrary, I think God always continues to love us; it is our own actions that pull us away from him. But there’s just a skosh too much Catholic works righteousness for me here in this epistle. Jude is clearly not a Lutheran who sees grace in all that God does. 

Psalm 130; Daniel 7:23–8:27; Jude 1:1–10

Originally published 11/21/2017. Revised and updated 11/20/2019.

Psalm 130: This psalm opens with the stark image of a man seeking God when he is very near to death:
From the depths I called You, Lord.
Master, hear my voice. 
May Your ears listen close to the voice of my plea. (1, 2)

The psalmist is grateful—as we should be—that God does not actively seek out to punish sinners as that would be too much to bear. Rather God is a God of forgiveness:
Were You, O Yah, to watch for wrongs,
Master, who could endure?
For forgiveness is Yours,
so that You may be feared. (3, 4)

This is something that too many of us forget when all they see is a God of punishment and vengeance when something goes wrong or a personal tragedy strikes. Tis psalm reminds us that those qualities are not God’s essence.

As usual in a psalm of supplication, there is also the frustrating reality of God’s silence. Here, our psalmist beautifully conveys the intensity of hope—hope that God will hear and forgive:
I hoped for the Lord, my being hoped,
and for His word I waited. (5)

This anticipation consumes the poet’s entire being:
My being for the Master—
more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn. (6)

Of course the question for me is, do I wait upon God with such intensity? The answer is clearly ‘no.’ I may pray, but the anticipation of God’s answer does not become the singular focus of my life. I think  that can happen only when I relinquish my own ego and desire for control and let Jesus take over my life. Alas, I am still very far away from that.

The psalm’s focus shifts from the cries of a single man to the entire nation of Israel, which hopes for forgiveness for its collective sins:
Wait, O Israel, for the Lord,
for with the Lord is steadfast kindness,
and great redemption is with Him.
And He will redeem Israel
from all its wrongs. (7,8)

If we substitute the name of our particular Christian community for ‘Israel,’ I think we can see just how important collective confession becomes—and why it should be at the beginning of every time the community comes together to worship.

Daniel 7:23–8:27: It seems only proper that Daniel—the great interpreter of king’s dreams—would have his own dream interpreted for him. The watcher, or whoever is interpreting the dream, focuses on the fourth beast—the one with iron teeth:
As for the fourth beast,
there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth

    that shall be different from all the other kingdoms;
it shall devour the whole earth,
    and trample it down, and break it to pieces.” (7:23)

In any event, the talking horn—what some see as the Antichrist—will work against all that is holy:
He shall speak words against the Most High,
    shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High,
    and shall attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law;
and they shall be given into his power
    for a time, two times, and half a time. (7:25)

My own take is that this is a description of the subjugation of Israel under the Greek empire featuring Antiochus Epiphanes and his attempt to suppress Israel’s worship. This is the period when most scholars agree this book was written. Nevertheless, many prefer to interpret Daniel’s dream as a forecast of the end of history—or at least have a lot of fun doing so.

Not content with a bizzaro dream, Daniel then has a vision down by the riverside of a powerful ram, which is “charging westward and northward and southward. All beasts were powerless to withstand it, and no one could rescue from its power; it did as it pleased and became strong.” (8:4) A goat with four horns then tackles the ram. Then—you guessed it—another little horn which “grew as high as the host of heaven. It threw down to the earth some of the host and some of the stars, and trampled on them.” (8:10)

The reference to suppressed worship at the temple seems quite clear: “it took the regular burnt offering away from him and overthrew the place of his sanctuary.” (8:11) Daniel now hears “the Holy One” speaking and he asks, “For how long is this vision concerning the regular burnt offering, the transgression that makes desolate, and the giving over of the sanctuary and host to be trampled?” (8:13) The answer is strangely precise: “For two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful state.” (8:14)—or about six years.

Daniel is frustrated that he cannot interpret his own vision: “I tried to understand it.” So the Holy One (God?) sends the angel Gabriel to explain, who suddenly makes it quite clear that the vision is about the end of something. “Understand, O mortal, that the vision is for the time of the end.” (8:17) The end of history? The end of Israel? The end of something else?

Gabriel then explains, “As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia. The male goat  is the king of Greece, and the great horn between its eyes is the first king.” (8:21) Greece then breaks apart and “a king of bold countenance shall arise,/ skilled in intrigue…By his cunning he shall make deceit prosper under his hand  and in his own mind he shall be great..” (8:23, 25) Inasmuch as the Roman empire arose after the Greek empire, one wonders if this is the a prescient forecast of the Caesars to come.

Gabriel concludes that the vision “refers to many days from now.” (8:26)

Needless to say there have been numerous of attempts to fit contemporary history into this scenario of end times. But again, I think it’s a reference to the Greek conquest of Israel and the desecration that happened under that oppression. But if you’d rather try to fit all these signs and symbols into a scenario for the end of history, have at it.

Jude 1:1–10: We know very little about Jude beyond surmising that he was an apostle that like Paul, Peter, James, John, et al was writing against those who would corrupt the early church. I’m pretty sure Thomas Hardy had this short book in mind when he titled one of his novels, “Jude the Obscure.” That title certainly seems to fit here. But then so would “Jude the Angry.”

Whatever church it is to which he is writing, Jude is quite direct. Apostasy is afoot: “I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (3, 4)

Jude does not pussyfoot around. He cites some dramatic examples of how God punished wrongdoers: Even though God saved the Israelites, “he afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” (5) Likewise, he points out, Sodom and  Gomorrah “indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” (7)

Something that in his opinion is just as awful is apparently going on at this church and Jude does not mince words: “Yet in the same way these dreamers also defile the flesh, reject authority, and slander the glorious ones.” (8) He goes on to accuse these miscreants not only of slander but worse, slander born out of ignorance: “But these people slander whatever they do not understand, and they are destroyed by those things that, like irrational animals, they know by instinct.” (10) Apparnetly the problem of fake news is nothing new. People have been making things up all along…

I suspect one of the reasons that this little letter is in the Canon is that it is a great example of the intensity with which the original battles were fought over what aspects of Christian belief were orthodox and what were not. The first verses of this short book are a statement by the winners of the orthodoxy battles. This reminds us that the stakes continue to be very high and subsequent generations must stick to the strait and narrow and avoid Jude-like accusations of apostasy.

Psalm 129; Daniel 6:19–7:22; 3 John

Originally published 11/20/2017. Revised and updated 11/19/2019.

Psalm 129: This song of ascents celebrates how, despite their torturous methods, Israel’s long-time enemies have not triumphed. Israel still stands tall:
Much as they beset me from my youth
–Let Israel now say—
uch as they beset me from my youth,
yet they did not prevail over me.
My back the harrowers harrowed,
they drew a long furrow. (2, 3)

For me, this vivid agricultural image of a plow cutting open a lengthy laceration communicates searing pain more dramatically than almost any other metaphor in the psalms. And despite the pain, our psalmist can still celebrate God’s mercy in how the captives have been set free:
The Lord is just.
He has slashed the bonds of the wicked.
May they be shamed and fall back,
all the haters of Zion. (4, 5)

The haters of Zion have persisted down through history, most tragically in the Holocaust. So we can be sympathetic to the psalmist’s wish that they will suffer mightily as the poet continues with the agricultural metaphors—only this time turned against the enemy:
May they be like the grass on rooftops
that the east wind withers,
which no reaper fills his hand,
no binder of sheaves his bosom” (6, 7)

Moreover, these enemies lie outside the realm of God’s favor and they will miss God’s blessing:
and no passers-by say, “The Lord’s blessing upon you!” (8a)

While those harvest and those who pass by—God followers all—say to each other the final line, “We bless you un the name of the Lord.” (8b) We are either with God or we are against God. as always, there is no middle ground. It is this separation from God that is the consequence of unconfessed sin.

Daniel 6:19–7:22: Daniel keeps setting an example of living a godly life and he continues to outwit the wiles of his enemies in court—this time the satraps of King Darius. Once again, we witness the appeal to a king’s outsize ego and his narcissistic stupidity in signing an ordinance that everyone has to pray to him. That the order is cleverly worded such that it cannot be rescinded lands Daniel in harm’s way. Since he prays only to God, his jealous enemies see that he is tossed into the lion’s den. Darius wants to save Daniel, but there’s no escaping the legality of the law he’s signed. Daniel is famously tossed into the lion’s den, and anxiety-ridden Darius neither eats nor sleeps that night.

Next morning, the king rushes to the den, finds Daniel quite alive “because he had trusted in his God.” (6:23)  The king makes sure that Daniel’s accusers suffer the fate they had arranged for Daniel. The king issues a decree that is actually a wonderful psalm, doubtless written by the authors of this book than by Darius:
For he is the living God,
    enduring forever.
His kingdom shall never be destroyed,
    and his dominion has no end. (6:26)

For me, this famous story is all about trusting God in dire circumstances.

The lion’s den story would have been a great place to end this book. But alas, somebody—perhaps another author—has tacked on what is basically a postscript: Daniel’s own dream of things to come. It’s certainly an imaginative dream featuring four fearsome hybrid animals:

  • a lion with eagle’s wings which morphs into a human with a human mind.
  • a bear with three tusks that eats people
  • something like a leopard with four wings and four heads
  • a frightening ten-horned beast with iron teeth devouring everything in sight.

The ten-horned beast suddenly sprouts a “little horn…with eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.” (7:8)

Then there’s a throne room judgement scene—and we can see some of the source material used by the author of Revelation in the throne room scene:
A thousand thousands served him,
    and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
    and the books were opened. (7:10)

The three beasts are usually interpreted as the empires of Babylon, Persia and Greece. The fourth beast with iron teeth is the Roman empire. The talking horn is typically interpreted as the Antichrist. Needless to say, a lot of ink has been spilled by people attempting to link these images to current world history—IMHO, in inevitably futile attempts at interpreting just who the little horn represents. One interpretation may be Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek ruler who sacrificed pigs in the temple at Jerusalem. Or perhaps someone yet to come. During the Reformation the pope served as a handy interpretation of the little horn.

But perhaps the strongest image in this passage is the one we could interpret as Jesus Christ come to earth as man as Daniel exclaims,
I saw one like a human being
    coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One[f]
    and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
    and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him. (7:13, 14a)

I think we can leave it at that. God wins at the end of history by virtue of having sent Jesus into the world to save us.

3 John: I’m not sure why this short little letter is its own epistle in the NT. It’s essentially a thank you note to a certain Gaius whom John commends for how well he hews to the Gospel: “I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth, namely how you walk in the truth.” (3)

On the other hand, there’s “Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority.” (9a) Even more scurrilous than spreading “false charges against us” (9) is that he lacks hospitality and has arrogantly put himself in charge as “he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church.” (10) However, John has the ultimate revenge as Diotrephes goes down in history as a miscreant. I strongly doubt if any Christian mother ever named her child Diotrephes.

The example of Diotrephes once again causes John to remind us, “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” (11) Which I think is the theological heart of this short letter. In the end, if we imitate Christ himself we are on the right path.

Finally, John endorses a certain Demetrius, as “Everyone has testified favorably about [him], and so has the truth itself.” (12)

John concludes by telling his correspondents that he has much more to write, but “instead I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face.” (14) One of the great unanswered questions of history is whether or not that meeting actually took place.

Psalm 128; Daniel 5:17–6:18; 2 John

Originally published 11/18/2015. Revised and updated 11/18/2019.

Psalm 128: This psalm celebrates a peaceful domesticity that belongs to “all who fear the Lord/ who walk in His ways.” (1) Life includes work and its rewards:
When you eat of the toil of your hands,
happy are you, and it is good for you. (2)

While the image is one of horticulture (“toil of your hands“) I think the line easily suggests the benefits of the all kinds of work—the theology of vocation. Particularly striking is the line, “it is good for you,” i.e, work is what we have been meant to do from tending the garden in Eden to the present day: occupation keeps us healthy and centered.

In that patriarchal society which did not believe in an afterlife, it was progeny—the idea that our spirit lives on in our children and grandchildren and generations beyond—that that brought a kind of immortality. So, the primary purpose of a man’s wife was to bear children:
Your wife is like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your house. (3a).

In the recesses of your house” indicates that the role of the wife in that era was strictly non-public—a custom continued to this day in the Muslim community. The female “fruitful vine” produces offspring: “your children like young olive trees around your table.” (3b). [I like the mixed metaphor: a vine that produces olive trees…]

In Israel, it was productive work, a tranquil domestic life, and children that were the sure sign of God’s favor:
Look, for it is thus
that the man is blessed who fears the Lord. (4).

The psalm ends with with two blessings. The first is for peace:
May the Lord bless you from Zion,
     and may you see Jerusalem’s good
     all the days of your life. (5)

The second is one that resonates so clearly with me—and one which I have been blessed so beautifully:
And may you see children of your children. (6)

There is no question that the richest most unexpected blessing of these latter years of my life has been my grandchildren. Amidst the turmoil and evil rampant in the world may they grow and prosper and receive the same blessing that I have.

Daniel 5:17–6:18: Before Daniel interprets the writing on the wall, he reviews the course of Belshazzar’s father, Nebuchadnezzar, who “when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he acted proudly, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and his glory was stripped from him.” (5:20) But through being brought low, Nebuchadnezzar “learned that the Most High God has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and sets over it whomever he will.” (5:21).

Unlike the father, the son has “not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this! ” (5:22) Instead, in a perfect statement that describes the core values of 21st century American society, “You have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honored.” (5:23).  Daniel then interprets the writing and “That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed.” (5:30). Darius the Mede takes over the kingdom.

This story of course is the lesson of pride and the consequences of truly believing that what we have accomplished we have done strictly on our own. And yet, this is the theme of self-reliance that is the very theme of the American dream.

Under the new administration, Daniel continues to shine and “distinguished himself above all the other presidents and satraps because an excellent spirit was in him, and the king planned to appoint him over the whole kingdom.” (6:3). Jealousy prevails that Daniel will become prime minister and similar to what happens in Esther, the satraps “tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so.” (6:4) As with with Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, these jealous officials effectively trick the king into issuing a decree that demands sole obeisance to the king or it’s off to the lions’ den. Which due to Daniel’s persistent faith in God is exactly where he finds himself.

What’s fascinating about this story–and what we really didn’t get from Sunday School– is that this episode is more about King Darius than Daniel. First Darius tries to stall: “When the king heard the charge, he was very much distressed. He was determined to save Daniel, and until the sun went down he made every effort to rescue him.” (6:14) But when this fails, Darius effectively prays to God: “The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!” (6:16) Moreover, the king is consumed by worry: “the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; no food was brought to him, and sleep fled from him.” (6:18)

In his heart of hearts, Darius realizes what Nebuchadnezzar came to realize (as Belshazzar did not): There is that famous God-shaped vacuum in every human heart–even among kings. Deep down, Darius knows that there is a God greater than he.  As I suspect any person who honestly examines himself away from the trappings of society will discover for himself.

2 John: This very short epistle is in fact a personal letter from John “to the elect lady and her children” (1a) I’m not sure, but I think this is the only epistle in the NT that is so overtly dedicated to a single person—and a woman at that! [Philemon is more of an appeal than a dedicatory epistle.]

As usual, love exudes from John’s every pore: “whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth, because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever.” (1b, 2)

Notice how love is always about truth. This is the theme of this letter. John is “overjoyed to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we have been commanded by the Father.” (4). But John’s unspoken message is that someone may be drifting astray as he defines true love as obedience to God: “And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment just as you have heard it from the beginning—you must walk in it.” (6)

One suspects that this woman is possibly coming under the influence of an apostate, who is preaching that Christ is only spirit and not human (the heresy of Docetism): “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!” (7)

He then issues a warning that is the key to differentiating between orthodox Christian faith and belief systems (Mormons, the prosperity gospel, are examples) that add to the core Gospel that Christ preached: “Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God.” (9a) While “whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” (9b) He almost begs the lady, “Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching.” (10)

In fact, I think this letter is so short and ends so abruptly because John’s concern for her is so great that he feels compelled to take up this problem in person: “I would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” (12).

The lesson for us is crystalline: love and truth are completely intertwined. We cannot have love without truth. And we cannot add our own ideas or false theology to the core of what Christ preached.

Psalm 127; Daniel 4:19–5:16; 1 John 5:6–21

Originally published 11/17/2017. Revised and updated 11/16/2019.

Psalm 127: This psalm is dedicated to Solomon probably because of the clear reference to the temple in the first verse:
If the Lord does not build a house,
in vain do its builders labor on it.
If the Lord does not watch over a town,
in vain does the watchman look out. (1)

I think the first two lines are directly applicable to the church of Jesus Christ: not just in the physical building sense, but when a congregation drifts away from the central mission of the church, which is to bring the good news of the Gospel to others, then the entire project of “church” is pretty much in vain.

The next verse communicates how our own lives and especially our own efforts at salvation are ultimately futile. We are mere mortals. Rather, the gifts we receive, such as rest and renewed energy from being able to sleep at night, come from God, not our own work:
In vain you who rise early, sit late,
eaters of misery’s bread.
So much He gives to His loved ones in sleep. (3)

The subject suddenly changes to a celebration of the joys of male progeny, which for Jews was basically a man’s central purpose. As a reflection of the time in which the psalm was written, notice that the reward is sons, not daughters, since it is sons who carry on the ancestral line and therefore the memory of fathers and grandfathers in subsequent generations:
Look, the estate of the Lord is sons,
reward is the fruit of the womb. (3)

The emphasis on the crucial importance of having sons is carried further with the militaristic image of a warrior holding arrows:
Like arrows in the warrior’s hand,
thus are the sons born in youth.
Happy the man
who fills his quiver with them.” (4, 5a)

Of course in those days it was the sons who went to battle to preserve the nation and therefore, its families. From the context of our own culture many may denigrate that society’s emphasis on male progeny as being unfair to daughters. But it’s worth remembering that without sons to go to battle the tribes and nations would be annihilated and ultimately forgotten. WHich I think is exactly the point of the last two lines:
They shall not be shamed
when they speak with their enemies at the gate.” (5b)

We may scoff at such a stark emphasis on male children, but in many respects I certainly miss the clear delineation between sexes and more recently, the bizarre idea that gender is a choice not a biological fact. Ultimately, our culture will not meet the enemy at the gate because, alas, the enemy is already well inside the city.

Daniel 4:19–5:16: Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream. Ever wanting to appear strong and invincible, the king projects his own anxiety on Daniel, “Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or the interpretation terrify you.” (4:19) Daniel tells Neb that the fruitful tree is the king himself. Well, this seems like good news until Daniel gets to the part about the tree being cut down. The cutting down means that the king has been judged by God and that Neb “shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the wild animals. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen, you shall be bathed with the dew of heaven, and seven times [years, I presume] shall pass over you, until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and gives it to whom he will.” (4:25) In other words, the king will go mad, for his prideful arrogance has been judged by God.

Nothing happens until one day Nebuchadnezzar exclaims pridefully, “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” (4:30) At that moment God strikes him down and he becomes insane, driven away from human society and ends up eating grass. Our authors, who clearly despise Neb’s arrogance, add the detail that “his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws.” In other words, Nebuchadnezzar has lost his humanity.

We arrive an odd intermezzo where Nebuchadnezzar regains his reason and has what I think we can only call a “conversion experience.” He comes to understand that God has ultimate power over human affairs: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven,

for all his works are truth,
    and his ways are justice;
and he is able to bring low
    those who walk in pride.” (4:37)

Which for me is the central moral of the Nebuchadnezzar story: pride does indeed go before a fall. Only by realizing that God is in charge, and that we accept that we are not as “in control” as we think can equilibrium be restored.

Nebuchadnezzar exits the stage and is replaced by his son Belshazzar, who obviously did not learn anything about pride from his father’s experience. He throws a party with the unforgivable (to our Jewish authors) desecration of drinking and feasting using the stolen vessels from the temple followed by blasphemy: “They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.” (5:4)

The famous handwriting on the wall appears and our Jewish authors gleefully mock the king’s reaction: “the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.” (5:8)

Belshazzar calls in his wise men to interpret the writing. Unsurprisingly, they cannot figure it out and our authors twist their disdainful knife further: “King Belshazzar became greatly terrified and his face turned pale, and his lords were perplexed.” (5:9)

The queen remembers about Daniel being “an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems.” (5:12) So they fetch Daniel and Belshazzar tells him, “if you are able to read the writing and tell me its interpretation, you shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around your neck, and rank third in the kingdom.” (5:16)

The Moravians end the reading here. But the suspense is missing since we already know what happens next…

1 John 5:6–21: John’s theology gets pretty dense here: “ This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.”  (6) I think we can unpack it as the two defining moments of Jesus ministry on earth: his baptism by water and the shedding of his blood on the cross. John asserts that the testimony to this truth is not via a mere human eyewitness accounts, but by the Holy Spirit itself, which by definition cannot lie.

He returns to his theme that faith—or its lack—is binary, which I think is a response to an accusation that since the people in the Johannine community were not eyewitnesses to the events surrounding Jesus, they cannot be telling the truth. John asserts that on the contrary, “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.” (10)

He concludes with the famous concluding statement, beloved by evangelicals who eschew all ambiguity: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (12)

Like Paul, John cannot leave it there but concludes his letter with a statement that I’m sure is the basis of the Roman Catholic definition of two classes of sin: “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.” (17) In other words, some sins (mortal ones) are more sinful than others (venial ones).

Once again, John makes his point about Jesus being the son of God, ending with the bold assertion that “we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” (16) There’s no mistaking that Jesus is indeed true God, a reality testified by the Holy Spirit, whence the doctrine of the Trinity.

Psalm 126; Daniel 3:19–4:18; 1 John 4:16b–5:5

Originally published 11/16/2017. Revised and updated 11/15/2019.

Psalm 126: This is another psalm that appears to have been written during the Babylonian captivity. Its opening verse envisions restoration of the land of Israel and the consequent joy of its people. This act of God will border on the unimaginable, as if it were a dream fulfilled:
When the Lord restores Zion’s fortunes,
we should be like dreamers.
Then will our mouth fill with laughter
and our tongue with glad song. (1, 2a)

Israel’s restoration will be sufficiently unexpected that surrounding nations will not only be amazed, but like the people of Israel itself, will realize this can only be God’s doing:
Then they will say in the nations:
‘Great things has the Lord done with these.’
Great things  has the Lord done with is.
We shall rejoice. (2b, 3)

How often has God done the unexpected for me that causes me to rejoice? Surely the fact that I am still here after dealing with advanced cancer more than ten years ago is cause for rejoicing. I, too, have been restored.

In eager anticipation of that wonderful day of restoration our psalmist turns to supplication with a simile that restoration will come unexpectedly like a dry wash in the desert suddenly overflowing with water:
Restore, O Lord, our fortunes
like freshets in the Negeb. (4)

The water image transforms to tears in a metaphor of a man—obviously representing Israel itself—sowing seed in despair but reaping a crop of joy:
They who sow in tears
in glad song will reap.
He walks along and weeps,
the bearer of the seed-bag.
He will surely come in with glad song
bearing his sheaves. (5,6)

I remember well the sense that my life was over when I was diagnosed with cancer. But through excellent care and above all, the prayers of those around me, I live now in gladness. Truly, I have been able to gather in sheaves of healing and joy out of the misery of disease.

Daniel 3:19–4:18: Although biblical knowledge is fading rapidly in our culture I think it’s still a fairly safe bet that most people (most adults, anyway) have heard the story of the fiery furnace. Narcissistic king Nebuchadnezzar demands that the recalcitrant Jews, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, be bound and tossed into the furnace. [And again, I wonder, where is Daniel in all this? Surely he knew what was going on.] The furnace is so overheated that “the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.” (3:20)

Neb looks into the furnace and sees “four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” (3:25) The king commands the three men to come out of the furnace. Mercurial as always, Nebuchadnezzar again appears to be impressed by Israel’s God. He decrees, “Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.” (3:29) And he promotes S, M, & A to high positions of authority.

This story is all about trusting God, for which S, M, & A are the poster children. But who is the fourth man with them in the furnace? One’s first guess is that it was an angel, but angels are merely messengers. I doubt that a conventional angel could perform this miracle. Which brings us to the second guess—and one I heard in Sunday School—that the fourth man was Jesus Christ himself, appearing in a hint of another miracle to come. Personally, I think it was one of the “watchers” that Nebuchadnezzar refers to in describing his second dream.

In chapter 4, the scene in this most cinematic of OT books shifts back to Nebuchadnezzar’s palace where he continues to worship the Jewish God, even to the point of singing a song of praise:
How great are his signs,
    how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
    and his sovereignty is from generation to generation. (4:3)

[You have to love the author of this book: it has everything! Drama, bizarre dreams, miracles, theology, poetry, predictions of things to come. It is truly the work of an inspired writer.]

But then Nebuchadnezzar has a second dream; this one more ominous than his first: “I saw a dream that frightened me; my fantasies in bed and the visions of my head terrified me.” (4:5). Neb goes directly to Daniel [whom he has named “Belteshazzar after the name of my god, and who is endowed with a spirit of the holy gods.” (4:8)] and relates the dream.

This time it’s a tall tree, which
grew great and strong,
    its top reached to heaven,
    and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.” (4:11)

But then a “holy watcher, coming down from heaven” (4:13) commanded that the tree be cut down with only the stump remaining. The core of the dream for me is Nebuchadnezzar’s statement,
Let his mind be changed from that of a human,
and let the mind of an animal be given to him.
And let seven times pass over him. (4:16)

Nebuchadnezzar goes on to tell Daniel that this transformation has been the
…rendered by decree of the watchers,
the decision is given by order of the holy ones,
in order that all who live may know
    that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals.
 (4:17)

I have a feeling that the king is not going to be happy with Daniel’s interpretation of this dream. I know I have many dreams at night, but I can recall none so fraught with symbolism as these two dreams of Nebuchadnezzar.

1 John 4:16b–5:5: Even more than Paul in his famous I Corinthians 13 passage on love, John develops an entire theology around God’s love. Love is the very atmosphere in which our relationship with God has been established: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (4:16b) There may have been love in the world before now, but through Jesus Christ, “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.” (4:17)

And then the famous verse that concatenates love and fear: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (4:18) That is, the love that we express to others is a direct gift from God. And by Johannine logic, God-given love cannot coexist with hypocrisy: “We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars” (4:19) It all boils down to being commanded to love others: “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (4:21)

Which is really, really difficult when it comes to people we don’t particularly like. Yet, here it is: we are commanded to love others, even the unlikable ones. I know that I have failed again and again in this regard. For me, I think it’s virtually impossible to truly love someone we dislike. It certainly is impossible under our own steam. It takes God’s love filtering through us in order to love others. In fact, in God’s eyes we’re all pretty unlikable; yet God expressed his love for us by sending Jesus into the world.

Love is far more than an emotion or romantic feeling. It is a state of being. We are commanded to love and likewise, God’s love for us motivates us to keep his commandments: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (5:3) And out of that love comes victory over the wiles of the world: “for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” (5:4)

Which causes me to reflect on the nature of that victory. It’s pretty clear that God’s “victory” is not some coup d’etat over the culture that many well-meaning evangelicals would like to see. In fact, here in America very little appears to be going God’s way—or at least what we’d like to imagine is God’s way. No, I think the victory John is describing is God’s victory over our own hearts‚ which happens when (as Oswald Chambers would put it) we abandon our egos and our overweening desire to stay in control by truly handing our lives over to Jesus Christ. I think that is what “victorious love” means.