Psalm 148:1–6; Zechariah 12–13:6; Revelation 20:11–21:8

Psalm 148:1–6: This majestic psalm of praise celebrates God and God’s creation. It begins in heaven itself as we get a glimpse of just who is there:
Hallelujah.
Praise the Lord from the heavens,
praise Him on the heights.
Praise Him, all His messengers,
praise Him, all His armies.” (1, 2)

Here’ messengers are obviously angels, but the paintings and popular conception to the contrary, I doubt they are winged and haloed beings. Somewhere in the Bible there’s a verse about us having “entertained angels unawares,” i.e. they look like us. Remember that Abraham and Sarah entertained three angelic beings that looked just like them. And I guessing that God’s armies are populated by those fearsome looking seraphim with multiple wings and lion faces.

Our psalmist turns to creation, effectively paralleling the Genesis account. But here it is not just that God has brought creation into being, but that creation itself worships God. The psalmist begins with God’s physical creation above our heads:
Praise Him, sun and moon,
praise Him, all you stars of light.
Praise Him, utmost heavens,
and the waters above the heavens.”  (3, 4)

I presume the “waters above the heavens” refers to rain. I think the phrase “above the heavens”  refers simply to the sky above.  All these seemingly inanimate objects exist for the same reason we humans do: they—and we— were created to praise and worship God:
Let them praise the Lord’s name,
for He commanded, and they were created.
And He made them stand forever, for all time.
And he set them a border that could not be crossed.” (5, 6)

So, what is this border? I think it’s the boundary between God’s visible creation, which includes what’s above are heads and Heaven itself, which we cannot see in the same way as God’s created heavenly bodies. Of course John’s Revelation attempts crosses this border in its almost hallucinatory effort describe the fundamentally indescribable. I prefer our psalmist’s statement that there os a border between God’s physical creation and Heaven, and leave it at that.

Zechariah 12–13:6: One wonders if this book will ever end…  Zechariah continues with his vision of a great army arrayed outside Jerusalem—effectively the same image as John who describes Satan’s armies preparing for battle outside the new Jerusalem: “And all the nations of the earth shall come together against it. On that day, says the Lord, I will strike every horse with panic, and its rider with madness.” (12:3, 4)

Zechariah writes that Judah will be triumphant in this battle and will “devour to the right and to the left all the surrounding peoples, while Jerusalem shall again be inhabited in its place, in Jerusalem.” (12:6) Very good things will then happen to the people of Judah, who must have been hanging on Zechariah’s every word at this point: “On that day the Lord will shield the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the Lord, at their head.” (12:8) Wow. Zechariah seems to be getting carried away when he starts comparing the house of David to God.

Or is he? There is indeed someone from the house of David who is in fact God: Jesus Christ. And in the section that follows, it appears that the people of Judah have executed their messiah: “I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one  whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (12:10)

That Jesus was pierced with a sword while on the cross is certainly suggestive here. However, there was certainly no compassion expressed by the inhabitants of Jerusalem before the cross, as Zechariah describes a woeful mourning by all: “The land shall mourn, each family by itself; the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves;” (12;12)

Chapter 13 opens with what seems to be a clear reference to repentance and baptism occuring on the Day of the Lord: “On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.” (13:1)

Zechariah describes a general cleansing: “On that day, says the Lord of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more; and also I will remove from the land the prophets and the unclean spirit.” (13:2) He goes on to state that the many false prophets will disavow their own prophecies: “will be ashamed, every one, of their visions when they prophesy; …each of them will say, “I am no prophet, I am a tiller of the soil; for the land has been my possession since my youth.” (13:4) 

John certainly seems to have picked up this same false prophet theme in the person of the Antichrist.

Revelation 20:11–21:8: John describes the “great white throne judgement,” which we refer to in our creeds, “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” The dead, who arrive form out of the sea and from “Death and Hades” will be judged first “according to their works, as recorded in the books…according to what they had done.” (20:12, 13) In an echo of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew, this is the separation of the sheep from the goats and “anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (20:15)

This judgement scene is why Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and others are anxious to have their children baptized so their name is written in the book of life. More evangelical types such as Baptists believe that a “personal decision for Jesus Christ” is the way to get their names written into the Book of Life.

The judgement complete, John “saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” (21:1) And in perhaps one of the strangest images in the Bible (and given John’s descriptions in this book, that’s saying a lot), John “saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (21:2) And we arrive at one of the more famous lines in this book that describes what heaven as experienced in the new Jerusalem will be like—and it will be far different than the lives John’s readers are experiencing as God comes again to dwell among them:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (21:3, 4)

How encouraging this image must have been to the churches suffering persecution. And amidst the sturm und drang of our own culture, these are certainly words we can hang on to also.

John gives all the credit for what is a brand new creation to Jesus, who is sitting on the great white throne: “See, I am making all things new.” (21:5a) And to provide evidence of John’s bona fides he writes that it is Jesus who has given John the authority to write this book: “Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (21:5b)

John’s take on the Good News, the evangelicum is right here as Jesus himself states, It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” (21:6, 7)

But the binary nature of being for or against God is crystalline as John, still speaking in Jesus’ voice, offers a final sentence on the fate of evildoers: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless,[the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (21:8) s if dying once is not enough, these people are condemned to a second death.

 

 

Psalm 147:15–20; Zechariah 10,11; Revelation 20:1–10

Psalm 147:15–20: These concluding verses are very appropriate because as I write on this winter day it is -8º out and the land is covered in snow and ice. Our psalmist is describing the winter in the Judean hills, always reminding us that God is in charge of nature in three brilliantly evocative verses rich in creative simile:
He pours forth snow like fleece,
   scatters frost like ash.
He flings His ice like bread crumbs.
   in the face of His cold who can endure?
He sends out His word and melts them,
   He lets his breath blow—the waters flow.” (16-18)

Sitting here in warmth but looking out into the dark and cold pre-dawn morning, these verses beautifully describe a cold, windy winter’s day. But God does not allow winter to remain. The fresh breezes of spring—God’s breath—melt the ice and the streams flow once again. These verses are also a metaphor for us: We may be frozen in our worries or our self-absorption, but it is God’s breath—the Holy Spirit—that comes to us an melts our icy hearts, replacing it with the fresh waters of baptism and our daily walk with God.

The two concluding verses remind the Jewish people of Israel’s special status as the unique beloved of God:
He tells His word to Jacob,
   His statutes and laws to Israel.
He did not thus to all nations,
   and they knew not the laws.” (19, 20)

This is a succinct summary of the Old Covenant. Happily in the New Covenant under Jesus Christ this last verse is no longer operative. People of all nations have received the Good News. And as Paul points out in his letter to Rome, the Law is no longer how God relates to us, but instead through our intercessor, Jesus Christ.

Zechariah 10,11: Chapter 10 is a poetic oracle that opens by castigating Judah’s prideful, greedy leadership, especially its so-called prophets, which have failed in their duties to the people. In short, Judah has been a land of lies and inept leadership because they have trusted in idols rather than God:
For the teraphim [idols]  utter nonsense,
    and the diviners see lies;
the dreamers tell false dreams,
    and give empty consolation.
Therefore the people wander like sheep;
    they suffer for lack of a shepherd.” (10:2)

Because of their dereliction, God plans to punish the leaders but promises a new beginning for the people of Judah who have returned from foreign lands. 
I will strengthen the house of Judah,
    and I will save the house of Joseph.
I will bring them back because I have compassion on them,
    and they shall be as though I had not rejected them;
    for I am the Lord their God and I will answer them.” (10:6)

However, God is not going to just wave his magic wand and restore the status quo ante. There will be suffering as Judah turns back to God, but as Zechariah points out, these tribulations will strengthen them:
They  shall pass through the sea of distress,
    and the waves of the sea shall be struck down,
    and all the depths of the Nile dried up.”
I will make them strong in the Lord,
    and they shall walk in his name,
says the Lord(10:11a, 12)

I can imagine that these words were of great encouragement to the Jews who did indeed return and retake Judah after World War II. However, Israel today is basically secular, Not all of Zechariah’s prophecy has yet come true.

In chapter 11, Zechariah, speaking for God, describes a bitter end to history: “I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of the earth, says the Lord. I will cause them, every one, to fall each into the hand of a neighbor, and each into the hand of the king; and they shall devastate the earth, and I will deliver no one from their hand.” (11:6) Once again, we can see source material for John as he embellishes Zechariah’s prophecy in Revelation.

Zechariah sarcastically calls the failed leadership of Judah “the sheep merchants,” suggesting the leaders were more interested in transactions that increased their wealth as over against effectively leading the people to follow God, who are now “doomed to slaughter.” (11:7). God elaborates his point with a metaphor of two shepherds. The first shepherd, obviously God himself, has two shepherd’s staffs: one named Favor (i.e., his preference for Israel) and the other, Unity, for a reunited Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  But according to Zechariah, God breaks both staffs.

God then demands that the sheep merchants give him his wages and they dole out 30 shekels of silver, which he tosses into the treasury, amid more sarcasm, “this lordly price at which I was valued by them.” (11:13) Which is exactly the “lordly price” that the priests in Jerusalem paid Judas to betray Jesus.

The chapter ends on an ominous note describing how God is “now raising up in the land a shepherd who does not care for the perishing, or seek the wandering, or heal the maimed, or nourish the healthy but devours the flesh of the fat ones, tearing off even their hoofs.” (11:16) This doleful prophecy came true in the form of the Greeks and their leader, Antiochus Epiphanes, who invaded and ruled Jerusalem during the “silent 400 years” between the end of the Old Testament and Jesus’ arrival on earth. I think it is also more source material for John as he describes the false leader working for the beast.

Revelation 20:1–10: John describes the famous millenium of peace when the angel “seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended.” (2) However, John continues, “After that he must be let out for a little while.” This is the basis of belief of “postmillennialists,” who believe Jesus will come to earth and reign for 1000 years before the final 7-year tribulation (“a little while”) comes to pass. 

Lest we wonder what will be happening during those 1000 years, John asserts that the martyred dead who resisted the Antichrist and remained faithful will come back to life and enjoy the Millenium: “I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus  and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands.” (4) These folks “will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years.” (6)

At the end of the 1000 years, Satan returns and deceives the nations “at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea.”(8) ‘Gog & Magog’ refers to the traditional enemies of Israel. Needless to say, many over-interpreters believe this to be the Arab states that surround modern-day Israel. I don’t think that’s what John had in mind. I think he is trying to encourage those seven churches to persevere under the Roman tyranny for a great reward awaits them.

As these evil forces surround “the beloved City,” which I take to be the New Jerusalem, “fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (9, 10) And this is where we get our picture of a fiery hell, perhaps most memorably illustrated by Hieronymus Bosch:

In the end, God wins.

Psalm 147:7–14; Zechariah 8,9; Revelation 19:9–21

Psalm 147:7–14: As always, worship is our response to the incredible things God is and what he has done for us:
Call out to the Lord in Thanksgiving,
hymn to our God on the lyre.” (7)

Our psalmist cannot contain himself as he continues his catalog of God’s mighty works, this time turning to nature and how God sustains all life, beginning high in the clouds and with the rain, descending to earth and its creatures:
Who covers the heavens with clouds,
readies rain for the earth,
makes mountains flourish with grass.
gives the beast its food,
in the raven’s young who call.” (8, 9)

Nature also provides for humankind—not just sustenance, but military might and technology. But man’s use of these powers does not impress God. Our mightiest acts are puny compared to God’s:
Not the might of the horse He desires,
not by a man’s thighs is he pleases.” (10)

I take “might of the horse” to be a reference to a soldier riding a horse in battle and the reference to thighs as a veiled hint at sexual prowess. But power and might are not what pleases God. Instead, it is living a righteous life and worshipping him:
The Lord is pleased by those who fear Him,
those who long for for His kindness.
Extol, O Jerusalem, the Lord,
praise Your God, o Zion.” (11, 12)

For when we love and worship God and stick to his path of righteousness, blessings—both physical and spiritual—will surely come:
For He strengthens the the bars of your gates,
blesses your children in your midst.
He bestows peace in your land,
He sates you with choice wheat.” (13, 14)

How well we would do to remember that true blessings come from God, not from humankind’s hands. All of man’s works bear a light side and a dark side. Only God can bless us without cost and without a downside.

Zechariah 8,9;: The remnant of Israel has returned to Jerusalem after 70 years of exile. Jerusalem is a mess and Zechariah proclaims that God will bring better days to this once great city: “Thus says the Lord: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city,” (8:3) There are good things to come as Jerusalem is repopulated: “ Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” (8:4, 5) 

Obviously this restoration seems impossible as the people are standing amidst the ruins. But God asks them, “Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the Lord of hosts?” (8:6) Of course we know the answer to that question.

God calls the people to work: “Let your hands be strong” (8:9) And he establishes the principles of restoring a God-fearing nation: “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath” (8:16, 17) Which is a pretty good recipe for any culture that wishes to flourish. Alas, as I look at this list I see an American culture in inevitable decline.

As we know, both the city and the temple were rebuilt. And even today, Jerusalem remains at the center of God’s concerns—and a flashpoint for Israel’s many enemies.

So there’s always the next chapter. Chapter 9 is a pretty routine polemic against Israel’s many enemies. These include

  • the land of Hadrach,
  • Damascus (some things never change),
  • Hamath,
  • Tyre,
  • Sidon,
  • Ashkelon,
  • Gaza,
  • Ekron,
  • Ashdod (where “mongrel people will settle”)
  • Philistia,

Besides destruction there is also a messianic promise, which is dramatic and militaristic. But what is most striking about this king  who is yet to come is that
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (9:9)

Obviously, the symbology of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was not lost on the religious leaders who certainly knew what Zechariah had to say.

Naturally, Zechariah turns all apocalyptic at the end of history:
Then the Lord will appear over them,
    and his arrow go forth like lightning;
the Lord God will sound the trumpet
    and march forth in the whirlwinds of the south.” (9:14)

But he ends on an optimistic note of Israel’s rescue, which in Revelation, John has transformed into the rescue of the Church:
On that day the Lord their God will save them
    for they are the flock of his people;
for like the jewels of a crown
    they shall shine on his land.” (9:16)

And the promise of new hope of a restored people. Not just at the end of time, but in the immediate future:
For what goodness and beauty are his!
    Grain shall make the young men flourish,
    and new wine the young women.” (9:17)

Which is exactly what God did under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra. All the people of Israel restored the city with strong hands.

Revelation 19:9–21: John is so taken by the scene of worship that the angel has showed him that he falls to his feet to worship the angel. Not surprisingly, the angel replies, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (10) Because there is yet another vision to come. This one much happier than the ones that have preceded it.

John looks up and sees a white horse: “Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.” (11) This rider “is clothed in a robe dipped in[f]blood, and his name is called The Word of God.” (13) Here’s one of those places where “the Word of God” would mean nothing to Romans who happened to read John’s manuscript, but it would have profound meaning for Christians. The “word of the Lord” tells them that the rider is none other than Jesus Christ himself.

This is a far more aggressive vision of Jesus Christ than any we have seen up to this point. In fact it all sounds as if it were lifted right from Zechariah: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” (15) I think the sword is actually the Holy Spirit. Paul uses this same metaphor in Ephesians 6.

Just to make sure we know exactly who John is describing, he adds one more detail: “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (16) And another line for Handel as he writes the Hallelujah Chorus.

Needless to say Jesus triumphs over evil. The dead bodies of the defeated army become carrion: with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in midheaven, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.” (17, 18)

The beast and the false prophet are also captured, who are famously “thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.” (20) Everyone else is killed by the rider and the sword of the Spirit. In the end, only the birds who “were gorged with [the fallen soldiers] flesh.” (21)

Psalm 147:1–6; Zechariah 6,7; Revelation 19:1–8

This is my 1000th post at MorMusings.com made, appropriately enough, on Christmas Day, 2017.

Psalm 147:1–6: This magnificent psalm covers all the psalmic bases in gorgeous language in these opening six verses.

  1. Praising God is good:
    For it is good to hymn to our God,
    for it is sweet to adorn with praise.” (1)
  2. God resides in Jerusalem and rescues Israel:
    Builder of Jerusalem, the Lord,
    Israel’s scattered ones He gathers in.” (2)
  3. God is the source of comfort and succor to all his creatures who suffer, whether physically or emotionally. It’s worth stopping at this verse and just soaking in the incredible gift of Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate today, who indeed came to bind up our wounds:
    Healer of the broken-hearted,
    He binds their painful wounds.” (3)
  4. God knows the vastness of the universe because he is its Creator and he knows us by name just as he knows the stars by name:
    He counts the number of the stars,
    to all of them gives names.” (4)
  5. God is the powerful source of all wisdom:
    Great is our Master, abounding in power,
    His wisdom is beyond number.” (5)
  6. And in keeping with the great underlying theme of both the Old and New Testaments, God places his caring priority on the poor and downtrodden and ensures justice—no matter how long delayed— will surely prevail:
    The Lord sustains the lowly,
    casts the wicked to the ground.” (6)

A beautiful psalm describing God’s manifold qualities on which to reflect this Christmas Day…

Zechariah 6,7: OK, I was wrong. I though Zechariah would end with the symbolic number seven, but here we have an eighth vision. This one as bizarre as any that preceded it: four chariots emerge form between two bronze mountains drawn by horses of different colors: red, black, white and oddly enough, dappled gray. Zechariah;’s angel informs him that they are the four winds: black to north; white to west; dappled to the south and, we presume, the red to the east. Their mission is to patrol the earth and the angel “cried out to me, “Lo, those who go toward the north country have set my spirit at rest in the north country.” (6:8) So, I guess the angel’s home was somewhere in the north. But beyond that, there’s not much more to say other than that God’s patrol is on the lookout in all directions.

Zechariah is then commanded by God to collect silver and gold from some exiles newly arrived from Babylon to fashion a crown to place on the head of “the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak” (6:11) [We don’t find out whether the exiles were rather unhappy to have their gold and silver confiscated.]

We then have a messianic prediction that Joshua will become a Branch “that shall build the temple of the Lord; he shall bear royal honor, and shall sit upon his throne and rule. There shall be a priest by his throne, with peaceful understanding between the two of them.” (6:13) I don’t think it would be unrealistic to interpret the Branch as the Christian church that emerges out of Judaism and that hopefully Jews and Christians will one day find peace with each other.

More prosaically, it is a prediction of the reconstruction of the destroyed temple, which task was led by Nehemiah: “Those who are far off shall come and help to build the temple of the Lord; and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you.” (6:15)

Chapter 7 leaves the land of visions and we see a more typical prophetic message, this one condemning hypocritical fasting while the Jews were in exile at Babylon: “When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves?” (7:5)

Which is an excellent question to ask ourselves on this Christmas day: are we celebrating for ourselves and the good feelings that ensue from giving gifts and being dutiful consumers or are we celebrating the birth of our savior? It’s so easy and comfortable to be a hypocrite!

No prophecy would be complete without a reminder of God’s priorities: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” (7:9, 10) This is certainly the question that we have to ask—and answer—ourselves.

But will our answer be what God said about his people? “But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets.” (7:11, 12) As Zechariah reminds his listeners, God was displeased and “scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known.” (7:14) we can certainly be grateful once again for the gift of grace through our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Revelation 19:1–8: These verses are an echo of the worship scene we witnessed in chapter 4 but with more music and lyrics:
Hallelujah!
Salvation and glory and power to our God,
   for his judgments are true and just;
he has judged the great whore
    who corrupted the earth with her fornication,
and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” (1, 2)

But then a voice form the throne—and I’m pretty sure it’s the voice of Jesus Christ, intones,

Praise our God,
    all you his servants,
and all who fear him,
    small and great.” (5)

We know from our Creeds that Jesus sits at the right and of God and this verse is a potent reminder of that reality.

And sure enough, the camera draws back and we hear the collective voice of what I take to be the entire church—that vast cloud of witnesses—building in strength and volume, singing and praising God:
Hallelujah!
For the Lord our God
    the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
    and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed
    with fine linen, bright and pure”— (6, 7, 8)

Those first three lines should be familiar to anyone who has heard or sung Handel’s Messiah. I believe it is this verse that Handel set to music on one of the greatest pieces of music ever written—one that I think is worthy of heaven itself.

Psalm 146; Zechariah 3–5; Revelation 18:11–24

Psalm 146: The editors of Psalms stuck all the psalms of praise at the back of the book, so here’s another on. I’ll just hit on the highlights.

Do not trust in princes,
in a human who offers no rescue.
His breath depart, he returns to the dust.
on that day his plans are naught.” (3, 4)

Talk about an immutable truth! And yet our post-Christian American culture, having rejected God, seeks “the good life” and equity for everybody through human endeavors, particularly the government, which they call on to solve every problem. But it’s not gonna happen, people. All human endeavor is intrinsically flawed and as our psalmist notes, eventually comes to naught.

In the end, he observes, only God, who acts via the people of God,
does justice for the oppressed,
gives bread to the hungry,
the Lord looses those in fetters.” (6,7)

Our psalmist makes the obvious point that “the Lord loves the righteous” (8) but also,
The Lord guards sojourners,
orphan and widow He sustains.” (9a)

It is always gratifying to see this all-important theme emerge just about everywhere in the Old Testament. Frankly, evangelicals, providing succor to sojourners (immigrants), widows and orphans, and the poor is just as important as saving souls for Jesus Christ.

There is only one constant in the universe. Everything else is change and ultimately mortal—even the universe itself:
The Lord shall reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Hallelujah! 

Zechariah 3–5:Zechariah’s fourth vision is of the original Joshua with “Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.” (3:1) Joshua is dressed in dirty clothes and the angel commands other angels (I presume) who are standing around to take off his dirty clothes and replace them with clean ones, whereupon the angel tells him, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.” I take Joshua as a symbol of the Jewish religious leaders having been corrupted by Satan and idolatry and dressed in the filthy rags of guilt.

Then there is a messianic forecast as the angel says, “I am going to bring my servant the Branch. For on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven facets, I will engrave its inscription, says the Lord of hosts, and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day.” I don’t know about the stone with seven facets (John should have used that somewhere!) but as for the guilt being absolved in a single day, we could certainly see that happening as the crucifixion of Jesus.

But wait. There’s more. In a fifth vision, Zechariah sees “a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it; there are seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it.” More Revelation source material since both lampstands and bowls show up in John’s visions!

These are surrounded by two olive trees. The angel explains that “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (4:6) which I consider to be the theological heart of this book. God does not have to act by power or might, although he is certainly capable of doing so, but quietly and in completely unexpected ways via the Holy Spirit. And we can certainly say that the incarnation of Jesus Christ is God’s greatest demonstration of an unexpected, non-powerful way of changing the world, even though Jesus’ own disciples would have preferred Jesus to take the power and might route to overthrow the established order.

The sixth vision is pretty amusing: a gigantic flying scroll, which seems to be some sort of symbol of God’s justice: “This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole land; for everyone who steals shall be cut off according to the writing on one side, and everyone who swears falsely[e]shall be cut off according to the writing on the other side.” (5:3) One wonders if the sinner is to read the scroll or that given its enormous size, that it simply smacks the sinner on the side of his head.

The seventh vision (echoes of John again!) is a woman sitting in a basket, who, the angel explains, ““This is Wickedness.” So he thrust her back into the basket, and pressed the leaden weight down on its mouth” (5:8) Two winged women appear and lift the basket “between the earth and the sky.” (5:9) The angel explains that the winged women is taking the basket “To the land of Shinar, to build a house for it; and when this is prepared, they will set the basket  down there on its base.” (5:10)

Wow. You can’t make this stuff up. But with apologies to the inerrancy crowd, you can’t take this literally, either.

Revelation 18:11–24: John rather logically believed that the overthrow of “Babylon” would result in economic catastrophe, causing “the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore,” (11) He creates a lovely catalog of consumer goods no longer available for sale: “gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, 13 cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives.” (12, 13) Notice the last item: slaves.

John is really is relishing the agony of these now-destitute merchants and even writes a little poem for them:
Alas, alas, the great city,
    clothed in fine linen,
        in purple and scarlet,
    adorned with gold,
        with jewels, and with pearls!
For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!” (16, 17)

The service industry is equally devastated: “And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,

“What city was like the great city?” (17, 18)

But as for believers the destruction of Rome is a whole different story: “ Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets! For God has given judgment for you against her.” (20) whereupon an angel tosses a millstone, representing commerce, I think, into the sea and sings a nice song that ends with the grisly verse reminding the merchants and everyone else,
for your merchants were the magnates of the earth,
    and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.
And in you  was found the blood of prophets and of saints,
    and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.” (23, 24)

Which is why we shouldn’t put our trust in worldly goods.

Psalm 145:17–21; Zechariah 1,2; Revelation 18:1–10

Psalm 145:17–21: Our psalmist continues to sing God’s praises as he makes his way through the Hebrew alphabet. These final verses reflect our psalmist’s utter confidence in God on every front:
Just is the Lord in all His ways,
and faithful in all His deeds.
Close is the Lord to all who call Him,
to all who call Him in truth.” (17, 18)

We’ve read many psalms that proclaim God’s justice and his faithfulness, but the idea of God’s close proximity is a fresh thought for me. We are not shouting across an intergalactic distance when we pray and call on God. Our psalmist knows that God is in the same room right next to him—and so should we. But notice: God is close to those “who call Him in truth.” Hypocrites who appear to be praying are well-known to God and the clear implication here is that God will not be close to them. The key to calling on God is to call on him with open honesty and no hidden agendas.

If we truly love God and come to him in complete honesty he will listen; he will rescue; and he will bring joy:
The pleasure of those who fear Him He performs,
and their outcry He hears and rescues them.” (19)

We need to keep in mind that God’s rescue may not be the one we have in mind. But rescue of one kind or another will always come. As for the wicked, they will meet their deserved fate—again not always on the timetable we prefer. But those who reject God are condemned to sit out eternity in separation from God’s love. Truly a horrific fate:
The Lord guards all who love Him,
and all the wicked He destroys.” (20)

This is not necessarily destruction by an external enemy. Often, the destruction occurs within the heart of person who has rejected God’s love.

This beautiful psalm ends as it began—in communal worship with praise on our lips:
The Lord’s praise let my mouth speak,
and let all flesh bless His name.” (21)

No more need be added.

Zechariah 1,2: In this book we can see where Revelation John got some of his original material from his penultimate book of the Old Testament. Unlike Haggai, who seemed much more down-to-earth, Zechariah has visions.

The book opens, as prophetic books always do, with the word of the Lord coming to Zechariah. Here Zechariah tells anyone who would listen that “The Lord was very angry with your ancestors” (1;2) and that they should repent. Here’s another chance, God is saying, “Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the former prophets proclaimed,… Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.” (1:4) Although those ancestors were stubborn, Zechariah tells his listeners (assuming there were any) that “they repented and said, “The Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as he planned to do.” (1:6) The clear implication is that the present generation to whom Zechariah is speaking had better pay attention.

At this point Zechariah started describing his visions. As if to prove the legitimacy of these visions and that thet occurred in real pace and real time, the author gives us the precise day on which the first vision occurs: “On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah.” (2:1) The first vision is a man riding on a red horse, who “was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen; and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.” (1:8) Well, what do you know: four horses. Unlike John’s horsemen bringing doom to the earth, these four horse-mounted angels are “those whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.” (1:10)

The angel tells Zechariah that God is “jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion,” and he is “extremely angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they made the disaster worse.” (1:15) That’s certainly a telling indictment for today as well as nations increasingly ignore God and the world as a whole seems only to be making things worse.

The second vision is of horns laying around on the ground and Zechariah asks, ““What are these?” (1:19a) . As we know from other readings, horns represent the power of a nation and the angel answers Zechariah’s question: the horns are Judah’s historical enemies that have invaded, apparently down through history: “These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.” (1:19b) Then the angel shows Zechariah four blacksmiths(!) who have “come to terrify them, to strike down the horns of the nations that lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter its people.” (1:21) In other words, the nations that attacked Judah will themselves be destroyed by these angelic blacksmiths who are working for God.

Zechariah’s third vision is a man with a measuring line who “measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length.” (2:2) Apparently God needs to know the circumference of Jerusalem since he himself “will be a wall of fire all around it, says the Lord, and I will be the glory within it.” (2:5)

Before we get to the fourth vision, there is an intermission as Zechariah tells the exiles in Babylon, “Up! Escape to Zion, you that live with daughter Babylon.” (2:7) For the simple reason that God plans to destroy Babylon: “I am going to raise my hand against them, and they shall become plunder for their own slaves.” (2:9) This act will occasion great rejoicing: “Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst. ” (2:11) And Jerusalem will once again be God’s residence: “The Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.” (2:12)

What’s striking here is just how much material John lifted from this book and then embroidered for his own purposes. Even the structure of visions interrupted by interludes of worship are found right here.

Revelation 18:1–10: It’s remarkable how much this reading in Revelation resembles the one in Zechariah. An angel comes and announces exactly what was promised in Zechariah: Babylon is to be destroyed:
Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
    It has become a dwelling place of demons,” (18:2a)

Of course John’s Babylon is Rome. And just like in Zechariah, the other nations have been corrupted, certainly in an economic sense:
all the nations have drunk
    of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
    and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power  of her luxury.” (18:3)

Similarly to Zechariah, there is also a call for God-followers—here Christians—to escape those nations and, as we shall see in a subsequent chapter, come to the New Jerusalem:
Come out of her, my people,
    so that you do not take part in her sins,
and so that you do not share in her plagues;
  for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
    and God has remembered her iniquities.” (4,5)

The angel makes it clear that Rome will fall and it will fall quickly because of its manifold sins:
therefore her plagues will come in a single day—
    pestilence and mourning and famine—
and she will be burned with fire;
    for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.” (8)

And the other nations will stand and watch and “weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning;” (9) And in famous lines that could apply to our own time,
Alas, alas, the great city,
    Babylon, the mighty city!
For in one hour your judgment has come.” (10)

Needless to say, many attempts have been made to cast this entire section as the yet-to-come downfall of some modern empire.  I’m sure that as America becomes ever more post-Christian and ever more resembling Rome in its decadence, that they believe this must certainly be a prophecy for our own time. And they may have a point.

 

Psalm 145:8–16; Haggai 2; Revelation 17:9–18

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Psalm 145:8–16: I’m sure the editors who compiled the Psalms in this order put this terrific psalm near the end of the canon because it is both magnificent poetry and a wonderful summary of so many psalms that preceded it. And naturally, it contains some well-known verses, perhaps none more famous than this paean to God’s greatness, his kindness, and his mercy:
Gracious and merciful is the Lord,
slow to anger, great in kindness.
Good is the Lord to all,
His mercy is over all his creatures.” (8, 9)

My, this certainly seems like a different God compared to the angry God of the prophets. But God, being God, can be viewed from an infinite variety of perspectives because he is the summation of every conceivable thought and feeling and action. Needless to say, I like this perspective much better.

And, this being a psalm of praise, our poet captures the nature of our response to God’s beneficence in our worship:
All Your creatures, Lord, acclaim You,
and Your faithful ones bless You.
The glory of Your kingship they say,
and of Your might they speak
to make known to humankind His mighty acts
and the grandeur of His kingship’s glory.” (10-12)

Notice that following worship we witness God’s glory to all around us, “making known to all humankind, which was exactly Jesus’ command about going into the world with the Good News.

But this psalm also recognizes that we are fallen creatures who fail often. And we can be assured that God will rescue us and sustain us because God is a God of hope:
The Lord props up all who fall
and makes all who are bent stand erect.
The eyes of all look in hope to You
and You give them food in its season,
opening Your hand
and sating to their pleasure all living things.” (14-16)

We fall and God picks us up again. When we are hungry we are fed—which Jesus carried out in real space and real time when he fed the four thousand and the five thousand.

And God’s generosity includes not just we humans but as the final line notes, God takes care of “all living things”—another reminder that God cares for all creation, which is something we should remember when we’re tempted to destroy nature. The earth is here for far more than humankind’s immediate gratification. We must never forget we are God’s creatures and that we must be stewards of all creation.

Haggai 2: God sends Haggai to ask Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, and  Joshua, the high priest, if anyone remembers what the temple looked like before it was destroyed. And rather than yelling at these men as most prophets would do, Haggai brings a message of hope from God—exactly what our pslamist has just been talking about: “Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.” (4, 5)

Even in the midst of the ruined temple, God reminds them that he is there and will take care of things. And that will happen pretty dramatically as God promises some sort of earthquake that will result in “the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor,” (7) God goes on to make a pretty wonderful promise: “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.” (9)

The tone shifts and we see Haggai before the high priest asking him a seemingly irrelevant question, “If one who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” (13) The priest answers in the affirmative and Haggai moves into angry prophet mode: “So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, says the Lord; and so with every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean.” (14) and that even when God “struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and mildew and hail; yet you did not return to me,” (17)

But now that the people have repented, God promises, “From this day on I will bless you.” (19) Here we have a clear view the deuteronomic Old Testament God: there is always a quid pro quo under the terms of the Old Covenant: disobey and I’ll punish you; repent and I’ll reward you.

Haggai then goes to Zerubbabel and announces that just as God is bringing blessing to the religious side of the nation by the rebuilding of the temple, he will do likewise in the political sphere as Haggai promises that God will “shake the heavens and the earth, and overthrow the throne of kingdoms; I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders; ” (21, 22) Moreover, Haggai tells Zerubbabel, he will become God’s anointed governor: “I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, son of Shealtiel, says the Lord, and make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you, says the Lord of hosts.” (23)

This is one prophetic book that ends on an upbeat note. And we can read about what happened in the book of Nehemiah as both the temple and Jerusalem were rebuilt. It was a fraught task but the men persisted in the face of many obstacles and God did indeed bless them.

Revelation 17:9–18: Perhaps there’s some unintended irony here that in the midst of this confusing passage, the angel states, “This calls for a mind that has wisdom.” (9) as he proceeds to explain all these symbols to John.

I don’t think the angel does a particularly good job as a confusing disquisition follows that involves seven heads being “the seven mountains on which the woman is seated.” (9b) Which seems like a reference to Rome. Then there’s some business about five kings having fallen, one living and one yet to come, but which will also “go to destruction.” (11) Then there’s the business about the ten horns being ten future kings who “yield their power” to the beast/ Satan and they “will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them.” (13)

The angel’s explanation creates even more confusion as he tells John that “The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.” (15)  The ten kings, allied with the beast, “will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.” (16) Assuming that the whore is Rome, John seems to be predicting the eventual downfall of the Roman empire.

The angel tries to clear things up when he says, “The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” (18) Again, this seems like a reference to Rome.

But not everyone agrees. I remember hearing some interpretation of this passage many years ago that interpreted the ten kings as the European common market (what is now the EU) and the beast as Russia—all of which were defeated by the US because God was on our side. This is just one example of the interpretive free-for-all that this passage has created down through the ages. All I can do is sit back and watch in amusement as people try to figure out that which cannot be understood.

Psalm 145:1–7; Zephaniah 3; Haggai 1; Revelation 17:1–8

Psalm 145:1–7: Alter informs us that this is the only psalm that’s specifically called “a song of praise,” although there are certainly many other psalms that praise God—and the last six psalms are all praise songs. This is also an acrostic psalm with each verse beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet (except for ‘nun.’)

Rather than parsing theological meaning let’s just sit back and enjoy the music and words. (Oh, and just to note, there are no endless repetitions in this song of praise, which cannot be said of too many contemporary praise songs.)

Let me exalt You, my God the king,
    and let me bless Your name forevermore.
Every day let me bless You,
    and let me praise Your name forevermore.
Great is the LORD and highly praised,
    and His greatness cannot be fathomed.
Let one generation to the next extol Your deeds
    and tell of Your mighty acts.
Of the grandeur of Your glorious majesty
    and Your wondrous acts let me treat.
And the power of Your awesome deeds let them say,
     and Your greatness let me recount.
The fame of Your great goodness they utter,
     and of Your bounty they joyously sing.” (1-7)

Notice how the second line of each verse begins with ‘and.’ One comes away with the sense of breathlessness that God possesses so many magnificent qualities it is impossible to list them all.

The other fascinating thing is how God’s qualities and human worship are so deeply intertwined, which is demonstrated by the verbs in each verb.  We “praise” (2); we “extol” ( 4); we “treat” (5); we “reconut” (6); we “utter” (7) and above all, we “sing.” As is always the case in Psalms, it is speaking and singing aloud. God is so great we cannot keep our joy hidden inside. We must speak and sing aloud in community.

Zephaniah 3: At this point we can see that all these prophets used basicallY the same formula: castigation of Israel, castigation of other nations, the possibility of rescue for a few God-Followers, and sometimes a song of joy  This chapter contains all four prophetic forms:

1. The wickedness of Israel or Judah or Jerusalem. specially of its leaders. judges, other prophets(!), and priests:
The officials within it
    are roaring lions;
its judges are evening wolves
    that leave nothing until the morning.
Its prophets are reckless,
    faithless persons;
its priests have profaned what is sacred,
    they have done violence to the law.” (3, 4)

2. The punishment of surrounding nations that have had the temerity to try and oppress the Jews, usually expressed as the end of history or the “Day of the Lord.”
For my decision is to gather nations,
    to assemble kingdoms,
to pour out upon them my indignation,
    all the heat of my anger;
for in the fire of my passion
    all the earth shall be consumed.” (8)

3. The salvation for the remnant  of Israel  (1,that follows and obeys God:
For I will leave in the midst of you
    a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord
   the remnant of Israel;
they shall do no wrong
    and utter no lies,” (12, 13)

4. A song of joy usually describing God’s rescue and usually set far in the future in the form of the end of history—a theme John of Revelation takes up with creative vengeance. The concluding verse of this short book is especially affecting:
At that time I will bring you home,
    at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
    among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
    before your eyes, says the Lord.” (20)

Perhaps it would be fun to craft a book of prophecy using this formula that would be appropriate to our own culture…

Haggai 1: Like Zephaniah, Haggai is set in a specific time and place: “in the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai” (1a) This little book is remarkable in that it identifies exactly to whom Haggai is delivering his prophetic message as verse 1 continues: “to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest” (1b)

Haggai’s challenge is to tell the officials and high priest, who have taken care of their own needs first that it’s time to get on with rebuilding the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonian invasion—and that officialdom is basically doing nothing: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? ” (4)

Haggai then makes an economic argument that by having failed to rebuild the temple they are stuck in mediocrity and frankly, even poverty when things could be so much better: “Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.” (6) He’s forcing them to examine the root cause of that less than optimal situation.

Haggai points out that God has withheld rain and brought economic woe for one simple reason: “Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce.” (9, 10)

Unlike just about every other prophet (and maybe because he wasn’t shouting excoriations at them), the people take Haggai’s message to heart: “then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of the prophet Haggai, as the Lord their God had sent him; and the people feared the Lord.” (12)

At last! A prophet who is willing to have conversation by sitting down and simply telling them what god has said rather than shouting in their faces. And what do you know: people respond. Haggai’s a prophet I wouldn’t mind inviting to dinner.

Revelation 17:1–8: Following his old testament prophetic lead John uses that favorite metaphor: the nations as a whore. One of the seven bowl-pouring angels tells John: Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.” (1,2)

This obviously (to me anyway) a barely disguised reference to the Roman empire. John goes on to be even more specific: “I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication.” (3, 4) I’m pretty sure that the woman is in fact the Roman emperor. 

If his readers haven’t figured out the metaphor by now, John then gives them another broad hint: “on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” (5) Any Jews in his audience would quickly put two and two together: in the same way the original Babylon conquered Jerusalem, so too, Titus conquered Jerusalem in 70 CE.

One more pretty obvious statement: the woman, i.e. Rome, is persecuting Christians: “And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.” (6)

John is amazed at all this and the angel looks quizzically at him and speaks as if John is being an idiot: “Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her.” (7) But then, rather than being direct in the way we thought he was about to b,e the angel speaks in a riddle: “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction.” (8) The concatenation of verb tenses—”was,” “is”, “is about to”—suggests that the beast/ Satan has always been around but that at ome future date will finally meet his end. And although the Roman empire may think of itself as eternal, it too will meet its well-deserved destruction.

 

 

Psalm 144:9–15; Zephaniah 1,2; Revelation 16:12–21

Psalm 144:9–15: While the first half of this psalm celebrates asks for victory over enemies, this second half celebrates the fruits of peace. This celebration opens with a song of gratitude for rescue:
God, a new song O would sing to You,
a ten-stringed lute I would hymn to You.
Who grants rescue to kings,
redeems David His servant from the evil sword.” (9, 10)

A parenthetical final request to be free of the predations of enemies interrupts the celebration in what seems to be a scribal error that basically repeats verse seven and seems to have been inserted this verse in the wrong place:
Redeem me and save me from the foreigner’s hand,
whose mouth speaks falsely,
and whose right hand is the hand of lies.” (11)

The celebratory psalm then continues, rejoicing over children and includes a gorgeous simile about beautiful daughters:
While our sons are like saplings,
tended from their youth;
our daughters, like corner-pillars
hewn for the shape of a palace.” (12)

The “corner-pillars” are posts at the corners of a building, evidently carved into beautiful and sinuous shapes that his daughters resemble. The blessings of peace overflow in the land:
Our granaries are full,
dispensing food of every kind.
Our flocks are in the thousands,
ten thousands in our fields,
Our cattle, big with young.
There is no breach and none goes out,
and no screaming in our squares.” (13, 14)

That there is no screaming in the squares refers to the terrors of war, which are now finally gone. This psalm ends on an idyllic note with these images of a secure peace and a happy people:
Happy the people who has it thus,
happy the people whose God is the Lord.” (15)

This beautiful description of a land at peace is what we so desperately hope for but alas, is always beyond our grasp because of the evils and lies we humans persist in committing. Only in God can such peace be imagined, much less found.

Zephaniah 1,2: At least we get a description of who Zephaniah was and the time in which he prophesied, which was “in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah” (1)—one of Judah’s more righteous kings. That said, Zephaniah dishes out the pretty standard foretelling of bad things to come. As prophets do, Zephaniah speaks in the voice of God, who is pretty angry, appearing to regret that he’d promised Noah that he would not again destroy humankind:
I will utterly sweep away everything
    from the face of the earth, says the Lord.
I will sweep away humans and animals;

    I will sweep away the birds of the air
    and the fish of the sea.
I will make the wicked stumble
    I will cut off humanity
    from the face of the earth, says the Lord.” (1:2, 3)

And that includes Judah, which as usual, persists in its idol worship:
I will stretch out my hand against Judah,
    and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
and I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal
    and the name of the idolatrous priests.” (1:4)

Zeph goes on in the same vein, predicting that
The great day of the Lord is near,
    near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
    the warrior cries aloud there.” (1:14)

It’s a pretty standard description of doom, which John obviously build on in Revelation with more dramatic flourishes:
That day will be a day of wrath,
    a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
     a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
    and against the lofty battlements.” (1:15, 16)

Trumpets seem to be the instrument of choice when it comes to announcing the end of history. In any event, something we need to remember is that the people’s wealth will not protect them:
Neither their silver nor their gold
    will be able to save them
    on the day of the Lord’s wrath” (1:18a)

The second chapter opens as Zephaniah demands repentance as the only possible escape from this terrible fate:
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
    who do his commands;
seek righteousness, seek humility;
    perhaps you may be hidden
    on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” (2:3)

He goes on to tell us that Judah is not the only doomed nation predicting destruction for the Cherethites (2:4), the Philistines (2:5), and the Moabites (2:8), the Ethiopians (2:12), the Assyrians (2:13) As always, it is pride and smugness that leads to downfall:
Is this the exultant city
    that lived secure,
that said to itself,
    “I am, and there is no one else”?
What a desolation it has become,
    a lair for wild animals!” (2:15)

The prophetic foretelling of doom is, as always, interrupted parenthetically with the hope of rescue for the remnant that has remained faithful:
The seacoast shall become the possession
    of the remnant of the house of Judah,
    on which they shall pasture,
and in the houses of Ashkelon
    they shall lie down at evening.
For the Lord their God will be mindful of them
    and restore their fortunes.” (2:7)

As I read this depressing catalog I can envision no other end for our own empire that is so smug in its self-righteousness because general repentance certainly does not seem to be on the horizon.

Revelation 16:12–21: Bowl number six dries up the Euphrates river, which results in the bizarre image of “three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet.” (13) John explains that these are “demonic spirits performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty,” (14) which will be taking occurring “at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon.” (16)

The narrative is interrupted by a parenthetical insertion that Jesus is coming again “like a thief” and that we had not only better stay awake but keep our clothes on.

John is certainly building a sense of urgency here. And that’s probably because the seventh angel “poured his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” (17) Which certainly seems like an echo of Jesus’ last words on the cross. Only this time the thing that is done is history as the world ends in cataclysm: “And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth, so violent was that earthquake. “(18), which causes “the great city” (presumably Rome), to be split into three parts.

At last, and sounding exactly like Zephaniah, John writes that “God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath.” (19) which for me can be nothing else than the Roman empire itself. Just to make sure the destruction is complete, Joh adds a final touch, again echoing one of the original plagues visited on Egypt so many centuries ago: “huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.” (21)

I’m pretty sure John’s readers at the seven churches were lapping up his descriptions of Rome’s destruction with great enthusiasm—not too different than we who sit in theatres and just as enthusiastically watch movies that include dramatic shots of widespread destruction as our hero triumphantly emerges from the rubble. John didn’t have our movie or TV technology, but his imagery is pretty unforgettable. If he were alive today I’m pretty sure he’d be a screenwriter.

 

Psalm 144:5–8; Habakkuk 2,3; Revelation 16:1–11

Writing from Reston, Virginia today where I’m reviewing research grant proposals for the Prostate Cancer Research Program administered by the DOD.

Psalm 144:5–8: Well, you’ve got to give this psalmist credit for one of the more creative supplications against his enemies that we’ve yet encountered:
Lord, tilt Your heavens and come down,
but touch the mountains, that they smoke.
Crack lightning and scatter them,
send forth Your bolts and panic them.” (5, 6)

In short—and sounding like one of the last scenes in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’— only a full-fledged theophany, a demonstration of God’s overwhelming power to literally move heaven and earth, will suffice for these vile enemies. It’s also an interesting way to ask for their destruction without directly asking God to zap them. Rather, they will meet their deserved demise by virtue of God acting through nature. Pretty clever.

At the same time, our psalmist writes, he seeks rescue from the floods that God’s action has create. But above all he wants to be rescued from the snare of his lying enemies:
Send forth Your hand from on high,
redeem me and save me from the many waters,
from the foreigners’ hand,
whose mouth speaks falsely,
and whose right hand is a right hand of lies.” (7,8)

Notice how God’s powerful hand is contrasted to the deceiving right hand of the psalmist’s enemies. In that culture, the right hand was the hand of power and truth. And his enemies have corrupted that all-important symbol with their lies. Which is also why we need to be vigilant. It’s too easy to be swept into the lies of politicians whose soothing but deceptive words appear to have our interests at heart when in fact it only their power they care about. Nevertheless, since Jesus changed the rules we probably should not pray for a natural disaster to take them out.

Habakkuk 2,3: God answers Habakkuk’s complaint:
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
    make it plain on tablets,
    so that a runner may read it.” (2:2)

However, it “speaks of the end” (2:3a), which I take to be the end of history. Which means we should be patient:
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
    it will surely come, it will not delay.” (2:3b)

This is the same advice Peter gives us when he says that as far as God is concerned, a thousand years is but a day.

Habakkuk’s voice-of-God speech has some interesting and trenchant observations, inevitably first about pride:
Look at the proud!
    Their spirit is not right in them,
    but the righteous live by their faith.” (2:4)

And what is also surely true today:
Moreover, wealth  is treacherous;
    the arrogant do not endure.

    like Death they never have enough.” (2:5)

An entire poem about the woes about to rain down on the arrogant wicked ensues:
Because you have plundered many nations,
    all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you—”
You have devised shame for your house
    by cutting off many peoples;
    you have forfeited your life.” (2:8, 10)

And in a verse particularly apropos for our current time:
Is it not [trying to escape] from the Lord of hosts
    that peoples labor only to feed the flames,
    and nations weary themselves for nothing?” (2:13)

Wow. That verse pretty much sums up our current culture of outrage with cable TV news and social media only fanning the flames. The poem goes on to describe the costs of violence and futility of  idols and ends on the all-important reminder:
But the Lord is in his holy temple;
    let all the earth keep silence before him!” (2:20)

Chapter 3 is Habakkuk’s prayer, which is pretty much a psalm of praise in which God rescues Israel from its enemies, as e.g.:
You came forth to save your people,
    to save your anointed.
You crushed the head of the wicked house,
    laying it bare from foundation to roof.” (3:13)

This chapter is more proof that human nature is immutable and wickedness is endemic, but also that we need to remember that God still rules even when the culture seems to be collapsing around us. It is in this obscure little book where we find enormous encouragement. God still rules and because of that we can rejoice:
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    and makes me tread upon the heights.” (3:18, 19)

Revelation 16:1–11: Here come the seven bowls of God’s wrath about to be poured out on the earth. This section certainly echoes the plagues that God brought on Egypt in the efforts to release the Israelites. John seems to be really enjoying himself as he describes the woes about to come on to those who rejected God. It’s pretty much like what we just read in Habakkuk, but with more dramatic flourish. The bowls come in order as a kind of anti-creation story as God dismantles his creation:

  1. Foul and painful sores “on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped its image.” (2)
  2. Everything the sea dies.
  3. Rivers and springs turn to blood (just like Nile did).
  4. The sun comes close to the earth and is “allowed to scorch people with fire; they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God.” (8, 9)
  5. the bowl is poured “on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony.” (10)

Even so, “and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.” (11)

We should point out that John interrupts himself between bowls 3 and 4 for a the inevitable, albeit brief, moment of worship: “I heard the angel of the waters say,

“You are just, O Holy One, who are and were,
    for you have judged these things;
because they shed the blood of saints and prophets,
    you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!” (5, 6)

This judgement is validated by the voice behind (in?) the altar in the throne room of heaven:
Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty,
    your judgments are true and just!” (7)

While John has certainly left vengeance in God’s hands, he is at pains to point out that the wicked justly deserve whatever woes that come to him. And frankly, he seems kind of happy about it. Just like Habakkuk.

There are two more bowls to come, as John points out again and again that no matter their suffering the people who worshipped the beast/ Satan did not repent. We humans are stubborn fools, aren’t we?