Psalm 29; 2 Chronicles 31; Acts 25:1–15

Psalm 29: This hymn is sung by “the sons of God,” who according to Alter, are not humans, and not angels, but heavenly beings–God’s entourage, if you will. For me it strongly evokes the worship in the throne room scene of Revelation, although the psalm is obviously much older than John’s apocalyptic writings. Perhaps this is a psalm John had in mind as he wrote. Alter also mentions that these “celestial creatures” provide Milton ” a model and repertory of devices” for Paradise Lost.

Nowhere else, is the name of God (YHWH) here, “Lord,” used so powerfully by dint of sheer repetition. The psalm is a thundering hymn that first acknowledges God’s primacy–“Bow to the Lord in holy majesty!” (2) And God’s glory is audible: “The God of glory thunders.” (3) Followed by the Lord’s voice in power, majesty, (4) breaking cedars. “shattering cedars,” (5)  God’s voice alters creation as it “hews flames of fire” (7) and “makes the wilderness shake” (8). It even causes “the birth-pangs of does and ays bare the forests.” (9)

God’s voice is evidence of his overwhelming majesty across space and also across time: “the Lord is enthroned for all time.” (10). And yet, despite God’s thundering and his unimaginable majesty God cares above all for his people as the psalm ends with a blessing and the sudden quiet of peace: “May the Lord bless His people with peace.” (11)  This psalm reveals not just the majesty of God, and reminds us that we are his creatures and that he loves us above everything else in creation–and in heaven.

2 Chronicles 31: Following the Great Passover, there is a revival in Israel, “when all this was finished, all Israel who were present went out to the cities of Judah and broke down the pillars, hewed down the sacred poles,and pulled down the high places and the altars throughout all Judah and Benjamin, and in Ephraim and Manasseh, until they had destroyed them all.” (1) Is there hope for the northern kingdom after all?

Under Hezekiah, Judah essentially returns to the Davidic and Solomonic model, where the people worship faithfully. And give faithfully: “the tithe of the dedicated things that had been consecrated to the Lord their God, and laid them in heaps.” (6) In fact, so much is given that there is abundance for everyone: “Since they began to bring the contributions into the house of the Lord, we have had enough to eat and have plenty to spare; for the Lord has blessed his people, so that we have this great supply left over.” (10).

That’s the lesson for us: that by giving happily to God as the people did here, we not only receive, but we receive in even greater abundance.

Hezekiah reorganizes the priesthood, and the people support them willingly: “for the descendants of Aaron, the priests, who were in the fields of common land belonging to their towns, town by town, the people designated by name were to distribute portions to every male among the priests and to everyone among the Levites who was enrolled.” (19)

For our Chronicler, Hezekiah is the shining bright light in the long line of failures because Hezekiah follows God, “he did what was good and right and faithful before the Lord his God.” (20) But not for show, but because “he undertook in the service of the house of God, and in accordance with the law and the commandments, to seek his God, he did with all his heart; and he prospered.” (21)  Hezekiah’s heart was resolutely with God. And along with its king, all Judah enjoys the fruits of having placed God above all the small-g gods and given back to God with all its heart.

Acts 25:1–15: Festus has taken over from Felix as governor and visits Jerusalem, where the Jewish leaders appeal to him to have Paul brought back to Jerusalem. Luke informs us, “They were, in fact, planning an ambush to kill him along the way.” (3) But Festus says they are to come to Caesarea and accuse Paul there. So, the Jews come and bring “many serious charges against [Paul], which they could not prove.” (7). Paul  states his defense bluntly, “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor.” (8).

Festus wants to “do the Jews a favor” and asks sweetly if Paul will go up to Jerusalem. But Paul is not about to accommodate the governor. Rather, he exercises his rights as a Roman citizen and appeals “to the emperor’s tribunal; this is where I should be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you very well know.” (10) we are beginning to see Paul’s exasperation.

Festus grants Paul’s wish, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.” (12).

A few days later, Agrippa, the Jewish king and vassal of Rome arrives with with his wife. Festus expresses his frustration with this entire case. What will happen next?

Psalm 28; 2 Chronicles 29:20–30:27; Acts 24:17–27

Psalm 28: This psalm of supplication begs God, “My rock, do not be deaf to me” (1) and “Hear the sound of my pleading/ when I cry out to you.” (2)

As always, he wants to make sure that God knows there is a great distance between him, seeking God and praying with his arms uplifted (2b) and the wicked and wrongdoers, especially the deceivers, “who speak peace to their fellows / with foulness in their heart.” (3)  The population of these “fellows” seems even greater today as we hear of people conning the young and the old.

So, I’m right there with the psalmist as he asks God to “Pay them back for their acts/ and for the evil of their schemings…Pay back what is coming to them.” (4) That is surely the kind of retribution that many of us would like to see come about when we hear of someone who has deceived innocent people–and today, particularly con artists cyber criminals who cynically rob people–especially old people–in their sleep.

They are not only deceivers, but destroyers: “For they understand not the acts of the Lord/ and His handwork they would destroy and not build.” I’ll take that as those who foul the earth (God’s “handiwork”) for their own greedy gain. But as always, the psalmist is praying–as should we–that it is God who carries out these acts. Vengeance is indeed God’s.

The psalm ends as these supplications always do, with worship and praise, and the realization that “The Lord is my strength and my shield. In Him my heart trusts.”  And that is where our quest for justice always returns: that it is God who is faithful and trustworthy.

2 Chronicles 29:20–30:27: After the relentless evil of his predecessors, it is a joy to read of Hezekiah’s restoration of the temple and reestablishment of worship” “Thus the service of the house of the Lord was restored.” (29:35b). In fact, the king goes about the business of doing this restoration so efficiently and he is such a contract to his father and grandfather that doubtless by this time very cynical population “rejoiced because of what God had done for the people; for the thing had come about suddenly.” (29:36)

Following the restoration of worship, Hezekiah sends letters and messengers “throughout all Israel, from Beer-sheba to Dan, that the people should come and keep the passover to the Lord the God of Israel, at Jerusalem;” (30:5) Hezekiah appeals to their better nature, “Do not now be stiff-necked as your ancestors were, but yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary, which he has sanctified forever, and serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger may turn away from you.” (30:8) But in Israel, the invitation is generally greeted with scorn, just one more example for our Chronicler of what a lost cause the northern kingdom really was. However, he is definitely on the side of Judah, and is pleased to report, “The hand of God was also on Judah to give them one heart to do what the king and the officials commanded by the word of the Lord.” (30:12).

So, the Great Passover occurs and Hezekiah prays, “The good Lord pardon all who set their hearts to seek God,” (30:19) And “The Lord heard Hezekiah, and healed the people.” (30:20),  including those few who had come from Israel. “There was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the time of Solomon son of King David of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem.” (30:26)

One last note about the effectiveness of Hezekiah as leader is that he encourages those who have worked hard, “Hezekiah spoke encouragingly to all the Levites who showed good skill in the service of the Lord.” (30:22)

Acts 24:17–27: Paul continues his defense, noting that “were some Jews from Asia—they ought to be here before you to make an accusation, if they have anything against me.” (19), challenging his accusers, “tell what crime they had found when I stood before the council,” adding that the only possibility was that he had spoken about the resurrection of the dead.

Luke tells us that Felix was “was rather well informed about the Way” and decides to hold off on judgement until Lysias the tribune arrives and keeps Paul in loose custody. Apparently this is going to take some time because Felix and his Jewish wife Drusilla, have many theological conversations about the Way and its relation to Judiasm. However, when Paul talks about “the coming judgment, Felix became frightened” and sends Paul back to his cell.

Then, we learn the real motivation behind Felix’s apparent interest in Paul, “he hoped that money would be given him by Paul, and for that reason he used to send for him very often and converse with him.” In short, Felix is giving Paul the obvious opportunity to bribe him. But Paul, who is no dummy, refuses to rise to the bait. The tribune never arrives and Paul languishes in Caesarea since “he wanted to grant the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison.” (27)

This is our best vision into the Roman justice system and apparently, the operating assumption was that bribery was expected. But Paul, unjustly accused, refuses to give in. His deep faith in Jesus Christ and what he tells the Corinthians certainly tell us why he refuses to bend under any circumstances.

Psalm 27:7–14; 2 Chronicles 28:9–29:19; Acts 24:4–16

Psalm 27:7–14: Having worshipped God, our psalmist now asks for God to listen to him as the psalm becomes supplication: “Hear, O Lord, my voice when I call,/ and grant me grace and answer me.” (7) He is seeking two things: listening and God’s response.

Often in my wimpy prayers I feel everything will be OK if I know that God is listening. But I usually lack the courage to ask for God’s reply. Here the psalmist is asking not only for God’s response, but to reveal himself fully and not reject him: “Do not hide Your face from me, / do not turn Your servant away in wrath.” (9)

Because “You are my help,” God is the only one on whom this desperate man can rely.  And the desperation shows: “Abandon me not, nor forsake me, /O God of my rescue.” (9) But then, the realization that God is the ultimately faithful one in his life; that God is more reliable than even the other humans that love him most: “Though my father and mother forsook me,/ the Lord would gather me in.” (10)

Which makes him realize that above all else is trust, “If I but trust to see the Lord’s goodness,” (13) which becomes hope: “Hope for the Lord!/ Let your heart be form and bold, / and hope for the Lord.”

The realization that God is faithful is behind this ascent from desperation and abandonment to trust. And all because the psalmist has reflected on the incredible faithfulness of God. And in that faith resides hope. For him. And for me.

 2 Chronicles 28:9–29:19: Judah, under king Ahaz, is utterly defeated and about to disappear form the face of the earth. But a little known prophet, Oded, comes to the leaders of Israel saying that to do so would just add to Israel’s already substantial guilt before God and boldly declares to the leaders returning from war: “You shall not bring the captives in here, for you propose to bring on us guilt against the Lord in addition to our present sins and guilt. For our guilt is already great, and there is fierce wrath against Israel.” (28:13)

Clearly, the Holy Spirit through Oded moved the hearts of these men. And the leaders “got up and took the captives, and with the booty they clothed all that were naked among them; they clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them;” (15). Even though Israel is essentially apostate, they have listened to God and shown mercy.

As for Ahaz, he attempts to enter into an alliance with Assyria and “plundered the house of the Lord and the houses of the king and of the officials, and gave tribute to the king of Assyria; but it did not help him.” (21) Ahaz becomes desperate, forgetting the one simple thing that might of helped: turning back to God. Instead, he turns to the gods of Assyria, desecrates the temple, selling off its utensils, and dies apostate.  What is it that even in desperation we can so easily forget God, and unlike the psalmist, who turns to God and finds hope, we turn away and find dust.

One good thing comes form Ahaz, and that is is his son, Hezekiah, who “did what was right in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestor David had done.” (29:2)  He assembles the Levites and priests, telling them, “Listen to me, Levites! Sanctify yourselves, and sanctify the house of the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and carry out the filth from the holy place.” (29:5) And in a remarkable and memorable sentence summarizes the consequences of turning away from God, that the “wrath of the Lord came upon Judah and Jerusalem, and he has made them an object of horror, of astonishment, and of hissing, as you see with your own eyes.” (8)

And the Levites cleanse and re-sanctify the temple, returning to Hezekiah. Things may be looking up for Judah for the simple reason that Hezekiah looks to God and realizes that it is God who is the source of strength for Judah and himself. Exactly the theme of today’s psalm.

Acts 24:4–16: Tertullus, the Jew’s lawyer, (who I gather is not Jewish himself), lays out the case against Paul. First, he accuses Paul being a of being “a pestilent fellow” upsetting the general peace–not just in Jerusalem but “among all the Jews throughout the world,” (5). He’s also a conspirator–“a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” and a blasphemer. “He even tried to profane the temple, and so we seized him.” (7). As lawyers are wont to do he leaves out certain crucial details such as it was the Jews that started the riot, but here the “Jews also joined in the charge by asserting that all this was true.” (9)

Paul rises and speaks, first noting that he was in Jerusalem for only twelve days–hardly time to put together a complex conspiracy. He then asserts, “ They did not find me disputing with anyone in the temple or stirring up a crowd either in the synagogues or throughout the city,” noting that his accusers cannot prove their charge.

Then, Paul, being Paul, in a brilliant move, rather than attempting to defend himself against these spurious charges, admits what is true: He is indeed a member of the sect called “the Way” but also that it is simply the logical extension of–and entirely consistent with–the Jewish religion (about which we assume Felix was not versed in its theological niceties). Paul underscores the similarity, “I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets.” (14). Then he says he has hope in the same God and that there will be “be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” This latter statement is a clever move since Paul well knows that the Pharisees feel the same way. In short, Paul has not allowed a crack of light to come between his belief and Jewish belief. And he rests his case.

The lesson for us: honey is far more effective than defensive vinegar.

Psalm 27:1–6; 2 Chronicles 26:16–28:8; Acts 23:25–24:3

Psalm 27:1–6: These famous opening lines–“The Lord is my light and my rescue./ Whom shall I fear?”–speak to me in some ways more powerfully than even the opening line of Psalm 23. Here, there is an enemy at the gate, not just an abstract sense of being protected and a much starker sense of imminent danger but then of escape: “When evildoers draw near me to to eat my flesh–/ my foes and my enemies are they–/they trip and fall.” (2)

And unlike Psalm 23, the speaker here is engaged in warfare. There is immediate existential threat: “Though a camp is marshaled against me,/ my heart shall not fear./ Though battle is roused against me,/ nonetheless do I trust.” (3)

I have to believe that these first three verses have been quoted from memory by thousands upon thousands of soldiers and sailors down through the millennia since these words were written. That chaplains have spoken them softly to men about to head out on a dangerous mission and confront the enemy.

They are not empty or sentimental words because in the midst of mortal danger there is the assurance of God’s protection: “He hides me in His shelter/ on the day of evil./ He conceals me in the recesses of His tent.” (5). But the psalmist does not just hide there, he goes to battle as we see in this remarkable image of a soldier crouched behind a rock and carefully looking out to survey the battlefield: “now my head rises/ over my enemies around me.”

But seeing none, there is victory and worship is the immediate response to God’s protection: Let me offer in his tent/ sacrifices with joyous shouts./ Let me sing and hymn to the Lord.” Every military person hopes to have exactly the same experience: to experience God’s all-encompassing protection. As do each of us when we confront any enemy of a different sort in our own lives, be it disease or loss.

2 Chronicles 26:16–28:8: King Uzziah, despite his godly beginning, has now enjoyed personal success. It goes completely to his head and he has the effrontery to enter the temple and try to offer a sacrifice on his own. Eighty priests confront him, saying “It is not for you, Uzziah, to make offering to the Lord, but for the priests the descendants of Aaron, …Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.” (26:18). Rather than going out, the king becomes angry. But God is more powerful and he immediately struck with leprosy “to the day of his death, and being leprous lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord.” (21) Arrogance and pride have no place in general. Perhaps a prideful king can get away with it in the world, but never in worship. If we needed an good example of “pride that goes before a fall,” Uzziah would serve nicely.

His son Jotham takes over even before Uzziah dies, but does not become actual king until his father’s death. The Chronicler gives him a mixed review: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his father Uzziah had done… But the people still followed corrupt practices.” So, Jotham may have been personally a follower of God, but as leader he has a greater responsibility to bring the people along with him. Nevertheless, “Jotham became strong because he ordered his ways before the Lord his God.” (27:8) After reigning relatively successfully for sixteen years, Jotham passes from the scene without further remark.

Jotham’s son, Ahaz succeeds him, and like his father, reigns for sixteen years. However, he behaves like his grandfather and “He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his ancestor David had done,.” Worse, as far as the Chronicler is concerned, “he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel.” (28:2) Aram, the king of Damascus invades and defeats Judah,”and took captive a great number of his people and brought them to Damascus.” And then true catastrophe strikes. Ahaz “was also given into the hand of the king of Israel, who defeated him with great slaughter.”  One hundred twenty thousand warriors of Judah die in a single day “because they had abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors.” (28:6) Plus, “people of Israel took captive two hundred thousand of their kin, women, sons, and daughters; they also took much booty from them and brought the booty to Samaria.” Between Aram and Israel it would seem that Judah is decimated–never to rise again. The cost of kingly pride and failure of leadership has been immense.

A thought in passing: the historians describe enormous armies and enormous bloodbaths like 120,000 soldiers killed in a day and 200,00 captives. What are we to make of this slaughter and captivity so casually described again and again?

Acts 23:25–24:3: The tribune has written a letter to accompany Paul on his night ride to the governor, Felix, at Casearea. It is a model of clarity and should serve as an example of how to communicate facts without embellishment or bureaucratese. The tribune observes that Paul is accused of not conforming to Jewish religious law, “but was charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment.”

However, the case against Paul cannot be dropped–probably because to do so would create further rioting among the Jews at Jerusalem. So, the tribune asks the governor to adjudicate, who upon reading the letter asks Paul where he is from, probably to establish his citizenship. (Although I have long wondered what documentary proof Paul had of being a Roman citizen. Although his knowledge of Greek certainly would partly substantiate his claim.)

The Jews have gotten their act together and bring the first attorney we meet on the Bible, “a certain Tertullus” with them. The tribunal is brought to order, Paul is brought in, and Tertullus, the prosecutor, begins his opening statement with the same sort of obsequious flourishes we hear today, as he addresses the governor, “Your Excellency, because of you we have long enjoyed peace, and reforms have been made for this people because of your foresight.” (24:2) But his purposes for Paul, who is now basically on trial for his life, are darker. At last, the Jews have Paul where they want him: Paul is in the dock. This is their last best chance to rid themselves of this blasphemous but brilliant heretic forever.

Psalm 26; 2 Chronicles 25:5–26:15; Acts 23:12–24

Psalm 26: The psalm opens rather startlingly with the imperative, “Judge me, O Lord.” David asserts that he is ready to withstand God’s judgement because he has not sinned, “I have walked in my wholeness.” He is able to do this because “the Lord I have trusted,” and therefore, “I shall not stumble.” (1)

So, he’s ready and challenges God, “Test me, O Lord, and try me./ Burn my conscience and my heart.” (2). His conscience is clean because he has walked assiduously in God’s truth. The next verses are demonstrations of this truth-walking: “I have not sat with lying folk/ nor with furtive men have dealt.” (4) He has been careful to separate himself from those who do evil things: “I despised the assembly of evildoers,/ nor with the wicked have I sat.”

As a result, he is pure in heart and ready to worship: “Let me wash my palms in cleanness/ and go round Your altar, Lord, / to utter aloud a thanksgiving.” (6). The remainder of the psalm follows the same theme, only asking God to keep him away from “blood-guilty men…in whose hands there are plots, in whose hands there are bribes.” (10). He is committed to continue to “walk in my wholeness” (11) and thus, God will “Redeem me, grant me grace.” (11)

For me this psalm raises the idea that one effective way to avoid sin is to be diligent about separating ourselves from (as the Catholics put it), “occasions of sin.” In our society this is more about avoiding evil where it is easy to obtain, e.g. smutty (love that word!) movies, questionable acquaintances and activities, and many places on the Internet. In short, I think David is practicing what Paul said many centuries later: we are in the world but not of the world. But here in this psalm, we are given concrete practical advice about how to do that.

2 Chronicles 25:5–26:15: Amaziah, king of Judah, enters into an alliance with Israel (which our Chronicler, always on the side of Judah, tells us again and again, is a lost cause) by paying Israel ten talents of gold. A prophet comes and tells the king he’d be much better off without Israel, so Amaziah breaks off the agreement to invade the Edomites with a now very angry Israel.

Judah conquers the Edomites, but then Amaziah “brought the gods of the people of Seir, set them up as his gods, and worshiped them, making offerings to them.” God is understandably upset and sends another unnamed prophet, who tells him, “Why have you resorted to a people’s gods who could not deliver their own people from your hand?” (25:15). Amaziah tells the prophet to shut up or he will kill him. But the prophet gets in the final, rather courageous word: “I know that God has determined to destroy you, because you have done this and have not listened to my advice.” (16)

Israel, headed by King Joash of Israel (not Joah of Judah, Amaziah’s father) then promptly conquers and plunders Judah. Amaziah dies and is succeeded by his sixteen-year old son, Uzziah, who reigns for 52 long years. Again, another good start: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, just as his father Amaziah had done… and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper.” (26:4,5)

Uzziah conquers the Philistines and the Ammonites pay tribute. Uzziah builds significant defensive fortifications throughout Judah and rebuilds and equips the army to a strength of 375,000. So far, so good. Uzziah’s “fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped until he became strong.” (26)

There is a relentless cyclicality here. Kings begin well and end badly–all for the simple reason that they abandon God. What will happen to Uzziah? Will he, like his father and grandfather believe his own press releases and abandon God?

Acts 23:12–24: Forty Jerusalem Jews, feeling thwarted by the Roman tribune, plot to kill Paul. Their plan is to ambush Paul as he is called to speak before the council again “on the pretext that you want to make a more thorough examination of his case.” (15)

Who knew? Paul has a sister, whose name we do not learn, whose son (Paul’s nephew) whose name we do not learn, who overhears the plot and get into the barracks to tell Paul. The young man (whom we presume is Jewish, not Christian) reports the plot to the tribune, who “dismissed the young man, ordering him, “Tell no one that you have informed me of this.” (22).

Clearly the tribune has had enough of Paul and the Jews and he solves his problem by getting Paul out of Jerusalem, ordering a night ride to Caesarea “with two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen. Also provide mounts for Paul to ride, and take him safely to Felix the governor.” (23,24) (Luke must have been in the party because he provides significant detail here.)

So, Paul escapes Jerusalem under cover of night and with a sizable armed guard, never to return. What was Paul thinking about on that night ride to Caesarea? Was he discouraged, thinking he had failed? Or was he thinking that God had made it abundantly clear that Paul’s mission was to the Gentiles and not to the Jews? My vote is for the latter.

Psalm 25:8–22; 2 Chronicles 24:1–25:4; Acts 22:30–23:11

Psalm 25:8–22: Alter informs us that this psalm is one of nine alphabetical acrostics in the Psalms, where the first word of the line is a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. He suggests that this may have been a way for singers and speakers to remember their lines. Psalm 119 is of course the most famous of these.

This psalm reminds one of 119 because many  of the same themes occur here. A major one is how God guides us in his ways: All the Lord’s paths are kindness and truth.” (10) and “Whoever the man who fears the Lord,/ He will guide him in the way he would choose.” (12)  And for the man who does in fact follow God, there is reward: “His life will repose in bounty,/ and his seed inherit the earth.” (13) Then, the familiar idea of a contract between God and the man who follows God’s path: “The Lord’s counsel is for those who fear him,/ and His pact He makes known to them.”

The last few verses veer form this formula and evolve into a psalm of supplication for the man in a dire situation: “The distress of my heart has grown great. / From my straits bring me out.” (1) There are the usual enemies “who are many/ and with outrageous hatred despise me.” (19) Which is why we pray to God: “Guard my life and save me. / …for I shelter in You…for in You do I hope.” (20, 21)

I prefer this psalm to 119 not only because it is shorter, but it moves from the abstractions of paths and pacts to that of a man in trouble, praying to God and resting all his hope on him. There is a visible transition from the head to the heart, which makes the psalm –and the psalmist–feel far more authentic.

2 Chronicles 24:1–25:4: Joash was only seven when he began his 40-year reign. And the Chronicler lets us know right at verse 2, “Joash did what was right in the sight of the Lord all the days of the priest Jehoiada.” Joash’s big project is the restoration of the temple. When it appears things are not going quickly enough, Joash decides to speed things up with a temple tax, collected in a big chest at the entrance to the temple. It becomes a roaring success; God is worshipped and things go well– but only as long as Jehoiada, Joash’s priest-counselor remains alive. But the priest dies at the ripe age of 130.

Almost immediately, Judah “abandoned the house of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and served the sacred poles and the idols.” (24:18). Things go rapidly downhill. The prophet Zechariah, Jehoiada’s son said, ““Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has also forsaken you.” (20) For delivering the bad news, Zechariah is stoned to death, but “he was dying, he said, “May the Lord see and avenge!” (22).

Which is exactly what happens: Judah is invaded by Aram, which though its army was outnumbered triumphs because “the Lord delivered into their hand a very great army, because they [Judah] had abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors.” (24) Already wounded, followers of Zechariah then kill Joash in bed.

Why does a king with such promise who follows God turn bad? It seems clear that when Jehoiada was alive, Joash followed him, and from the age of seven, I suspect Joash never developed as a leader. Even though he was king, he was a follower. And after Jehoiada dies, Joash is too easily influenced by darker forces.

Joash’s son, Amaziah, takes the throne, but as the Chronicler observes, “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, yet not with a true heart.” (25:2) This does not bode well for Amaziah’s reign.

Acts 22:30–23:11: The tribune “wanted to find out what Paul was being accused of by the Jews,” (22:30) and orders the Jewish council to meet and for Paul to “stand before them.” Paul, being Paul, is fearless and while “looking intently at the council he said, “Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.” (23:1) The priest Ananias orders that Paul be struck on the mouth, apparently for blasphemy. Paul responds, doubtless quite angrily, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” (3) Paul apologizes, ““I did not realize, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people.’” (5).

Order is restored and then Paul does something insanely clever. Recognizing that the assembly includes both Pharisees and Sadducees, he tells them he’s a Pharisee and then raises the issue of the resurrection. This creates what we can ironically term as lively dissension between the two groups over this theological issue. The Pharisees side with their man, Paul, arguing “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (9) The Sadducees are incensed and once again a riot ensues among these supposedly religious men, and Paul is again rescued by the Roman soldiers.

But then a verse I’ve never noticed before:  “That night the Lord stood near him and said, “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.” (11) Even though riots have ensued, Luke reminds us that Paul has carried out God’s plan faithfully. He has testified about Jesus in Jerusalem. But it’s clear that he is a prophet without honor in his own country–and just as the priest’s ancestors had killed Zechariah, they would kill Paul if they have a chance. But Paul has done the important thing: he has courageously testified. This is what God asks of prophets.

Just as we see courageous people such as Kaya Mueller testify today.

Psalm 25:1–7; 2 Chronicles 21:18–23:21; Acts 22:17–29

Psalm 25:1–7: These verses “for David” are about shame and memory. The psalmist, trusting in God, asks “Let me be not shamed,/ let my enemies not gloat over me.” (2) The poet expands the idea of God sparing us from shame to include all who trust in God: “Yes, let all who hope in You not be shamed.” (3a) Rather, “Let the treacherous be shamed, empty-handed.” (3b)

The therapeutic community talks about shame a lot–or at least the therapist I met with has. But I do not think about shame very much, or sometimes even understand what it is. I suspect I’m not alone on that. Yet, here in this psalm it’s clear that shame is very much a part of our human condition. Shame is not just the things we know we’ve done or not done that are wrong; shame has hurt both ourselves and other people. But unacknowledged shame has a crippling effect on our lives and our relationships.

And here, our psalmist is willing to bring the darkest parts of himself to God. And so should I. This comes to memory: ours and God’s. First, the psalmist asks God to “Recall Your mercies, O lord,/ and Your kindnesses–they are forever.” (6) and God remembers only mercy not our shame once confessed. Because once we have admitted our shame to God, he forgets: “My youth’s offenses and my crimes recall not.” Rather, God “in [His] kindness recalls me.” (7b) Me, the person I am, not my shame. But we must remember: shame must be acknowledged; otherwise it festers in ourselves and hinders our relationship with others and with God.

2 Chronicles 21:18–23:21: Jehoram, Jehoshaphat’s evil successor pays for his sins in a most hideous way, what I presume to be colorectal cancer: “After all this the Lord struck him in his bowels with an incurable disease.” (21:18) and he dies “in agony.” But no one cares; they’re just glad to be rid of him: “He departed with no one’s regret.” (20)

Ahaziah, his youngest son, succeeds him–only because “the troops who came with the Arabs to the camp had killed all the older sons.” (22:1) Alas, Ahaziah followed in father’s footsteps and “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” (4) under the evil influence of Israel and Ahab to the north, ruling “as the house of Ahab had done; for after the death of his father they were his counselors, to his ruin.” (4) (I love the editorial comments of the Chronicler!)  Ahaziah meets his end within a year, executed by Jehu, Ahab’s successor.

“When Athaliah, Ahaziah’s mother, saw that her son was dead, she set about to destroy all the royal family of the house of Judah” and seizes the throne of Judah. (22:10) But “Jehoshabeath, the king’s daughter, took Joash son of Ahaziah, and stole him away from among the king’s children who were about to be killed;” (22:11). After seven years, the priest, “Jehoiada took courage, and entered into a compact with the commanders of the hundreds,” and Jehoiada sets up a guard around Joash in the temple. Joash is eventually anointed king of Judah and the treacherous Athalia is murdered.

After years of corruption and worship of the Baals, Judah returns to God and worship is restored at the temple. The priest Jehoiada is clearly in charge since Joah is still young.

What are we to make of all this internecine warfare, conspiracies and treachery? The Chronicler is making it clear: that when Judah and its kings turn away from God, chaos and death reign. Alas, I think we have entered a similar age today.

Acts 22:17–29: Paul concludes his personal testimony before the Jews of Jerusalem, describing how he stood by while Stephen was stoned by the mob and concludes with the provocative statement that God “said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” (21) The crowd is clearly unhappy at this and renders its judgement, “they shouted, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”” (22) I’m pretty sure Paul knew this would be their reaction, but Paul can only say what is truth. But the mob is not interested in Paul’s truth.  At this point we see the separation between Jew and Christian that persists to this day. The world is divided: Jew and Gentile.

The Roman troops take Paul into the barracks, where he is “to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him.” (24). Paul is bound, but before the lash hits him he asks, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” (25) The Tribune knows there will be serious trouble if Paul, as a Roman citizen, is flogged without having been tried. The Tribune admits that he bought his citizenship, but Paul says, “I was born a citizen.” And “the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him,” (29) realizing that Paul could bring the weight of Roman law down on his head.

What is Luke telling us here in this exchange between Paul and the Tribune? There’s more going on here than the fact of Paul’s Roman citizenship. It’s a fascinating reversal: Paul was also born a Jew, but he is now a citizen of the Kingdom of God, a citizenship that was purchased by Christ’s death and resurrection. The Tribune had to pay a lot of money to buy his Roman citizenship, something Paul got for free because he was born into it.  Could it be that Luke is implicitly saying, that the Jewish mob outside were born as Jews into the citizenship of the Kingdom of God if they would acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah, but in rejecting Christ have also rejected citizenship in the Kingdom?

Psalm 24; 2 Chronicles 20:20–21:17; Acts 22:3–16

Psalm 24: We can imagine this psalm being sung as a procession of pilgrims winds its way up the mountain to the Temple. The psalm begins with God as Creator–and master of all creation: “The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness, / The world and the dwellers within it. / For He on the seas did found it.” (1,2a) making it clear that God and creation are separate.

Then, the rhetorical question, “Who shall go up on the mount of the Lord / and who shall stand in His holy place?” Who is worthy to enter the Temple? That would be “The clean of hands and pure of heart.” (4a) Now that those “who [have] given no oath a lie / and [have] sworn not in deceit” (4b) have arrived at the Temple, one imagines a moment of silence as all heads turn to the entrance and the singing: “Lift up your heads, O gates / and rise up, eternal portals / “that he king of glory may enter.”

This is exactly the image of warriors standing at attention waiting for their leader as the question just asked is answered: “The Lord, most potent and valiant, / The Lord Who is valiant in battle.” Or, for Israel, when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to the battlefield, as we see in the early chapters of 1 Samuel. The question is answered: it is God, “The Lord of armies, He is the king of glory.” (which lines are found in Handle’s Messiah)

This is a wonderful psalm on which to ponder when we think of God as small or when we try to put God into our little controllable boxes.What does it mean to be king of glory? That God is infinitely greater than even our imaginations.  God is the king of creation and we, even we who are pure of heart, are his creatures–whom he leads in battle, and whom he loves.

2 Chronicles 20:20–21:17: Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah have abandoned themselves completely to God, and now, ready for battle, “Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Listen to me, O Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the Lord your God and you will be established; believe his prophets.” (20:20) and just as we read in psalm 24, a choir goes before the army singing, ““Give thanks to the Lord,/  for his steadfast love endures forever.” (21). The Judeans rout the enemy completely (or as our author has it, “the Lord set an ambush against the Ammonites, Moab, and Mount Seir”). The conquest is so complete that it takes three days to gather all the booty.

Jehoshaphat is Judah’s most successful king after David and Solomon because except for a few missteps out of which he learns his lesson, he has trusted God absolutely. But all good things come to an end. He dies and his son, Jehoram, takes the throne of Judah, who commences his reign by assassinating his six brothers and marrying the daughter of Ahab, aligning himself with Israel. Things go downhill from there, and the great curse of the historian is laid on him: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” 921:6). But, doubtless unknowing since he was certainly not paying attention, Jehoram was spared because, “the Lord would not destroy the house of David because of the covenant that he had made with David,” (7)

The prophet Elijah enters Jehoram’s life via a letter the prophet sends to the king, telling him that because he has not followed God and has done evil things such as killing his brothers, “ the Lord will bring a great plague on your people, your children, your wives, and all your possessions, and you yourself will have a severe sickness with a disease of your bowels, until your bowels come out, day after day, because of the disease.” (14) And in the midst of Jehoram’s agony, the Philistine’s and Arabs invade, plunder and kill, leaving only Jehoahaz, Jehoram’s youngest son.”

Jehoram learns too late that actions have consequences, especially where God is concerned. We may not experience the one-to-one correspondence between abandoning God and disease and defeat the way Jehoram did, but it’s worth remembering that even when bad things happen, God is also merciful and keeps his side of the vow. Do we keep our side? Or are we like Jehoram?

Acts 22:3–16: Speaking in Hebrew on the steps of the Roman barracks, Luke gives us a tangible picture of the Jew who went to the Greeks in the Roman Empire. While we know everything Paul is about to say because Luke gave it to us in third person narrative early in this book, now Luke becomes court reporter and we hear Paul’s story in his own words, exactly as he told it.

Paul first gives his Jewish bona fides “brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God,” and then tells the crowd, ” just as all of you are today.” Brilliant. He is identifying with them. He recounts how he persecuted “to the point of death” the new converts to The Way. So far, Paul is saying, “I am exactly like all of you.”

This makes the story of his Damascus Road conversion and how he was blinded even more dramatic. From night to day. He gives credit to “a certain Ananais, who was also a Jew that had converted. Here, we learn that Ananais said much more to Paul than “Regain your sight,” but also, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice;” (14) Paul is brilliantly tightening the link between his (and Ananais’s) Jewishness, making it clear that turning to Jesus Christ is not just a new fad, but that it is a completely logical progression that reaches back to the foundation of Judaism.

Paul, in telling his own story using Ananais’s words, is inviting the Jewish crowd to do exactly the same thing: “And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.’” (16).

Paul’s testimony is immensely powerful–not just for what his experience was, but that his experience can be exactly his listener’s experience. The most powerful testimonies are the ones that draw us in close so we can see ourselves: that what happened to Paul can just as well be our story, as well. He has drawn them in as close as he possibly can. What will the crowd do?

Psalm 23; 2 Chronicles 19:1–20:19; Acts 21:31–22:2

Psalm 23: What can be written or said about this psalm that has not already been written or said? God as shepherd must have been an earth-shattering metaphor when this psalm was written. Shepherds were at the bottom rung of society, seen by others as nere-do-wells unsuited for other positions than to spend the nights in the cold and dark with sheep–surely among the stupidest of large mammals.

Yet, Jesus in telling the parable of the shepherd and then proclaiming himself the Good Shepherd elevated this psalm even higher. Like everything else about him, he turned the world upside down, just as this metaphor here turns the understanding of God as majestic, powerful, and awesome upside down. God as shepherd, as companion.

We think of this psalm as gentle, comforting–something to be read at funerals. And it is. We think of the last verse–“And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”–as heaven, our final resting place. Although, as Alter translates it, what we read as ‘forever’ he translates as “for many long days.” Since the OT has no particular concept of heaven, this could simply be a statement of David longing to be back at the Tabernacle. In short, the end of the verse is not about death, it’s about worship.

Far from being a valedictory, something to be read at funerals, it is the description of the living relationship between God and us. It is about life, not death.

2 Chronicles 19:1–20:19: After the abortive alliance with Ahab and Israel, Jehoshaphat returns to Jerusalem chastened. Even Hanani the seer admits, “Nevertheless, some good is found in you,.” (19:3) Jehoshaphat redoubles his efforts to be a good king, establishing a judicial system and warning the judges, ““Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of human beings but on the Lord’s behalf; he is with you in giving judgment. Now, let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes.” (6, 7)

The Moabites and Ammonites plan to invade from the east. “ Jehoshaphat was afraid; he set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord;” (20:4) The king prays, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (20:12) This is true humility: admitting that “we do not know what to do” and turning to God. Jehoshaphat comes to God free of pride. Unlike so many others, he does not already have a plan in mind and comes to God asking for approval of what he’s already figured out. The king has abandoned himself completely to God.

Before the men of Judah, including “their little ones, their wives, and their children.” Jahaziel, son of Zechariah comes forward and speaks with the spirit of the Lord on him: “Thus says the Lord to you: ‘Do not fear or be dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s.” (20:15) and “Do not fear or be dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.” (20:17)

There it is: the battle is not ours but God’s. And yet, I hold on to my plan, my ideas, so fiercely. In this time of crisis, Jehoshaphat and Judah turn it all over to God. To be blunt, in this way, Solomon’s grandson was much wiser than Solomon himself.  Can I abandon my plans and my pride the way this king and country did?

Acts 21:31–22:2: In the midst of the riot while the Jews were trying to kill Paul, order is restored by the Roman tribune, who arrests Paul, but have no idea what he’s done wrong. The crowd is no help: “Some in the crowd shouted one thing, some another; and as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.” The mob–eerily reminiscent of another mob in Jerusalem some years before–wants Paul to be killed.

Paul asks the tribune if he can speak– in Greek. Surprised, the Tribune, who clearly did not understand Hebrew, asks if Paul is the “Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?” (38). Paul replies with his bon fides and asks, “I beg you, let me speak to the people.” Paul calms the crowd and begins speaking in Hebrew…

Luke gives us a brilliant picture of the tension between Rome and the Jews. We see the critical importance of language and understanding. The Roman authorities do not understand the language–much less the culture–of the people they are ruling. The lesson here for us: unless there is understanding at the most basic level, there is no hope of understanding at a higher level. It becomes all mobs and riots. Today, we do our shouting and rioting on the Internet… But our misunderstanding of others is just as great.

Psalm 22:29–31; 2 Chronicles 18; Acts 21:17–30

 Psalm 22:29–31: These last three verses are benedictory–and somewhat puzzling. (Alter remarks that the last two verses in particular, “everything in the Hebrew through the end of the next verse (and the psalm) is opaque, bearing the look of a word salad tossed by a bewildered scribe.”)

As we’ve seen before, this psalm applies not just to Jews, but to everyone. And here the psalmist extends God’s inclusivity even farther to everyone who is yet unborn, all who exist and to all who have died. God is ruler over every human being, “For the Lord’s is the kingship–/ and He rules over the nations.”  So far so good. But then, it appears that even the dead will worship God: “Yes, to Him will bow down/ all the netherword’s sleepers.” (30) For those of us who believe in life after death, there’s nothing unusual here. But it is highly unusual to find it in the OT because the Hebrews did not believe in an afterlife. Worship would not be expected in Sheol.

As we’ve seen, though, this psalm ranges far beyond the interests of Jews and prophecies to all people–so too, here in these final verses. In fact, I think we see a tiny glimpse of the worship in heaven: “Before Him will kneel all who go down to dust.” (30b)

And for the living, for those to come, “My seed will serve Him./ It will be told to the Master for generations to come.” (31) And here we are, hundreds of generations later, and we “will proclaim His bounty to a people aborning, for [what] he has done.” And indeed, we should pause and reflect a moment on the clouds of witness that have come before us–and our responsibility to proclaim God to “a people aborning”–yet to come.

2 Chronicles 18: Ahab, Israel’s king asks Jehoshaphat to join him in common war against Ramoth-gilead. Judah’s king says they should inquire first of God as to the wisdom of this adventure. Ahab wheels out his pagan prophets–all 400 of them–but Jehoshaphat asks almost plaintively, “Is there no other prophet of the Lord here of whom we may inquire?” (6). Ahapb sends for Micaiah, noting, “but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.” (7). The 400 prophets have forecasted glorious triumph, but when asked about the coming battle, Micaiah replies, “As the Lord lives, whatever my God says, that I will speak.” (13) Ahab agrees to listen and Micaiah promptly forecasts doom: “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd” (13)

Ahab is not pleased and whines to the king of Judah, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?” (17) and then promptly locks up the truth-telling prophet.

Ahab goes into battle, disguises himself as a soldier and is killed. Jehoshaphat is standing there, dressed as a king and the captains of the chariots see who they think is Ahab. But “Jehoshaphat cried out, and the Lord helped him. God drew them away from him,” (31) –saved by a hair. I’m sure the king of Judah saw the folly of his ways for having been enticed into battle despite Miciah’s warning.

Many of us are Ahab, or worse, our leaders are Ahab: we hear only what we want to hear, what fits our preconceived plan and are simply looking for the weakest justification. Too often, our leaders hear only the soothing words of the sycophants around them and disaster ensues. As events of the last 12 years have so amply demonstrated. But we who follow God can also be drawn into folly like Jehoshaphat, choosing to ignore the prophetic voice in our ear.

Acts 21:17–30: Paul arrives in Jerusalem and meets with James. There’s a problem: Paul is anathema to the Jewish believers because “They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.” (21) James’s solution is for Paul to join four men in a rite of purification so that “all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law.” (24b) Happily, the church at Israel has absolved teh Gentiles, having sent a letter to that effect.

But Paul is a Jew, and he agrees and enters “the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them.” (26)

All is well until a bunch of Asian Jews spot him, seize him and stir up the crowd, saying “This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place.” OK, there’s some truth to this from their point of view.  But then an outright lie, as they continue, “more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (28) And the what all Paul’s friends feared, and what I suspect Paul knew would happen, “They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut.” (30).

Is this part of Paul’s plan? We know from what Luke has told us previously, that Paul was hell-bent on getting to Jerusalem, and we suspect he had more than a rite of purification in mind when he got there.