Archives for February 2015

Psalm 31:5–20; 2 Chronicles 36; Acts 27:9–20

Psalm 31:5–20: These verses describe well the vicissitudes of the righteous man in the world then–and the world today–beautifully describing the symptoms of depression. He sees himself as surrounded by those “who look to vaporous lies” (7) and “My eye is worn out in vexation, my throat and my belly.” (10) He feels he is abhorred by both his enemies and his friends: “for all my enemies I become a disgrace,/ just as much to my neighbors, and fear to my friends.” (13)  He recognizes his straits: “I become like a vessel lost” (13) leading to paranoia: “For I heard the slander of many,/ terror all round,/ when they conspired against me,/ when they plotted to take my life.” (14)

There is only one way out for this man beleaguered on all sides: “As for me, I trust in You, O Lord. / I say ‘You are my God.'” (15) And then the plea for rescue: O save me/ from the hand of my enemies, my pursuers./ Shine Your face on my servant,/ rescue me in Your kindness.” (16, 17)

The psalmist knows–as we should as well–that God is the one way out of the wilderness of depression. Whether our enemies are real or imagined, there is only one Rescuer. And God, who is love, will rescue us in his kindness. Yes, there are valuable medicines to treat depression, and God has given us the smarts to develop them. But underneath our own efforts and science is the God of kindness, on whom we can rely and trust.

2 Chronicles 36: Even though Josiah had been faithful to God all these years, Pharoah Neco comes through Judah “fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates,” which was definitely not Judah. Josiah did not listen to the warning of Neco, who told him to not to fight him but to “cease opposing God, who is with me, so that he will not destroy you” (35:21) But Josiah ignores the warning and is killed in battle.

The lesson here is that God can speak to us from unexpected places. Josiah was certainly not expecting God to speak through the voice of the Pharaoh–and he pays the price. We must be listening and discerning the voice of God, no matter what unexpected direction it may be coming from.

Following Josiah’s death, our Chronicler catalogs a depressing list of failed kings: “Jehoiakim was twenty-five years old when he began to reign…He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord his God.” (36:5). Then “Jehoiachin was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (9)(Although it’s unclear to me how an eight-year old could do evil, but I’ll presume he was surrounded by evil courtiers.)

Then “Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he began to reign; he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord his God.” (11) This guy is notable because  “He did not humble himself before the prophet Jeremiah who spoke from the mouth of the Lord.” (12) 

By this time, Judah was a vassal state of Babylon and had fallen, and Judah “kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy.” (16). Jerusalm falls to the hand of “the king of the Chaldeans.” Nebuchadnezzar shows no mercy. Those who were not killed outright were taken into captivity and carted off to Babylon for the next 70 years.

But the Chronicler ends on a high note. After 70 years, Cyrus of Persia conquers Babylon and “in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia” (22) says “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.” (23).

God is the God of second chances. And people of Judah are free to return to Jerusalem. When people speak of the harsh God of the OT, they really need to read this last chapter of 2 Chronicles. It is Judah who was unfaithful and received their due by their own folly. God is merciful.

 Acts 27:9–20:  Agrippa, who was almost persuaded by Paul, said, “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.” And then, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor.” (26:32). But Paul has long wanted to go to Rome and even though he is going there as a prisoner, his wish is being fulfilled.

Luke, speaking again in the first person is accompanying Paul to Rome. Paul is under the guard of a certain Julius,”a centurion of the Augustan Cohort.” Luke describes the voyage in great detail, telling us the exact route they are taking. It’s been a difficult voyage with the wind against them and they arrive at a place called Fair Havens.

Luke tells us “much time had been lost and sailing was now dangerous,” (27:9). Paul, obviously an experienced traveler strongly advises against sailing, “Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” (10) But his advice is ignored and the centurion, who (understandably) things the captain and sailors know better. So, they set sail and take “the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, where they could spend the winter.” (12)

A nor’easter from Crete overtakes them and even their attempts at anchoring the boat were futile. They began tossing cargo overboard, then the ships tackle. But it was all futile, and Luke writes, “neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” (20)

Did God cause the storm so Paul could be proved right? I don’t think so. Storms happen; men do stupid things, failing to take advice from those who are more experienced. Why would a sea captain listen to a mere passenger–and one who was a prisoner at that? As Josiah found out, God speaks to us in unexpected ways from unexpected sources. But the hearers must be listening. Josiah did not. And the centurion was not.


Psalm 31:1–5; 2 Chronicles 34:8–33; Acts 26:15–27

Psalm 31:1–5: This psalm of supplication emphasizes God as our shelter as the psalmist pleads using military images, “Be my stronghold of rock, /a fort-house to rescue me,/ For You are my crag and my bastion.” (3c, 4a) The psalmist evokes the image of David and his men clambering among the rocks and caves as they are pursued by Saul.

The other image in these first verses of this psalm is the psalmist asking God in an anthropomorphic sense, to bend over and “Incline Your ear to me.” (3a)  And the faster, the better, “Quick, save me.” (3b)  And then more specifically, “for Your nam’s sake guide and lead me.” (4b). One more metaphor makes it clear that the psalmist is being pursued: “Get me out of the net that they laid for me, / for You are my stronghold.” (5) And then, he surrenders totally into “Your hand I commend my spirit.” (6a) And like many psalms of supplication, he acknowledges that in the asking itself, there is rescue: “You redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth.” (6b)

In this onrush of images and metaphors we feel the psalmists’s desperation and then, suddenly, once he utters “Into Your hand I commend my spirit,” there is peace. Just as Jesus uttered these words on the cross; the agony completed and death takes his spirit.

2 Chronicles 34:8–33: In the midst of the great temple clean-out, rebuilding, and “While they were bringing out the money that had been brought into the house of theLord, the priest Hilkiah found the book of the law of the Lord given through Moses.” (14). Our Chronicler describes exactly how the book finds its way into the hands of King Josiah, who upon hearing its words and realizing what it is, tears his clothes because “the wrath of the Lord that is poured out on us is great, because our ancestors did not keep the word of the Lord, to act in accordance with all that is written in this book.” (21b).

What’s interesting here is that I think this is the frist time that the “Moses books” have been described specifically as a book, indicating that by the time of Josiah, written records were becoming important, and we come to see why Jews came to be known as “people of the Book.”

Josiah consults Huldah, that rarity among rarities: a female prophet. Which makes me wonder: why do some churches prevent women from preaching when Josiah seemed perfectly happy to consult the person through whom God was speaking–and was completely indifferent to the prophet’s sex?

Huldah tells Josiah, yes, for everything Judah has done in the past in worshiping small-g gods they deserve the wrath of God. But because Josiah has been humble before God, “you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place and its inhabitants.” Of course, this is the Chronicler’s reference to the Babylonian conquest.

Josiah causes the book to be read aloud among the people and all make a covenant to keep their side of the Covenant. And for Josiah’s entire reign, “All his days they did not turn away from following the Lord the God of their ancestors.” (33). That the people followed God through Josiah’s entire reign is the greatest legacy any king could wish for.

Acts 26:15–27: Paul tells of his Damascus road experience, and of how Jesus commissioned him, telling him that Paul was being sent “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’” (18) Paul has certainly not missed the opportunity to preach the Good News to Festus and Agrippa.

Paul asserts that he has done nothing more than to preach this precisely-defined message of repentance to both Jews and Gentiles, and “For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.” (21) Once again, Paul makes it clear that Jesus is the oft-prophesied Messiah, and “saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (22,23)

Paul’s entire defense hangs on the simple assertion that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. And as we know , down through history this has been rejected–the Cornerstone has been rejected.

In Festus, who exclaims, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!” (24) Luke shows us the reaction of the educated world, who sees the Good News as improbable nonsense. When we encounter this reaction today, it’s useful to remember it’s hardly original–it’s as old as the church itself.

But Agrippa is clearly listening, and Paul again bases the Gospel on the Scriptures, and goes for the preemptive close on Agrippa: “ King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” (27) Which is a good place to remember that we cannot understand–or accept–the Gospel without understanding the Scriptures on which it is based.


Psalm 30:6–12; 2 Chronicles 33:1–34:7; Acts 26:2–14

Psalm 30:6–12: Our psalmist notes one of the magnificent, if under-appreciated, gifts we have received from God, the diurnal rhythm of life so that indeed, “At evening one beds down weeping/ and in the morning, glad song.” (6) It is a cliche because it is truth: each new day is a gift, the opportunity to begin once again; to start over with a clean slate.

The poet then recounts how he believed how, by virtue of never sinning, God would always be at his side: “I thought in my quiet days, ‘Never will I stumble.'” (7) And when that was the case, “You made me mountain-strong.” (8a) But then, disaster. He fails and God departs: “When You hid Your face I was stricken.” (8b).

As the poet begs God to return–“To You, O Lord, I call, / and to the Master I plead,” (9)–he tries to convince God by the sheer logic that those who are dead cannot worship God: “What profit in my blood,/ in my going down deathward?/ Will dust acclaim You,/ will it tell the truth?” (10) There is great truth here. While we talk about heaven, we need to remember that the OT Jews did not believe in an afterlife. There is no greater despair than to be separated from God.

God eventually hears his pleas to “grant me grace” and we encounter one of the most encouraging verses in the Psalms: “You have turned my dirge to a dance for me,/ undone my sackcloth and bound me with joy.” (12) And we join the in a hymn of thanksgiving, “Lord, my God, for all time will I acclaim You.” The psalm, like its cries of the poet, has descended into the pit but by its end, it has climbed the mount of thanksgiving.

2 Chronicles 33:1–34:7:  What’s so discouraging about the good kings like Hezekiah is that they seem to be unable to pass along their goodness–of course a reminder that each person must make his or her own decision to follow God (and in our case, Jesus).  Children cannot inherit faith; they must find their own–as I well know personally.

Alas: “Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign; he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (33:1,2), quickly rebuilding the “high places” his father Hezekiah had pulled down. Worse, he puts an idol in the temple and in the excoriating judgement of our Chronicler, “Manasseh misled Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that they did more evil than the nations whom the Lord had destroyed before the people of Israel.” (9). Once again we have an example of the crucial importance of the leader. Righteous or sinful, the led will follow his example.

God speaks to “Manasseh and to his people, but they gave no heed.” (10) As a result God calls upon the Assyrian army, which had already destroyed Israel, to invade Judah. Manasseh is captured and carried in chains off to Babylon. Manasseh finally gets God’s message and “in distress he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his ancestors.” (12) God hears Manasseh and restores him and Judah. “Then Manasseh knew that the Lord indeed was God.” (13) Manasseh has gotten the message and follows God the rest of his life–as does Judah.

While Hezekiah knew and followed God from the beginning, Manasseh must fall into the pit before finding God. Two examples for us: that repentance leads just as surely to God as lifelong faith. Thank God for this.

Amon follows Manasseh, and is assassinated by his servants after a disastrous two-year reign. What’s interesting here is that “the people of the land killed all those who had conspired against King Amon; and the people of the land made his son Josiah king to succeed him.” (25). Justice comes via the population, who were still following God and hoped for a just king.

Which brings us to young king Josiah, a mere lad of when he begins his reign.Like his grandfather, Josiah follows God from the outset and receives the highest compliment from our Chronicler: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the ways of his ancestor David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.” (34:2). When he was twelve he “began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the sacred poles, and the carved and the cast images.” (3)

Acts 26:2–14: Luke’s brilliance as a historian certainly includes the fact that while he tells us much about Paul in the third person, we also get to hear Paul’s own words–and here before Agrippa, his life story.

Having established his Jewish bona fides, Paul relies of fundamental Jewish theology, making it clear that his faith in Jesus is the logical consequence of “my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship day and night.”  (6,7) And then he points out, “It is for this hope, your Excellency that I am accused by Jews!” (8) Brilliant. Because he’s saying that he is more Jewish than the Jews who accuse him, so why is he being accused of being too Jewish?

To prove that point, Paul recounts his zealous actions against the Christians, even to the point that “I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death.” (10)

But then, Paul’s life-changing experience on the Damascus road: “I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’” I think it’s crucial that Paul says that the voice was speaking Hebrew, for it informs his audience that his experience is Jewish at its core; it is the God of the Jews speaking to him. It is in no wise foreign. In other words, the logical connection to Paul’s Jewishness, and to what he is about to tell them, is totally in the Jewish context.


Psalm 30:1–5; 2 Chronicles 32; Acts 25:16–26:1

 Psalm 30:1–5: This psalm’s superscription, “Psalm, song for the dedication of the house, for David,” tells us it’s a hymn that was sung when the temple (or, as Alter suggests, some object or area inside the temple) was dedicated. And the hymn is “for David,” which given David was long dead by the time the temple was dedicated, I’ll take as
“in memory of David.”

There is great verticality here. The psalmist has died (or come close to it) and descended into “the pit,” representing deep illness, depression, or even death. But God has rescued him and “I shall exalt You, Lord, for you drew me up” (2) –almost as water being drawn up from a well. And again, “Lord, You brought me up from Sheol” (4a) And returned his life to him, “[You] gave me life from those gone down to the pit.” (4b)

This drawing up, and essentially, resurrection has come about because “I cried out and You healed me.” (3) and as a result, there is cause for great rejoicing: “Hymn to the Lord, O his faithful, / acclaim his holy name.” (5). This is indeed a psalm for those who have been healed, for it is prayer and God’s response to prayer that is healing, be that physically, emotionally or spiritually.

2 Chronicles 32: Even though Hezekiah is Judah’s most righteous king in a long time, trouble–in the form of King Sennacherib of Assyria comes to invade. (I imagine that having successfully conquered Israel, Assyria has turned its aggressive intentions to Judah.) Rather than just going out and attacking, Hezekiah executes several brilliant defensive moves. One being to cut off all the water that flows outside Jerusalem, “Why should the Assyrian kings come and find water in abundance?” (4)

Leader that he is, he encourages his people and his troops, reminding them that God is on their side, “Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him; for there is one greater with us than with him.” (7) Sennecherib tries to discourage the inhabitants of Jerusalem, telling them that they are stupid for believing Hezekiah when he says God will save them against Assyria’s might, “Hezekiah [is] misleading you, handing you over to die by famine and by thirst, when he tells you, ‘The Lord our God will save us from the hand of the king of Assyria’” (11)

Of course Sennacherib is mistaken, having “spoken of the God of Jerusalem as if he were like the gods of the peoples of the earth, which are the work of human hands.” (19) and he goes down to defeat. This victory brings not only vindication, but “Many brought gifts to the Lord in Jerusalem and precious things to King Hezekiah of Judah, so that he was exalted in the sight of all nations from that time onward.” (23).

But Hezekiah is human and the worst sin of all–pride– overcomes him; victory goes to his head and he becomes sick but then he “humbled himself for the pride of his heart,” and recovers. All in all a successful reign, for Hezekiah remains faithful to the end of his life, even though God continues to test him “and to know all that was in his heart.” (31b). Hezekiah passes the test and the Chronicler accords him a great accolade not given to other kings in his history, speaking of his “good deeds.”

Hezekiah is the paragon of faithfulness, but for me, it is gratifying to see his weakness as well. He finds his way back to God–just as each of us can do if we are willing to step back and be self-aware.

 Acts 25:16–26:1: Speaking with King Agrippa, Festus relates his frustration with the Jews and especially with Paul, the proximate cause of all the unrest. He’s especially frustrated because no obvious crime has been committed. To his Roman ears, it’s just impenetrable theological disagreement. Now, Paul has asked to take his case to the emperor, but this places Festus in a quandary, since “I have nothing definite to write to our sovereign about him.” (26) He asks Agrippa, who obviously understands the theological issues, to hear Paul “so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write” (26) Agrippa agrees to hear Paul.

This passage where Roman authority meets Jewish authority is crucial because I think Luke is showing us that the gospel message is confusing to to the “greeks” and blasphemous to the Jews. Paul certainly explicates these issues in his letter to the Romans, (which is why it may be placed immediately following Acts). From the secular point of view, represented here by Festus, the Good News makes no sense other than that it it doesn’t seem to be a crime.

We see evidence all around us today, ranging from people like Festus who see it as nonsensical to people like the Jews, who wish it to be suppressed.  We would do well to remember just how radical the gospel message really is.

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.