Archives for September 2015

Psalm 113; Ezekiel 3–4:5; Hebrews 10:5–18

Psalm 113: This “Hallelujah” psalm praises both the majesty of God and the marvelous works he does for us. God is everywhere, horizontally from the east to the west: “From the place the sun rises to where it sets”  (3)and the vertically, “High over all the nations, the Lord,/ over heavens His glory.” (4) Once again, the psalmist places God overhead, even above the skies, looking down on his creation: “Who is like the Lord our God,/ Who sits high above,/ Who sees down below/ in the heavens and on the earth?” (5,6)

But God is no mere observer, and once again we see God’s priority among all his human creatures: “He raises the poor from the dust,/ from the dungheap lifts the needy.” (7).  God is not content to merely lift the poor man out of poverty, but God’s generosity is so enormous that he then raises the poor man up to the pinnacle of power, “to seat him among princes,/ among the princes of his people.” (8) And so, too, the woman, who in that patriarchal society is given the greatest possible gift by God: “He  seats the barren woman in her home/ a happy mother of sons.” (9)

Even though this psalm takes poetic license over what was doubtless the social reality of the time (the poor usually do not ascend to great power), it is a reminder that God is everywhere and he can do everything.  No transformation, be it from desperation to exaltation, is beyond God’s ken. We can take enormous comfort in that.

Ezekiel 3–4:5: Having received the scroll, God commands Ezekiel, “Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.” (3) While anything is possible, I’ll take “eating the scroll” as in to memorize it, absorb it into his entire being as if he were digesting a meal.

God then commands Ezekiel, “Mortal, go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them.” (4) with an interesting riff on the fact that God has chosen Ezekiel because he can speak in simple words with clarity: “For you are not sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel” (5) God has also chosen Ezekiel for his intrinsic stubbornness and willingness to not give up: “See, I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads. Like the hardest stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead; do not fear them or be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.” (8, 9)

So, our stubborn prophet of simple words and unshakable persistence is carried off by the angels on wheels and spends a week with “the exiles at Tel-abib, who lived by the river Chebar” (15) presumably in preparation for the confrontations to come. God speaks once again. This time it’s even more serious. If Ezekiel fails to warn the wicked or the righteous and they die, then Ezekiel will stand guilty before God: “their blood I will require at your hand.” (18b), But if Ezekiel warns the wicked and they fail to heed his words, then “they shall die for their iniquity; but you will have saved your life.” (19).

The next stage of Ezekiel’s investiture as prophet is a period of God-enforced silence: “I will make your tongue cling to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be speechless and unable to reprove them; for they are a rebellious house.” (26) But then, to make it clear to the prophet he is literally the voice of God, God says, “when I speak with you, I will open your mouth, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God”” (27).

This section is a brilliant exegesis on the preparation for a true prophet in order to distinguish him from the ample number of false prophets that surely abounded in Jerusalem. First, he must know his stuff by “eating” God’s word. Second he must be persistent, by virtue of his having a “hard forehead,” willing to engage in hard, confrontational conversations. Third, he must not express his own opinions, but his tongue will cling to the roof of his mouth until God commands him to speak–and then when he does speak, it will truly be God’s words.

As if this is not enough, God commands Ezekiel to take a brick and build a model of Jerusalem under siege. “Then take an iron plate and place it as an iron wall between you and the city; set your face toward it,” (4:3) and then “lie on your left side, and place the punishment of the house of Israel upon it.” (4:4) God commands Ezekiel to lie there as “you shall bear their punishment for the number of the days that you lie there.” And this is not just for a few hours or a few days, but for more than a year: “I assign to you a number of days, three hundred ninety days, equal to the number of the years of their punishment.” (4:5)

What’s this about? All I can surmise it that it is clear that Ezekiel will be a more effective prophet for having suffered punishment and having a taste of what God will visit upon those who fail to heed the prophet’s words. And as Ezekiel bears the punishment of Israel, there is also an image here of Jesus bearing the sis of us all.

Hebrews 10:5–18: Our writer continues his seemingly endless comparison between the futile efforts of the old covenant to wash away sin via sacrifice and the new, far more effective power of Jesus Christ. Again, the author makes it clear that Christ as not come to bear sins in parallel with the old sacrificial system, but to replace it: “He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.” (9) And this is “by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (10)

Christ’s act is infinitely more effective than the priests who offer “again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” (11) Instead, “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (14). And just to make sure we get the point, he quotes Isaiah, ““I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more” and then finally summarizes, “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (18)

Inasmuch as the sacrificial system came to an abrupt halt in AD70, we read these verse primarily for the theology that Jesus Christ died for our sins once and for all. Continuous sacrifice has been rendered obsolete by the shedding of Jesus’ blood.  Even though we humans keep on sinning, we can always return to Jesus’ single glorious act.


Psalm 112; Ezekiel 1,2; Hebrews 9:23–10:4

Psalm 112: Alter tells us that like the preceding psalm, this one is also an acrostic, with each line beginning with a Hebrew letter in sequence. One has the impression that these psalms may have come as a set, two to be memorized by a boy entering manhood, or perhaps a priest being initiated into the Temple rite.

While Psalm 111 describes God’s attributes, this one is a catalog of the attributes of the wise man. It begins exactly where the preceding one left off. The most important quality is fear of the Lord: “Happy the man who fears the Lord.” But not just fearing God, but “His commands he keenly desires.” (1)  The next most important as aspect of the God-fearing man is that he is able to pass along these virtues to his progeny: “A great figure in the land his seed shall be,/ the generation of the upright shall be blessed.” (2)

Then comes “Abundance and wealth in his home,/ and his righteousness stands forever.” (3) Say what we will about the unimportance of financial capital vis a vis other capital in today’s world, there’s no question it was important then. Like the God he fears, the upright man has many of the same qualities: “gracious and merciful and just,” (4) which is reiterated in the following line: Good is the man who shows grace and lends,/ he sustains his words with justice.” (5) As always, if we truly fear a just and righteous God, our responsibility is to bring justice as well. And our reward is, ” an eternal remembrance of the just man shall be.” (6b) In short if we are to be remembered after we die, it will be for the justice we brought to others, not for our other accomplishments.

The man whose “heart is firm [because] he trusts in the Lord” (7) “shall not fear,/ till he sees the defeat of his foes.” (8). In other words to see that justice occurs means that we must engage out foes. As well, “he disperses, he gives to the needy.” (9a) And our reward is that “his righteousness stands forever.” (9b) In the end, the major requirement of the man who fears God is that he will do all in his power to bring justice. The question is, do I fear the Lord such that bringing justice is my heart’s desire?

Ezekiel 1,2: So we arrive the book of “the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi.” Like Jeremiah, his prophetic bona fides are established not only because “the word of the Lord came” (1:3a) to him, but that “the hand of the Lord was on him there.” (3b)

Beyond that terse opening there is no biographical information about Ezekiel. Unlike Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel is a man who sees visions and the book opens with the most dramatic commissioning of a prophet that we could imagine. There is “a stormy wind [that] came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire,” (1:4) And in its middle, “something like four living creatures…Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings….the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle…The living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.” (1:6-14)

As if these creatures aren’t dramatic enough, the creatures are accompanied by “wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl; and the four had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel.” (1:16) I remember as a kid when flying saucers were all the rage someone speculated that Ezekiel’s vision must have been an alien spaceship.

But it turns out that this is really a theophany: “above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form.” (1:26) And “there was a splendor all around. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around.” (1:27, 28) Ezekiel does what any sane human would do at this point: “When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of someone speaking.” (1:28b)

It would seem to be God himself commissioning Ezekiel as a prophet: “He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.” (2:3) Ezekiel must go and speak to the “descendants [of those ancestors, who] are impudent and stubborn.” (2:4) But perhaps what is most striking about this apocalyptic vision are God’s words of encouragement to Ezekiel: “And you, O mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.” (2:6) And, God’s command: “You shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear; for they are a rebellious house.” (2:7) Ezekiel is then handed a scroll “and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe.” (2:10)  It’s fascinating that many of the visions themselves are recapitulated in Revelation.

What would it be like to hear these words from God himself? Like Ezekiel, we would know that we are about to go speak to very dangerous people. But would I be like Ezekiel and actually go and speak?

Hebrews 9:23–10:4: Our writer continues to explain the nature of Christ’s sacrifice and how it transcends the sacrificial system in place in Jerusalem. The crucial difference is, “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” (9:24) Christ intercedes directly with God. And this intercession is required only once because, unlike the Jewish high priest who “again and again, …enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own” (9:25), Christ “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (9:26)

The author then connects Christ’s sacrifice to the Second coming: “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (9:28) But in the meantime, the Temple system continues (suggesting this book was written before the destruction of the Temple by Titus in AD70) and the fact that “in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. and that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (10:3) are pretty remote concepts to those of us who today so far removed from that Temple.

But the power of these words must have been palpable shortly after they were written, for our writer is turning the long-established old covenant over on its head.  When we think about what happened to Paul in Jerusalem,  I’m guessing that our author was some safe distance from Jerusalem when he wrote what could only be seen as heresy by the Jewish establishment.


Psalm 111; Lamentations 4,5; Hebrews 9:11–22

Psalm 111: The very first word, “Hallelujah,” informs us this is a psalm of praise. Alter further informs us that this psalm is one of a few “short acrostics,” where each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order, suggesting that this would have served as an aid in memorization. Unlike a psalm of thanksgiving, where the poet gives thanks for a specific act of God such as being healed or being protected form enemies, this psalm focuses on God’s wonderful attributes.
“I acclaim the Lord with full heart
in the council of the upright and the assembly
Great are the deeds of the Lord,
discovered by all who desire them.” (1, 2)

Now that I look at this opening I wonder of this psalm might have been spoken by a boy at his Bar Mitzvah, with the acrostic helping him along as he recites before his elders.

The remainder of the psalm is chockablock with nouns and adjectives that describe God’s qualities: glory, grandeur, (3); wonders, gracious, merciful (4); God never forgets his covenant (5); power of his deeds (6); his handiwork: truth and justice (7); unchanging. truth, right (8); holy and awesome (9) The reality is, the poet could go on for many more verses and would never fully cover God’s attributes.

But the one quality that is missing here is God’s love. Perhaps that’s because all the qualities ore the diamond facets of God’s love. It seems that the Jews understood that God could never be described in a single word. So, these verses are a reminder of the numerous ways in which God demonstrates and practices his love for us.

If we hold to our theory that the psalm was spoken by a boy becoming a man, the final verse is the crucial reminder for a young man at the beginning of adulthood: “The beginning of wisdom—the fear of the Lord,/ good knowledge to all who perform it.” Above all, the fear of the Lord is not just an abstract concept, but it arises from “all who perform it.” Ultimately, it is our actions reveal our fear of the Lord–and wisdom can come only out of how we perform, not what we intellectualize.

Lamentations 4,5: The fourth chapter of this book is a superb reminder of the power of words–and especially in a culture that was not saturated in images as we are today. Could an image convey the horror of child starvation more than this: “The tongue of the infant sticks/ to the roof of its mouth for thirst;/ the children beg for food,/but no one gives them anything.?” (4:4). Or the unimaginable horror of cannibalism: “The hands of compassionate women/ have boiled their own children;/they became their food/ in the destruction of my people.” (4:10). 

Our poet knows who to blame: the leaders, especially the religious leaders, are at fault: “It was for the sins of her prophets/ and the iniquities of her priests,/who shed the blood of the righteous/ in the midst of her.” (4:13) But the catastrophe is inevitable: “Our pursuers were swifter/ than the eagles in the heavens;/they chased us on the mountains,/ they lay in wait for us in the wilderness.” (4:19) 

But hope is still alive: “The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished,/ he will keep you in exile no longer;” (4:22) I think it is that faint glimmer of hope that disaster will come to an end that inspires the final poem of this book: it is a cry to God for mercy. This chapter is a classic psalm of supplication. Unlike many psalms that are abstract in describing the sufferings of the psalmist, this prayer has contains the same level of brutal imagery as the rest of Lamentations, as the poet’s cries are directed upward to God: “Our skin is black as an oven/ from the scorching heat of famine. / Women are raped in Zion,/ virgins in the towns of Judah.” (5:10, 11)

This prayer is cinematic as it fills our imagination with desperate descriptions of horror as society collapses around them: “Princes are hung up by their hands;/ no respect is shown to the elders./ Young men are compelled to grind,/ and boys stagger under loads of wood.” (5:12, 13)

But like all psalms of supplication, this poem ends on the theme that God is still in heaven and “your throne endures for all generations.” (5:19) but then the eternal question of abandonment: “Why have you forgotten us completely?/ Why have you forsaken us these many days?” (20)  There is the expected plea for restoration–“Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;/ renew our days as of old—” (5:21).  But then the book ends on perhaps the most hopeless lines ever: “unless you have utterly rejected us,/ and are angry with us beyond measure.” (5:22) As far as the author of Lamentations is concerned, there is no hope. God has moved on. Will God remember?Will God restore? A question that echoes down through the centuries as human pride and cruelty wreaks its awful consequences. Even today.

Hebrews 9:11–22: Much more than Paul, or even the Gospel writers, our author forces us to come face-to-face with the gruesome reality of the old covenant sacrificial system that is centered on the shedding of blood as he describes Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice: “Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come…he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (11, 12) It is the eternal purity of Jesus’ blood that has the power to accomplish this: “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” (14)

He then launches into a complicated explanation of how the new covenant replaces the old by comparing it to a will, which “takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.” (17) He then reminds us that “not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood” (18), and that Moses inaugurated the sacrificial system, “he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the scroll itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.”” (19,20) This leads up to the assertion that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (22b).

In other words, even though we are under the terms of a new “will”–a new covenant–one rule is immutable: there must be shedding of blood in order to purify ourselves. And in the case of Jesus Christ it was–it had to be–his own blood. To our modern brains, this at first seems all very weird, even bizarre. Why blood? Why must there be bloodshed in order to propitiate God? Because it is how purity before God is obtained: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood,” (22a) But if we are free of the law, under the terms of the new covenant, I think it’s still fair to still ask: Why blood?


Psalm 109:20–31; Lamentations 2:11–3:15; Hebrews 8

Psalm 109:20–31: We hear his own voice once again as our psalmist takes the curses that have been spoken by his accusers and prays for God to turn them back on them: “This be the plight of my accusers from the Lord,/ and those who speak against my life.” (20) And now the tone of the psalm shifts back to supplication asking for God to act, as he prays, “And You, O Lord, Master,/ act on my behalf for the sake of Your name,/ for Your kindness is good. O save me!” (21) Once again, he is not asking or planning to take vengeance on his enemies himself, but is asking God to act. Something to remember before we take matters into our own hands no matter how badly we have been treated.

The verses that follow reveal personal desperation: For poor and needy am I,/ and my heart is pierced within me.” (22) He has been injured from the inside out. We recall that he has been injured by words and curses that have been spoken against him. Likewise, in our own culture we are surrounded more by words than deeds. And what is spoken to us can pierce our own hearts–just as we can pierce the hearts of others. Especially the hearts of those who are close to us and who we love.And what is spoken cannot really be unspoken, no matter how much we may regret and apologize.

The psalmist pleads, “Rescue me, as befits Your kindness,/ that they may know Your hand/ it is, it is You, O Lord, who did it.” (26b, 27) In other words, God’s rescue will serve as an example to those who mock and curse. In fact, he says, “Let them curse, and You, You will bless./ They will rise and be shamed, and Your servant will rejoice.” (28) Again, notice the emphasis on God’s action rather than our own. The psalmist is on his knees and he turns it all over to God. We can feel his faith that God will act and justice will be served. The juxtaposition of curses and blessing is striking. Humans curse; God blesses.

Lamentations 2:11–3:15: The Lamenter’s agony has become physical when he reflects on the innocent children who are among the casualties:
     My eyes are spent with weeping;
         my stomach churns;
     my bile is poured out on the ground
         because of the destruction of my people,
     because infants and babes faint
         in the streets of the city. (2:11)

In simple, stark words, these verses evoke the images of the horrors of battle. Not just in the streets of Jerusalem, but every battle that has occurred since then, down to today in the streets of Syria. No photographs are required to place the images of disaster and slaughter directly in front of us:

   Should women eat their offspring,
        the children they have borne?
    Should priest and prophet be killed
        in the sanctuary of the Lord?
     The young and the old are lying
        on the ground in the streets;
     my young women and my young men
         have fallen by the sword; (2:20, 21)

But in the midst of horror a solitary voice rises in desperate prayer, not unlike the prayer of our psalmist. But here the source of his agony is not the curses and taunts of others. It is God’s wrath: “I am one who has seen affliction/ under the rod of God’s wrath;” (3:1) The Lamenter feels trapped and believes he has been deserted by an angry God:
     He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
         he has put heavy chains on me;
     though I call and cry for help,
         he shuts out my prayer; (3:7,8)

There are Christians who believe that they sin if they get angry at God. Here is a perfect counter-example that one can pray in immense anger arising of feeling abandoned by God. And who among us has not felt that abandonment? And when that happens, we accuse God: “He has filled me with bitterness,/ he has sated me with wormwood.” (3:15).  The poet does not mask his feelings and pretend everything is wonderful and God is unfailingly good to him. He cries out in bitterness and anger.

And although today’s reading is concluded, the prayer is by no means complete here.

Hebrews 8: This chapter requires some untangling as our author continues his essay on the superiority of the new covenant and Jesus’ role within the New Covenant: “But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.” (6) And then he says what truly must have been anathema to any Jew within hearing: “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one.” (7)

Imagine if somebody came along and pronounced your steadfast beliefs to not only be inferior, but faulty. Realizing this assertion would rile people up, the writer turns to the Scriptures to prove his point that the old covenant was faulty. He quotes Jeremiah: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord,/ when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel/ and with the house of Judah” (8) because “they did not continue in my covenant,/ and so I had no concern for them, says the Lord.” (9) [Verses we encountered just a couple of weeks ago in the Moravian readings!] 

Then he quotes the famous verses from Zechariah:
    I will put my laws in their minds,
        and write them on their hearts,
    and I will be their God,
        and they shall be my people. (10)

Indeed, if the Hebrews had been paying attention, they would know that not just a Messiah, but a whole new covenant was in the offing. And then the clincher from Isaiah: the proof that the new covenant is superior to what it replaces because God will forget sins. Something he was assuredly not doing through all of Jewish history to that point:
for they shall all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
   For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
    and I will remember their sins no more.”

And it’s obvious who “me” is here. It can only be Jesus Christ. And with this logic chain so beautifully and forcefully expressed, the author makes what must have been to many ears the most outrageous assertion of all. The new covenant is not only superior to the old, but God himself “has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” (13) In short, jesus Christ has replaced some 1500 years of Jewish theology and practice. Imagine what our response would have been should we as good practicing Jews would have heard here.

Psalm 109:8–20; Lamentations 1:16–2:10; Hebrews 7:18–28

Psalm 109:8–20: It’s almost as if the psalmist, who has been assaulted verbally (and we presume in other ways, as well) has become the amanuensis to the people who are belittling and cursing him, carefully recording every curse hurled against him. His enemies wish him an early death and loss of his job: “Let his days be few,/ may another man take his post.” (8). And not only that “his children become orphans/ and his wife a widow” (9) but that his family be equally cursed: reduced to poverty and “his children wander and beg/ driven out from the ruins of their homes”(10) and his creditors snatch whatever assets are left: “May the lender snare all that he has/ and may strangers slander his wealth.” (11)

But the loss of family and fortune are mere trifles compared to the curses that come next. His enemies demand the extinction of his line: May his offspring be cut off/…his name wiped out/” (13) And then they demand that even the sins of this man’s ancestors and parents be remembered: “May the wrong of his fathers be recalled by the Lord/ and his mother’s offense not be wiped out.” (14)

Why these terrible curses? The answer comes in the voice of these same accusers: “Because he did not remember to do kindness,/ and pursued the poor and needy,/ the heartsore, to put him to death.” (16). And then, that what he did to others be visited upon him: “He loved a curse, may it come upon him.” (17a) These are the greatest sins: to be unkind and to hound the poor an needy.

The question becomes: like the psalmist do we deserve curses for having neglected kindness and oppressed the poor? We cannot escape God’s demands of social justice in the OT in general and the psalms in particular. We must ask ourselves, have we “donned this curse as [our] garb?” (18) for our seemingly trivial sins? Have we allowed unkindness to “enter [our] innards like water?” (18) We may think that the psalmist is being cursed by his enemies for unspeakable sins. But in fact, he is being cursed for simply having been unkind and ignoring the needs of those around him. If those are the sins that raise such howls of execration, then all of us, certainly I, stand justly accused.

Lamentations 1:16–2:10: And on that happy note, we come to the indescribably sad poetry of the aptly-named Lamentations:
     For these things I weep;
         my eyes flow with tears;
     for a comforter is far from me,
         one to revive my courage;
     my children are desolate,
        for the enemy has prevailed. (1:16)

Our poet acknowledges that “The Lord is in the right,/ for I have rebelled against his word;” and now he suffers the consequences: “my stomach churns,/ my heart is wrung within me,/ because I have been very rebellious.” (1:20) We often forget that actions have consequences and that even though “if we confess our sins, God will forgive our sins,” we must still endure the outcome of what we have done–or failed to do.

This book is not just about the suffering of a single man, but of an entire nation. The book of Lamentations is the consequence of the failure of Judah and Israel to heed the warnings of Jeremiah:
     The Lord has become like an enemy;
         he has destroyed Israel.
     He has destroyed all its palaces,
         laid in ruins its strongholds,
     and multiplied in daughter Judah
         mourning and lamentation. (2:5)

Some may ask, “So, what?” this is ancient history of an ancient land that forsook their God. What has this to do with us? Everything. Yes, God may not strike us down or carry us off to Babylon, but the core lesson here is that our actions and our failure to heed warnings can (and will) have dire consequences. As a society we seem to be happy to care deeply only our own needs and pleasures, to borrow the seed corn of our progeny for our own hedonistic pleasure. Our main effort is to set ourselves as the center of the universe, caring only that no one sins against me or attempts to infringe on my rights. All while ignoring the plight of desperate people halfway around the world. But our inaction will have consequences as well. Will American society eventually “sit on the ground in silence;/ [having] thrown dust on [our] heads/and put on sackcloth?” (2:10)

Hebrews 7:18–28: Our author makes it clear that “the law made nothing perfect” but, “there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God.” (19) And Jesus dod not just show up, but made an oath, a promise, quoting again from Psalm 110:
     “The Lord has sworn
         and will not change his mind,
     ‘You are a priest forever’” (21)

In other words, Jesus has sworn to the priesthood of Melchizedek to whom Abraham once swore and therefore, “Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant.” We talk about the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant,” but here it is a “better Covenant.” That raises the idea that God is not unchanging, but considers “improvements.”

And  Jesus is a vast improvement over the Old Covenant because he is also God, who, “Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Moreover, Jesus, our Great High Priest, has been the sacrifice himself so, “unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.” (27) Just to make sure we get this “once-and-for-always” business, our writer repeats himself. God has “appoint[ed] a Son who has been made perfect forever.” (28)

To the Jews, inured to the temple rites of having to return again and again to the temple to make sacrifices over and over, this is not just a “new” Covenant or even a “better” Covenant, it is totally revolutionary. From our 2000-year perspective of the church having always been around us, we cannot possibly grasp just how wild this idea of Jesus as our “forever priest” must have been. It’s little wonder that the Jews became so enraged at Paul for preaching this apparent heresy and wanted to kill him.


Psalm 109:1–7; Lamentations 1:1–15; Hebrews 7:4–17

Psalm 109:1–7: This psalm of supplication opens with the usual request, “God of my praise, do not be silent.” (1) We quickly learn why the psalmist is praying: :For the wicked’s mouth, the mouth of deceit,/ has opened against me,/ they spoke to me with lying tongue.” (2) Once again, what has been spoken to the psalmist lies at the center of this psalm. Even though our culture has writing, there is no question that speech is still the most hurtful weapon of all.

We can feel the poet’s pain as he cries to God, “And words of hatred swarmed round me–/ they battle me for no cause.” One need only read a Facebook feed around a controversial subject or person–the recent case of Kim Davis, who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples is a good example–to understand exactly what is being said here. The vitriol and hatred expressed by people against her was breathtaking.  The anonymity of the Internet amplifies what the psalmist is saying here when people can express themselves without looking the person they accuse in the eye..

Not just hatred expressed against him, but the psalmist’s attempts to turn the other cheek have also come to naught: “In return for my love they accuse me,/ though my prayer is for them.” (4) If we are willing to follow Jesus’ example, we must be prepared to be “offer[ed] evil in return for good/ and hatred in return for my love.” (5) There is no guarantee that kindness will be reciprocated.

At this point the psalm takes an unusual turn: the psalmist begins quoting the curses of his accusers. First they demand to “Appoint a wicked man over hi,/ let an accuser stand at his right.” (5) All of a sudden, we feel we are back in the courtroom setting of the book of Job or in a kangaroo courtroom as we hear, “When he is judged, let him come out guilty,/ and his prayer be an offense.” (7) The judge and jury have been rigged; the guilt of the psalmist has already been determined. When we are oppressed by others, we indeed feel we have been already judged and found guilty without any chance to defend ourselves.

Lamentations 1:1–15: The editors who arranged the order of the books of the OT knew what they were doing. The final chapter of Jeremiah describes the deserted Jerusalem after its inhabitants have either been killed or carried off. Lamentations opens with the haunting words,
     How lonely sits the city
         that once was full of people!
     How like a widow she has become,
         she that was great among the nations!” (1)

The poet recapitulates history as weeping poetry: “Judah has gone into exile with suffering/ and hard servitude;” (3) and “Her foes have become the masters,/  her enemies prosper,” (5a). What was once great has become a bitter memory: “Jerusalem remembers,/ in the days of her affliction and wandering,” (7a).  But it is not all weepy nostalgia. The poet also writes about the reason behind this desolate state, “Jerusalem sinned grievously,/so she has become a mockery;” (8a)

And then, two lines that I believe are a warning for us today: “Her uncleanness was in her skirts;/ she took no thought of her future;” Are we a nation that like Jerusalem has so abandoned God that we have become like a whore with unclean skirts, giving no thought to our future? I think there’s ample evidence all around us.

Will the consequences of our mindless hedonism come to the point where, in words that express what our psalmist today must have been feeling, we too cry, “Look and see/ if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,/which was brought upon me,” (12). Hopelessness seems to be all that is on offer here as the poet concludes:
     “The Lord has rejected
         all my warriors in the midst of me;
     he proclaimed a time against me
         to crush my young men;
     the Lord has trodden as in a wine press
         the virgin daughter Judah.” (15)

Hebrews 7:4–17: I am increasingly convinced that the writer of Hebrews was a religious philosopher who employs rigorous logic to make his case–here that Melchizedek is a greater priest than all who arose from the Abrahamic line. He begins by observing that “Abraham the patriarch gave him [Melchizedek] a tenth of the spoils.” (4) Abraham is the root of the Jewish priesthood that also collects tithes from the people who are lower of the priestly scale. But if Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek, that proves Melchizedek is greater than Abraham because “It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior.” (7) Therefore, Melchizedek is the greater priest to even Abraham and all the Levitical priests that followed.

Having established the superiority of the Melchizedekian priesthood, our author turns to the problem at hand. The Levitical priesthood is actually a failure. After all, he argues, “if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood…what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron?” (11). The levitical priesthood has not achieved perfection, therefore we turn to the greater priest who can attain perfections.

But before he can do that, he reminds us that Jesus had no claim on the Levitical priesthood because he “was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.” (14). In short, Jesus has nothing whatsoever to do with the Levitical priesthood. Therefore, Jesus, as priest, must arose from Melchizedek.

Now, our author makes the crucial connection between Jesus and the Melchizedekian line with what we marketers call the “presumptive close:” He writes, “It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek, one who has become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life.” (15, 16) In other words, genealogy doesn’t matter, but attestation does as he quotes Psalm 110:4, which is describing the Messianic kingdom. He comes to his irrefutable conclusion: logic demands that we acknowledge Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

Psalm 108:6–13; Jeremiah 52; Hebrews 6:13–7:3

Psalm 108:6–13: Even though theologians such as NT Wright assert that heaven or the Kingdom of God is really right close to us–“just over there in a different dimension”–the psalms, including this one, constant reenforce our idea of heaven and God being “up there.” Not just God, but his two key qualities as well: “For Your kindness is great over the heavens,/ and Your steadfast truth to the skies.” (5) and of course, God himself: “Loom over the heavens, O God,/ Over all the earth Your glory.” (6).  But God is not just quiescently sitting up there, doing nothing. Instead, our psalmist asks, “that Your beloved ones be saved,/ rescue with Your right hand.” (8)  Of course in that pre-flight, pre-satellite era, only God (and the birds) could look down on earth and see what was going on. I’m pretty sure that’s why God wound up “up there.”

The tone of the poems shifts suddenly to a recollection that “God once spoke in His holiness” from up there, looking down and saying, “Let Me exult and share out Shechem,/ and the valley of Sukkoth I shall measure.” (8) The psalmist remembers that from his high vantage point, he surveyed the empire of his chosen people: “Mine is Gilead, Mine Manasseh,/ and Ephraim My foremost stronghold,/ Judah my scepter.” (9). Likewise he surveyed Israel’s longtime enemies and expressed his godly disgust at them: “Moab my washbasin,/ upon Edom I fling my sandal,/ over Philista I shout exultant.” (10) This is certainly a descriptive “God was once on our side” passage.

But these are just memories, retrospection, as the psalmist asks plaintively, “Have You not, O God, abandoned us?/ You do not sally forth, God, with our armies.” (11) God was once on our side, but now we have been abandoned as the psalm ends with the plea: “Give us help against the/ foe when rescue by man is in vain.” (12) and we realize that only “Through God we shall gather strength,/ and He will stamp out our foes.” (13). It’s clear that the psalmist realized that God was not by definition always on their side; that there were times when they felt abandoned. People who think about America as being permanently “God’s country” would do well to reflect on this psalm.

Jeremiah 52: We now get in narrative form a complete review of the destruction of Jerusalem. It is chock full of precise historical detail such as, “On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine became so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. Then a breach was made in the city wall; and all the soldiers fled and went out from the city by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king’s garden, though the Chaldeans were all around the city.” (6,7)

But to me the most arresting part of this tragic story is the dismantling of the temple, written in much the same level of detail as its construction back in Kings as Solomon built it: “They took away the pots, the shovels, the snuffers, the basins, the ladles, and all the vessels of bronze used in the temple service. The captain of the guard took away the small bowls also, the firepans, the basins, the pots, the lampstands, the ladles, and the bowls for libation, both those of gold and those of silver.” (18, 19) We are reminded of the enormous size of many of these objects: “ As for the two pillars, the one sea, the twelve bronze bulls that were under the sea, and the stands, which King Solomon had made for the house of the Lord, the bronze of all these vessels was beyond weighing.” (20)

Then a census: “This is the number of the people whom Nebuchadrezzar took into exile: in the seventh year, 3023 Judeans;  in the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar he took into exile from Jerusalem 832 persons; in the twenty-third year of Nebuchadrezzar, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard took into exile of the Judeans 745 persons; all the persons were 4600.” (28-30) Once again we are reminded that all of God’s people were accounted for. Even though they went into captivity, they were not lost. Just as God knows the hairs on our head, God is a God in the details.

Finally, this incredible book ends with a hopeful note. King Evil-merodach of Babylon (love that name!) brings Judah’s King Jehoiachin out of prison, and “spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the seats of the other kings who were with him in Babylon.” (32) and “So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes, and every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table.” (33) This is a wonderful picture of God’s providence and promise: that we have been rescued by God. Yes, we may still be “in captivity” as sinful humans, but have taken off our prison clothes of self-centeredness, and we are privileged to sup at the King’s table. Something to remember each time I go forward for communion.

Hebrews 6:13–7:3: Our author returns to the theme that God is a God of commitment: “God made a promise to Abraham, because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself.” Note that being God, he “swore by himself.” As was made clear in the first chapter, we are lower than God, so “ Human beings, of course, swear by someone greater than themselves, and an oath given as confirmation puts an end to all dispute.” (6:16) This is an example for us to remember that “when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath,” (6:17) And, using irrefutable logic, our writer concludes, “it is impossible that God would prove false, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us.” (6:18)

And with the fact that God keeps his promises settled, our writer is about to turn the familiar Jewish world upside down and inside out. First, he reminds us that “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain,” (6:19)–the curtain referring to the curtain of the Holy of Holies in the temple , certainly familiar to all his listeners. And, oh yes, Jesus, his listeners must be thinking. ‘We know who he is.’ But then something new and very unexpected happens: “Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (20) Jesus is a high priest going behind the curtain? And Melchizedek? Who is Melchizedek?

Our writer hastens to explain: “This “King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him” (7:1) Moreover, “His name, in the first place, means “king of righteousness”; next he is also king of Salem, that is, “king of peace.” ” (7:2) Melchizedek is “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.” (3)

This is wild! Genealogy and family are everything to the Jews. And now there’s this non-Abrahamic priest guy who seems to live forever and resembles the son of God?  And  “he remains a priest forever?” This is an incredible leap from Abraham to Jesus to Melchizedek. What is our author up to here?

Psalm 108:1–5; Jeremiah 51:24–64; Hebrews 6:1–12

Psalm 108:1–5: Alter points out that the first five verses of this David psalm “are virtually identical, with only minor variations, to Psalm 57:8–12.”  However, I’m not going to go back and read what I wrote, since my experience in reading Scripture is that (unlike ordinary books), the Holy Spirit reveals something new each time we read the text.

The opening line describes the writer/singer’s emotional state: “My heart is firm, O God./ Let me sing and hymn/ with my inward being, too.” (2) What is a “firm heart?” I think it means a heart prepared for worship, undistracted by the cares of the world around us. That we have settled in and are in repose, in quiet reflection before we open our mouths to sing. Unfortunately, as we prepare for worship these days, reflection has been replaced by socializing.

But as we read on, we realize that the psalmist is not necessarily talking about corporate worship, but solitary worship that opens the day: “Awake, O lute and lyre./ I would waken the dawn.” (3) In other words, worship in reflection and song is the very first thing the poet does each day. I’ve heard that Pope Francis rises at 4:30 a.m. and spends two hours, form 5 to 7, in reflection and writing.

And so too for me: rather than heading off to the gym as I did for many years, writing these musings from 5:30 to 6:30 has become the first act of each day–or at least five or six days a week–and I find myself waking up at 5 and looking forward to it. (Which is more than I can say for the gym!)  Rather than a lyre, I may have a computer keyboard and mouse in my hand, but there’s no question that my heart s firm in what God may be saying to me before the distractions and duties of the day commence.

Jeremiah 51:24–64: Even though Babylon has been the instrument of God’s punishment of the Jews, this does not earn them any good credit with God: “I will repay Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea before your very eyes for all the wrong that they have done in Zion, says the Lord.” (24) And it will not be just a mild slap on the wrists: “I will stretch out my hand against you,/and roll you down from the crags,/ and make you a burned-out mountain.” (25b) and then, “ for the Lord’s purposes against Babylon stand,/ to make the land of Babylon a desolation,/ without inhabitant.” (29) And then once again, “and Babylon shall become a heap of ruins,/ a den of jackals,/ an object of horror and of hissing,/ without inhabitant.” (37)

Which of course is exactly what happened. The great empire, with its beautiful hanging gardens and political might collapsed and only desert remains. But why? The answer is woven into the poem: “Babylon must fall for the slain of Israel,/ as the slain of all the earth have fallen because of Babylon.” (49) Babylon has done more than merely take Israel into captivity, which was God’s intent. Rather, Babylon has killed God’s chosen people.

The empire is also brought down because of that greatest of all sins, overweening pride: “Though Babylon should mount up to heaven,/ and though she should fortify her strong height,/ from me destroyers would come upon her,/ says the Lord.” (53). The kingdom sees itself as impregnable and unassailable, but God will shortly prove otherwise. Thus it has ever been about supposedly unassailable kingdoms. They fall. And I have the feeling we are living in one of those right now.

Just to make sure that we readers do not view this poem as mere hyperbole, the author ties it firmly to the reality of a historical person. Jeremiah “wrote in a scroll all the disasters that would come on Babylon” (60) and instructs Seraiah, the quartermaster, who has been taken to Babylon with King Zedekiah that ““When you come to Babylon, see that you read all these words, and say, ‘O Lord, you yourself threatened to destroy this place so that neither human beings nor animals shall live in it, and it shall be desolate forever.’” (62). And then, as if to destroy the evidence that Jeremiah has written these words, “When you finish reading this scroll, tie a stone to it, and throw it into the middle of the Euphrates, and say, ‘Thus shall Babylon sink, to rise no more, because of the disasters that I am bringing on her.’” (63). In other words, Babylon hears Jeremiah’s warning only once.” A warning it is unlikely to heed.

What would be our reaction if we heard Seraiah read these words and then toss the scroll into the sea? Probably derisive laughter. I wonder of Seraiah escaped with his life after reading it to the court officials?

Hebrews 6:1–12: Our author addresses those “who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away,” (5, 6a). I take that he’s referring to those people who once enthusiastically embraced the gospel, even to the point of “sharing the Holy Spirit,” but then have for one reason or another, rejected the message. I know these people. One of them is very close to me.

The author renders a rather harsh judgement that “on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.” (6b) To make his point he uses a metaphor, where the gospel is rain and we listeners are the ground on which is falls and “if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over.” (8) Really? There cannot be repentance and turning back? I know that Lutheran theology teaches that once baptized we are children of God forever, no matter how far we wander. I guess I prefer that to threats like these.

There’s even a sense that the author may have realized he’s being pretty harsh and acknowledges that he is trying to be motivational: “we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish…” (11, 12a) I’m afraid this is not the kind of negative motivational speech that would keep me in the church if I was beginning to have doubts in my faith.

Psalm 107:23–32; Jeremiah 50:1–40; Hebrews 4:6–16

Psalm 107:23–32: The geographical setting of this psalm shifts from wilderness to water with the famous line, “Those who go down to the sea in ships.” (23) At least it’s famous to me since Herman Melville quotes it in Moby-Dick. We encounter most memorable and powerful sea imagery  that contrasts God’s creative force against us puny humans as the poet describes a ship on a storm-tossed sea. We can see and hear the waves:
“He speaks and raises the stormwind
and it makes the waves loom high.
They go up to the heavens, come down to the depths,” (25, 26a)

We see the sailors struggling to hold on as they are tossed about:
“their life-breath in hardship grows faint.
They reel and sway like a drunkard,
all their wisdom is swallowed up.” (26b, 27)

This, of course, is powerful metaphor for our storm-tossed lives, a series of ups and downs, as we struggle to hold on. The sailors do the only thing they can think of:
“And they cry to the Lord
from their straits from their distress He brings them out.
He turns the storm into silence,
and its waves are stilled.” (28, 29)

We have to believe that when the disciples were frightened for their lives during the violent storm on Galilee that they recalled this psalm when Jesus stilled the wind and the waters. As the psalmist writes, it is God who does that, and it’s difficult to come up with a more dramatic object lesson for the disciples–and us– that connects Jesus to his father. No wonder they were awestruck and convinced that what he was telling them was the truth.

In the storms of our lives we have the same marvelous assurance that Jesus will calm the waters of our anxiety. And with the psalmist, we “acclaim to the Lord His kindness/ and His wonders to humankind.” (31)

Jeremiah 50:1–40: And now Jeremiah comes to the the prophecy of the most important power of all: Babylon.  He accurately predicts the invasion of Cyrus the Persian who conquers Babylon once and for all: “For out of the north a nation has come up against her; it shall make her land a desolation, and no one shall live in it; both human beings and animals shall flee away.” (3)

As Babylon falls, “the people of Israel shall come, they and the people of Judah together; they shall come weeping as they seek the Lord their God.” (4) In a beautiful metaphor, Jeremiah summarizes the entire story of Israel and Judah: “My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold.” (6) Is there a sadder image than “they have forgotten their fold?” And bluntly, we are now living in a culture which has forgotten its fold, as well.

The next verse is ominous: “All who found them have devoured them, and their enemies have said, “We are not guilty, because they have sinned against the Lord, the true pasture, the Lord, the hope of their ancestors.” (7) Notice it is the enemies who are justifying their actions, saying, “we are not guilty.” They understand what Israel and Judah have done: “they have sinned against the Lord, the true pasture.” God is not only the shepherd, but the pasture–the source of our sustenance. And we reject God at enormous cost. Which I believe we are seeing in Europe today as a civilization that has forgotten its pasture begins to unravel. Once again.

Babylon meets its fate for the same reason Israel and Judah have: “Summon archers against Babylon, all who bend the bow. Encamp all around her; let no one escape. Repay her according to her deeds; just as she has done, do to her—for she has arrogantly defied the Lord, the Holy One of Israel.” (29)

But, as always, God remembers his people: “The people of Israel are oppressed, and so too are the people of Judah; all their captors have held them fast and refuse to let them go. Their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of hosts is his name. He will surely plead their cause, that he may give rest to the earth, but unrest to the inhabitants of Babylon.” (33) God is always, as he has always been, behind the scenes, never far away. As our psalmist has it, he calms the storm-tossed seas. Our Redeemer . Our Rescuer.

Hebrews 4:6–16: Our author concludes his essay about “sabbath rest”–the symbolic Canaan–with the plea, “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” Because if we do not enter that rest through Jesus Christ, judgement awaits, expressed in an image that seems much more OT than NT: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (12)

This is one of those verses I memorized as a kid. It was made clear to me at the time that “the word of God” was the Bible. But in my old age, I see that the word of God is much more than that. Our writer goes on: “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (13) This verse is usually taken as one that supports the Great Judgement at the end of history. It may be that, but for me it has far greater immediacy. We cannot escape the consequences of our actions right here right now.

Now we turn to the long essay about Jesus as our great high priest. I am long removed by history and culture from the duties of the priests in the Temple, so I find this section about the priesthood to be somewhat abstract and not terribly relevant beyond its theology of Jesus as intercessor between God and us. Obviously, for the audience to who Hebrews was addressed–Jews all, I suspect–it has much deeper meaning. But this passage also sets up an important concept about our attitude as Christians: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (16) I get it about boldness, but if grace is “unmerited favor” are we really supposed to ask for it? That seems more Evangelical than Lutheran.

Psalm 107:17–22; Jeremiah 49:17–38; Hebrews 3:16–4:5

Psalm 107:17–22: Alter’s translation of today’s first line–“Fools because of their sinful ways” (17a)– has far greater impact than the NRSV: “Some were sick through their sinful ways.” The idea that we are fools rather than merely “sick” because our our our lives are defined by sinfulness (“sinful ways”) speaks to something deeper in our souls that has redefined us from a human with potential who lapses to someone who has defined by a lack of judgement and wisdom, seeking only hedonistic pleasure. I’m reminded of King Darius when Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall: “you have been weighed in the scales and found wanting.” A life defined by foolish sinful ways leads inevitably to disaster. A wasted life and in the eyes of God–and others around him– this person can only be a fool.

Here, their sinful ways “drew them near the gates of death,” because somewhat mysteriously, “they loathed any kind of food.” (18) But awaking form their sinful ways, “they cried to the Lord in their straits,/ and from their distress He rescued the .” (19) More than that, God, ever generous, “sent forth his word and healed them./ And delivered them from destruction.” (20) Notice how God effects this rescue: “He sent forth His word,” which as we read Jeremiah must certainly be the words of God spoken through a prophet–perhaps even Jeremiah himself.

And the people respond: “Let them acclaim to the Lord for His kindness.” As always, we remember our rescue through God’s mercy with worship. The question is, will we listen to God’s word (and no, that’s not just the Bible, but words spoken and written as well) and realize that we are have been fools? Especially those that have rejected God altogether?

Jeremiah 49:17–38: Jeremiah’s catalog of God’s judgement on the kingdoms surrounding Judah continues relentlessly. “Edom shall become an object of horror; everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters.” (17) and then, comparing it to Sodom and Gomorrah, it will become wasteland. There is no possibility of redemption.

Then, “concerning Damascus:” (23) “her young men shall fall in her squares,/ and all her soldiers shall be destroyed in that day,/…And I will kindle a fire at the wall of Damascus.” (26, 27a) Unlike Edom, Damascus the city will apparently survive, but as great human cost. We have the feeling it is defeated due to an internal rebellion. Sadly prophetic given the civil war that continues to rage in Syria.

The come “Kedar and the kingdoms of Hazor that King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon defeated.” (28) These are kingdoms that have made no apparent mark on history other than being noted here. But there’s a relevant warning here since its destruction appears to have come about because of a foolish complacency leading to poor defenses:
Rise up, advance against a nation at ease,
        that lives secure,
    says the Lord,
    that has no gates or bars,
        that lives alone.” (31)

Those desiring peace and the dismantling of military strength forget that empires fall because of living “at ease” rather than being prepared. The world in the 21st century AD is no safer than the 7th century BC.

ON the other hand, militaristic Elam meets the same fate as unprepared Hazor but in a different manner: “I am going to break the bow of Elam, the mainstay of their might; and I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven; and I will scatter them to all these winds, and there shall be no nation to which the exiles from Elam shall not come.” (36) This time God’s judgement comes as “four winds from the four quarters of heaven,” which certainly suggests a natural disaster destroys this kingdom.

This chapter reminds me that the fallen world is an unsafe place and empires can crumble from within (Damascus) without (Hazor) or simply fall victim to nature.

Hebrews 3:16–4:5: Our writer uses history as a warning of the consequences of disbelief, of not taking God seriously: “ Now who were they who heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? But with whom was he angry forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?” (3: 16, 17).

Continuing his parallel to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, we are reminded that “while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” (4:1) In other words, belief–faith–is the key to us crossing over the metaphorical Jordan and entering “his rest.”  He points out that those ancient Israelites had been promised “rest,” and that “indeed the good news came to us just as to them; but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” (4:2). He boils it down to God’s simple promise, “we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said.” (4:3)

The word ‘rest” is intriguing. I think we tend to take it to mean  being what happens after we die and go to heaven. A euphemism for being dead as in “His soul is now at rest.”  This interpretation leads to an over-simplified Gospel that simply becomes an insurance policy against going to hell after we die. My sense, though, is that “rest” has a much richer meaning: that “God’s rest” is about being in relationship with God while we are alive. And as our author makes clear here, we have a binary choice. There’s wilderness and there’s rest. We must decide between one or the other. There is no middle ground.