Archives for December 2015

Psalm 150; Malachi 2–4; Revelation 22:8–21

Today is the last day of the two-year cycle of Moravian Daily Texts. Since I began this blog in February 2014 I have written 476 posts. We’ll be starting over tomorrow because no matter how often one comes back to a Biblical text there is always something fresh to be discovered. Such is the work of the Holy Spirit in speaking to any person who comes to these texts with an open mind and a heart that loves God…

Psalm 150: This final song of praise is the not only the finale of the six psalms of praise but it is the climax of this entire book as it summarizes our greatest joy: worshipping and praising God. It opens with “Hallelujah!” and closes with “Hallelujah!,” which of course simple means “Praise God!”

These final verses cause us to remember that God is God, reminding us that above all of God’s incomprehensible power from on high. We “praise God in His holy place,/ praise Him in the vault of His power.” (1) This is not just potential power, it is power actively used by God as he continues to participate in all creation: “Praise Him for His mighty acts,/ praise Him as befits his abounding greatness.” (3)

Then, as if we are watching the ending credits of this movie, our psalmist gives credit to the musicians and their instruments that have accompanied us through this remarkable book:

Praise Him with the ram-horn’s blast,
praise Him with the lute and the lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dance,
praise Him with strings and flute. (3, 4)

This instrumental praise culminates in one final burst of joyous music, the final chord that, as loud as it is and that is repeated on the loudest of all instruments, is simply our pale human imitation of God’s incredible greatness and power: “Praise Him with sounding cymbals,/ praise him with crashing cymbals.”

And then finally, the greatest instrument of all: our voices as we sing, “Let all that has breath praise the Lord.” Notice the inclusiveness here with “all that has breath.” It is not just Israel that praises God, it is everyone on earth because God is God of all. And we could even suggest in the phrase “all that has breath,” that the psalmist has included all living creatures in God’s creation. All of us sing in unison–a sign of the perfect creation that, as John and Zechariah have told us, awaits us as we sing in unison with the very hosts of heaven:


Malachi 2–4: These final chapters, are an almost Job-like dialog between the priests of Judah and God.  Speaking prophetically as the voice of God, Malachi accuses the priests of hypocrisy and failing to listen: “If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse on you..indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.” (2:2) They have priestly duties: “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.” (2:7) But, alas, they have failed: “you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi.” (2:8) As always, the root of the problem is idolatry: “Judah has been faithless, … for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god.” (2:11)

Chapter 3 suggests why John the Baptist was seen by his contemporaries as an Old Testament prophet because he appears to fulfill a promise made here: “I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” (3:1) It is this “messenger” who is “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; …and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” John’s message was one of redemption, of turning around and he surely quoted Malachi: “Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.” (3:7a).

And the question the crowd asked of John after hearing all this is also right here:  “But you say, “How shall we return?” (3:7b)

Malachi’s answer is quite simple: stop robbing God: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.” (3:10) [I’m afraid this verse has probably been misused by those who preach a “prosperity gospel.”]

Like Zechariah and the other prophets, Jesus at the end of his ministry, not to mention John of Patmos, this book ends on an eschatological vision: the Day of the Lord as the end of history. We see where John of Patmos got the idea of a book of life. It is all right here: “a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered theLord and thought on his name. They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts,” (3:16, 17a)

The final judgement is right here, as well: “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” (4:1)

But as always, this book–and the entire OT–ends on a hopeful hope: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” What was unexpected of course is that God did not send Elijah back down from heaven. Instead, God did something far better. God sent his only son.

Revelation 22:8–21: His visions complete with the arrival of the New Jerusalem, John of Patmos concludes with an epilogue and a benediction. He attempts to worship the angel that brought these words to him and is rebuked, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant  with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (9) But in saying, “your comrades the prophets,” the angel states John’s bona fides as a prophet.

But unlike many apocalyptic books that were being written at the same time and that became secret writings accessible to only a few cognoscenti, John’s writings are for everyone as the angel instructs, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.” (10). My theory, based on no evidence, is that this very accessibility rather than secrecy is a major reason why John’s Revelation made it into the canon while many other candidates did not.

Appropriately enough, Jesus has the final word. He promises to return soon, reminding us that “ I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (13) and makes it clear to John that he is the one who sent the angel with the visions. Jesus also reminds us that he is Jewish, the promised Messiah of whom the prophets wrote: “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (16)

But what is perhaps even more wonderful is that Jesus is available to anyone who comes to him:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
   And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
   And let everyone who is thirsty come.
   Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (17)

This is a wonderful definition of grace and a clear rejection of the Gnostics, who preached that only those who ascended to special knowledge could come to God. Jesus is indeed for everyone.

Just as the Old Testament ended on the note of the Messiah’s return, so too the New Testament. We can ask for nothing and we need not work to achieve eternal life because Jesus comes to us. In chapter 3 we saw Jesus standing at the door and knocking. Now, at the end of this remarkable book, we hear him utter his great promise: “Surely I am coming soon.” (20)

And we can respond in the famous words that echo down through two millennia: “Amen. Come Lord Jesus.”

Psalm 149; Zechariah 13:7–14:21; Malachi 1; Revelation 21:9–22:7

Psalm 149: Alter suggests that “Sing to the Lord a new song” (1) is a kind of self advertisement on the part of the psalmist, saying “here’s a new song I’ve written that you haven’t heard before.” In any event it is certainly upbeat and joyful: “Let Israel rejoice in its Maker,/ Zion’s sons exult in its king.” (2) We shortly learn that this psalm celebrates a military victory and God has definitely been on their side: “For the Lord looks with favor on His people,/ He adorns the lowly with victory.” (4) Verse 5–“”Let the faithful delight in glory,/ sing gladly on their couches.”–certainly suggests the setting for singing this song was a post-victory party. And it was probably soldiers who were doing the celebrating: “Exultations of God in their their throat/ and a double-edged sword in their hand,” (6).

The image of rejoicing over its victory turns darker as the psalmist evokes the harsh punishment meted to the losing side: “…to wreak vengeance upon the nations,/ punishment on the peoples,/ to bind their kings in fetters,/ and their nobles in iron chains.” (7, 8) We can imagine that songs of this sort have accompanied parties following military victories down through the ages. But then in the final verse our psalmist circles back to God, making it clear that this victory has served the purpose of executing God’s justice and they have been the instruments of that justice: “to exact from justice as written–/ it is grandeur for all His faithful./ Hallelujah.” (9)

Sometimes a psalm makes us uncomfortable because even though it is praising God there’s a strong whiff of human pride along side that praise. Something that all humans have done down through the ages. We praise God, but we also make sure he understands the victory was accomplished with our efforts.

Zechariah 13:7–14:21: The final poem in this book focuses on how God punishes the unfaithful but also that a remnant is saved:
In the whole land, says the Lord,
       two-thirds shall be cut off and perish,
       and one-third shall be left alive. (13:8)

And it is those who are left that have been “refined as one refines silver/ and tested as gold is tested.” (13:9a) Those are the ones who
will call on my name,
       and I will answer them.
    I will say, “They are my people”;
       and they will say, “The Lord is our God.” (13:9b)

If ever we needed a reminder that trials and testing accompany our faith, it is right here. But as I can attest from my own experience, it is in that testing that we are indeed refined to a stronger faith and able to say, “The Lord is our God.”

The final chapter of this book is pure eschatology, describing a future disastrous battle against Jerusalem where the nations have gathered and “and the city shall be taken and the houses looted and the women raped. ” (14: 2a) But in keeping with the promise from the previous chapter that some will be saved, “half the city shall go into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city.” (2b) We can certainly see John’s inspiration of a new eternal Jerusalem as Zechariah promises, “it shall be inhabited, for never again shall it be doomed to destruction; Jerusalem shall abide in security.” (14:11)

Those who fight against Jerusalem will experience “a great panic from the Lord” (13) as a plague decimates the opposing armies. Those enemies “who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths.” (14:16)

The final verse describes a new order in the Temple where “every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts,…And there shall no longer be traders  in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.” This is Zechariah’s ending note: that the corruption and trading in the Temple will cease. And of course that was exactly  Jesus’ intention when he turns over the moneychanger’s tables in the Temple. Corruption in the Temple has been going on for centuries when Jesus arrives. And one wonders if such an event occurred in Zechariah’s time.

Malachi 1: The editors who determined the order of the Hebrew Scriptures were no dummies. Just as Zechariah ends on the promise of eventually ending corruption in the Temple, Malachi opens by describing an even deeper problem: corrupt priests who offer blighted sacrifices such as blind animals. In short, they are offering not the best, but the very worst to God. Malachi’s voice of God asks rhetorically, “Try presenting that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor?” (1:8) Hypocrisy is rife and Malachi opines that “Oh, that someone among you would shut the temple  doors, so that you would not kindle fire on my altar in vain!” (1:10)  Worse, the priests are disrespectful, and God says, “you sniff at me… You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering!” Wow. Talk about cutting to the heart of the problem!

Of course this hypocrisy of not offering God our best continues down to the present day. I certainly know that I am guilty of giving to God only what has been left over, rather than my first fruits.

Revelation 21:9–22:7: After the battles. the plagues, the dreadful images of dreadful monsters, awful events and judgements that occupy most of Revelation we come at last to John’s vision of a New Jerusalem. “Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal.” (21:10, 11) John’s vision of a new Jerusalem is far grander than Zechariah’s vision of sacred pots and an uncorrupted priesthood. Day and night are eliminated and its size is enormous: the city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles;  its length and width and height are equal.” (21:16)

John’s New Jerusalem has eliminated the old temple altogether and “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (21:22)  But now the entirety of the New Jerusalem is a sacred space and “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (21:27)

John’s final image is “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” (22:1,2) There’s a beautiful symmetry here as John’s words invoke the images of Genesis. Only here the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil has been replaced by the Tree of Life, with its twelve kinds of fruit–one for each month of the year and whose “leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Peace finally comes. Not through humankind’s own feeble efforts but from the only source of peace: “throne of God and of the Lamb.”

We can almost hear the glorious end title music rising as John concludes his vision, telling us, “there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (22:5) And then the final eschatological promise of Jesus Christ: “See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” (22:7)

Although we still wait. But in waiting we have John’s reliable encouragement of far, far better days to come.

Psalm 148:7–14; Zechariah 12–13:6; Revelation 20:11–21:8

Psalm 148:7–14: Our psalmist essentially recapitulates the order of creation in the next verses as he takes us on a “tour of praise” through virtually every aspect of nature beginning with earth and sea: “Praise the Lord from the earth,/ sea monster and all you deeps.” (7) Then the varieties of weather, all of which is orchestrated by God: “Fire and hail, snow and smoke,/stormwind that performs His command.” (8) Then to the land itself: “the mountains and all the hills,/ fruit trees and all the cedars.” (9) Then from flora to fauna on the earth and in the sky: “wild beasts and all the cattle,/ crawling things and winged birds.” (10)

This glorious ascent through creation comes at last to humans, first focusing on its leaders: “kings of earth and all the nations,/ princes and all leaders of the earth.” (11) and then on ordinary people: “young men and also maidens,/ elders together with lads.” (12) This last verse, mentioning the young, old, male, and female, is an especially appealing description of the variety of humanity–and a reminder that no one is excluded from God’s love nor the obligation to worship God.

The psalmist has listed every aspect of creation because it is all creation that worships God who stands above it: “Let them praise the Lord’s name,/ for his name alone is exalted.” (13a) And to make sure we understand that God is the highest and greatest being of all he has created, the psalm effectively ends with “His grandeur is over earth and the heavens,” (13b) completing the circumnavigation of creation that began with “Praise the Lord from the heavens.” (1)

This psalm beautifully extends worship from something we humans do to something that all creation does, helping us remember that while God loves us, he is also so far beyond us that his enormity and power is simply incomprehensible.

Zechariah 12–13:6: We hear an echo of today’s psalm in Zechariah’s description of God: “Thus says the Lord, who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth and formed the human spirit within.” (12:1) This oracle describes how Jerusalem becomes the greatest power on earth. “a heavy stone for all the peoples; all who lift it shall grievously hurt themselves.” (12:3) And when Jerusalem is attacked in battle, God will help: “I will strike every horse with panic, and its rider with madness.” (12:4a) But as for the people of Jerusalem, ” I will keep a watchful eye, when I strike every horse of the peoples with blindness.” (12:4)

But perhaps the greatest promise of this victory is that it comes not just to the leaders and the soldiers, but to everyone: “On that day the Lord will shield the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David” (12:8). If we take these verses as a metaphor for God’s action among all humanity, this promise reminds us that God is for everyone, even the weakest among us.

Then a remarkable prophecy: In the battle someone (Zechariah?) has been fatally wounded and “when they look on the one[a] whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (12:10) When we read “pierced” we can only think of Jesus on the cross. But there was no mourning then, only derision from the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

But here, Zechariah describes the bitterness of mourning as separation, the community breaks apart, separating from itself as “the land shall mourn, each family by itself; the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves;…and all the families that are left, each by itself, and their wives by themselves.” (12:12, 14). What does this breaking apart mean? I think for us Christians, it means that each comes to Jesus by ourselves, and that each of us must reflect on what Jesus’ death and resurrection means for ourselves.

After the mourning has ended, “a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.” (13:1) But more frightening is the fate of the false prophets: ” if any prophets appear again, … their fathers and their mothers who bore them shall pierce them through when they prophesy.” It is difficult to imagine a more awful curse than to be injured by ones own parents. But this piercing is apparently not fatal and the false prophets will repent, saying “each of them will say, “I am no prophet, I am a tiller of the soil.” (13:5)

Zechariah is reminding us that false prophets abound everywhere. The trick of course is knowing which prophet is God’s prophet (as he is certainly asserting his own bona fides here) and which are false. An issue that comes up repeatedly in the NT as Paul, Peter and John all warn against “false gospels.” And of course this discernment is equally difficult for us in a world awash in false prophets.

Revelation 20:11–21:8: We arrive at one of the most well known scenes in Revelation: the Great White Throne Judgement where “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened…and the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.” (20:12). Like the separation of the sheep and goats in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, John is reminding us that each of us as individuals is responsible for our actions while alive–and that each of us will be judged accordingly. (John of Patmos must have liked what James wrote!)

And in a single line that has caused more anxiety and pain than just about any other in this book, “anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (12:15). But what are we to make of our salvation? Are we judged by our faith or by our works? Or is John just trying to frighten his readers and us onto the straight and narrow? I confess I am ambivalent about what end-of-history judgement awaits us. Is John forecasting history here, or is he being metaphorical? I much prefer the idea of hell being total separation form God, but John’s vivid description have made for some really interesting art, particularly Michelangelo’s depiction of this final judgement on the wall of the Sistine Chapel.

Once the judgement is complete, history ends, and God creates (or restores his original creation) a new heaven and a new earth. Along with NT Wright, I’ll take these as signs of the original Creation where the effects of humanity’s fall have been wiped away. Perhaps the greatest promise in this restoration is that
the home of God is among mortals.
    He will dwell  with them;
    they will be his peoples,
    and God himself will be with them. (21:3)

At last we are permanently reunited with God and what was once only seen through a glass darkly is now completely visible to all. This will indeed be our greatest “Aha” moment.

Jesus, who is seated on the throne speaks at last, “See, I am making all things new.”  And recalling the promise he made while he was on earth, “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” (21:6) And for me, this would have been a fine place to end the chapter.

But John, ever mindful of those who fall away and sin, he again reminds his readers that they must remain faithful. Because if they don’t: “as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (21:8)

Psalm 148:1–6; Zechariah 10,11; Revelation 20:1–10

Psalm 148:1–6: This is surely one of the grandest psalms of praise that we encounter in Psalms. Where many psalms conclude with “Hallelujah,” this one opens with it. Praising God begins in heaven itself: “Praise the Lord form the heavens/ praise Him from the heights.” (1) At those heights live angels (“messengers”) and God’s armies, which we meet in John’s Revelation: “Praise Him, all His messengers,/ praise Him, all his armies.” (2)

The next verses begin to reprise the Creation story of Genesis, beginning with heaven itself and the celestial objects that represent “up there” to us humans: “Praise Him, sun and moon,/ praise Him, all you stars of light./ Praise Him, utmost heavens,/ and the waters above the heavens.” (3,4) John of Patmos surely was thinking of these verses when he wrote the scene of the heavenly beings worshipping God and the Lamb:  “Let them praise the Lord’s name,/ for He commanded, and they were created. (5)

God’s creative work in heaven transcends time: “And He made them stand forever, for all time.” (6a). Then, in a reminder that God’s creation of heaven is quite separate from his creation of the physical world in which we humans exist, the psalmist says, “He set them a border that could not be crossed.” (6b) Except for various angelic visitations and phenomena such as Elijah being taken up into heaven, and Paul’s brief glimpse of “things that cannot be written down,” this is a pretty impermeable border that is crossed only upon our death–or at the end of history as John describes it. This well-defined border is why I’m suspicious of people who claim to have visited Heaven and returned.

Above all, though, this psalm is worship at its finest. This is praise music that causes the repetitive “praise music” we hear so often to pale in comparison.

 Zechariah 10,11: The opening verse of chapter 10 strikes one as apropos to this time of year and our desire for the driught to end:
Ask rain from the Lord
       in the season of the spring rain,
   from the Lord who makes the storm clouds,
       who gives showers of rain to you,
       the vegetation in the field to everyone. (10:1)

Then, a verse that is the sad reality of a world that does not know Jesus, or worse, is misled by those who claim special knowledge or status, especially cult leaders:
the dreamers tell false dreams,
       and give empty consolation.
   Therefore the people wander like sheep;
       they suffer for lack of a shepherd. (10:2)

It is to these abandoned, wandering people who have sinned so greatly that God relentless promises restoration:
I will bring them back because I have compassion on them,
    and they shall be as though I had not rejected them;
    for I am the Lord their God and I will answer them. (10:6)  

God promises to restore Israel, “Though I scattered them among the nations,/ yet in far countries they shall remember me,/ and they shall rear their children and return.” (10:9) and its pretty easy to see why so many Evangelical believe Zechariah’s promise was answered in 1948 when the Sate of Israel once again came into being. But it is the final verse of this chapter that suggests to me, anyway, that the current secular political reality of Israel is not really the fulfillment of this promise: “I will make them strong in the Lord,/ and they shall walk in his name, says the Lord.” (10:12) This is not to say that there are not many in Israel who indeed follow God, but I’m left with the feeling that Zechariah’s specific promises about have not yet been fulfilled on earth.


Chapter 11 takes on a disturbing apocalyptic tone: “For I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of the earth, says the Lord. I will cause them, every one, to fall each into the hand of a neighbor, and each into the hand of the king; and they shall devastate the earth, and I will deliver no one from their hand.” (11:6) In light of all the failed kings of both Judah and Israel, God “became the shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter.” (11:7)  God as shepherd has taken up two shepherd’s crooks: “Favor” and “Unity.”  But in light of ongoing evil before God, the “favor” is broken,”annulling the covenant that I had made with all the peoples.” (10:10) And later the “Unity” staff is broken, “annulling the family ties between Judah and Israel.” (11:14), Which is exactly what happened as Samaria, the remnants of the northern Kingdom, become estranged from Judea.

In the midst of this passage there is a clear prophecy of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, being betrayed: “So they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver.” (11:12) But the overall theme of this chapter focuses on the tragedy of Judah and Israel being led astray and then destroyed by poor leadership under corrupt kings, the “worthless shepherds” (11:17): “ For I am now raising up in the land a shepherd who does not care for the perishing, or seek the wandering, or heal the maimed, or nourish the healthy, but devours the flesh of the fat ones, tearing off even their hoofs.” (11:16)

Revelation 20:1–10: John comes to the idea of the Millennium. An angel comes down from heaven and he “seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” (2) Those who were martyred by Rome–“the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus  and for the word of God.” (4) come to life as the “first resurrection.” and “reigned with Christ a thousand years.” (4b). Those who merely died remain dead during this period, and God gives the martyrs special status : “they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years.” (6).

Well, that’s all hunky-dory, but at the Millennium, Satan is released and “will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle.” (8) Satan’s army gathers and surrounds “the camp of the saints and the beloved city. ” (9a) [Jerusalem, I presume.] But the battle is short-lived as “fire came down from heaven[b] and consumed them.” (9b)  Satan and his minions are then permanently “thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (10)

To say that people have been trying to figure this passage out and place it somewhere in history or at the end of history is an understatement. As is the case of many numbers cited in this book, I tend not to take the 1000 years literally, it simply means a long time. What seems clear to me by reading history is that a literal millennium has not taken place. If it’s to be literal it must lie at the end of history, but I think it’s best to take this period symbolically, which makes me an amillennialist. The key theme is always just below the surface for John: you people may be suffering now, but a glorious reward will come to you at the end of history. And in this passage, particularly for the martyrs.


Psalm 147:7–20; Zechariah 6,7,8,9; Revelation 19:1–21

Psalm 147:7–20: Our psalmist continues describing God’s qualities, reminding us how different God is from what he has created, including man’s sexual desire: “Not the might of the horse He desires,/ not by a man’s thigh’sHe is pleased.” What God is please by is very simple: that we remember he is God and all that implies: “The Lord is pleased by those who fear him.” (11a) But also, that we seek God’s love, as well: “those who long for His kindness.”

And when we fear and love God, God responds personally “strengthens the bars of your gates,/ blesses your children in your midst.” (13). He also responds to the needs of the community, even the entire nation: “He bestows peace in your land,/ He sates you with choice wheat.

God is of course the master over his natural creation as well as the psalmist speaks of a winter that seems oddly out of place in Israel’s mediterranean climate: “He pours forth snow like fleece,/ scatters frost like ash./ He flings His ice like bread crumbs./ In the face of His cold who can endure? (16, 17) But winter does not last forever and “He sends out His word and melts them,/ He lets His breath blow–the waters flow.” (18)

But for the psalmist, God has given a greater gift to Israel above how he has blessed other nations. God has given them the Law: “He tells His word to Jacob,/ His statutes and laws to Israel./ He did not thus to all the nations,/ and they knew not the laws.” (19, 20) The is greater than even God’s blessings. And for us, God has given us his Word: Jesus Christ, greater even than the Law.

Zechariah 6,7,8,9: Once again we see one of the sources that John of Patmos built off of: Four chariots: “the first chariot had red horses, the second chariot black horses, the third chariot white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled gray horses.” (6:2,3). However, the purpose of these chariots is different than John’s: rather than bringing death and destruction, each is sent to one of the four points of the compass to “patrol the earth.” (6:7) To me this is simply Zechariah’s vision that God has dominion over all the earth, not just Israel, i.e., a God knows what is happening everywhere. 

Then a messianic vision with a fascinating name: “Here is a man whose name is Branch: for he shall branch out in his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord.” (6:12) For Zechariah of course the issue is rebuilding the temple; he is not particularly interested in this prophecy’s larger implication that a branch, Emanuel, will grow from the root of Jesse and be born in Bethlehem several centuries after he writes. The prophet also envisions a government where the Branch “shall bear royal honor, and shall sit upon his throne and rule.” (6:13a), but also that “There shall be a priest by his throne, with peaceful understanding between the two of them.” (6:13b). This is a good definition of what a nation should be: guided by wisdom, but always with God at its side. Unfortunately, by the time of Jesus, this partnership has become corrupted.

Chapter 7 deals with hypocritical fasting as God, via Zechariah, asks, “When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?” (7:4) As we read so often in the OT, the prophet points out that they were given the law to “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” (7:10) If we ever needed a list of God’s true desire for all of us, it is right here. Alas, Zechariah tells them, “they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear” (7:11) and were punished for abandoning their responsibility. Israel’s responsibility then is exactly ours today. And we are doing as poor a job as Israel when it comes to Christianity as practiced (or not practiced) far too widely today in America. We have become a religion of intolerance and hate, accompanied by whining when things don’t go our way. 

But as always, God is relentless in asking Israel (and us!) to return to him. Chapter 8 abounds in a beautiful promise of a restored Jerusalem that feels so much more human and less apocalyptic than John’s vision of a New Jerusalem: “Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age.And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” (8:4,5) Once again, God will rescue and Zechariah tells the people what they (and we) must do: “Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath;” (8:16, 17)

Zechariah then writes an oracle full of great promise that he will guard Israel and Judah and bring them victory in war, this time against Greece:
For I have bent Judah as my bow;
       I have made Ephraim its arrow.
   I will arouse your sons, O Zion,
       against your sons, O Greece,
       and wield you like a warrior’s sword. (9:13)

And “On that day the Lord their God will save them/ for they are the flock of his people;.” (9:16a) But will Israel carry out its side of the Covenant or lapse once again into hypocrisy and injustice? Have we?

Revelation 19:1–21: One of the brilliant aspects of John’s Revelation is that it provides us respite along the way from all the prophecies and visions of doom. As always, we return to the throne room of God, this time worshipping in thanksgiving for overthrowing the whore of Rome:
Salvation and glory and power to our God,
  for his judgments are true and just;
he has judged the great whore
    who corrupted the earth with her fornication,
and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” (1,2)

And after talking of the metaphorical Lamb all these chapters, John finally comes right out and tells us just who the Lamb is. John tries to fall down in worship of the angel who is bringing these visions to John, but the angel remonstrates: “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!” (10a)

Then John makes the direct connection: “For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (10b) As we reflect on this simple phrase, it tells us not only that Jesus is himself a prophet, he is someone far greater: all the prophecy of Scripture points to exactly one place: Jesus.

The a vision of all-powerful Jesus astride a write horse. Its rider is “is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.” (11)  He is  “clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.” (13)–the former phrase to Jesus’ blood that washed us clean and the latter phrase being a direct reference back to John 1. I suspect this verse is one of the reasons this revelation ends up in the Canon. And to make sure we get what John is telling us about this conquering hero, “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (16)

And finally, with Jesus coming down form heaven, victory for all time: “ And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet …These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.” (20)

Whatever we may think about the strangeness of John’s imaginative prophecies and visions, there is no question about where this book ends up: Jesus has conquered the evil powers of the earth. And for those people under the oppressive yoke of the Roman empire, these were encouraging words indeed. As they should be to us.

This is the promise of the child born in a small stable near an inconsequential town in the Judean foothills far from the centers of political power. The world was just as awry then as it is now. But events that that night in that far off place brought peace and joy to the earth through the birth of a Savior for all humankind. Peace that the world will never know through its own hopelessly inadequate efforts.

Psalm 147:1–6; Zechariah 3–5; Revelation 18:11–24

Psalm 147:1–6: These lovely verses have a feminine gentleness. They feel almost domestic, a family gathered around the fire after dinner, reflecting on God’s goodness: “For it is good to hymn to our God,/ for it is sweet to adorn with praise.” (1) Of all God’s wonderful qualities, it is his compassion at the fore here: “Israel’s scattered ones He gathers in.” And then, one of the sweetest, gentlest, yet most profound verses in  all the Psalms: “Healer of the broken-hearted,/ He binds their painful wounds.” (3) Reflect on the thousands of people down through the generations, weeping, ineffably sad that have found succor here.

Yet, this gentle, loving God is also master of the universe as the psalmist soars upward, reminding us, “He counts the number of stars,/ to all of them gives names.” (4) When this psalm was written people knew only of the thousands of stars then visible to the naked eye.  Today, we know that the universe is essentially infinite, as are the number of stars. And yet, we also know that God has indeed given them all a name. Just as he has to each of us here on this insignificant planet revolving around and ordinary sun, somewhere on the outskirts of one of a billion galaxies. How much greater is God than even the psalmist imagined? Our poet knows this infinity in his heart as he praises God, “Great is our Master, abounding in power,/ His wisdom is beyond number.” (5) But above all, God brings mercy and justice as “the Lord sustains the lowly,/[and] casts the wicked to the ground.” (6).

We cannot ask for greater comfort than this.

Zechariah 3–5: As God dialogs with Satan, Joshua the high priest becomes the metaphor for fallen Judah in Zechariah’s fourth vision. Just rescued from the fire, “Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel.” (3:3) And the angel commands, ““Take off his filthy clothes.” And to him he said, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.” (3:4) Joshua is dressed in fine clothes and a clean turban placed on his head. As the symbol of Judah, the Lord says, “If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.” (3:7). In short, if Joshua and therefore, Judah continue to follow God they will have “right of access,” which I take to be in relationship with God.

An interesting promise follows, “For they are an omen of things to come: I am going to bring my servant the Branch.” (3:8). This seems to be a Messianic reference and therefore  a prophecy that points forward to the incarnation. We don’t get the explanation of the “single stone with seven facets” that is engraved by God until the next chapter

Zechariah’s fifth vision is seven lampstands and two olive trees. The angel asks Zechariah to explain what they mean, but Zechariah is understandably puzzled and replies, “No, my Lord.” I think the lampstands represent the temple, which the angel tells Zechariah that ““The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it.” (4:9)  But Zerubbabel’s success will have come form God, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” ( 4:6) Which we can certainly take as a sign of how Jesus came into the world and built the church.

Then in one of the more intriguing images in this book, the two olive trees have branches that “which pour out the oil through the two golden pipes”  (4:12) presumably to supply oil to keep the lamps lit. The angel asks Zechariah what they are, and again the prophet replies, “No, my Lord.” The angel patiently explains, “These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.” (4:14). Are they Jesus and the Holy Spirit? Whoever they are, the provide the fuel for the light, which is certainly symbolic of the power of the Holy Spirit operating in the world.

The sixth vision is a giant flying scroll(!), which “is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole land; for everyone who steals shall be cut off according to the writing on one side, and everyone who swears falsely shall be cut off according to the writing on the other side.” (5:3) John of Patmos surely had this image in mind when he wrote about the book of life in Revelation.

And finally, a seventh vision of a woman emerging from a basket with “a leaden cover.” (5:7). (Of all the prophets, we certainly see the most imaginative array of images yet!) The woman sitting in the basket is “Wickedness.” Two other winged women come and “they lifted up the basket[j] between earth and sky.” (5:9) Zechariah asks where they are taking the basket and is told, ““To the land of Shinar, to build a house for it; and when this is prepared, they will set the basket down there on its base.” Shinar comes up in Genesis as the site of the tower of Babel, so the vision here suggests that wickedness arises from outside Israel, or perhaps that in restoring Judah, God is removing wickedness from it.

These visions are one of those places where we just sit back and enjoy the ride and not be too troubled by interpretation.

Revelation 18:11–24: With Rome as Babylon about to be destroyed, the world economy will collapse: “And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore,” (11). A long list of goods that populated the Roman economy follows, ending (significantly, I think) with “slaves–human lives.” (13)

As always, I’m fascinated about how frequently the Bible deals with economic issues, and perhaps no more directly than here as John describes the impact of a failed economy on “The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,” (15). So, too, “all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off18 and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,” (17, 18)

And if a catastrophic end like the one John describes here comes to our modern western economies, we will be able to turn to this chapter and mourn with the merchants and seafarers.
“Alas, alas, the great city,
       where all who had ships at sea
       grew rich by her wealth!
   For in one hour she has been laid waste.” (19)

But for the saints to whom John is writing, the destruction of Rome comes as good news: “Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets! For God has given judgment for you against her.” (20)

And with that, “a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying,

“With such violence Babylon the great city
    will be thrown down,
    and will be found no more;” (21)

And in one of the more dramatic and poetic descriptions of the end of civilization, John ends his litany of “no more” with the reminder that that its downfall comes because “in you was found the blood of prophets and of saints,/ and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.” (24). Standing with the OT prophets, John pronounces doom on those who ignore God and create evil. Rome has put the false idol of riches, wealth and power ahead of God and will suffer the consequences of its apostasy.

The parallels to 21st century civilization are beyond merely making us uncomfortable. 



Psalm 146; Zechariah 1,2; Revelation 18:1–10

Psalm 146: This thanksgiving psalm is a celebration of God’s benevolence toward humankind. It includes a verse that should be placed on billboards, broadcast everywhere, posted on Facebook and tweeted frequently during the ever-advancing political season:
Do not trust in princes,
in a human who offers no rescue. (3)

While politicians of every stripe attempt to convince us about how they will solve every problem, our psalmist reminds us that they, too, are mere mortals: “His breath departs, he returns to the dust./ On that day his plans are naught.” (4) Instead of relying on the hollow words and inept plans of those seeking power, the psalmist reminds us that we find our joy in trusting God: “Happy [is he] whose help is Jacob’s God,/ his hope–for the Lord his God.” (5)

The psalmist then lists the marvelous qualities of the God in whom we trust, who is after all, “maker of heaven and earth,/ the sea, and of all that is in them.” (6a) Those are credentials no human–their boasting speeches notwithstanding–can hope to possess. God is:

  • Faithful: “Who keeps faith forever” (6b)
  • Seeks justice: “does justice for the oppressed.” (7a)
  • Feeds the poor: “gives bread to the hungry” (7b)
  • Healer: “Gives sight to the blind,” “makes the bent stand erect.” (8a)
  • Lover: “loves the righteous”
  • Provides for immigrants: “guards sojourners” (9a)

And as always, cares for those without a family to protect them: “orphan and widow he sustains.” (9b)

As we reflect on the life of Jesus we come to realize that he acted out all these qualities while here on earth. And his command to us is crystalline: we are to emulate these qualities in our relationships with everyone we encounter: our family, our friends, strangers, and above all, the dispossessed.

Zechariah 1,2: Zechariah appears to be a contemporary of Haggai since the word of the Lord comes to him at just about the same time (“In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius,”). His message is straight to the point: “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.” (1:3). He pleads, “Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the former prophets proclaimed, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.” But they did not hear or heed me.” (4)

These are typical prophetic words but then things turn apocalyptic. He has a vision of a man riding a red horse “standing among the myrtle trees in the glen;” (1:8). There are other men on other horses as well. Zechariah understandably asks who they are and is told, “They are those whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.” (1:10). The guardian elaborates, telling Zechariah that God is “extremely angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they made the disaster worse.” (1:15) and that he will “again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.” (1:17)

Zechariah then has a second vision of four horns, which the explanatory angel tells him are the nations that have scattered Judah. “Then the Lord showed me four blacksmiths.” (20) who have come “to terrify them, to strike down the horns of the nations that lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter its people.” (1:21)

His third vision is of a man “with a measuring line in his hand.” (2:1) and is told by the angel he has come “to measure Jerusalem.” Another angel appears and tells the first angel to ““Run, say to that young man: Jerusalem shall be inhabited like villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and animals in it.” (2:4). And that this new Jerusalem will be protected by a wall of fire. Well, we can see that John of Patmos was not the first person to have a vision of a new Jerusalem!

Zechariah’s fourth vision is to the exiles that are dwelling in other nations to return to Jerusalem: “ Up! Escape to Zion, you that live with daughter Babylon.” (2:7) because God is “going to raise  my hand against them, and they shall become plunder for their own slaves.” (2:9) This is cause of great rejoicing and above all, God’s promise that “I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord.” (2:10.)

But once again we are reminded that God is God not just of his chosen people, but of all people: “ Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst. And you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you.” (2:11) This is one more proof that God cares for all of us, and as we know he demonstrates this love by sending his son to earth.

Revelation 18:1–10: These words must have been encouraging to the people reading John’s message as they suffered under Roman oppression. Like Zechariah’s positive message, we all want to hear how God will take down our enemy. And just as Zechariah called the exiles to come back to Jerusalem, John hears “another voice from heaven saying,

“Come out of her, my people,
    so that you do not take part in her sins,
and so that you do not share in her plagues;
   for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
    and God has remembered her iniquities.” (4,5)

Unlike Zechariah, though, there is a level of vengeance here against the conquering nation, Rome:
    Render to her as she herself has rendered,
       and repay her double for her deeds;
       mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed. (6)

John’s vision of total destruction is of course the judgement of God:
   her plagues will come in a single day—
       pestilence and mourning and famine—
   and she will be burned with fire;
       for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”

Not only will Rome fall, but all “the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning.” (9). While other nations may not meet the same dreadful fate. there is no question their world is unalterably changed. And with a final shout, John, reminds his listeners that as today’s psalm observes, the plans of mankind come to dust and now, the kings can only “stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,

   “Alas, alas, the great city,
       Babylon, the mighty city!
   For in one hour your judgment has come.” (10)

The question of course, that has been asked across the centuries since then, is are we the new Rome and will we fall? And as history demonstrates, the answer is usually “yes” as once mighty empires cease to exist. Are we the next in line?

Psalm 145:17–21; Haggai 2; Revelation 17:9–18

 Psalm 145:17–21: Many psalms of supplication despair that God has disappeared as the desperate psalmist begs him to answer his prayers. As if to prove that the Psalms cover the emotional and theological gamut, this psalm rings with the assurance that God is above all just and faithful: “Just is the Lord in all His ways,/ and faithful in all His deeds.” (17) And that faithfulness extends to each of us as we are assured that God is nearby and will always answer: “Close is the Lord to all who call Him,/ to all who call Him in truth.” (18) Aha. There’s the requirement: “call in truth.” In other words, we must reciprocate that same faithfulness that defines God. We do not call on God in doubt or disbelief as if we are asking for some kind of heavenly magic trick. We call on God in truth and in the deep faith that he will answer.

And answer he does: “The pleasure of those who fear Him he performs,/ and their outcry He hears and rescues them.” (19) This occurs because of God’s incredible faithfulness: “The Lord guards all who love Him.’ (20a). Moreover, “all the wicked He destroys.” (20b). comprehending this reality of God always leads to worship: “The Lord’s praise let my mouth speak,/ and all flesh bless His holy name forevermore.” (21)

These verses ring with “Blessed Assurance.” Would that I can live day to day with this same confident conviction that God will hear and act. As we look around at the affairs of the world, that assurance can be sorely tested. But then all I have to do is to imagine the evil and darkness of a world where God was not present at all. Jimmy Stewart’s visit to Potterville in “It’s a Wonderful Life” would be a paradise compared to a world where God was absent.

Haggai 2: The word of the Lord comes to Haggai, just about a month after he first spoke to Zerubbabel and Joshua. This time he asks, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?”  (3) We do not hear their reply, but it seems clear they were appalled by viewing the temple in ruins, a shadow of its former glory. But Haggai reminds them that God is in their midst “Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts.” (4) In fact, with God’s help, the temple will be restored such that “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts.” (9)

Two months later, “On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius,” Haggai, speaking the word of the Lord asks the priests if consecrated meat touches a garment becomes unholy or if a person who touches the dead becomes unclean. Well, they’ve all read Leviticus, so the answer is obviously,”Yes,” Haggai uses this object lesson to point out that ” So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, says the Lord; and so with every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean.” (14). Haggai asks, “Before a stone was placed upon a stone in the Lord’s temple, how did you fare?” (16) reminding them that them that “I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and mildew and hail; yet you did not return to me, says the Lord.” (19)

The lesson is clear: By failing to give God priority, here symbolized by the very real act of failing to rebuild the temple, the lives of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were only a shadow of what they could be by placing God above their human affairs. I think that even under the terms of the New Covenant, when we fail to place God at the center of all that we do, we miss the greater blessings that God will willingly bestow when we are faithful. God doesn’t necessarily cause our crops to fail as here in Haggai, but a tremendous opportunity cost is exacted when we ignore God and think we can perform the task on our own.

Revelation 17:9–18: The seventh angel, still speaking to John, helpfully interprets the meaning of the seven headed beast with ten horns and the whore who sits on it. As for the beast, it represents “seven kings, of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain only a little while.” (10). As we speculated in yesterday’s reflections, these must refer to the succession of Roman emperors, possibly beginning with Augustus. Five have come and gone, one is reigning, and another will “remain only a little while.”  

As for the horns, they are “ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom. These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast.” (12b, 13). In the context of the Roman Empire, these may be the untamed kings of Europe such as Germania. But the point John makes is that they will unite with Rome in persecuting Christians: “they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.” (14) As always, Christ will win out in the end.

The verses that follow suggest how this ultimate victory is achieved: the whore–Rome–will come to a bad end as “the ten horns … will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.” (16). Which several centuries later is exactly the fate of the fall of the Roman empire as it is conquered form the north and east.

John concludes this section by having the angel tell us that this is all directed by God and that “the woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” (18) Which I take to be the promise of the New Jerusalem. If we look at history, things didn’t exactly work out this way unless we consider that Constantine’s conversion and the ascension of Christianity to an instrument of the state in some way represents the “New Jerusalem.”  But writing in 90CE, John would not know what would take place three centuries later. But his confidence, like that of the psalmist above, lies in God’s faithfulness and that victory is assured because “the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”

One of the lessons for me in this mysterious book is that the means may be unclear, but the end–God’s ultimate victory–is never in doubt.


Psalm 145:8–16; Zephaniah 3; Haggai 1; Revelation 17:1–8

Psalm 145:8–16: This glorious celebration of God’s kingship over all creation and all humanity reveals key aspects of God’s character. Perhaps most famous is, “Gracious and merciful is the Lord, / slow to anger, great in kindness.” Or as the NRSV has it, “The Lord is gracious and merciful,/ slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (8) When we look at the sins of Israel across the OT, God is indeed slow to anger as he relents again and again while the people persist in injustice and idolatry. And we, too, experience God’s mercy through the intercession of Jesus Christ. Unlike another another monotheistic religion that comes to mind, our task is not to please God and earn his mercy, our task is to love God and bask in his reciprocated love.

And no matter how harsh his punishments, there is always mercy as well. The psalmist makes this clear: “Good is the Lord to all,/ and His mercy is over all his creatures.” (9) That’s all living things, not just humankind. Which is why we must consider the impact of our actions in relating to the creatures of the earth such as habitats and forests. 

The psalmist also reminds us that God is now and forever: “Your kingship is a kingship for all time,/ and Your dominion for all generations.” (13) Unlike human empires which rise and fall, and our own human plans which so often turn out far different than we anticipated, God is the great constant. No matter how rapid the change we may experience there is One who is unchanging. And in that stability we find our rest and security.

And then there is the fact that “The Lord props up all who fall/ and makes all who are bent stand erect.” (14) If we are willing to let go of our self-centered pride and delusion that we’re in control of events and ourselves, we can rely on God to take us through whatever we may experience. For me, it took cancer to make me realize that, no, I was not going to make it through life firmly in control. There was nothing I could do but collapse into the arms of God. And in letting go my own effort to stand up tall and straight and make sure others knew how strong and impressive I was, I found far greater strength. Not only to face the trial of that disease, but to come to realize that life is far richer, relationships far more beautiful because I am propped up in God’s arms.

Zephaniah 3: Like his colleagues, Zephaniah follows the formula of first pointing out wickedness, then describing the coming judgement of God in apocalyptic terms and then finally ending on a note of hope and yes, even joy.

Jerusalem is a wicked place, a “soiled, defiled,/ oppressing city!/ It has listened to no voice;/ it has accepted no correction.” (1, 2a) Worse, “It has not trusted in the Lord;/ it has not drawn near to its God.” (2b). Zephaniah condemns its hopelessly corrupt leadership:
   The officials within it
       are roaring lions;
   its judges are evening wolves
       that leave nothing until the morning.
   Its prophets are reckless,
       faithless persons;
   its priests have profaned what is sacred,
       they have done violence to the law. (3,4)

Alas, even the prophets… Zephaniah follows this dark accusation with an apocalyptic vision which realizes that there is still a remnant of Israel and “they shall do no wrong/ and utter no lies,/nor shall a deceitful tongue/be found in their mouths. ” (13) And in this remnant, Zephaniah realizes that there is great hop for a better world and that God “will exult over you with loud singing/ as on a day of festival. (18a) Even better, God “will remove disaster from you,so that you will not bear reproach for it.” (18b).

As Christians we realize exactly how God carried out this plan: through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And I think it’s fair to consider that the church is part of this remnant of hope as this book ends on a theme of great hope and God’s promise that “At that time I will bring you home.” (20)

Haggai 1: Where Zephaniah is a book of prophetic vision, Haggai is much more down to earth. First we have the precision of a specific time [“the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month,” (1)], as Haggai, brings the word of the Lord to “Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest:” (1b), telling them that the people of Jerusalem who are living in “paneled houses” have not yet rebuilt the temple that “lies in ruins,” having been destroyed by the Babylonians.

Haggai reminds the leaders that their present life is hardly as fulfilling as it could be: “Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.” (6) Haggai suggests that the reason is that “my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce.” (10). In short, there present inadequate state arises from their misplaced priority of looking out for themselves first, but assuming they can do it while ignoring God.

Happily, Haggai’s words have effect and “Lord stirred up the spirit … of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God.” (14)

The lesson is clear: our efforts without relying on God are always less than they could be. This happens in churches today: we think we are making great progress and that our own efforts are successful. We think we can do it on our own, and to a certain extent we succeed. But this “success” is at the cost of foregoing a far more bountiful harvest when we trust fully in God and let him direct our actions. Without that priority we sew much but harvest little.

Revelation 17:1–8: One of the bowl-pouring angels brings John “away in the spirit  into a wilderness” where he sees “a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns.” (3) The woman is beautifully clothed and on her forehead was written, ““Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” (5). Worse, “the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.” (6)

This vision seems to be an reference to the “whore of Rome,” although  John is being careful to disguise the obvious references lest his book fall into the wrong hands. The purple robes and jewels seems to be a reference to a specific emperor (Nero?) and the beast on which it rides refer to Roman government and officialdom. (Perhaps the seven heads refer to previous emperors from Augustus forward.) Moreover, as John writes, Rome is continuing to persecute the Christians.

What’s fascinating here is the angel’s assertion that the “beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction.” (8a). The phrase, “was, and is not, and is about to” suggests that one emperor has already been deposed, another is currently in power but is about to be succeeded by another. But they are all equally corrupt and evil.

Psalm 145:1–7; Zephaniah 1,2; Revelation 16:12–21

Psalm 145:1–7: Alter tells us that this is the only Psalm actually designated “song of praise”–and it indeed fulfills its promise. Our psalmist acknowledges God as king: “Let me exalt You, my God my king,/ and let me bless Your name forevermore.” (1) We are to “praise Your name forevermore.” Equally important is the psalmist’s point that as mere humans we can only praise God, and despite our many pretensions to do so, we will never fully understand God nor his majesty and power: “Great is the Lord and highly praised,/ and His greatness cannot be fathomed.” (3)

God’s greatness–and thus our worship–extends across time: “Let one generation to the next extol Your deeds/ and tell of Your mighty acts.”(4) Likewise, God expresses his power in creation itself as the psalmist clearly implies, “Of the grandeur of Your glorious majesty/ and Your wondrous acts let me treat.” (5)  To drive home the unutterable greatness of God to his worshippers, verse 6 is essentially a rewording of verse 5: “And the power of Your awesome deeds let them say,/ and Your greatness let me recount.”

In essence, this psalm is reminding us that worship is our grateful expression of joy at the inexpressible majesty and greatness of God. Moreover, we must bring the best we have to offer in terms of how we praise God. To me this means bringing the highest possible quality of speech an music. Worship is about God; it is not about us, but we are nevertheless obligated to bring him our very best in singing of God’s greatness and kingly majesty.

Zephaniah 1,2: Zephaniah is the great great, great grandson of Hezekiah, speaks during the reign of the boy king Josiah, and is a contemporary of Jeremiah. His first words speaking as usual in the voice of God give us a sense of where he’s headed:
I will utterly sweep away everything
         from the face of the earth, says the Lord.(1:2) 

This certainly sounds as if God is once again so disgusted with the behavior of his people that he’s willing to break his promise to Noah. Zephaniah tells Judah that they’re next on God’s clean-up list:
I will stretch out my hand against Judah,
    and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;  (1:4)

As usual, the problem is Judah’s relentless idolatry and that they “have turned back from following the Lord,/ who have not sought the Lord or inquired of him.” (1:6) Which of course is the question we must continually ask ourselves. Have we turned our backs on the Lord as we have pursued our own agendas? 

Zephaniah promises great suffering for their collective sins with the repulsive image, “their blood shall be poured out like dust,/ and their flesh like dung.” There is nothing more worthless than dust and dung, yet that is what sinners are before God. Again, this sense that in God’s righteous anger the entire world is doomed as Zephaniah resorts to pure apocalyptic language:
Neither their silver nor their gold
       will be able to save them
       on the day of the Lord’s wrath;
   in the fire of his passion
       the whole earth shall be consumed;
   for a full, a terrible end
       he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth. (1:18)

However, as we learn in chapter two, God’s anger is not confined to Judah:
Ah, inhabitants of the seacoast,
       you nation of the Cherethites!
   The word of the Lord is against you,
       O Canaan, land of the Philistines;
       and I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left.  (2:5)

He goes on to pronounce similar doom against Moab and the Ammonites with the curse that “Moab shall become like Sodom/ and the Ammonites like Gomorrah,” (2:9) as well as the Ethiopians and (once again!) the inhabitants of Nineveh. As in the days of Noah, Zephaniah asserts that God is ready to give up on the human species and return the land to its former pastoral glory as the works of man, especially the cities are reduced to ruin:
   Herds shall lie down in it,
       every wild animal;
   the desert owl and the screech owl
       shall lodge on its capitals;
   the owl shall hoot at the window,
    the raven croak on the threshold;
    for its cedar work will be laid bare. (2:14)

Zephaniah reflects God’s anger and desire to wipe every trace of these humans he created form the face of the earth. But will God carry out this dreadful promise?

Revelation 16:12–21: The pouring out of the bowls of wrath continues relentlessly as the sixth angel pours and dries up the Euphrates river, allowing demonic spirits to cross over and prepare for the battle of Armageddon (or Harmagedon, as the NRSV has it). The pouring out of the seventh bowl brings “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth,” (18) Cities split apart and “God remembered great Babylon (Rome) and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath.” (19). (We can almost see John’s readers shouting, Hooray!”)

But it is verse 20 that departs form the John’s vivid imagery and describes what I think is a a volcanic eruption rather accurately: “every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found; and huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds,  dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.” (20, 21) Mount Vesuvius erupted and inundated Pompeii in 79CE. Given that John is writing around 90CE, I think it’s safe to assume that he had certainly heard of (if not witnessed) that eruption.

Is John describing a past event in the future tense to make sure his readers understand that what happened was a “foretaste of the feast to come” with regard to the fate of Rome? As we know in apocalyptic writing, what is written in one tense may very well have its meaning in another. Not everything John writes has to be predictive.