Psalm 139:13–16; Amos 3,4; Revelation 8

Psalm 139:13–16: We come to what I believe is the most beautiful description of conception, birth, and our physical reality as imago Deo ever written. That this psalm was written a couple of millennia before we came to understand how genetics and gestation work speaks to its inspiration by the Holy Spirit. We move from the external darkness the poet has described in verses 11 and 12 to the darkness of the womb: “For You created my innermost parts,/ wove me in my mother’s womb.” (13) The verb, “wove” speaks directly to how our cells divide and multiply, literally weaving our body together.

The psalmist speaks to the individual and unique nature of each human being by acknowledging that it is God who creates our individuality, our “set apartness” as he writes,”I acclaim You, for awesomely I am set apart,/ wondrous are Your acts,/ and my being deeply knows it.” (14) The last phrase speaks, I think, to the fact that each person ultimately seeks transcendence–our longing (“sehnsucht” as the Germans have the better word here) for God. Even those who deny the reality of God, never mind the necessity of God to make us his complete creature, must experience this sense of “deep knowing.”

“My frame was not hidden from You,/ when I was made in a secret place,/ knitted in the utmost depths.” (15) Here the psalmist reveals a truth I had not thought about. Our relationship with God begins at conception, not just at birth. God is aware of what is going on inside our mother’s womb, our “secret place.” This verse amplifies the tragedy of abortion because that relationship is cut off in utero.

Finally, we see a hint of genetics, although the psalmist certainly did not: “My unformed shape Your eyes did see,/ and in Your book all was written down.” (16a) It’s impossible in our DNA age not to think of our genetic code being “written down,”–the means by which God has fashioned each of with both our common physiognomy but also with our emotional and psychological individuality. God is behind it all. The psalmist concludes this beautiful description with the observation, “The days were fashioned,/ not one of them did lack.” (16b). Our lives have been laid out. God, who transcends time, knows what will happen. But we, who have the gift of free will, do not. The message is clear however; we men and women, being made imago deo as so beautifully described here are completed only by walking with God.

Amos 3,4: Amos continues the accusations against Israel by reminding them of the special relationship they have had with God and that it brings the responsibility to worship and obey God–things they have forgotten:
You [Israel] only have I known
    of all the families of the earth;
   therefore I will punish you
    for all your iniquities.” (3:2)

Amos  reviews the ways in which God operates in their lives, providing clear signs through the prophets of the disaster that will befall them if they do not repent. But they have ignored the prophetic warnings:
Surely the Lord God does nothing,
    without revealing his secret
    to his servants the prophets.” (3:7)

Once again Amos, like the prophets who have gone before him, warns of imminent destruction if Israel does not abandon its idols:
On the day I punish Israel for its transgressions,
    I will punish the altars of Bethel,
    and the horns of the altar shall be cut off
    and fall to the ground.” (3:14)

Amos expresses special disgust for the wealthy and indolent wives of Israel because they do not care for the poor. Social injustice is always an element of self-centered idolatry.
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
    who are on Mount Samaria,
   who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
    who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!” (4:1)

Amos then relentlessly reviews how God has already brought suffering to Israel because of its intransigence. Hunger [“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,/ and lack of bread in all your places,” (4:6)]; drought [And I also withheld the rain from you/ when there were still three months to the harvest;” (4:7)]; agricultural disaster [“I struck you with blight and mildew;/ I laid waste your gardens and your vineyards;” (4:9)] disease and war [“I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt;/ I killed your young men with the sword;” (4:10)]; political unrest [“I overthrew some of you,/ as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, (4:11)]

But each of these verses ends with the same refrain of refusal to repent:
yet you did not return to me,
       says the Lord.”

And the final warning whose words have echoed down through the ages:
Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;
        because I will do this to you,
         prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” (4:12)

Even though we do not live in a theophany, and even though we live under the terms of the New Covenant, we must never forget that our actions and our rejection of God’s provenance will have consequences–almost always negative. The question obtains: can we lay the present disorder of our time at our own feet for thinking that we do not need God and worse, that we are greater than God and can control our own outcomes–and ultimately our own destiny? One thing I think is self-evident: like ancient Israel we ignore God at our peril.

Revelation 8: The seventh seal is finally opened and “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” (1) This is ominous. I can only imagine the tension that would build were I present and the seal is opened and absolutely nothing happens for 30 minutes. And angel with a golden censer comes before the great altar of God. John tells us twice that the smoke of the incense in the censer is the “prayers of the saints.” Incense is pleasing to God and it’s clear that John is informing his readers that their prayers for God to act in the world will be fulfilled at the end of history. Prayers may not be answered in the here and now, but they are never worthless but always pleasing to God and they will eventually be answered.

The angel fills the censer with fire, “and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” (5). As we see so often in the Psalms, these disturbances of nature are seen as a premonition of God’s ultimate power, which is amply demonstrated in the violence of the verses that follow.

The angels with the seven trumpets “made ready to blow them.” And each angel in turn blows his trumpet and in what seems to be an amplification of the plagues that befell Egypt for its intransigence, a stunning variety of disasters is visited on the earth:

— “…hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were hurled to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up.” (7)
— “a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea became blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.” (8, 9)
—  “…a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water.” (10)
—  “…a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light was darkened;” (12)

These are all natural disasters: a giant forest fire; a volcanic eruption; a meteorite; what seems to be a permanent eclipse–all phenomena that terrified the ancient world since their cause was a mystery. 

But wait. Worse is yet to come: “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!” (13).  We have seen apocalyptic visions before in the Old Testament, but nothing with the power and imagination that John brings to us. His word images are his best but ultimately futile attempt to convey the unimaginable power and majesty of God. And even in the dramatic images it is clear that John’s words–our language–is completely inadequate to convey God’s true majesty and power.



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