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.

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