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. 



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