Psalm 104:24–30; Judges 11:28–12:15; Luke 21:5–28

Psalm 104:24–30: Our poet launches a grand summation of God’s power that has created and now cares for every aspect, every creature including humankind, in his creation: “How many You deeds, O Lord,/ all of them You do in wisdom./ All the earth is filled with Your riches.” (24)

Seemingly standing on the shore, the psalmist turns toward the sea and marvels at the variety of life contained in the ocean: “The sea is great and wide,/ where creatures beyond number stir,/ the little beasts and the large.” (25). And on its surface, ships sail and whales cavort:”There the little ships go,/ this Leviathan You fashioned to play with.” (26)

But the common point of every living creature is that they—and we—are dependent upon God for our very lives: “All of them look to You/ to give them food in its season.” (27). We humans so often forget this dependence, thinking we are thriving only by our own efforts. But absent the resources of the earth that God keeps providing homo sapiens would have died out millennia ago.

The psalmist drills down into this theme of dependence on God, noting that God can gives us everything we have and consume: “When You give them, they gather it in,/ when You open Your hand, they are sated with good.” (28) But God can also withhold via disaster and drought: “When You hide Your face, they panic,/ You withdraw Your breath and they perish,/ and to dust they return.” (29) Even today, we recognize that the efforts and technology of humankind is puny when arrayed against the forces of nature.

Perhaps most significantly, our psalmist gives credit where it is due. God is in a state of constant creation and renewal: “When You send forth Your breath, they are created,/ and You renew the earth.” (30) Of course the question is, will humankind despoil the earth to such an extent that God’s renewal will be insufficient? Happily, compared to the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, we are at least becoming more aware of the preciousness of God’s good creation.

Judges 11:28–12:15: Unsurprisingly, “the king of the Ammonites did not heed the message that Jephthah sent him.” (11:28) Following Gideon’s (and others) example, Jephthah makes a deal with God: If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” (30b, 31) Clearly, Jephthah in his enthusiasm failed to think through the implications of his vow.

Jephthah is victorious over the Ammonites and returns home to Mizpah. Alas, it is his virgin daughter who comes out to greet him first. Jephthah knows he cannot take back his vow and tells his daughter the fate that awaits her. In perhaps one of the greatest displays of obedience in the entire OT, she tells him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth.” (36)

She asks for a 2-month reprieve “so that I may go and wander[a] on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” (37). But at the end of her journey she returned and “her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made.” (39) The authors observe that a custom arose that “for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.” (40)

I find this story of Jephthah’s daughter to be pretty disturbing. Would God even countenance a vow of infanticide? Is Jephthah’s act a legend? I hope so. In any event, the authors make no comment relating to God’s approval or disapproval of his act.

Like any family, internecine squabbles inevitably arise and Israel is no exception. The men of Ephraim threaten Jephthah: “Why did you cross over to fight against the Ammonites, and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house down over you!” (12:1) He replies that they did not help when he called them. In any event the men of Gilead fight the men of Ephraim. Since they all look like each other, Jephthah tells his men to ask each soldier crossing back over the Jordan to pronounce, “Shibboleth.” If they mispronounced it as “Sibboleth,” they were Ephramites and were killed by the men of Gilead. “Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.” (12:6) Jephthah’s main contribution to history is that he has given us the word, ‘shibboleth,’ which means, “a word or way of speaking or behaving which shows that a person belongs to a particular group.”

Jephthah judges Israel for 6 years, followed by Ibzan of Bethlehem, whose contribution to history is that he sired 30 sons, all of whom married. Then comes the unremarkable Elon the Zebulunite followed by Abdon, who not to be outdone by Ibzan, sires 40 sons and 30 grandsons, all of whom made an impressive parade by riding on 70 donkeys.

Luke 21:5–28: These verses are Luke’s take on Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, where Jesus describes the end of history. My own sense is that the way in which Luke writes this discourse is a direct message to those in his community who felt that the end of history was imminent—and was being preached by some in the early church. But Luke’s Jesus warns his disciples that “many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.” (8)

For me the centerpiece of the discourse is how Jesus points out that we are not to be afraid of the world’s chaos: “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” (9) Which seems to be exactly what history has proved over the past 2000 years. War will always be with us: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom;” (10) And nature will have its way with humankind as well: “ there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (11)

Writing as he did after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Luke must see signs of imminent persecution of the new church as his Jesus warns,: “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons.” (12) Jesus asks his disciples—and us—to follow his example and use the persecution as “an opportunity to testify.” (13) In this testimony, Jesus promises that “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (15) Luke gives us a brilliant example of exactly what Jesus is talking about in the final chapters of Acts when we hear Paul, brought up on sedition charges by the Jews, testify before the procurator Festus, who is “almost persuaded.”

Jesus foretells the destruction of Jerusalem and that “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (24) Some Christians believe the ‘times of the Gentiles’ was fulfilled by Israel in 1967 when it retook all of Jerusalem. My own view is that as long as a mosque sits on the site of the temple, Jesus’ prophecy has not yet been fulfilled.

At some point off in the future, history will end and “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” (27) This statement is of course a proof text for those who believe in a public second coming of Jesus—as well as those who believe in a “private Rapture” as they argue over who ‘they’ is.

However, I personally remain ambivalent about exactly how the Second Coming will occur, and that we should not waste time worrying about its exact nature. There is plenty of Kingdom work to be done in the meantime and as Jesus has already made clear, that’s our true priority.

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