Archives for December 2016

Psalm 149; 1 Chronicles 1:38–2:17; Acts 8:18–25

Psalm 149: One suspects the psalmist is doing a bit of self-advertising as he writes, “Sing to the Lord a new song,” (1) making sure his listeners know that they are hearing something they’ve never heard before.

This penultimate psalm appears to be celebrating some kind of unexpected military victory: “Let Israel rejoice in its maker,/ Zion’s sons exult in their king.” (2) and “For the Lord looks with favor on His people,/ He adorns the lowly with victory.” (4)

Whatever the cause of this celebration might be, it is certainly a joyously noisy one full of laughter, music, and dancing: “Let them praise His name in dance,/ on the timbrel and lyre let them hymn to Him.” (3)

But then the military imagery becomes downright aggressive:
Exultations of God in their throat
and a double-edged sword in their hand,
to wreak vengeance upon the nations,
punishment on the peoples
to bind their kings in fetters,
and their nobles in iron chains.” (6,7,8)

In fact, God seems to fade into the background amidst the celebration as it appears that it is the Israeli army rather than God is exacting justice: “…to exact from them justice as written—/ it is grandeur for all His faithful.” (9) But we shouldn’t quibble on theology. When there’s a great victory I think it’s completely understandable that enthusiasm will trump reverence.

1 Chronicles 1:38–2:17: The introductory chapters of I Chronicles is somewhat akin to reading a phone book (at least for those of us who remember phone books). Among other gems this reading includes a list of the kings of Edom—”before any king reigned over the Israelites.” (1:43)—as well as a handy list of the clans of Edom (1:51-54).

Chapter two opens with the genealogy of Jacob’s twelve sons: “These are the sons of Israel: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Joseph, Benjamin, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher.” (2:1,2) Unsurprisingly, since our authors, who are writing from Babylon, are from the (former) kingdom of Judah, they list Judah’s progeny ahead of the other sons. He had three sons by the “Canaanite woman Bath-shua,” one of whom, Er, “Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death.” (3) It would be nice to know the backstory on that one.

An important genealogy lurks among the endless list, “Boaz of Obed, Obed of Jesse. Jesse became the father of Eliab his firstborn, Abinadab the second, Shimea the third, Nethanel the fourth, Raddai the fifth, Ozem the sixth, David the seventh.” (2:12-15) I had not realized that David was the seventh son and last of Jesse. The other thing to note is that Ruth—the heroine of the eponymous book—who married Boaz is not even mentioned. Only the men get credit.

Acts 8:18–25: Well, I thought Simon the magician had been truly converted, but “when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money,” (18) and rather boldly asking Peter to sell him the “power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” (20)

Simon should be thankful that the Holy Spirit did not strike him dead as was the case with Ananias and Sapphira. Instead, Peter demands, “Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” (22) Simon gets the message and begs Peter to “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” (24)

The point of this passage is a clear warning to all who might be tempted to believe that wealth and efforts to “but one’s way into heaven” is antithetical to the the Good News of Jesus Christ. Yet, we persist in thinking that good works alone will do the trick or that giving vast sums of money to the church will somehow impress Jesus.


Psalm 148:7–14; 1 Chronicles 1:1–37; Acts 8:9–17

Psalm 148:7–14: Our psalmist leaves no doubt that every aspect of nature, every creature of God’s creation, including those beneath the surface of the ocean, is here for a single purpose: to worship praise God: “Praise the Lord from the earth,/ sea monsters and all you deeps.” (7)

The poet then provides an astounding single sentence catalog of natural phenomena, vegetation, animals, ascending straight up the hierarchy of creation:
Fire and hail, snow and smoke,
stormwind that performs His command,
the mountains and all the hills,
fruit trees and all the cedars,
wild beasts and all the cattle,
crawling things and winged birds,” (8,9,10)

He arrives at the pinnacle of humankind itself. Interestingly, he begins with kings, princes and leaders before mentioning more ordinary folk:
kings of earth and all the nations,
princes and all leaders of earth,
young men and also maidens,
elders together with lads.” (11, 12)

All of it—all of us—exist for this one overarching purpose: “Let them praise the Lord’s name,/ for His name alone is exalted.” (13a) This verset emphasizes monotheism. Only God—and God alone—is to be worshipped. There are no small-g gods who deserve worship. The reason for this singularity is obvious (at least to our poet): the evidence of God’s creation is all around us: “His grandeur is over earth and heavens.” (13b)

Ever since the rise of the enlightenment there has been the assumption that science will make everything clear and render God superfluous. Yet, as physicists probe deeper into matter things only become more mysterious. As biologists examine the inner workings of life, it only becomes more wondrous. Today, more than ever, God’s grandeur is increasingly evident.

That’s why we can wholeheartedly praise God in this psalm’s beautiful benediction:
And may He raise up a horn for His people,
praise of all His faithful,
of the Israelites, the people near him.
Hallelujah. (14)

What is especially wonderful here is that God is not just for the Israelites but through Jesus Christ, God is for all of us.

1 Chronicles 1:1–37: The first several chapters of 1 Chronicles is one reason why reading straight through the Bible proves unsuccessful for so many people. It is an eye-glazing genealogy that seems to name every person who ever inhabited Israel, as well as a many more who didn’t. If nothing else it is an excellent demonstration of the importance and power of names.

The first four verses are not even sentences; they are simply a list of names that take us from Adam to Noah and his sons. The descendents of Japeth (5-7); Ham (8-16), Shem (17-27) come next and in more detail.  One verse was fascinating to me: “Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first to be a mighty one on the earth.” (10) I would have appreciated the backstory here.

Our scrupulous authors provide a handy summary of the direct line from Shem to Abram/ Abraham in 24-27. Now we can see where they’re headed as they list Abraham’s progeny, of which the sons of Isaac become the nation of Israel. But no detail is omitted as we also learn who the descendants of Jacob’s other son, Esau, are.

While this may be boring reading, these genealogies provide the essential foundation of the historicity of Israel. This is not myth; these are not Greek or Roman gods; there were real people who once inhabited the earth with the same motivations, creativity, and flaws that each of us possesses these several millennia later.

Acts 8:9–17: The story of Simon the magician, who “practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great,” (9) is the crucial proof that the signs and wonders of the early church were not magic, but the working the power of the Holy Spirit. Simon is the top celebrity in Samaria. The people “listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.”…because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.” (10, 11)

But then Philip shows up “proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” (12) The gospel message is superior to even the most impressive magic. What’s terrific is that Simon himself is wise enough to realize this: “Even Simon himself believed.” (13)

Word of the many conversions and baptisms in Samaria reaches Jerusalem and Peter and John rush up to Samaria and “prayed for [the Samaritans] that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (15) Our author points out that even though many had been baptized, they had not received the Holy Spirit. Peter and John then lay their hands on the people who had been baptized and the people receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of Peter’s and John’s hands.

This passage is certainly at the foundation of those churches such as Assemblies of God that believe there are two separate baptisms: water and then the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” The problem with this bifurcation is that it too easily creates two classes of Christians, with the implication that those who have been baptized by the Holy Spirit are somehow “more Christian” than those who have not.

My own belief is that like the many signs and wonders that accompanied the very early church, this separate baptism is a phenomenon that was no longer necessary as the church grew and gained strength.




Psalm 148:1–6; 2 Kings 25; Acts 8:1–8

Psalm 148:1–6: The structure of this majestic psalm of praise reminds us that we are not the only creatures who worship him. Following an initial shout of “Hallelujah“, our psalmist initiates his command to praise God at heaven itself:
Praise the Lord from the heavens,
praise Him on the heights.” (1)

An excellent description of the ‘heavenly host’ follows as the army of angels worship God:
Praise Him, all His messengers,
praise Him, all His armies.” (2)

Natural creation itself worships God beginning with the visible universe and moving inexorably downward to earth’s atmosphere:
Praise  Him, sun and moon,
praise Him, all you stars of light.
Praise Him, utmost heavens,
and the waters above the heavens.” (3,4)

The vastness of creation is under God’s command and everything that is exists is there to do one thing: praise God: “Let them praise the Lord’s name,/ for He commanded, and they were created.” (5) I believe this reality is why we experience feelings of transcendence when we are alone in nature away from civilization’s puny imitations of God’s created order, especially when we see the stars on a dark night and realize that creation was no random accident.

Creation and eternity are congruent: “And He made them stand forever, for all time.” (6a) Which is what we have come to understand in the mystery of an ever-expanding universe. It does indeed seem to stand for all time. And as his creatures it is God’s everlasting creative power that must be the object of our worship—not our personal feelings.

2 Kings 25: Our authors, who were probably writing from Babylon, describe the conquest of Jerusalem in precise, heart-rending detail—doubtless because they themselves had experienced these events. They describe the exact day —the ninth year of [king Zedekiah’s] reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month (1)—that Nebuchadnezzar’s army arrives at Jerusalem and begins a siege that lasts two years resulting in severe famine. The Chaldeans (Babylonians) finally breach Jerusalem’s walls, destroy the remnants of the army of Judah, and take king Zedekiah captive. The victors kill Zedekiah’s sons and blind him. He is led away in chains to Babylon. With the exception of “the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil” (12) the remaining population of Jerusalem—its middle class—is carried away to exile.

In the eyes of the authors, an even greater tragedy is the destruction and pillaging of the Solomon’s temple itself, which they describe in excruciating (both senses of the word) detail. They describe the immensity of the place and the richness of its materials in a kind of reverse inventory of what we read in 2 Samuel during its construction, as e.g., “The height of the one pillar was eighteen cubits, and on it was a bronze capital; the height of the capital was three cubits; latticework and pomegranates, all of bronze, were on the capital all around.” (17)

Finally, the administrative apparatus of Judah’s government and the the priests themselves are executed by the captain of the Babylonian guard. The fall of Judah is complete.

Nevertheless, a few inhabitants of Judah remain and Shapahn’s grandson, Gedaliah, is appointed governor by Babylon. He wisely instructs his subjects, “Do not be afraid because of the Chaldean officials; live in the land, serve the king of Babylon, and it shall be well with you.” (24). But a group of malcontents could not leave well enough alone and they assassinate Gedaliah and his retainers. Many of those still alive flee to Egypt.

But the Chaldeans are astute and show mercy to the defeated Jews. Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, Evil-merodach, releases King Jehoiachin of Judah from prison and “spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the other seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon.” (28)  I’m pretty sure this was mostly a wise political calculation that ensured that the Jews living in Babylonian exile would be content with their lot and not foment a rebellion.

Acts 8:1–8: Stephen’s lengthy sermon of excoriation was clearly a bridge too far and the temple authorities decide they need to get things under control by exiling everyone who belonged to this fast-growing, potentially dangerous Jesus-cult: “That day [of Stephen’s stoning] a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” (1)

Chief among those carrying out the persecution was a certain Saul, who “was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” (8) Of course this is the grand irony of the New Testament. But at this point things are looking grim for this new church.

On the other hand, it is the very act of sending its members into exile that begins the spread of the early church far and wide: “Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” (4) As an example of this early missionary work, we meet Philip. In what has to be an intentional irony, knowing that Jerusalem will not listen, he headed to the capital of the people the Jews hate, the city of Samaria, and preached there. Unlike at Jerusalem, “the crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did.” (6) Luke completes the irony by telling us that unlike Jerusalem, “there was great joy in that city.” (8).

We recall what Jesus said about missionary work when he sent his disciples out two by two: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” (Matthew 10:4) Obviously, those words were not lost on Philip and his colleagues. And it’s good advice for the modern church as well. We need to accept that not everyone who hears will respond.


Psalm 147:15–20; 2 Kings 23:21–24:20; Acts 7:44–60

Psalm 147:15–20: Amidst the blessings that God has bestowed on Israel, God’s word is a central element of society: “He sends down His utterance to earth,/ quickly His word races.” (19) No one in Israel has an excuse not to know God’s word, which we’ll take here as God’s law.

Unexpectedly, we encounter a beautiful description of winter in Israel, which operates both as description and metaphor and is packed with action verbs:
“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)

As description, we can feel the fierceness of winter through “pours,” “scatters,” and “flings” since that’s what it feels like as I write this from a Madison winter.

But the metaphor also holds: our hearts can be like ice, rejecting God. But our poet reminds us, “He sends out His word and melts them,/ He lets His breath blow—waters flow.” (18) God’s word transforms our hearts from frozen to the warmth that Jesus—God’s word for us—brings via the Holy Spirit.

Our psalmist observes that God has spoken to Israel: “He tells His word to Jacob,/ His statutes and laws to Israel.” (19) Moreover, God spoke to Israel exclusively, which is why they were blessed: “He did not thus to all the nations,/ and they knew not the laws.” (20)

Those are the terms of the Old Covenant. But then God sent his living Word to earth and as a result, the message of salvation through Jesus Christ is available to every nation and to every person.

2 Kings 23:21–24:20: In the eighteenth year of his reign King Josiah establishes Passover as a rite, heretofore a forgotten celebration since “No such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, even during all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah.” (23:22) Josiah basically reestablished the Jewish religion: “so that he established the words of the law that were written in the book that the priest Hilkiah had found in the house of the Lord.” (23:24) We can hear the regret as our authors write that “Before [Josiah] there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.” (25)

Nevertheless, because of the manifold sinfulness that preceded Josiah, God still intends to “remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel.” (27) This removal process begins with the slaying of Josiah by the Pharaoh Neco. Josiah’s son Jehoahaz ascends the throne of Judah and reigns just three months before being imprisoned by the Pharaoh.  Unsurprisingly, he fails to follow in his father’s footsteps, but “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestors had done.” (32) Josiah’s other son, Jehoiakim, is installed on the throne by the pharaoh, but he too is corrupt.

Judah is invaded by hordes from every direction and the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, turns Judah into a vassal state. Our authors point out that these horrors “Surely … came upon Judah at the command of the Lord, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, for all that he had committed, and also for the innocent blood that he had shed; for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to pardon.” (24:3,4)

Ultimately, the Babylonian army arrived at Jerusalem’s gates and Nebuchadnezzar not only took the temple treasures, but “carried away all Jerusalem, all the officials, all the warriors, ten thousand captives, all the artisans and the smiths; no one remained, except the poorest people of the land.” (14) Only a rump government remains, reigned over by Jehoiachin’s uncle, a certain Zedekiah, who reigns for 11 years.

How low Judah has fallen. Can things get worse? Probably…

Acts 7:44–60: Stephen winds up his lengthy sermon by telling how the temple came into being, built not by David but by Solomon. OK, that’s fine, but then he makes such a radical statement that the temple authorities can take it only as outright blasphemy: Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne,/ and the earth is my footstool.'” (48, 49)

Stephen caps things off further by insulting his audience with the truth: ““You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” (51) The final words of his sermon are a clear accusation: “You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (53) Quite different than the marketing-oriented sermons we hear today.

Needless to say, Stephen has enraged the crowd. Stephen’s public announcement of his vision only adds fuel to the fire, “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (56)  The crowd attacks the preacher and carry him out of the city and stone him. This is where we first meet Saul, who will become Paul: “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (58)

In an eerie echo of Jesus’ last words on the cross, Stephen’s dying words are words of forgiveness: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.” (60)

The question of course for each of us reading this passage is, would we be willing to die for our faith. Here in comfortable America, even in this season of rising hostility to Christianity, we are unlikely to be put to the test. For which I am grateful.

Psalm 147:7–14; 2 Kings 22:11–23:20; Acts 7:30–43

Psalm 147:7–14: Our psalmist moves from God as creator to God as provider though the gifts of nature. We are to
Call out to the Lord in thanksgiving
…who covers the heavens with clouds,
readies ran for the earth,
makes mountains flourish with grass.” (7,8)

It is the clouds that bring the rain which causes the grass to grow which “gives the beast its food,/ to the raven’s young who call.” (9) Nature flourishes because of God’s action.

This psalm was doubtless written after Israel was restored to Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity. The return did not occur through military prowess or physical strength: “Not by the might of the horse He desires,/ not by a man’s thighs is He pleased.” (10)

Rather, it occurred because the people made God the center of their lives: “The Lord is pleased by those who fear Him,/ those who long for His kindness.” (11) Worship is the recompense for God’s mighty acts: “Extol, O Jerusalem, the Lord,/ praise your God, O Zion.” (12) Whatever protection and blessing they—and we—experience comes directly from God: “For He strengthens the bars of your gates,/ blesses you children in your midst.” (13) As God brought the rain for the raven (verse 9), so too he brings peace and sustenance to us: “He bestows peace in your land,/ He sates you with choice wheat.” (14)

The message is clear: it is God who brings us protection, sustenance, and blessing. Yet we humans persist in thinking whatever we good we have is the result of our own efforts. Worse, we believe that God, even the idea of God, is superfluous. But as the psalmist makes clear, whatever we have, whatever we are comes from God, who seeks only our worship in return.

2 Kings 22:11–23:20: While temple renovations continue, the high priest Hilkiah has found the book of the law in a dusty corner. He brings it to Josiah’s secretary, Shaphan, who reads it to the king. Upon hearing it, he tears his clothes, realizing that “great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” (22:13)

A delegation arrives at the house of the prophetess Hudah, who informs them that God will indeed “bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants…Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.” (16, 17) In short, there is no escaping ultimate doom for the acts that have been committed by Judah and its kings before Josiah’s reign. However, she continues, because Josiah’s “heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord” (19) there will be peace as long as he is on the throne.

Upon hearing this, Josiah gathers all the officials and “made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul.” (23:3) The temple is cleansed as the Baal objects are removed and the Baal priests are “deposed.” The male prostitutes are fired, and all the Baal objects and “high places” are burned to the ground. In the end, Josiah “slaughtered on the altars all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned human bones on them. Then he returned to Jerusalem.” (23:20)

So, we could call Josiah an even greater reformer than Martin Luther. Although the business about killing and burning the Baal priests on their own altars is definitely a pretty violent act of reformation.

Acts 7:30–43: Stephen’s seemingly endless sermon continues as he describes just about everything Moses did and said, culminating in the story of the golden calf. But he says one thing that’s crucial: “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up a prophet for you from your own people as he raised me up.’” (37) And we can guess exactly who Stephen is talking about.

Psalm 147:1–6; 2 Kings 21:1–22:10; Acts 7:17–29

Psalm 147:1–6: The editors of Psalms knew exactly what they were doing as they conclude the collection with praise hymns. What better way to end our long journey through every human emotion and every aspect of God’s character than to sing God’s praises in joyful worship. This is the point of the opening verse of this hymn: “For it is good to hymn to our God,/ for it is sweet to adorn with praise.” (1)

On this Christmas Eve, these lines remind me of God’s greatest historical intervention of all: the birth of Jesus, who comes to earth fully human, fully God. It is the church established by Jesus Christ of which each Christian is a member that has fulfilled through the centuries—and continues to fulfill—God’s wonderful actions that our psalmist describes here:
Builder of Jerusalem, the Lord,
Israel’s scattered ones He gathers in.
Healer of the broken-hearted,
He binds their painful wounds.” (2,3)

It’s worth remembering that before Christianity there were no orphanages, no hospitals, no universities.

God has acted on our behalf through Jesus Christ because he is our Creator and “He counts the number of the stars,/ to all of them gives names.” (4) If God can count and name the infinity of stars, it is through the person of Jesus that we can perceive but a tiny aspect of God’s powerful reality and more importantly, his love for us, “Great is our master, abounding in power,/ His wisdom is beyond number.” (5)

I think this  why Jesus came to earth: that we could experience the ineffable saving power of “The Lord [who] sustains the lowly,/ [and who] casts the wicked to the ground” (6) up close and personal. The reality of Jesus has given us an even sharper picture of God’s power and grace than this psalmist could even have imagined. 

2 Kings 21:1–22:10: Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, takes over and reigns 55 years in Jerusalem. Alas, unlike his father he reverts to long-standing pattern: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, following the abominable practices of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” (21:2) Our authors point out that not only did he rebuild “high places,” including an image of the idol, Asherah in the temple court itself, “He made his son pass through fire; he practiced soothsaying and augury, and dealt with mediums and with wizards.” (21:6) Needless to say, Manasseh kindles God’s anger. Our authors make it clear that it is the failure of leadership that causes the hoi polloi to be led astray. “Manasseh misled [the people] to do more evil than the nations had done that the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel.” (9) Which is saying something indeed…

Needless to say, the prophets of God predict dire consequences: “therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such evil that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle.” (12) And in one of the more creative metaphors in this book, the prophets announce that God “will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.” (13) But Manasseh continues to do evil, and his enduring legacy is that “he caused Judah to sin so that they did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (16)

Manasseh’s son, Amon, succeeds him at age 22 and like father, like son, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his father Manasseh had done.” (20) However, after reigning a mere two years his servants assassinate him. The assassins are in turn killed by “the people of the land,” (24) which I take to be from among the hoi polloi, who are responding to 57 years of evil leadership. They place eight-year old Josiah on the throne, who reigns for 31 years. At long last, a good king. Josiah “did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.” (22:2)

Eighteen years into his reign, Josiah directs the high priest, Hilkiah to distribute funds that have been squirreled away in the temple “to the carpenters, to the builders, to the masons; and let them use it to buy timber and quarried stone to repair the house.” (22:6) The repair project results in discovery of a book, which Hilkiah gives to Josiah’s servant, Shaphan, to bring to the king.

What, we wonder, is in the book? Stay tuned…

Acts 7:17–29: Luke employs Stephen’s lengthy sermon to place Jesus in the historical context of Israel, even though he has not yet uttered Jesus’ name. In these verses Stephen focuses on the Egyptian captivity and Moses, who “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his relatives, the Israelites.” (23) Stephen asserts that Moses’ murder of the Egyptian overseer was justified because “he saw one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian.” (24) However, the Israelites around Moses did not “understand that God through him was rescuing them,” (25) and one of the Israelite slaves accuses Moses, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’” (27, 28)

We can begin to see the parallels here and where Stephen is going. By focusing on this aspect of the Moses story, we can sense Stephen leading to the observation that in the same way, the Israel in which he is preaching has also rejected Jesus—just as their ancestors rejected Moses.


Psalm 146:6–10; 2 Kings 20:1–21; Acts 7:4–16

Psalm 146:6–10: Our psalmist reflects on God’s qualities, first as Creator: “maker of heaven and earth,/ the sea, and all that is in them.” (6a) God is the exemplar of fidelity: “Who keeps faith forever.” (6b) And in one of the great running themes of the Hebrew scriptures, God always cares for the downtrodden. God “does justice for the oppressed,/ gives bread for the hungry,/ the Lord looses those in fetters.” (7) The unspoken message here is clear: If God does these things, then those of us who claim to love God must do the same—and with gladness.

God is the source of healing—both miraculous and mundane: “The Lord gives sight to the blind./ The Lord makes the bent stand erect.” (8a) Moreover, “The Lord loves the righteous.” (8b) Even though we tend to think that righteousness is the requirement to healing, notice the reversed order here. Righteousness comes after healing. When we are healed—whether physically,psychologically, or spiritually—righteousness, which I’ll define as a deeper faith, arises from healing because we are grateful to God. This has certainly been my own experience in the face of cancer.

Our psalmist returns to the theme of God guarding over the weak and unprotected: “The Lord guards sojourners,/ orphan and widow He sustains.” (9a). But God also intervenes in the lives of those who reject the way of righteousness: “...but the way of the wicked [God] contorts.” (9b) It is encouraging to know that plots and conspiracies are inevitably revealed. All things and events in God’s creation ultimately tend toward truth in the long run.

The psalm concludes, as we would expect, by observing that God transcends time and the puny affairs of humans: “The Lord shall reign forever,/ your God, O Zion, for all generations.” (10) In the end, our hope rests in God’s transcending goodness and righteousness.

2 Kings 20:1–21: Even though Hezekiah has been the exemplar of a righteous king, he is still human and has become sick. Isaiah—ever the bearer of less than good news—announces,“Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.” (1) Hezekiah is not ready to die and in prayer, reminds God that “I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight,” (4) as he asks for healing. Before Isaiah gets outside the palace he receives another revelation and returns to the king, telling him that God has heard his prayer, will indeed heal him. But wait! There’s more: God will add 15 years to his life plus ensuring Judah will not be overrun by Assyria.

Isaiah also possesses medical knowledge and instructs the servants to put a lump of figs on Hezekiah’s boil. Nevertheless, Hezekiah not yet convinced and asks for a sign from God that he will indeed be healed. In one of those astronomical incidents that always make me suspicious, Isaiah grants Hezekiah’s wish to have the sun reverse course for 10 hours. Uh, huh.

Healed and back in the saddle, the king of Babylon sends a group get-well-wishers to Hezekiah, who rather unwisely shows them “all his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his armory, all that was found in his storehouses; there was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them.” (13)

Isaiah hears of this indiscretion  and when Hezekiah tells them he’s revealed all of Judah’s treasures, Isaiah predicts that “Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord.” (17) This certainly makes sense and why governments need to keep secrets from potential enemies.

Still clueless, Hezekiah thinks Isaiah’s prophecy is good news because at least Judah will enjoy “peace and security” while he’s alive. But then, presumably 15 years later, he dies.

The lesson here is that even righteous people who follow God will do stupid things and then fail to worry about the long term consequences. This is exactly our American culture today: we think that as long as things look good and we paper over problems, everything will turn out alright. But as Judah learned to its sorrow, this is over-optimistic whistling in the dark. So too, I believe, will our present world where unwise actions always breed poor consequences.

Acts 7:4–16: Stephen gives the third great sermon in Acts, tracing in great detail the history of Israel from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to the twelve patriarchs. He relates the story of Joseph, the famine in Canaan, the journey to Egypt, the reunion between Joseph and his brothers, and the return of the bodies of Jacob and the patriarchs back to Shechem.

I assume this sermon is moving to some point, but not today…

Psalm 145:1–7; 2 Kings 17:7–41; Acts 5:12–16

 Psalm 145:1–7: The superscription of this psalm—”A David song of praise“—leaves no doubt as to its purpose. And it launches directly into worshipful praise: “Let me exalt You, my God the king,/ and let me bless Your name forevermore.” (1)

The next verses provide poetic instruction about the nature and frequency of worship. It is a daily occurrence with no end date: “Every day let me bless You,/ and let me praise Your name forevermore.” (2) Even though we worship, we will never fully comprehend God’s magnificence: “Great is the Lord and highly praised,/ and His greatness cannot be fathomed.” (3) Worship extends not just to our lifetimes, but we are to teach the manner of worship to our progeny and they to theirs down through the generations: “Let one generation to the next extol Your deeds/ and tell of Your mighty acts.” (4)

The psalmist goes on to describe what aspects of God we are to focus on in the act of worship. Unlike the idols of the psalmists’ time—and ours—God is powerfully active in history, in the world, and in our lives, and that is what we celebrate in the act of worship:
Of the grandeur of Your glorious majesty
and Your wondrous acts let me treat.
And the power of Your awesome deeds let them say,
and Your greatness let me recount.” (5,6)

To be sure, we celebrate God’s powerful deeds, but also how he has blessed our individual lives: “The fame of Your great goodness they utter,/ and of Your bounty they joyously sing.” (7)

In short, worship is all about God, and not all bout us. Notice that nowhere here does the psalmist talk about his feelings. The dividends of worshipping God reflect back on us and we must never forget that we are God’s creatures and worship is our obligation—not our therapy.

2 Kings 17:7–41: The authors depart from their historical narrative to provide the reasons why Israel fell. It’s all really quite simple: “This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt… They had worshiped other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.”  (7, 8a) But Israel’s fall did not arise just because the people followed the pagan customs of the people who occupied Canaan when they arrived. They also fell because of a leadership failure. Israel also fell because of “the customs that the kings of Israel had introduced.” (8b)

Our authors go into specifics. They built “high places” and “ they set up for themselves pillars and sacred poles[b] on every high hill and under every green tree.” (10) Worse, “they served idols, of which the Lord had said to them, “You shall not do this.”” (12) God sent prophets to warn them but they “would not listen but were stubborn, as their ancestors had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God.” (14)

We get a catalog of specific sins:

  • “They despised his statutes, and his covenant” (14)
  • “They rejected all the commandments of the Lord their God and made for themselves cast images of two calves” (16)
  • “They made their sons and their daughters pass through fire;” (17a)
  • ” they used divination and augury” (17b)
  • “they sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger” (17c)

What God had threatened to do for so many centuries but up to now had always showed mercy, has now come to pass: “Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight; none was left but the tribe of Judah alone.” (18)

Our authors—obviously from Judah themselves—note that “Judah also did not keep the commandments of the Lord their God but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced.” (19) Jeroboam receives special execration because as far as our authors are concerned, as he was the progenitor of many evil practices: “The people of Israel continued in all the sins that Jeroboam committed; they did not depart from them until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight.” (22, 23)

The king of Assyria replaces the population of Israel with “people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim.” (24) Lions start attacking the population, so the king of Assyria sends Jewish priests to “go and live there, and teach them the law of the god of the land.” (27) As a result, traces of worship of God are restored, but it is ow just one religion among many. In the end, the people of Samaria, “worshiped the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away.” (33) It is this syncretistic worship that is the greatest offense against God. Even as the priests (and we presume, a few prophets) reiterate the commandment again and again—”You shall not worship other gods, but you shall worship the Lord your God” (39)—the people “would not listen, however, but they continued to practice their former custom.” (40)

Our authors finally dismiss Israel as a hopeless case: “ So these nations worshiped the Lord, but also served their carved images; to this day their children and their children’s children continue to do as their ancestors did.” (41)

Acts 5:12–16: At this point in the early church in Jerusalem, the apostles continue the work of Jesus as they minister to the sick and injured, apparently pretty much able to do the same types of healing that Jesus did: “Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles.” (12) This has a profound impact on the population, “Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women.” (14) The new believers “even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by.” (15)

This verse makes me nervous: Now, the people seem to be seeking Peter’s shadow, not of Jesus. This healing in Jerusalem and its suburbs could too easily become a personality cult around Peter. My theory is that it is this shift of focus from Jesus to Peter is what causes the apostles to eventually lose most of their healing power.

Psalm 144:9–15; 2 Kings 16:1–17:6; Acts 5:1–11

Psalm 144:9–15: Our psalmist adds an attitude of worship to his desperate supplication: “God, a new song I would sing to You,/ on a ten-stringed lute I would hymn to You.” (9) In what we call a “preemptive close,” our psalmist has the faith that God will rescue him as he did David: “Who grants rescue to kings,/ redeems David from the evil sword.” (10) So, too, he seeks a similar rescue, reiterating the treachery of his enemies who swore false vows: “Redeem me and save me form the foreigners’ hand,/whose mouth speaks falsely,/ and whose right hand is a hand of lies.” (11)

Suddenly, the psalm shifts from supplication to thanksgiving in a radical change of tone, subject, and style—almost as if these last verses have been welded onto the orginal psalm. Here the mood is celebratory:
While our sons are like saplings
tended from their youth;
our daughters like corner-pillars 
hewn for the shape of a palace.” (12)

Not only are his progeny winsome and beautiful, our psalmist (perhaps speaking for the entire nation) is wealthy and well fed, as well:
Our granaries are full,
dispensing food of every kind.
Our flocks are in the thousands,
ten thousands in our fields,
Our cattle, big with young.” (13)

The land is at peace; the cries of war but a faint echo form the past:
There is no breach and none goes out,
and no screaming in our squares.
Happy the people who have it thus,
happy the people whose God is the Lord.” (14, 15)

For me the question is are these last verses a remembrance of a peace and abundance long past as our poet reflects back on far happier days? Or is this an idyllic present because God has indeed rescued him and set the world aright? Or is it both? After all, God makes all things right in the end.

2 Kings 16:1–17:6: The endless succession of kings of Judah and Israel rambles on—and Israel meets its destiny…

King Jothan’s son, Ahaz, ascends the throne of Judah at the age of twenty. Unlike his father and grandfather and great-grandfather, “He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done.” (16:2) Worse, “He even made his son pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” (16:3)

Once again, Aram and Israel attempt to overthrow Judea but they fail. Nevertheless, feeling threatened, Ahaz seeks an alliance with far stronger Assyria. As usual, payments of gold are the means to achieve that end. The king of Assyria obliges, and conquers Aram’s capital, Damascus. Ahaz visits Damascus and really likes the altar there, which he has duplicated down in Jerusalem. The king then orders the high priest Uriah to rearrange the temple furniture and Ahaz even alters the temple itself, which of course is desecration. As our authors point out, “He did this because of the king of Assyria.” (16:18) I don’t think the Assyrian king ordered this. Rather, I think Ahaz was entranced by a celebrity king of Assyria.

Meanwhile up in Israel, Hoshea reigns for nine years. Apparently he was not quite as bad as the kings of Israel who preceded him: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, yet not like the kings of Israel who were before him.” (17:2) Nevertheless, Israel becomes a vassal state to Assyria and “the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea” (4) because Hoshea failed to send his annual tribute to Assyria.

As a result, “the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria; for three years he besieged it.” (17:5) Samaria eventually falls to Assyria; its inhabitants are exiled, and once-great Israel is no more. The authors do not need to tell us why. Its gradual downfall occurs because its successive kings never failed to do evil in the sight of the Lord. Thus do empires fall. Even modern ones that seem strong and impregnable.

Acts 5:1–11: The cautionary tale of Ananias and Sapphira is a lesson to the early church and of course to all of us. The story is well known: “a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” (1,2) Peter, well aware of Ananias’ deceit, challenges him. The key sin of Ananias is straightforward: “You did not lie to us but to God!” (4) Ananias drops dead before he can even utter a word in defense. 

This incident is not lost on the community and “great fear seized all who heard of it.” (5) Three hours later, Ananias’ unsuspecting wife arrives and Peter challenges her by quoting the understated price that her husband had told Peter earlier. She replies, “Yes, that was the price.” (8) Peter points out that the corpse being removed is her late husband and the same people will now be removing her. “Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.” (10)

Luke tells us again, “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.” (11) My surmise is that fear of being found lying to God trumped generosity. As a result, I think the communal aspect of church, i.e., the sharing of all goods and money, began falling apart after this incident. Yes, it’s not good to lie to God, but I have to confess the punishment certainly seems unduly harsh. I suspect this incident cooled a lot of evangelical ardor in that early church.


Psalm 144:5–8; 2 Kings 15; Acts 4:23–37

Psalm 144:5–8: On comparison to ephemeral humanity, God is the apotheosis of power and we see it here in mages of volcanoes, thunder and lightning as our psalmist asks for some serious intervention on his behalf:
Lord, tilt Your heavens and come down,
but touch the mountains, that they smoke.” (5)

The prayer is that God uses his infinite power expressed as lightning strikes to smite the poet’s enemies:
Crack lightning and scatter them,
send forth Your bolts and panic them.” (6)

In the meantime, our psalmist seeks intervention and rescue from his perilous situation:
Send forth Your hand from on high,
redeem me and save me from the many waters,
from the foreigners’ hand.” (7)

We assume that “many waters” would be a reference to drowning should God not act. “Foreigners’ hands” suggests that this is indeed David pleading for God’s help in a dangerous situation where not only he but the entire nation of Israel is in peril. In any event these foreigners have dealt with him with falsehood and treachery: “whose mouth speaks falsely,/ and whose right hand is a right hand of lies.” (8) Betrayal, perhaps over a treaty, has created this dangerous situation. David believes he has dealt honestly and fairly by raising his own right hand—the hand we still raise today when making a formal vow. But the other parties have been underhanded, even as they proffered their right hand deceitfully with no intention of honoring their vows.

We see much of the same behavior today on the public stage and frankly, it would be satisfying to see some dishonest politician struck by lighting.

2 Kings 15: This history moves into brief listings of the successive kings of Israel while Azariah reigns over Judah. Azariah ascended the throne at 16 year old and reigns for 52 years. Like his father, “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (3) But also like his father’s inaction, “the high places were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places.” (4). Azariah is mainly notable for the fact that he became leprous at some point in his reign “to the day of his death, and lived in a separate house.” (5) Hs son Jotham ran the show during this time.

Meanwhile up north in Israel:

Zechariah, son of Jeroboam II, “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his ancestors had done.” (9) and is assassinated for his troubles by a certain Shallum, who “struck him down in public and killed him, and reigned in place of him.” (10)

Shallum the usurper reigns but one month before he is assassinated by Menahem son of Gadi. Menahaem sacks the territory of Tizrah and in an especially barbaric act, “He ripped open all the pregnant women in it.” (16) This Menahem character reigns for ten years and in keeping with tradition, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did not depart all his days from any of the sins of Jeroboam.” (18)  The king of Assyria, in a foretaste of what was to eventually befall Israel, tries to invade, but Memnhem pays him off with “a thousand talents of silver, so that he might help him confirm his hold on the royal power.” (19) This money was confiscated from all the wealthy of Israel.

Menhem’s son, Pekahiah, takes over as king of Israel and reigns but two years. In what must have felt like a boring litany to our authors, like father like son: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord;” (24) Pekahiah is murdered by his captian, Pekah, who usurps the throne and reigns twenty years. Unsurprisingly, “He [also] did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (28)

During Pekah’s reign “King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried the people captive to Assyria.” (29)  A certain Hoshea assassinates Pekah and reigns over the few pieces of what was left of Israel. But as a nation Israel is now basically history.

Back down in Judah, Jotham comes to the throne at age twenty-five and reigns sixteen years. Even though “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (34), but as before, “the high places were not removed; the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places.” (35) During Jotham’s reign Judah has to fend off attacks by both Aram and Israel. But it seems as if our authors are losing interest in the whole sordid history and they do not even bother to tell us what the outcome of those invasions was. We assume Judah successfully defended itself.

Acts 4:23–37: Peter and John arrive back at Christian headquarters and report what the temple officials had done and said. The folks respond in prayer and by quoting Psalm 2, where they credit the Holy Spirit speaking through David:
“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
    and the peoples imagine vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
    and the rulers have gathered together
        against the Lord and against his Messiah.’” (25, 26)

The point here being that “both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus.” (27) Which of course is still the case today. Nevertheless, this reality does not deter the Jesus followers, who pray for boldness, which comes forthwith as “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.” (31) The point of course is that this Jesus movement was not going to die down like so many other movements had before. And here we are, two millennia later and the church is still going strong. The more personal question of course is, am I willing to be bold in the face of the growing opposition in an increasingly secular culture?

These folks were so fired up by the Holy Spirit that they “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” (32) There were no needy people in the group because “as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold,” (34) and “laid it at the apostles’ feet [and] it was distributed to each as any had need.” (35) Luke makes special mention of a Levite named Jospeh, whom the apostles renamed Barnabas. We shall be hearing more of him later.

The eternal question of course is why have all subsequent attempts at Christians holding property in common failed—and generally failed miserably? The same question can be asked about the healing as well? Was the launch of the church a more Holy Spirit-infused event than it is today? How do we account for the difference? Or are we all just less fired up by the Holy Spirit than that first church in Jerusalem, which it’s worth noting, eventually passed from the scene.