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.

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