Archives for September 2017

Psalm 112; Ezekiel 1,2; Hebrews 9:23–10:4

Psalm 112: This “short acrostic” poem has 22 lines, each beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. While the previous psalm celebrated God’s beneficence, this one celebrates the attributes of the wise man who follows God and the law—and does so with joy:
Happy the man who fears the Lord.
His commands he keenly desires.
A great figure in the land his seed shall be,
the generation of the upright shall be blessed.
Abundance and wealth in his home,
and his righteousness stands forever.” (1-3)

In the quid pro quo world of Jewish law, a man (and it’s always a man) who follows the law will be amply rewarded in terms of progeny (the greatest of all blessings in Israel), wealth, and he will be remembered by subsequent generations for his righteousness (the other greatest blessing).

But this is not to trivialize the ideas in the psalm, even though its sentiments are found elsewhere in less stolid poetry. These are indeed qualities each of us would do well to emulate:
Light dawns in darkness for the upright,
gracious and merciful and just.
Good is the man who shows grace and lends,
he sustains his words with justice.
For he shall never stumble,
and eternal remembrance the just man shall be.” (4-6)

Clearly the most important thought in this stanza is that deeds back up words. There is something solemn about a promise and I know that it is too easy to squander trust by either carelessly-made promises or failure to act on what I have said I committed to do.

All of these wonderful qualities are founded in trusting God—even when others may be attacking the righteous man. His trust in God frees him from fear as he stands tall in adversity:
From evil rumor he shall not fear.
His heart is firm, he trusts in the Lord.
His heart is stanuch, he shall not fear,
till he sees the defeat of his foes.” (7-8)

The wise man also sees difficult tasks through to completion, even in the face of opposition. He is also generous in spirit and resources:
He disperses, he gives to the needy,
his righteousness stands forever.
His horn shall be raised in glory.” (9)

The psalm ends on a note of stark contrast of the reaction of the wicked man when he sees this exemplar of righteousness: because even the wicked have a conscience and deep down they know theirs deeds are evil. But it is only when they see themselves in comparison to the righteous man do their feelings of inadequacy surface. More importantly, as the psalmist observes in the final line, the wicked man’s deeds ultimately come to naught:
The wicked man sees and is vexed,
he gnashes his teeth and he quails.
The desire of the wicked shall perish.” (10)

Ezekiel 1,2: Well, if we thought Jeremiah was a slog, it’s been good preparation for the slog through Ezekiel, which in many ways is a far more puzzling and weirdly dramatic book.

The opening verse is gives us a feel of what is to follow. While Jeremiah was all about hearing and repeating the word of God, Ezekiel is all about sight as the 30-year old prophet, living in in Babylon before the exile, sees prophetic visions: “the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” (1:1)

One has to admit this vision was pretty dramatic. It turns out to be “four living creatures. In appearance their form was human,  but each of them had four faces and four wings” (5, 6) appearing in the midst of fire. These were multi-faced creatures (cherubim?): “Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.” (1:10)

The vision becomes even more dramatic as Ezekiel sees the famous wheels inside wheels, which as a kid back in the 195o’s UFO scares I remember hearing someone explain as extraterrestrial spaceships: “I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz,… Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel…When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose.” (1: 16, 19) 

It is not only a bizarre scene, it’s also pretty noisy as the creatures flap their wings: “When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army.” (1:24) This all leads to the apotheosis: a vision of God himself—a theophany: “I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.” (1: 27, 28)

Ezekiel wisely falls on his face as God begins to speak. God commands Ezekiel to stand and tells him, “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day.” (2:3)

God assures Ezekiel that whether or not the Israelites listen to him, they will know that he is a prophet and that he is to speak to them without fear (which after this vision I assume he was quaking in his sandals). “Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious.” (2:6,7) Ezekiel’s eyes must have been shut through this speech as God commands, “open your mouth and eat what I give you.” (2:8). Ezekiel opens his eyes, looks down at his hands and sees that God has handed him a scroll and “On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe.” (2:10) 

We have to admit that ordaining Ezekiel as a prophet by giving him a scroll to eat is certainly an original and unprecedented act on God’s part! What will be the reaction of the people when Ezekiel shows up and relates what has happened to him? WIll it give him credibility or will the people just think he’s a wacko. I know how I’d react if some 30-year old guy showed up and told us what happened to him. And it would not enhance his credibility…

Hebrews 9:23–10:4: Our author continues his exposition on why Christ’s single sacrifice on the cross was sufficient rather than the annual treks by the high priest to the temple’s Holy of Holies. It’s really quite simple: “For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” (9:24) Therefore, he argues, Christ “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (9:26)

However, our author is careful to add that while Christ does not have to repeatedly offer a sacrifice, he will indeed be coming again: “so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (9:28)

As if he has not made this point several times already our author is compelled to repeat himself, reminding us, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.” (10:1) The sacrifices made under the law are therefore inadequate and “can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” (10:2) However, the sacrifices do serve a useful didactic purpose: “those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins.” (10:3) But that said, our author again(!) reminds us, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (10:4)

I think the business about the sacrifices serving as a reminder of sins is something we could use today. We really don’t talk about sin very much either personally, as a church, or certainly as a culture. For the most part we have jettisoned the idea of personal wrongdoing preferring to cast ourselves as victims of forces beyond our control. That’s a nice way to avoid taking personal responsibility, but building a life on a sense of victimhood is ultimately a house of cards. Frankly, we could stand to hear Jonathan Edward’s’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the hand of angry God” from time to time.

Psalm 111; Lamentations 4,5; Hebrews 9:11–22

Psalm 111: Adding to our theological and/or linguistic knowledge, Alter informs us this is a “short acrostic” psalm of praise where the the first word of each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in alphabetical order. Since we neither know Hebrew nor are reading this poem in Hebrew I can only say, “Noted. That’s cool, I suppose.”  As a psalm of praise, opening on the word, “Hallelujah!,” it is basically a worship song about God’s timelessness and the beneficence he bestows on those who follow God, Which is not a bad theme!
I acclaim the Lord with full heart
in the council of the upright and the assembly.
Great are the deeds of the Lord,
discovered by all who desire them.” (1, 2)

That last line, “discovered by all who desire” to see the deeds of God, is intriguing. I think it means we will see the evidences of God’s power and greatness if we but only look for them. There’s no question that the evidence is all around us. Certainly in nature, but also in simple gifts such as the one we observed a few days ago: the gift of night and day and our ability to consign a bad day to history and begin afresh the next morning.

Our psalmist goes on in a praise chorus vein, covering the many wondrous aspects of God and his mighty power. There are passing references to the Covenant between God and Israel, the time in the wilderness, and the gift of the promised land:
Sustenance He gives to those who fear Him,
He recalls forever His pact.
The power of His deeds He told His people,
to give the the nations’ estate.” (5, 6)

The clear underlying theme is it is God who created that truth and justice which transcend time and are to be carried out by his people. Nice in concept, but like all nations including our own, Israel pretty much failed at putting action behind the high-flown words of the psalm:
His handiwork, truth and justice,
trustworthy all His precepts,
Staunch for all time, forever,
fashioned in truth and right.” (7,8)

God is our savior and as far as this psalmist is concerned, he is the everlasting foundation of human wisdom and knowledge as the psalm concludes in a famous verse:
The beginning of —the fear of the Lord,
good knowledge to all who perform it.
His praise stands for all time.” (10)

We will come back to this theme of wisdom and knowledge big time when we slog through Psalm 119.

Lamentations 4,5: Chapter 4 passage pretty much covers ground we have already worn down quite well: a poem about the punishment of Judah and Jerusalem. But I think the poetry here does a better job at evoking an emotional response than the more stolid lines in the book of Jeremiah. It is chock full of really brilliant images, beginning with the opening verse:
How the gold has grown dim,
    how the pure gold is changed!
The sacred stones lie scattered
    at the head of every street.” (4:1)

There is immense sadness in the verses about the children who have died in the conquest of Jerusalem:
The precious children of Zion,
    worth their weight in fine gold—
how they are reckoned as earthen pots,
    the work of a potter’s hands!” (4:2)

Our poet understandably blames the adults for their failure to care for their children:
The tongue of the infant sticks
    to the roof of its mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food,
    but no one gives them anything.” (4:4)

As well, there is an intriguing poetic focus on color in a series of similies:
Her princes were purer than snow,
    whiter than milk;
their bodies were more ruddy than coral,
    their hair like sapphire.
Now their visage is blacker than soot;
    they are not recognized in the streets.” (4:7, 8)

And then a terribly grim verse about starving mothers eating their own children:
The hands of compassionate women
    have boiled their own children;
they became their food
    in the destruction of my people.” (10)

Which as far our poet is concerned is one of the many causes for God’s anger and subsequent punishment of his chosen people:
The Lord gave full vent to his wrath;
    he poured out his hot anger,
and kindled a fire in Zion
    that consumed its foundations.

The Lord himself has scattered them,
    he will regard them no more;
no honor was shown to the priests,
    no favor to the elders.” (4:11, 16)

One is left with the impression that our poet was himself a priest. By the end of the chapter our poet is confident that Judah will be redeemed but that punishment is coming to Edom, which evidently escaped the conquest by the Babylonians:
The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished,
    he will keep you in exile no longer;
but your iniquity, O daughter Edom, he will punish,
    he will uncover your sins.” (4:22)

Chapter 5 turns to a new theme describing the grim trials of those who lived under the siege of Jerusalem by the army of Babylon. The poet mourns all that has been lost:
Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
    look, and see our disgrace!
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
    our homes to aliens.
We have become orphans, fatherless;
    our mothers are like widows.” (5:1-3)

He goes on to describe the ugly trials of slave-like life in Jerusalem under siege:
We must pay for the water we drink;
    the wood we get must be bought.
With a yoke on our necks we are hard driven;
we are weary, we are given no rest.
We have made a pact with Egypt and Assyria,
    to get enough bread. (5:4-6)

We can hear the poet’s resentment at God’s apparent unfairness in just two lines:
Our ancestors sinned; they are no more,
    and we bear their iniquities.” (5:7)

Really, just your ancestors sinned? Not you too? We’re just like the poet; We’d much rather blame the wrongdoings of our ancestors for our troubles rather than taking personal responsibility for our own sins.

This complaint is followed by grim verses describing the punishments that were meted out by the Chaldeans:
Our skin is black as an oven
    from the scorching heat of famine.
Women are raped in Zion,
    virgins in the towns of Judah.
Princes are hung up by their hands;
    no respect is shown to the elders.
Young men are compelled to grind,
    and boys stagger under loads of wood.
The old men have left the city gate,
    the young men their music.” (5:10-14)

And perhaps the saddest verse of all:
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
    our dancing has been turned to mourning.” (5:15)

Like psalms of supplication, which this poem closely resembles, there is the cry to heaven:
Why have you forgotten us completely?
    Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;

    renew our days as of old—” (20, 21)

But unlike the psalmists who always leave room for hope, this poem concludes on the bleakest possible thought:
unless you have utterly rejected us,
    and are angry with us beyond measure.” (22)

Hebrews 9:11–22: Our author continues to contrast the ineffectual Old Covenant priesthood with the wonderful new regime under Jesus Christ that focuses on the New Covenant’s permanence: “But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come…he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (11, 12)

He observes that if the blood of goats and bulls provided some temporary absolution, how much better, then, was Christ’s own sacrifice: “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” (14)

Relentlessly pursuing his logic chain but also doubling back a bit, our author continues to cite the parallels and differences between the Old and the New Covenants. First, a death is required for redemption. Under the Old Covenant it was the death of animals “that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.” (15)

Turning very lawyer-like, our author notes that wills do not go into effect until someone dies and that “Hence not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.” (18) This statement moves him to the subject of blood sacrifices. Beginning with the law given to Moses and down through Israel’s history, then, the priests “took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the scroll itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.” (19, 20) The reason is simple: “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (22)

The whole business about the necessity of blood as a sacrifice is downplayed in the Lutheran church compared to Baptists and others who sing, “Washed in the blood.” As we’ve observed several times already, the Hebrews author was writing to Jews who practiced sacrifice at the temple at Jerusalem. As thrilling as these arguments are, I’m glad to know that Jesus’ single sacrifice has been sufficient for our salvation, and I’m perfectly happy not focusing on all this blood—the sight of which can make me faint.


Psalm 110; Lamentations 3:16–66; Hebrews 9:1–10

Psalm 110: Alter informs us that this is a “royal psalm” probably written by a court poet (nice job!). The opening verse imagines a statement made by God himself to the poet’s king:
Sit at my right hand
till I make your enemies
a stool for your feet.” (1)

The the poet then begins speaking to his master as the king evidently prepares to go to war. Personally, I find the whole thing a bit over the top:
Your  mighty scpeter
may the Lord send forth from Zion.
Hold sway over your enemies.
Your people rally to battle
on the day your force assembles
on the holy mountains, from the womb of dawn,
yours is the dew of your youth.” (2,3)

But I guess that since the king was paying the poet’s salary, this is the sort of obsequious stuff he’d write—and I’m sure the king lapped it up…

Now we arrive at the very verse by which the author of Hebrews justified his assertion that Jesus is our great high priest forever, outranking all the Jewish high priests that preceded him:
The Lord has sworn, He will not change heart.
‘You are priest forever.
By my solemn word, my righteous king.‘” (4)

There’s no denying that as far as the poet is concerned, God himself has ordained the king also as “priest forever.” Obviously, the poet had no inkling about Jesus, who appeared several centuries later. But the odd thing here is that no Jewish king was simultaneously a priest. That roles belonged strictly to the descendants of Aaron. The other strange thing is “forever.” The king was a mortal; why would God pronounce the king a “priest forever?”

I can certainly see why our Hebrews author glommed onto this verse because I have to confess, it seems to fit only Jesus Christ and not any mortal king. Was the poet prescient? Or did the Holy Spirit cause him to write these words that just lay there for hundreds of years before they proved so vitally important to the Hebrews author?

I can also see why the Hebrews author did not bother to quote any of the verses that follow. They are pretty standard stuff about how God will aid the king in his various military depredations:
The Master [i.e., God] is at your right hand.
On the day of His wrath He smashes kings.
He exacts judgement form the nations,
fills the valley with corpses,
smashes the heads across the great earth.” (5,6)

Here we see the usual angry God taking vengeance on those who have attacked Israel. This is certainly a contrast to that mysterious ‘You are a priest forever’ verse. But then there’s the last verse, which just seems to be a giant non-sequitur about God taking a drink from a stream:
From a brook on the way He drinks.
Therefore He lifts up His head.” (7)

I suppose we could argue this represents Jesus’ baptism, but that seems to be over-interpretation. Even our dauntless Hebrews author didn’t try that one out.

Lamentations 3:16–66: Well, this is certainly a striking opening line to the reading. It makes my mouth feel dry just to read it:
He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
    and made me cower in ashes” (16)

The Lamentations poet offers us deep insight into the thoughts of someone in deep emotional distress:
my soul is bereft of peace;
    I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “Gone is my glory,
    and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”
 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness

     is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
    and is bowed down within me.” (17-20)

[I’ve always wondered where the ‘wormwood and gall’ line came from. Now I know.] But even in the midst of deepest sorrow there is always hope for those who trust in God:

But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,

     his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;

      great is your faithfulness.” (21-23)

Here we can see exactly where the author of the lyrics of the hymn,”Great is Thy Faithfulness” got his inspiration: “Great is Thy faithfulness!”/ Morning by morning new mercies I see.” I’m coming to think that one of God’s greatest gifts is the creation of night and day so that every morning we can see his mercies in our lives once again. Every morning is a fresh start.

Our Lamentations author also espouses thoughtful meditation:
It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
    the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence

    when the Lord has imposed it.” (26-28)

At this point, the poet asks one of the most hardest questions of all: WHy does God allow evil?
When all the prisoners of the land
    are crushed under foot,
 when human rights are perverted
    in the presence of the Most High,
 when one’s case is subverted
    —does the Lord not see it?” (34-36)

There’s a striking answer to the question:
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come?” (38)

As we see so often in the Psalms, I don’t think this is a theological or philosophical insight, but an emotional reaction—which is completely understandable as we witness evil all around us. Why does God allow evil to happen? Is God really the source of evil as well? As well, does an angry God not forgive? Does he not hear our prayers? In the midst of his emotional turmoil, our author seems to think God doesn’t hear us:
We have transgressed and rebelled,
    and you have not forgiven.
You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us,

    killing without pity;
you have wrapped yourself with a cloud
    so that no prayer can pass through.
You have made us filth and rubbish
    among the peoples.” (42-45)

There is immense anger here. Accordingly, our author goes on to reflect on God’s anger [once again!] but then he eventually recalls that God did indeed rescue him when he called out to him:
I called on your name, O Lord,
    from the depths of the pit;
you heard my plea, “Do not close your ear

    to my cry for help, but give me relief!”
You came near when I called on you;
    you said, “Do not fear!” (55-57)

But again another shift in tone as the poet calls on God to take out his enemies:
Pay them back for their deeds, O Lord,
    according to the work of their hands!
Give them anguish of heart;
    your curse be on them!
Pursue them in anger and destroy them
    from under the Lord’s heavens.” (64-66)

If the book of Lamentations does nothing else, it certainly takes us on a roller coaster ride through every conceivable emotion, and the reality that like the author, we are fully capable of thinking and saying conflicting things to ourselves and to God when we are distraught. And as we’ve noted elsewhere, God can take it.

Hebrews 9:1–10: Our intrepid author describes the detailed architecture and furnishings  of the of the original tabernacle, careful to point out that “Behind the second curtain was a tent called the Holy of Holies. In it stood the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold… above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.” (3-5a) Following all these details, in a bit of unconscious irony our author notes, “Of these things we cannot speak now in detail.” (5b) which of course is exactly what he’s done.

Apparently the point of his little excursion into detail is to remind us that “only the high priest goes into the [Holy of Holies], and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people.” (7)

He asserts that all of this is but “a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper.” (9) In other words, the Holy of Holies and the high priest’s annual visit is a precursor, a shadow of something better yet to come, that will eliminate the need for a priest to atone for our unintentional sins.

All of this ceremony—”food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body” (10a)—is necessary only “until the time comes to set things right.” (10b) But we will have to wait for tomorrow’s reading to find out when that time has come. Although I think we already know where he’s headed…

Psalm 109:21-31; Lamentations 2:11–3:15; Hebrews 8

Psalm 109:21-31: After quoting the curses that have apparently been directed against him, our psalmist turns to God in a fairly typical prayer of supplication:
And You, O Lord, Master,
act on my behalf for the sake of Your name,
for Your kindness is good. 
For poor and needy am I,
and my heart is pierced within me.” (21, 22)

He then catalogs his weakened emotional state before God using some rather creative similes to demonstrate his despair before God
Like a lengthening shadow I go off,
I am shaken like the locust.
My knees falter from fasting
and my flesh is stripped of fat.” (23, 24)

He acknowledges that he can turn to no one else beside God since is now an outcast among his neighbors, who have become his enemies. What’s unique here is that as he prays to be transformed by God he is also asking that his neighbors will see that transformation and come to understand God’s power:
As for me, I become a reproach to them
They see me, they shake their heads.
Help me, O Lord my God
Rescue me as befits Your kindness,
that they may know that Your hand
it is, it is You, O Lord, Who did it.”
Let them curse, and You, You  will bless.
They will rise and be shamed, and Your servant will rejoice.” (25-28)

Of course I think there’s a bit of schadenfreude going on here as it would certainly make our poet very happy to see his enemies experience the kind of shame he feels. I’m pretty sure I’ve prayed the same kind of prayer myself.

The psalm ends by drawing the sharpest possible contrast between his enemies and himself. They should be cursed as he stand prouds and blessed as he worships God:
Let my accusers don disgrace,
and let them wrap round like a robe their shame.
I highly acclaim the Lord with my mouth,
and in the midst of the many I praise Him,
for He stands at the needy’s right hand
to rescue him from his condemners.” (29-31)

I think we need to look at this psalm as a form of psychological baring of the soul rather than a theologically-correct psalm of supplication. There’s little question I’ve had these feelings myself, but I tend to bury them and then those feelings explode at some unpredictable and always inopportune moment. I think our psalmist has it right. It is far better to go to God in total honesty and express our deepest feelings, even our hatreds. God can take it.

Lamentations 2:11–3:15: The poem continues with really striking images of the awful events surrounding the conquest of Jerusalem:
My eyes are spent with weeping;
    my stomach churns;
my bile is poured out on the ground
    because of the destruction of my people,
because infants and babes faint
    in the streets of the city.” (2:11)

Woven into the poem are the same kinds of accusations Jeremiah made against his fellow prophets. They did not heed his warnings and all Jerusalem has now paid the price at the hands of angry God:
Your prophets have seen for you
    false and deceptive visions;
they have not exposed your iniquity
    to restore your fortunes,
but have seen oracles for you
    that are false and misleading.

The Lord has done what he purposed,
    he has carried out his threat;
as he ordained long ago,
    he has demolished without pity;
he has made the enemy rejoice over you,
    and exalted the might of your foes.” (2:14, 17)

But in the eyes of our poet, God’s punishment has been too severe. There is an accusation against an angry God that has carried punishment too far:
Look, O Lord, and consider!
    To whom have you done this?
Should women eat their offspring,
    the children they have borne?
Should priest and prophet be killed
    in the sanctuary of the Lord?
The young and the old are lying
    on the ground in the streets;
my young women and my young men
    have fallen by the sword;
in the day of your anger you have killed them,
    slaughtering without mercy.” (2:20, 21)

Not only have the people of Jerusalem suffered too much, but our poet is in despair at his own present plight—again caused by God’s merciless wrath:
I am one who has seen affliction
    under the rod of God’s wrath;
he has driven and brought me
    into darkness without any light;
against me alone he turns his hand,
    again and again, all day long.” (3:1-3)

His accusations against God are bitter and deep as the remainder of the reading continues in the same vein of God’s relentless and overbearing punishment. Underlying these verses is the sense that our poet feels the punishment has been disproportionate to the crime:
He has made my flesh and my skin waste away
and broken my bones;
he has besieged and enveloped me
with bitterness and tribulation;
he has made me sit in darkness
 like the dead of long ago.” (3:4-6)

He goes on, but I think we get the drift here. Our poet has not only been abandoned by God, he has been punished severely—too severely. There’s no question this is our go-to book when we are feeling oppressed by God or other people. One thing stands out: we have not experienced any feeling that has not been previously experienced by someone else. Our author perfectly captures and describes those feelings as he expresses both anger at God and despair at his plight. If we take nothing else away from this book [and many psalms as well] it is better to express our anger at God than to bottle it up inside only to have it eat away at us. As we’ve noted already, God can take it.

Hebrews 8: Just in case his readers (and us) didn’t get it in the preceding verses of chapter 7, our verbose author recaps: “Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent[a] that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up.” (1, 2)

Up to this point, our author boldly asserts, the entire Jewish sacrificial system has been a mere shadow of the glorious reality of our great high priest, Jesus [One is reminded of Plato’s shadows on the wall of the cave]: “They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one [while] Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.” (5,6)

Feeling like deja vu all over again, we encounter a lengthy quote from Jeremiah 31 about how God will one day “establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors.” (8, 9) He quotes Jeremiah at some length, including what I think is the central verse from that book:
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
    after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
    and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.” (10)

Up to this point, Jews have read that verse as applying to them. But our author takes abold step and asserts that God’ promise applies to every human being.

Our author continues with boldness as he summarizes: “In speaking of “a new covenant,” he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” (13)

There’s little question at this point that our author is writing to his fellow Jews, trying to tell them that centuries of tradition, and more importantly of established law in the Torah are now basically obsolete. He’s marshalled powerful arguments for the supremacy of Jesus Christ and for the New Covenant. But as we know from history, his arguments proved largely ineffectual with the Jews. That branch of the Christian church faded away fairly quickly.

But there has been a hugely positive effect of his arguments as well. In the end, all this argumentation provided a firm theological foundation for a Gentile Christianity that is the direct lineal successor of Judaism. Without this book we would have only Paul’s  interpretation of the New Covenant that he outlines in Romans. Even as convoluted as his argument is, what with the Melchizedekian priesthood and all, I think our author has made the all-important point that the New Covenant truly replaces the Old. And even more importantly, that Jesus is our high priest advocate before God.

Psalm 109:8–20; Lamentations 1:16–2:10; Hebrews 7:18–28

Psalm 109:8–20: If one ever needed a catalog of creative but awful curses to hurl at someone else it is right here, starting with wishing for an enemy’s early death:
Let his days be few,
may another man take his post.
May his children become orp[hans
and his wife a widow.” (8, 9)

Not content with heaping coals upon just his enemy himself, our psalmist wishes evil upon his family:
May his children wander and beg,
driven out from ruins of their homes.
May the lender snare all that he has
and may strangers plunder his wealth.” (10, 11)

Not content to bring physical and economic ruin to his family, the psalmist hurls the most severe curse of all: that his enemy be forgotten by history because his progeny dies out and his name has disappeared:
May no one extend to him kindness
and no one pity his orphans.
May his offspring be cut off,
in the next generation his name wiped out.” (12, 13)

Even more intensely, he wishes that God will enter the picture and punish him as well, causing his name to disappear while the sins of his ancestors are remembered:
May the wrong of his fathers be recalled by the Lord
and his mother’s offense not be wiped out.
Let these be be ever before the Lord,
that He cut off from the earth their name.” (14, 15)

We arrive at last to the reason these curses are being heaped on his enemy’s’ heads:
Because he did not remember to do kindness
and pursued the poor and the needy,
the heartsore, to put him to death.” (16)

The psalmist reminds us that wishing evil upon others can become a habit and an intrinsic part of one’s personality:
He loved a curse, may it come upon him,
he desired not blessing—may it stay far from him.
He donned curse as his —
may it enter his innards like water
and like oil in his bones.” (17, 18)

Our psalmist ends his diatribe by wishing permanent evil to come upon this enemy who has done him harm:
May it be like a garment he wraps around him
and like a belt he girds at all times.” (19)

Perhaps what’s most remarkable here is that this entire monologue has been a prayer for God to act against this enemy:
This be the plight of my accusers from the Lord,
and those who speak against my life.” (20)

While it’s impossible to condone this prayer—and Jesus certainly would not condone it—we can take some satisfaction that it was a prayer to God rather than a direct speech against the enemy himself. As we witness in what can barely be construed as dialog in the present political climate, speaking these curses aloud is even more harmful. At least the prayer in private must have brought some amount of psychological relief.

Lamentations 1:16–2:10: The editors of this book certainly named it well:
For these things I weep;
    my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
    one to revive my courage;
my children are desolate,
    for the enemy has prevailed.” (1:16)

But what is most fascinating here is that these lamentations are are written in the first person. So, who’s the person speaking? I don’t think it’s any one individual. It certainly doesn’t appear to be Jeremiah. Instead, I think it is the entirety of the remorseful Jewish remnant in Babylonian exile speaking in a single voice. It is a dialog between a devestated community and God.

The “I” identifies itself as Zion—how the community in exile refers to itself— in the next verse:
Zion stretches out her hands,
    but there is no one to comfort her;
the Lord has commanded against Jacob
    that his neighbors should become his foes;
Jerusalem has become
    a filthy thing among them.” (1:17)

The price of Judah and Jerusalem’s sins is steep and even though there is confession, there are also consequences:
The Lord is in the right,
    for I have rebelled against his word;
but hear, all you peoples,
    and behold my suffering;
my young women and young men
    have gone into captivity.” (1:18)

What strikes me here is that the writer lays much of the blame for what has happened at the feet of an angry, wrathful God:
The Lord has destroyed without mercy
    all the dwellings of Jacob;
in his wrath he has broken down
    the strongholds of daughter Judah;
he has brought down to the ground in dishonor
    the kingdom and its rulers.

The Lord has become like an enemy;
    he has destroyed Israel.
He has destroyed all its palaces,
    laid in ruins its strongholds,
and multiplied in daughter Judah
    mourning and lamentation.” (2:2, 5)

And so on… God is even held responsible for destroying the temple itself:
He has broken down his booth like a garden,
    he has destroyed his tabernacle;
the Lord has abolished in Zion
    festival and sabbath,
and in his fierce indignation has spurned
    king and priest.” (2:6)

Finally, God has sucked the life out of Judah and Jerusalem itself:
The elders of daughter Zion
    sit on the ground in silence;
they have thrown dust on their heads
    and put on sackcloth;
the young girls of Jerusalem
    have bowed their heads to the ground.” (2:10)

But it’s natural, isn’t it? We may briefly admit our own sins but then we tend to blame an angry God for all the other bad things that happen to us. This may be good psychological activity in terms of expressing our woes. But I think blaming God for the consequences that we must endure as a result of our own sinfulness is a fool’s errand.

Hebrews 7:18–28: Our author finally arrives at his main point—the same point Paul makes in Romans in a far less convoluted manner. It’s really quite simple, actually: the law given to Israel is inadequate, or more specifically, “it was weak and ineffectual (for the law made nothing perfect)” (18b, 19a). But fear not, God has something better for us: “there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God.” (19b)

Rather than the ineffectual priests sacrificing on behalf of an ineffectual law, we now have something far better—this New Covenant is secured by Jesus Christ and God’s oath (which our author again quotes from Psalm 110): “this one became a priest with an oath, because of the one who said to him,

“The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind,
‘You are a priest forever’”— (21)

And finally the grand conclusion: “accordingly Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant.” (22)

Not only is the New Covenant superior to the old, but it is permanent, since Jesus “holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.” (24) And now the best part of all: “Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (25)

Unlike those priests of the Old Covenant, who held office by dint of their ancestry rather than an oath, and who kept dying off and needed to be replaced, we now have an oath-backed New Covenant in Jesus Christ that will last forever.

But wait! There’s more! “Unlike the other high priests, [Jesus] has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.” (27) In other words, the old sacrificial system has been superseded by the single sacrifice made by Jesus himself. And it is “the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.” (28)

Well, it took seven chapters of fairly impenetrable prose to get to this wonderfully simple conclusion: Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest and the New Covenant—based on God’s oath—has replaced the old. It is both permanent and it applies to every person alive when our author wrote and for all time and all people yet to come—and that includes us and our children and grandchildren.

Psalm 109:1–7; Lamentations 1:1–15; Hebrews 7:4–17

Psalm 109:1–7: The central theme of this psalm of supplication is around the effects of hateful speech—and terribly relevant in today’s hostile environment of polarizing accusations made so casually against each other via “social media” from the highest ecehons of political leadership on down

Our psalmist accuses wicked people of conspiring against him, but I think these opening verses apply to all of us at some point:
For the wicked’s mouth, the mouth of deceit,
has opened against me,
they spoke to me with lying tongue.
And words of hatred swarmed round me—
they battle for no cause.” (2, 3)

Our psalmist believes he is unjustly accused and that he has done nothing to deserve these accusations. By contrast, he sees himself as having reached out in honesty and love only to be rebuffed by hatred:
In return for my love they accuse me,
though my prayer is for them.
And they offer me evil in return for good
and hatred in return for my love.” (4,5)

How often we feel that having had only the best intentions our words are misinterpreted at best or create hostility at worst (from our POV, of course).

At this point the psalmist begins quoting the imprecations and accusations that have been hurled against him—or at least how he assumes what his accusers are saying about him as they prejudge his every word and deed with no evidence:
Appoint a wicked man over him,
let an accuser stand at his right.
When he is judged, let him come out guilty,
and his prayer be an offense.” (6,7)

Of course what’s striking about this psalm is that we all have felt wrongly accused, and like the psalmist, we imagine what awful things they are saying behind our back. This is just one more instance of the immutability of human nature in both accused and accuser. Of course this psalm is another reminder of the immense and often destructive power of words. One wishes a certain president would take these cautionary words to heart.

Lamentations 1:1–15: If Jeremiah was the prophetic and narrative history of the fall of Judah and Jerusalem, this book is the poetic reflection, doubtless written in exile, on the enormity of the loss. And while our author (Jeremiah?) focuses his poetry on this historical event, the underlying theme of despair is equally applicable to our time.

The fall of Judah and Jerusalem is a cautionary tale for every society that thinks it’s invulnerable to internal corruption and outside enemies. But realization of its intrinsic sinfulness always comes too late:
[Jerusalem’s] uncleanness was in her skirts;
    she took no thought of her future;
her downfall was appalling,
    with none to comfort her.
“O Lord, look at my affliction,
    for the enemy has triumphed!” (9)

As far as the poet is concerned what has happened to Jerusalem is the result of failing to heed God’s commands and God punishing them accordingly:
Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
    Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
    which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
    on the day of his fierce anger.” (12)

Our poet certainly blames God for what has happened:
The Lord has rejected
    all my warriors in the midst of me;
he proclaimed a time against me
    to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a wine press
    the virgin daughter Judah.” (15)

We do not need to confine these words of sorrow to that long-ago time. Like so many psalms, these verses perfectly describe the despairing feelings of anyone today, who believes they are being punished—whether by God or simply by circumstance. And in these verses of lamentation we can take some comfort that we are not the first ones to walk this dark path.

Hebrews 7:4–17: Our author continues to sing the praises of Melchizedek and the fact that Abraham gave a tithe to him in recognition of Melchizedek’s priestly greatness. This tithing policy has been carried down through the line of Abraham [the Jews] ever since. But the really remarkable thing, our author asserts, is that “this man [Melchizedek], who does not belong to their [i.e., the Jews] ancestry, [but he] collected tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises.” (6)

Since “it is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior” (7), our author’s logic chain concludes that Melchizedek is the higher-ranking priest to every other Jewish priest that descended down through the line of Abraham, i.e., the Melchizedekian priesthood outranks the Aaronic priesthood.

We finally arrive at the reason he has been obsessing about Melchizedek. The Aaronic priesthood has proved insufficiently powerful: “if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood—for the people received the law under this priesthood—what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron?” (11) So, our author has set up the need for a superior priesthood to the Aaronic one. Not just a priesthood, but “there is necessarily a change in the law as well. ” (12) I think we can see what’s coming.

And who should be that priest of the non-Aaronic line? Why Jesus Christ of course, who is not descended from the line of Aaron, but “it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.” (14)

Since the Aaronic priesthood has failed, “It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek.” (15) Moreover, the physical descent through Aaron has been superseded by “one who has become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life.” (16)

That priest can be no one other than Jesus Christ. And our author wraps up his case by quoting Psalm 110:4: You are a priest forever,/ according to the order of Melchizedek.” In other words, Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest.


Psalm 108:6–14; Jeremiah 52; Hebrews 6:13–7:3

Psalm 108:6–14: Following his enthusiastic opening praising God, our psalmist gets down to the serious business of supplication:
Loom over the heavens, O God,
Over all earth with Your glory,
that Your beloved ones be saved,
rescue with Your right hand, answer me.” (6,7)

God does indeed answer equally enthusiastically, reminding the psalmist of the  fact that he has given Israel its promised land and his people are his as he provides a truncated list of Israel’s tribes:
God spoke in His holiness:
‘Let Me exult and share out Shechem,
and the valley of Sukkoth I shall measure.
Mine is Gilead, Mine Manasseh,
and Ephraim My foremost stronghold,
Judah My scepter.” (8, 9)

Well, at least he provides only a sampling of tribes rather than the whole list. One feels that the psalmist himself hails from “Ephraim My foremost stronghold.”

It’s not sufficient for the poet’s God to celebrate Israel; there must also be insults hurled at Israel’s traditional enemies:
“‘Moab is My washbasin,
upon Edom I fling My sandal,
over Philistia I shout exultant.’” (10)

But alas, this catalog lists only the glories of God’s intervention from the past. As far as the present is concerned, God seems to have disappeared, hence this strongly-worded supplication for God to once again come to Israel’s military aid:
Who will lead me to the fortified town,
who will guide me to Edom?
Have You not, O God, abandoned us?
You do not sally forth, God, with our armies.
Give us help against the 
foe when rescue by man is in vain.” (11-13)

But as always, this psalm of supplication is a thematic sandwich, with praise of God on both sides and the meat of supplication in the middle. As always, the psalm ends on a hopeful note that
Through God we shall gather strength,
and he will stamp out our foes.” (14)

Even though I’m not praying to God for military victory, the structure of this psalm is eminently worth following. For with supplication there needs to be praise and as the last verse suggests, the assurance that God will indeed answer us.

Jeremiah 52: At last we come to the final chapter of this interesting but ultimately frustrating book that too often repeats itself and confuses the historical timeline. The authors, obviously writing from exile in Babylon, recap the events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon.

First there is wicked king Zedekiah, who “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as [his father] Jehoiakim had done.” (2) Persistent corruption at the top had spread throughout the nation of Judah: “Indeed, Jerusalem and Judah so angered the Lord that he expelled them from his presence.” (3)

Rather than being an obedient vassal king, “Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.” (4) The armies of Babylon arrive at the gates of Jerusalem and try to starve out the inhabitants. The king is captured, forced to watch the execution of his children and then blinded and brought to Babylon. As Jeremiah had promised, he survived but in abject humiliation.

Babylon’s egregious crime and why we’ve spent the past several chapters reading about its imminent destruction is that its armies destroyed the temple: “Nebuzaradan the captain of the bodyguard who served the king of Babylon, entered Jerusalem. He burned the house of the Lord, the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down.” (12, 13)

The surviving inhabitants of Jerusalem are carried off into exile. But this same captain of the guard “left some of the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil.” (16)

Our authors provide a depressing catalog of the sacred objects in the now destroyed temple that the Chaldeans carry off.  It is basically an inventory in reverse that we read in I Kings describing the interior treasures and decoration of the temple. Clearly, our authors are writing in sorrow as they remember and detail what was no more.

The religious and administrative leaders of Judah and Jerusalem are carried off by the Babylonian army. Our authors provide a very specific list, which I will not replicate here. But once they arrive at Babylon “the king of Babylon struck them down, and put them to death at Riblah in the land of Hamath.” (27a) And then the saddest sentence of all: “So Judah went into exile out of its land.” (27b)

The fall of Jerusalem is wrapped up with a census of the 4600 people was carried off to Babylon across four separate actions spanning some several years. I confess surprise at this rather small number and that the exile occurred over a period of years. I had always thought there were tens of thousands of Jews in exile and that they were all sent to exile simultaneously.

The book ends on the hopeful story of King Jehoiachin of Judah. A new king of Babylon, the aptly-named Evil-merodach, ascends the throne of Babylon and shows mercy to Jehoiachin “and brought him out of prison; he spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the seats of the other kings who were with him in Babylon.” (31, 32) Not just release from prison, but honor as well: “Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes, and every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table.” (33) The last verse of this book suggests that exile in Babylon may not be so awful after all—at least for King Jehoiachin: “For his allowance, a regular daily allowance was given him by the king of Babylon, as long as he lived, up to the day of his death.” (34)

The cynical side of me wonders if this rather anodyne note at the end was a means of flattering the king of Babylon. I’m reminded of TS Eliot’s famous line, “This is the way the world ends;/ not with a bang but a whimper.” Jeremiah has been quite a ride!

Hebrews 6:13–7:3: In his brilliant but awfully dense essay to demonstrate how Christians are equal heirs with the Jews of Abraham and God’s promise, our author decides he needs to explain further.

First, oaths and promises are critically important: “Human beings, of course, swear by someone greater than themselves, and an oath given as confirmation puts an end to all dispute.” (16)[Although that certitude seems more casual in our own culture.]

Second, the same seriousness applies to God’s promises: “In the same way, when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath” (17) And God, who by definition obeys his oaths, would never lie to us: “it is impossible that God would prove false, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us.” (18)

This hope is the foundation on which we build our lives in faith: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain.” (20) Notice the radical shift here. It is no longer the Aaronic high priest that goes behind the drape of the Holy of Holies, but our hope lies in a new high priest.

And who is that hope? No surprise here: “Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (20)

There are several crucial points our author makes about Melchizedek. First, he is the one who blesses Abraham, and by implication, all of Abraham’s descendants.

Second, “His name, in the first place, means “king of righteousness”; next he is also king of Salem, that is, “king of peace.” (7:2) So any priest in the order of Melchizedek would be the apotheosis of righteousness and peace.

Third, our author takes advantage of the fact that we know nothing about Melchizedek other than that he is a king and priest: “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.” (7:3).  I think I see where this is going. Melchizedek outranks the Aaronic order and is the forerunner of our new great high priest: Jesus Christ. A new priestly order is being put into place. The minds of new Jewish Christians must have been exploding at this point.


Psalm 108:1–5; Jeremiah 51:24–64; Hebrews 6:1–12

Psalm 108:1–5: Alter informs us that this psalm is the concatenation (my word, not his) of Psalms 57 and 60. But we’ll leave it to the scholars to speculate on why this psalm ended up in the Psalms.

This David psalm opens musically with voice and instrument:
My heart is firm, O God.
Let me sing and hymn
with my inward being, too.
Awake, O lute and lyre.
I would waken the dawn.” (2, 3)

We often talk about interior singing, usually as “a song in my heart.” And there’s no question that if we’re singing on the inside we feel enveloped in a joyful feeling. One of the as-yet unanswered questions is the connection between music and emotion. Or how hearing a certain song brings back indelible memories. Are we hardwired for music? And if so, what kind of music? I think we’re all different in how we respond to different music. I know that I am in the minority that prefers classical music to contemporary popular music. Except sometimes…

Here, though, the music has but bone purpose: worshipping God. And we sense the psalmist’s enthusiasm in both his inward and outward being as he sings:
Let me acclaim You among the peoples, Lord.
Let my hymn You among the nations.
For Your kindness is great over the heavens,
and Your steadfast truth to the skies.” (4, 5)

What strikes me here is that music, especially great worship music, is not confined to inside the church, but it transcends national borders and speaks to the heart of different cultures “among the nations.” But I think it has to be great music—I’m thinking Bach—not the singsong ditties that so frequently waste time in worship.

Jeremiah 51:24–64: OK, OK, Jeremiah. We get it. Babylon is doomed as we encounter yet another 40 verses—this time in poetry—packed with metaphors about how God will take vengeance on the Chaldeans.

There is the usual fire and brimstone:
I am against you, O destroying mountain,
says the Lord,
    that destroys the whole earth;
I will stretch out my hand against you,
    and roll you down from the crags,
    and make you a burned-out mountain.
No stone shall be taken from you for a corner
    and no stone for a foundation,
but you shall be a perpetual waste,
    says the Lord.” (25, 26)

The inhabitants of Babylon are equally doomed as their city as the invading armies of Persia swoop down from the north:
One runner runs to meet another,
    and one messenger to meet another,
to tell the king of Babylon
    that his city is taken from end to end:
the fords have been seized,
    the marshes have been burned with fire,
    and the soldiers are in panic.” (31, 32)

And the reason for the destruction is clear. God is taking vengeance for its cruelties to his chosen people:
Therefore thus says the Lord:
I am going to defend your cause
    and take vengeance for you.
I will dry up her sea
    and make her fountain dry;
and Babylon shall become a heap of ruins,

    a den of jackals,
an object of horror and of hissing,
    without inhabitant.” (36, 37)

And just in case we missed the message of the earlier verses, Jeremiah provides us a couple of summaries:
Assuredly, the days are coming
    when I will punish the images of Babylon;
her whole land shall be put to shame,
    and all her slain shall fall in her midst.” (47)

Thus says the Lord of hosts:
The broad wall of Babylon
    shall be leveled to the ground,
and her high gates
    shall be burned with fire.
The peoples exhaust themselves for nothing,
    and the nations weary themselves only for fire.” (58)

But what’s really weird is what happens next. Jeremiah commands a certain Seraiah, who is the exiled King Zedekiah’s quartermaster, to read the scroll (presumably to Zedekiah) and “when you finish reading this scroll, tie a stone to it, and throw it into the middle of the Euphrates, and say, ‘Thus shall Babylon sink, to rise no more, because of the disasters that I am bringing on her.’” (63, 64)

So, is what we are we reading here the contents of that scroll because Seraiah didn’t carry out Jeremiah’s command? Or is there yet another scroll full of the same message as we’ve been enduring for the last 3 chapters that indeed lies at the bottom of the Euphrates?

If nothing else, we know that Jeremiah (and perhaps some other writing as ‘Jeremiah’) was a pretty good, but terribly verbose prophet.

Hebrews 6:1–12: Our author—also verbose—is dealing with the issue of Christians who have left the faith—what my parents referred to as ‘backsliders.’

He views living the Christian faith not just as a singular conversion experience—what he calls “the foundation”—but rather as an ongoing catechism or confirmation class, whose curriculum includes “instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” (2) This process, sometimes called sanctification, is preferable to focusing solely on the initial conversion experience and “the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation.” (1) Which I take to mean that if we just “accept Jesus into our heart” and proceed to do nothing about it, the conversion experience (or baptism) is worthless.

This maturing process is essential because because if someone has repented and “tasted the heavenly gift, and [has] shared in the Holy Spirit, and [has] tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,… [but] then [has] fallen away,…on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.” (5, 6)  In other words, he is describing someone who initially confessed faith in Jesus, or perhaps was baptized as an infant, but has failed to mature, and then has consciously rejected that same faith.

Once that rejection has occurred, our author asserts, coming back into the faith is impossible. I believe some people have interpreted this passage as the possibility of losing one’s salvation. But I think the author is simply saying that if a person consciously and positively rejects the faith he is no longer part of the Christian community. This is basically tautological.

He uses a different metaphor to compare good Christian growth in faith and understanding to those who reject the faith: “Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over.” (7,8) 

So what does this passage say about people I know who have rejected the faith? I think it means that we must commit to living out our faith and constantly growing in knowledge and understanding. If one has a conversion experience but does nothing about planting and tending that faith then it becomes worthless.

In short, we have a duty to equip ourselves in faith. Faith is what we engineers call a dynamic process. A “static faith” is ultimately worthless.

Psalm 107:33–43; Jeremiah 50:41–51:23; Hebrews 5

Psalm 107:33–43: In a rather abrupt change of tone and theme our psalmist notes God’s destructive power in nature as punishment of wayward humans:
He turns rivers into wilderness
and springs of water into thirsty ground,
fruitful land into salt flats,
because of the evil of those who dwell there.” (33, 34)

I presume this screed is a reference to Israel’s wanton sinfulness and idol worship. My own observation is that humans themselves are perfectly capable of destroying nature without any kind of godly intervention.

But when there is righteousness, God reflects his approval by restoring nature—of which water is the central element:
He turns wilderness to pools of water,
and parched land to springs of water,
and settles there the hungry,
firmly founds a settled town.” (35, 36)

The righteous farmers go straight to work and the result is fecundity—both in agrarian results and human and animal reproduction:
And they sow fields and plant vineyards,
which produce a fruitful yield.
And He blesses them and they multiply greatly,
and their beasts He does not let dwindle.” (37, 38)

In contrast to the noble efforts of the hoi polloi, our psalmist displays only contempt for the corrupt leadership of the land, who are receiving their just desserts as their progeny—the earmark of God’s favor—diminishes:
He pours contempt upon the princes,
and makes them wander in trackless waste.
And they dwindle and are bowed down,
from harsh oppression and sorrow.” (39, 40)

As always, it is the poor and oppressed whom God favors—and we are left with the strong message that if God cares for the poor, so should we who consider ourselves to be righteous:
And he raises the needy from affliction,
and increases his clans like flocks.
Let the upright see and rejoice,
and all wickedness shut its mouth.” (41, 42)

The psalm concludes with advice that we should follow even today:
He who is wise will watch these
and take to heart the Lord’s kindnesses.” (43)

But I confess that in the noise of our culture I too often fail to pause and appreciate God’s manifold blessings in the many little things that do indeed go right. God’s hand is active even today.

Jeremiah 50:41–51:23: Our prophet is certainly making a big deal about the imminent destruction of Babylon by the Persians as the subject comes up once again:
They wield bow and spear,
    they are cruel and have no mercy.
The sound of them is like the roaring sea;
    they ride upon horses,
set in array as a warrior for battle,
    against you, O daughter Babylon!” (50:42)

If Jeremiah didn’t get his message across in poetry, there is always prose that again employs the sheep metaphor: “Therefore hear the plan that the Lord has made against Babylon, and the purposes that he has formed against the land of the Chaldeans: Surely the little ones of the flock shall be dragged away; surely their fold shall be appalled at their fate.” (50:45)

Chapter 51 seems very much a rerun of chapter 50 as it prophesies Babylon’s doom. One feels like there was a writing contest among the Jews in exile in Babylon and that all the many entries have each received their own chapter in this endless book:
“Thus says the Lord:
I am going to stir up a destructive wind
against Babylon
….and I will send winnowers to Babylon,
    and they shall winnow her.
They shall empty her land
    when they come against her from every side
    on the day of trouble.” (51:1, 2)

Unsurprisingly, the fall of Babylon is nothing but good news for the Jewish remnant:
The Lord has brought forth our vindication;
    come, let us declare in Zion
    the work of the Lord our God.” (51:10)

Once again, if we didn’t get the meaning in the poetry, there’s always explanatory prose: “The Lord has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of the Lord, vengeance for his temple.” (51:11)

I think it is here where we see the real reason for Babylon’s ultimate fate: it was their wanton destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Babylon was God’s instrument for punishing the Jews, but certainly the temple—God’s very dwelling place—that would be off limits. But the Babylonians exceeded their brief and now they will be punished.

What is different in this chapter is the prophet’s assertion that Israel will be God’s instrument of destruction—and I’m pretty sure other authors are writing as “Jeremiah” here:
You are my war club, my weapon of battle:
with you I smash nations;
    with you I destroy kingdoms;
with you I smash the horse and its rider;
    with you I smash the chariot and the charioteer;
with you I smash man and woman;
    with you I smash the old man and the boy;
with you I smash the young man and the girl;
with you I smash shepherds and their flocks;
with you I smash farmers and their teams;
    with you I smash governors and deputies.” (51:20-23)

This short poem is at once bizarre and as far as I am concerned, a non-sequitur. I thought it was the Persians from the north that would be the instruments of God’s struction of Babylon. So what is this grimly graphic poetic aside doing here? If this is truly the God of Israel using the Jews to wreak his vengeance on young men and girls, I sure do not want to have anything to do with him.

In the end, I’m left with the impression that it is a military poem that was chanted as soldiers marched in cadence into battle.

Hebrews 5: Our author uses this chapter to compare Jesus Christ against the very mortal high priests who served in the temple at Jerusalem—and then to see how God has established Jesus as our new High Priest.

First, we know that the high priest at the temple in Jerusalem “is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (1) In other words, the high priest is the intercessor between man and God—which was the whole point of the sacrificial system in place in Jerusalem at the time this epistle was written to new Jewish converts to Christianity.

Second, as a human “subject to weakness,” he is empathetic, “able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward.” (2) As a mortal, he is also subject to sin and therefore, “he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.” (3)

Third, he is called to his post by God: “And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” (4) One does not just decide to become a high priest.

WIth these boundary conditions defined, our author turns to a complex logic chain to show how Jesus is our new High Priest, supplanting the high priest at Jerusalem.

First, like his Jewish counterpart, Jesus is human. Second, Jesus did not appoint himself as high priest, but has been called by God, his father. Jesus “was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you;”(5) (which is a quote from Psalm 2).

Then things get mildly confusing. Jesus is not of the Aaronic order of Jewish priests, but “as [God] says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” (6) This reference to the non-Jewish king/priest who blessed Abram back in Genesis where “King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High” (Gen 14:8) is a revolutionary concept for Jews. It means that Jesus is high priest to everyone—both Jew and Gentile.

Finally, Jesus, being mortal, suffered as other humans. In fact he endured even greater suffering in our author’s oblique reference to his death on the cross: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus  offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (7)

Thus is Jesus our new High Priest before God. And with the explicit Melchizedekian line of succession, Jesus trumps the Aaronic priests in Jerusalem and has become High Priest for every person both in the present and yet to come.

Our author implicitly admits this is complicated stuff as he insults his readers: “About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding.” (11) and then accuses them of theological immaturity: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness.” (12, 13)

So I guess at this point were are all milk drinkers…


Psalm 107:23–32; Jeremiah 50:1–40; Hebrews 4:6–16

Psalm 107:23–32: The reading opens with one of my favorite lines in the psalms because Melville quotes them in Father Mapple’s sermon near the beginning of my favorite American novel, Moby Dick, as he preaches to a congregation of sailors about to depart for a two-year whaling voyage:
Those that go down to the sea in ships,
who do tasks in the mighty waters,
it is they who have see the deeds of the Lord,
and His wonders in the deep.” (23, 24)

And in this time of monster hurricanes, the next verse is especially apropos as perhaps the most beautiful description ever written describing an angry sea and the woeful plight of sailors caught in those storm-tossed waves:
He speaks and raises the stormwind
and it makes the waves loom high.
They go up to the heavens, come down to the depths,
their life-breath in hardship grows faint.
They reel and sway like a drunkard,
all their wisdom is swallowed up.” (26, 27)

But there is one who rescues:
And they cry to the Lord
from their straits from their distress He brings them out,
He turns the storm into silence,
and its waves are stilled,
and they rejoice that these have grown quiet.
and He leads them to their bourn.” (28, 29)

[‘Bourn’ is a small, still stream.] I guess we could call this an “inadvertent prophecy,” for it is a perfect description of that stormy night on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus slept peacefully in the rocking boat as the disciples panicked. Of course these verses are also a perfect metaphor for our own lives and the peace that only prayer and God can bring to our personal sturm und drang.

As always in the Psalms heartfelt worship is the immediate reaction of those who have been rescued by God:
Let them acclaim to the Lord His kindness
and His wonders to humankind.
Let them exalt Him in the people’s assembly
and in the session of elders praise Him.” (31, 32)

When I look back over my life I realize there are numerous times where God has indeed rescued me from the waves. Not least in 2009.

Jeremiah 50:1–40: Now it is Babylon’s turn to be in Jeremiah’s cross-hairs as the prophet pronounces God’s judgement on the conquerors of Judah and Jerusalem: “ For out of the north a nation has come up against her; it shall make her land a desolation, and no one shall live in it; both human beings and animals shall flee away.” (3) As we know from history, Cyrus, king of what is now Persia, conquered Babylon in BCE 539—not too many years after Babylon decimated Jerusalem.  We read: “For I am going to stir up and bring against Babylon a company of great nations from the land of the north; and they shall array themselves against her; from there she shall be taken.” (9)  [Sorry, but my personal suspicion is that our Jeremiah author is writing after that event, not before, so he had the historical facts at hand…]

This event occurs when “the people of Israel shall come, they and the people of Judah together; they shall come weeping as they seek the Lord their God.” (4)  We again encounter the metaphor of Israel as a flock of wandering sheep: “My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold.” (6) God will always fit the punishment t the crime and it’s clear here that God sees the repentance of the Jewish remnant that remains in exile.

The sheep metaphor arises again in a succinct summary of the fate the once-proud kingdom of David and Solomon has endured: “Israel is a hunted sheep driven away by lions. First the king of Assyria devoured it, and now at the end King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has gnawed its bones.” (17)

Continuing that metaphor is God’s wonderful promise: “I will restore Israel to its pasture, and it shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead its hunger shall be satisfied…for I will pardon the remnant that I have spared.” (19, 20) Where there is repentance there is also restoration.

Many verses regarding the destruction of Babylon follow…

The question arises: If God used Assyria and Babylon as his agents to dole out Israel’s and Judah’s deserved punishments, why is he now so enthusiastic about destroying its conquerors? I think the answer is here: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: The people of Israel are oppressed, and so too are the people of Judah; all their captors have held them fast and refuse to let them go.” (33) The conquerors think their hold on power is firm and they exceed the punishments God has allowed.

But Jeremiah believes that Israel has suffered enough and he holds onto a firm hope: “Their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of hosts is his name. He will surely plead their cause, that he may give rest to the earth, but unrest to the inhabitants of Babylon.” (34)

Jeremiah’s final prophecy is that Babylon will never be rebuilt: “Therefore wild animals shall live with hyenas in Babylon, and ostriches shall inhabit her; she shall never again be peopled, or inhabited for all generations.” (39) Which is exactly what happened. It’s ruins lie in the middle of the Iraqi desert.

What’s the lesson for us? God cannot endure evil and empires fall. What fate awaits us here in the declining empire of America that so thoroughly is abandoning its Judeo-Christian foundation? Will we see repentance?

Hebrews 4:6–16: Our author continues his disquisition on “rest.” I think what he is getting at is that “rest” for the Jews was both the God-ordained Sabbath as well as the Promised Land they occupied with Joshua so many centuries ago under the terms of the Old Covenant. But he argues that “rest” has a greater meaning: “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day.” (8) And, he continues, “a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his.” (9, 10)  So we should literally rest from our labors just as God rested. 

But it appears there’s a third interpretation of “rest,” and I think it is living out our salvation through Jesus Christ: “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” (11)

We arrive a verse I learned as a kid: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (12) I was taught that the small-w “word of God” is Scripture, the Bible. That’s the view of most Evangelicals, who love their sola scriptura. I’m less sure now. It seems to me the word of God can come in a variety of ways beyond just the Bible: through other people, through sermons, through actions, through reflection. The Holy Spirit is not limited in the ways it can operate on us.

But regardless of how we heard God’s word, in the end our actions and the consequences of those actions are our responsibility: “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (13) The truth will always be found out.

I think behind all of this rather confusing essay, our author is attempting to describe the impact of the transition from Old Covenant Judaism to New Covenant Christianity. Nowhere is that more apparent than his essay on Jesus Christ as our great high priest.

However, Jesus as priest is not some abstract metaphor. Rather, our author wants to make sure we see Jesus as a real and legitimate priest who by becoming human through the Incarnation fully understands our human plight: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested  as we are, yet without sin.” (15) That last phrase “yet without sin” says it all in how Jesus, while human, is also far greater than us.

Jesus as priest sits on the throne of grace and in one of the clearer promises in this epistle, our author makes sure we know that Jesus is the person to whom we come to confess and receive forgiveness: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (16) That, ladies and gentlemen, is a promise we can grasp. Like a priest, we can come to Jesus and confess and he intercedes on our behalf, making us right before God.