Archives for February 2019

Psalm 31:11–21; 2 Chronicles 36; Acts 27:9–20

Originally published 3/1/2017. Revised and updated 2/28/2019.

Psalm 31:11–21: Now we come to the confessional meat of this psalm. The psalmist, speaking as David, admits that his present state of guilty exhaustion has been caused by the consequences of his sin:
For my life is exhausted in sorrow
and my years in sighing.
Through my crime my strength stumbles
and my limbs are worn out. (11)

He is ashamed in front of his enemies, and his friends are repulsed. The degradation is even worse because he has been separated from God:
Forgotten from the heart like the dead.
I become like a vessel lost. 

If we ever needed a poetic description of the depths of despair and depression it is right in these verses. For me, this is a perfect description of how it is to feel abandoned by everyone we know—and by God, too.

And in this dreadful state, he remains subject to the conspiracies of his enemies:
I heard the slander of many,
terror all round,
when they conspired against me,
when they plotted to take my life. (14)

But even hemmed in on all sides in the pit of despair one scintilla of hope remains as he realizes that escape on his own is impossible. Only God can save him:
As for me, I trust in You, O Lord.
I say, ‘You are my God.’

My times are in Your hand—O save me
from the hand of my enemies, my pursuers. (15, 16)

As he focuses on God, we see a glimmer of hope grow and as usual when there is trust in God there is also the wish for his enemies to suffer as he has suffered:
Let the wicked know shame,
and be stilled in Sheol.
Let lying lips be silent,
that speak haughty against the just
in arrogance and contempt. (18, 19)

I read this verse as a plea for justice rather than revenge. In our fallen world, these words remain just as meaningful in our own fallen culture as they were in David’s. It is the wicked who always seem to be on the ascendant. And yet.And yet…

In the end, it is the just who receive God’s protection as he pleads
Conceal them [the just] in the hiding-place of Your presence
from the crookedness of man.

These are the verses to cling to for those who are depressed and for those who are oppressed. Only God provides the shelter from the storm. And we of the New Covenant  find hope in just one place: Jesus Christ.

2 Chronicles 36: With Josiah’s death, things quickly go downhill in Judah. Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz ascends the throne. Hs reign is short-lived as the Pharaoh Neco deposes him, demands enormous reparations from Judah and places Jehoahaz’s brother Jehoikim on the throne of Judah. Neco brings Jehoahaz  back to Egypt as a captive and we never hear form him again..

Alas, the rule of evil sons coming from good men seems to apply once again. During his 11 year rule, Jehoiakim “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord his God.” (5)  At this point in Judah’s long, mostly sad history of suffering under evil kings, our authors don’t even have to say it. God punishes Jehoiakim as “King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up, and bound him with fetters to take him to Babylon.” (6) There he dies.

Jehoaikim’s 8-year old son replaces him and reigned for 3 months and 10 days. Like his father, he “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (9) Really? How does an 8-year old kid do evil in God’s sight? Would he even know better or even be responsible for worshipping the false gods of his father? I think our authors are being unduly harsh here.

In any event, his 21-year old brother, Zedekiah, becomes king. One wonders why he wasn’t chosen king in the first place over the 8-year old. Of course, there’s no surprise here, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord His God.” Moreover, “He did not humble himself before the prophet Jeremiah who spoke from the mouth of the Lord.” (12)

He even “rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God; he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (13) In other words, even the Nebuchadnezzar’s political threats are insufficient to motivate Zedekiah to mend his ways. As always, when corruption is at the top, it filters downward and “All the leading priests and the people also were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations; and they polluted the house of the Lord that he had consecrated in Jerusalem.” (14)

God sends prophets to warn the king and people against their apostasy “because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place.” (15) but they only mocked the prophets. In one of the most freighted verses in this book, our authors observe that even God gives up on his people and “the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy.” (16) Reflect on that for a moment. Imagine evil so immense that even God gives up.

Both God and Nebuchadnezzar have had enough of the rebellion and stupidity emanating from Jerusalem. In one of the saddest verses in the Bible, God “brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their youths with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or young woman, the aged or the feeble; he gave them all into his hand.” (17) The treasures of the temple are carted off by the Babylonians, and they “burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels.” (19) The few who survive this invasion are hauled off to Babylon. All this was “to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.” (21) Leave it to our authors to find symbolic meaning in the 70 year exile.

The authors completely skip over what happened during the 70 years of exile and report that King Cyrus of Persia, who conquered Babylon, “in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom and also declared in a written edict” (22) The edict announces that God had charged Cyrus to “build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.” (23) In other words, the Jews can return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the temple.

On the cusp of the return to Jerusalem, our authors lay down their pens and roll up the scroll. The long story of the Davidic dynasty comes to a sad end. Or does it?

Acts 27:9–20: Things are not going well on Paul’s long journey from Caesarea to Rome. Paul predicts that the next leg of their trip will be dangerous: “Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” (10) But Paul lacks credibility for his maritime weather forecasting skills. The sailors put out to sea anyway, planning to winter over at “a harbor of Crete, facing southwest and northwest.” (12)

Not surprisingly, Paul’s forecast was exactly spot on, and “a violent wind, called the northeaster, rushed down from Crete.” (14) Luke reports that they “were scarcely able to get the ship’s boat under control.” (16) But things get worse and they toss the cargo as well as the ship’s tackle overboard. The reading ends on a grim note: “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” (20)

We could probably create some sort of metaphor here of life’s struggles that include violent emotional storms, but sometimes narrative is just narrative and a storm is just a storm.




Psalm 31:7–10; 2 Chronicles 35; Acts 26:28–27:8

Originally published 2/28/2017. Revised and updated 2/27/2019.

Psalm 31:7–10: Our psalmist continues his reflection. His thoughts almost seem to come in random order as he asserts his loyalty and thanksgiving to God. First, he rejects those people “who look to vaporous lies,” which I have to admit is a nice turn of phrase. Instead of being shrouded in lies, he asserts, “As for me, I trust in the Lord.” (7)

Then, there is gratitude for the healing he has experienced because God knows his every aspect of his being and circumstances, including the kind of trouble he was in:
Let me exult and rejoice in Your kindness,
that You saw my affliction,
You knew the straits of my life. (8)

Moreover, God has preserved him from his enemies:
And You did not yield me to my enemy’s hand,
You set my feet in a wide-open place. (9)

I like the idea of freedom that the phrase “wide-open space” evokes, especially when I’m feeling closed in—not necessarily by enemies, but just by the continuous onslaught of the media and new of stupidity, if not malfeasance at every level of government.

Nevertheless, despite the healing and rescue that God has granted him thus far, our psalmist remains stressed. Even though God has done all the wonderful things he’s just described, our poet remains under a cloud of frustration as he seeks still more from God:
Grant me grace, Lord, for I am distressed.
My eye is worn out in vexation,
my throat and my belly” (10)

We doubtless will find out the root cause of this vexation as we read on. But the point that comes to my mind is that like the psalmist, we can keep on asking God for more even though we are thankful for all that he has already given us. God is indeed limitless and along with the psalmist, we do not need to ration our supplications to him.

2 Chronicles 35: With the temple restored, Josiah and all Jerusalem celebrates Passover. Josiah is generous and “contributed to the people, as passover offerings for all that were present, lambs and kids from the flock to the number of thirty thousand, and three thousand bulls; these were from the king’s possessions.” (7) His court officials follow suit. Every protocol of Passover is followed scrupulously. The priests do their duty; the Levites theirs. There are singers, who are descendants fof Asaph and there are gatekeepers, as well.  Not only is all of Judah present for Passover, but a remnant from Israel, as well.

Our authors are impressed and note that “No passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel; none of the kings of Israel had kept such a passover as was kept by Josiah, by the priests and the Levites, by all Judah and Israel who were present, and by the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” (18)

Some time after this remarkable Passover, the Pharaoh Neco of Egypt “went up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates.” (20). Apparently bored by his success, Josiah eagerly announces he wants to join Neco. However, Neco sends envoys to tell Josiah that this is not his battle. In fact, Neco’s envoys tell Josiah, “Cease opposing God, who is with me, so that he will not destroy you.” (21) Apparently Josiah’s reign has been so successful, even to the point of boredom. The authors give us no hint of Josiah’s motivation to join Neco. My guess is he was seeking adventure.

So “Josiah would not turn away from him, but disguised himself in order to fight with him. He did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God, but joined battle in the plain of Megiddo.” (22) [which by the way, is what we today call Armageddon.] Even though he disguises himself, God has the last word and Josiah is mortally wounded by an arrow. We can disguise ourselves all we want but God’s arrow will eventually find us.

All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day.” (24, 25) I’m guessing that Jeremiah’s laments are recorded in the book of Lamentations, which we’ll be encountering later this year.

The lesson here is clear. In terms of leading a godly life, Josiah was unsurpassed. But leading a godly life requires that we constantly listen and discern the voice of God, even when it comes from an unexpected source as it did here. God communicates to us in many ways and we ignore those communications at our peril. Josiah was a wonderful and wise man, but he allowed his pride and yes, his over-enthusiasm, to blot out his discernment. It only took one lapse to lead to a bad outcome. Which is a sobering lesson for us indeed.  We don’t build up protective credits for our past acts of holiness that will take care of us when we make stupid decisions.

Acts 26:28–27:8: Following Paul’s rather brilliant sermon, Agrippa asks, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” (26:29). Paul replies in one of the great altar calls of all time,“Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.” (30).

So close, yet so far. Agrippa, Festus, and Bernice get up and leave. On the way out the door, Agrippa remarks to Festus, “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.” (31) Paul’s argument has carried the day as far as establishing his innocence. But he does not carry the day (as far as we know) in persuading this group of senior officials to follow The Way. There’s an old hymn about those who are like Agrippa. Close but not quite close enough: Almost Persuaded, whose lines include, ” Some more convenient day/ on Thee I’ll call.” And then later, “Sad, sad that bitter wail— “Almost—but lost!” Almost is not good enough for Jesus.

In the end, it is Agrippa’s decision. There is nothing more Paul can do. Just as we cannot force others to “accept Jesus.”

Festus speaks the bittersweet words, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor.” (32) But had Paul not eventually gone to Rome think of how much we would have missed. Without Paul’s epistles written from Rome, the church would have turned out far differently—or it may have faded from the scene altogether just as the church at Jerusalem did.

Luke launches into descriptive travel mode as he describes the rather roundabout way they are getting to Rome by ship. He must have been a sailor since he knows nautical terminology, “Putting out to sea from there, we sailed under the lee of Cyprus, because the winds were against us.” (27:4)

Paul is under the watchful eye of a centurion named Julius, who has the responsibility of getting Paul and his party to Rome. The centurion finds “an Alexandrian ship bound for Italy and put us on board.” (6) But the passage is slow “as the wind was against us, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmone.” (7)

Finally, they arrive at “a place called Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea.” (8) They’re still a fair distance from Rome. I’m struck by the name, “Fair Havens.” I wonder if Tolkien has Fair Havens in mind when he named a town “Grey Havens,” which sat in the far west, whence Bilbo Baggins departs Middle-Earth at the end of the LOTR trilogy.

Psalm 31:1–6; 2 Chronicles 34:8–33; Acts 26:15–27

Originally published 2/27/2017. Revised and updated 2/26/2019.

Psalm 31:1–6: To be blunt, this psalm of supplication appears to have borrowed many of its tropes from other psalms—almost to the point of predictability. After a brief introduction stating, “In You, O Lord, I shelter,/ let me never be shamed,” our psalmist asks God to listen, and then with a certain urgency to rescue him:
In Your bounty, O free me.
Incline Your ear to me.
Quick, save me.
Be my stronghold of rock,
a fort-house to rescue me. (2, 3)

The next verse is a distinct echo of Psalm 23:
For You are my crag and bastion,
and for Your name’s sake guide me and lead me. (4)

Perhaps it’s my mood this morning, but I don’t sense the anxious desperation that we encounter in other psalms of supplication. Rather, there is a certain sense of anodyne, almost ritua, predictability. Perhaps it’s because we’ve read these same phrases too many times already.

We get a hint from the psalmist, speaking in David’s voice, that enemies are conspiring against him, but it almost seems a passing reference before he changes the subject:
Get me out of the net that they laid for me,
for You are my stronghold.” (5)

Suddenly, just six verses in there seems to be an out-of-place benediction:
In Your hand I commend my spirit.
You redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth. (6)

While there is no question of his faith in God and ultimate rescue, I just can’t get over the feeling that our psalmist has just pretty much phoned this one in. The emotional impact of Psalm 23 and others we’ve read since is somehow absent. There is the same kind of distracted ritual when we rush through the Lord’s Prayer rather than dwelling on the true intensity and meaning of each sentence. We’ll see how things progress tomorrow.

2 Chronicles 34:8–33: Having been desecrated so many times and, I presume, subject to lots of deferred maintenance, the temple at Jerusalem is pretty much in a shambles. In the 18th year of his reign, Josiah has collected funds “from Manasseh and Ephraim and from all the remnant of Israel and from all Judah and Benjamin and from the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (9) to restore the temple.  As the workmen set about repairing the house of God, “the priest Hilkiah found the book of the law of the Lord given through Moses.” (14) He gives it to his secretary, Shaphan, who brings it to Josiah.

Upon hearing the word of the Lord read to him, Josiah tears his clothes and asks the high priest and a couple of servants to “Go, inquire of the Lord for me and for those who are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that has been found.” (21a) Josiah rather correctly fears that the punishment for the sins of their ancestors will be meted upon them, “for the wrath of the Lord that is poured out on us is great, because our ancestors did not keep the word of the Lord.” (21b)

Their inquiry leads them to the prophet Huldah, a female prophetess, the wife of the king’s wardrobe master. She confirms Josiah’s fear that because of the apostasy of their ancestors, punishment is imminent. “Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the Lord: I will indeed bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the curses that are written in the book that was read before the king of Judah.” (24)

However, because Josiah’s “heart was penitent and you humbled yourself before God when you heard his words against this place and its inhabitants, and you have humbled yourself before me, and have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord.” (27) God grants a delay for the punishment to come to Josiah and Judah: “your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place and its inhabitants.” (28)

Obviously the disaster to come was the final conquest of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon, which is the place our authors are doubtless writing from.

Upon hearing this, as well as more words from the book, “the king stood in his place 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, to perform the words of the covenant that were written in this book.” (31) Josiah makes all of Jerusalem and Benjamin take the same oath and for the reminder of the Josiah’s time of the throne, “All his days they did not turn away from following the Lord the God of their ancestors.” (33)

The clear message here is that the sins of the father are indeed visited upon the children. Judah has been saved for the time being, but the consequences of all the evil in Judah’s history will indeed bear bitter fruit. I believe this principle is still very much in operation today. There will be consequences upon our progeny for how our own generation has abandoned God as the central touchstone of our increasingly depraved culture.

Acts 26:15–27: Paul tells Agrippa that his Damascus Road experience was a holy commission directly from God, “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (18)

Paul goes on to relate how he has carried out that commission by speaking first to Jews and then to Gentiles. However, regardless of the audience, the message was always the same: “that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance.” (20) Paul seems to be telling Agrippa (and us) that it was because he carried this message to the Gentiles that “the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.” (21) But he continues to insist that he has done nothing more than to declare that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of “what the prophets and Moses said would take place: that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (22, 23)

Festus, who is listening to Paul’s disquisition, finds this theology all a bit confusing and accuses Paul, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!” (24) —certainly one of the more dramatic moments in Acts. It is also clear message to the readers of Acts that many others in the culture would agree with Festus’s outburst that Paul is insane.

Nevertheless, Paul stands his ground: “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth.” (25) he points out that Agrippa is well aware of what Moses and the prophets had said.

Paul then famously asks Agrippa for the order: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” (27) How will Agrippa respond? How would we respond?

Psalm 30:7–13; 2 Chronicles 33:1–34:7; Acts 26:2–14

Originally published 2/25/2017. Revised and updated 2/24/2019.

Psalm 30:7–13: Our psalmist continues his argument that he’s more useful to God alive than dead. First, though, he argues that he thought he could lead a sinless life by hewing to God and the Law. But then, God seems to have disappeared and he became ill:
As for me, I thought in my quiet days,
‘Never will I stumble.’
Lord, in Your pleasure You made me stand mountain-strong.
—When You hid Your face I was stricken.” (7,8)

Nevertheless, our psalmist prays to his apparently absent God, posing the question at the center of the psalm, to wit, that God will lose a faithful follower who will be of no use in worshipping if God allows him to die:
To You, Lord, I call,
and to the Master I plead.
What profit in my blood,
in my going down deathward?
Will dust acclaim You,
will it tell the truth?” (9, 10)

I have to admit that’s pretty compelling logic. And when I think about it, it’s a question that every God-believer should ask. What is the point of being dead? We are of no use to anyone, never mind God. That’s why I think Christians who focus on the”sweet bye and bye” of heaven are missing the whole point of being alive here where we can make a difference and where we can worship the God who saved us through Jesus Christ.

God does indeed answer his prayer as he is returned to health—definitely an occasion of rejoicing and faithful worship:
You have turned my dirge to a dance for me,
undone my sackcloth and bound me with joy.
O, let my heart hymn You and be not still,
Lord, my God, for all time I acclaim You.” (12, 13)

If we take these verses metaphorically, these last two verses point to the sheer transformative power of a relationship with God. One day we are depressed and worried but when we turn toward God and ask his help, he inevitably shows up to do just that: to turn our dirges into dancing.

2 Chronicles 33:1–34:7: It strikes me as odd that good kings like Solomon and Hezekiah sire evil offspring. Is it because they have known only good times, wealth, and have been too close to power to see its benefits but not its burdens? Manasseh is a mere twelve year old lad when he begins his 55 year reign. Alas, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” (33:2) Of course he manages to commit the ultimate abomination by placing the carved image of an idol in the house of God (the temple). Indeed, Manasseh sets some kind of record for wrong doing, and the people of Judah follow their leader as “Manasseh misled Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that they did more evil than the nations whom the Lord had destroyed before the people of Israel.” (33:9)

So, as a result of all this evil, God allows the Assyrian army to again show up at Jerusalem’s doorstep, whereupon, it “took Manasseh captive in manacles, bound him with fetters, and brought him to Babylon.” (33:11) In chains in Babylon, Manasseh has a change of heart and repents, and “God received his entreaty, heard his plea, and restored him again to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord indeed was God.” (33:13)

To Manasseh’s credit “He also restored the altar of the Lord and offered on it sacrifices of well-being and of thanksgiving; and he commanded Judah to serve the Lord the God of Israel.” (16)

I like the story of Manasseh because it is a testament to the power of repentance, of turning back to God. Even when we have led a dissolute life and had other small-g gods as our priorities, there is always hope. This of course is exactly the promise that Jesus Christ makes to all of us.

Manasseh is succeeded by his son Amon, who must have missed the message about the power of repentance because (no surprise here) he follows the evil son rule and “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his father Manasseh had done.” (33:22) But unlike his father, “He did not humble himself before the Lord, as his father Manasseh had humbled himself, but this Amon incurred more and more guilt.” (33:23), which of course is the price that’s paid when there is no realization of one’s sinfulness and consequent repentance. Amon was such an awful king that he is assassinated by his servants. However, for this act, the people in turn kill the servants and set up Amon’s son, Josiah, as king.

Josiah is a mere 8 years old when he ascends to the throne at Jerusalem. The happy news is that he finally breaks the evil son rule and “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the ways of his ancestor David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.” (34:2) You know that when our authors mention that someone “walked in the ways of his ancestor David” that they consider him to be a truly excellent king. They underscore Josiah’s righteousness by noting that he turned “neither to the right nor the left,” i.e., he hewed the straight and narrow of God’s law.

At the age of 16, Josiah “seeks the God of his ancestor David” and by the time he’s 20, “he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the sacred poles, and the carved and the cast images.” (34:3) He does not fool around, nor does he show mercy to the idol worshippers and priests as he “burned the bones of the priests on their altars, and purged Judah and Jerusalem.” (34:5) The cleansing is effective beyond Judah itself, reaching to the Israel towns of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, and as far as Naphtali. Idol worship is effectively wiped from the face of all Judah and Israel: “he broke down the altars, beat the sacred poles and the images into powder, and demolished all the incense altars throughout all the land of Israel.” (7) In short, Josiah carries out the same instructions that God gave to Israel when they crossed the Jordan so many centuries ago.

The lesson here is that unless idols are completely wiped out they will always find a way to find their way back in. We humans are led too easily into temptation. We shall see whether or not if Josiah was successful in the long run.

Acts 26:2–14: Now that he is speaking to a fellow Jew rather than a Gentile Roman, Paul unleashes his considerable theological powers as he tells King Agrippa, “because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews; therefore I beg of you to listen to me patiently.” (3) He reminds the king that Jews who are accusing him “know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem.” (4) Moreover, were they to testify honestly, his accusers would be forced to admit, “that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee.” (5)

He states that he is on trial, not because of fair accusations, but “on account of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship day and night.” (6,7) Paul summarizes his logic chain: why would he be on trial for having exactly the same hope in a Messiah that every pious Jew has?

He goes on to further affirm his Jewish bona fides by reminding the king that “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem.” (8) Moreover, he executed the high priest’s mission with full “authority received from the chief priests. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death.” (9,10) In short, he was more Jewish than the Jews now accusing him.

With this as background, Paul relates his Damascus Road experience. At last! This is the autobiography we have been waiting for all through the book of Acts. It is here at Paul’s own statement where we find out exactly what happened that day. Paul sees a bright light, “brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions.” (13) And then there is the voice that only he could hear.

What will Agrippa make of this rather dramatic testimony? Is Paul telling the truth? Or is he simply a pious Jew who’s lost his marbles?

Psalm 30:1–6; 2 Chronicles 32; Acts 25:16–26:1

Originally published 2/24/2017. Revised and updated 2/23/2019.

Psalm 30:1–6: This psalm of thanksgiving exudes a quiet joy as the psalmist thanks God for his recent healing from a  disease. Adding a dramatic backstory, it appears his enemies would have preferred that he die of the illness:
I shall exalt You, Lord, for You drew me up,
and You gave no joy to my enemies.
Lord, my God,
I cried to You and You healed me. (2,3)

Clearly, this healing was from a near-death experience:
Lord, You brought me up from Sheol,
gave me life from those gone down to the pit. (4)

In light of this seemingly miraculous healing, our psalmist can have only one possible response, that of worship followed by reflection.
Hymn to the Lord, O his faithful,
acclaim His holy name.
But a moment in His wrath,
life in His pleasure.” (5, 6a)

He observes that we will from time to time experience the wrath of God—here in the form of disease.It’s important to remember the deuteronomic view in this culture that disease was seen as God’s punishment for sins knowingly or unknowingly committed. But in comparison to the far longer periods of life’s joys that come from God, suffering lasts but a moment.  This idea is captured memorably in the latter half of this verse:
At evening one beds down weeping,
and in the morning, glad song. (6b)

Not only is sleep physically healing, it is also emotionally healing as our psalmist tells us that God will always waken us in peace and even joy.

We might ask about those who suffer over a long period of time. How do these verses apply to them? I think the answer is that even in ongoing suffering, God will bring peace. I know this has been true of two men with whom I’ve walked along side as they suffered from disease that indeed carried them to death. Yet, along the way they both found the quiet joy in God that our poet describes here.

2 Chronicles 32: Even though Hezekiah and Judah have followed God assiduously, that is no guarantee that there will not be hard times. We read that “After these things and these acts of faithfulness, King Sennacherib of Assyria came and invaded Judah and encamped against the fortified cities, thinking to win them for himself.” (1)

But Hezekiah does not panic, but rather responds calmly and rationally to the threat. First, they cut off all the water flowing outside the fortified Jerusalem, depriving Sennacherib and his army of water. Hezekiah then sees that the city walls are repaired and fortified as he goes on to organize the army.

Perhaps most impressive of all is that Hezekiah demonstrates the true leadership that comes from a man who confidently follows God: “Hezekiah spoke encouragingly to them, saying, “Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him; for there is one greater with us than with him.” (7)

Sennacherib sends his servants to Jerusalem in an attempt to discourage Hezekiah and all Jerusalem from the overwhelming force that surrounds them. He mocks their belief in God, sarcastically intoning, “‘The Lord our God will save us from the hand of the king of Assyria’?” (11) The Assyrian king then attempts to turn the court officials against foolish Hezekiah, warning them that he remains undefeated: “do not let Hezekiah deceive you or mislead you in this fashion, and do not believe him, for no god of any nation or kingdom has been able to save his people from my hand or from the hand of my ancestors.” (15)

Still unable to persuade neither Hezekiah nor Judah to surrender, the Assyrians shout at the people in their native tongue that “the God of Jerusalem [was] like the gods of the peoples of the earth, which are the work of human hands.” (19)

Hezekiah and Isaiah “cried to heaven.” God responds and “the Lord sent an angel who cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria.” (21) Sennacherib returns in disgrace to Assyria. and in anger promptly kills some of his own sons—a vile act inspired by his belief in the false gods who apparently have betrayed him.

Then comes a reminder that it was God and not Hezekiah who accomplished this great victory, “Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death.” (24) However, as our authors point out, Hezekiah had become prideful and “did not respond according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud.” (25) But Hezekiah has the good sense to realize this and “humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the Lord did not come upon them in the days of Hezekiah.” (26)

Our authors conclude the story of Hezekiah noting that “Hezekiah had very great riches and honor; and he made for himself treasuries for silver, for gold, for precious stones, for spices, for shields, and for all kinds of costly objects.” (27) He also executes an engineering project: “Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the city of David. Hezekiah prospered in all his works.” (30) This very tunnel was rediscovered in Jerusalem in the 1980s.

All in all, Hezekiah’s is the most successful reign since Solomon—and all because Hezekiah and the people remained faithful and followed God. No one reading this history in Babylon and tempted to abandon God can miss the moral of this story and not realize how Hezekiah’s successor kings and the people of Jerusalem did indeed forget the lessons here.

Acts 25:16–26:1: Festus observes that Paul’s case sounds more like an internecine argument over obscure Jewish theology. The governor  states that “When the accusers stood up, they did not charge him with any of the crimes that I was expecting. Instead they had certain points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.” (18, 19) Festus is certainly an honest judge and unlike so many others in our day, he was willing to admit that “I was at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether [Paul] wished to go to Jerusalem and be tried there on these charges.” (20)

In conversation with King Agrippa, it’s clear he’s trying to figure out these strange Jewish customs that seem to fly in the face of the Roman legal system. He tells Agrippa, “you see this man about whom the whole Jewish community petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had done nothing deserving death.” (24, 25a) This sounds exactly like the conundrum that Pilate faced with Jesus—a coincidence that surely was not lost on our author, Luke.

Now that Paul has appealed to the Emperor, Festus has to write up the case and charges against Paul—and he is at a loss of what to write, remarking, “it seems to me unreasonable to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him.” (27)  Festus asks Agrippa to hear Paul out to see what charges may be brought out of this strange very Jewish situation of people demanding a man’s death for the relatively trivial (in Roman eyes, anyway) of blasphemy.

Festus is certainly a wiser man than Pilate who gave into the crowd’s anger. Of course, he was not facing a riot on his doorstep the way Pilate was.

Paul rises to speak to Agrippa…


Psalm 29; 2 Chronicles 31; Acts 25:1–15

Originally published 2/23/2017. Revised and updated 2/22/2019.

Psalm 29: The psalm opens with a verb that is rarely used in the psalms, but occurs in each of the first three lines here:
Grant to the Lord, O sons of God,
grant to the Lord glory and strength!
Grant to the Lord His name’s glory.
Bow to the Lord in holy majesty!” (1,2)

We use “grant” as in “allow” or “permit.” But is our psalmist really saying, “permit God glory and strength?” No, I think it’s “grant” as in “acknowledge.” With the psalmist we are to acknowledge God’s glory and strength.

This is also one of the noisiest psalms as the poet enumerates the ways God, acting through nature, makes himself heard in power and glory in a series of short exclamations that evoke thunder, rushing waters of the surf and rivers, and trees crashing in the forest:
The Lord’s voice is over the waters.
The God of glory thunders.
The Lord is over the mighty waters.
The Lord’s voice in power,
the Lord’s voice in majesty,
the Lord’s voice breaking cedars.
the Lord shatters the Lebanon cedars.” (3,4,5)

Our poet continues in this vein with images of God’s power described through images of fire (7), earthquakes, (8) and deforestation (9b). God’s voice even initiates birth: “The Lord’s voice brings on the birth-pangs of does.” (9a)

Finally, our psalmist reflects on God’s eternal nature:
The Lord was enthroned at the flood
and the Lord is enthroned as king for all time.” (10)

Today, the most popular image of God seems to be one of a gentle parent or worse, an avuncular old man. This psalm memorably reminds us that God is also our all-powerful Creator, who creates continuously through both nature and humankind, and who deserves our reverence, respect and worship. Which is one reason I object to the anodyne style of worship we seem to experience too often. We need to reflect more often about all-powerful God and his majesty as we come to worship in awe and reverence not in casual bonhomie.

2 Chronicles 31: The people of the northern kingdom of Israel, who came to Jerusalem to worship at the temple, are inspired to worship only God. They “broke down the pillars, hewed down the sacred poles, and pulled down the high places and the altars throughout all Judah and Benjamin, and in Ephraim and Manasseh, until they had destroyed them all.” (1) Then they return home to Samaria. The question is, did their experience of finding God once again in Jerusalem have a long-lasting impact on them and their neighbors? Or as happens so often to us, did the enthusiasm of the mountaintop experience fade into the quotidian concerns of ordinary life?

Hezekiah continues to organize the priesthood at Jerusalem and ask for offerings from the inhabitants of Judah, including the people from Israel, many who apparently stayed in Judah. They respond generously: “As soon as the word spread, the people of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything.” (5) In fact there are so many gifts and tithes that the they end up in heaps that require four months to organize. “Hezekiah questioned the priests and the Levites about the heaps,” (9) and is told by the high priest Azariah that “we have had enough to eat and have plenty to spare; for the Lord has blessed his people, so that we have this great supply left over.” (10)

This incident, which would be a good sermon topic for a stewardship Sunday, is a powerful reminder that when we are truly worshipping God, we are inwardly compelled to give back generously.

Hezekiah seems to be the best king since David and Solomon as the people “Faithfully brought in the contributions, the tithes and the dedicated things.” (12) He organizes both the priests and the Levites to carry out sacrifices and worship. What’s interesting to me here is that “The priests were enrolled with all their little children, their wives, their sons, and their daughters, the whole multitude; for they were faithful in keeping themselves holy.” (18) In other words, a family affair. One wonders how the Catholic policy of celibacy squares with these Jewish priests who had families who worshipped together.

Our authors cannot say enough good things about king Hezekiah: “he did what was good and right and faithful before the Lord his God. And every work that he undertook in the service of the house of God, and in accordance with the law and the commandments, to seek his God, he did with all his heart; and he prospered.” (20, 21) The lesson our authors are communicating here is crystalline: God provides in abundance when we—and our leaders—are serious about placing God first in our lives. Unfortunately, present day America seems to me to be more like the northern kingdom of Israel as our culture worships a plethora of false gods: power, celebrity, wealth.

Acts 25:1–15: The new procurator, Festus travels to Jerusalem “where the chief priests and the leaders of the Jews gave him a report against Paul.” (2) The Jews ask Festus to send Paul to Jerusalem, but as Luke points out, “They were, in fact, planning an ambush to kill him along the way.” (3) However, Festus declines the request and tells the Jews to come to Caesarea. Upon returning to Caesarea, Festus has Paul brought before him and for what I take to be a preliminary hearing.

Paul asserts his innocence, but like his predecessor, Festus is more interested in currying favor with the Jews and asks Paul if he wants to go to Jerusalem for the trial. Paul asserts his Roman citizenship and demands a hearing before the Emperor’s tribunal in Rome. Festus issues his terse order, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.” (12)

Coincidentally, the Jewish puppet king, Agrippa, arrives in Caesarea with his wife. Festus outlines the Paul case to him as the reading.

We’ll read Agrippa’s reply tomorrow. Stay tuned for the next exciting chapter in the adventures of Paul, wrongly accused missionary. Fake accusations creating fake news are certainly nothing new…

Psalm 28; 2 Chronicles 29:20–30:27; Acts 24:17–27

Originally published 2/22/2017. Revised and updated 2/21/2019.

Psalm 28: This David psalm of supplication gets right to the point:
To You, O Lord, I call.
My rock, do not be deaf to me.

Our psalmist’s logic is that if God cannot hear his supplication, God will not speak and he might as well be dead:
Lest You be mute to me
and I be like those gone down to the Pit
. (1b)

After he repeats his plea for God to hear him, he confesses that rather than being on the mountain with God, his deepest fear would be to be trapped among conniving evildoers steeped in falsehoods:
Do not pull me down with the wicked,
and with the wrongdoers,
who speak peace to their fellows
with foulness in their heart. (3)

Now we arrive at the heart of the prayer, which is for the evildoers to receive their comeuppance as the psalmist asks God to provide retribution on his behalf:
Pay them back for their acts
and for the evil of their schemings.
Their handiwork give them back in kind.
Pay back what is coming to them. (4)

Of course the eternal question this type of retributive prayer raises is, are we to pray for evil to come upon those who have wronged us, or more generally, those who have wronged their fellow man? Overturning centuries of tradition, Jesus makes it clear that we are to pray for our enemies but not for their destruction.

But as for our psalmist, God’s punishment is the only logical possibility because evildoers are oblivious to God’s creative action in the world:
For they understand not the acts of the Lord
and His handwork they would destroy and not build
. (5)

Well, here we have it. Count among evildoers those who would desecrate the earth; those who destroy rather than build. In short, we are to be stewards, not destroyers of the earth. Civilization seems never to have learned that lesson. Although today there is certainly a growing awareness that we have injured the planet to the extent of possibly creating the demise—or at least diminution—of the human race itself.

Nevertheless, the psalm concludes on the optimistic note that God has indeed “heard the sound of my pleading.” (6) God is assuredly not deaf. In fact, the psalmist exclaims, “The Lord is my strength and my shield. In Him my heart trusts.” (7a)

As a result of God’s action, our psalmist responds as always, in worship:
I was helped and my heart rejoiced,
and with my song I acclaim Him.

And he speaking as if from David’s kingly position, he asks that God’s blessing is to be extended to all people in his kingdom:
Rescue Your people 
and bless Your estate.
Tend them, bear them up for all time.

What a tremendous promise. And we know that through Jesus Christ God indeed bears us up for all time.

2 Chronicles 29:20–30:27: With the temple restored and re-sanctified, Hezekiah “rose early, assembled the officials of the city, and went up to the house of the Lord.” (29:20) There, the assembly commences an immense ritual of sacrifice “For the king commanded that the burnt offering and the sin offering should be made for all Israel.” (29:24)  There is music and worship: “the whole assembly worshiped, the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded; all this continued until the burnt offering was finished.” (29:28)

In fact, there are so many sacrifices, that the priests cannot complete the task themselves as not enough priests have been sanctified. So they call in Levites to help. We can tell where our authors’ loyalties lay—they were obviously Levites themselves—when they editorialize that “the Levites were more conscientious than the priests in sanctifying themselves.” (28:34)

Hezekiah is so inspired by the restoration of the temple that he invites the northern kingdom, Israel, to join the party. He sends couriers throughout Israel “with letters from the king and his officials, as the king had commanded, saying, “O people of Israel, return to the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, so that he may turn again to the remnant of you who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria.” (30:6) But the couriers mainly encounter derision in Israel. “Only a few from Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem.” (30:11).

Many of those from Israel who came had no knowledge of the Levitical laws and “had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the passover otherwise than as prescribed.” (30:18) Hezekiah understands their ignorance and rather than punishing them for breaking the rules, prays to God, The good Lord pardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the Lord the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.” (30:19) And as our psalmist today wished, God heard Hezekiah and “healed the people.” 

Because they have followed God and invited their enemies to join them in the great Passover, “There was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the time of Solomon son of King David of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem.” (30:26)

We tend to think of the Old Covenant as being strictly black and white rule following. Yet here we see a sublime example of generosity of Judah toward its sworn enemy to the north. God’s grace. Grace is not a New Testament invention. And what Jesus said about loving one’s enemies turns out not to be so radical after all.

Acts 24:17–27:  Paul accurately describes the events at the temple, telling Felix that “they found me in the temple, completing the rite of purification, without any crowd or disturbance.” (18) He tells Felix that his accusers were Jews from Asia and makes the rather valid point that “they ought to be here before you to make an accusation, if they have anything against me.” (19) As for the Jewish accusers who are present in court, Paul says, the only feasible accusation against him is theological not judicial, specifically, “the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’” (21)

Luke tells us that Felix is already pretty well informed about “the Way.” The procurator adjourns court, stating that he awaits the arrival of Lysias the tribune (at last: his name!) to provide further testimony.

A few days later, Felix sends for Paul “and heard him speak concerning faith in Christ Jesus.” (24) Paul is obviously a convincing speaker and “as [Paul] discussed justice, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present; when I have an opportunity, I will send for you.” (25)

But something more sinister than  a disputation about theology is afoot with Felix. He sends for Paul repeatedly, hoping that Paul will offer the procurator a bribe in order to gain his freedom. This goes on for two years(!) Portus Festus succeeds Felix and “since he wanted to grant the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison.” (27) Alas, in the end Felix is merely a petty and corrupt bureaucrat.

In the story of Paul’s ersatz trial in Caesarea, we learn that the Jewish hierarchy and the Roman system of justice are both corrupt at their heart. Paul obviously knows this. We are beginning to suspect that Paul has a greater purpose in mind.

Psalm 27:7–14; 2 Chronicles 28:9–29:19; Acts 24:4–16

Originally published 2/21/2017. Revised and updated 2/20/2019.

Psalm 27:7–14: Up to this point, our psalmist seems completely confident in his trust in God. But, being human, a scintilla of doubt remains as our poet moves into full supplication mode:
Hear, O Lord, my voice when I call,
and grant me grace and answer me.” (7)


Your face, Lord, do I seek.
do not hide Your face from me,
do not turn Your servant away in wrath. (8b, 9)

The lesson here for me is that even with the most profound trust in a God who loves us we will always experience pangs of feeling abandoned by God. Like a young child in bed in a darkened room crying out for his parents, we will still cry out even though deep down we know that God is standing by us—and that like our parents, he loves us deeply.

So, we can cry out with the psalmist as he once again is trusts that God is indeed at his side:
If I but trust to see the Lord’s goodness,
in the land of the loving—
Hope for the Lord!
Let your heart be firm and bold,
and hope for the Lord. (13, 14)

This is among my favorite psalms because it deals with those moments of doubt about God’s presence and benevolence that I believe come to any believer during his journey with Jesus and God. IMHO, anyone who claims a complete unalterable confidence in God that never wavers without those doubts arising—especially in times of trouble— is failing to understand what the Creator/Creature relationship is really all about.

2 Chronicles 28:9–29:19: Because of the apostasy of Judah under Ahaz, Judah has been soundly defeated in battle by Israel. It would appear that the kingdom of Judah will soon be history. However, a prophet named Oded meets the returning Samaritan army and points out that they have defeated Judah because “the Lord, the God of your ancestors, was angry with Judah, he gave them into your hand, but you have killed them in a rage that has reached up to heaven.” (28:10) He warns them to send the captives back to Judah “for the fierce wrath of the Lord is upon you.” (28:11)

In addition to Oded’s warning, several Ephramite chiefs “stood up against those who were coming from the war,” (12) and warn the others that “You shall not bring the captives in here, for you propose to bring on us guilt against the Lord in addition to our present sins and guilt. For our guilt is already great, and there is fierce wrath against Israel.” (28:13) This proves that even in the most evil empire there are still men of good will who follow God and wish to hew to the Covenant. They are the few that “get it.”

Their persuasion was apparently successful and the Ephramites “took the captives, and with the booty they clothed all that were naked among them; they clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them; and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kindred at Jericho, the city of palm trees.” (15) I have to believe that Jesus had exactly this event in mind when he told the story of the good Samaritan because these men were indeed good Samaritans. I wonder of any in Jesus’ audience remembered this historical incident when he told the story? Certainly the Pharisees should have recalled it.

Ahaz and Judah are saved by the grace of God, but unlike the Ephramites, Ahaz still doesn’t get it. He attempts to establish an alliance with the king of Assyria. But still faithless, Ahaz brings only disaster on Judah as “King Tilgath-pilneser of Assyria came against him, and oppressed him instead of strengthening him.” (28:20) But Ahaz continues to persist in his willful stupidity against God. and he turns now to the small-g gods of Aram. He closes the temple at Jerusalem and “made himself altars in every corner of Jerusalem.” (28:24) Judah is certainly at its lowest point by this time. He finally dies. It’s difficult to imagine any other king of Judah who tested God’s restraint and the promise of an “everlasting kingdom” that he had made to David more than Ahaz. The corrupt king finally dies and our authors observe that “but they did not bring him into the tombs of the kings of Israel.” (28:27)

Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, whose mother was a daughter of Zechariah, ascends the throne of Judah. His first act in the first month of his reign is to reopen and repair the temple doors and restore the Levitical priesthood to its rightful place. Unlike his predecessor, Hezekiah “gets it” and tells the people that because of their apostasy, “the wrath of the Lord came upon Judah and Jerusalem, and he has made them an object of horror, of astonishment, and of hissing, as you see with your own eyes.” (29:8)

Hezekiah vows to “make a covenant with the Lord, the God of Israel, so that his fierce anger may turn away from us.” (29:10) The priests tend to the Herculean task of cleaning out the temple. They dispose of the “unclean things” by tossing the garbage into the Kidron valley—the same place where hundreds of years later Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane. This task takes eight days and another eight days to once again sanctify the temple. Things are finally looking up in Judah.

Acts 24:4–16: The Jewish lawyer, “a certain Tertullus” gives his fawning opening statement about how grateful the Jews are to live under the benevolent dictatorship of the Romans. Uh huh. Right. I’m pretty sure Felix saw through that one.

Tertullus casts Paul as a rabble-rouser of the first order—”We have, in fact, found this man a pestilent fellow.” (5a) Worse, as “an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” (5) Then, Tertullus accuses Paul of trying to profane the temple—a blatant lie, but a serious charge. The Jews who are with Tertullus bear false witness and “also joined in the charge by asserting that all this was true.” (9)

Paul, acting as his own defense counsel, stands up and speaks, asserting that if Felix cares to investigate, he would find that he only appeared in Jerusalem to worship at the temple a mere twelve days ago. Moreover, Paul asserts, “They did not find me disputing with anyone in the temple or stirring up a crowd either in the synagogues or throughout the city.” (12) and that the Jewish charge cannot be proved.

However, when it comes to matters of theology, Paul does admit “that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets.” (14) He then explains that he has “a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (15) This is an excellent reminder to the Jews who are present—and to us— that far from being heretical, Paul in fact has exactly the same theological views they do—if they were willing to admit it, which I suspect they will not.

Having heard both sides, what will Felix decide?

Psalm 27:1-6; 2 Chronicles 26:16-28:8; Acts 23:25–24:3

Originally published 2/20/2017. Revised and updated 2/19/2019.

Psalm 27: This psalm opens with among the most encouraging—and most famous—verse in the Psalms:
The Lord is my light and my rescue.
Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is my life’s stronghold.
Of whom shall I be afraid? (1)

Once again using the 2-line/ 2-line verse structure of repeating the same thought but using different words in the second verse (this is the essence Hebrew poetry), our psalmist tells us once again that no matter how powerful the enemy he will remain protected by God because he trusts in God:
Though a camp is marshalled against me,
my heart shall not fear.
Though battle is roused against me,
nonetheless do I trust. (3)

If we really took these verses to heart just think of how different our lives would be. Think of the peace we’d enjoy if we lived in complete assurance that God protects us and that we do not have to fight our enemies on our own. But I always seem to want to conduct the fight on my own. It’s all about control in the end, isn’t it?

Having established his trust in God and belief that he resides under God’s benevolent protection, the poet asks that he be granted respite from his enemies in order to worship God for the remainder of his life:
One thing do I ask of the Lord,
it is this that I seek—
that I dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life
to behold the Lord’s sweetness
and to gaze on His palace. (4)

But in the meantime before that much longed-for day arrives, our psalmist finds himself in the midst of battle surrounded by enemies. Nevertheless, his confidence in relying on God remains strong :
For He hides me in His shelter,
on the day of evil.
He conceals me in the recess of His tent,
of a rock He raises me up. (5)

The alternating verses that praise God’s protection and then anticipate a future of peaceful worship continue as we read again of his desire to be at peace so he can worship God:
Let me offer in His tent
sacrifices with joyous shouts.
Let me sing and hymn to the Lord. (6)

For me, this is a psalm to return to again and again when I forget God’s faithfulness and my doubts seem to make more sense than faith.

2 Chronicles 26:16-28:8: Uzziah is feeling his kingly oats and believes he is fully qualified to offer sacrifices in the temple by himself. 80 priests restrain him from committing this sacrilege, pointing out that “It is not for you, Uzziah, to make offering to the Lord, but for the priests the descendants of Aaron.” (26:18) This makes Uzziah angry but God moves fast and causes him to become leprous. Unfortunately for him, it appears very publicly on his forehead. As a result, “Uzziah was leprous[c] to the day of his death, and being leprous lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord.” (26:21)

Of course the root sin here is pride. Uzziah believed he was such an excellent God-follower that God would automatically grant him the ability to do whatever he pleased since it was about religious observance. We often see the same pride in churches where someone believes they’re uniquely qualified to be God’s direct intercessory. And we encounter those same folks today—whence the term “holier than thou.”

At the age of 25, Uzziah’s son, Jotham, becomes king. Happily, “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his father Uzziah had done.” As if to remind us of the consequences of Uzziah’s pride, our authors slyly append the comment, “—only he did not invade the temple of the Lord.” (27:2) Jotham reigns for 16 years and “built cities in the hill country of Judah, and forts and towers on the wooded hills.” (27:4) He also defeats the Ammonites in battle, who are forced to pay heavy reparations. The people of Judah must have been happy under Jotham to spared the usual leadership drama for 16 years.

Jotham’s son Ahaz ascends the throne and like so many sons of powerful people is a complete ne’re-do-well: “He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his ancestor David had done, but he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel.” (1,2) Worse, he erects Baal idols and abuses his children and, “made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” (3)

We can hear the resigned sighs in their voices as our authors point out that God’s punishment of Ahaz was inevitable: “Therefore the Lord his God gave him into the hand of the king of Aram, who defeated him and took captive a great number of his people and brought them to Damascus.” (27:5)

Later, Ahaz is defeated by Israel and “the people of Israel took captive two hundred thousand of their kin, women, sons, and daughters; they also took much booty from them and brought the booty to Samaria.” (8) As always, the moral of the story is all too crystal clear. When leadership fails, those who are led also fail. This is a lesson that I think is fully on display in our present age.

Acts 23:25-24:3: Paul barely escapes with his life as the tribune sends him off to Caesarea accompanied by a letter from the tribune, which explains that the Jews accused him of heresy. However, upon examination, and noting that Paul was a Roman citizen, the tribune writes, “I found that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but was charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment.” (23:29) In other words, as far as the tribune is concerned, Paul is innocent, but the Jews nonetheless deserve a hearing, as he tells Felix, the procurator, that “I sent [Paul] to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.” (23:30)

Five days later, “the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and an attorney, a certain Tertullus, and they reported their case against Paul to the governor.” (24:1) Ah, a lawyer. Now we know there will be problems for Paul, who will naturally insist on defending himself without counsel.

As is their wont, the attorney begins his opening statement by flattering Felix: “because of you we have long enjoyed peace, and reforms have been made for this people because of your foresight.” (24:2) I think we can figure out where this is going…

Psalm 26; 2 Chronicles 25:5–26:15; Acts 23:12–24

Originally published 2/18/2017. Revised and updated 2/18/2019.

Psalm 26: Our psalmist proclaims his loyalty to God and is confident enough in that trust to tell God to test him:
…And the Lord I have trusted.
I shall not stumble.
Test me, O Lord, and try me.
Burn pure conscience and my heart. (1b, 2)

I’m pretty sure I’ve never had the nerve to pray to God to test me since the tests seem to come frequently enough as it is. Are they all from God? I really don’t think so.

But our psalmist asserts that he has walked in God’s truth and avoided, as the Catholics put it, ‘occasions of sin:’
I have not sat with lying folk
nor with furtive men have dealt.
I despised the assembly of evildoers,
nor with the wicked I have sat. (4,5)

Therefore, ritually and morally clean, he sees that he is eligible to worship God at the temple as he provides a detailed picture of what temple worship must have looked like:
Let me wash my palms in cleanness
and go round Your altar, Lord,
to utter aloud a thanksgiving
and to recount all Your wonders.
Lord, I love the abode of Your house
and the place where Your glory dwells. (6,7,8)

This psalm reminds us of what it was like to be a God-follower before grace came to us via Jesus Christ. It’s endlessly—and unending— difficult work. Of course simply because we live under the terms of grace we also need to remember what Paul said about not sinning so that “grace abounds.” It’s worth following the path the psalmist has even as we know we do not have to earn God’s grace.

The final part of this psalm is a prayer of supplication, and specifically that God enables him to avoid the temptations offered by the evil men all around him:
Do not take my life’s breath with offenders
nor with blood-guilty men my life,
in whose hands there are plots,
their right hand full of bribes. (9,10)

No, our psalmist asserts, that will not happen because “I shall walk in my wholeness./ Redeem me, grant me grace.” (11) In the end, he will receive God’s grace because he continues to follow the law and tells us that “My foot stands on level ground.” (12) The question for us, of course, is are we walking on the level ground of righteousness or allowing the temptations all around cause us to fall into the metaphorical pit?

2 Chronicles 25:5–26:15: King Amaziah of Judah plans to go to war against the Edomites. He assembles an army of 300,00o Judeans and then plans to hire an additional 100,000 men from Israel. However, a prophet warns the king against the mercenaries, because “the Lord is not with Israel.” (25:7) and this would pollute the entire enterprise.

It’s worth noting here that the authors of Chronicles are focused on—and rooting for—Judah. Unlike the authors of I & II Kings, these authors have written Israel off as a hopeless case except when it’s a useful foil for events in Judah—or to contrast Judah’s righteousness against Israel’s evil. It’s certainly easy to see why the Samaritans—the descendants of Israel—were so despised in Jesus’ time.

Amaziah follows the prophet’s advice and “discharged the army that had come to him from Ephraim, letting them go home again.” (25:10) However, having lost the opportunity to collect a lot of booty, the army from Israel departs in anger.

Nevertheless, Amaziah “took courage” and leads the army in a victorious battle over Edom where they kill 10,000 men from Seir, tosses another 10,000 off a cliff and kills an additional 300,000 Edomites.

But then Amaziah screws up and “he brought the gods of the people of Seir, set them up as his gods, and worshiped them, making offerings to them.” (25:14) A prophet tells Amaziah who rather logically asks, “Why have you resorted to a people’s gods who could not deliver their own people from your hand?” (25:15) Amaziah angrily dismisses the prophet doubtless because he knew the prophet was right.

Of course there are grim consequences arising from that rashness. King Joash of Israel wants to set up an alliance with Judah via a royal marriage. Amaziah refuses as our authors note that Joash’s offer “was God’s doing, in order to hand them over, because they had sought the gods of Edom.” (25:20) So Joash, obviously God’s pawn to demonstrate the folly of Judah’s and its king’s ways invades and defeats Judah and pillages the temple.

Once again, our authors remind their readers with this story: do not under any circumstances worship anyone but God. Or the consequences will be dire.

Sixteen year old Uzziah takes over as king after his father, Amaziah, dies. He reigns for 52 years and happily, “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, just as his father Amaziah had done.” (26:4) Uzziah is positively influenced by the prophet Zechariah, whose eponymous book we will read later this year.

Because he follows God, Uzziah is militarily successful and fortifies the cities of Judah. Uzziah becomes the strongest king since Solomon as he rebuilds the wealth and power of Judah. His army is impressively large: 2600 officers and 375,000 soldiers.

He also trusts engineers—I like that!—and employs the latest defensive technology and in “Jerusalem he set up machines, invented by skilled workers, on the towers and the corners for shooting arrows and large stones.” (26:15)

So far, so good for Uzziah as “his fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped until he became strong.” (26:15) The message from our authors is consistent: Follow God and good things happen. Abandon God and the consequences are grim.

Acts 23:12–24: Speaking of consequences. Paul’s Spirit-led decision to return to Jerusalem has proven even grimmer than I think he imagined. I’ve always wondered if Paul felt that his oratorical powers were so powerful that he became over-confident in his ability to influence any audience, even hostile Jews.

However, the Jews were having none of Paul, and  “in the morning the Jews joined in a conspiracy and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink until they had killed Paul.” (12) They are so angry they vow to fast until they have killed this heretical thorn in their sides. They ask the tribune to send Paul back to the temple on the pretext of further theological discussions.

However, Paul’s nephew (and why doesn’t he even rate being identified by name for his courage here?) hears of the plot and warns Paul, who sends him to the tribune. The nephew warns the tribune about the plot that “more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him.” (21) Upon hearing this news, “the tribune dismissed the young man, ordering him, “Tell no one that you have informed me of this.” (22)

The tribune (and why doesn’t Luke give us his name, as well?), who has respect for Paul the Roman citizen, and more importantly doubtless wishes to avoid riots and turmoil in Jerusalem, assembles a cohort of “two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen” (23), provides Paul a horse, and they all depart Jerusalem under cover of darkness (9:00 p.m.) and head to Caesarea and to Paul’s famous meeting with Felix the governor.

One of the things that I take away from this is that even though Paul felt led by the Holy Spirit to return to Jerusalem, at this point it does not appear to have been a wise course. Of course we know how the story turns out. Had Paul not gone to Jerusalem, he would never have ended up a prisoner in Rome and written all those epistles. This is a reminder that God often works good ends out of bad circumstances. I certainly feel that my experience with cancer has had similar salutary consequences.