Archives for August 2019

Psalm 104:31–35; Jeremiah 30:12–31:22; 2 Timothy 2:14–26

Originally published 9/01/2017. Revised and updated 8/31/2019.

Psalm 104:31–35: Having reflected on God’s power over nature, his generosity to both animals and humans, and on the fact that we are mortal, the concluding verses of this celebratory psalm are pure worship—the worship of both nature and humankind:
May the Lord’s glory be forever,
may the Lord rejoice in His works,
Who but looks down to earth, and it trembles
but touches the mountains—they smoke. (31, 32)

While God’s glory may be eternal our psalmist recognizes that he—like all of us—has but limited time here on earth. And he is going to spend that limited time praising God:
Let me sing to the Lord while I live,
let me hymn to my God while I breathe.
Let my speech be sweet unto Him.
As for me, I rejoice in the Lord. (33, 34)

Good advice indeed. God has given us the gift of life with all its magnificence and all its woes. As I grow older and see people my own age (and those younger than I) die, I realize that every day is indeed a gift and that I must unwrap that gift in gratitude to God. My prayer is that my speech is sweet—certainly to God first, but then always to others. For it is in God’s manifold gifts, especially as this psalm has made so clear, the gift of life itself that I find true joy.

The psalm appears, as so many do, to inject a rather sour note as our psalmist wishes:
Let offenders vanish from the earth
and the wicked be no more.
Bless, O my being, the Lord
Hallelujah! (35)

On the other hand, I think this is a pretty anodyne desire. He is not asking God to strike down the wicked, but expresses what I think we all think when we hear of some evil being perpetrated against the unsuspecting or the innocent.  Like the psalmist, we simply wish evildoers would vanish from the earth.

Jeremiah 30:12–31:22: Thus far in this book, God’s words as spoken by Jeremiah have focused on Israel’s and Judah’s apostasy and their other sins as God promises to destroy them—and there’s plenty of that here, too:
All your lovers have forgotten you;
    they care nothing for you;
for I have dealt you the blow of an enemy,
    the punishment of a merciless foe,
because your guilt is great,
    because your sins are so numerous. (30:14)

But we often cannot comprehend that an angry God is also at the same time a loving God—exactly what a loving parent often must be. But like wayward children we must bear the consequences of our actions. However, I think is important to point out —and we’ve seen this again and again in this book—that sin has its own woeful consequences that we have brought on ourselves. But like the father he is, God also loves his wayward people. It is this loving side of God that we see here as he speaks to Judah in exile:
I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob,
    and have compassion on his dwellings;
the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound,
    and the citadel set on its rightful site.
Out of them shall come thanksgiving,

    and the sound of merrymakers. (30: 18, 19a)

It seems that every time God speaks of rescue, a messianic prophecy accompanies that promise:
Their prince shall be one of their own,
    their ruler shall come from their midst;
I will bring him near, and he shall approach me,
    for who would otherwise dare to approach me?
says the Lord. (30:21)

And then comes the great covenantal promise:
And you shall be my people,
    and I will be your God. (30:22)

But there is darkness before the dawn of hope, punishment before joy, as Jeremiah reminds the people:
The fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back
    until he has executed and accomplished
    the intents of his mind. (30:24)

Nevertheless, for the exiles in Babylon, there is a great promise as well:
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
    and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
    those with child and those in labor, together;
    a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
    and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
    in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
    and Ephraim is my firstborn. (31:8,9)

As we’ve noted elsewhere, these promises have been interpreted by conservative Jews and Christians alike that the nation of Israel would be restored in the future, specifically with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1947. As for me, this seems to be  a stretch since the Jews did indeed return to Jerusalem after the promised 70-year exile.

Without question one of the most beautiful passages in the book occurs during this lengthy poem that promises return as sorrow becomes joy:
Rachel is weeping for her children;
    she refuses to be comforted for her children,
    because they are no more.
Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
    and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
    they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
    your children shall come back to their own country. (31: 15b-17)

Despite how awful things may look for us now, whether it be personal disease or cultural malaise, there is indeed hope for the future.

2 Timothy 2:14–26: It’s pretty obvious that one of the problems besetting Timothy’s church was theological disputation. Our Paul repeats himself: “Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.” (14)  And again: “Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene.” (16, 17) Of course this is true not only in churches but more recently on angry Facebook threads about politics. These are verses for me to remember when I’m tempted to write a snarky comment there.

Foundational pastoral advice occurs in the next verse: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” (15) The word of truth of course found in Scripture. Pastors who fail to study and preach on Scripture will shortly find themselves adrift. As for me personally, I feel this is also my responsibility as a Christian to always return to and study Scripture. Which is also why I am not a fan of small group book studies instead of Bible studies. Books that present fresh points of view or that unearth new insights are excellent aids, but in the end, the richest rewards are found by going straight to the source.

Our author calls out two men by name: “Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place. They are upsetting the faith of some.” (18) Again, I think this is more ungracious than the actual Paul would have been—if he ever had cause to call people out by name, it would have been in his letters to the church at Corinth, and he never called anyone out by name there.

Our Paul then turns his attention to what I think was discontent within the church that some were leaders and appeared to be favorites of the pastor, while others apparently of lower station, slaves perhaps, are being treated dismissively or even with disdain. He employs a metaphor of utensils: “In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary.” (20)  If some of the these wayward folks, including I presume, Hymenaeus and Philetus, will “cleanse themselves,” they will be restored to usefulness in the church.

Now, the pastoral advice comes fast and furious: “Shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (22, 23) Why is it that churches seem especially prone to “senseless controversies.” I guess it’s because the people doing the arguing don’t think the issues are senseless. Or as my son Geoff has pointed out about university faculties, “the lower the stakes, the more intense the argument.”

In one final piece of advice to pastors and leaders there lies great wisdom: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” (24, 25a) Clearly any kind of patient correction needs to be done in a face-to-face meeting, not via email. Yes, this takes personal courage but our best example here is Jesus himself. Speak truth to power.

Psalm 104:24–30; Jeremiah 29:15–30:11; 2 Timothy 2:1–13

Originally published 8/31/2017. Revised and updated 8/30/2019.

Psalm 104:24–30: Our psalmist pauses in his catalog of creation to reflect more deeply on the nature of our creative God himself:
How many Your deeds, O Lord,
all of them You do in wisdom.
all the earth is filled with Your riches. (24)

That’s the difference between God and us, isn’t it? He creates in wisdom while we humans usually forge ahead creating technologies that can be used wisely or equally for ill. A recent example is genetic editing, aka CRISPR. Are humans wise enough to use this capability to good ends or will it also be exploited in morally evil ways? Based on history, doubtless both as manking tries once again to prove that he is god.

The poet then turns his attention to God’s creative works in the sea—all of which are dependent on God’s largess:
The sea is great and wide,
where creatures beyond number stir,
little beasts and the large.
There the ships go,
this Leviathan You fashioned to play with.
All of them look to You
to give them food in its season. (25-26)

The poet speaks of ‘beyond number,’—a truth in that we still these many years later are discovering new and remarkable creatures who live in the oceans. As the sea teems with creatures beyond number, it is also a place where human civilization has gone in ships. “Leviathan” is no longer the primordial sea monster described in earlier psalms but it has become God’s domesticated play thing—perhaps now the whales and dolphins— reminding us that God presides over all creation, including mythic creatures.

Above all, all God’s creatures are dependent on God’s munificence—just as we are—for life itself:
All of them look to You
to give them food in its season.
When You give them, they gather it in,
when You open Your hand, they are sated with good. (27-28)

But there are times when God does not provide. As the poet reminds us,  All creatures including us humans are mortal:
When You hide Your face, they panic,
You withdraw their breath and they perish,
to dust they return. (29)

But mortality is necessary because without death there can be no renewal of life:
When You send forth Your breath, they are created,
and You renew the face of the earth. (30)

Ongoing creation is almost always preceded by destruction. Or as Isaiah puts it, “Behold, I make all things new.” God made this truth abundantly clear in the sacrifice and resurrection of his own son, Jesus.

Jeremiah 29:15–30:11: The people who avoided capture by Babylon and continue to live in Jerusalem are hardly safe from God’s wrath. Thus, they will meet their deserved fate in yet another memorable agricultural simile: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, I am going to let loose on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like rotten figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten.” (29:17)

Likewise the false prophets who are in Babylon and doubtless telling the same untruths as Hananiah, whom we met earlier. Like Hananiah, “Ahab son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying a lie to you in my name” (29:21a) Unsurprisingly, they too will come to bad end: “[God will] deliver them into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he shall kill them before your eyes.” (29:21b) More curses and imprecations follow, but we shall not bother to list them here.

A certain Shemaiah of Nehelam, an exile in Babylon, has written a letter to the people still in Jerusalem accusing them of failing to punish Jeremiah, adding incredulously that Jeremiah “has actually sent to us in Babylon, saying, “It will be a long time; build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat what they produce.” (29:28) Zephaniah, whose eponymous book we will read later, reads Shemaiah’s letter to Jeremiah. Upon hearing this, and as always, “the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah:…Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, though I did not send him, and has led you to trust in a lie, therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to punish Shemaiah of Nehelam and his descendants; he shall not have anyone living among this people to see  the good that I am going to do to my people.“(29:31, 32)  So much, then, for Shemaiah.

But behind all this punishment of false prophets lies a wonderful promise of God’s eventual restoration of Israel: “For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it.” (30:3)

Yes, God continues, in poetic form this time, there will be suffering, which is expressed here in a striking image of men in pain giving birth (which as I can imagine would certainly strike terror into every male heart):
Ask now, and see,
    can a man bear a child?
Why then do I see every man
    with his hands on his loins like a woman in labor?
    Why has every face turned pale?  (30:6)

But even in pain there is till the promise of rescue as God promises, “I will break the yoke from off his neck, and I will burst his bonds, and strangers shall no more make a servant of him.” (30:8) Even better, the Messiah will finally appear: “But they shall serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.” (30:9)

The reading ends on the great promise of restoration of Israel and Judah, but that their misdeeds wrong belief must nonetheless still be punished:
For I am with you, says the Lord, to save you;
I will make an end of all the nations
    among which I scattered you,
    but of you I will not make an end.
I will chastise you in just measure,

     and I will by no means leave you unpunished.” (30:11)

So too for us. We sin and if we confess, God will never fail to forgive us. But we must still bear the consequences of our deeds. The problem today is that in their self-centered, self-absorption, most people do not even acknowledge that they have sinned, much less have asked God for forgiveness. Nevertheless, whether acknowledged or not, sin has consequences. And they will never fail to occur. Unfortunately the consequences of most sins also impact the innocent.

2 Timothy 2:1–13:  Like Jeremiah, our Pauline author acknowledges that the Christian life and witness involves suffering. But we must bear it “like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (3) The author then adds rather mysteriously, “No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer.” (4) which I take to be a reference to something that has gone wrong at Timothy’s church. However, I don’t think the real Paul would be this obscure.

Metaphors pile up against each other: “And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules. It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops.” (5, 6) Reading between the lines, it sounds like someone in the church has usurped Timothy’s pastoral leadership and set himself over others. Our Paul is telling Timothy that good order must be restored ASAP. Perhaps like many of us, Timothy has hesitated to confront that person and clear the air, as he is advised to “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things.” (7)

Using imprisoned Paul as the example, our author writes that leaders will undergo trials and suffering—but never in vain, rather always for the greatest of causes:  “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.” (8,9) Indeed! The word of God seeps out everywhere regardless of the manifold efforts down through history to suppress it.

Now we encounter a verse that is near to the heart of Calvinists: “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” (10) The implication is that there is a group of people—the “elect”—who will eventually be saved. This is the basis of the doctrine of predestination—that God knows beforehand who will be saved and who will not. That’s doubtless true since God knows everything unconstrained by time. But in the end, I have to say, “So, what?” God’s foreknowledge certainly does not alter our responsibility to go out into the world with the Gospel message to every person. Frankly, I find the entire concept of predestination obscure and confusing.

The reading ends with a quotation of what I take to be an early hymn of the church that includes a hint of the unforgivable sin: denying the Holy Spirit:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
    if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
    if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.” (11-13)

In other words, it takes an act on our part of conscious rejection to fail to enjoy salvation. Other than that once saved, always saved. Which is very much in line with Lutheran theology.

Psalm 104:19–23; Jeremiah 28:1–29:14; 2 Timothy 1:8–18

Originally published 8/30/2017. Revised and updated 8/29/2019.

Psalm 104:19–23: Our poet shifts his focus to God’s creation of the seasonal and diurnal cycles:
He made the moon for the fixed seasons;
the sun—He appointed its setting.
You bring down darkness and it turns to night
in which all beasts of the forest stir.” (19, 20)

Beneath these verses is the sense that God not only created time itself, but that like everything else God has created there is strict yet beautiful order—be it the seasons or night and day. As we know from physiology we humans would not be able to function or we would simply have mental breakdowns were it not for the diurnal cycle of sleep and wakefulness. This is a God-ordained reality. Here, our psalmist makes it clear that it is the nocturnal “beasts of the forest” who own the night:
The lions roar for prey,
seeking from God their food.
When the sun comes up they head home,
and in their dens they lie down.” (21, 22)

The idea that the lions are “seeking from God their food” indicates that as far as this psalmist is concerned, animals are an equally important part of God’s good creation as humans. The question arises: do animals have some sort of instinctual sense of God as creator? I’m guessing that those who have dogs (cats are more questionable) truly believe there is some kind of God-infused loyalty and love between man and dog.

As a final proof of God’s diurnal order, when the lions return to their dens, the day belongs to humans:
Man goes out to his work
and to his labor until evening.” (23)

Notice that a key element of God’s order is that humans engage in productive labor—not sit in basements playing video games. As we know, it is work that gives men and women a sense of purpose in life. Our psalmist certainly knew this truth. Do we?

Jeremiah 28:1–29:14: Well, finally. Rather than the endless prophecies of Judah’s certain doom, we encounter a fairly entertaining narrative. Writing autobiographically, Jeremiah describes his encounter with a fellow prophet, a certain Hananiah son of Azzur, from Gibeon. Hanniah, using the usual speaking in the voice of God prophetic technique, publicly prophesies that God has “broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon.” (28:3) Moreover, he continues, God “will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” (28:4)

In this same public setting, Jeremiah encourages Hananiah, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles.” (28:6) Jeremiah then makes the remarkable statement, “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” (28:9) Which is certainly not what doom & gloom Jeremiah has been doing for the last 27 chapters!

At this point Hananiah removes the yoke that Jeremiah has had on his back all this time (months? years?) and as an object lesson, breaks it in two as he proclaims that this is how God “will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.”  (28:11) Notice that Hananiah, with his 2-year forecast, is a lot more time-specific than Jeremiah has ever been. This was an unwise move on Hananiah’s part.

Jeremiah then receives a message for God to tell his fellow prophet that he broke Jeremiah’s yoke “only to forge iron bars in place of them!” (28:13) God explains to Jeremiah that he has “put an iron yoke on the neck of all these nations so that they may serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon” and adds one of those odd Godly asides, “I have even given [Nebuchadnezzar] the wild animals.” (28:14) Did wild animals comprise part of Babylon’s army?

Jeremiah tells Hananiah that “the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie.” (28:15) and pronounces the other prophets doom. Sure enough, “that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died.” (28:17)

As we have observed before, prophecy is a serious and fraught business. Nevertheless we should not forget that we are getting only Jeremiah’s point of view here in this eponymous book.

As proof of just how far off the mark Hananiah was, Jeremiah writes a letter to those in exile in Babylon, telling them that God has instructs them “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” (29:5) In other words, they are to take a long term view of the length of their exile and establish roots in Babylon. Moreover, Jeremiah instructs, “Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.” (29: 6)

Clearly, there were lots of prophets predicting a quick return from exile just as Hananiah had done. Jeremiah warns the people in exile, “Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream.” (29:8) Our prophet then delivers the very bad news that the exile will last 70 years.

But it’s not all bad news, for at the end of 70 years there will be return—the story told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. It is here that we encounter what I think is one of the most profound and important verses in this book: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (29:11)

That is God’s promise not just to the exiles in Babylon, but for all of us today. God not only returned the Jews to Jerusalem, but fulfilled this promise beyond imagining in sending Jesus to save humankind.  And this promise still stands today and as things seem to turn ever darker, we can rest in that marvelous gift of hope.

Another wonderful promise from God for all of us follows immediately in the next verse: “ When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.” (29:13) What a joy to find these verses in the midst of the general pessimism that characterizes this book.

2 Timothy 1:8–18:  Compared to 1 Timothy, there is some serious theology here as our author reiterates the core of the Gospel message: “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (9, 10)

This section actually sounds authentically Pauline: “But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.” (12)

Naturally, this wouldn’t be an epistle to Timothy without some instruction to pastors that is equally applicable today: “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” (13, 14)

We then get another biographical note that things in the church have not always gone according to Paul’s plan: “You are aware that all who are in Asia have turned away from me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes.” (15)

On the other hand, there is Onesiphorus, who “often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me.” (17)

This all sounds very much like Paul, but then our author adds, “may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day!” (18) which does not sound like Paul at all. This statement seems to indicate that  Onesiphorus’ salvation was in question and it may or may not occur depending on how his good works are judged by God. The Paul I know seems pretty clear that once we are saved we are always saved. Nevertheless, I believe that on this single phrase and the epistle of James, the Roman Catholic idea (doctrine?) of “works salvation”  has been built.

Psalm 104:10–18; Jeremiah 26:10–27:22; 1 Timothy 6:17–2 Timothy 1:7

Originally published 8/29/2017. Revised and updated 8/28/2019.

Psalm 104:10–18: Having created the boundaries of the seas in the preceding verses, God now creates freshwater sources in the mountains that provide for the animals of the earth and the birds in the sky and trees. This psalm includes some of the most evocative language describing nature that we read anywhere in the Bible:
You let loose the springs in freshets,
among the mountains they go.
They water all beasts of the field,
the wild asses slake their thirst.
Above them the fowl of the heavens dwell,
from among the foliage they send forth their voice. (10-12)

God also creates the rain “in His lofts” which benefit not just animals, but humans as well:
He waters mountains from His lofts,
from the fruit of Your works the earth is sated.
He makes the hay sprout for cattle,
grass for the labor of humankind
to bring forth bread from the earth,
and wine that gladdens the heart of man
to make faces shine brighter than oil,
and bread that sustains the heart of man. (13-15)

Yet water can be a source of destruction as the many floods in the Midwest this spring prove, so there’s some irony as I read these beautiful verses that describe the benefits—among them bread and wine—of God-sent rain. Nevertheless, without rain life of all kinds on the earth would be impossible. Water is life—truly a gift from God.

Our psalmist returns to describing the flora and fauna that God has placed on the earth, focusing on trees and and how he sustains life around the trees with the water he provides:
The trees of the Lord drink their fill,
the Lebanon cedars He planted,
where the birds make their nest,
the stork whose home is the cypresses,
the high mountains for the gazelles,
the crags a shelter for badgers. (16-18)

One marvels at both the abundance and variety of wildlife that populated Israel when the psalmist wrote. Unfortunately, we humans have not been faithful stewards of creation and I suspect there are very few storks, gazelles, and badgers to be found today in modern Israel. This psalm reminds me of my own God-ordained duty to creation as well: to tread lightly on nature.

Jeremiah 26:10–27:22: The priests and other prophets carry their demand to put Jeremiah to death to the king: “This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.” (26:11)

But Jeremiah will not be silenced as he once again tells his accusers that if they would only “amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will change his mind about the disaster that he has pronounced against you.” (26:3) At that, he turns himself over to them, telling them, “Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the Lord sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.” (26:15)

He is persuasive and some in the crowd reply that Jeremiah “does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the Lord our God.” (26:16) [Quite a contrast to the frenzied crowd that demanded Jesus’ death some centuries later…]

At this point someone rises and reminds the assembly that prophets earlier than Jeremiah have made the same kinds of pronouncements and were not put to death. The speaker cites Micah (whose eponymous book we’ll read late in this year) and a certain Uriah son of Shemaiah from Kiriath-jearim as examples. The argument is persuasive and we learn the name of the man who saved Jeremiah: “the hand of Ahikam son of Shaphan was with Jeremiah so that he was not given over into the hands of the people to be put to death.” (26:24)

So, now that he has been rescued from the mob, it’s time for another Jeremiah object lesson as God commands him, “Make yourself a yoke of straps and bars, and put them on your neck.” (27:2) Jeremiah’s instructions are to send word to the kings of Edom, Moab, ammonites, Tyre and Sidon that they, along with Judah, will shortly be under the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. If the kings of these nations fail to obey and fail to “put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, then I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, says the Lord, until I have completed its destruction by his hand.” (27:8)

This doesn’t seem like a great choice but then Jeremiah goes on to tell them that  “any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, says the Lord, to till it and live there.” (27:11)

Jeremiah carries the same message to “King Zedekiah of Judah in the same way: Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people, and live.” (27:12) The priests and officials are recommending an armed fight against Babylon, but Jeremiah pleads, “Do not listen to them; serve the king of Babylon and live. Why should this city become a desolation?” (27:17) God has given them a way out if they would only listen. One of the great constants of human nature is that we’re really poor listeners, especially when someone is telling us something that goes contrary to our own plans.

Jeremiah then dares the false prophets, telling them that if they’re true prophets, the furnishings of the temple at Jerusalem will remain intact in Jerusalem. But they obviously fail the test and the “the pillars, the sea, the stands, and the rest of the vessels that are left in this city” (27:19) are carried off to Babylon. However, God will at some point see that they will be returned (along with the people, I presume) and “Then I will bring them up and restore them to this place.” (27:22)

While I’m impressed with the historical detail I confess to being suspicious that this book was written after the fact and that our author is reporting on events that are in the past rather than the future. I guess it’s just my suspicious nature…

1 Timothy 6:17–2 Timothy 1:7: At the end of yesterday’s reading I thought we had arrived at the end of the epistle, but I was mistaken. Our author cannot resist tacking on still more words of advice after that “Amen” in 6:16.

Money and wealth continue to concern our author and he has wise words for all of us who think we can outsmart the stock market: “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (6:17)  The rich are especially commanded to “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” (6:18) Those are profound words for all of us, even we who do not count ourselves rich. Yet compare to most of the world, we are indeed wealthy beyond measure.

As we’ve read elsewhere, our deeds are the currency that matters and we store up “the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” (6:19) This is something I need to be reminded of frequently. My deeds have consequences for good or for bad depending on the choices I make.

After a final sign off, we come the second letter to Timothy from Paul. (As with the first letter, I have the same concerns about authorship.) But I cannot deny the sweetness and sincerity of the letter’s introduction: “To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” (2Tim 1:2) and “Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.” (1:4)

We get one of those rare biographical notes, revealing that Timothy is a grandchild in the faith: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” (1:5)

But then a darker theme emerges. Our author suggests that perhaps Timothy has written Paul, telling him that he’s discouraged. This second letter, then, is Paul’s reply (or how our author presumed Paul might have replied): “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (1:6, 7)

Hmmmm. Is Timothy discouraged, or has he gone and done something that suggests cowardice? Did he flinch somewhere when accused of being a Christian? Did he abandon love for Christ and his remarkable self-discipline? Stay tuned.

Psalm 104:1–9; Jeremiah 25:15–26:9; 1 Timothy 6:3–16

Originally published 8/28/2017. Revised and updated 8/27/2019.

Psalm 104:1–9: Although this psalm begins with the same exclamation of God’s glory as the preceding one, it focuses less on humanity and more on celebrating the glories of God’s natural creation. It is basically a poetic setting of the Genesis creation story. God’s first act is to create light with striking similes of putting on a coat and the heavens compared to a tent:
Wrapped in light like a cloak,
stretching out heavens like a tent-cloth. (2)

Creation is reminiscent of a construction project as the skies are put in place first:
Setting beams for His lofts in the waters,
making His chariot the clouds
He goes on the wings of the wind.
He makes His messengers the winds
His ministers, glowing fire. (3,4)

Notice the active participles—stretching, setting, making—that underscore an active God on the move. For this psalmist, God is not some remote somnolent being. Our poet turns his gaze downward from heaven to earth, reflecting “solid ground:”
He founded earth on its solid base,
not to be shaken forevermore. (5)

In the poet’s description of water, we can feel its movement. God is not going about his tasks quietly; creation is quite a noisy affair. But above all is the reality that God created the ultimate order of nature that gives us life:
With the deep You covered it like a garment—
over mountains the waters stood.
From Your blast they fled,
from the sound of Your thunder they scattered.
They went up the mountains, went down the valleys,
to the place You founded for them. (6-8)

There’s the implication that water once covered the earth until God moved it into its proper place in the oceans and lakes, exposing the mountains and valleys. One is reminded of  the Noah flood story—a feeling intensified by the next verse:
A border You fixed so they could not cross,
so they could not come back to cover the earth.” (9)

The key idea here—and that will continue through the entirety of this psalm—is that God is not only natures creator, but also completely controls natural events. Which of course has clear meaning for we humans who live within nature. Especially those in the path of floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. In fact, we humans seem to be the only creatures that God has created who have the gift of free will and therefore not under God’s direct control.

Jeremiah 25:15–26:9:  God is not only angry at Judah, he’s angry at every nation that surrounds Judah—sounding pretty much like the Noahic God as he instructs Jeremiah, “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it.” (25:15) The fate of these nations will not be any better than Judah’s: “They shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them.” (25:16)

We are then presented with a long list of the nations to whom Jeremiah is to take this metaphorical cup. God repeats his instructions to Jeremiah in even starker terms, “Then you shall say to them, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Drink, get drunk and vomit, fall and rise no more, because of the sword that I am sending among you.” (25:27)

If the nations refuse to drink this cup, which I presume they would, then they receive God’s curse, described here in fairly apocalyptic poetry:

The clamor will resound to the ends of the earth,
    for the Lord has an indictment against the nations;
he is entering into judgment with all flesh,
    and the guilty he will put to the sword,
says the Lord.
Thus says the Lord of hosts:

See, disaster is spreading
     from nation to nation,
and a great tempest is stirring

    from the farthest parts of the earth! (25:31,32)

To me, these verses seem to be a clear prophecy of the end of history, aka the Day of the Lord, rather than to Judah’s contemporary neighbors.

As usual, the Jeremiah timeline is confusing as we jump from the end of history back to the court of King Jehoiakim, son of Josiah of Judah. And it’s not like God instructs Jeremiah to say anything new. It’s pretty much a rehash of what we’ve read over and over in this book: “Thus says the Lord: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently—though you have not heeded— then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.” (26:4,5)

Unsurprisingly, this does not go over well and “when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the Lord had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die!” (26:8)

Will Jeremiah escape the clutches of the priests and other prophets? He has certainly become more than just an irritating thorn in their collective side.

1 Timothy 6:3–16: Speaking of irritating thorns in the side, our “Paul” cannot cease giving instructions cloaked in what I think is rather graceless language: “Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words.” (3,4) The phrase “disputes about words,” hits pretty close to me personally…

There seems to be little question that church to which Timothy was going was riven by dissention—much of it around words, i.e., philosophy. As I’ve noted before, my guess is that there was a Gnostic faction in the church that was creating most of the problems. Our author notes that “morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words” creates “envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” (5) [I love that the translators came up with the perfect word: ‘wrangling!’]

Being content with one’s lot in life is the underlying theme of this reading as we hear words that it would do well to reflect on as we get older: “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that  we can take nothing out of it.” (6,7)

This contentment is far preferable to “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (9) Well, that pretty much sums up our over-striving American culture—although this kind of empty striving clearly traces all the way back through history to the early church.

This leads our author inexorably to the most famous line in this epistle—and one that is widely misquoted: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (10a) It is human love of money is the root of evil; currency itself is not intrinsically evil. It is merely a neutral object. It’s the human motivation behind it that leads to bad outcomes involving money.

This rather didactic letter finally finds a bit of humanity as our author writes to Timothy a wonderful prescription that every Christian should not only remember but truly take to heart: “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (12)

Too many Christians—myself included—see our faith as neutral and rather static, even kind of wimpy. We think we’re being persecuted when things in the public square don’t go our way via court rulings or the general contempt for Christianity in the culture when we read things such as the Southern Poverty Law Center designating Christian groups who disagree with the progressive agenda as “hate groups.”

But as our author notes, we are to fight on, not sit back. Because we are working for “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion.” (15, 16)

This is a refreshing note on which to end this all too didactic letter of instruction.

Psalm 103:19–22; Jeremiah 23:33–25:14; 1 Timothy 5:17–6:2

Originally published 8/26/2017. Revised and updated 8/26/2019.

Psalm 103:19–22: In what can only be described as a “grand finale,” our psalmist’s  focus shifts to heaven itself as this marvelous psalm concludes with awestruck worship. At heaven’s center, God sits on his throne of justice overseeing all creation—including us—as he directs the activities of the “heavenly host:”
The Lord set His throne firm in the heavens
and His kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O His messengers,
valiant in power, performing His word
to heed the sound of His word.
Bless the Lord, all His armies,
His servants performing His pleasure.” (19-21)

Notice how our poet takes pains to note that the ‘messengers’ or angels are not independent operators but follow God’s directions and “heed the sound of His word.” It appears to me that angels lack free will, being much more like soldiers in an angelic army who are required to carry out God’s commands to the letter. (And of course, as Milton tells us, we know of one angel who decided to disobey God’s command and consequently fell to earth…) The gift of free will is what God has given to us humans and apparently to no other creature. (Although I’m guessing cat owners may disagree!)

The psalm ends with a celebration of all of God’s creation that ended with his creative apotheosis: humans. Our psalmist—and we—are truly grateful for our existence; our being that encompasses the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual:
Bless the Lord, O all His works,
in all places of His dominion.
Bless, O my being, the Lord!” (22)

How often have I thanked God for my very existence, for the person I am and who he created me to be? Do I behave as God’s creation or do I go my clueless, self-centered way? Looking around at our culture I’m afraid  that not only I but the vast majority are in the latter category.

Jeremiah 23:33–25:14: Apparently a way to distinguish false prophets and priests from God’s true prophets and priests was when a prophet asked, “What is the burden of the Lord?”  If one heard these words, righteous people were directed to reply, “You are the burden, and I will cast you off, says the Lord.” (23:33) and reject them. So what is this “burden?” Jeremiah answers the question: “is everyone’s own word, and so you pervert the words of the living God” (23:36). In other words, the “burden” is whatever the priest or prophet felt like making up.—which was certainly not God’s word.

Jeremiah, speaking as usual in God’s voice, makes it abundantly clear that a prophet who speaks thus will experience God’s opprobrium: “I will bring upon you everlasting disgrace and perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten.” (23:40) I think there are a lot of “prophets” making things up today just as there were in Jeremiah’s time.

It’s object lesson time once again. God shows Jermiah two baskets of figs. “ One basket had very good figs, like first-ripe figs, but the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten.” (24:2) We arrive rapidly at the interpretation. The good figs are unsurprisingly those who have remained faithful to god even though they’ve been exiled to Babylon. God’s promise to them is, “I will bring them back to this land. …I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” (24:6b, 7) So once again, there’s this promise of a saved remnant. The Jewish race will not be lost—and of course it continues down to the present day. God never fails to keep his promises.

Jeremiah comes right out and identifies the bad figs: “King Zedekiah of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who live in the land of Egypt.” (24:8) Needless to say, this group will meet a bad end: “I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they are utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their ancestors.” (24:10)

Interesting. Those few souls who remained in conquered Jerusalem are in the bad fig category. Obviously, God intends a thorough cleansing of corruption in the capital city before the “good remnant” returns some 70 years later.

As usual, the timeline of this book is somewhat confusing. The exile to Babylon has not happened yet and in chapter 25 we find Jeremiah still in Jerusalem warning the people to listen to him. We hear the frustration that has been a constant throughout Jeremiah’s prophet9c career: “For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.” (25:3)

Jeremiah reminds them that they’ve been warned multiple times—and not just from him but from other true prophets as well: “the Lord persistently sent you all his servants the prophets, you have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear when they said, “Turn now, every one of you, from your evil way and wicked doings, and you will remain upon the land that the Lord has given to you and your ancestors from of old and forever.” (25:4, 5)

But as always, the leaders and the people ignore the warnings. Therefore, Jeremiah assures them, whatever happens next will be their own fault: “Yet you did not listen to me, says the Lord, and so you have provoked me to anger with the work of your hands to your own harm” (25:7)

Jeremiah then announces their fate with great specificity: “Because you have not obeyed my words, I am going to send for all the tribes of the north, says the Lord, even for King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants…I will utterly destroy them, and make them an object of horror and of hissing, and an everlasting disgrace.” (24:8, 9)

But then once again, Jeremiah articulates the promise that God will destroy Babylon after 70 years: “I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, says the Lord, making the land an everlasting waste.” (25:12)

In short, God punishes all evil, whether Jewish or not. The overarching lesson here is the same one we’ve read in almost every chapter of this book: doing evil before God has dreadful consequences: “ I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands.” (25:14)

As Christians we know that we are saved by grace, but I do wonder about entire nations that persist in doing evil. All empires fall. And given the state of American culture and its growing polarization, I think we can safely predict which nation will fall next because it is behaving pretty much like corrupt Judah and corrupt Babylon. This book is much more than just a recitation of events that took place several millennia ago. Its prophetic truths are still terribly relevant.

1 Timothy 5:17–6:2: More advice on church management. First and foremost, pastors deserve to be paid for their labors: ” the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves to be paid.” (5:18)

When it comes to accusations against a church elder or leader, “Never accept any accusation against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (5:19) That is certainly sound advice in every setting, not just churches.

Rather more disturbing is the advice to publicly rebuke persistent sinners in the church, pointing at them as bad examples for everyone else. There are a few very conservative churches in the US that still do this and I know of at least one case where public shaming in a church led to a civil lawsuit. Once again, though, we need to keep the cultural context of the early church always in mind.

Same goes for the advice to slaves: “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.” (6:1) I’m sure this command was carried out with great ferocity in the antebellum South. Equally disturbing to me, is that “Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.” (6:2) In other words, be a good slave because we’re all Christians here.

I skipped over the one verse in this book that I’m sure most Lutherans love: “No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (23) But as I read this verse, wine is more medicine than pleasure. Talk about random advice in the midst of everything else! Of course the prohibition movement of the late 19th and early 20th century right skipped over this verse as do teetotaling churches today. On the other side, though, too many take this verse as license rather than sound advice.

Psalm 103:6–18; Jeremiah 23:1–32; 1 Timothy 5:9–16

Originally published 8/25/2017. Revised and updated 8/24/2019.

Psalm 103:6–18: The central section of this psalm is all about God’s justice expressed as forgiveness of our sins—and by implication, our response in forgiving others. Moreover, as far as the psalmist is concerned, this is one quality of God that is on full display to all who look:
The Lord performs righteous acts
and justice for the oppressed.
He makes known His ways to Moses,
to the Israelites, his feats. (6,7)

And then, the deservedly famous centerpiece of this psalm—and the centerpiece of God’s merciful goodness to us:
Compassionate and gracious, the Lord
slow to anger and abounding in kindness. (8)

I prefer the NRSV here that translates the Hebrew as the stronger “steadfast love” rather than Alter’s more anodyne “kindness” because I think ‘steadfast love” better communicates the resoluteness of God’s unfathomable love for us—we who screw up daily.

God, who rightly should cast us into outer darkness, will forgive us no matter how heinous our sins. His forgiveness trumps it all:
He will not dispute forever
nor nurse His anger for all time.
Not according to our offenses has He done to us
nor according to our crimes has requited us. (9, 10)

In fact, he creates an immeasurable gulf between us and our sins—both vertically and horizontally in every direction:
For as high as the heavens loom over earth, 
His kindness is great over those who fear Him.
as the east is from the west,
He has distanced us from our transgressions.
As a father has compassion for his children
the Lord has compassion for those who fear Him. (11-13)

So why is God so generous? The psalmist believes that it has to do with our mortality, our brief time on earth:
For He knows our devisings,
recalls that we are dust.
Man’s days are like grass,
like the bloom of the field, thus he blooms—
when the wind passes by him, he is gone,
and his place will no longer know him. (14-16)

We would do well to pause and reflect on these verses that are such a magnificent and apt description of our mortality. Given our brief personal existence in the framework of God’s eternity, our psalmist is arguing that there is no reason whatsoever for us to withhold forgiveness.

And as God does, so should we. But so often, in our hurt and resentment we cannot forgive. Our psalmist reminds us that  not only are we forgiven by God in the metaphor of spacial dimensions, but in in the dimension of time as well:
But the Lord’s kindness is forever and ever
over those who fear Him
and His bounty to the sons of sons… (17)

Notice: God forgives those who acknowledge who God is and acknowledge that we are sinners as the psalmist reminds us:
...for the keepers of His pact
and those who recall His precepts to do them. (18)

For our psalmist it was all about keeping within the boundaries of the law; for us it is acknowledging and believing in what Jesus Christ has done for us… But those who have rejected God cannot ever really know the peace of true forgiveness.

Jeremiah 23:1–32: After 22 chapters of the desert of seemingly endless catalogs of sin and destructive punishment to come, we arrive at a small oasis that informs us that all is not lost. After God punishes those—the Assyrians, Babylonians and others— who have destroyed Israel and Judah, he promises restoration of his people: “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” (3)

In a clearly messianic prophecy, God promises that “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (5) In addition, there is the promise of return from exile: “Then they shall live in their own land.” (8) Of course, Israel pretty much blew it on the Messiah front when the people rejected Jesus.

Jeremiah places these restorative promises on hold while he then engages in a long poetic disquisition, once again speaking in God’s voice, about the fate of false prophets who have prophesied in the name of Baal rather than in the name of God, i.e. every prophet but him:
Both prophet and priest are ungodly;
    even in my house I have found their wickedness,
says the Lord.
 Therefore their way shall be to them
    like slippery paths in the darkness,
    into which they shall be driven and fall;
for I will bring disaster upon them
    in the year of their punishment,
says the Lord. (11, 12)

Their fate is sealed:
Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets:
“I am going to make them eat wormwood,
    and give them poisoned water to drink;
for from the prophets of Jerusalem
    ungodliness has spread throughout the land. (15) 

Once again we see the theme of leaders, here priests and prophets, being held to a high standard and deservedly punished for leading astray those for whom they had responsibility to lead toward—not away from—God.

Jeremiah is not yet finished with the false prophets. Had they followed God (as Jeremiah has) things could have turned out quite differently:
But if they had stood in my council,
    then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way,
    and from the evil of their doings. (22)

After all, Jeremiah (still speaking in God’s voice) argues, God knows and sees everything: “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?  Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord.” (23, 24) Which of course is something we—prophet or not— should all bear in mind at all times, especially when we’re tempted to do something foolish…

The chapter concludes, “See, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, says the Lord, and who tell them, and who lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or appoint them;” (32)

This chapter is a good warning to those in the church today who claim to have the gift of prophecy. They need to be careful as they are playing with fire. I’m pretty sure God has no greater tolerance for “prophets”—especially the hucksters on TV—than he did back in Jeremiah’s time. Moreover, it’s not just prophets in the church but also those outside it; those gurus who claim to have special gifts and spiritual insights to create a “fuller life” for their followers—all the while mainly taking their followers’ money.

1 Timothy 5:9–16: Our “Paul” seems strangely obsessed with the problem of false widows claiming rights they do not have. There must have been a rampant problem at the church Timothy is going to. Our author draws some very stern and clear boundaries about which widows will receive benefits from the church and which will not. And the widow requirements are pretty stiff: “Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once; she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.” (9, 10)

Our “Paul” seems to believe that younger widows drift away from belief because of untrammeled sexual desire: “for when their sensual desires alienate them from Christ, they want to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge.” (11, 12) There is certainly not much compassion here. I think our author needs to reread today’s psalm.

“Paul’s” excoriations continue as he generalizes about young widows who are drifting from belief but may be receiving assistance from the church. With so much time on their hands “they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say.” (13) Nice… Who knows what psychic harm has been done to young widows ever since? To assume that every young widow behaves this way is simply misguided, IMHO.

But he is not yet finished with dispensing advice: “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, and manage their households.” (14) In other words, keep them occupied. There’s certainly truth that raising children is a full-time occupation and will leave very little time for idleness. But I find the generalizations here disturbing.

Oh, and by the way, our author concludes, don’t take advantage of the church’s generosity: “If any believing woman has relatives who are really widows, let her assist them; let the church not be burdened, so that it can assist those who are real widows.” (16) I confess I have to agree with this assertion. I’m sure that every pastor has encountered people—and not just widows—who tell sob stories with the objective of getting the church to give them money or even support them.

Nevertheless, this passage is certainly one of the less grace-filled ones in the New Testament.

Psalm 103:1–5; Jeremiah 21:11–22:30; 1 Timothy 4:11–5:8

Originally published 8/24/2017. Revised and updated 8/23/2019.

Psalm 103:1–5: Dedicated to David, this psalm is a poetic reflection as its author contemplates God’s overwhelming beneficence.
For David.
Bless, O my being, the Lord, and everything in me, His holy name.
Bless, O my being, the Lord, and do not forget all His generous acts. (1,2)

Today, I think we would call this a centering prayer, where the goal is to gather all our thoughts without distraction and focus solely on God (or in our case, Jesus)—hence the repeated line, almost mantra-like, “Bless, O my being, the Lord…”

Having focused himself, our poet goes on to enumerate God’s many blessings in his life:
Who forgives all your wrongs,
heals all your illnesses,
redeems your life from the Pit,
crowns you with kindness, compassion,
sates you with good while you live—
you renew your youth like the eagle. (3-5)

Notice that the first blessing is forgiveness, which of course means that our psalmist has recognized his sins and confessed them—an act of decreasing popularity in our self-centered age. …And it’s one more reminder why it is wise to place confession at the beginning of worship.

Unlike so many other psalms that focus on God having allowed disease as punishment, our psalmist celebrates God’s healing power even over deadly diseases—the healing power of prayer that in our technological age we too seldom acknowledge.

In this present age that believes our behavior—both good and bad—is completely self-willed, it’s worth remembering that it is God—not us—who is the ultimate source of kindness and compassion. God will happily overcome our darker instincts with heaven-sent kindness and compassion if we but center our lives on him and acknowledge what the psalmist has said here. What was true for him is just true for us.

As the final stanza of today’s reading states, God is the source of our blessings. And even if we do not become younger physically, centering our lives on Jesus Christ and God certainly restores a fresh, youthful perspective on our life—and the sense of freedom that is like the eagle’s.

Jeremiah 21:11–22:30: In this reading, Jeremiah turns his attention to addressing the kings of the Davidic dynasty. The prophet begins his prophecy with an offer and a threat regarding the leadership responsibility of the king, which is to dispense justice fairly:
Execute justice in the morning,
    and deliver from the hand of the oppressor
    anyone who has been robbed,
or else my wrath will go forth like fire,
    and burn, with no one to quench it,
    because of your evil doings. (21:12)

As always, there’s God’s quid-pro-quo:. Treat others unjustly and God will punish the king accordingly:
I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings,
says the Lord; (21:14a)

With this introduction, God sends Jeremiah right before the king this time to outline the deuteronomic compact. Jeremiah instructs the king to “Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.” (22:3)

Notice that the underlying theme of the OT surfaces once again: the command to provide justice first to the orphans and widows. Jeremiah then outlines the unsurprising consequences of disobedience (as he has done so many times before): “But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.” (22:5)

Now, Jeremiah descends a level of abstraction and forecasts the fate of specific kings. The first is Shallum, son of King Josiah. He’s already been taken hostage by invading powers and “in the place where they have carried him captive he shall die, and he shall never see this land again.” (22:12)

A poetic intermezzo follows regarding the fate of kingly oppressors:
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
    and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
    and does not give them their wages; (22:13)

But it appears God has already given up on this Shallum character as Jeremiah concludes in a verse that applies to all corrupt leaders,
But your eyes and heart
    are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
    and for practicing oppression and violence. (22:17)

Alas, how many kings and rulers down through history and to the present time fit this exact description?

Jeremiah then turns his prophetic attention to King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah. This miscreant meets a shameful end:
With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried—
    dragged off and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem. (22:19)

A similar fate awaits Josiah’s grandson, Coniah in one of God’s more memorable threats: “As I live, says the Lord, even if King Coniah son of Jehoiakim of Judah were the signet ring on my right hand, even from there I would tear you off and give you into the hands of those who seek your life, into the hands of those of whom you are afraid, even into the hands of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and into the hands of the Chaldeans.” (22:24, 25)

This corrupt king is so hopeless that Jeremiah returns to the image of the broken pot—perhaps one intended for human waste:
Is this man Coniah a despised broken pot,
    a vessel no one wants? (22:28a)

I think the greatest tragedy here is how the Davidic dynasty comes to its pathetic end. What had begun in greatness with David and Solomon has degenerated to an ash heap of corruption. Coniah is the end of the line as Jeremiah pronounces God’s ultimate curse on a man—the lack of progeny:
Record this man as childless,
    a man who shall not succeed in his days;
for none of his offspring shall succeed
    in sitting on the throne of David,
    and ruling again in Judah. (22:30)

But we also know that neither the story nor the Davidic line end here. Several centuries after the lines are penned, one person from the house of David will arise: the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ.

The lesson here is stark and occurs often in the OT: Leadership matters and therefore those who lead are held by God to the highest standards. A corrupt leader infects the nation. We have seen it over and over down through history and now we must question even our own political leadership. I am not particularly optimistic as America turns increasingly away from God and embraces would-be leaders who cannot lead.

1 Timothy 4:11–5:8: Our author continues to write in Paul’s voice, strongly advising Timothy, “These are the things you must insist on and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (4:11, 12) [I have to say at this point even though my skepticism regarding Paul’s authorship remains strong, our author has certainly captured Paul’s penchant for advice-giving in the form of long lists.]

Also, for the first time we encounter the rite of ordination that continues today—the laying on of hands in apostolic succession: “Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.” (4:14)

Just to make sure Timothy gets the point, our “Paul” repeats himself, but without the elegance that I think the actual Paul would have used. Although it is pertinent, the exhortation is workmanlike and more abstract than I think Paul would have been: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (4:16)

I have to confess there’s some pretty decent advice here about pastoral relationships with the members of the church. If a pastor is younger than many congregants, as Timothy was, then “Do not speak harshly to an older man,  but speak to him as to a father, to younger men as brothers, to older women as mothers, to younger women as sisters—with absolute purity.” (5:1,2) Notice especially the care that a pastor should take when interacting with women: with “absolute purity.” How many church splits and general shame would have been avoided had leaders heeded these words more carefully!

Speaking as an older adult, I particularly like the next verse: “If a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some repayment to their parents; for this is pleasing in God’s sight.” (5:4) In other words, charity begins at home with the family. This command is reiterated more broadly just a few verses down: “And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (5:8)

I think our culture in general has pretty much ignored these commands as too many family members ignore their responsibility to each other and think that the government will take care of them. Obviously, there are many families that cannot support each other, but I suspect many do not really try hard enough, preferring to keep their wealth to themselves. If we claim to be Christian, then this command seems especially apt here.

Psalm 102:23–28; Jeremiah 19:10–21:10; 1 Timothy 4:1–10

Originally published 8/23/2017. Revised and updated 8/22/2019.

Psalm 102:23–28: Our psalmist swings back around from concern for the nation to his personally dire situation, asserting that God is the one who has decreed his early death. He prays that God would change his mind:
He humbled my strength on the highway,
he cut short my days.
I say, ‘O my God.
Do not take me away in the midst of my days!’ (24, 25a)

Our poet has a very creative rationale with which he supports his plea for a longer life. He contrasts God’s eternality with a man’s brief life span. The unspoken implication is that God, who has created everything, being eternal, can fathom neither the poet’s yearning to live nor the humanity’s psychological plight of mortality—of being given just a few short years to be on earth:
Your years are for all generations.
Of old You founded the earth,
and the heavens—Your handiwork” (25b, 26)

I sense the deep frustration of the psalmist as he compares human lives to metaphorical clothes that God puts on and then discards when they are worn out:
They will perish and and You will stand.
They will all wear away like a garment.
Like clothing You change them, and they pass away. (27)

There is one last acknowledgement of God’s eternity as our poet seems to accept his mortal fate. He understands—and asks us to understand—that even in our comparatively short lives it is God who protects us and gives the gift of life to the next generation:
But You—Your years never end.
The sons of Your servants dwell safe,
their seed in Your presence, unshaken. (28, 29)

The takeaway for me is that we must accept the fact that even though God is eternal we are not. But in our mortality we will find God’s healing and protection if we but look.

Jeremiah 19:10–21:10: The Moravians inexplicably ended yesterday’s reading at Jeremiah holding the earthenware jug but having done nothing with it. Today, we read God’s instructions to the prophet about what he is to do with it: “Then you shall break the jug in the sight of those who go with you, and shall say to them: Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended.” (19:10) This statement is in stark contrast to Jeremiah’s earlier visit to the potter where he saw that when the craftsman makes a mistake he can redeem the clay by starting over. But with a broken jug there is metaphorically no possible redemption for Judah.

Jeremiah carries out God’s instructions in his usual blunt style: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am now bringing upon this city and upon all its towns all the disaster that I have pronounced against it, because they have stiffened their necks, refusing to hear my words.” (19:15)

Unsurprisingly, this does not go over well with his audience. As a consequence, the high priest, Pashur, “struck the prophet Jeremiah, and put him in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the house of the Lord.” (20:2) The priest releases Jeremiah the next morning but instead of saying thanks, Jeremiah curses him: “Jeremiah said to him, The Lord has named you not Pashhur but “Terror-all-around.” (20:4) He goes on to tell the priest that he will witness his friends die by the sword and everyone else will be carried off to Babylon and “there you shall die, and there you shall be buried, you and all your friends, to whom you have prophesied falsely.” (20:6)

A long disquisition in poetry naturally follows as Jeremiah decries the fate of prophets without honor in their own countries:
For I hear many whispering:
    “Terror is all around!
Denounce him! Let us denounce him!”
    All my close friends
    are watching for me to stumble. (20:10)

Despite the personal danger in which he finds himself, Jeremiah remains true to God. I believe he would really like to see the events he’s prophesied actually carried out sooner rather than later:
Lord of hosts, you test the righteous,
    you see the heart and the mind;
let me see your retribution upon them,
    for to you I have committed my cause. (20:12)

Once again we read that Jeremiah, faithful to God and relentless deliverer of bad news to an evil people, would rather not have been born at all. The poem ends on a dark but psychologically authentic note—regret for having lived at all:
Why did I come forth from the womb
    to see toil and sorrow,
    and spend my days in shame? (20:18)

Eventually the people of Judah begin to understand that Jeremiah has not been making all this up. Perhaps, some may have thought, he is an authentic prophet telling us stuff we’d rather not hear.  The events he’s predicted appear to be coming to pass and Babylon is nearing Jerusalem. Pashur sends for Jeremiah and asks, “Please inquire of the Lord on our behalf, for King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is making war against us;” (21:2a) The high priest is optimistic that “perhaps the Lord will perform a wonderful deed for us, as he has often done, and will make him withdraw from us.” (21:2b)

Unsurprisingly, Jeremiah tells the priest this optimism is badly misplaced. He announces that God “will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both human beings and animals; they shall die of a great pestilence.” (21:6) And those who survive need not think themselves fortunate because God will ensure that “those who survive the pestilence, sword, and famine—into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, into the hands of their enemies, into the hands of those who seek their lives.” (21:7)

The last line in today’s reading is Jeremiah, once again speaking in God’s voice, summing up the dreadful events to come: “For I have set my face against this city for evil and not for good, says the Lord: it shall be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.” (21:10)

As it often does, the reading ends, leaving us wondering. Will God give them one last chance to redeem themselves before the awful events come to pass? Jeremiah’s been forecasting doom through these twenty-one chapters but nothing has happened yet. Might there still be hope?

1 Timothy 4:1–10: Our author undertakes a direct condemnation of gnosticism, whose influence seems to be growing in the church. (Yet again another suggestion that the letter has been written some years after Paul.) He writes, “in later  times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron.” (1,2)

He goes on to note that “They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created…” (3) A foundational belief of the Gnostics was that physical objects, even physical life itself was inferior to a serene and superior state of spirituality—exactly the same thing we see today in the crystals and makras of various spiritualists who hang out in places like Sedona, AZ.

True Christians, on the other hand, rejoice at the physicality of creation because “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving.” (4) This is a good warning to those who may tend to over-spirtualize their religious experience.

For example, sometimes, people misinterpret the role of the Holy Spirit and make an overt spiritual experience such as speaking in tongues, aka a ‘second baptism’ become not only the ne plus ultra of the Christian life but a defining boundary of who is “really Christian” and who is not. This was especially rampant in the various charismatic movements of the 1970s.

Following this condemnation our author returns to serious advice-giving mode, ostensibly to Timothy, although given Paul’s affection for—and obvious trust in— his friend, these cookbook instructions certainly feel inauthentic to me: “Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (7,8) Nevertheless, they stand as good advice for pastors and leaders. 

Psalm 102:12–22; Jeremiah 18:1–19:9; 1 Timothy 3:8–16

Originally published 8/22/2017. Revised and updated 8/21/2019.

Psalm 102:12–22: Even though our psalmist is in dire physical and psychological straits—and has let God know just how bad off he is—he seems to accept his fate as he approaches death:
My days inclined like a shadow,
and I—like grass I withered. (12)

But before he dies, and in a sudden shift of focus away from his own impending death, he asks for God’s mercy on the Jerusalem (Zion), which appears to be in similar dire straits:
And You Lord, forever enthroned,
and Your name for all generations.
You, may You rise, have mercy on Zion,
for it is the hour to pity her, for the fixed time has come. (13, 14)

In the same way that he has asked God to take pity on him, the few righteous men remaining (himself included) feel the same pity for destroyed Jerusalem:
For Your servants cherish her stones
and on her dust the they take pity. (15)

If God does indeed restore Jerusalem  it will again command the respect from other nations that a city where the one true God dwells should by rights enjoy:
And the nations will fear the name of the Lord,
and all kings on earth, Your glory.
For the Lord has rebuilt Zion,
He is seen in His glory. (16, 17)

This glorious outcome that will span generations can occur because God has looked down from heaven and deigned to answer their fervent prayers:
He has turned to the prayer of the desolate
and has not despised their prayer.
Let this be inscribed for a generation to come,
that a people yet unborn may praise Yah.
for the Lord gazed down from His holy heights, (18-20a)

Our psalmist describes what God has seen and heard as his own physical woes are juxtaposed against those of the nation:
...from heaven to earth He has looked
to hear the groans of the captive,
to set loose those doomed to die… (20b-21)

As always, the response to being set free by God is worship:
that the name of the Lord be recounted in Zion
and His praise in Jerusalem
when peoples gather together
and kingdoms, to serve the Lord.” (22, 23)

For me the most striking aspect here is how the psalmist is able to shift his focus from his own woes and ask God for healing for the nation. I think that if I were so near death, I would not be able to think much about others, much less my entire community or nation. This psalm is a good reminder that even in times of mortal distress we need to think of—and pray for—others. I also feel that this shift of focus away from our understandable self-centeredness is a form of healing.

Jeremiah 18:1–19:9: God seems to enjoy giving Jeremiah object lessons that the prophet can use to demonstrate in more dramatic terms than mere words Jerusalem’s eventual grim fate. There was the buried loincloth, now it’s what happens when the potter makes a mistake: “The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.” (18:4)

The meaning should be obvious: God is the potter, the clay is Judah. God is perfectly willing to remold or restore them if they simply repent: “…if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.” (18:8)

But Judah remains stubborn in its idolatry as Jeremiah reports back to God the gist of their leaders’ response (with some sarcastic editorializing thrown in): “But they say, “It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.” (18:12)

Not surprisingly, God is less than thrilled at the news and promises the usual grim end for this wayward nation:
Like the wind from the east,
    I will scatter them before the enemy.
I will show them my back, not my face,
    in the day of their calamity. (18:17)

To say that Jeremiah’s words have become a nagging annoyance to those to whom he is prophesying is an understatement. The people would prefer to simply do away with him. Jeremiah tells God, “Then they said, “Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah…Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.” (18:18)

As always, Jeremiah comes to God in prayer, but unlike the psalmist does not ask for God to take pity on them. Quite the opposite in fact. We can hear Jeremiah’s frustration with Judah, but also with God himself:
Do not forgive their iniquity,
  do not blot out their sin from your sight.
Let them be tripped up before you;
   deal with them while you are angry. (18:23)

Then it’s object lesson time again. God instructs Jeremiah to assemble “some of the elders of the people and some of the senior priests” (19:1) in front of the city gate and warn them once again that God says, “I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle.” (19:3)

The image of tingling ears is appropriate because for the first time in this book we learn the details of Baal worship—and it is downright evil. My ears would tingle as well as Jeremiah outlines the exact nature of their sins: “because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I [God] did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind.” (19:4b, 5) Notice how God is careful to distance himself from these vile practices

God will turn the tables on those who’ve killed innocent children as they will become cannibals as they starve while Jerusalem is under siege: “I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at;…And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and all shall eat the flesh of their neighbors in the siege, and in the distress with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.” (19:8,9) 

With these grim images of children sacrificed on a bloody altar and people becoming cannibals we can understand why Jeremiah doesn’t get preached about very often today, if at all. Isaiah is certainly a more comforting prophet…

1 Timothy 3:8–16: Our author turns his attention to the role of deacons, who report to the bishop. Again, this level of organizational minutiae suggests a church that’s been in operation for  a long time, suggesting it was written some years after Paul was writing.

As with the bishop, “Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” (8,9)  There is apparently a formal test, which I take to be some form of temptation, wherein the candidate deacon must “prove themselves blameless,” (10) [And again, this appears to be a well-established practice in a long-established organization, not a young church.] Inexplicably, our author inserts his warning about women’s behavior in the middle of the deacon’s job description: “Women  likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.” (11) Or does this mean women could also be deacons? Given what we read yesterday about the non-role of women in the church, I rather doubt it.

For our author, writing in Paul’s voice, it’s all about being Christians in the church being on their best behavior, which also seems rather unpauline:  if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” (15)

Having dispensed all this behavioral advice, our author sums up the gospel message in what I take to be the words of an early hymn about Christ, or perhaps a creed that served as a precursor to what eventually was developed fully in the 4th century at Nicea:
He was revealed in flesh,
    vindicated in spirit,
        seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
    believed in throughout the world,
        taken up in glory. (16)

It’s a nice little stanza and it’s theologically orthodox.  But it’s far less magnificent or theologically rich than the hymn that the authentic Paul quotes in Philippians 2.

Once again, so little theology, so much behavioral instruction. Is this really Paul speaking?