Archives for September 2019

Psalm 113; Ezekiel 3–4:5; Hebrews 10:5–18

Originally published 9/30/2015. Revised and updated 9/30/2019.

Psalm 113: This “Hallelujah” psalm praises both the majesty of God and the marvelous works he does for us. God is everywhere: across time and spatially, horizontally from the east to the west and vertically:
May the Lord’s name be blessed
now and forevermore
From the place the sun rises to where it sets.
High over all the nations, the Lord,
over heavens His glory. (2-4)

Our psalmist clearly places God overhead, even above the skies, looking down on his creation:
Who is like the Lord our God,
Who sits high above,
Who sees down below
in the heavens and on the earth? (5,6)

But God is no mere observer, and once again we see God’s compassionate priority among all his human creatures—as the exemplar of what must be our priorities as well:
He raises the poor from the dust,
from the dungheap lifts the needy. (7).

But God is not content to merely lift the poor man out of poverty,. His generosity is so enormous that he then raises the poor man up to the pinnacle of power—and turns the hierarchy of humankind upside down:
…to seat him among princes,
among the princes of his people. (8)

And so, too, the woman, who in that patriarchal society is given the greatest possible gift by God:
He  seats the barren woman in her home
a happy mother of sons. (9)

Even though this psalm takes poetic license over what was doubtless the social reality of the time (the poor rarely, if ever, ascend to great power), it is a reminder that God is everywhere and he can do everything.  No transformation, be it from desperation to exaltation, is beyond God’s ken. We can take enormous comfort in that.

Ezekiel 3–4:5: Having received the scroll, God commands Ezekiel, “Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.” (3) While anything is possible, I’ll take “eating the scroll” as in to memorize it, absorb it into his entire being as if he were digesting a meal.

God then commands Ezekiel, “Mortal, go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them.” (4) with an interesting riff on the fact that God has chosen Ezekiel because he can speak in simple words with clarity: “For you are not sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel.” (5) God has also chosen Ezekiel for his intrinsic stubbornness and unwillingness to give up: “See, I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads. Like the hardest stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead; do not fear them or be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.” (8, 9)

So, our stubborn prophet of simple words and unshakable persistence is carried off by the angels on wheels and spends a week with “the exiles at Tel-abib, who lived by the river Chebar” (15) presumably in preparation for the prophetic confrontations to come. God speaks once again. This time it’s even more serious. If Ezekiel fails to warn the wicked or the righteous and they die, then Ezekiel will stand guilty before God: “their blood I will require at your hand.” (18b), But if Ezekiel warns the wicked and they fail to heed his words, then “they shall die for their iniquity; but you will have saved your life.” (19).

The next stage of Ezekiel’s investiture as prophet is a period of God-enforced silence: “I will make your tongue cling to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be speechless and unable to reprove them; for they are a rebellious house.” (26) But then, to make it clear to the prophet he is literally the voice of God, God says, “when I speak with you, I will open your mouth, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God. (27).

This section is a brilliant exegesis on the preparation for a true prophet in order to distinguish him from the ample number of false prophets that surely abounded in Jerusalem. First, he must know his stuff by “eating” God’s word. Second he must be persistent, by virtue of his having a “hard forehead,” willing to engage in hard, confrontational conversations. Third, he must not express his own opinions, but his tongue will cling to the roof of his mouth until God commands him to speak–and then when he does speak, they will truly be God’s words.

As if this is not enough, God commands Ezekiel to take a brick and build a model of Jerusalem under siege. “Then take an iron plate and place it as an iron wall between you and the city; set your face toward it,” (4:3) and then “lie on your left side, and place the punishment of the house of Israel upon it.” (4:4) God commands Ezekiel to lie there as “you shall bear their punishment for the number of the days that you lie there.” (4:4) And this is not just for a few hours or a few days, but for more than a year: “I assign to you a number of days, three hundred ninety days, equal to the number of the years of their punishment.” (4:5)

What’s this about? All I can surmise it that it is clear that Ezekiel will be a more effective prophet for having suffered punishment and having a taste of what God will visit upon those who fail to heed the prophet’s words. And as Ezekiel bears the punishment of Israel, there is also an precursor here of Jesus bearing the heavy sins of us all.

Hebrews 10:5–18: Our writer continues his seemingly endless comparison between the futile efforts of the old covenant to wash away sin via sacrifice and the new, far more effective power of Jesus Christ. Again, the author makes it clear that Christ has not come to bear sins in keeping with the old sacrificial system, but to replace it: “He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.” (9) And this is “by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (10)

Christ’s single act of sacrifice is infinitely more effective than the priests who offer “again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” (11) Instead, “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (14). And just to make sure we get the point, our writer quotes Isaiah, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more” (17) and then finally summarizes, “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (18)

Inasmuch as the sacrificial system came to an abrupt halt in 70CE with the destruction of the temple by the Romans, we read these verse primarily for the theology that Jesus Christ died for our sins once and for all. Continuous sacrifice has been rendered obsolete by the shedding of Jesus’ blood.  Even though we humans keep on sinning, we can always return to Jesus’ single glorious act, confess and be forgiven.

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

Originally published 9/29/2017. Revised and updated 9/28/2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The vision becomes even more dramatic as Ezekiel sees the famous wheels inside wheels, which as a kid back during the 1950’s UFO scares, I remember hearing someone explain the wheels as extraterrestrial spaceships: “I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz,… Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel…When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose.” (1: 16, 19) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published 9/28/2017. Revised and updated 9/27/2019.

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

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

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

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

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

We will come back to this theme of wisdom and knowledge at much greater length when we slog through Psalm 119.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[We need to remember that suffering such as this persists to today in places like South Sudan where tribe has turned upon tribe.]

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

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

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

Is there really no hope? For this poet there was indeed no hope that God would answer and bring succor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published 9/27/2017. Revised and updated 9/26/2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      great is your faithfulness.” (21-23)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then once again another shift in tone as the poet calls on God to annihilate  his enemies, i.e., for God, not him, to take vengeance:
Pay them back for their deeds, O Lord,
    according to the work of their hands!
Give them anguish of heart;
    your curse be on them!
Pursue them in anger and destroy them
    from under the Lord’s heavens. (64-66)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published 9/26/2017. Revised and updated 9/25/2019.

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

With this acknowledgement of God’s goodness and his plea for intervention, he then catalogs his weakened emotional state employing some rather creative similes to demonstrate his despair:
Like a lengthening shadow I go off,
I am shaken like the locust.
My knees falter from fasting
and my flesh is stripped of fat. (23, 24)

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

Of course I think there’s a bit of schadenfreude going on here as it would certainly make our poet very happy to see his enemies experience the same shame he feels. I’m pretty sure that on occasion we’ve all prayed the same kind of prayer ourselves—a kind of God-given revenge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published 9/25/2017. Revised and updated 9/24/2019.

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

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

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

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

We arrive at last to the reason these curses are being heaped on his enemy’s head. It’s a quid pro quo for the evil his enemy has done. And as always, it’s because he oppressed the poor and helpless:
Because he did not remember to do kindness
and pursued the poor and the needy,
the heartsore, to put him to death. (16)

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

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

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

While it’s impossible to condone this prayer—and I’m pretty sure Jesus certainly would not condone it—we can take some satisfaction that it was a private prayer to God rather than a direct speech against the enemy himself. And as such, the prayer in private must have brought some amount of psychological relief, the venting to God must have brought the psalmist some relief from his deep-seated anger.

As we witness in what can barely be construed as dialog in the present political climate, speaking these curses aloud in public is deeply harmful because it poisons the relationship to the point where there can be no dialog at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published 9/23/2017. Revised and updated 9/23/2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lamentations 1:1–15: If Jeremiah was the prophetic and narrative history of the fall of Judah and Jerusalem, this book is the poetic reflection, doubtless written in exile, on the enormity of the loss. And while our author (Jeremiah?) focuses his poetry on this historical event, the underlying theme of despair is equally applicable to our time. The opening lines set the tone of this book of sorrows:
How lonely sits the city
    that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
    she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
    has become a vassal. (1:1)

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

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

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

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

But the question remains: will these verses someday apply to our present city and country?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published 9/22/2017. Revised and updated 9/21/2019.

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

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

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

The poet’s God to celebrates Israel and as if to preserve some form of symmetry, he hurls insults at Israel’s traditional enemies:
Moab is My washbasin,
upon Edom I fling My sandal,
over Philistia I shout exultant.’ (10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published 9/21/2017. Revised and updated 9/20/2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once that rejection has occurred, our author asserts, coming back into the faith is impossible. I believe some people have interpreted this passage as the possibility of losing one’s salvation. But I think the author is simply saying that if a person consciously and positively rejects the faith he is no longer part of the Christian community.  And to do that is to hold the Son of God up to contempt. This is certainly something we are witnessing in our present age as it seems more and more people are rejecting the faith into which they were baptized or brought up.

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

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

In short, we have a duty to equip ourselves in faith. Faith is what we engineers call a dynamic process. A “static faith” that never grows or grows into thorns and weeds because the person has rejected Christ is ultimately worthless.

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

Originally published 9/20/2017. Revised and updated 9/19/2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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